Climate Change, Environment, Resource Conservation

If you are a regular reader of this blog you may be confused as to where I stand on climate change, the environment and conservation of resources. Perhaps I can clarify my thinking just a bit. This might be a little difficult because my normal state is confusion.

Climate change may effect the way we live.
A Guy Taking Pictures / / CC BY

On conservation of resources, I am a hawk. One thing is certain. Many of the  natural resources we depend on for daily living are from finite, non renewable sources. Many are already becoming harder to find and as a result expensive. Prime examples are petroleum products, many metals,  water, and arable land. Another bloggers outlook.

Our stewardship of the environment requires our utmost diligence. Keeping our surroundings clean, healthy and pleasant is essential for our quality of life.This does not mean I am unwilling to accept change, whether natural or caused by human presence.

Sea levels may rise as a result of climate change
Theophilos / / CC BY-NC-ND

A more complicated issue is climate change, or more specifically, global warming. Do I believe global average temperatures are increasing? I definitely do, at least in the short-term (using thousands or millions of years as the terms of reference.) I do think the degree of warming is very small and still within the range of natural variation.

Do I believe human activity is the cause?

Well probably in part. Natural causes must be part of it, but our numbers are so great that the impact on our planet is profound. I think we have changed the climate profoundly on local and regional scales and probably a little globally.

A much bigger question is what the results of warming will be. Will it be harmful or beneficial. Can we effectively do something about it and do we want too.

Scientists are predicting anything from mild results to catastrophe. Alarmists such as Al Gore or David Suzuki, are virtually predicting the end of the world. I think their crystal balls are cracked.

Climate change puts coastal cities at risk.
Climate change puts coastal cities at risk.Werner Kunz / / CC BY-NC-SA

A scientist can safely predict outcomes when they have past observations or positive experimental results for reference. For example it is pretty safe to say the world will end as a charred ball when our sun expands in a few billion years. An astronomer can look back over billions of years and see billions of examples of a star’s life cycle. Of course, the assumption still has to be made that no other catastrophe will happen in the meantime, and It really doesn’t matter if the prediction is wrong. What about the science.

Our climate is so complicated, and the earth so large that no laboratory experiment can have much relevance. Even computer models have little chance of true accuracy. There are too many assumptions in the data used and even tiny errors can make huge differences over long periods or large scenarios. I suspect that many predictions reflect the modelers bias.

The other problem, is that there is little past experience to draw from. We have no examples from the past of similar planets with over 7 billion people. In fact changes are happening so fast that we have little chance to analyze or even digest them. In my lifetime, earths population has increased from approximately 3 billion. There were many dire predictions for the future when I was a youth. Almost none have come to pass, although, a few still might..

Climate change, will it cause more flooding.
Gregg Jaden / / CC BY-NC-ND

The focus has been on carbon dioxide as as control knob for global temperatures. It has been largely blamed or any global temperature increases we may have seen since the beginning of the modern industrial age.

Recent research, however, seems to indicate that carbon dioxide may be far less effective at increasing temperatures than some would claim. This would throw the results of model runs into doubt and could explain the discrepancies between model results and observations to date.

I do not believe quick, effective, action can be taken by governments outside of encouraging less use of products with a large carbon footprint and helping industry to lessen emissions. Drastic action could have unforeseen effects and most certainly would be harmful to economies. I do think that markets can effect an answer if more people demand clean power and cleaner transportation. Alternatives are rapidly becoming less expensive.

  A tax on carbon  would supposedly encourage industry and people to use less carbon producing energy. I don’t think it would have any  significant effect on climate. But it will increase the cost of of practically everything we consume and put more pressure on people living in poverty. The income of wealthier people simply seems to increase as the cost of living increases and their consumption is unlikely to decrease significantly. 

Energy is already a huge cost to industry. Reducing cost increases profit. Profit is the reason for industry, so it follows that industry already has a big incentive to reduce energy usage. It seems that incentives to further reduce consumption would be more effective than taxes and be less damaging to economies.

Cap and trade policies could be a little more effective, but how do you apply them to the whole world? They only effect consumption by increasing the cost of energy. “Grandfathering the privilege to pollute would take money from low-income consumers and give it to the predominantly wealthy shareholders of energy companies.”  This is a quote from a document advocating cap-and-trade. There are dangerous assumptions here. I don’t think low-income individuals are the biggest consumers, it is pretty obvious the wealthy are. Shareholders of energy companies are often pension plans and funds, the beneficiaries of which are usually lower or middle-income people. Of course this is by our standards. Low income to us is quite rich to much of the world. Once again, the key is to reduce the need and the desire for polluting products.

You may not be aware that large amounts of cash are given out as subsidies for the use of fossil fuel. Don’t blame the developed nations entirely here. It is emerging nations that give direct subsidies (about 480 billion,according to the IMF,) mainly so the poor can afford fuel.

Upper Kananaskis Lake, Kananaskis Country, Alberta
Beautiful Albertamadlyinlovewithlife / / CC BY-NC-ND

Some seem to think that curtailing oil sands operations would be beneficial. It probably would only hasten the depletion of conventional oil and perhaps encourage the development of more harmful sources. Opposition to pipelines is another tack that some seem to take. Again this leads to far more dangerous and more carbon intensive forms of transport. The Bakken oil produced from North Dakota is seen as an alternative to Alberta oil sands. This actually may be more harmful. Much of the produced gas from this field is flared due to a lack of infrastructure to collect it. Burning it produces carbon emissions and any that escapes burning is primarily methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas. Alternatives are not always as benign as they seem.

This is an article in Forbes magazine about Bakken flaring which uses some identical arguments to many I have heard defending oil sands emissions.

