Greener Houses: Combining Sustainability and Comfort

Living Sustainably with a Good Quality of Life

David Bearg feels he's been blessed and cursed to be anti-delusional in a delusional culture. One result is that he and his family live in a beautiful, sustainable home, a short walk from White Pond in West Concord, Massachusetts. When he bought this house thirty years ago, it was a seven hundred square foot summer cabin.

Over twenty years ago, in anticipation of the birth of their first son, Samuel, David and his wife, Kate, added eleven hundred square feet. Another nine hundred square feet was added three years later, before the birth of their second son, Nat. Back then, David was already predicting the rising energy costs we face today, so he built the additions with insulated one-foot thick walls. He saw a well-insulated space as an investment in the future.

"I was a green building scientist before the term existed," he explains. "It's been integral to what I am for awhile." He is also able to use those skills professionally. His business, IAQ Consulting, works to help clients maximize indoor air quality while saving energy.

Over the years, David has made many energy efficient improvements. Attached to the back of the home is a south-facing greenhouse, which has been watered by grey water from the shower upstairs since the 1970s. The shower water drains through a rock filter in the basement, and then automatically pumps into the greenhouse. The water is piped directly to the root zone, keeping it from splashing the leaves, and reducing the amount of weed seeds that are able to germinate. This is both more sanitary and time saving. Below the greenhouse are rocks to hold the heat. When the temperature rises, an electric fan circulates the heat, allowing David to store this warmth for a garden all winter. There are beds filled with lettuce and a large, leafy fig tree in the corner.

Outside there is edible landscaping: peaches, apples and hardy kiwi. David and his son Nat have welded a structure to support netting that will keep him from having to share his blueberries with the blue jays. He has one thousand strawberry plants to enjoy and share with friends, and he and his wife are also experimenting with putting some of them by for the winter. For even more local food in season, and to preserve, they belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm.

greener-houses-david-berg-small-1David Bearg's eco house with attached green house

"Living our lives sustainably has a lot to do with the food we eat," David explains. He believes we all must take more responsibility for where our food comes from, and that local food will become increasingly important. He suggests getting rid of our lawns and "planting vegetables, like victory gardens. Plant fruits and berries and convert to burning wood, because it's going to get down to survival."

His sustainable house also features a solar ventilation shaft that uses the power of the sun to move energy thru the building and south facing, etched glass windows in the kitchen that harvest sunlight to daylight the room. Because ten times as much energy is lost through windows as through walls, David has built insulated shutters to reduce heat loss. He admits that some might contend that they aren't cost effective, but he adds quickly, "I enjoyed building them."

David has recently begun heating with wood, and he is drying a stack of it in the south facing sunroom. The drier the wood, the less energy will be used to evaporate this moisture, and the more that will be available to heat the house. He plans to build a wood shed with a solar powered ventilation system to move air, causing the wood to dry more rapidly. Since the wood will create more heat when dried, this will enable him to store and burn less wood.

This is Henry David Thoreau country, and Thoreau spoke highly of David's neighborhood kettle pond, White Pond. Like Thoreau, David has built a cabin where he can retreat to think about how to simplify his life. The cabin is a two hundred square foot solar heated room, which serves as a meditation space, meeting space for groups and guesthouse.

The projects are impressive. David explains, "I figure it out as I go. I want to minimize how much energy I need to maintain what I consider to be a good quality of life." He's quick to add, "That quality is more about the relationships I maintain with my wife, my sons and my community. I don't want to proselytize, but quality is about how to live more simply on this planet, because we're all going to need to. If our species is going to survive with some reasonable quality of life, there must be some humility, some spiritual reverence for the planet. If you drive around in a gas guzzler, essentially you're stealing energy from your children. The more we can simplify our lives and improve their quality, the more hope we have for the future."

Consumers can make sustainable improvements by taking advantage of free resources first. David suggests, "Have the power company come out and do an audit, and they'll give you a compact florescent bulb for your trouble. If you've had an icicle problem, that's not a roof defect; you already know that you have excess heat loss from the structure." A next step is to have an infrared scan with and without a blower door. That will help you visualize where your heat loss is, a good way to quantify how leaky a building is.

David believes the future will require a combination of post-traditional agriculture and technology. Quality of life will increasingly depend on the human relationships near us, and on our ability to live more on current sunshine than on stored solar energy. For most of the history of our species, people walked much more than most do now, and it will become important for us to structure our lives to drive less. He advises parents to cultivate more responsibility in their kids, since "things will change rapidly and they'll need those skills. But eventually, when we are successful in living more sustainably, we'll also get the benefit of being able to slow down, reduce stress in our lives, and be able to spend more time enjoying those human relationships around us."

Grabbing Dollars out of Thin Air

Bob Gagnon, a fourth generation master plumber, describes himself as "not into theory — I'm a nuts and bolts guy." In the 1970s, his dad was obsessed with solar and didn't see why it couldn't be used for heating. He would put garden hoses up on the roof to show how hot they got. "When I was in school, he'd make me ask my teachers why we couldn't heat with solar. Once I graduated, he made me ask my boss," Bob remembers. "They'd all say the same thing; you need to get the temperature up to one hundred and eighty degrees for baseboard heat. That turns out not to be true for radiant heat."

On the first day of a June heat wave, Bob's garrison colonial in Lowell, Massachusetts is surprisingly cool and comfortable, thanks to the radiant cooling system he installed himself. Bob says, "I got the idea in 2000 when I was out back watering the lawn and the water coming from my twelve foot point driven well was so cold!" Even in August, his well water never gets above 56 degrees.

Now that water is piped into the home, where it cools the water in the radiant system, and then the cooled water circulates in the walls, floors, and ceilings, cooling them to sixty-eight degrees. "This radiant cooling surrounds you," explains Bob. "Unlike with air conditioning, everything in the room is cool to the touch. Air doesn't hold cold like solid surfaces. It feels like a spring day in here. It's about seventy degrees, which is too cool for some people."

The radiant water is a closed system, which should last fifty to sixty years. If new water were constantly being introduced, the salt and minerals might corrode the pipes and cause leaks in twenty years. After the well water goes thru the heat exchanger it is piped back out to water blueberry bushes, rhubarb plants, and other vegetables, as well as Bob's lawn, and his neighbors' lawns. "This system works well, since when it's hot and the radiant cooling is on, I draw the most water from my well and this is also the time I need to water more," says Bob.

In winter, solar heated water circulates through the same pipes, providing radiant heat, instead. It warms much more gently and slowly then forced hot air heat; there are no cold spots and much less dust and dust mites. "With solar heating, the more radiant panels you have, the better it is," says Bob.

When using solar it is important to have enough storage for cloudy days. In his basement, Bob has two tanks, a two hundred gallon high temperature tank that holds his shower water, and a five hundred gallon lower temperature tank for radiant heating.

Bob heats thirty to forty percent of his home with passive solar through his glass windows, twenty percent comes from his solar panels, and the rest from his wood stoves. The stove heats water in pipes directly above it to one hundred and twenty degrees, and that water circulates through the radiant heating system helping to warm an adjoining room. This solves a heat distribution problem common with wood stoves, which can create intense heat up close, but the rest of the house can be bitterly cold. (Ben Franklin described this as being "scorched before, and, as it were, froze behind.") Sending the heat into the walls makes it last longer, so the stove doesn't have to be started as often.

Bob has also created a unique setup for heat recovery from his grey water. After he showers, that water is still one hundred and five degrees when it comes into the one hundred fifty gallon fiberglass recovery tank, a huge contrast to incoming winter water which is thirty-six degrees. Solar performs least in winter, just when he needs the most help warming incoming water for his radiant heating system. Bob's solution is to pour the one hundred five degree shower water over coils filled with thirty-six degree incoming water, heating it to seventy degrees. He then boosts the temperature even more with his solar tank. "With this system there are no expensive pumps. Nothing to break or maintain," says Bob. "Imagine what a team of engineers with a large budget could come up with. I bet they could get eighty to ninety percent back from one hundred ten degree shower water."

Bob's next project is to install a water-free urinal. "I got interested in them after I was in the Miami Stadium," Bob remembers. "There is a huge water shortage down there and they were fifty of them in the restroom. And there was no smell."

In the bathroom, Bob suggests that low flow toilets are a good place to start for those looking to make simple changes in their homes. They cost about $250, and will pay for themselves in a few years. The ones in his home are .8 gallon dual flush, meaning they have two buttons, one for a liquid flush, and another for a solid one. "I see people who still have toilets that use eight to ten gallons a flush. And they want to keep it because it still works. If you had a car that got two to three miles to the gallon, you wouldn't keep driving it because it worked," says Bob.

He continues, "A lot of your water bill goes to pay for the cost of the electricity used to filter the water and get it to your house. So when you're saving water, you're also saving electricity. A standard new American toilet uses 1.6 gallons. In Europe, they've been using the .8's for a long time." Bob notes, "We waste so much water. Toilets use the most water in the home. Without low flush toilets, forty to sixty percent of the water in the home is being flushed."

Another simple change is to improve the insulation in your home with foam insulation. "The government should subsidize this simple solution," Bob says. "Few people are doing it because the price is so high. Once more people start using foam insulation, the price will drop. When a home is insulated with fiberglass, it's like wearing a fleece jacket; the wind can go right thru. Adding foam is like putting on a windbreaker over the fleece jacket. Now you're warm!"

When asked about the high upfront costs of installing a solar system, Bob responds, "Fuel prices are ridiculously high. In the last fourteen months, they've doubled. That means you can now recoup the cost of a solar system in ten years instead of twenty. Even if you don't care at all about the environment, even if you care only about money, you have to do it. When you use solar, it's like grabbing dollars out of thin air!"

