design house

Re-use: lumber into book shelves

When we bought our house last winter, we up-sized from a 500 square foot apartment to about 1000 square feet. Giving us quite a bit more space to furnish. We also are ready to say goodbye to some of our mass produced, not-so-high-quality furniture, and invest in some furniture that will last us decades rather than a few years.

One of the first furnishings we needed to think about was some shelving. I wanted something that was custom designed for our needs, sturdy, attractive, and earth friendly. Currently, I’m most inspired by rustic and industrial furnishings, so I had been eyeing some of the following pictures as inspiration:

mounted shelving
source: Almost Makes Perfect
rustic pipe shelves
source: Keen

I like that the mounted shelves are easily customized, and can be moved around if we want a different configuration in the future. And I love the chunky look of the pipe shelving. So I combined the two, and made wall mounted shelves with 2″ thick boards rather than 1″.

Reusing lumber to make bookshelves

So what made these shelves a bit more earth friendly? I got half of my lumber from my local Habitat Restore, which means it was either salvaged from some deconstructed project, or the left-overs from a project. Reusing materials that still have plenty of life left in them allowed us to save some boards from the burn or trash pile, and helps keep a tree from being cut down.

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building design

Tell me more about Greenguard Certification

It seems these days that every packaged product has some symbol boasting its quality. But not every seal or certification is created or bestowed equally. The marks of a meaningful certification program are high standards, rigorous third party testing, and ongoing off-the-shelf evaluation. It also helps if the certifying body is not-for-profit.

Greenguard is a third party certification that is used for indoor air quality. It was started by the Greenguard Environmental Institute in 2001, and was acquired by UL Environment in 2011. The certification is for indoor use products that produce low emission amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

There are a couple different types of Greenguard certification that a product can receive. The Greenguard Certification is for indoor use products that meet strict chemical emissions limits and are suitable for use in a healthy indoor air quality environment. Greenguard Gold Certification is a stricter certification specifically for sensitive individuals such as children and seniors. The products that are certified as Greenguard Gold are appropriate for use in schools, childcare facilities and healthcare facilities.

How does a product become Greenguard certified

A product manufacturer applies for product certification. The product is evaluated and tested to make sure it meets the Greenguard standards for certification. The standards are set based on criteria set by key public health agencies. If a product is certified, it is then subject to annual testing for more than 10,000 different VOCs.

What sorts of products are Greenguard certified

Over 10,000 products from 350 different manufacturers currently carry the Greenguard seal. There is a wide variety of products that have received Greenguard certification, including paint, adhesives and sealants, building materials, furniture, electronics and textiles. If you are looking for specific products that have received Greenguard certification, you can look here.

Interested in learning about other environmental certifications? Check out these posts on LEED certification and Energy Star.

building design energy

Amory B. Lovins on Integrative Design

I’m going to give you a little bit of homework before we get into the meat of this post. Watch this video:

(I’ve probably posted that before. I’m a wee bit obsessed with Mr. Lovins and his work)

Now let’s talk a little bit about integrative design. Integrative Design is a method of design based on working from the top down. Basically you look at the entire system – the entire car, the entire house, the entire factory, with the intention to make it as energy efficient as possible. By looking at design from the top down you ask how to make the best holistic design by intertwining the functions of the different components.

Integrative Design is different from traditional design methods which focus on optimizing each individual piece of the system and then fitting them together and adjusting how they interact. This traditional method creates the most optimized walls and plumbing and HVAC. But the integrative design approach allows you to say, what if we didn’t need the HVAC at all  (or at least not our idea of the most optimized HVAC) because we change the way we build the walls completely.

At the end of the Autodesk video Amory mentions the 10xE principles of integrative design, and I want to share those here:

  1. Define shared and aggressive goals.
  2. Collaborate across disciplines.
  3. Design non-linearly.
  4. Reward desired outcomes
  5. Define the end-use.
  6. Seek systemic causes and ultimate purposes.
  7. Optimize over time and space.
  8. Establish baseline parametric values.
  9. Establish the minimum energy or resource theoretically required, then identify and minimize constraints to achieving that minimum in practice.
  10. Start with a clean sheet.
  11. Use measured data and explicit analysis, not assumptions and rules.
  12. Start downstream.
  13. Seek radical simplicity.
  14. Tunnel through the cost barrier.
  15. Wring multiple benefits from single expenditures.
  16. Meet minimized peak demand; optimize over integrated demand
  17. Include feedback in the design.

