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Natural Versus Green Building: Expert Looks Beyond LEED and Passive Haus

The emphasis has become so imbalanced towards over-engineered buildings that even many “natural builders”  I know build these monstrous hybrids of hermetically-sealed toxic boxes, just less toxic, with some straw and clay thrown in-between all the synthetic caulks, glues, fancy house wraps, and spray foam.

Passive solar will be outdated when we no longer live on a planet in outer space in a place defined by physics as a solar system. We need to balance the over-emphasis being given on how tight building envelopes are, with little-to-no regard to keeping it well designed for the planet and the sun first, with fossil fuel efficiency goals following.

If you want to design buildings to be well adapted to the conditions on the earth, you need to know first and foremost what the sun does in your location. In New York City, where much of our design thinking has been applied, the coordinates for dialing in good design are 40.71297° N, -74.00367° E.

It matters what the longitude and latitude are for wherever you design for, as we are on a planet with known design constraints. If you are at the poles, where it is light for six months and dark for six months, that will give us the outlines we need to know in order to to achieve truly exceptionally-designed and built environments.

Here in Ellenville, New York, we sit at 41.7172° N latitude, -74.3953° E longitude. Good design is first and foremost about defining your context and adapting buildings first to be low-tech and appropriate to where they are.

Ideally, buildings and infrastructure merely back up the planetary systems. I like to call the buildings and landscapes we create “human friendly microclimates.”

What are natural and green building?

So let’s somewhat define natural building and green building as I see them. I have been building houses and many many outbuildings for two decades in the northeast and studying building systems for over 30 years.

Green building is primarily defined and driven by efficiency more than ecology and nature. It is highly engineered with many highly refined and manufactured products used to achieve their goal of tight, in essence toxic, highly insulated, buildings that depend on electricity running a HEPA filter for the structure to not kill the inhabitants with its toxic off gassing.

A net zero home simply sells electricity back to the grid at break even point where the residence spends no money on the service. Great if your only criteria is economics. In terms of reliable back up, all these arrays are grid tied—thus in the winter or storm when the grid is out, so is the power.

Natural building puts nature and ecology first—and efficiency follows. We eliminate the need for active systems by maxing out the passive energy available from orientation slope and gravity. We create integrated low-tech active systems to back up all of our more engineered infrastructure. We are big fans of orienting year round dwellings to the sun for winter passive solar exposure and solar thermal hot water into a slab on-grade tied to a wood stove for domestic hot water.

As part of my self-designed Permaculture PhD project, I built my first off-grid home—a 1400 square foot, non-load bearing, straw bale house with locust posts for the frame—from on-site and all the clay for the plasters from on-site.

Some protocols emerged from this eight year experiment, protocols which we still use today, as an active consultation and design/build firm—and 16 years after beginning my Permaculture PhD project in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.

Sourcing materials

Think about your decisions and consider whether you are financing destruction or cooperation with ecosystems and leaving a better inheritance for future generations.

We site each building to be well located for access, drainage, direction of slope, distance to a potential good leach field, cost to connect to the grid or for an off-grid alternative and orientation to the sun on June 21, the longest day of the year, and December 21, the shortest day.

Buy materials from local families who produce them from natural, locally-abundant sources, rather than hazardous synthetic materials or natural products that have been transported a long distance. It is easy to fall into the trap of buying things you know nothing about and thus inadvertently financing violence in a distant ecosystem.

I consider these perspectives when choosing materials to build everything we construct for our clients. When choosing materials to build structures, we consider the effect of their harvest and transportation on the diversity and health of Earth’s ecosystems. Often we cut cedar or black locust poles on-site. We purchase all of our milled wood from family-owned sawmills that selectively harvest local trees.

We  often insulate with straw and clay. The straw is grown in the region and the clay we dig from the north side of a hill on-site and then the clay pit may become a root cellar. For the walls, we paint each bale in clay slip after stacking them and covering them with an inch of plaster. In order to protect the earth/straw/sand plaster from the wet climate, we built wood siding with an air gap.

We insulate the floor/foundation and ceiling with salvaged rigid foam or loose straw coated with clay slip. The roof is held up by the wood frame and is standing seam metal, which will last for a long time.

At a home we built in Accord, we did a master plan and sited the building for best passive solar gain with all the upright posts harvested from on-site. Non-load bearing straw bale with earthen plasters, no house wraps, and a lime finish coat for the exterior.

A house we built in Cochecton, New York for a client and graduate of our Permaculture Designers Training program in NYC is another example. It is on a 12-acre property under easement by the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, with two acres allowed for the house.

We built a slab on grade, passive-solar oriented, non-load bearing, post-and-beam house with straw bales for insulation and no house wraps, just several coats of earthen siding and protected with a final exterior of rough edged wood. We insulated the slab and roof on the exterior with salvaged blue rigid foam. In order to get maximum sunlight in the winter, we had a lot of trees dropped and were able to have every stick of wood down to finish interiors come from on-site. We also did a solar thermal array into the slab—and they need no additional heat in the winter to keep above 50!

For friends and graduates of our design course, we built a writer’s studio framed onto an existing deck in Gardiner, New York. The project features local, rough cut lumber and the zip sheathing system with non-toxic fiberglass insulation, dry wall and clay paster on to the drywall with a casein wash finish coat.

After we build, we almost always plant many fruit and nut trees and establish vegetable gardens and develop springs for drinking water and if possible to be gravity fed to the house. Notice that you make decisions involving large amounts of energy, and try to shift it toward healing relationships.

Local production increases quality of life by reconnecting local people with local ecosystems. Harvest the abundance your ecosystem provides, and consume what you know will make you and the earth healthier. Spend time getting to know your ecosystems. Learn from their example. Experience them intimately so you know how their organisms interact. Learn to be responsible.

Decrease distance of transmission of goods and energy, and minimize use of long distance high impact synthetic sources. Building design should reflect local climate.

These are just a few examples of a bioregional economy and how it takes shape one person, one action, one community at a time. If we shift our focus to local production of food, energy, building materials, fibers, medicine, and leisure within the ecological limits of our bioregion, we will increase quality of life by nurturing the health of the wild ecosystems that intermingle with our economies.

For more about The Center For Bioregional Living and our Permaculture Consultation Design/Build services: permaculturenewyork.com.

Andrew Faust is a premier permaculture teacher and designer with over two decades of experience in the field. He is also developing The Center for Bioregional Living in Ellenville, New York with his partner Adriana Magaña as a hands-on educational campus for students, clients, and their daughter Juniper.