If you will sit for several hours to read a book about home building, will you sit for several hours to watch a book-length DVD on the subject? After watching “Building with Awareness” and “Green Building,” two DVD offerings from New Society Press, I would say yes.
In fact, I predict that DVDs will make an important and instructive contribution to the education of both home builders and homeowners because so many aspects of home building can be confusing when reduced to words but straightforward when you can see them.
“Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home,” is the work of Ted Owens, who is both a filmmaker and a designer. For the viewer it is a happy combination. Not only does Owens know his subject well, but he also knows how to present it in a way that will capture his audience and hold its attention for the two hours and 42 minutes running time of his DVD.
As Owens takes you through the design and construction of a strawbale solar-powered house that he built for himself in Correles, N.M., an Albuquerque suburb, his camerawork makes you feel that you’re right there at the job site (he shot most of the DVD himself). Realizing that a small house would be easier to build and easier for an audience to follow, his design is very modest–one story with 650 square feet of living area plus a 100-square-foot sleeping loft overhead.
Owens’ other passion–sustainable design and the use of renewable and recycled building materials and renewable energy–is clearly presented and explained.
With renewable energy, Owens takes both the high road and the low road. To meet all his electricity needs he installed high-tech solar photovoltaic panels on his roof. To meet his heating needs, he incorporated low-tech passive solar solutions into the design of his house. He used both passive solar heating (the winter sun pours though the south-facing windows and heats up the living areas) and thermal mass (the thick internal wall absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night, helping to stabilize the indoor temperature).
Owens’ choice of building materials was similarly low-tech. He used strawbales to insulate the exterior walls, adobe bricks for his interior walls, and both interior and exterior walls are finished with earth plaster. These materials do not require a high skill level; indeed as you watch this DVD, it’s easy to start imaging that you and a few buddies could build a similar house.
With his professional bias towards sustainability, Owens used recycled materials where possible. Most of the wood framing is salvaged lumber, the ceiling insulation is made of recycled newspaper and his rubble foundation is topped with a concrete mix that includes recycled flyash, a waste byproduct produced by coal-fired electric generating plants.
Owens also assembles a colorful cast of characters to tell his story. For example, the strawbales are installed by a group of Owens’ friends under the supervision of Steve Bell, an alternative materials expert who shaves his head, wears unusual dangling earrings, and speaks in a folksy manner. He makes a return visit to the job site to instruct another group of friends in the fine points of making the earth plaster used to finish the walls, both inside and out.
As the house is finally finished, we see the beauty in its hand-made imperfection and its gorgeous colors. The DVD makes a strong case for strawbale construction, but it makes an even stronger case for using simple, locally produced materials and traditional building styles that evolved in response to local climates.
Owens does not discuss the cost of his house in the DVD, but the information is available on his Web site, www.buildingwithawareness.com. The total was $88,000. This may seem high, given his extensive use of natural materials, but, as he explained in an e-mail, this sum was actually low because he did much of the labor himself. A neighbor’s house of similar size that was built with conventional materials under the supervision of a contractor was $120,000.
The second DVD, “Green Building: Your Edge in the Home Building Marketplace,” is a series of four taped lectures produced by What’s Working, a green building consulting firm based in Boulder, Colo.
The first two lectures are given by David Johnston, the president of What’s Working and a green building expert, the third lecture is by indoor air expert Mark Richmond, and the fourth is by mold expert David Berman,
Each lecture is about two hours, a bit long, but they are well edited and the speakers are entertaining. I also found that watching a lecture on a DVD has its upside–you can rewind the disc as many times as you need to absorb all the material presented and, as I did, take extensive notes.
The lectures were prepared for a professional audience, but a non-professional who knows some home construction basics will find them easy to follow.
In Johnston’s discussions about home building, he touches on many aspects of construction that homeowners never think about–including the waste stream generated by the construction of a new house. A 2,000-square-foot, conventionally built house produces about 13 tons of waste. There is so much reusable material, you can go dumpster diving and build an entire house with it, as Johnston’s friend did in Colorado. Despite this amusing anecdote, it’s no joke–nationally, construction waste accounts for about 12 percent of our entire waste stream. But, Johnston says, as much as 60 percent of the construction waste could be recycled if the builder took the time to do this.
Richmond’s presentation on indoor air quality includes many interesting facts about commonly used synthetic building products. Many of these slowly release gases or vapors into the air of a newly completed house. This process is called offgassing and the volatile organic compounds that are emitted are called VOCs. In many cases the VOCs contain formaldehyde, which is now classified as a confirmed human carcinogen by the World Health Organization. In response, manufacturers are increasingly offering low-VOC or zero-VOC products. These are heavily tested to ensure that they perform well. In many cases, Richmond says, their new chemistry makes them a better product than the older, higher-VOC ones.
In his mold and moisture lecture, mold specialist Berman explains that molds are “nature’s garbage men whose job is to digest organic plant and animal waste and break it down.” Molds can grow almost anywhere and thrive, as long as its host is a carbon-based material. Suitable hosts include such seemingly inhospitable media as petroleum and paper. To gain a toehold, molds require water, but only a miniscule amount (Berman calls it a “water film”) and not for very long. Once started, mold can survive with the moisture that it draws from the surrounding air, even though its host may have dried out. Mold growth is not instantaneous, however. If the water film dries out within 12 to 24 hours, the mold growth is stopped. To keep moisture and mold out of your house, Berman offers numerous strategies.
The visuals of “Green Building” cannot compete with those in “Building with Awareness,” but both are welcome additions to the home building arena. One offers visual explanations that would be impossible in a book format while the other offers a huge amount of information, which is easy to digest in a format that is similar to a college lecture.
“Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid House” is available at bookstores and www.amazon.com. “Green Building: Your Edge in the Home Building Marketplace” is available through Amazon.com and www.greenbuilding.com.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.