The developed nations, with the USA and Canada leading the pack, use by far the most fossil fuels and produce the most carbon emissions per capita. That means we could have the most effect on an individual basis. I firmly believe that we should make every effort to reduce our personal use of energy. That goes further than just driving less or building more efficient homes. It means an overall reduction in our acquisition of consumer goods. This would also be damaging to economies. Perhaps that could be countered by more investment by governments, and industry, in alternative energy sources, and in carbon capture and storage..

Arctic scenery may alter with climate change.
Alessio Mesiano / / CC BY-NC-ND

Crude oil has largely been singled out as a villain in carbon emissions. The fact is that several other industries have huge impacts. Coal fired power plants seem to be often overlooked. Sad, since their emissions are more localized and more conducive to carbon sequestration or storage. Since this was written, governments have begun to target coal plants by mandated closures.  Cement production is similarly a huge emitter. The real villain, though, is our own individual excessive use of energy. 

In the words of the late Jacques-Yves Cousteau ” Overconsumption and overpopulation underlie every environmental problem we face today.” Well we are certainly the villains in over consumption and need to address it. Third world countries are where most of the population increases are coming from. Some, such as China are trying to address this problem..

Do I think there is effective action that can be taken by governments? In a word, no. That doesn’t mean that I think we should not continue trying to reduce our impact. It means that I think we would be well advised to prepare for changes that may happen. Build stronger houses that are more energy efficent. Gradually move human occupancy away from flood prone areas and away from coastlines at risk from rising sea levels. Use more renewable resources to replace non-renewable. Clean up our world through personal commitment. Plant trees. Plant a garden. And, most importantly, use and waste less of everything.

A climate change strategy.
Many rewards in planting a garden and it aids the environmentvanherdehaage / / CC BY-NC-SA

The beauty of this approach is that it does no harm. It is a personal choice that should not create enemies or even create discomfort for your neighbors. If the dire predictions turn out to be wrong, then no harm has been done and less valuable resources will be consumed. If enough people followed this route, carbon in our atmosphere may be reduced or at least increase at a slower pace.

Living with fewer toys or less possessions does not mean a lower standard of living.

Do I walk the walk? I am trying, but I know there is room for improvement. I only wish I had done more, sooner. I don’t buy tickets to see jet setting celebrities who use more than their share of resources to tell us what we are doing wrong. Many have increased their wealth by crying wolf.

If you agree with most of this article, please share it. If you disagree with any part, or have suggestions, please comment. I can still learn, even at my age.

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House Tour

Thought you might like a house tour now that we have substantially finished the interior of our house.

We will start our house tour with the kitchen

Our kitchen

 We will start with our kitchen. Not large but convenient and open. All the appliances were purchased used. All were like new for a fraction of new cost. Sink and faucets were found new for $150.00. Retail is about $1000.00 Counter tops are floor tile, grouted with silicone caulk. Cabinets were a Home Depot special that I finished myself. Cabinet pulls came from Habitat for Humanity Restore. The Kitchen Aide mixer was a much appreciated gift. Love our natural gas range, with its convection oven. We wanted to add a pantry but found we did not have room. The area is well-lit by both natural and artificial light.

Next on the house tour is the dining area

Our dining area

Next on the house tour is the dining area. Very roomy. By adding a second table and more chairs we were able to seat 12 for Christmas dinner.

Our living area from the kitchen

Our living area from the kitchen

Our living area is well-lit and roomy.

The living are is included in the house tour

Living area

Another view. The suite was found free on kijiji. In new condition but may be a little dated. Well, me and Bobbi are a little dated to.

living area view

living area view

Once more.

My office is included in the house tour

My office is only a little separated from the living area.

My office is well-lit and has a good view from the window. This is where I spend most of my time when at home and in the house. You can tell that I am technically addicted from all the equipment scattered around the house.

Our walk through bathroom

Our walk through bathroom

This bathroom is very convenient with access from the master bedroom and from the Back door. It includes a four-foot walk in shower with sliding doors. The sink with faucets included was $50.00 at Restore. Our toilets are double flush to save water. They have high seats to aid us old duffers in the dismount. Bought on sale, of course. Vanity tops are wall tile grouted with silicone.

Laundry and bath

Laundry and bath

Our second bath is combined with the laundry. I still need to in install cabinets over the washer and dryer. It has a one piece tub with wall. Used less, we have a shower curtain. Our bath faucets are single lever for ease of use.

The washer and dryer are not the most energy-efficient, but they only cost a $100.00 for the two. With only two of us in the house, the pay back time for the difference in cost would likely be more than 10 years.

The guest bedroom is included in the house tour.

Guest bedroom

The 6 foot windows provide good natural light to the bedrooms. Notice that they are placed high for privacy and to allow easier furniture placement. We haven’t finished installing curtains yet.

Another view of the guest bedroom

Another view of the guest bedroom

For a techie fan, every room must have a television. This room doubles as a sewing room.

This deer seemed to want a house tour to.

A visitor

Looked out the bedroom window while taking these pictures and spotted this curious guest.

Master bedroom

Our master bedroom

Our master bedroom is roomy and bright. Will have to get some drapes before the days get too long.

Every house tour must include closets


Closets are fairly large. Notice the chandelier we used in the bedroom for interest.

With under floor heating there are no heat vents to hinder furniture placement. The floors are always warm so we have used no carpeting. It is much easier to keep clean with vinyl and laminate flooring.

The cabinet doors to your left conceal the electrical service center.

We have painted all the walls in the house the same color for fast completion. We will add more color later.



This is the only bit of hallway in the house. Mirror adds a dimension. The grill at the top is the ventilation inlet. The exhaust is in the kitchen.

Overall it is a very comfortable and pleasant home. we are very happy with it.

That concludes our tour for today folks. Enjoy the rest of your day.

