The Eco House Project

I’ve had this idea in my head for a while now, but in general it is this. In a world of increasingly expensive energy doesn’t it make sense to sell my current house (at some point) and downsize to a smaller home. Then take the dollar difference and invest in several energy saving technologies (let’s say around $50,000).

Some simple technologies include designing a passive solar home with high thermal mass.   I was thinking about a 800 square foot two story with a finished basement to get me about 1000 sq feet of living space.  Also I would likely invert the living space to the top floor and keep the bedrooms on the main (heat rises, so let’s work with that). Then add in some solar hot water collectors for space heating and hot water.  Also include some rainwater collection and storage for showers and reusing grey water to flush toilets.  Add in a bit of solar and/or wind power and then some heat recovery systems like an air to air exchanger and potentially a hot water drain heat recovery system.

Add in an extensive back/front yard garden and a cold storage area in the basement and a willingness to do some canning.  Then I’ve actually managed to seriously reduce my exposure to the major inflation items of food and energy.

So what do you think?  Crazy or damn good idea?  If you were to build an low energy home what would you use?

24 thoughts on “The Eco House Project”

  1. I am personally interested in geothermal cooling and heating. I believe that the upfront cost is in the $20,000 range. Ongoing operating costs (to pump the heat transfer agent from the ground through your house) should be low. Someone recommended this book to me; it might be worth a look:
    The Renewable Energy Handbook
    A guide to rural energy independence, off-grid and sustainable living
    By William H. Kemp.

    On a personal note, we have changed to a front loading washer and high efficiency toilets and found a sizable decrease in our water consumption.
    The front loading washer decreases energy use because less hot water is needed and also decreases dryer (hence energy) use because it spins clothes almost dry. I suggest you add these features to your dream house.

    Gail Bebee
    Author of No Hype – The Straight Goods on Investing Your Money
    All the investing basics for Canadians from a savvy financial industry outsider

  2. Yeah I’m with you. There are many cool technologies you could implement, and they’re getting cheaper every day and all being filtered down from commercial to residential construction. ICFs, green roofs, earthtubes, heat recovery, daylighting, it’s fun to think of the possibilities.

    You should have a look at the 100k House site it’s providing all sorts of information and inspiration to me. 360 Winnett is another site for a green house in TO, but I don’t think he’s posted his budget yet.

  3. My Dad has been planning a home like this for a long time (probably 10 years) and has a pretty nice design down if he could ever get some funding together to build the place. I’m sure you could ask him questions on how to go about nice simple designs for systems that save energy and store energy. You can e-mail me if you are interested, I’ll ask if I can give out his e-mail address.

    BTW, anything that reduces your dependence on others for day to day living are good ideas in my book.

  4. It’s not too crazy of an idea (though some may have very small returns for your investment). I figure you don’t have to do it all in one day, you can do it in steps. For example, here are the steps we’ve done recently:

    – Expanded vegetable garden to cover most of our yard
    – Have 5 trees worth of food stacked in our back yard, installing an efficient fireplace this fall
    – Gathering Mulberries from our neighborhood and canning jam (1 gallon made, another gallon will be made this week)

    Next year’s plans include rainwater collection and potentially a solar water heater. And we’re in a suburb.

  5. I think it’s a damn genius idea! Have you read Heat by George Monbiot? There is a concept in there called Passivhaus. It is an international building standard developed in Germany that reduces household energy consumption by a great deal. As far as I know it applies to new builds only, but I’m sure a house could be retrofitted to meet the standard. Look into it.

  6. Yikes, Traciatim don’t post an email address for the world to see … he’ll have to retire it after it fills up with junk mail by tomorrow.

    I don’t know how hard it is to retrofit existing houses like you mention. It’s fantastic on a new build.

    Problem with these environmental products is that, retail-wise, they aren’t priced to recover the investment in a reasonable time. Example: Geothermal costs 20K according to commenter, or the 50K you mention … how many years would that take to recover in energy savings?

    It’s a bit dissappointing that these environmental products seem to have a premium priced into them because I believe the sellers know that “eco-friendly” means a payday for them. Either that, or they’re too new and cost of production is to high because of the low initial demand. At any case it doesn’t make economic sense.

    I am personally stuck at the point of getting an in-line water heater versus a tank. The inline heater costs many times more $ than a tank although I can’t imagine the technology is many times more complicated. I want to switch it because I want to save on hot water costs, yet the savings are eaten up by the price of the unit.

