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Life Without Cheap Energy

January 27, 2006

Life without cheap energy, the topic of last week’s column, was the topic of many of my conversations this week. Designing for such a life is easier than adapting after the fact, but modifications can be made to life and home that will use less energy.

Right now, I think the most common adaptations are keeping the thermostat down, wearing long johns and sweaters in the house, and walking on the sunny side of the street.

Sometimes, you have to adapt. I think of grand old houses I saw in New Jersey in which some of the grandeur was enjoyed only in the summer. The large summer wings were closed off for the winter, and only the core of the house was heated.

The library has a good collection of books on alternative building and design. Some newer books on solar living include: “The passive solar home” by James Kachadorian; “The independent home” by Michael Potts; “The solar house: passive solar heating and cooling” by Daniel Chiras.

Year after year I’ve looked for new titles but have found few. Some books have remained in print from solar’s heyday in the ’70s and ’80s.

However, here are some new titles currently on order: “Sun-inspired house: house designs warmed and brightened by the sun”; “Designing your natural home”; the “Real Goods Solar Living Sourcebook”; “Eco-nest: creating sustainable sanctuaries of clay, straw, and timber.”

Most people will be interested in modification of existing houses. Books like “The home energy diet: How to save money by making your home energy-smart” and “Residential energy: Cost savings and comfort for existing buildings” will help.

We’ve also ordered “Insulate and weatherize: Expert advice from start to finish.” This is in the Taunton Press “Build like a Pro” series, of which the library has several. The third edition of Michael Litchfield’s classic “Renovation” is also on order.

Soon to come is a 4-dvd set called “Green building”; one disc is devoted to energy efficiency and another to resource conservation.

I found more books in print about solar electricity than about solar heating. Photovoltaic technology has improved with computer controls, but we use far more energy heating than running appliances. Perhaps we’ll see renewed interest in solar heating technologies.

We’ve ordered an interesting little book, “How to build and benefit from a passive solar collector as a space heater.” It’s a revised edition of a self-published book that’s been around for over 40 years. I can’t wait to see it. You build the heater on a south wall, and purportedly it can heat air to 150 degrees and circulate it into the room by convection alone.

I don’t think it’s snake oil. If you can start a fire with a magnifying glass, you can at least heat a room with sunlight.

The library has a good collection of books on straw bale and earth-sheltered construction, cordwood-masonry, SIPs. “The new autonomous house” is based on experiences in Britain; if they can use the sun there, then so can we.

My dream home would have in-floor hot-water heating, which could be heated or supplemented by the sun (see the book “Radiant floor heating”), passive solar design, plus a massive masonry stove in the center of the house (see “The book of masonry stoves: rediscovering an old way of warming”).

And it would be built into the earth, for the peaceful quiet this affords. With this house, I’d probably have to open the windows in the winter.

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