Green and Low Carbon Building Interview

lime plaster skylight

Frank participated in a brief interview on green building in Colorado with Boulder, CO radio station KGNU. Both Living Craft and Rodwin Architecture were represented after our joint presentation at The Eco-Social Solutions 2018 conference at CU Boulder. Click below to give it a listen, and be sure to read the whole article at KGNU’s site, linked below.

Green Building and Carbon Reduction

lime plaster skylight

Why Design and Build?

We called our company Living Craft DESIGN + BUILD. But why?

Firstly, we each love to get our hands into the design phase of a remodel or new build. It is super fun to geek out about air barriers, passive solar, material selections, mechanical systems, and floor plans that will result in the best and healthiest home possible to meet the client’s needs.

Additionally, when the builders join the design team early, or simply are the design team, small tweaks to the design made early on can result in huge cost savings down the line, when the project is under construction.

For example, when designing a straw bale house (one of many types of construction we specialize in), it is so important to take into account the dimensions of the bale when deciding the wall height and length. If your straw bale walls are always the length of x number of bales, plus a half bale, this reduces the labor when it comes time to build. Why’s that? Because then the cutting of bales is reduced and simplified (always into 1/2’s). It also eliminates wasted bales, since every half bale left over from one course will be used on the next!

This is just one example of many as to why builders who are interested and involved in the design of a project will save money, time, and materials. We make it even simpler, by offering both!

The Philosophy of Natural Building

What is Natural Building?

This is a hard question to answer, and has been the topic of many classroom and late night bonfire discussions. For us, it breaks down to a few basic principles:

Local

We try to use materials that are found or produced locally and have as little embodied energy as possible. We want to support the local economy and the people within it. I would love to use bamboo, but if I have to ship it across the Pacific, it’s probably not the best material to use.

Non-Toxic

We use materials that are not harmful to the people producing, installing, or living among them.

Healthy

Not only do we want the inhabitants and the environment to be healthy, but also the building itself. Too many of our new homes are riddled with moisture issues and bad air quality. By creating a vapor permeable wall system, we don’t trap moisture where it doesn’t belong. Instead, we allow it escape harmlessly, without negatively impacting the performance or longevity of the building.

Low Impact

Low embodied energy, with the least extractive methods possible. This allows an efficient building to begin immediately having a positive effect on slowing down climate change, rather than having to “pay back” the energy that went into and emissions that were produced while creating the materials.

Sustainable

This term gets thrown around a lot, and seems to have lost some of it’s true meaning. There are three tiers of sustainability: Economy, People and the Environment.

Economy

We want to use products that are literally dirt cheap. With cheaper materials, the customer saves money. Sometimes these materials require a little more labor, which puts more money into the pockets of local tradesmen instead of going to the large corporation.

People

We prioritize the use of local materials that help support people in our community. We also try to make sure these materials are non-toxic to anyone who comes in contact with them.

Environment

Our focus is on finding and incorporating into our design the materials with the lowest embodied energy possible. We also try to think in a cradle-to-cradle mindset. We want our buildings to last forever, but at the point it reaches its end of life, it shouldn’t contribute to the waste stream. With natural materials like clay, hemp, and straw, much of the building is compostable or can be put back into the natural environment after its disassembled.

The Hurdles of Tiny Houses

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In case you missed it, Tiny Houses have grown immensely popular over the past few years. Between multiple television shows and what is soon to be code adoption on a national level in the 2018 International Residential Code, it appears that Tiny Homes are here to stay. We recently worked on a Tiny House on Wheels project here in the Front Range and found it to be a great learning experience with many hurdles. So, let’s jump into it:

Design

We can’t stress enough the importance of taking the time to think through every detail of a project and having a complete set of drawings before starting. Many folks are attracted to Tiny Homes because of the lure of mortgage-free living that can be built cheaply. Paying someone to do design work or taking the time to do the design yourself sounds like an unnecessary cost or use of limited time. It is in our experience though that with a solid, thought-out design, your project will be built faster, come in on budget, you’ll deal with less complications, and you’ll take full advantage of your limited square footage.

Salvaged Materials

With resources like Craigslist and Habitat for Humanity’s Restore, it is easier than ever to find second-hand building materials. We love to use second-hand materials but find that in some cases they can really add up in labor cost overruns. If you are doing most of the work yourself and have time then this is not a big deal. However, if you are contracting a Tiny House you must really think about the reusability of materials and how much time it may take to install something. We have a few tips for reusing salvaged materials.

  • Only use materials of the same size and have enough. For example, old exterior clapboards should all be the same width and thickness, and make sure you have at least 10% if not 15% extra for waste.
  • Minimize processing. For example, planing down those exterior clapboards to get rid of the weathered look will take quite a bit of time to both plane and remove all nails.
  • Find everything first. It is ideal to find your materials first and design around them. While you are in the design phase you can continue to search for materials you need but don’t begin your project until you have all salvaged materials and a finished design.

Earthquake Probability is High, really High.

Most Tiny homes are built on wheels (trailers) and you are likely to have to move it at some point, if not often. Pulling a Tiny House across a field or down a bumpy road is essentially testing its earthquake resiliency. With that mind, you should really consider movement in your design. What kind of materials you use for your plumbing system or wall coverings are examples of areas you should really consider. Copper pipes are fairly rigid while PEX tubing can handle more movement. Tile in a bathroom can be done but takes special consideration.

Using appropriate fasteners is also paramount. Using a combination of nails, screws, bolts, and metal connectors will keep your Tiny Home together and on your trailer.

Going off-grid? Think Efficiency!

The amount of wall insulation and ceiling insulation is typically restricted in a tiny home. This makes it all the more important to create a very tight “envelope.” The building envelope is a barrier between your interior space and exterior space that prevents hot air from escaping and cold air from sneaking in, as is the case in a cold climate.  A tight envelope means lower heating / cooling costs and if you are using propane, less time spent switching out and refilling bottles.

With a tighter envelope though, ventilation becomes more important so as to exhaust stale air and bring in fresh, clean air. This is best achieved using a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV). HRVs warm up incoming fresh air using the hot exhaust air so that your heating system doesn’t have to work twice as hard.

Tiny Houses are an important piece of the solution to affordable housing and increased urban density. As they continue to grow in popularity it is our hope to see more standardized detailing and a growing community of high-performance tiny home builders.