In Review :: The Northwest Green Home Primer

The Urban Homestead
by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

Process, 2008,
330 pages, $16.95

Go to your local bookstore or
buy online

spacer cover of The Northwest Green Home Primer

The Northwest Green Home Primer
by Kathleen O'Brien and Kathleen Smith

Timber Press, 2008, 304 pages, $24.95

Go to your local bookstore or
buy online

I once thought that being an architect would give me the knowledge and experience to make good design decisions. As my career progressed, I found that involved clients—who studied their options and looked for something better—inspired me to find more creative solutions. Clients who barely took the time to understand the basics never motivated me to produce anything beyond “bland.”

Over time, I came to believe that as a society, we had become bad clients. How many of us had time to earn a living and educate ourselves to make informed decisions about our homes and neighborhoods? We had abdicated our responsibility for the built environment and ended up with sprawl, indistinguishable tract houses, sick building syndrome, and oversized homes that wasted land, energy, and materials.

Green construction is the opposite of not-my-responsibility architecture—it recognizes the importance of individual choices. When a green designer selects, say, a particular slope and orientation for a roof, she knows that choice affects how well the building withstands wind, rain, sun, or snow. She considers what type of roofing materials will be appropriate and where windows may be placed to brighten dark interiors or avoid late afternoon glare. She knows that cumulatively, thousands of similar decisions can raise or lower a city’s temperature, replenish or deplete its water supply, and speed or slow the rate at which construction waste is sent to landfill. Green design is the expression of a mature society’s desire to live as if each of these decisions matters.

The Northwest Green Home Primer is a comprehensive text for anyone who chooses green design for home construction or renovation. While the Primer focuses on the Northwest (emphasizing that effective green solutions are always specific to their local environment), the book’s overall approach is adaptable to any region.

The authors, building consultant Kathleen O’Brien and architect Kathleen Smith, are specialists in sustainable design. Both live in green homes that they helped plan. Their credentials are impeccable, and their research thorough.

Readers who like dense technical details may enjoy this text cover-to-cover. Others can learn a lot just by grazing. The book has well-organized checklists and is full of helpful illustrations and case studies. You can glance at a diagram to understand how a heat pump provides summer cooling and winter heating by circulating fluid from your house to deep in the ground where temperatures are stable. Or you can look at photographs showing examples of temporary ponds, which you could construct in your yard to help replenish your local aquifer.

O’Brien also draws on insight from her own home design process and tells how it saved her money and energy in the long-term: “We set our sights on exceeding [the] rigorous … [state] energy code. … As a result, we insulated ourselves somewhat from rising energy prices. … We built our home in 1998, at … roughly one to two percent more than what it would have cost to build … conventionally.”

I wish this book had been available when I did my own green renovation. More importantly, I hope that homeowners, buyers, and builders will use this book to acquire the knowledge to challenge architects to build green.

In a lighter but arguably deeper-green vein, The Urban Homestead is a good-natured (in all senses) guide for urbanites who want to live off the land without leaving the city limits, by such means as greening their homes and growing, preserving, and composting their own vegetables. The authors offer Homestead as “an affirmation of the simple pleasures of life.”

“We bake our own bread because it is better than what we can buy,” they write. “We raise our own hens because we like chickens and we think their eggs are worth the trouble … There’s mead brewing in our guest bedroom because you can’t buy mead … and because fermentation is the closest thing to magic that we know.”

If such activities appeal to you, you’ll find yourself reading this book the way gardeners read seed catalogs in mid-January. Along the way, you’ll encounter instructions for cooking acorn meal (see above), building a self-watering plant container, and making clay-and-seed balls for lobbing wildflowers into fenced vacant lots. You’ll learn how to be an urban forager—from fruit-picking to dumpster-diving—and how to harvest gray water from your laundry or shower.

The authors, a husband and wife team, do their urban farming in Los Angeles. They dispense opinionated tips and useful resources. Despite numerous typos, Homestead is a book I’ll want to give to my frugal-foodie relatives.

Ten years ago when I completed my own home renovation, I concluded that green design would hardly make a drop of difference unless it became ordinary and accessible. The Northwest Green Home Primer and The Urban Homestead bring complex choices about homes and food within almost anyone’s grasp. Together, these books give me hope that ordinary people can reclaim decision making from the “experts” and inspire us all to live more creatively and responsibly.

Pamela O'Malley Chang wrote this review as part of Purple America, the Fall 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Pam is an architect, acupuncturist, and YES! contributing editor. She inadvertently maintains habitat for urban deer in Berkley, CA. Photo of Pamela O'Maley Chang
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