A PERMACULTURE RETROFIT FOR AN OLDER DWELLING

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For more information about our plans for adapting our"urban homestead" to meet the looming challenges of peak oil, climate instability, and economic irrationality, see Gatewood Urban Homestead, the permaculture design for our home.

This page was originally posted in 2005.

New passive solar construction isn't an option for many people. There is a crucial need for ideas and practical examples for retrofitting existing houses and other buildings to be more sustainable and frugal in their operations. This list is not meant to be a prescription for all situations, but rather some ideas that can be implemented based on the situation and local climate. It cannot be emphasized enough that using passive solar is very site specific. What works in the Tropics doesn't necessarily work for Nova Scotia. Much of this list mirrors the plan we have for retrofitting our dwelling in Oklahoma City, which is a Craftsman-style duplex built in 1929.

The goal is to recreate our dwelling so that it is frugal in its operations and which provides its residents a high quality of life. This is our best practices list. Feel free to make suggestions for additional ideas and possibilities. bwaldrop@cox.net

1. Super-insulate the dwelling. We are going for R-35 in the walls and R-75 in the attic. We think the best resource to use for this is cellulose. It has a lower embodied energy than fiberglass. In existing construction, the way to get this much insulation in walls is to build a new interior frame all the way around the exterior walls of your house. Pack that with cellulose, cover with whatever, and voila, superinsulated walls. You lose a little space, 10 inches or so inches around the exterior walls. Do this first. The goal in our Oklahoma City climate is to spend more now for passive measures that will reduce the long-term operating costs of the dwelling, and make it comfortable and livable even if outside energy is cut-off for significant periods of time. :Super-insulation also includes paying careful attention to air infiltration, and doing a proper job of caulking and weatherstripping.

2. Make passive solar adaptations to the existing structure. We can all hope we have a good site for solar, but with retrofit you have to make do with what you got. I am not an expert on passive solar, but I am reasonably well read as a layman on the subject and have been discussing passive solar on line for several years. Passive solar adadptations involve figuring out ways to capture more solar energy and use it to condition the interior of the house. The cost of a solar retrofit is an investment which pays interest every month for the rest of the life of the dwelling, in the form of reduced energy expenses.

Passive solar retrofits can be multifunctional, but adding new functions to the sun space doesn't increase the amount of energy available, it divides it among the tasks at hand. Many tasks equals less energy for any one task. So decide at the beginning of your design process what the most important benefit is that you want from the solar retrofit. If you primarily want to heat the house in the winter, then you want a sun space without a lot of thermal mass, which will heat up fast and move that heat into the house. If you want to grow plants in that space, however, you will have to have extra thermal mass to keep the plants warm at night, and all of the heat that is stored in the sunspace for that purpose is not available to heat the house. This is just a short description of the possibilities. The point is that even older houses can have what amount to advanced passive solar retrofits and get very good results. Our duplex is Craftsman era, and the finished look of whatever we add onto our south wall will likely look a lot like a 1920s era porch.

3. Abandon conventional air conditioning in the summer. We don't use conventional air conditioning and we encourage everybody else to abandon it too. There is an art to living without air conditioning that has largely been lost. People used to know how (and when) to open their houses at night for ventilation, and when to close them up in the day time to keep out the heat of the days. Ceiling and table fans can move the air around inside (thereby knocking about 10 degrees Farenheit off the apparent temperature). In areas with low humidity, swamp coolers are a good choice. A low powere whole house fan which is operated at night also helps. More information about our experience living without air conditioning in Oklahoma City can be found at http://www.energyconservationinfo.org/noacok.htm . We think this http://www.tamtech.com/wholehousefanhv1000.htm is a really interesting low power whole house fan.

4, Grey water recovery and re-use system.

5. Solar clothes dryer (a/k/a The Clothesline.). This is the easiest passive solar retrofit. And it provides a great return - nothing beats the smell of air dried clothes.

6. Get rid of high energy/wasteful appliances such as dishwashers, garbage disposals and compacters, and clothes dryers.

7. Replace incandescent lighting with compact flourescent lighting. This is "low hanging fruit", do this early in your retrofit plan.

8. Window and door quilts. Hang these over the inside of windows in the winter.

9. Window shades in the summer - on the outside of the windows. Once the sun hits the window, the heat gets in the house by conduction, even if there is a shade and a curtain on the inside of the window.

10. Use landscaping to lower your energy bills. Plant deciduous trees and other vegetation and place structures (trellises, vines, large shrubs, etc.) appropriately so that your sunny exposures are shaded in the summer, but open to sunlight in the winter.

11. Green roofs (or very shady roofs). People with flat roofs should definitely consider a green roof. Everybody should want a shady roof.

12. Rainwater harvesting and distribution system.

13. Drip irrigation for gardens (fed with harvested rainwater and grey water).

14. Super-insulated room in the interior as a "cold weather shelter".

15. Wood burning stoves for cooking and heating.

16. Outdoor kitchen for summer use, including a brick oven and a solar oven.

17. Edible landscaping (permaculture zones 1 and 2).

18. Solar hot water heating.

19. Solar air heating. This is an active solar retrofit that heats air and moves it into the house, usually with fans.

20. Solar chargers for small batteries (like the one at http://www.ccrane.com/solar-battery-charger.aspx , which costs $15, we have several and they work fine. Get a battery tester too as it doesn't have a way to monitor how much charge is in the battery.).

21. Underground food storage area -- for storage of vegetables, home processed foods, and aging saurkraut, kimchee, pickles, wine, beer, vinegar. Also functions as a tornado shelter.

22. Exterior shutters for windows (instead of or in addition to window shades.)

23. Double or triple paned windows and/or "storm windows". If you put your house in super-insulation mode, you will have 10-12 inch thick walls. Think about a second window on the interior. And a window quilt.

24. Regular attention to caulking and weatherstripping.

25. Ventilate the attic.

Robert Waldrop, Oklahoma City

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Robert Waldrop