Bright Green Building: Learning from Europe

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Tompkins Weekly – October 11, 2010
by Liz Walker
Sometimes the newest ideas have ancient roots. I just returned home from a delightful trip to Italy in which my husband and I, together with my 84 year old mother, enjoyed visiting many charming medieval hill towns, built almost entirely of stone and overlooking steep terraces of olive groves, lemon trees, and grazing sheep. The streets were narrow and winding, the vistas spectacular, and of course, the food was delicious.

Staying in various types of reclaimed buildings (a convent, an agri-tourism farm, and a guest house among others) in several of these villages gave us an appreciation for the immense amount of work and the skill of the people who created them. Imagine building by hand, using only local stone and lime, and creating unique arches, winding passageways and inter-connecting houses with two-foot thick walls that have lasted for centuries – in some cases as much as 800 years!

Some of the take-away lessons from these very popular tourist destinations are applicable to green building today:
a) Human-scale design is immensely appealing.
b) Streets designed for pedestrians rather than cars provide a lively social environment and room for lots of small-scale enterprises (gelato, anyone?)
c) Densely clustered buildings conserve both land and energy.
d) Small dwellings are cozy, and save energy, expense and materials.
e) Using local materials as much as possible makes sense.
f) Integrating gardens, orchards and small farms with residential areas equals easy access to high quality, fresh local foods.

Skipping ahead from the 13th century to the 21st, Europe has been experimenting with energy-saving design techniques that surpass the most stringent American green building standards. One of these, “passive house,” is especially popular in Germany, as well as among other European countries where 25,000 have been built in recent years.

Passive house design uses basic passive solar principles (orient the house towards the south to maximize solar gain for heat and light), but goes a lot further. In these homes very thick walls are super-insulated and extremely well sealed, providing an air-tight envelope. Fresh air is provided through a heat-recovery ventilator, which recaptures heat from stale air that is exhausted from the house, and uses it to pre-heat incoming air. The net effect is that a passive house needs extremely little energy to heat it. Lou Vogel, an energy specialist with Taitem Engineering in Ithaca, told me that an entire house can be heated by the equivalent of turning on one burner on a stove. In a time of increasing energy costs and major concerns about the impacts of fossil fuels, from mountain-top coal mining, to foreign oil, to hydro-fracking for natural gas, it seems imperative to find new ways to build that minimize energy use. Passive house standards may provide just that model.

So far, only 13 passive homes are built in the U.S., although the concept has started to catch on. In a recent New York Times article, “Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green?,” Katrin Klingenberg, the director of the Passive House Institute-U.S. calls for more rigorous standards for U.S. buildings. “We have to stop using halfway measures,” she says. “Each new building that we don’t go all the way with now is putting us deeper in the hole.” While the article profiled a high-end home in Vermont, it also noted that even Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable housing, is experimenting with the passive house standard.

Here in Ithaca, we are using passive house standards for 30 homes we plan to build at EcoVillage in our third neighborhood, TREE ( We want to popularize this proven European model, and once built, TREE will be the largest showcase for this type of bright green design in the U.S. I’m pleased to say that, a full year before the first move-in date, we already have thirty families who have committed to co-creating the neighborhood. Together we are working hard on two other equally important goals: affordability and accessibility. The larger EcoVillage concept also echoes the lessons learned from those medieval Italian hill villages – pedestrian streets, clustered buildings, common gathering areas and locally grown food. It takes the inspiration and wisdom of ancient villages to inspire a modern eco-village.

Liz Walker is co-founder of EcoVillage at Ithaca, and serves as Executive Director of the EVI-Center for Sustainability Education. She has authored two books, EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Culture, and Choosing a Sustainable Future: Ideas and Inspiration from Ithaca, NY (to be released this month from New Society Publishers).

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