In Amory’s lecture he talks about using integrative desing in building design for heating and cooling, in auto design for using less fuel, and in factory design for pumping fluid. Stay tuned for a bit of a deeper dive into these topics in the future, including how the integrative design principles lead to radically different approaches in each of these categories.

design energy

CFL Light Bulbs

CFL or compact fluorescent lamp light bulbs are pretty typical these days. A CFL bulb is made up of a ballast and a tube containing gas. The ballast turns the current from the wall outlet into high frequency current, which it sends into the gas tube. The high frequency current knocks excites electrons in the gas, causing them to produce ultraviolet (UV) light. When the UV light hits the fluorescent coating on the glass tube it produces visible light.

CFL light bulb
Light Bulb” by Pedro Lozano CCBY

Let’s compare CFL light bulbs directly to the pro and con list I put together last week about incandescent bulbs:

  • Light Quality: Mixed Reviews. The light quality can be all over the board with different brands of CFL light bulbs. We’ve grown accustomed to the warm, soft light produced by incandescent bulbs, and in comparison, some brands of CFL bulbs can produce cold, harsh light. However, many brands have improved their designs to provide warm light just like incandescent bulbs. You may have to shop around a couple brands to find the light quality that meets your expectations.
  • Price per bulb: Pro. While more expensive than filament bulbs, you can pick up CFL bulbs for around $2 per bulb.
  • Availability: Pro. You can get basic CFL bulbs pretty much everywhere you can get filament bulbs these days.
  • Style: Con. While CFLs fit pretty much any standard light bulb socket, you’ll have trouble finding specialty shaped bulbs of the CFL variety.
  • Energy use: Pro. A CFL bulb that produces a comparable amount of lumens as a 60 watt filament bulb requires only 14 watts.
  • Lifetime: Pro. 8000 hours! Which translates into about 7 years of burning for 3 hours a day.

And one more important point to consider when using CFL bulbs:

  • Toxicity and Disposal: Con. The gas inside the CFL tube contains mercury which is hazardous to come in contact with. This means you have to be careful not to break open the tube, and you really should not just be disposing of a CFL bulb in the trash. Used CFL bulbs should be disposed of by bringing them to an appropriate drop site for safe disposal.

If you’re looking for a disposal site near you, you can check out

So the tally when comparing CFLs to Incandescents is 4 pros, 2 cons, and 1 mixed review. Now let’s look at the long term cost.

10 year cost for burning filament bulbs in one lamp: (3 hours a day, $0.12/kwh cost of electricity, $2.00/bulb, 2 bulbs) = $22.40.

Pretty cheap when compared to the $96.84 it would cost to run the same light with a incandescent bulb.

building design energy

About LEED certification

Have you ever walked into a building that has a LEED certified sticker on its door and wondered what exactly that means? Well, today I’m going to give an overview on LEED certification.

What is LEED

LEED, or Leader in Energy and Efficiency Design, is a certification program for buildings. The program was designed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), and provides a rating system that certifies how environmentally friendly a building design is.

What can be LEED certified

The building can be certified in terms of design, construction, or operation. Neighborhoods and homes can be certified as well. In fact there are five different certifications based on the type of project:

  1. Building Design and Construction
  2. Interior Design and Construction
  3. Building Operations and Maintenance
  4. Neighborhood Development
  5. Homes

New construction, remodels and already existing buildings can LEED certified.

What is the LEED certification based on

Certification is based on the number of points that a building project earns in evaluations. Projects are scored out of 100 possible points. The points are earned across 6 categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. A building that earns 40-49 points is Certified, 50-59 points is Silver, 60-79 points is Gold, ad 80+ points is Platinum.

How does a building get LEED certification

First of all, in order to be LEED certified, a building or building project needs to apply for evaluation – The USGBC isn’t just going around to all the buildings and evaluating them willy nilly, it is an opt in certification that demonstrates the owner, and the architect, designer, and construction team’s dedication to green and sustainable building. When a building project has applied for certification the team then pursues various objectives in the 6 categories in order to earn points.  Credential holders who are trained in the LEED certification categories and goals perform an evaluation of the project throughout the building process, and submit the scores for certification.

building design

Passive Water Heaters

The last topic I’m going to cover in this series on passive design is passive water use. Heating water consumes a considerable chunk of the energy that the typical house uses, so if you can cut your active water heating it can pay off both in terms of cutting energy use and cutting your bills.

While passive solar water heating systems are less efficient than their active counterparts, they tend to be cheaper, reliable, and long lasting. There are two basic types of passive water heaters, the integral collector-storage passive system or a thermosyphon system.

