Green Ideas
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Environmentally Friendly Cabin Design

Published: November 1, 2007
grassroof
Green roofs: a timeless feature on Scandinavian homes and cabins. This one is in Norway. © Sebastian Czapnik, dreamstime.com
When you decide to build or renovate your cabin or second home, consider hiring design professionals who embrace green or sustainable design practices. These practices can save you money and benefit your health, while minimizing your impact on the earth.

The land on which you build and the building products that you use inside and outside can have an impact upon your environment. Here are some suggestions if you are interested in designing or renovating your place using sustainable methods.

YOUR SITE
Ensure that water drainage flows away from your building. You won’t have to worry about flooding or mold/mildew from dampness.

Be aware of setbacks from lakes, rivers and wetlands; preferably do not build within at least 100 feet of wetlands or 50 feet of a water body. This will lessen manmade pollution entering the water and lessen the impact of erosion.

Build on a brown field or logged over property. By reusing a site that has already been disturbed and improving it, you’re greening one area while not impacting another.

Keep landscaping, brushing, and other actions that impact the natural surroundings around the building and roads to a minimum — no more than 40 feet out from the building perimeter and 10 feet from road edges. This will help keep the native flora and fauna intact and help preserve ecosystems.

Minimize your impervious surfaces such as the roof and driveway.

Consider installing a green roof — vegetation instead of traditional roofing materials. On small buildings green roofs are beautiful and have been part of Scandinavian country homes for centuries. Plus, green roofs are naturally cooler in summer.

For your driveway, consider a reinforced grass/gravel mix or permeable pavers through which the rain can flow naturally.

Control your roof runoff — before it gets to a water body — with rain barrels, rain gardens or green roofs. Again, this lessens destructive sediments and warmed water runoff from going into the lake, river or stream.

WATER EFFICIENCY
Landscape with native plants that are drought resistant. They will thrive in your climate and not need as much water or care as other types of plants. Consider composting toilets.

These can lessen your water use by 20 to 50 percent. The compost can be used around decorative plants as a natural fertilizer; however, check with your local health authorities for disposal regulations.

Select low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets. Low-flow faucets use 40 percent less water than conventional faucets. Low-flow showerheads save about 50 percent of the water a conventional shower requires. New toilets (which by law are required to be low-flow) require less than one-third the volume of water of older models.

Capture rainwater for watering plants and washing.

ENERGY PERFORMANCE
Wall and roof insulation levels (R value) along with window energy efficiency values should be the same or above those found in top quality home construction in your area. For recommended R values for your location visit www.ornl.gov/sci/roofs+walls/insulation/ins_16.html. Also, investigate walls made with insulated concrete forms (ICF). They are not just used for foundations anymore. ICFs have R values between 17 to 26, so that owners who build with ICF exterior walls can save about 40 percent on their heating bill and approximately 30 percent on their cooling bill compared to an equivalently built wood-frame home.

Consider designing your cabin to a level of insulation that requires no winter heat to maintain the basic structure at 40 degrees Fahrenheit so it will survive with no heat or power in a bad ice storm. Second homes are often located where the power grid is somewhat less reliable. Why not do everything you can to protect yourself from costly freeze-ups?

Think about installing a solar energy panel system, making your place less reliant on the power grid.

MATERIALS & RESOURCES
Investigate the possibility of reusing an existing, structurally sound building for the structure and shell — you’ll save the environmental impacts of construction and shipping components for a new building. This existing building could be in place or one that gets moved from another site, such as a well-preserved log structure, and then re-erected on your site.

Select local materials to reduce transportation costs and to keep the commerce in your area.

Also think about using materials with high-recycled content such as steel roofing panels, counters made of recycled paper or glass and flooring choices like those made of recycled tires. These types of products give new life to their components, and can be recycled again.

Choose products that are made from rapidly renewable elements, such as cork or bamboo. Cork trees are stripped of their bark every nine to 14 years; the tree is never cut, and the habitat remains undisturbed. Bamboo is one of the earth’s fastest growing plants.

NATURAL DAYLIGHT
The past rule of design for windows was to use 10 percent of the floor area for window sizing. Forget this and go for 15 percent or more as a planning guide. Use the best energy-efficient windows, and if you can, place them as high in the walls as possible to best illuminate your getaway.

NATURAL VENTILATION
Plan your spaces with windows on two opposing walls for cross ventilation. Operable skylights are great for exhausting the hot air and creating a chimney effect, as well as illuminating a space efficiently.

More often than not, second homes are used mostly in the summer. North-facing glass can provide the best cool daylight to the interior.

These are just some sustainable design practices that you can implement. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers a framework for sustainable design at various levels. Check out its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System by logging onto www.usgbc.org. You can improve your “green quotient” and yield benefits to your environment, your pocketbook and your health.

Steve McNeill, AIA, of LHB Inc., is a LEED accredited architect with over 34 years experience designing cabins, homes and schools. When not designing, Steve enjoys trout fishing, canoeing the lakes or backpacking in the mountains.
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