Eco Custom Homes® News Room


Super-insulated and Passive Homes laugh at the polar vortex

At the top of a hill in the Old Port section of Portland, Maine, stands a city landmark: the “Time and Temperature Building.” On the roof of the building is a lighted sign displaying — yes — the time and the temperature, alternating with a sponsor’s message: “Call Joe.”

But you don’t need Joe to tell you it’s cold in Maine. Last week, the sign’s message at dawn, flashing across the waters of the Portland harbor to island communities off shore, has been nothing if not consistent:0°F.

For some New Englanders—and for homeowners in the nation’s breadbasket as well—the winter cold snap has brought discomfort, along with worries about the supply and price of heating fuel. But what about the fortunate few who live in high-performance modern houses? Are those buildings living up to their promise in the face of lingering polar air?

In December, JLC featured four advanced high-performance, super-insulated building designs. This week, we talked with homeowners who are living in some houses built following those designs to find out how the homes are coping with this year’s record cold.

Wood heat only in Vermont

In Ripton, Vermont, homeowner Chris Pike is living in a house constructed by builder Alex Carver and designed by Belfast, Maine, builder Chris Corson. Aside from a few tweaks—a change in the second-story floor plan and a longer shed addition on the north side—the house is a near replica of the home Corson built in Knox, Maine, featured in the May and June, 2012, issues of the Journal of Light Construction (see “An Affordable Passive House — Part 1,” and “An Affordable Passive House Part II“). But Chris Pike’s house has the more advanced details described in the JLC feature from December 2013, “Building Above-Code Walls” (subscription required), including a breathable synthetic exterior membrane in place of the fiberboard sheathing used in the earlier example.

Chris Pike's house, built by Alex Carver (Northern Timbers Construction), near completion in fall 2013. This winter, says Pike, the house stays comfortable in below-zero weather with one or two firings of the wood stove per day.

Chris Pike’s house, built by Alex Carver (Northern Timbers Construction), near completion in fall 2013. This winter, says Pike, the house stays comfortable in below-zero weather with one or two firings of the wood stove per day.

Credit: Alex Carver

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Comments Off | posted February 13, 2014 by kdaniel

Materials Monday: Watershed Materials turns rammed earth into a building block

Regular cement is responsible for 5% of the world’s CO2; this new block uses have as much as regular concrete.

Concrete is a problem from start to finish. The production of cement is responsible for at least 5% of the CO2 made by humans each year. That cement is mixed with aggregate that is carted out of huge earth-scarring gravel pits by giant trucks. It is then put in redi-mix trucks that race through cities before the clock runs out on the mix, and have a tendency to squish cyclists.

© watershed

Rammed earth, on the other hand, is considered one of the more benign ways to build, using a local material, carefully rammed into molds. But it is labor intensive. It’s also not usually pure rammed earth, but is really a form of low-cement concrete with as much as 7% cement to stabilize it and keep it from washing away in the rain. (Regular concrete is 15-20% cement)

© Watershed


Rammed earth in a block

Watershed Block takes the best of both worlds. Developed by rammed earth builder David Easton, it is essentially pretty close to a rammed earth block that can be laid by any mason and treated like a normal concrete block. Under high pressure, the locally sourced minerals go under a process of “lithification” where the grains of sediment are converted into rock. The cement helps bind it together, making a lovely to look at block with half the CO2 footprint of conventional cement blocks. It comes in various colors and tones, depending on the source of the sediments used.


© Watershed

It has a lovely warm look to it, that shows off really well in these interior shots. Unfortunately, right now it is only available within 200 miles of San Francisco, but they seem to be travelling around America looking for other places to make it. They claim on their website that it only costs 15 to 20% more than conventional dyed concrete blocks, but look at all the savings on interior finishes if you just use this instead of drywall.

Nice stuff from Watershed Materials.

Original post by Lloyd Alter, Treehugger:

Materials Monday: Watershed Materials turns rammed earth into a building block

Comments Off | posted February 13, 2014 by kdaniel

Modular all-in-one chicken coop & garden composts too

Made out of wood and formed chicken wire, “Daily Needs” is a one-stop gardening unit that allows gardeners to grow vegetables, raise chickens or other pets, and to close the cycle by composting any food scraps into more brown gold. Part of the structure can be modified to become a mini-greenhouse or coldframe, by using…. Read more here

Comments Off | posted February 13, 2014 by kdaniel

The Anti – McMansion

Living in a one-room house with an ultra-minimalist aesthetic and two small children sounds more like the setup for a joke than something any reasonably sane person would attempt.