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Controlling Humidity in your House

Controlling humidity in your house is important for several reasons.  Comfort is one reason, but preventing rot and mold is likely more critical.

A pretty picture but does not have much to do with controlling humidity
Ian Sane / / CC BY

In cooler climates moisture must not be allowed to pass through the walls from the inside to the framing and insulation. Humid air will condense in the wall space and create conditions for mold and rot. In extreme cases, insulation can become saturated, or even frozen into a solid block.

The usual solution is to provide a moisture proof barrier under the interior finishing board. This is usually 6 mil polyethylene. Extra care must be taken to seal against all possible leaks. Electrical and plumbing penetrations are common problem areas as well as laps in the poly.

The Icy Explosion
Stuck in Customs / / CC BY-NC-SA

Moisture escaping into the attic can form frost on the underside of the roof. When the weather warms this will melt and can saturate insulation and stain interiors. Good attic ventilation can help to clear moist air that may escape into the space but the poly barrier is the best solution.

Moisture can also condense on inside walls and create an environment for mold. This often happens behind furniture on north walls. Areas with inadequate insulation also create a problem. Forced air heat often does not reach into closets and behind obstructions, hindering drying. Under floor radiant heating is better in this regard. Diagrams of simple radiant systems can be found here.

Too little indoor humidity is not a huge problem but you may be more comfortable if it is maintained at 50 to 60 percent. Older houses with substantial air leakage can have a very dry interior environment in cold weather and a humidifier can add comfort. Too dry air can cause static electricity and dry throats.

controlling humidity can prevent undue window frost
Pretty but can be a problemmonteregina / / CC BY-NC-SA

Modern houses are normally well sealed and the opposite often occurs. Moisture added from bathrooms, cooking, laundry and even occupant respiration can raise humidity. Attached garages may add humidity from wet cars or snow and ice melting from car undersides. Un-vented gas cook stoves add considerable humidity as a by-product of combustion. Too damp an environment can cause mold growth and windows may frost up in cold weather. Damage can occur when this frost melts. I have even seen door locks freeze solid and become inoperable.

In cold drier climates the best solution is ventilating with outside air. A heat recovery ventilator keeps heat loss to a minimum. This is the method I use in my house. It has the added advantage of replacing stale air with fresh and reducing odors. So far it has been easy to maintain humidity to between 50 and 55 %.

Many contractors will install complicated ventilating systems with many inlets and outlets. I do not think this is necessary and could be very difficult to balance. One or two well placed inlets and one or two outlets should be adequate for most houses. You should also install bathroom exhausts and a kitchen range hood that exhausts to the outside. You may need a separate make up air inlet for these. It is a good idea to wire the bath exhausts to turn on with the light. People will often forget to turn fans on when needed.

You won't need this large a fan for controlling humidity / CC BY-SA

Ventilators are usually controlled by a humidistat. You may at times want to control it manually to provide fresh air.

You may need a de-humidifier in humid climates or in especially damp basements. Air conditioners normally reduce indoor humidity in hot climates. Humidity makes hot weather much more uncomfortable. The ability of your body to cool itself by sweating is impaired by high humidity.

Most ventilators available today are probably a little larger than is needed for a smaller house. A smaller unit run more or less continuously may be a better answer.  The one in my house is quite large but does not create any real problems except for a slight draft when it is running. Not much of a problem as the moving air is not cold.

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An Efficient House

If your goal is to build an efficient house the devil is in the details.

L'il Devil
Darwin Bell / / CC BY-NC

Not paying close attention to the little things can result in a lot of little inefficiencies. if you expect the lifespan of a house to be in the 200 year range, these little inefficiencies add up to a lot.

The main concern here is energy efficiency, but I also want to touch on construction efficiency and on living efficiency. By living efficiency I mean time, money and effort spent on maintenance as well as everyday cost in time and effort.

One of the factors I have probably mentioned too many times already, is size. It is only common sense that a larger home is going to be less all around efficient than a smaller one built to the same standards. If prestige is the goal, my feeling is that there are far better ways to gain it.

Very careful planning is where efficiency starts. Use care and common sense in evaluating your needs. Think into the future. Are you building space for children that will be gone in a couple of years? Are you considering special needs you may face as you age.

Swain House, Fort Street, Detroit
Not so simplesouthofbloor / / CC BY-NC-ND

Keep it simple. Complicated designs tend to have higher costs and contribute to both energy and construction inefficiencies.

A simple rectangle is the most efficient design for energy efficiency. It provides the most space with the least exterior surface.

The insulating value of the walls and especially the ceiling is very important if you live in a cold or hot climate. If you are lucky enough to live in area where daily average temperatures stay in the comfortable range then thermal mass is probably more important. The ceiling is easier to insulate to higher R values and has a reasonable payback even to R50 and higher. Most homes have a certain amount of heat layering which increases the temperature differential between inside and out at the ceiling and the tops of walls. More insulation is required at these locations for the same results. Blow in insulation works well. Normal rafter configurations make the area above exterior walls difficult to insulate well. Special rafters with a raised “heel”  solve this. The extra cost may be worth it. How to measure heel height.

Rafters today are usually manufactured trusses which are enable fast and efficient construction. Click here for a truss diagram and a glossary of terms. A n excellent and more detailed explanation of trusses is available here.

When calculating paybacks it is important to remember that fuel and electricity will likely become more expensive in the future. This will be partly because of scarcity and of environmental concerns.

Heat in the attic is not your friend no matter what your climate. Be certain of good insulation and ventilation. Choosing a light-colored or reflective roof covering could be beneficial.

192/365 - Help, I'm Alive, My Heart Keeps Beating Like A Hammer
Helga Weber / / CC BY-ND

Even the best windows have poor insulating properties. Design with this in mind. Don’t neglect the use of natural light for energy savings.

