Tour an Earth-Bermed House in Upstate New York

Project: Building Green, Episode 1, Part 3



In this pilot to Bob's new Building Green web series, he focuses on green projects that are embracing the cleanest and most efficient technologies. Bob first introduces us to a contemporary urban apartment complex in the South Bronx, NY, a Georgian Colonial house in Westchester that had to rebuild after extensive mold damage, and an earth-bermed house made of salvaged materials in upstate New York. In these three homes, styles and materials from the past are embraced while incorporating the newest green-technology advances.
Part 1: Tour an Affordable Green Apartment Building
Part 2: Tour a Salvaged Home with the Latest Green Technologies
Part 3: Tour an Earth-Bermed House in Upstate New York
Bob visits with architect Alan Shope who has built a unique earth-bermed house at his farm in Upstate New York. Alan has used recycled building materials and completed his construction without sacrificing good design and while leaving a neutral carbon footprint on the environment.

In Bob’s new Building Green Web series, he focuses on green projects that are embracing the cleanest and most efficient technologies. He demystifies green home design and construction as well as the myth that building green has to mean building expensively or unattractively. His premise is that homes are where people can make the biggest difference, and he not only demonstrates how – he shows viewers how they can put changes into place that will actually save them money while saving the planet. Whether he’s touring a contemporary urban apartment complex in the South Bronx, NY, a Georgian Colonial house in Westchester that had to rebuild after extensive mold damage, or an earth-bermed house made of salvaged materials in upstate New York, he helps people save the best of the past while incorporating the newest advances.

 

Also from Building Green

Hi, I'm Bob Vila.

I have spent my whole career helping people upgrade their homes, and improve their lives.

Today with our planet in peril from global warming, resource depletion and pollution.

Nothing is more important than going green.

And when it comes to going green, your home is the place where you can make the the biggest difference.

The good news is that it doesn't have to cost you more.

Actually, going green can save you money while saving the plant. All right this is beautiful.

In my new series Bob Vila, building green.

I'll demystify green home design and construction.

In each 30 minute episode, I'll take you to 3 green projects that are embracing, the cleanest and most efficient technologies, and I will give you all the information you'll need to make the right choices for your green project.

This is actually what we saw on the roof. New York City is full of stunning architecture. It's a testament to American ingenuity.

It's also home to some of the most energy -inefficient buildings on the planet. This has got to change. And that's exactly what's happening just a few miles north of here.

The south Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point is known for high crime rates, urban decay, and some of the worst air quality in the country. But Habitat for Humanity and developer Les Bluestone are trying to turn things around . Making one building here a green oasis for low-income families.

So, Les, building green means different things to different people. But you're a builder developer. We 're in the heart of the south Bronx. What is it about this 50-unit building you're completing that qualifies as green.

Well, we focus on energy efficiency. We focus on indoor air-quality, a healthy building. And we focus on sustainability, making as little impact onto the neighborhood and the planet as we can.

So.

Where do we get started?

What do we look at first?

Well let's start in the mechanical room where it all has happened.

Great.

Wow, this looks pretty traditional, nice work!

Thanks.

What do we have here?

Bob, what we have here is anything but traditional.

These are micro chp units.

What's chp?

Stands for combined heat and power.

Okay.

What they are, are electric generators, that run off of natural gas, the same gases that you turn out of the flame on the , you know.

So too many generators here that create electricity, which is used for what.

It's used to power the lighting in the building, used to power the pumps on the motors.

But what's interesting and what's green about this, is that the waste energy in terms of heat that would normally go up a vent pipe is being recaptured and used to heat all of the hot water for the entire building.

That's pretty amazing.

Can we see one of the apartments?

Sure. So Les, this is a three-bedroom apartment?

Yeah, Bob, this is our three-bedroom apartment.

So, what's the square footage?

Ah about 1200 square-feet.

Nice. Now, what are some of the important considerations that have gone into the space in terms of making it a healthy home.

Well, there are a number of things. One, for us, it starts off with a tight shell. So we try and make the building as tight as possible, so that we don't allow for air infiltration, and moisture, and potential for mold growth.

Mm-hm.

But now that we're building a tight shell, we have to guarantee that the indoor environment is healthy. We do that in a number of ways. One is, all of the paints, all of the finishes are all low or zero VOC, meaning that they don't emit volatile organic compounds.

Right.

We use recycled materials where ever possible; just on the sustainable side.

The dry wall?

The dry wall is 100 percent recycled.