And yet that’s exactly what Takaaki and Christina Kawabata set out to do when they renovated an old house here. They were convinced that an open space with as few toys and material possessions as possible was a recipe not for disaster, but for domestic calm.

Still, living this way takes ….. Read More Here

Comments Off | posted February 13, 2014 by kdaniel

Feb 14th Showing, The Documentary, IF YOU BUILD IT

From Patrick Creadon, director of WORDPLAY and I.O.U.S.A., comes a captivating look at a radically innovative approach to education. IF YOU BUILD IT follows designer-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to rural Bertie county, the poorest in North Carolina, where they work with local high school students to transform both their community and their lives. Living on credit and grant money and fighting a change-resistant school board, Pilloton and Miller lead their students through a year-long, full-scale design and build project that does much more than just teach basic construction skills: it shows ten teenagers the power of design-thinking to help re-invent not just their town but their own sense of what’s possible.

Showing on February 14, 2014 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta called IF YOU BUILD IT, about influential designer-activist Emily Pilloton.

Comments Off | posted February 1, 2014 by Jeff Dinkle

ASHRAE GreenGuide: Four Editions, 10 Years, 158 GreenTips: e-book Made Available

ATLANTA – When the first edition of the “ASHRAE GreenGuide” was first published 10 years ago, guidance on how practice green building design was not so readily available.

“Since 2004, the industry has witnessed the continued evolution of green building programs from strictly voluntary to being both more in the industry mainstream as well as being mandatory in jurisdictions that adopted these for their building codes,” Tom Lawrence, a member of ASHRAE’s technical committee (TC 2.8) on building environmental impacts and sustainability, said.

Comments Off | posted January 29, 2014 by Jeff Dinkle

Heatworks Model 1 Water Heater Cuts Water Use by 40%, Smashes Through Kickstarter Goal

12.5 Inches (32 cm) long and 6 Inches (15 cm) in diameter

The Heatworks Model 1 is a next-generation water heater that reduces water use by 40%, slashes energy use by 10%, and delivers an instant supply of hot water. This heater energizes water molecules and senses temperatures 60 times a second to ensure precise and reliable stream of hot water. The water heater is also WiFi compatible, allowing users to control and monitor the unit remotely.

Comments Off | posted January 29, 2014 by RedTusk

Reflections on a Deep Energy Retro Fit Part #1

Being a high performance builder, you have to practice what you preach. This summer we completed a deep energy retrofit to our 1976 California Contemporary. A beautiful home with huge vaulted ceilings, little insulation, and massive amounts of south facing glass designed to overheat the home during our hot summers. Since I have been studying / preaching Passive House, I used the following standards in my home:

One of the first reflections my wife and I have had is the silence. It is extremely quiet. I don’t hear any ambient noise. I still hear a few birds chirping in the morning and the neighborhood rooster. There is no HVAC noise. No creaking when the wind blows. No rain noise at 3am when a storm blows in. No thumping of rap music when the NY Times delivery guy drives through the neighborhood at 4am. It has taken a while to get use to this sort of quiet.Next reflection I want to share is the general comfort. It was 9 degrees F the other morning. I was……. Click on Article to read the rest.

Comments Off | posted January 29, 2014 by Jeff Dinkle

LEED can learn lessons from Passive House

Karuna House, first green building to earn Passive House, Minergie and LEED certifications. By Portland/Seattle builder Hammer & Hand.

It looks like no single green home certification system will give a homebuilder the whole picture on a home’s performance. Zack Semke of Seattle-based home designer and builder Hammer & Hand … Read more…

Comments Off | posted January 28, 2014 by kdaniel

Passive House Skylights Now Available in the US – PR Web (press release)

Lamilux Section

Passive House Skylights Now Available in the US PR Web (press release) Efficiency of the Lamilux FE Energysave model made it the first to achieve class A certification from the Passive House Institute of Germany, creators of the Passive House building standard – a certification which demands some of the most rigorous …

Comments Off | posted January 28, 2014 by kdaniel