September 30, 2009

Vacation Interrupted - A Reminder about the Importance of Careful Building Materials Selection

I took a huge gulp of fresh ocean air from the deck of the Outer Banks, NC rental house. I felt great.

Ocean view from the house

I had been thrilled to find a charming oceanfront cottage that met all of our healthy travel checkboxes - no smoking, no pets, no mold, no feather bedding - all for a special September rate. Finally, this would not be the typical family trip, which usually involved a lodging relocation due to some health trigger. We unpacked our bags, anticipating a relaxing week of pure heaven.

Oh, how wrong I was. The next morning, I awoke feeling like I had a pile of bricks sitting on my chest and it hurt to breathe. Was it the carpet in the master? The cleaning chemicals? It didn't matter. We couldn't stay. By the end of the day, we were lugging our bags into a modern beach house just 2 blocks from the water. Sure, it wasn't oceanfront, but the house was nestled in a stand of beautiful trees, had 2-story high ceilings, polished concrete floors, and a very cool decor throughout. Plus, I thought, it would save our vacation.

Wrong again. That fresh clean scent that permeated the house turned out to be cedar... lovely aromatic raw cedar lining all of the ceilings. (I should mention now that severe cedar allergies helped prompt our move back to the East Coast after three rather sickly years in Austin, TX, the "cedar fever" capital of the U.S.) I scrambled to open as many windows as possible, only to find that all of those beautiful trees were, yes, you guessed it, cedar. My asthma was getting worse by the minute, and now I wasn't the only family member complaining of symptoms.

Most of you are probably reading this and thinking "Wow, you are crazy and obsessive!" Count yourself lucky. But for those of you with allergies, asthma and/or chemical sensitivities, you can probably relate to this traveling tale of woe. You also know all too well the importance of ensuring that environmental triggers are not part of your home.

The biggest challenge in building a healthy house like THE CONCORD GREEN HOME is to ensure that every last building material is neither an allergen nor a toxic trigger. It can be done, but it takes diligence every step of the way to ensure that one miss-step does not negate all of your careful materials selections and planning.

Here are a few helpful resources on your way to a healthier home:

September 24, 2009

Traditional Clapboard with a "Green" Update

The clapboard goes up on the left elevation.
Goodbye, bubble gum pink.

A signature design element of the classic farmhouse is its white clapboard. White was almost universally used by our predecessors, in deference to the Greek Revival roots of the American Farmhouse style.

Clapboard is a wholly New England building material, referred to elsewhere in America as siding. According to the book, America In So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America by Allan Metcalf and David K. Barnhart:

"American ingenuity made something new of clapboard. In England clapboard was used for barrels; the English who became Americans learned to apply it to houses... We have a 1632 report of 'a small house near the wear at Watertown, made all of clapboards.'"

Now, modern ingenuity gives us Hardiplank - fiber cement clapboards that provide historically accurate aesthetics with green, sustainable benefits:
  • Durable - Is more resistant to rot, insects, and fire than wood
  • Made from natural raw materials - wood pulp, cement, sand and water
  • Locally produced - 10 regional manufacturing facilities
  • Promotes air circulation and drainage behind cladding
  • Lower maintenance - holds paint far longer than other cladding options
  • Affordable - a far greener alternative than environmentally toxic vinyl siding
Best of all, Hardiplank clapboards arrive factory finished, which saves time and money on exterior painting.

September 23, 2009

Thank you to our early Sponsors!

Sponsor Sign at the construction site

A huge thank you to the initial sponsors of THE CONCORD GREEN HOME.

These select firms share our vision for creating homes that are healthy for people and the planet. Their skills and products are directly helping us fulfill our goal of a non-toxic, eco-friendly, historically respectful design.

If your firm would like to be considered as a participating sponsor, please email

Thank you!

September 22, 2009

Cool tool manages complexities of Design/Build Process

With so many players involved in the design and construction of a home like THE CONCORD GREEN HOME, it helps immensely to utilize a shared work flow management system to keep everyone on track.