A two-story house or a basement can add living space  at a lower energy cost. Providing staircases can reduce this benefit considerably. Stairs can be problematic for small children and seniors. There is an element of danger to everyone. My own opinion is that it is best to avoid the risk of falls if possible.

One of the most common housing problems I have encountered over the years, has been wet basements. Providing a full depth basement that is completely waterproof may be more costly than the space is worth. This link is to a commercial site, but they do list a lot of the common basement problems.

An efficient house must be as impervious to air movement through the exterior envelope  as possible. Pay extra attention to sealing around windows and doors. Don’t forget to seal where plumbing and wiring penetrate the building envelope.

Energy efficient lighting is a consideration. Flourescent and LED lighting uses less electricity than incandescent. In a climate like much of Canada it becomes a little more complicated. incandescent bulbs lose efficiency by generating heat. In winter, in Canada, that heat is definitely not wasted. In summer the days are long and little light is needed. Other considerations are how that electricity is generated and what fuel you use for heating. My own guess is that  the extra cost of flourescent or LED bulbs may not be justified in all cases. Our government here is taking the decision out of our hands by prohibiting the sale of incandescent bulbs. Probably an effort to make Canada look better to the rest of the world through climate change action. Follow your own consience.

an efficient house has efficient appliances
Corie Howell / / CC BY-NC-ND

Choose energy-efficient appliances.  Front loading washers are presumably more efficient than top load. The capital cost, however, appears to be almost double. They do use less water and the cost to heat that water is, of course, lower. There is little reason to heat the water to wash clothes, though, so much of the advantage is lost. I think the jury is still out on this one.

A clothesline is an inexpensive way to use less electricity

A garage may seem like a bit of a luxury. Actually a lot of fuel can be saved by not having to warm or cool your vehicles by idling. An attached garage has at least one less wall for heat loss. There is no reason to heat a garage above 40 degrees fahrenheit. The latent heat of a vehicle just off the road is enough to provide most of the heat needed for a well-built garage. In hot climates, just keeping the sun off your car makes a huge difference.

Design your house for safety and ease of use. Make certain that bathrooms are easily accessible from all areas, Kitchens must be designed to reduce workload. Large closets are good in the master bedroom, but do you really need them in guest rooms? I never could see the logic of two sinks in a bathroom. Do you really want to carry togetherness to that extent.

Minimize hallways. They are largely wasted space. Do not use doors where they are not necessary.

Place windows higher for privacy and to maximize space for furniture.

Do not use more interior walls than you need. An open concept is efficient and pleasant.

Vaulted ceilings add interest and an illusion of space, but are not very energy-efficient and may make your home more difficult to insulate well.

To reduce the environmental cost of building your efficient house, there are a few considerations. Cement and steel are huge greenhouse gas producers so it follows that they should be used carefully. Calculate carefully so as to not waste concrete. Building on a crawl space reduces the need for concrete and reinforcing steel considerably. Both products have a long life and this reduces impact somewhat. Review each material and design choice for its energy use and environmental impact. Environmental cost of building materials.

Source as much of your material as possible locally, to reduce the impact of transportation.

Last House on Holland Island, May 2010
An unsafe locationbaldeaglebluff / / CC BY-SA

Build strong and build in safe locations. Replacing or repairing homes damaged by flood or storm is not very efficient or environmentally friendly.

Use labor and trades that are nearby if possible. If doing much of the work yourself, see if it is possible for you to live on site during construction. This is a huge time and energy saver.

Choose your water and space heating equipment carefully. Eliminating a chimney saves considerable space and material. consider the space used by the equipment. Using a tankless water heater for both space and water heating eliminates the need for a chimney and much of the space requirements. Follow the following links for more information. Hydronic radiant heatingHeating with a hydronic radiant system.

Finally, the home that has a long practical use is more environmentally friendly, So build well and with forethought. Avoid fads.

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An Oilsands Perspective

I feel I must make some response to Neil Young’s recent hyperbole which is even further from the truth than feel good propaganda from industry sources

These links are satellite images from space. Most are to the same scale. This is an attempt to put some perspective into the oil sands controversy.

They will open in their own tabs for easy comparison. Please take the time to look.

Neil Young 2008 Firenze
Neil YoungAndrea Barsanti / / CC BY

Fort McMurray oil sands mining projects.  Not as extensive as some people would have you believe

City of Edmonton  Probably about the same area

Long lake in situ project  Yes it is in there, including a upgrader. Zoom in to find it.

City of Ottawa  Not sure of the carbon emissions but lot’s of hot air comes out of here.

In situ projects near cold lake  Although not as extensive, in situ projects do have an impact on the surface.

Los Angeles area, USA  The scale is different on this one. It should actually appear larger

Vancouver area, BC  The scale is different on this one as well. It should also appear larger.

Which would have a larger carbon foot print, Edmonton or the oil sands mines?

Some believe that forcing governments and industry to reduce or eliminate oil sands production will have a significant effect on worldwide carbon emissions. I believe it may have the opposite effect by forcing more production in less environmentally conscientious jurisdictions. My belief is that encouraging and perhaps legislating less consumption at the consumer level is the only way to have a significant effect.

The pressures from population growth, and emerging nations, will make actual reductions extremely difficult. A good example from the developed nations, however, can only help.

A comparison of Canadian and Venezuelan oil sands.

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Environmental cost of building materials

Choices in building material and construction methods for your house can vary widely as to their environmental cost. Energy use, pollution and habitat destruction are key considerations but the indoor environment created is also a consideration. The following is a comparison of common building materials.

Factors that are relevant to the envirocost (did I just coin a new word here) of materials are, transportation, raw material used, energy required in manufacture, longevity, carbon storage, recycle-ability, renew-ability, and sometimes the insulating value of the material. Recycled and reused material rates highly if it is locally available.

