Living Green on the Coast
By Nathan Good, AIA
Published: 03/01/2010  Updated: 08/14/2019
A green home in Devil's Lake takes advantage of energy-saving high performance windows and generous overhangs to protect exterior walls.
A green home in Devil's Lake takes advantage of energy-saving high performance windows and generous overhangs to protect exterior walls.  photo by David Papazian

One of the few bright lights in the housing market is being emitted from green homes, those new and remodeled dwellings designed to be earth friendly and durable.

The weather along our coast is tough on our dwellings. Seventy to ninety inches of rain per year is not uncommon. High winds pound horizontal rain at the sides of our homes. Our salt-laden air silently chews away at exposed metal surfaces. Water and vapor slither into our homes to launch colonies of mold. Earthquakes, tsunamis and fires patiently wait their turn to deliver unexpected threats to our structures. Some of the key characteristics of green homes relevant to our coastal conditions include design and construction for durability, reducing energy use, and improved indoor air quality. There are many strategies that you can uses to improve the durability of your home, reduce utility costs and enhance indoor air quality.

If you're serious about your home being earth friendly, one of your first considerations should be its durability. A home designed and maintained to last 100 years or more enables the cost and environmental impacts to be amortized over a longer period of time. When we double the life of a building, we reduce the environmental impacts associated with its construction by half. A durable residence usually requires less maintenance. The added investment in durable materials and design is small in comparison to the impacts and costs of shoddy construction and cheap materials.
There are many things you can do to improve the longevity and durability of your home. Design generous roof overhangs to protect the exterior walls from all but our horizontal rain. Create drainage planes behind the exterior siding, known as rain screens, that help keep moisture out of the exterior walls. Use proper flashing and sealing around windows and doors, as this is one of the most common locations for rain to penetrate into the walls. Limit the use of metals outdoor, as the salty coastal air is highly corrosive. Install adequate waterproofing and drainage around the foundation. Use protruded fiberglass windows, which will usually last longer than vinyl and aluminum window frames. Install robust and effective gutters and downspouts to divert rain water away from the perimeter of the home. Keep firewood away from the home to reduce the chance of pests and wood rot from entering the home. And finally, select experienced builders who have a proven track record of building durable homes along the coast.

Reducing Energy Use
Our climate along the coast is generally mild compared to the rest of the country, with annual temperatures averaging between 45 and 60 degrees, only a fifteen-degree temperature swing. As the majority of our days from November to May are cloudy and partly cloudy, we treasure the sun.

We strive to use the sun as a heat and light source to the fullest extent. Passive solar design is possible along the coast, yet requires careful design and the occupant's use of insulated window coverings so that heat is not lost during nights and overcast days.

While a little insulation goes a long ways on the coast, it's not enough. Substantial savings in energy and thermal comfort can be achieved with enhanced insulation to our roofs and walls. Target insulation values of R-30 for walls and R-50 for roofs. Design thermal breaks between the inside and outside of the exterior walls and roofs so that heat is not lost through the wood framing.

We advise our clients to invest in the best windows they can afford. A typical window specification from our office for a home on the coast includes protruded fiberglass frames, double or triple pane glass, "u" values less than .30 (the measure of a windows ability to resist the transfer of heat), a low-e coating on the inside layer of glass, and the use of argon gas inside the two panes of glass.

Our coastal climates are near ideal for the new generation of heat pumps, especially the ultra-efficient models that deliver heat, ventilation, and on those rare days when we need it... cooling. Homes with inexpensive electric baseboard heaters may benefit from the addition of "mini-split" ductless heat pumps. These wall-mounted units are a clever way of providing energy-efficient heat, ventilation, and cooling to homes that lack heating ducts. The new heat-pump water-heaters emerging in the market will revolutionize how our hot water is created for domestic uses and radiant heating.

There are few energy-saving strategies as inexpensive and effective as the replacement of incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents. For a fixture that is frequently used, the added cost in replacing an incandescent light bulb with a fluorescent one can be recouped within a year from the energy saved. The color quality and dim-ability of compact fluorescent light bulbs has improved substantially over the past eight years.

