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It’s Burning Man season again, which – for the uninitiated – is an annual gathering of tens of thousands of people in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert , dedicated to “community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” and somewhat counter-intuitively, a firm favorite of Silicon Valley titans Sergey Brin, Dustin Moskovitz and the Winklevoss brothers among others. The organizers of Burning Man pride themselves on having an event in which free thinking flows and incredible ideas are formed, including some pretty spectacular art and leaves absolutely no trace once everyone has left.
It was the ‘off-the-grid,’ alternative aesthetic of Burning Man that was immediately brought to mind when I came across this – rather visually-challenging – eco-home, or ‘Earthship’ in Taos, New Mexico. Earthship Biotecture, the company behind the buildings, describes the structures as “radically sustainable” and “the epitome of sustainable design and construction. No part of sustainable living has been ignored in this ingenious building.” The elements of the Earthship Biotecture design principles include generating all electricity through solar and wind power and thereby reducing or even eliminating bills, building with natural and recycled materials local to the area (thereby cutting down on transport costs and pollution) and – somewhat euphemistically – contained treatment of all sewage in “a healthy and beautiful way.”
Such enthusiastic commitment to sustainable living is inspiring if somewhat otherworldly in its appearance. Closer to home is this example recently featured in the SF Chronicle of a sustainable builder who retrofitted his San Francisco Edwardian, creating a stellar example of a chic and modern eco-friendly family home. As well as recycling materials from the original home as much as possible (for example the butcher-block kitchen tops) the owner also used zero-VOC Mythic paint throughout, used FSC-certified materials for new construction and interestingly clad the exterior wall in white cedar shingles and left them unpainted. In the words of the owner, “The endgame is the net energy use on a product, so if it requires repainting, refinishing, or constant cleaning, it’s not the best product,” – advice I will certainly be heeding.
Across the pond comes more inspiration with The Guardian reporting on the sustainable transformation of this Victorian townhouse at a relatively low cost – of the $165,000 spent on the renovations, just about $33,000 went toward making it super energy efficient. Even at that level of investment it has proven well worth it, with the owner’s energy bills falling to negative $278, meaning he actually gets a check from the energy companies! The end result of the building’s transformation is not a futuristic-looking modern masterpiece, but a very normal, attractive family home that has been smartly fitted with ‘non-features’ such as triple glazing, LED lighting, a super-efficient boiler and water-saving shower heads.
The beauty of each of these very different examples is whether you want to get off-the-grid, reduce your energy bills, or simply cut down on household maintenance, the benefits of eco-living are many, and ultimately accessible to all.
Here are some of the newest innovations in eco design, helping drive the trend firmly towards the mainstream:
– Eco insulation
Sheep’s wool as insulation truly is a gift from nature. Requiring 90% less energy to manufacture than regular man-made insulation, not only does it meet and surpass US building product standards for thermal, fire, mold resistance, and structural performance, it also acts as a ‘carbon sink’ locking up CO2. (Man-made insulation creates additional CO2 during its manufacture.)
PIR foam insulation This was chosen to be used in the London Victorian because of the low amount of energy used in the manufacturing process and its reduced transportation costs. It is also valued for its greater heat stability, increased flame resistance and chemical resistance.
– Solar Water Heating Solar water heating harnesses the energy from the sun to provide hot water for all a household’s needs. Benefits of switching over include installation rebates, a lower energy bill and even an increase in property value.
– Low or no- VOC Paint Remember when paint had heavy amounts of lead in it? Well, regular paint is still not as safe as it could be, with many paints and varnishes containing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). Exposure to VOCs can have adverse effects on health in both the long and short term including headaches, nausea and even damage to the central nervous system. A much safer bet is therefore to go for low or no-VOC paints, as used in both the San Francisco and London house examples.
For more information and insights into green home improvement, check out these websites:
Going Green: Eco-Friendly Home Improvement and Building Products
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