  7. One big thing that I’d like to do in my next bathroom remodel is a recirculating shower. I like a long shower, but I’m torn between the water heating energy usage and the amount of water usage. Recirculating the hot water after a quick soap and rinse would use far less energy and far less water. If I can get the actual usage under 40L or so per shower it would be nice.

  8. What about testing some of the ideas before building your house from scratch? Agree, it’s not easy to increase the thermal mass of the house, but you can test a few other things with quick results. For example, I found that drain water heat recovery pipes (DWHR) can return their value in 5 years, even less if the energy prices go up. Draft-proofing and weatherstripping are even better, and have minimal costs. High-efficiency appliances can be taken with you when you move. A vegetable garden uses a lot less water than a lawn, but you have to be prepared to do some work.

    Other technologies need a lot of time to recover the high initial costs (e.g. geothermal) or need major changes in order to be properly installed (e.g. HRV/ERV) so are not suitable for short-term.

    From financial perspective, anything which returns your money sooner than you intend to move should be OK. Regarding the opportunity cost, it can go both ways, if the market goes bad for these years it’s better to have the money working for you in a different way. 🙂

  9. I plan to be building a new home within 2 years and fully intend on making it as energy efficient as financially/technologically possible. I am still undecided on geothermal, but both the design and infrastructure of the home will be geared toward energy efficiency and lowered environmental impact.

  10. Why do you have to build a new house? Construction generates a huge amount of garbage. If you’re trying to be eco-friendly, live in house that’s already built.

    Another thing to consider (in addition to recovering your costs) is recovering your footprint. How much energy and raw materials and shipping went into making that new product, then getting it to your door? I’m sure that a lot of manufacturers take this into account, but it’s something to think about.

    One of the best (cheapest) things you can do is stop watering your lawn and get a rainbarrel for irrigating your vegetable garden.

    I think you’ll be disappointed in how much of that list you can fill with $50K. As technology/supply improves hopefully the price will come down.

  11. Everyone,

    Thanks for the feedback. I’ve got a few books at the library now on hold and some other reading to do.

    A few general comments. Costs. The advantage in investing in a house like this is the savings of inflation on energy prices. Basically I’m hedging myself with money I never planned on using for retirement. The house was a backup plan which I might just use earlier and reduce my energy costs. The actually cost of systems like these don’t have to be that expensive depending on how you use them. For example, high thermal mass and insulation is actually damn cheap. Solar power is pricey, but solar hot water is not too bad. I intend to shop carefully for what I end up installing. Additionally if I recycle materials I might reduce my overall costs somewhat.

    As to carbon emissions from a new place. Current age of my home is such I will need another one before I die, so I won’t feel bad about a rebuild.

    The current house has/is being upgraded. I’ve improved insulation at a few problem points and continue to plug leaks as I find them. I’ve installed two low flush toilets and I’ve upgraded the furnace. It’s a rather constant low level effort to improve things.


  12. Tim,

    How can you increase the thermal mass of the house, without adding a lot of weight to the structure? Do you know any specific materials used for this?


  13. VasileB,

    Major thermal mass increases almost always have to be done in the design stage as it can add significant weight the the building. Common material include brick, concrete, thicker types of tiles and water (which ironically has some the best heat absorbtion properities out there).

    For a retrofit case, you could uses some thick dark coloured tile on the floor to add heat retention to south facing room or even some brick half way up a wall. Another cheaper trick to add find some way to hide some water in the room. For example, if you have a lattic type front to a bench put some water in milk jugs dyed a dark colour behind the lattice to pick up the extra heat during the day and release it in the evening. The larger the amount of mass the more heat you can store during the day. Which means you could overheat in the summer if your are not remembering to control the amount of heat entering your home from your windows.

    Hope that helps,

  14. Google ‘Straw Bale House’ and there should be some good information on this type of house construction. It’s cheaper to build, enviornmentally friendly and improves insulation at least 2 fold. What I have read says a normal house has up to R20 insulation factor while a Straw bale house has a R50 factor. This means less heating in the winter and less cooling in the summer.

  15. One way to cut your energy costs by a fair bit is to create an apartment space in your home. In many locations there is an increasing interest in creating density, so for a little cost it may be possible to create a living space to accommodate others. This has similar effect as building a smaller house, and the increase in density effectively has more folks using the same base heating, municipal infrastructure, etc


  16. as water is in short supply for half the year here, (and very expensive) and we run an accommodation business where guests seem to use 3X what they normally would at home … we are currently installing tanks in the ground (free to a good home) with a submersible pump to collect grey water from showers and washing machines for the extensive organic vegie gardens and orchard that we have.

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