A rammed earth home has a low environmental cost
A rammed earth homeLsbentz / / CC BY-NC-ND

The use of locally available material can dramatically reduce environmental damage and usually reduces costs as well. Transportation is a major contributor to pollution, carbon emissions and costs. It follows that the less distance a product travels and the lower its weight, the less its cost, both financially and environmentally. The one caveat is that it must be commonly and easily available. Ideal are products that may normally be burned or land filled.

One of the best examples is earth that is available right at the building site. The soil in many areas is suitable for the construction of rammed earth walls. This method is well suited to warmer drier climates, but is also a possibility for much of Canada. For more detailed information,follow any one of the three following links.  About rammed earth homes.  Pictures of rammed earth construction.  A more technical discussion of rammed earth construction in Canada.

In agricultural areas, straw is usually readily available and easily transportable. Straw bale construction is the most commonly known but straw is also sometimes used to manufacture panels that are commonly used as flooring underlay. Panels made from waste straw are also now being manufactured as an alternative to MDF, plasterboard and chipboard. Wheat straw is often used but many other types of straw could be utilized. Emphasis should be placed on waste straw. Straw in many areas needs to be incorporated into the soil to maintain or improve fertility. Proximity to manufacturers and cost would be considerations. Another alternative to straw bale construction is emerging. Straw formed into rope or cable is used to form columns or walls.

Using papercrete blocks has a low environmental cost
Papercrete blocks used in the construction of a shoprabble / / CC BY-SA

Paper can be recycled into building products such as panel board or papercrete. The practicality of the board would depend a lot on freight costs. Once again the environmental cost is probably closely related to the cost of the board delivered to you.  In the case of papercrete it is possible to make your own. This link provides one papercrete recipe. Most papercrete recipes utilize a proportion of cement in the mix. Cement has a relatively high environmental cost but the proportion is usually small  One persons method of making papercrete blocks.  An intriguing building material but it may be better suited to farm outbuildings, sheds and garages than to homes. There is no shortage of information about it on the internet.

Much of North America and the Northern parts of Europe and Asia are in close proximity to sources of wood as a building material. Wood is a renewable resource and a versatile building material. The carbon storage in wood products is considerable. Virtually every part of a log is used and many species once considered weed are now used to manufacture building material. OSB (oriented strand board) can be manufactured using fire or insect killed wood. Distribution networks for lumber and wood products are well established and efficient, reducing the impact of transportation somewhat. A well designed wood frame house has an excellent life expectancy.

PVC pipe
Plastic pipe is used extensively in home constructionThirdangel / / CC BY-NC-ND

Petroleum and natural gas provide the raw material for plastic. Cheap and light it is used in for the manufacture of many building products including flooring, siding, insulation, counter tops, plumbing and wiring, and in doors and windows. It is used extensively in appliances and to some degree in furniture.. Most of the environmental damage from plastic comes from single use packaging and recycling to date is not extensive. It’s lifespan in building materials is good. It’s use for piping in housing is such an improvement over metal that it has replaced metal almost entirely The environmental cost is probably less than the metals it largely replaces. It’s low-cost, low maintenance and light weight make it practical to replace wood in some cases such as siding. The use of plastic has made housing affordable for many more people. A disadvantage is that the smoke from some plastics is very toxic in case of fire.  The construction industry is the second largest user of plastics after packaging.  Follow this link for more information on the use of plastic in building and construction.

Reflexions in glass
Glassx1klima / / CC BY-ND

Glass is a component of nearly every home. The energy requirements in manufacture are quite high but carbon emission would depend on the energy source. The raw material used is abundant. It is heavy and fragile which adds to transportation cost. It does have a low thermal resistance and requires special methods to improve the insulating value. Even the best windows are several times poorer than the surrounding walls at preventing energy transfer. Strategically placed, glass can be used for passive solar heat gain. This can offset much of its poor performance. Glass should be used carefully to prevent undue inefficiencies in the building envelope. An inert material, it is easily disposed of in land fills. Considerable amounts of glass can be recycled into new glass, but collection and transport can be a problem because of weight. For more information on glass production click here. 

The short lifespan of asphalt shingles create an environmental cost. They are very heavy and recycling facilities are few. Most end up in landfills at the end of their lifespan. Newer types have life spans that are much longer without a significant increase in cost. Considering the cost of replacement alone should  make you insist on the longer life choices. Lifetimes can vary considerably depending on location and roof styles.

The longevity of concrete is evident in Roman archetecture. Longevity can reduce environmental cost.
A very old concrete / CC BY-SA

Concrete is probably the most commonly used building material. The raw material for its production is usually available reasonably close. It is very heavy and transportation can add considerably to its cost. In my area concrete is usually delivered for about $150.00 per cubic meter. Some areas have prices of $250.00 and more. The production of cement is highly energy intensive and is responsible for considerable carbon emissions. Not a very environmentally friendly material choice, but a big winner in longevity. Some structures built with concrete by the Romans are still standing and even sometimes usable after more than 2000 years. Carbon cost of concrete manufacture has one estimate of carbon emissions. For a technical comparison of concrete and steel environmental cost follow this link.

Heat energy used adds a high environmental cost to steel
Heat energy being used is evident in this photo of the interior of a steel millPayton Chung / / CC BY

Steel is another building material that is energy intensive in production. The thermal resistance of steel is very poor. It’s longevity, however, is very good. It is almost 100% recyclable and a high percentage of steel used today has been recycled. It is also quite heavy which adds to carbon footprint through transportation.

Other metals are similar to steel, but some are becoming very costly due to scarcity and increased mining costs..

