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Geothermal Heat Pumps – Green to the Core

Geothermal Heat Exchanging Loop

Heat “pumps” are nothing more than heat exchangers – they “pump” refrigerant from an external unit (the condenser) to an internal unit (the evaporative coil).  The geothermal heat pump (GHP) works in the same manner – except the condenser uses the earth’s consistent 55°F temperature vs. the outside air’s extremely variable temperature.  The condenser portion of the heating system is laid out in a shallow grid system (horizontal ground loop) or is drilled deep into the earth (vertical ground loop).  The system works by exchanging heat (or more appropriately, energy) between the air in our homes with the consistently heated earth below our feet.  The maintenance costs of the systems are low because the pumps are mechanically simple and the heat exchanger is below ground.  As a rule of thumb, a geothermal heating exchanger costs approximately $2,500/ton plus drilling costs (10k-30k).  On average, GHP’s save 70% of the energy used in operating conventional systems – the pump cannot be offset by the earth’s constant temperature.  So, if you couple a GHP with a PV canopy (electricity to run the pump) you have created a carbon neutral heating and cooling system, produced excess electricty to sell to your utility or run your lights and created shaded, elegant outdoor living space.  Furthermore, the 30% Homeowner Tax Credit with no cap applies to both the GHP and the PV system.  Sounds like a win-win-win to me!

A Green Roof Equals Outdoor Living Space

Living Roof with Patio

I quickly learned from my trip to Venice, that the roof had the best views of the house.  A small deck sat atop the roof of our hotel which was accessed through a small window and a set of old wooden stairs on the outside of the building.  From that location, you could see the complexity of Venice’s layout and take in the beauty of the centuries old buildings.  I instinctively knew from years of framing houses in college, that the roof offered unprecedented views of Colorado’s Front Range.  However, you are never comfortable on a roof you are building so my fear buried my experiences at the back of mind.  Upon returning home from that trip, I climbed onto the roof of my house and stared west at the Rockies.  It was breathtaking – the added height filtered out the trees and other homes and left only a clear view of the majestic mountains.  I immediately began incorporating second story decks and roof top decks into my architecture.  They accomplished what I was striving to create – a place to relax and absorb the views of the surrounding area.  However, something was missing.  Even though I had accounted for watering systems of potted plants, the decks were seemingly stark and non-organic.  Furthermore, they could only be accessed from one area of the dwelling – usually a public/living space and they were hot. The lack of plants and earth created a very blistering outdoor experience.  The Green roof or living roof, solves all these problems.  You have a beautiful, elevated, private, temperate outdoor living space that covers your entire roof!  Now that’s organic architecture at its finest.  Imagine now that you combine a PV canopy for shade - you’ve created an energy saving and energy creating  roof that you can enjoy year round.

Using Dirt to Create Green Architecture

Earth Sheltered Home

Earth Berm Sketch

There are a lot of Green insulation materials available today.  The best Green materials are recycled materials such as cellulose & denim.  However, these materials require energy to recycle the materials, energy to produce the insulation, energy to transport the insulation and finally, energy to install the materials.  Interestingly, mankind has grown accustom to using these materials as the only form of dwelling insulation.  Why not use a material that already exists on site and costs nothing to manufacture – earth (dirt).  Earth is a natural insulator - it has an R-value of .33 per inch when dry.  When compared to fiberglass insulation, it takes 36″ of earth to equal the R-vaule of a wall composed of 3″ of fiberglass and 1/2″ plywood siding (R-value = 11.25).  This is not mind boggling on its own – however, add the two together and you get an R-value of 22.5!  Ecotecture and Green ideas should involve the use of earth as an insulator.  When coupled with recycled forms of insulation, it can greatly enhance heat loss through walls and the roof.  We should be using dirt below the windows, bury non-living space rooms & the garage, and install living roofs that can be used as exterior living spaces.  When earth is used in this manner, architecture becomes ecotecture.

Fallingwater – Green before Green was Cool


Fallingwater's Famous Exterior

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is his most memorable work.  Designed in 1934, it has inspired countless architects since its inception.  Fallingwater blended architecture with the natural ecosystem in a way that had never been seen.  The concept was Green in its interaction with the ecosystem, but the elements used in the construction were not ‘sustainable’.  Although the building is a style to emulate in Ecotecture, the continued interaction with the environment must be advanced.  The design must incorporate earth as an insulator (living roofs and walls without windows), PV and wind power generation, advanced construction techniques and the use of sustainable construction materials.  In closing, Fallingwater can be used as a guide for sustainable design in its interaction with the natural ecosystem and its overall design, but the introduction of new Green technology must be infused into the architecture.  It must become Ecotecture to truly reach the next level of sustainablity.

What is Ecotecture?
May 20th, 2009

What is Ecotecture?

Ecotecture Inspired Building

Ecotecture is the combination of the words ecology (defined as the relationship between living organisms and their environment) and architecture (defined as the art and science of building).  Ecotecture can be used interchangeably with ’ecological design’ and ‘sustainable design’.  The essence of the architectural movement for me, as a designer, is to create beautiful, artistic homes that fully integrates the current Green technology.  It is not an additive style (where the sustainable or Green elements look ‘added’), but rather a style where the Green elements are blended seamlessly into the ‘whole’ of the dwelling.  The dwelling design appears to revolve around the Green elements – they appear to be necessary to the design.  A good analogy is anatomy – the parts that make up the human body are organized and function together.  If you were to ‘add’ to the body – a third arm, a second nose – it appears awkward and abnormal.  My goal in creating Ecotecture Studios is to blend the architecture and the Green elements into one harmonious entity.  Elements of the earth, the ecosystem, the architecture and sustainable elements (wind power, solar power, water conservation, etc.) are blended into one ‘organism’.  When these elements are combined through the design process, rather than added, they produce a breathtaking human habitation system that meshes flawlessly with the natural ecosystem.