A tight, green building means clean air. Recycled materials mean less waste. And energy efficient appliances like the ones they're installing in the habitat project, mean big savings. But perhaps the greatest challenge facing any building, especially one in the city, is staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And Les has come up with a very green solution.

Now what are the benefits of having a green roof like this.

The benefits are many. One is that it limits the amount of run-off, storm water run-off. So we don't end up dumping more run-off into the ocean; these plants will absorb that. It provides insulation for the roof.

Mm-hm.


So that people who are in the building will not need to spend as much energy to heat or cool the building.

Yeah.

It also lowers the temperature of the roof itself. Which eliminates the heat-island effect that's very common in urban areas.

Sure. Now, in many parts of the country you're seeing builders and developers use reflective materials for roofing. Again, from the perspective of how much energy it takes to air condition them etc. In Florida and in Texas, they're putting up. Cement tile rooms.

Are you doing anything like that here?

Yes, we actually have an upper roof where we're putting on a white coating today.

So there's a whole other section of the building that we can look at?

Yeah we can go up and take a look.

Let's go.


Bob, I want to introduce you to Josh Lockwood, the Executive Director of Habitat For Humanity NYC.

Hi Josh.

Hi Bob, how are you?

Excellent.

So, Habitat has had a unique role in this project, right?

We have.

This is the first time that Habitat for Humanity Nationwide has partnered with a private developer on a big multi- family building like this.

So we have volunteers coming in , thousands of them to build out twelve of the fifty units in this building.

And these guys that are making it a white roof, are they volunteers as well?

They are.

We have volunteers out today building out this white roof for us, and it's part of the energy efficient goals of this building.

Exactly.

Now, from the point of view of their individual goals.

They're building up credit in the bank, right?

In terms of the habitat program.

How does that work?

They are. The family partner home buyers who were live in this building have to put in 300 hours a piece. But then building along side them are just good-hearted, big-hearted folks who want to come out and do some good in the world.

That's great. And then the white coating is a white paint of some sort.

What you're looking at is an Elastomeric coating --

Mm-hm.

-- that has two purposes. One is to protect the membrane, to protect the roof. More importantly is to reflect the sun. And that lowers the temperature of the roof, and reduces the urban heat island effect that we have spoken of.

So in the summer months your air-conditioning bills are going to be lower as a result of this white.

Now, one of the interesting things here, though, is that we're in the south Bronx. We're in a community where people normally can't afford green housing, or even new housing. And very often are stuck in housing that's less than healthy.

We prioritize taking families who are living over-crowded buildings, dilapidated buildings. Unaffordable building and moving them into healthier environments. And Les has been a key partner in that effort.

Yeah, it's a great collaboration between Habitat and the private developer right?

Yes, it's very important for us to know that we can provide not only an energy efficient building will save them money, but also a healthy one. And, to the people who most need it and can least afford it.

Excellent partnership, congratulations.

Thank you Bob.

Thank you Bob.

It's great.

Habitat for Humanity built their green project from the ground up.

Whether you're building from the ground up or simply remodeling, renovating, restoring , all are great opportunities to building green. One hour north of New York City, in Westchester County, architect Mary Kennedy and her husband, Bobby, son of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy, are nearly finished with their green project. They've come a long way from the day they discovered that a flood had ruined their home.

"We walked into the house, and were absolutely in a state of shock. I found a foot of standing water in the basement, and I found mold throughout the house, from the basement through the third floor, through the attic."

Mary, you have had a huge job here, because part of that job was breaking the news to your family that the house had become a sick house, and was beyond repair, couldn't be salvaged. Isn't that right?

"That''s right. And it was really devastating to Bobby and to the children, and in order to walk them through that process What we decided to do was, rather than simply simply demolish the building, to go through a process of salvage. And then, deconstructing the house bit by bit, with the intention of saving absolutely everything that was not mold contaminated. And we actually couldn't really embark on the design process until all of that was done."

Until you could figure out what materials you'd be able to re-use.

"That's right."

The Kennedy's wanted to preserve the spirit of their old house, but they also saw the project as an opportunity, even an ob ligation, to incorporate green technologies into their new house.

So, from the building green perspective, let's talk about the windows and doors. Obviously, you couldn't salvage the old ones, which were totally inefficient.

"The old ones were a single pane glass. They were leaky, they were really not functioning terribly well. And I think that this was probably the biggest, and it is the biggest single ticket item in the construction, but, and it is for most homeowners.