Integral Collector-Storage  (ICS) Passive Water Heater

An ICS system works best in more moderate climates, where the temperature rarely falls below freezing.  The ICS system has exposed pipes, so above freezing temperatures are necessary to keep the pipes from freezing and ruining the system.  The ICS system is made up of an insulated storage tank, a solar collection tank and the pipes that connect them. The solar collection tank is used to heat water in batches using solar energy. Once heated, the water passes into the insulated storage tank, and cool water fills the solar collection tank again.

Thermosyphon Passive Water Heater

A thermosyphon consists of a tank, pipes and a solar circulator. In this case instead of the sun heating a large tank of water, the sun heats winding pipes of water. Cool water flows from the high positioned tank into the lower circulator where it is heated. Warm water flows from the circulator back into the tank due to natural convection caused by the temperature gradient.  An indirect thermosyphon that uses glycol fluid in the circulator loop can be used in colder climates if the piping is adequately insulated.

If you’re interested in building your own passive water heater, you can find some good information here.

photo: “Solar Water Heater boiler” by gmourits CCBY


building design energy

Passive Cooling through Ventilation

Windcatchers near the Amir Chaqmagh Mosque Complex
Windcatchers near the Amir Chaqmagh Mosque Complex” by reibai CC BY

Our ancestors came from hot climates, so we’ve been working on keeping the shelters we live in cool for ages.  There are a number of different ways to accomplish this, and today I’m going to write specifically about ventilation. Moving air is incredibly effective at cooling – especially at cooling people -because it helps sweat or other water evaporate. Think about it, have you ever been sweaty and stood in front of a fan? You cool off quickly, even to the point of getting a chill as the moving air evaporates your sweat.

Here are four methods of ventilation that are used around the world to help keep our homes and other buildings cool.

Cross Ventilation

Cross ventilation relies on wind moving through a space. You’re probably already familiar with the fact that if you open two windows across the room from each other, you are going to get a better breeze through a space than if you only open windows on one side of a room. Because of this, open floor plans can be great for passive cooling through ventilation. An important factor to note is that the two openings – the inlet and the outlet – should be of equal size, or the outlet should be larger for optimal air flow.

Stack Ventilation

Have you ever noticed the slated window on the top level of a house? This is a gable vent, for stack ventilation. Hot air rises and escapes through these openings. As it does so, it causes a pressure difference between indoors and outdoors, and this causes cool air to be drawn into a house through vents strategically placed near to the ground.

gable ventilation
Untitled” by Wonderlane, CC BY


Some Indian architecture makes use of a lattice screen called a jaali (or jali). The Jaali will often be placed lower to the ground to allow cool air to enter a room, and the lattice screen provides diffused light, while also providing privacy. They are quite beautiful as well.

jaali for ventilation
Jaali” by Nagarjan Kandukuru, CC BY


Traditional Persian architecture often makes use of a structure known as a windcatcher (other names include shish-khan, a badgir, or a malqaf). When used effectively, windcatchers are able to cool a room enough to keep water at near freezing temperatures throughout the summer months. A windcatcher is a raised tower structure, typically on the roof of a building. It may have 4 or 8 sides, and has openings on 1, all 4, or all 8 sides, depending on typical air patterns in a location.   A windcatcher can work in three different ways. It can, as it’s name suggests, catch wind and direct it downwards into a room. It can also function as a solar chimney, allowing hot air to escape, cause a pressure gradient, and pull in cool air. In a climate that has a diurnal cycle – hot days and cold nights – this is especially useful. When paired with good building materials such as adobe, a windcatcher can keep the inside of a building quite cool. Thirdly, it can be paired with an underground canal. The windcatcher will pull warm air upwards, and with properly placed inlets, pull air in along the ground-cooled water. The water will cool the air, and the now cooled air will be pulled throughout the structure.

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building design

Passive Cooling

There are a number of simple ways you can use passive design to keep your already constructed building cooler during the hot summer months, as well as some really cool building techniques that can be incorporated into construction to keep a building cool.  Today I’m going to cover the simple, already constructed building methods.


Passive heating is all about trapping the heat from the sun inside your building. Likewise, passive cooling is about keeping that heat out. In the posts about passive lighting and passive heating, I talked about how important southern facing windows are to letting light and heat into a building, but what do you do with those windows during the summer? Using an awning on your southern windows can be a great solution. The angle of the awning will keep out the harsher rays of the sun in the summer, and in the winter, when the sun is angled lower in the sky, the light and heat will still be able to come in under the awning.

Shade Trees

Planting a deciduous shade tree in your southern yard can help keep your home or building cool as well. In the summer months, the leafy tree will provide shade for your southern windows, and if the tree is tall enough, for the roof as well.  In the winter, the tree will drop its leaves and let the light and heat pass through.


