Earthly Homes – Audio

Throughout my childhood, I spent a lot of time at construction sites helping build homes, but I never really cared about the theory or processes. I just helped my dad when he needed me and did as he asked, without ever being curious about the “why” behind what we were doing. 

This lack of interest ended with me not being much of a physical fixer or builder… Meaning, I know NOTHING about building or fixing things in the real world, I’m only useful for fixing and building things in the digital world. I’m aiming to change this. 

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve explored the world of off-grid homesteading, and this life choice is full of physical labor, so knowing how to build, fix, and grow stuff is critical for survival. With that said, I decided to revisit my past life of building homes to learn more about the theory. 

Before jumping directly into a topic I enjoy researching around the topic… Specifically for building, I wanted to know how homes are built today and what different methods there are – Surprisingly, I realized the traditional ways we go about building homes and the materials we use are absolutely horrible for the planet. Luckily, there’s a movement called “natural building” and their goal is to build more eco-friendly buildings that actually store carbon, instead of emitting it. 

You might wonder… “How does a building store carbon?” – Well, Chris Magwood published some research on this idea of “embodied carbon”, which is basically all the carbon embodied in the materials of a building. 

Apparently, if you add up all the embodied carbon from the low-rise buildings (4ish stories tall) built in 2017 for the U.S. the amount of carbon is similar to 15 coal plants worth of emissions per year… And that’s before anyone steps foot into the building (here’s a short video explaining this). 

There’s a positive side to this story… If we replaced the materials used for these low-rise buildings with “natural building” materials then we could actually capture and store 10 coal plants worth of emissions per year. 

This week’s book “Sustainable Home Design” is all about building with these materials and how to think about building more naturally.

Natural vs. Sustainable Building 

When looking into this space you’ll quickly realize that people use “sustainable” and “natural” building interchangeably, but once you come across a diehard builder in this community they’ll set you straight. 😉

There’s a fine line between the two terms and it’s important that we define them in this context, so we’re all on the same page. 

Natural Building

  • Local and natural – When building a home “naturally” what most people focus on is how far away the materials were sourced and how natural they are (e.g. very little chemicals). An example could be if you’re living near a large Hemp farm in Colorado then seeing if you’re able to source the Hemp for Hempcrete could be a more natural and local way of sourcing the walls and insulation of your home. 

Sustainable Building

  • Passive and energy-efficient – A “sustainable” home tends to focus on energy efficiency. This all comes down to your specific climate, which way your home is facing, the building design, and of course any renewable energy systems. The two main points I’ve come across when looking into “sustainable” homes are insulation and passive solar… Let me explain.
    • Insulation – A home that’s sustainable tends to have really “tight” insulation, so no air leaks in or out… All the air should go through a ventilation system controlling the air quality.
    • Passive Solar – A “passive solar” design takes advantage of the sun passively heating and cooling the home (see photo below). Without going into too much detail if you… Always point your home to the south (that’s where the sun is), including most of your windows on this side (takes in more heat during winter), and build large overhangs shading the windows (shads out the sun during summer), you’ll be in a good place.

Even though “natural” and “sustainable” are defined separately, it doesn’t mean a home can’t include both. Honestly, if most homes included both we’d be in a much better position when it comes to climate and quality of life. 

Building Science 

One of my favorite chapters in this book is the section about “building science”, where Chris breaks down the function and form of buildings from a first-principles approach. 

If you’re like me you’ve never really given much thought to how homes are built and what makes a “good” home. Well, apparently there’s an entire science around building buildings and it’s amazingly simple – at least in theory… Ha! 

There are four main layers to any building, which people in the biz call the “building envelope”, this is the wrapper for the building (e.g. walls, foundation, ceiling, etc.). The layers are – Air, water, thermal, and vapor. Each layer has a key function in creating a long-lasting building envelope. 

Water Control – This layer is seen as the most important because if you f**** this up, then all the other layers are screwed as well. The purpose of the water layer is to protect from water entering the building, as well as collect the water in a way that we’re able to store and reuse it when needed. Some examples of this would be roofing, wall cladding, windows, doors, foundation waterproofing, and ground waterproofing. 

Air Control – This layer is all about preventing the uncontrolled movement of indoor and outdoor air in the building. A common misconception most homeowners have is that their home will be “too airtight”… But the tighter the home, the better – As long as you have a good ventilation system. An airtight home helps with preventing moisture, hot air, cold air, polluted air, or other things from entering or exiting your home, which directly correlates to improved quality of living and how energy efficient your home is. A practical place to start with this is to ensure that you minimize the number of holes in your air control layer (e.g. plumbing, wiring, etc.).

Thermal Control – This layer is also called the “insulation layer”. Here we’re basically doing everything we can to maintain a consistent desired indoor temperature with minimal input from fuel sources. A general rule of thumb – Thicker = better. When it comes to insulation (e.g. the fluffy or foamy stuff in your walls) it’s usually better to overshoot it, than undershoot it. Architects and builders like to use a jargon term called the “R-Value”, which is a number that shows how well a wall prevents heat from moving through it. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation. There are other things to consider when working on the thermal layer outside of thickness like thermal bridging or correctly filling the openings from wiring/plumbing, but I’ll leave that for you to Google. 

Vapor Control – No matter how airtight your home is there’s still a chance for moisture to move through solid objects during the process of diffusion. The vapor layer’s job is to manage the movement of moisture through solid objects, so we’re not building up mold, rotting insulation, etc. – Vapor layers come in three classes and the higher you move up classes, the stronger the vapor barrier becomes… 

The key to building science is to make sure you’re designing your home in relation to the surrounding climate and your way of life while considering these four layers 

Fantasy vs. Reality 

I realize we’re all not rich and can’t afford to build a perfectly natural and sustainable home. As I’ve said in previous posts, we’re sitting on a spectrum, so there is no black or white, right or wrong, 1 or 0… 

Personally, I’m going to do my best with what money I have to create a home that’s both natural and sustainable, but it’ll be nowhere near perfect. I will make compromises that are financially practical, this means I’ll have some not-so-eco-friendly sections of my home… Applying these practices to renovating or building a home is not about perfection but about progress. Progressing towards a more ecologically conscious future. 

My advice would be for you to dream up your fantasy home, with all the bells and whistles, then begin to prioritize what matters most to you in that fantasy. After you’ve fantasized, bring yourself back down to reality and figure out how you’re going to create that fantasy home with the money you have… Intentionally substituting traditional building practices with more natural and sustainable practices.  

If you’re interested in diving a bit deeper into this world of sustainable and natural buildings I’ve put some resources below to start you off… 🙂

Until next time my fellow Wanderers!