Fossil Fools

At a party over the July 4th weekend, I had a conversation with one of our clients. Not unlike probably every other holiday gathering in the U.S. this year, one of the topics we talked about was the high cost of fuel. While all of his neighbors and friends are panicking about heating their homes next winter, my client (and friend) said he had no worries. It was gratifying to hear his enthusiasm for his home’s energy performance. “You and I were smart,” he said, “to build a house in response to the energy crises. It just works! On the few occasions when the house gets chilly, I just use the woodstove. Even in the coldest weather, I rely only on the sun and a little bit of wood.”

The energy crisis my client was referring to was the one that happened in 1979-1980, not the one we are experiencing now. We built his house in 1981. It’s interesting how thrifty and wise we get when energy costs are high. It’s also interesting how silly and wasteful we can be when the cost is low. We built many of our most energy-efficient homes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The energy crises of 1973 and 1979 made us (including the government, through subsidies and tax incentives), extremely creative and very willing to make better energy performance a higher priority. After that, oil costs fell back again and houses quickly grew in size, insulation shrank in importance, and some great energy-conserving methodologies were soon forgotten.

I can tell you without embarrassment that our energy strategies in 1981 weren’t very complicated. Step #1: Go to site, find sun; face it. Put more glass there. Step #2: Add and improve insulation to thermal envelope…and then a bit more. Step #3: Design a compact and open floor plan with public areas south, functional things (stairs, baths, laundry, entry, etc.) north, and bedrooms up. Step #4: Don’t deviate.

Back then, I was our company’s principal designer. Knowing my amateur limits, I was conservative and habitual. The running joke around the office was that you could go to Tedd with any crazy home design ideas you might want, but you’d likely come away with a story-and-a-half cape. Today, we have a team of good architects who create livelier architecture, lots of engineering support to detail the various systems, and a whole lot of new information and technologies. But much of what we do today to create energy conserving buildings, still leans on following the basic steps, learned many years ago. Eighty percent of achieving energy stingy homes is as simple as turning your face to the sun, your back to the north wind, and putting on a good coat. None of us should need a set of instructions for that!

We are doing a series of remarkable projects right now, each a demonstration of cutting-edge, energy-conserving design and technologies. All of them start with the basics. Unity House and Brightbuilt Barn have R-40 walls and roof; the Weston house (featured in the upcoming fall series on PBS’, This Old House) is R-35; all three face south with logically-oriented floor plans. Having done that, Unity and Britebuilt are striving for net-zero and LEED platinum, while the Weston project will be a more sensible alternative to the gargantuan 6,000 to 10,000 square foot energy guzzlers in its neighborhood. Additionally, all of these highly efficient homes will have photovoltaic arrays, thermal hot water, and some sophisticated heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. The last twenty percent is difficult and expensive; the rest ought to be common sense.

I’m proud to say we knew it and applied it in 1981. Then again, so did every other civilization that has lived in cold climates, up until cheap fossil fuel made us stupid. In an already precarious world, this gives us something else to watch out for: fossil fools.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *