March 2010


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Robert Riversong <[log in to unmask]>
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VGBN Discussion <[log in to unmask]>, Robert Riversong <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 12 Mar 2010 08:08:15 -0800
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--- On Fri, 3/12/10, Samuel Robins <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Clearly my priority is the easiest path to high R-Value 
Ah, yes. And that's the priority of most of the "green" building industry: quick and easy.
Here's my regional argument. I believe that you live in Vermont. I live on Long Island. Fuel costs are much higher here. 
Much higher? As of Dec 09, Vermont's #2 fuel oil cost $2.65/gallon while NY's cost $2.73. VT's electricity cost $00.1493/kWh while NY's was $00.1699. I would call those minor differences, which itself is odd since NY is the largest petroleum hub in the Northeast and produces more hydropower than any state east of the Rockies.
Real estate values are entirely based on speculation and it's New Yorkers who have driven up the cost of land and housing in Vermont, so you'll get no sympathy from us, particularly since your per capita income is 5th in the nation while ours is 25th.
While 60% of Vermonters rely on expensive fuel oil for primary heat, we use less total energy than any state in the US in spite of our cold winters, remote rural lifestyle and reliance on the personal vehicle. Thriftiness and common sense go a long way. We also have a very active energy conservation program and a commitment to 25% renewable energy by 2025 (12 cows can produce enough methane to power one household).
You can spec the less expensive, more environmental cellulose with half the R-Value, burn wood, save money and go skiing, while we struggle to pay off our excessively high real estate-valued lives.
I don't ski. Almost all the "local" skiers are flatlanders from NY, MA and CT and 40% of the homes in my town of Warren are second homes owned by you guys. Perhaps if more of you would divest of your "excessively-high real estate-valued lives" we'd both be better off. I am interested to know what you think the ideal thermal envelope consists of?
The ideal thermal envelope would be composed of those materials that homo sapiens (sic) has evolved with for 20 million years: wood, clay and stone. The 80,000 petrochemicals we've brought into the world have not improved our quality of life, but instead nearly destroyed the environment and our bodily health. Of the 17,000 or so available for home use, less than 30% have even been tested for safety. The bloodstream of the typical American contains 145 synthetic chemicals. The incidence of chronic disease and immune system malfunction increases every year.
All biological envelopes in nature are semi-permeable - they "breathe". Our skins breathe. We are comfortable only in clothing that breathes. It makes sense, then, to construct our "third skins" - our shelters - in such a way that they can breathe without artificial respiration. Talk about perfect being the enemy of the good, the PassivHaus is an example of taking air tightness to the extreme (although some of the European versions use somewhat breatheable materials).
Just as we've learned that to use natural energy flows, such as passive solar heat, requires thermal mass to buffer interior temperature swings, similary we need hygric mass to buffer internal relative humidity swings (the typical family produces 3-5 gallons of moisture per day). That requires hygroscopic bulk materials that are contiguous with the interior environment, such as large timbers or better yet endgrain logs, cellulosic insulation and thick earthen plaster finishes.
We need to design absurdly high levels of energy efficiency into our homes both because we've already made such a mess of the world by our profligate use of fossil fuels (which are now available only at greater financial, political and social cost) and we demand such ridiculously large homes. A small uninsulated log cabin with a woodstove is far more green and socially responsible than the most sophisticated McMansion. We have to change our priorities and differentiate between essential human need and the desire and greed that defines our society.
The direction we're going, even with the slight detour we call "green building", is toward ecological and societal ruin. Our lifestyle is unsustainable and no amount of dressing it up in "light green" is going to change that. Much of what passes for "green" in the building industry is marketing hype to meet the authentic concerns of an awakening population. But the intent of marketing is to create and meet artificial "needs" (public relations was invented by Freud's nephew Edward Bernays - he called it "propaganda" and exploited unconscious drives to sell products and wars). 
The natural building movement is the only truly sustainable approach to home construction. Using more conventional methods and materials, however, I've developed - over 30 years of experimenting - the modified Larsen Truss double envelope filled with cellulose. It's easy to build and both more healthy and more energy efficient than almost any other envelope system. Because I use locally-sourced rough-sawn lumber, it's also more socially responsible because it supports the local economy and has extremely low embodied energy and embodied global warming - in other words, its impacts on the world are largely positive.
There are ways to build better, starting with building much smaller and more simple shelters. However, designers and builders insist they have to meet market demand rather than taking the initiative to create a more socially and environmentally responsible market. We create our world with every choice we make. 
- Robert