Aluminum is highly energy intensive in production. The carbon foot print may not be very high, though, since much of the manufacturing is done where low-cost hydroelectric is available. It is also considerably lighter than other metals, lessening its carbon cost through transportation. To recycle aluminum requires less than 6% of the energy as producing new aluminum from bauxite. Recycled aluminum accounts for at least half of the product produced in North America.  This article discusses the energy cost of aluminum production, and ways to reduce it.

Any building material has an environmental cost associated with it. The environment is best served by using the least material possible, It is worth considering the use of lower cost alternatives wherever possible.

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A Sustainable Lifestyle

The environment is our individual responsibility and the adoption of a sustainable lifestyle by each of us is the only plausible way to reduce our impact through industry and population.

“How can we have an organic agriculture or horticulture and manage our landscapes to sustain themselves over generations on one hand, then consume goods from industries managed in ecologically damaging ways on the other? It’s pointless designing an organic garden and then buying a gas guzzling car or building a house from concrete and steel, when we can use local materials with less embodied energy”. A quote of (Maddy Harland | Wednesday, 23rd January 2013) in Permaculture.

I would add. How can we boycott or protest the actions of industry while not living a sustainable lifestyle ourselves. How can we, in good conscience, engage in civil disobedience and action against government policies that we encourage by our own lifestyle choices. How can we expect industry and government to do differently from our own example.

View of the Utah Copper Company open-pit mine workings at Carr Fork, as seen from the railroad, Bingham Canyon, Utah  (LOC) Mining for resources has a negative impact on local ecology.
Environmental impact of resource extraction. A copper mine in UtahThe Library of Congress /

I would wager that, no matter how environmentally conscious you are, you still have a lot of room to improve. There are likely many ways that you can reduce your foot print. Some are easy and minor, but others would require major lifestyle changes.

The richer nations use the most resources and generate the most pollution and waste. Poor countries, on the other hand have alarming birth rates and poor practices of land use.The simple weight of numbers leading to desertification and other environmental damage.

The current environmental catch phrase is climate change. Global warming is really the issue, but the wording is not nearly as frightening. Everyone seems to be afraid of change but nobody wants to take responsibility. It is easier to blame industry and government.

So is global warming real? It certainly appears to be. It is less clear what the effects may be, how fast they will happen, and how damaging they will be. It is also arguable as to what can be done, if anything, to stop or slow the warming.

A coal power plant produces considerable carbon emissions and other pollutants. Much of the coal is produced from open pit mines, creating more damage.
A coal-burning power planteutrophication&hypoxia / / CC BY

What is the cause? There seems to be a correlation between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and average global temperatures. It follows that human beings, by their use of fossil fuels, may be part or all of the cause. It may also be that most of the warming trend is from natural causes, but I don’t think there is any doubt that humans are having an effect.

What would have happened if there were no humans on the planet? Well, it is probable that the earth would have followed past trends and gradually warmed to a peak and then cooled. The end result would have been another ice age. Each successive ice age would likely be more severe as the geological activity of the earth lessens. The question is, are people causing a catastrophe or simply delaying the next ice age.

The real question is far more personal. What is the effect going to be, on ourselves, on nations or on the human race as a whole? More severe storms may cause a greater loss of life and more property damage. Rising sea levels may inundate large portions of some nations such as Bangladesh or the Maldives. Large scale migrations and border conflict could be the result. Habitat may be destroyed and extinctions of wildlife may occur.

Polar Bears Play fighting. Polar bears are one species at risk from global warming.
A species at / CC BY-SA

My own feeling is that, although we may be terrified of change, we can adapt to any changes that may occur. Whole cities can be relocated over a period of a century or so. We can build our shelters to withstand much fiercer weather. Agricultural zones may change but there is little evidence that production would be reduced. Already the corn belt seems to be moving north. A much greater variety of fruit can now be grown in the north as a result of milder winters and the development of hardier varieties. The time span may not be long enough for some other species to adapt but it is almost certain that the niches will be refilled by different species.

Most scientists seem to agree that human use of fossil fuels, leading to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, is the root cause of global climate change. I am not so sure. Scientists have a poor record when it comes to predictions. You only have to read past issues of science magazines to see this. Science fiction writers often do better. What is pretty obvious is that drastic action to curb CO2 emissions could lead to greater social upheaval than the effects of climate change.

Does that mean we should not bother to reduce our burning of fossil fuels. A most emphatic NO. Fossil fuels are a diminishing and finite resource. Already they are getting difficult to find and more expensive to produce. Petroleum products and coal are such valuable resources for other uses that future generations may question why we would burn it so carelessly.

Diesel and gasoline engines in large trucks use a lot of fuel. ATV engines produce a lot of pollution and careless use can create damage to ecosystems.
Fuel burnersDiamondBack Truck Covers / / CC BY-SA

The real culprits here are not industry or governments. It is you, me, our friends and neighbors. Our insatiable demand for bigger, better and more is unsustainable and may leave our grandchildren a world of want. It is up to you and me to change the way we live. We have to learn to use less.

You may wonder where I am going with this in a blog that is primarily about building yourself a house. Well it is also about building smaller, more efficient and less costly. It is about building stronger houses with a longer useful life. It is about choosing designs and materials to lessen environmental impact. It is about reusing material and appliances to lessen the strain on our resources.

There are many significant factors to address. I intend to further discuss the choices in design, materials and construction methods in future articles. In particular, their environmental impact.



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Twenty Ways to a Senior Friendly Home

senior friendly
HappyViewminder / / CC BY-NC-ND

If you are not a senior now, you soon will be. Certain disabilities are almost certain with advancing age. Most of us now live long enough to eventually face some challenges. Some age related difficulties may start appearing quite early. Of course, injury or disease can cause handicaps at any age. A senior friendly home should be a consideration for your future.