Plumbers, electricians, master carpenters already have most of the skills they need to install solar systems. "There's an army of installers who are one to two courses away from being able to do installation," says Bob. "When the demand is there, these people will come out of the woodwork. And the money it costs to install these systems will get spread around local communities. These little systems will be much less prone to damage from terrorist attacks, unlike nuclear power, which may cost more to defend then it does to build."

Making a Big Difference with a Small Home

Margie Lynch wants her 1248 square feet eco house in Stow, Massachusetts to be an example of the kind of home you can have even if you're not handy and don't have a huge budget. She consciously built a small house since they require less material to build and lower energy to operate. A passionate environmentalist, she says, "I attended conferences to learn about green building on my own nickel. My goals were to build this type of home and to start the career that I now have promoting energy efficiency in new construction."


Margie Lynch's sustainable home

Margie was involved in a pilot program thru the US Greenbuilding Council, which certified homes that met criteria for water use, energy efficiency, site selection, materials, and indoor air quality. Their nationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifies green building design, construction and operations. In February 2007, Margie's home became the first certified silver residence in Massachusetts.

Ninety four percent, or 6.1 tons of jobsite waste was recycled. This included 3.75 tons of gypsum, which was completely recycled, and 2.33 tons of mixed wasted, eighty-five percent of which was recycled. This enabled Margie to exceed the LEED mandatory certification requirement of 2.5 pounds of waste per square foot by almost two pounds, and cost her no more than she would have paid for conventional dumping.

Simple choices add up to a big difference in Margie's home. The wood for her floors was sustainably, locally harvested and the trim is Forest Stewardship Council Certified (FSCC). Her kitchen counter is a reclaimed bowling alley lane. "I wanted to use more reclaimed materials," she laments. "But because of the work involved, they were often significantly more expensive than buying new. But it would work for someone who is handy and passionate." She adds, "I choose a gravel driveway because I'm adamantly opposed to asphalt. It's a petroleum product with an impervious surface. And it viciously absorbs heat, making it hotter around the house." She also chose low energy appliances and low VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and finishes. Her cabinets have no particleboard material, which contain formaldehyde. Her walls are insulated with solid Styrofoam, so the only heat loss is at the windows. She also installed low flow toilets and faucet aerators.

Margie used a kilowatt device to measure how much energy her appliances were drawing when they were plugged in but turned off. "I was surprised to discover my VCR registered at eight watts," she says, "so I installed a kill switch to reduce the standby power use on my television, VCR and stereo." She has insulated shades on her western windows and installed programmable thermostats to automatically turn down at night and back up in the morning before rising. She chose radiant heat and a 94% efficient boiler. She made a conscious decision leave her lawn as an unmowed meadow and save the resources required to maintain a lawn. (See "EarthTalk," page 24 this issue.).

Margie estimates her green choices cost her only an additional 5%. She points out "when we educate contractors, we have the opportunity for change in the long term. I recognize that in choosing to build a small house I may have lowered its resale value, but we can't be slaves to resale value. It needs to make sense in the moment. It was hard to decide to add another structure; if I was going to build a house, I wanted to do it right." Margie's sustainable decisions may actually become increasingly appealing in the resale market. According to the recently released Green Homeowner SmartMarket™ Report produced by McGraw-Hill Construction, the market for "true green homes" is expected to rise from $2 billion to $20 billion over the next five years.

Homeowners making decisions like Margie's can add up to significant changes. "Nearly half of all energy used in the United States each year is consumed in the operation and construction of buildings," says David Barclay, Executive Director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). "Architects, building engineers, and contractors therefore hold the single largest key to controlling greenhouse gases and climate change. Unlike vehicle emissions, where the entire U.S. fleet will turn over in 10-12 years, building life spans range from 50-100 years. With five billion square feet of new construction and five billion square feet of renovation occurring each year, the potential for reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gases is enormous."

Margie suggests consumers buy Energy Star rated appliances and take advantage of rebates that may be available to them. Because they're huge energy hogs, it can be a good idea to get rid of older fridges, even if they're working. Adding more insulation can also make a big difference." Being environmentally mindful is a commitment to doing lots of research," she believes. "It can be challenging, but it's also rewarding. It's exciting to have control. As green keeps getting bigger, it's only going to get better."

Additional Resources

The Database for State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) provides information on rebates for consumers.

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association provides resources for making homes more sustainable, including a directory of local professionals. On October 4th they will host an open house of sustainable buildings all over the

The Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative (PAREI) promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency practices and the use of renewable energy at the residential level in New Hampshire. They host "energy raisers," modeled after the traditional neighbor helping neighbor barn raisers, where members volunteer to install residential sustainable systems such as solar panels or windmills in a day. Participate in four energy raisers, and you get to host one at your home!

The US Greenbuilding Council is dedicated to sustainable building and design. Their nationally recognized Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifies green building design, construction and operations.

David Bearg's home can be viewed online at

For more information about Bob Gagnon's home visit

To learn more about Margie Lynch's journey building a sustainable home visit

Julie Brill is a freelance writer, childbirth educator and home schooling mom. She can be contacted at