But there have been so many incredible advances in terms of energy efficiency with windows and doors.

Right, the glass technology available in windows and doors today just didn't exist a decade ago.

Exactly.

Mary, we're up here on the roof, and I'm glad that you designed this place so there's a flat portion cause these are pretty steep angles, steep pitches. But, all of the slate is salvaged, right?

The slate is all salvaged from the same place that we brought the brick and the interior doors from.

From the institution s in upstate New York that were being demolished.

Yeah, these slates were probably specified 100 years ago for these institutional buildings.

Right.

Which were meant to last for centuries.

Absolutely.

Let's talk about the other slope of the roof behind us here, because this is a high tech green roofing product.
You go from something very old to something super new. These are actually the latest generation of these solar slates.

They're going to be generating electricity for your house.


They will generate electricity and in fact this array should exceed the needs of the house. So, we'll be able to sell energy back to the energy company.

Mary the flat portion of the roof is not visible from the ground, but you do have a lot of unusual machine for living kind of stuff up here. What are these?

One of the, I think, really, the most remarkable and wonderful features of that, that we've been able to employ are these solar-tubes. What they do is they bring natural daylight into interior spaces.

So it isn't just a skylight, there's a tube attached to it

There is a mylar tube that goes down and so every single closest, hallway, any place where we don't have a window. We actually have been able to bring daylight into those spaces.

So you can avoid. using electrical lighting in back halls and side closets and all these areas.

I think it's something that everybody should consider doing because there will be just enormous savings.

Yeah, there's so many different little things that when you put them all together they add up to a lot.

Yep, absolutely.

Right.

Well, Mary, it's an exciting project, and I think you're really succeeding at blending all these green technologies and green concepts with this love story and you've got with the house of replicating what you lost in bringing in all these other elements. What happens here?

This is the new version of the old portico vestibule.

It is. What we, this vestibule, actually had been here and we have referenced it.

It's not exactly as it was, and then of course there will be another door here. So for energy conservation.

You have an airlock.

You have an airlock.

And what are the flip finishes going to be?

And what we have decided to do, is to use river rocks as After field, and we have collections. Many, many collections of rocks from everywhere.

So this will be the floor?

So that will be the field. Then , there will be a border of fossils.

We have forty some odd boxes to chose from. So that will be a small border around the perimeter, and hopefully it will be a good reminder to the children of their contribution to the house.

Excellent. Well it's a beautiful job and I hope we get to see the finished product.

Well thank you.

Thanks for the tour.

You're always invited.

Bob Vila building green.

We'll take you to some of the most exciting green projects in the country, and I'll introduce you to fascinating people who will challenge your notions of how homes should be built. In upstate New York, on a farm dedicated to energy efficiency, world renowned architect Allan Shope has built his new home into the side of a hill.

It's called earth berming. And by using this technique, along with recycled and high tech materials and lots of help from the sun, Shope's house is at the cutting edge of the green building revolution.

So, Allan, why an earth bermed house?

Well, earth berming is undeniably seductive as a way to mitigate freezing cold temperatures and blistering hot temperatures.

Animals have used it to protect themselves for millennium. Human beings have used it.

The cliff-dwellers used it. People have used caves to protect themselves.

And in modern society obviously, we don't want to live in a basement or a cave or a bunker.

Right.

But it's possible to take a southern sloppey hillside as we have here. Simply insert a house into that southern sloppy hillside and to create an enormous buffering effect, where the fifty four degree temperature of the earth creates a gentle cradle around the house.

It's actually a triangle, like an arrow-head into the earth.

Yes, it cools the house in the summertime. It heats it in the wintertime and is a wonderful protective blanket around the house.

All green projects share the same goals. To use recycled materials whenever possible.

And to obtain carbon neutrality by generating at least as much energy as they consume. People try to reach these goals in all sorts of ways.

That's why I often say green means different things to different people, and for Alan Schope, going green did not have to come at the expense of design.

Everybody has green, we are going up, one, two, three up, up. We're going, we're going all the way up. We're building a house all the way.

I found that as I learned more about carbon neutrality and about energy efficiency in buildings, that I thought it was going to be a constraint and it was exactly the opposite for me.

As I abandoned various pre-conceptions about architectural styles and how materials should be used. I gained nothing but freedom.

Okay.

The freedom of seeing things in a new way that allowed different influences to guide me.

Yes. It's a fabulous combination when you think of it that way. So now lets look at the specifics. What are we looking at? What's it made out of?