The following list is in no particular order. Many of the tips or hints can be cheaply incorporated in existing houses. Others are more costly or can only be easily installed in new construction.

1) Ramps– or more specifically, no steps. Ramps are a boon to anyone with mobility issues. Almost essential for wheelchairs, they make things easier for almost anyone. Should be under cover where Ice or snow could cause slippery conditions. Inside an attached garage is ideal.

2) An attached garage.– An attached garage means you will not be exposed to slippery conditions or dangerous weather. It will also save considerable fuel by eliminating idle time for warming or cooling your car, A good place for exercise equipment. Hint– Add a television outlet for exercise time or for playoff parties.

3) Lever door handles– Much easier for arthritic hands to operate.

Senior friendly handle

Kitchen faucet handle

Senior friendly


4) Lever or single handle faucets– Also easy for arthritic hands.



5) Under cabinet jar opener– Two hands on the jar makes thing simpler.

6) Solid surface floors– easier to navigate with walkers. Easier to keep clean than carpet. Make certain any rugs have non slip backs.

7) High rise toilets– A higher seat makes it much easier to mount or dismount your throne.

8) Two or more bathrooms– The call of nature can be quite urgent for seniors, at times. Of course this can be true for anyone when ill. An extra bathroom can save us from a lot of embarrassment and discomfort.

9) Grab handles– Needed above bathtubs, in showers and beside toilets.

10) Shoe horns– Keep long-handled shoe horns near beds, closets and exits.

11) Bases for washers and dryers– Reduce the bending when doing laundry.

12) Higher electrical outlets– Receptacles placed 24 inches or more above the floor are much more senior friendly.

13) Two and three-way light switches– Reduce the extra steps with strategically placed switches. Consider wall switches for receptacles that are likely to be used for lamps.

14) Security– Seniors can be perceived as easy victims. Install alarms or surveillance systems to discourage criminals, Have peepholes or security glass in entry doors. Install strong doors and locks. Make certain low windows ar not hidden from the street.

15) Television, telephone, and internet available in the bedroom in case you are bedridden for a time.

Spiekermann House Numbers
Stewf / / CC BY-NC-SA

16) Highly visible house numbers– Help emergency people find you. Keep a card near your phones with easy directions to your house and a list of emergency phone numbers. A great help for guests or a panicky spouse.

17) A walk in shower– Eliminate the step over a tub wall. The bottoms of showers and tubs should be non-slip or have non slip mats. A shower door is a little safer than a curtain.

18) A seat in the shower– In a 4 or 5 foot shower you may need an extra shower head or a flex hose to make this practical.

Senior friendly shower

Senior friendly shower

19) A ventilation system– Windows can be difficult to open for old hands. A heat recovery ventilator  (HRV)is best for a cold climate. In a hot climate choose an energy recovery ventilator (ERV).

20) Low maintenance everything– Make it easier and less costly to stay in your home.

Many new homes today are quite senior unfriendly. In fact they are often not that friendly for anyone. Multi levels and steep stairways are common. Style is often chosen over convenience or lower maintenance.The trend to larger houses means they are often too large to be easily cared for. To me, this is disturbing. Our population is aging rapidly and our housing should reflect that.

Your quality of life is much better, and the cost to society is much lower, if you are able to remain in your own home for as long as possible.

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Save the Environment, Save Your Money

It seems to me, that there is a direct relationship between the cost of products and their environmental impact.

Monster Turtle in Bangor!
How many miles per gallon, or would it be gallons per mileLawrence Whittemore / / CC BY-NC-ND

If the primary use of a vehicle is for personal transportation, it is pretty obvious that a 4 wheel drive, one ton, dually is much more costly than a compact car. It is also pretty obvious that the manufacture, and daily use, of the larger vehicle has a much more profound impact on the environment.

The same holds true for housing. The larger a house, the more the cost to yourself and the environment. The cost does not stop at the end of construction. Energy use and on-going maintenance is necessarily more for a larger home.

Of course, if cost is not a factor and you are not concerned with your personal impact on the environment, then there is no point in reading this. You are unlikely to be reading it anyway. Most people ,however, will use some type of justification for the money they spend, and for their effect on the environment. I wonder at the validity of many of these arguments.

There is no way that you can live or that industry can operate without an impact on the environment. A basic definition of humanity is that we modify our environment to suit us rather than adapting to conditions. The mold was set from the first use of fire, the first use of clothing and the first construction of shelter. We are not totally unique. Birds build nests and many animals construct burrows.

Campfire Pinecone / CC BY-SA

We are unique in our use of fire. Our use of fire seems to have had the single most detrimental effect on our environment. It has also been the single biggest boon to mankind, without which civilization would not exist. Nor could we support the six billion or so people who now populate this planet.

So are there practical alternatives today? Probably not.The cost factor suggests to me that converting totally to solar may not be a solution. Wind is really just another form of solar. It is difficult to calculate the fuel energy cost of solar because of the many variables The manufacture of components, transportation, and maintenance of solar all require fuel energy at this time. The cost suggests to me that the gain may be negative for many projects. In other words, solar conversion may use more fuel than it saves. This is not to say that we shouldn’t begin to convert. There should be a break even point where solar starts to provide an edge. This may come quickly as more solar is used for manufacture and transportation.

Well what do we do? I think the first, and most practical, step is to reduce our dependence on energy. Simply put, don’t use  as much energy. This can save money and may make alternative energy sources more practical.

The number one choice should be to reduce your direct use of energy. Drive less and drive smaller. Use less heating and heat smaller spaces. This can entail some major lifestyle changes. It also means some major changes in personal priorities.

If you drive a large vehicle, what is your justification? I am going to try to list some I have heard along with some I have assumed.