Red Light, Green Light
May 17th, 2009

Red Light, Green Light

Compact Fluorescent

LED Lamp

With an M.S. in Illumination Engineering, I can’t help but get excited about advancements in lighting.  Since Edison created the first commerically practical lamp in 1879, the world has been illuminated by the incandescent bulb.  Although they are inexpensive and reliable, their time as our major light source is nearing an end.  The light source has two major problems:  it uses a significant amount of electricity and generates a significant amount of heat.  In fact, the light you are seeing is created by heating up a tungsten filament up to 3000°C!  That heat generated must now be offset by your HVAC system.  The new ‘buzz word’ in lighting is the Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL).  I will never forget seeing my first Compact Fluourescent (CFL) at a CU-Boulder reatreat in 1993.  It was the prototype of the new Greenfluorescent revolution.  Although the CFL is significantly more energy efficient, has a longer lamp life and a lower operating temperature, it is still fatally flawed.  First, the standard model off the shelf cannot be dimmed.  It requires a more costly, electronic ballast in order to be dimmed.  Second, the CFL is a disposable nightmare due to the Mercury contained inside the bulb.  Well, have no fear, the lighting future is upon us with the introduction of LED lamps for residential and commerical use.  LED‘s, or Light Emitting Diodes, have a bulb life of 60,ooo hours (6 times that of a CFL and 40 times that of incandescent) and use 70% less energy than a CFL (see Light Bulb Comparison Spreadsheet)!  Although these light sources are currently expensive, they can save you up to $674 a year by replacing your incandescent bulbs ($.23/kWh assumed in study).  In fact, when compared side-by-side with CFL’s, they pay for themselves in less than a year.  LED’s are the wave of the future and are truly the Green alternative when it comes to lighting!  Check them out today at EcoLEDs and reduce your carbon footprint.

Integrating Wind Turbines into Green Homes

Artistan Wind Turbine

The war on ‘Green means ugly’ has been brought to the wind generation front!  Plus, the U.S. Federal Tax Credit foots 30% of the cost with no cap!  A multitude of companies offer products that are both elegant and excellent sources of wind power.    These wind turbines can be integrated into either new designs or used for Green renovations on existing buildings.  The Swedish-built Energy Ball is a beautiful example of an artisan wind generator.  It is availabe in .5kW model that measures 43″ in diameter and a 2.5kW model that measures 78″.  Another great example is the Swift rotary turbine that offers 1.5kW’s of power.  Although the rotary design is not as elegant as the Energy Ball, this turbine is more elegant than a standard rotatry turbine.  The ultimate marriage of contemporary, sustainable designs and wind generation is exemplified by the Aerotecture International  products.  This is the type of integration of Green concepts into architecture that I describe on my Ecotecture Studios sustainablity page.  Green can be in harmony with beautiful homes!

PV Structures are Green & Beautiful

Example PV Canopy

You can read about my beliefs on how PV’s (Solar Panels) should be integrated into architecture at www.ecotecturestudios.com/sustainable.html.  I believe that they should be used as elements of art such as awnings, patio covers and pergolas.  There is no need to place them on your roof as an afterthought and eye-sore.  They can be blended seemlessly into new architecture or added onto existing homes in beautiful and useful ways.  Some great examples I found for commerical applications can be viewed at FlickrSolargen1 and Sunengineer.   For residential examples of PV structures you can visit GoGreenSolar, FlorianSolarProdcuts , GreenEdmonton and SolarLiving.  You can see from these examples that PV systems can be beautifully integrated with your Green building or home.  These examples clearly show that being Green can make your building architecturally stunning and unique!

Footing the Green Bill
May 11th, 2009

Footing the Green Bill

Green Improvements

There is no arguing that sustainable architecture is currently more expensive than standard construction. However, your local, state and federal government is here to help!  You can even check with your local utility to see if they offer incentives and rebates. Current utility, local, state and federal incentives for Renewable Energy & Efficiency can be found easily at www.dsireusa.org.  I have found this website to be a valuable resource for determining the total rebate/incentive that exists for using sustainable techniques.  You will be amazed at how much money is available for going Green!   Feel free to visit dsireusa and other website regarding sustainable construction methods and materials.  It will most likely be an awe inspiring investigation.  Aesthetics and affordability are finally becoming a part of Green!

Seeing Green
May 7th, 2009

Seeing Green

Welcome to our blog! The world of sustainable architecture and green building is evolving so rapidly that it’s hard for even a ‘green geek’ like me to keep up on the latest materials and trends that make the vision of sustainable living a reality. I am constantly researching new products, techniques, materials and vendors that can allow us to push the envelope in green design. I intend for this blog to be a forum to share my latest findings and theories in eco-friendly architecture and how I’m incorporating them into Ecotecture Studios’ gallery of sustainable designs. From living roof systems to heat transfer methods to photovoltaic systems and much, much more, our mission is simple: to design beautiful, sustainable homes. Check out our new Web site at www.ecotecturestudios.com and stay posted to this blog (or subscribe via RSS feed) for regular updates and news.