I built my first green home 46 years ago. But I didn’t know it was a green home. It was a house of wood and stone mostly, and wood that had been around for a couple of hundred years or so (I never bothered to count the rings). The stone, precambrian granite…well, I think it was even older. It was the aesthetics of the material that first inspired me, that combination of natural material from the land, that had that weathered patina of age that seemed to have stories in its pores. In my case, it really did. The logs were hewn by hand back in the early years of the last century and had protected generations of a family from our Ontario winters. The logs that formed the exterior walls were eight inches thick with dovetailed corners so that, once set in place, were pretty much immobile. It took hardly any heat to keep the place warm in winter and in the summer visitors asked where I kept the air conditioner (I didn’t have one).
Hand hewn beams of the same vintage carried a second floor. The floor too was recycled. It was 150 year-old period pine, wide, dry of course, and had that beautiful mellow look that only comes with age. So I guess that was green thinking too. Except I wasn’t thinking green remember? So with old boards laid vertically on interior walls, period doors and hardware, cedar shingles on the roof, old recycled bricks and stones for the fireplace, a mantle from 1840, recycled rafters, roof sheeting from an old barn, etcetera, how much did I spend at Home Depot? Zip. Well, ok, maybe not zip. I remember buying some screws and nails and a few other things but none of that glue-filled plywood, aluminum or vinyl widows, etcetera for me. I mean sure, I had to buy a sink and a toilet and a few things like that but these days you can even get them from recyclers.
So if I was going to call it anything back then, when 40 kilometers from Toronto was out in the sticks, I would have called it organic architecture. ‘Green building’ had not been invented yet. Although there were a few, well, maybe one architect (Frank Lloyd Wright), who employed such principles. If there was a movement toward this type of thing in Ontario, it was almost invisible. Fortunately for me, I found a few families that recognized the charm and practicality of such an approach and it has kept me busy building these recycled homes for them all this time. I called them Homes to Go.
There were a few other advantages that appeared in the process. Little things like an insignificant amount of maintenance, energy efficiency and substantial cost savings. these days they would add in the saving of the environment in some measure or other. Think of it this way- less of our forests cut down for Kleenex, popsicle sticks, etcetera, and less junk is hauled off to landfills. Myself, I like land filled with trees, flowers, animals and venerable old houses (kept up by caring owners). I always though buildings should be connected to nature. That’s only natural. But that’s just me.
Ok, maybe you too, now that you may be having second thoughts about the coming future. And it is coming. there’s no holding it back. There are important issues coming to the fore. How the building impacts on human health and the environment is a monumental issue, not to mention the consumption of depleting energy resources for another.
Overlaid on all this, for me, is an important element I would hate to see overlooked. and that is style. I have adopted the techniques, patterns and methods (as best I could) to the old way of doing things. This has come from experience. Decades of dismantling 19th century homes gave me the opportunity to see how master carpenters worked and interpreted certain problems and solved them expertly. Under engineering tests of these methods, they usually stood up well and often surpassed today’s standards. And I had to appreciate as well, the economy of line and material to produce beautiful architecture while maintaining an undeniable efficiency. there are stories of Swedish settlers in New England living snug in their log homes while the Dutch and English suffered the cold in their framed houses.
A log home is about as green as it gets, being energy efficient while being biodegradable. They lead in the realm of heating and cooling. Tests have proved the benefits of their thermal mass, (the ability of a material to absorb, store and later release heat) rating them toward the top of ecologically-conscious homes. Further to this, there is a particular advantage in choosing a vintage log house if one can be found. The logs of an early Canadian log home have stood for decades acclimatizing to our seasons, consequently not subject to the shrinkage of wood recently harvested which could create gaps around windows and doors.
There are many ways to incorporate green energy into your home. Of course, one of the most appealing has always been the fireplace. What would a log house be without a wood-burning fireplace? for cozy winter days and evenings nothing matches the ambiance a real fire offers. the hearth traditionally has always been the heart of a home. It is important however that the fireplace is built efficiently to give the maximum heat for the amount of fuel (wood) loaded into the firebox. Benjamin Thompson, later known as Count Rumford, has left us with a redesign of the earlier deep fireplaces that were less than adequate to the task. To improve the heat output, his design of splayed sidewalls, a taller firebox shallow depth and narrow throat drew better and reduced soot build-up for an overall and welcome improvement.
It’s best to establish the size of the firebox by first selecting a mantelpiece (a period recycled one preferably) that determines the height and width of the firebox itself. A hearth that extends into the room at least three brick lengths (27”) and flush with the finished floor surface maintains the traditional approach.
So here it is. We find them….houses built better than those today… houses with character you won’t find today…houses looking for a homesite, some beautiful hill somewhere, perhaps beside a lake, maybe nestled into that valley where you fished as a kid but anywhere that a house you dreamed about can come and give you shelter. Our homes are old, sure. But therein lies the charm, the history, something to pass on, something built strong once and rebuilt again, for you. they will grow again and you will grow with them, complementing the environment and doing no harm…in today’s popular shade of green.