Well, everything about this building is recycled. The glass is recycled. The stones in front of the building are the floors of old prison cells.

What kind of stone is it?

It's New York state blue stone that would have originally been quarried up near Albany. It was brought here, to this area, to make a prison in the 1800's, and it was about to be destroyed and thrown away. I thought they were wonderful stones to create the terrace out of.

Right, and so each stone was a jail cell, and this is the ghost or the footprint of where there was toilet installed?

Exactly. Correct.

Wow. And lets talk about the actual facade of the house, because it's like a work of art art, and yet this is all recycled material. What are we looking at here?

Well, it was the coping flashing of the old institution of the Wasaik developmental complex here in town.

Okay.

Then I was incredibly excited about them. I thought that the blue/green copper of the sheeting panels for this house were like the waves in a Turner painting.

I was just enthralled with them.

Yeah.

And all we had to do was cut them with a simple hacksaw to make the permanent siding for this building.

Well, can you take us inside?

Absolutely.

So, what's the square footage of this house?

This is 1876 square feet.

Under two thousand?

Yes.

So that's smaller than the average American house, right?

It is smaller than the average American house.

Okay.

Let's talk about the design of the kitchen. Everything is very woodenly made in here.

All of the wood in this project, the ceilings, the walls, the cabinetry, the mill work, the draws.

Every aspect to it came from black cherry trees that grew along around this property. We have a small sawmill here.

We cut the wood ourselves, we dry it ourselves. We did all of the woodworking here on this property so none of this wood has ever left the property.

So there's no carbon footprint related with transporting materials to the site?

No, there isn't and actually even the electricity for manufacturing these things here on the property. And actually the fuel for our saw mill, we produce here on site.

That's very impressive. Now, traditionally, when you've got your solar exposure and your solar gain happening, your concrete floor is a very big part of the system.

Yes.

Is that the case here?

It is. The slab is two feet thick, it's made of recycled concrete.

Ah, ah, two feet thick.

Yes, it's an enormously thick slab that has a lot of thermal mass to it.

Sure.

So, it can store a lot of energy, and on a bitter cold winter day with the sun warming the slab all day long. The slab stays warm right through the night.

Now, the color of it is somewhat reminiscent of Frank's Lloyd Wright's Indian red.

It is. It actually we use a muriatic acid which turns that cement this reddish brown color.

Many people are convinced that building green means building ugly, but as we can see from Alan's house, that's not the case. In every episode of Bob villa building green, I'll show you examples of green design that will actually enhance the beauty of your home.

I'll also show you how building green often involves mixing old recycled materials with new hi-tech products.

So, Alan, tell us about the, the roof and the photo of all takes, but first of all the roof, which seems to be a beautiful standing seam copper jock.

Ah, it's 20 oz. cold rolled copper which was recycled from old copper pipes and bits and pieces of copper plumbing fittings from the old institution.

So you actually salvaged all that metal.

Melted it all down and made new copper.

In the photo-botague is a very simple, wonderful way to make electricity for a house.

Athis roof is everything we need for this 2000 sq. ft. house.

That's excellent.

Can we take a closer look at that salvaged chimney?

Absolutely.

So this is all more salvaged copper.

Now, what are they used for in the new house?

The one on that side is the actual chimney for our fireplace and the one on this side is the fresh air intake.

In a house of this type of design, the tightness of the house is very important for its function.

So, there's very little infiltration of fresh air.

And if you are going to light a fire in a fireplace you use up most of the oxygen in a house.

So this basically is replenishing all of the oxygen when that a common fire would use in the fireplace.

So, there's an enormous amount of recycled interesting building material in here, and there's an overall kinda aesthetic, that I think is very successful.

And the main thing that you were after which I guess you pretty much accomplished is what we call a zero carbon footprint.

Essentially what that is, is creating a building that is not compromised architecturally in any way, that produces more energy than it uses for the lifetime of the building.

Yeah.

That was our original goal. It is still our goal today. We're very close to accomplishing that right now.

Right.

And we are very proud of it.

You're not burnig any fossil fuels . You're making your own energy. You are doing a great job .

Thank you very much.

Thanks.

Home improvement is at an exciting crossroads. Old assumptions about building, like relying on a steady supply of cheap heating oil, are just not realistic.

Meanwhile, going carbon neutral at home has finally become affordable for almost everyone. In Bob Vila Building Green, I want to help you onto the green road. It's the right thing to do. I hope you'll join me.

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