Using thick curtains on southern and western facing window during the day can also keep keep a room or building cool by keeping the sun out, in the evening when the harshness of the rays have lessened, you can open the curtains again to let in the light.

Air Flow

Get that air moving. Open up windows on all sides of the building, and keep interior doors open as well to help allow the air to pass through the building.

Next week I’ll get into some of the ways that we can use construction to help get the air moving, and keep it cool in the first place.

Are you looking for an introduction to passive design? You can find it here.

Oh, hey, Building Earth has a facebook page now.  Keep up to date on posts and other interesting green news by liking us!

building design

Passive Heating do-it-now

Ok, maybe you don’t have any big renovations planned for your home, but you still want to make your living space more heat energy efficient. Let’s go back to the second goal in passive heating:  Seal up your building so the heat doesn’t escape. Here are some simple things you can do to seal up your home and keep it warm without burning so much gas this winter.


The thing about warm air is that it can escape through really tiny holes and cracks, so we want to do our best to fill them all in. Start by checking your windows, where the frame of the window comes in contact with the wooden sill. Is it sealed? If not, use caulk all the way around to fill in and block any potential leaks. Now look at the junction between the glass and the window frame and do the same. You can find clear caulk especially made for windows for this project.

Window Plastic

To add an extra layer of sealant, (or if you live in an apartment and can’t get permission to caulk your windows,) go with the old standby of window plastic. Wipe down the sill well, and make sure it is dry before putting down the double sided tape to help ensure a good seal.

Weather Stripping

Doors are the other prime leak location. Especially older wooden doors whose wood has begun to weather and warp. You can help stop up those possible leaks by putting weather stripping on the edges of the door. A draft guard along the bottom edge works well to block leaks too. Make sure you measure your door and the gaps between the door and the jam to ensure you get the appropriate size weather stripping and draft guard. You want the weather stripping to be slightly thicker than the gap it is filling to get a good seal. So there you have it, three simple ways to make your house better at passive heating. The great news is, these three things can also help keep your house cool during the summer as well. And we’ll have more on that coming up.

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Are you looking for an introduction to passive design? You can find it here.

Oh, hey, Building Earth has a facebook page now.  Keep up to date on posts and other interesting green news by liking us!


building design energy

Pre-construction passive heating

Since my post on passive lighting got a little unwieldy (900+ words! Who has time for that?) I decided to break this post in two in hopes of avoiding another monster post. So today I’ll be covering passive heating from the perspective of what should be done before or during construction of a building.

I know, I know, it’s the beginning of July, and probably the last thing you want to think about is keeping your house warm. But it might be better to think about this sort of thing now than in the middle of January when you open your heating bill. In fact, you might still be recovering from the number those polar vortex heating bills did on your budget this past winter. So I propose that it’s always a good time to think about how you can more efficiently (and cost effectively!) heat your home.

Passive heating ultimately comes down to two goals:

  1. Capture heat from the sun.
  2. Seal up your building so the heat doesn’t escape.

Just like with passive lighting, before construction begins is the best time to start thinking about passive heating. Some forethought on position and building materials can save all sorts of heat energy down the line.


The goal when siting a building for passive heating is to put the broad side of the building in direct sunlight. Here in the northern hemisphere, that means the south side of the building should be the broadest side. The west side is also a good choice because the afternoon sun is stronger and hotter than the morning sun.

Windows, Walls, and Floors, oh my

So, now that you’ve set up the position of your building to soak up the sun, you need to get that heat from the outside in. This can be done by putting nice big windows on the sunny side of your building. Some types of window glass are better at allowing heat to pass through them than others. For passive heating, look for a solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) of 0.6 or higher.

And once the heat is inside, you want to hold it there. Flooring and wall materials such as concrete and tile are great at holding onto heat (this is called a solar mass). So put a tile flour under your big southern window.  And build that southern wall with bricks or concrete blocks.

Side note: In our neighborhood in Detroit, we often saw that flowers planted beside a brick building were among the first to pop up in the spring – the bricks held onto enough solar heat to convince those seeds to germinate a bit earlier!


Insulate. Insulate. Insulate.

Insulate more than the minimum recommendation. Insulate on the outside of the thermal mass (because you want to keep that heat inside!). Remember, heat rises and wants to dissipate into cold air, so insulate your roof especially well, and your north wall too.

So there you have it, three main areas of consideration when it comes to construction and passive heating. If you’re planning on getting your house re-roofed this summer, take some extra time to check the quality of your roof insulation, and add some more!

Are you looking for an introduction to passive design? You can find it here.

Oh, hey, Building Earth has a facebook page now.  Keep up to date on posts and other interesting green news by liking us!