To interpret these goals as they apply to your home, look over everything you've learned about yourself and your family, your house, and your site: your personal survey, site plan, climate information, house plan, list of what does and doesn't work in your home, desired budget for the project, other resources, and so on.
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Then jot down your ideas for using nature's gifts first, remedying your top-priority problems, and building on what's working well already. To help structure your thoughts, here are some areas to consider:
Other energy use: How will you minimize energy waste?
Write or sketch your responses to these questions and add other important items, such as beauty, functionality, durability, clean water and air, and hazard mitigation.
Define a Basic Strategy
Now sum up your basic strategy in a short paragraph. For example, if you live in a mixed climate with good solar access, your basic strategy might be: Improve passive solar heating by adding thermal mass and increasing the area of south-facing glass; improve summer cooling with deeper overhangs and good night ventilation; create outdoor rooms on all sides of the house.
On the other hand, if you live in a cold climate and your house is on a north-facing slope in a dense forest, your basic strategy might be: air-seal and super-insulate the house; add an efficient nonpolluting wood-burning stove; augment daylighting with tubular skylights.
Most contemporary houses were not built to take advantage of sun, shade, and breezes. So the heart of your remodeling strategy should be a plan for achieving thermal comfort in a way that delights you and your family while being kind to the earth.
First you'll need to identify your climate zone. Then consider the best natural heating and cooling approaches for your house in that context. The "Natural Thermal Comfort Strategies" chart provides an overview of features that work well in each climate zone, along with some vernacular examples.
Use the chart for general guidance, but let your own circumstances guide you. You might live in a mixed dry climate, but if your house is shaded and you can't change that fact, there's no point in basing your heating strategy on passive solar gain.
Refine Your Strategy
The next step is to flesh out your strategy by looking at your situation in more detail. For each of the basics (thermal comfort, lighting, indoor-outdoor connections, energy use), write a simple statement of what you can do in response to your house, yourself, and your climate.
For example, the best thermal strategies for a city townhouse that faces east and west in a hot humid climate might be: good roof insulation, ceiling fans, and movable west shading. For a house exposed to the sun in a mixed-dry climate, passive solar heating will work well for winter warmth, but you'll want to develop summer shading with plants or structures.
For each statement, list the steps you can take to make your goal a reality. You might also create a diagram to clarify how you want, for example, your solar access, landscaping, and water collection/ distribution systems to interact. Pictures from magazines or evocative sketches can also inspire you and keep you on track.
Look for dependencies, overlaps, and synergies. Try to make each proposed change meet several needs. For example, opening up a wall between the kitchen and dining room could improve functionality, daylighting, and indoor/ outdoor relationships. If you replace the whole wall with chest-height bookshelves, you'll also be creating storage and display space.
Finally, prioritize your options and plan your phases. You can phase your remodeling project over several months, years, or even decades. For smooth phasing, group related projects together. You might start with the back yard because the work can be completed without changing the shell of the house. One homeowner we know then moved on to the kitchen and half-bath because they were adjacent to the back yard and both required a plumber.
Bring Your Strategy to Life
How will you translate your strategies into nuts and bolts? Let's say you want to pick flooring materials. Using the examples we gave earlier — a house with good solar access and a house in dense forest — the thermal mass of thick Mexican tiles could be a perfect flooring for the first case, and uncomfortably cold and hard in the second case. And the warm area rug that might be perfect in the forest house could frustrate efforts at storing solar heat in the sunny house.
Laying your strategy out on paper will also help you identify ways to integrate your design ideas for maximum benefit. For example, you may note that the porch on the west side of your house allows too much sunlight to enter the living room on a summer afternoon. You could consider hanging bamboo blinds; that would solve the problem, but it would achieve only one objective.
Or you might consider adding a well placed trellis with a fruiting vine. The vine would provide summer shading, attract butterflies, block a view of the neighbor's house, and delight you with fruit and flowers. The trellis could help define an outdoor room, calm the breeze, and even support a hammock. Of the two choices, the second satisfies many more needs and wants, all with one gesture.
When you've developed your strategy, keep it where you can refer to it easily as you design your spaces, choose materials, and begin construction. This is your roadmap to a successful natural remodeling project.
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Carol Venolia is an award-winning architect and author specializing in the field of eco-healthy building. She is author of Healing Environments and has been featured in The Natural House Catalog, Earth to Spirit, the Healthy House, and Environ Magazine.
Kelly Lerner is an architect, principal of One World Design and innovator in the fields of sustainable development, straw-bale construction, and earthen plasters. She received the 2005 World Habitat Award for her work introducing energy-efficient straw-bale construction to China. Her work has been featured in Landscape Architecture Magazine and Metropolis.
This article is excerpted from Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House: Bringing Your Home into Harmony with Nature, copyright © 2006, available from Lark Books and at Amazon.com.