Friday, July 27, 2012

Adding Energy Benefits to Your Site!

I live and work in a house that I designed to be passive solar.  It was built 16 years ago and has been saving me energy costs ever since I moved in.  For example, I am currently sitting in my office on the south side of the house with its bank of windows and it is 99 degrees outside, but my air conditioning is not running and I am quite comfortable.

Some of what went into this house to make it passive solar can obviously not be translated into use for existing structures - which comprise the majority of residential property on the market.  Obviously, once a home is built, you cannot change it's orientation, the direction that it is facing, nor can you easily add heat sinks and trombe walls. 

You can, however, change the planting of your site.  In fact, a good portion of what makes my home passive solar is actually green and growing out of the ground outside my window.  Start with trees!  The bulk of the sun beating down on your house in the summer comes from the southwest and can be blocked or modified by trees.  Who hasn't noticed the difference in temperature on a blistering day when they step out of the searing sun and into the shade.  Remember though that you are more than likely going to have to consider two major power demanding seasons.  Winter eventually comes and that shade can become a problem.  Thankfully Mother Nature has an answer for that.  Deciduous trees planted on the south to southwestern side of your house will go a long way toward comfort control.  Chose trees that are not too fast growing as they will tend to be weaker and to break in those violent summer storms.  Also choose trees that have a nice rounded mature crown without becoming too tall as lightening is drawn to the tallest thing around and you do not want to bring it close to your house.   Trees that reach a mature height of 60 - 75' will work great for your shade factor.  They should be planted such that their projected crown width is taken into consideration.  You will want to plant them at a distance of about half the projected crown width plus 15 - 20'.  This will allow them to grow and still allow you to have adequate ventilation around your home thus preventing issues with moss and mold.

For example, a willow oak will get to 60 - 70' tall and 50' in crown spread.  It makes a beautiful shade tree with a lovely rounded crown and withstands urban pollution well due to its small leaves.  I would plant a willow oak 40' - 50' away from a building and on the southwest side if I wanted to use it for summer shading.  The easiest way to determine which direction that might be is to watch for where the late afternoon sun hits the house in the summer.

As hot as it can get in the summer, winter can also be a brutal season that chews up fuel.  By planting deciduous on your southwest building face, you are ensuring that it will also get winter sun.  This is important for winter heating.  In many places, winter winds can also be a problem.  Depending on your location, you might also need to consider planting a winter wind break.  For this you will need to plant evergreens on the north and northwest side of your home.  Remember to maintain enough distance from your home to allow for ventilation and crown development.  For a windbreak, plant evergreens such that their projected mature crowns will join to form a solid green wall.

Finally, shrubs planted along the foundation of your home are not only aesthetically pleasing, they are great for added climate control.  They act to aid in crawl space or foundation slab cooling in the summer through shading and as added insulation in the winter.

Nothing living is ever permanent in nature so plan for that.  Plant several trees instead of just one.  I prefer to see several kinds of plants - whether trees or shrubs - go into each grouping.  After all, if your prized oak planted on the southwest side of your house is hit with oak wilt and you have three of them eventually all three will die.  It is not as serious a problem if you happen to have an oak, a maple and a hickory.  One might go but you still have two others to take over.  Just make sure that you replant when one is struck.

With a little thought and some planting, you too can have a passive solar site and be a part of the 'green' movement.  It may be a new label, but it is a tactic that people have been using for ages to control their personal home environments.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What difference does one tree make?

There is a older white home sitting off from a road that I routinely travel.  This house had a beautiful and sizable red maple tree in it's front yard.  This tree was in fact the primary thing that you noticed when you looked at this house.  In the summer, this house was hidden behind a beautiful crown of green leaves and cooling shade.  In the fall, the tree was a blaze of red that set off the white of the house and the green of it's roof.  In the winter, the bare branches of the tree added character to the otherwise simple farmhouse.

Last year a thunderstorm tore out a sizable branch of the tree.  The tree was still alive and healthy and it still provided a great front for the house, but the passerby also was drawn to the view of the hole in the side of the tree.  The tree was obviously hollow and was visibly disfigured.

Last week another thunderstorm attacked the tree.  This time, the remaining crown was broken off and lay like a fallen soldier in the front yard.  A couple of days later, the trunk was cut at the base and the remains of the tree were carted off.

Now the house is sitting alone and bare.  No tree is in the front yard and the house is all that you see.  Now it is obvious that the white house is run-down and in need of repair.  There are no leaves to frame the house and there is nothing to shade it in the summer.  In one brief moment, the property lost it's character, a major source of climatic buffering and a valuable asset.  I cannot help but notice the radical change from beautiful and shady to open, old and run-down.

People often do not realize the importance of trees in their lives and on their land.  The people who owned this house could have avoided the sudden loss of property value and the other benefits of this tree if they had just planted a couple of additional trees near this one a few years ago - or even a year ago, when the branch was broken off.  It would have given them some growing time while allowing the old tree to protect the new young trees as they grew.  It is important to realize that nothing living is permanent and no tree will live forever.

Hello and welcome to my Blog!  

I am a Landscape Architect with a small personalized private practice and am writing a blog to assist people with their residential site development.  If you should want additional information on anything that I write or if you should desire to have assistance with your site, please feel free to contact me.