Basecamp sample page

I highly recommend Basecamp, an inexpensive "web-based project collaboration tool" that allows you to share files, meet deadlines, assign tasks, centralize feedback and more.

Thank you to Stephanie Horowitz at ZeroEnergy Design for turning me on to Basecamp.

September 21, 2009

Front Porch - Preserving Community

The front porch is framed.

A front porch provides the perfect transition along the intimacy gradient between a home's public and private spaces. It represents an architectural means of preserving that sense of community which is threatened by the typical automobile-centric designs of our modern towns.

The relationship of a house to a street is often confused: either the house opens entirely to the street and there is no privacy; or the house turns its back on the street, and communion with street life is lost.

We have within our natures tendencies toward both communality and individuality. A good house supports *both* kinds of experience: the intimacy of a private haven *and* our participation with the public world.

But most homes fail to support these complementary needs. Most often they emphasize one, to the exclusion of the other: we have, for instance, the fishbowl scheme, where living areas face the street with picture windows and the "retreat", where living areas turn away from the street into private gardens.

The old front porch, in traditional American society, solved this problem perfectly. Where the street is quiet enough, and the house near enough to the street, we cannot imagine a much better solution.

- excerpt from Christopher Alexander's ground-breaking book, A Pattern Language.

Could not have said it any better.

Fitting into the neighborhood... well, except for the pink.

September 8, 2009

Flexible Spaces Conserve Resources

As the size of the American home has ballooned, consumption of precious resources has exploded accordingly. A simple alternative that saves money, preserves the environment and adapts to changing family needs over time is to incorporate flexible spaces in the home that perform double or even triple duty, and forgo those spaces that rarely get used.

In this modern Belgian loft, rolling closets enable space to be configured 20 different ways.

Source: Terence Conran's Ultimate House Book: Home Design in the Twenty-First Century

Top: Mobile furniture makes for easy changes.
Second: Laundry cupboard.
Third: A view of one way to compose a living room.
Bottom: Home office disappears when not in use.

Like the apartment above, THE CONCORD GREEN HOME will employ the Flexible Space strategy in many ways. It will not have a formal living room or dining room. Instead, the first floor will have an open floor plan that incorporates a family/TV room, dining area that doubles as library/work space, kitchen, and office - that could be used as a first floor bedroom as occupants age in place. Upstairs, bedrooms will have few walls, and instead be partitioned off with rolling closets (traditional versions inspired by above photos) that allow daytime use as work/play spaces, and private evening use as sleeping spaces and overnight guest accommodations.

I look forward to sharing more details on Flexible Space use with you in coming posts. Stay tuned.

September 4, 2009

A Best Green House

Had to share a favorite house from my green building files... Named a Best Green House by Green Source, this Vermont farmhouse achieved the US Green Building Council's LEED Platinum rating, the highest level. Electricity is 100% wind turbine generated, and passive solar and geothermal radiant heating keeps things toasty. Owner/architect David Pill sums up how well the house works with nature: "It harvests and stores the energy resources on the property—from the sun and wind to heat from the earth.”

September 3, 2009

Preppy in Pink - Insulation on the Outside

Passersby may be wondering why THE CONCORD GREEN HOME is sporting pink. Actually, its all part of the strategy to super-insulate this house.

We grew up thinking that the old pink fiberglass insulation goes on the inside of the house. Its a whole new world. No spun glass here. Thick and rigid Extruded Polystyrene (XPS) insulation, installed here over Green Guard's Raindrop house wrap, acts as a great thermal barrier, and is supplemented by additional healthy insulation on the inside. This strategy achieves R-values that are significantly higher than required by code (R-value is the measure of resistance to heat flow). The higher the R-value, the better the insulating properties, and the lower the energy consumed to keep temperatures comfy inside.

Next, strapping (long thin strips of wood) is applied over the rigid insulation, which creates an air space between the insulation and the clapboard, also known as a drain screen. This allows moisture to evaporate instead of building up behind the exterior cladding, which can wreak havoc on the health of the structure.
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