Most of our clients benefit from the financial incentives associated with the energy-saving devices within their new or existing homes. A sampling of energy-saving elements that are often candidates for financial and tax incentives include new refrigerators, clothes dryers, dishwashers, water heaters, high-performance windows, enhanced insulation, and heat pumps. Most homeowners will find themselves candidates for robust financial incentives associated with solar-electric "PV" systems, including federal and state tax credits. (see sidebar for financial incentive sources)

Despite the dominance of overcast skies, solar-electric "PV" systems are an effective way for homeowners to generate their own electricity along our coast. Many residences are silently generating and selling electricity back to their electric utility company. Vacation homes with only occasional use have the potential to generate more electricity than they use on an annual basis.

Enhanced insulation, high-performance windows, sealing air leaks, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, and utilizing the new generation of heat pumps are usually more cost-effective than the installation of solar-electric systems. As one of my colleagues puts it, "Eat your energy-efficiency vegetables before indulging in your renewable energy dessert".

Indoor Air Quality
One of the pillars of green building is creating and maintaining a healthy indoor environment for a home's occupants. Poor indoor air quality is a constant threat for coastal residences, with mold and mildew being the prime suspects. Household mold is a culprit in asthma, sinus infections, and weakened immune systems. Mold loves our coastal climate when the humidity is over 60% with temperatures above 50º F, especially in places where there is little or no air movement.

A good ventilation system becomes even more important as we tightly seal homes for energy savings, durability, and comfort. We use mechanical ventilation systems for all of our new and remodeled homes along the coast, even those with passive solar and radiant heat systems.

We advise our clients and their builders to avoid all products (and furniture) that outgas unhealthy chemicals into the home. Many building products emit Volatile Organic Compounds, known as VOCs, and urea-formaldehyde, both of which can be harmful to our respiratory systems, especially those of small children. Urea-formaldehyde is commonly found in adhesives, plywood, particleboard, and fiberglass insulation. VOCs are prevalent in paints, adhesives, and vinyl flooring. Dozens of manufactures have recently switched to products that are free of urea-formaldehyde and VOCs. It's worth the research to find them.

Despite the comforts of carpet, our clients are migrating towards hard flooring surfaces in order to reduce mildew and dust mites. Area rugs over tile and wood floors are a good compromise.

Heat Recovery Ventilators (HRVs) are an energy efficient way to add ventilation to a new or existing home, especially those that utilize radiant and electric-resistant (baseboard) heating systems. HRVs capture the heat from a home's exhaust air and transfer it to the incoming air. Mini-split heat pumps are an asset in improving residential indoor air quality.

There's more to creating a green home than durability, energy efficiency, and indoor air quality, but those are three of the key ingredients for our coastal environment. Green homes will usually include strategies for water savings, locally sourced products, and the use of materials produced with recycled content. Deep green homes may include rainwater harvesting systems, vegetative roofs, and the use of innovative exterior wall systems like Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) and Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs).

Green building ratings systems provide homeowners with a framework for achieving certifications based upon demonstrated performance. A number of our homes, including those of our design in Neskowin and Cannon Beach, have achieved the Earth Advantage certification. One of our new homes in Neskowin is on track to achieve the US Green Building Council's LEED certification. We find green building certification programs a helpful mechanism to educate our clients, their builders, and the host of sub-contractors on green building concepts and applications. (see sidebar for a list of green building certification programs)

The costs associated with the techniques to green one's home are as diverse as the occupants. Inexpensive techniques to start greening one's home include the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs, installing a programmable thermostat, using water-saving shower heads, adding timers for bathroom exhaust fans, and scheduling annual inspections for water intrusion. Installing new Energy Star rated appliances, water heaters, and heat pumps are mid-range green improvements. Supplementing a home's insulation, replacing windows, and adding a new forced-air heating system will be more expensive and disruptive.

Coast dwellers tend to be nature lovers, so it comes as no surprise that homes along our Northwest shores are strong candidates for sustainably designed homes. Our mild climate is compatible with designs to rely upon the sun for comfort and energy. Locally sourced wood from sustainably managed forests will provide an abundance of quality wood for generations. A plethora of environmentally friendly products are being introduced each week. At our fingertips await dozens of informative resources on green buildings... happy browsing.

Nathan Good owns an award-winning architectural design firm specializing in residential and select commercial design projects that combine character and aesthetics with a focus on environmental responsiveness. Good was awarded the "Custom Green Home of the Year" by the National Association of Home Builders for one of his Oregon coast homes.
Living Green on the Coast