How To Build A Green House

I dream of the day I can buy some land and build my own green home. Or at least pay other people to build it for me. A quick search round the web will give you lots of green building projects. One that stands out is Green in Medusa – a husband and wife team of Baldomero and Stephenie Fernandez, along with architect Lynn Gaffney, designing and building an affordable house in upstate New York.

baldomero.jpg

Baldomero took some time out to talk to Life Goggles.

Life Goggles: Can you give us a bit of background and tell us a little bit about who you and Stephenie are?
Baldomero: We met on a photo shoot in Los Angeles in 2000 and have been married six years and are expecting our first baby literally any day now! We share many of the same passions – travelling the world, good food, art, music, city life mixed with country life. We are exposed to many different cultures and choices and that got us started thinking green. We would come back from Africa or Cuba and see the amount of excess and waste all around us in our own lives and here in the US. We started making small choices here and there to live greener, cleaner – reduce, reuse, recycle… and this is just a continuation. Our next project is converting our diesel wagon to bio diesel. We think about the impact of driving upstate – in the meantime we’ve bought a terrapass to help offset our CO2 footprint.

LG: Why did you decide to build an eco house?
B: While building is not inherently “green” We wanted to be responsible and choose healthier alternatives that don’t harm the environment as much as other choices. We found there are increasingly more products and desire out there, and hopefully it will become the mainstream way of doing things instead of the alternative way.

LG: How did you hook up with architect Lynn Gaffney?
B: We had been interviewing and researching architects and builders for a few months – finding someone we both loved was harder than we thought – and we knew that whomever we went with would be a relationship we would have to endure for quite a while. We wanted someone who would help us build our dream house, not their dream house. We had a few we really liked and just when we were about to decide on one we received an issue of Dwell and saw an article on a house built by Lynn for herself. We were inspired by her house and got in touch with her right away. She was lovely from the beginning, offered to meet us up at her house so we could see it in person. We knew Lynn was the one when after spending half an hour with us she basically sketched a house that we had been dreaming of for the past few years… something that no other architect we we interviewed did.

LG: What was the first thing you did to get started?
B: Write a check/cheque to Lynn. Once you start spending money your realise it’s for real.

LG: Why did you buy the land that you have?
B: We live in NYC and started going upstate NY with friends who rented houses up there as a great escape from urban life. We both love the outdoors, camping, hiking and really want to have more of that in our lives. We saw this piece of land and fell in love with the view, the 2400 acres of state forest a couple of hundred yards away, the town of Rensselaerville three miles away also helped make our mind up. We knew we wanted to build our own place, something green and on a strict budget. We’ve had the property for three years… we’ve really spent our time thinking about it, spending seasons up there and now we are finally in the process.

LG: What are your timescales?
B: We’d like to spend part of next summer 2008 living in our house. We were given hope earlier this summer that this might be possible working with things like SIP’s or PreFab.

LG: What has been the most surprising thing about the project so far?
B: How expensive building is and how easy it is for a budget to balloon.

LG: What obstacles have you faced?
B: Mostly bureaucratic ones. Our septic leach field must be huge and above ground due to the type of soil we have. We’ve thought about saying screw a conventional toilet – we have a Envirolet composting toilet now in a shed, we love it but not sure if everyone else would love it as much as us that comes to visit. Besides that the town and county are in disagreement whether they are even allowed. Add to that, even if they were allowed the county says it would only cut down the septic field by 10%. Even with a greywater system installed. Until building and health codes modernise I think this is a problem people trying to build truly green will run into. The technology is there it just needs attitudes and laws to change.

LG: What help have you received?
B: We have an amazingly patient architect with a really talented team that go the extra mile to research every option. Also now that we have the blog up we have had some great responses and comments from readers.

LG: As you mention in one of your posts, there are a few other eco-building projects out there – have they been useful?
B: Extremely, you can see some of the pitfalls that we hope to avoid plus some of them have even shared their experiences good and bad with certain techniques and products.

LG: Have you had to compromise – will everything really be environmentally friendly?
B: We aren’t going as hardcore as we could. We are making as many green choices as we can within our budget. What we are finding is that there is pretty much a green choice or greener choice at every price level. Certain things, for example bamboo flooring is inexpensive and is a good renewable green resource however shipping it from China negates those benefits, so we are thinking of finding local reclaimed lumber instead. Of course the greenest thing we could have done is not build anything at all and continue to live in our 1955 Spartan trailer.

LG: How hard/easy has it been to find the right materials? Does it depend on your budget?
B: There are so many materials out there it can be overwhelming – we want to try everything out! Budget is definitely a consideration. We are trying to balance our aesthetic with the dollar. For example, gypsum board is cheap but not so green and we haven’t found anything as of yet (suggestions please) that can compare in price so we’ll probably use it through much of the interior.

LG: What is your budget and have you stuck to it?
B: Our budget is $250,000 not including Lynn and the property which we already own. We don’t know yet. So far we are still crunching numbers, but we are working hard at sticking to it.

LG: What do you do in the real world? Have you been doing this in your spare time?
B:I’m a photographer (www.baldomero.org) mostly shooting fashion and travel work. Stephenie is a producer for photo shoots and commercials (www.stardustvisions.com). This house project and blog have been done on our “spare” time, while getting ready for our baby. So we are juggling a few balls but its fun.

LG: Why have you been chronicling your progress on your blog?
B: The internet has been one of the main tools throughout this project, we’ve been using the internet to help us and we feel we should also contribute our voice. Hopefully the next person can find our experience helpful.

LG: Can anyone do what you’re doing?
B: Anyone can do this! Funnily enough it can sound big and daunting at times but it’s really a simple thing we are doing that people have been doing for thousands of years, building a shelter. We are just trying to do this in a day and age when there are so many choices that are mainstream and cheap but harmful for the environment and the people living in them. It’s an exciting time to be building and we are happy to share this journey with others.

Thanks again to Baldomero for talking to us – and good luck with the baby. We hope to catch up with the family from time to time and see how they’re progressing. Or you can look for yourself at www.greeninmedusa.com.

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