(1) Prestige – A large vehicle is a way to display wealth and power. Well, you can’t have it both ways. You are either concerned with the environment or how you look to your neighbor. More and more, that prestige item is making you look like a greedy consumer, using more than your share of diminishing resources.

Deadliest countries to drive in!
Probably the result of a bad decisionbrizzle born and bred / / CC BY-NC

(2) Safety – There is a perception that a large vehicle is somehow safer for the occupants. There is some evidence that survivability is better in a larger vehicle involved in a collision. Probably true, if that collision involves a smaller vehicle. If you are going to head on with a semi, I don’t think it matters. It has occurred to me that the smaller vehicle is also a much smaller target. You could probably improve your safety more by investing in driver training for your family

(3) Comfort – Some validity here. A small car can be a little less comfortable, especially for a large person. It comes down to priorities. Is it really necessary or wise to drive for long hours at a stretch. At shorter distances, I don’t really notice a difference, and I am a rather large man. Manufacturers are improving considerably in this area.

(4) Space –  You might need the space for transporting your kids hockey team and all their equipment. This seems pretty valid. Most families, however, have 2 or 3 vehicles. Choose an appropriate one for the job. Consider if a mini-van would work as well as a Hummer. There is a reason for the popularity of 5 door or hatch-back compacts. They can provide even more cargo space than even a large luxury car.

These justifications actually assume that they confer an advantage. Actually, there are many advantages to a smaller car. Not all are related to less cost, environmentally or financially.

Welcome to Polk county, FL.
Is there a purpose for jacking so high?Ant1_G / / CC BY-ND

(1) Parking – There is a tremendous difference between a large vehicle and a small car.

(2) Maintenance – Tires, batteries, wash jobs and storage can all be substantially easier and less costly.

(3) Turning radius – Can be very convenient and time-saving with a small vehicle.

(4) Space requirements – The garage or driveway space required can be substantially less.

Once, while in a barroom conversation, I was bragging about my commitment to the environment by driving a small car. A friend pointed out that surely there was a financial consideration. He meant, I think, to infer that I drove a small car because I could not afford a larger one. There is some truth to that. I prefer to spend my resources on other things.  I could, however, buy a three-year old luxury car, instead of a new compact. I would have to drive it less. I just can’t see any advantage to this route.

john hejduk, berlin tower, social housing 1988
Efficient, but something like an anthillseier+seier / / CC BY

This blog is primarily about housing, but with the exception of turning radius, the above advantages apply and much of the justifications are similar. A smaller house uses less space, less non-renewable resources, and can be much less costly. Of course one could live in an efficient apartment and use nothing but public transportation, but we are talking about reducing the impact of the suburban or rural lifestyle. This lifestyle may become unaffordable for many, if we do not.

Going small seems to be a win win situation, reducing environmental impact and saving money. Now how do we spend that money without having too much of a negative impact. You could hire a maid, buy land and return it to nature, or help a third world family. I am sure you can think of many options.

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Moving in

Moving in was the climax of a summers work. We have been in the new house for a while now. Long enough to get a feel for its advantages and shortcomings.

The house gave us a good felling, and was very comfortable from day one. Of course I had been working on it everyday, and was quite familiar. I am still, slowly, finishing some of the interior.

moving in

Our bedroom suite fits very well

The living space seems very roomy. The bathrooms, although small, do not seem cramped. The master bedroom seems perfect for us. Our bedroom suite was a near perfect fit. The en suite bath with the two entries works very well. It is very convenient.

Moving in

This is as built with only a couple minor changes

The back entry is a little cramped. I think I will add a porch or an attached garage to alleviate this problem. The original design allows for this as well as for an expansion to the other side.

The rather unconventional heating system has been working perfectly. The system has had a thorough testing with outside temperatures going as low as minus 40. The floors are comfortably warm, and the interior temperature varies hardly at all.  I wonder now, why we ever tolerated forced air heating.

Our first months bill for natural gas was $60.23. We use NG for cooking and hot water as well as heating.

I had considered installing an off grid system for heating and hot water. I was unable to conceive a system that was convenient enough, or that offered a reasonable payback. I focused instead on building an energy-efficient house. I was pretty successful, but could have done even better if I was willing to accept a longer payback.

I haven’t gotten around to connecting my heat recovery ventilator yet. We have been leaving a window slightly open instead. Not the most energy-efficient solution.

Our electrical bill was under $100.00 last month. An off grid solution would be hard pressed to show a reasonable payback at this cost. Solar to reduce grid consumption is worth consideration, though. We use quite a bit of electricity and could reduce that considerably with various conservation practices.

A smaller, well-built, house does not use a lot of energy.

One unusual problem developed. The joints between the ceiling and the interior walls cracked and opened up. As much as 1/4 inch in places. This only happened near the center of the house. I was forced to replace the wooden supports with jack-posts to bring everything back together.

The problem did not seem to be caused by settling of the center supports. Unlikely, as they were considerably better than code and  normal construction practice.

I believe the culprit was shrinkage of the 2 x 10 floor joists, from drying caused  by the under-floor heating. I had encountered this problem with another house with under-floor heat and conventional floor joists. In that case the joints would open slightly during the heating season and close again in the summer. I suspected wood shrinkage in that case and this case is some confirmation.

I think it would be wise to use engineered floor joists for future jobs involving under-floor heating. Engineered joists or trusses should be more dimensionally stable.

I am not certain how to address the problem if seasonal movement continues. Ideas include flexible caulking instead of taped joints, or crown moldings to hide the problem.

Our long driveway and building positioning is not ideal for winter. Snow accumulates from drifting and there is not a lot of places to put it. Strategically planted trees and bushes should help alleviate that problem for the future.

All in all, we are extremely happy with our new home. It suits us almost perfectly.

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