In the oft-repeated words of L. Frank Baum, “There is no place like home.” The concept of “home” is familiar to all members of the human family, wherever they decide to settle down. Not only do we seek a home as a form of shelter, privacy, and refuge from the elements, we also consider home an escape from the stresses and worries of the working world. Home is where our families come together to find solace in each other’s company, to find peace and tranquility, and to rest from our daily travails. In a consumer driven world, where the home has also become a repository for our worldly possessions, we often forget that our personal homes are merely extensions of our earthly home, a world that provides the resources we rely on for survival and prosperity. Just as a home made of wood and brick can be a refuge from the world, our earth is a refuge from the unforgiving wilderness of space and its many dangers. Unlike our personal houses, from which we can simply move when they become damaged and unfit for human habitation, the earth is (as far as we know) the only place that the human family can call home. As such, we must make our earth a priority; we must strive to keep it clean and safe so that innumerable future generations of humanity can also call it home. One human family, the Walters, have made both their personal and earthly homes a priority.
Carol and Larry Walters began to understand the urgency of environmental protection when they read a book entitled The Party is Over, in which author Richard Heinberg describes the energy crisis we face due to the eventual dissipation of fossil fuel reserves. For the Walters, this meant that not only did they need to prepare for the future, but they needed to do so in a responsible manner that would cause the least harm to the earth. They saw this effort as both practical and spiritual; as Latter-Day Saints, they believe in being prepared for the future and caring for their family, and they believe that God gave the earth to humanity so that we could reside in it as righteous stewards. Carol cites the scripture verses in D&C 104: 11-18 that remind us to avoid consuming more than our share of the resources the Lord has provided for His children. Caring for the earth and all of its inhabitants, and using its abundant resources responsibly, is an endeavor in righteousness, and we will be held responsible before God for our actions regarding his creations.
When moving back to Provo nine years ago, the Walters made the decision to build a green home – one that, for all intents and purposes, could be energy self-sufficient. The result was a house where heating and electricity are supplied by sunlight.
The house was designed using passive-solar principles. The largest side, which contains most of the windows, faces south to maximize exposure to daily sunlight. In the winter, when the sun is low in the sky, sunlight penetrates deep into the rooms of the house. Each south-facing window is covered by an overhang that that prevents excessive solar gain in the summer time when the sun is high in the sky.
Windows are minimized on the north and the east, and the west side of the house has no windows. The windows are made with three hard-coat low-emissivity glass panes, allowing much greater sunlight penetration, and are filled with argon gas to prevent heat loss. The window frames are made of insulated fiberglass, which expands and contracts at the same rate as the glass in the windows. This protects the seal between the frame and the glass and helps prevent air infiltration over time.
The floor has layers of travertine tile, concrete, and gravel over insulation, to absorb and hold the heat from the sunlight coming through the windows. This provides the thermal mass needed to prevent overheating in the winter, and to release the heat as it is needed in the house. In winter, the temperatures in the house can vary from 65 – 78 degrees depending on cloud cover. Sunlight supplies about 80% of the heat for the house, but when sunlight isn’t readily available, the house’s tankless water heater acts as a backup, supplying hot water for radiant floor heating downstairs. Natural convection moves the warm air through the house. The on-demand water heater also significantly reduces the amount of natural gas needed for hot water.
The second floor of the house didn’t have sufficient thermal mass to maintain comfortable temperatures there in the summer, so Larry recently had a geothermal heat pump system installed to siphon excess heat from the house, using the high groundwater from the nearby Provo River, as a heat sink.
The walls and roof are built with Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) in which plywood is laminated to ten to twelve inches of insulating foam, ensuring that little heat escapes the house. Because the house is so tightly sealed, the potential for moisture and chemical buildup can be significant, so ventilation systems are incredibly important. The Walters house uses both passive and active ventilation. In summer, windows are opened at night for venting . Hot air rises through the building’s three floors and passes out high windows, drawing in cooler ground air through the lower windows. In winter, a heat recovery ventilation system exchanges the air, transferring the heat from the outgoing air to the incoming air from outside.
To reduce the threat of noxious fumes, the Walters built the house with low-VOC (volatile organic compound) materials, including the paint and carpet padding. The Walters also tried to use as much recycled material as possible in the construction of the house. The molding and interior doors are all recycled and sinks, hardware and garage insulation are recycled as well.
Although it may seem that life in such an energy efficient house could be unpleasant, the Walters are quick to inform others that they enjoy modern conveniences as much as anyone else. Their roof is lined with 30 solar panels that meet 100% of their electricity needs throughout the year. When there is surplus electricity produced, it goes into the grid, and when there is need for additional electricity, it comes from the grid, but over the course of the year that balances out. (For more information on buying and installing solar panels, see the article, “Here Comes the Sun” from September of this year.)
The most important changes that the Walters have made in their lives are those of attitude; they now strive every day to conserve energy whenever possible. They have made a habit of closing doors, turning off lights and appliances when not in use, hanging laundry to dry, dropping shades at night to insulate windows, using only Energy Star certified appliances, and relying on sunlight and proper ventilation.
The initial construction of the house was more expensive and time-consuming than expected because of the building crew’s lack of experience with green building techniques. Many of the necessary materials were difficult to find and some had to be imported. However the payoff has been immense. There is the security of knowing that their family could survive relatively comfortably if outside energy sources were unavailable, and the peace of knowing that they are not consuming more than their share of the earth’s energy resources and contributing to air pollution and global warming.
In 2006, when construction finished, it was the first home of its kind in Provo. The Walters hope that the house will serve as a demonstration that these methods can be successful.
Larry’s advice for those seeking to improve their home’s energy efficiency is:
- Consider undergoing an energy audit, which will help to identify the fixes that will produce the greatest reduction in energy use for your investment.
- Seal air leaks around windows, doors and other places.
- Improve insulation. Where possible, add to insufficient insulation in the walls and roof.
- Replace windows as possible with the best quality windows you can afford. Use hard-coat low-e glass in south-facing windows.
- Replace old furnaces (especially those with an efficiency rating below 95).
- Consider installing an appropriately sized on-demand water heater.
These will provide the first steps in improving energy efficiency and self-sufficiency.
The Walters’ efforts are a poignant example of the righteous endeavor to both care for our immediate families and personal homes while concurrently caring for our human family and our earthly home. To again quote Mr. Baum,
“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”