Living Spaces That Stress Less From switching to energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, to collecting rainwater and installing photovoltaic panels, how are experts making buildings that use less energy and generate less waste? Ira Flatow and guests explore the latest in green materials and design.
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Living Spaces That Stress Less

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Living Spaces That Stress Less

Living Spaces That Stress Less

Living Spaces That Stress Less

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From switching to energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, to collecting rainwater and installing photovoltaic panels, how are experts making buildings that use less energy and generate less waste? Ira Flatow and guests explore the latest in green materials and design.


Daniel Hellmuth, principal and co-founder, Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects, Maplewood, Mo.

Dan Chiras, president, Sustainable Systems Design, Inc., founder and director, The Evergreen Institute's Center for Renewable Energy and Green Building, author of 29 books on green building and remodeling, Gerald, Mo.

Flora Lichtman, producer, digital media, Science Friday, New York, N.Y.


Im Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, coming to you from St. Louis.

And up next, we want you to think green - and not because of St. Patrick's Day next week. We want you to think about green building and design. And here in the Show-Me State of Missouri, they're doing more than showing and talking. They're showing how green buildings, talking about how they can be done. And Washington University in St. Louis has built one of the greenest buildings in the country at their field station just - right outside of town.

It's the Tyson Living Learning Center. It's powered by solar panels, and it gets its water by collecting rain. It has a composting toilet system that recycles waste into fertilizer, and fertilizer that gets used in gardens right there on the site. And I've seen these things, and they have absolutely no odor to these. It's just unbelievable to see how they work and how well they work. And the building was built according to the guidelines of the Living Building Challenge. That's the most stringent set of green building guidelines there is.

And joining me now to talk about it is architect for the Tyson Living Learning Center. Dan Hellmuth is the principal and cofounder of the Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects in Maplewood, Missouri. And thank you for being with us today.

Mr. DAN HELLMUTH (Principal, Cofounder, Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: And, of course, green building just doesnt have to be done by professional architects like Dan. Along, also, with him, we have someone who can talk about how you can retrofit your own home. If you want to make it more green, we'll be talking about greening up your existing space.

Dan Chiras is president of Sustainable Systems Design, and he is founder and director of The Evergreen Institute's Center for Renewable Energy and Green Building in Gerald, Missouri. He's also the author of 29 books on green building and remodeling. Thank you for being with us today.

Mr. DAN CHIRAS (President, Sustainable Systems Design; Founder, Director, Evergreen Institute's Center for Renewable Energy and Green Building): My pleasure.

FLATOW: Dan, what defines a green building? Well, how do you know it's green?

Mr. HELLMUTH: Well, there's - I could speak for a couple of hours on that one, but...

FLATOW: Give me five seconds.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELLMUTH: The LEED Green Building Rating System is put up by the U.S. Green Building Council. We have a very big chapter here in St. Louis.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HELLMUTH: It defines what a green building is by certain ratings. And...

FLATOW: So it's more than just putting solar panels up on your roof.

Mr. HELLMUTH: It's a combination of approaches. It has to do with site. It has to do with energy. It has to do with materials. It has to do with how you process storm water. It can have even a social equity aspect to it. And I think that's what makes it so interesting, is that it encompasses all the things we're all trying to grapple with, how to minimize our impact on the ecology when we build things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Dan Hellmuth, I mentioned the Tyson Living Learning Center. Is that open to everybody to go take a look at it?

Mr. HELLMUTH: It's a - Tyson is a - it's a gated campus. It's about 2,000 acres run by Washington University. They do have an open house during - on Fridays during the summer, and you can arrange tours sometimes by calling up. They've had quite a bit of people coming out there. So it can - gets to be a little issue, because they're all doing a lot of their research...


Mr. HELLMUTH: ...and work out there at the same time.

FLATOW: Dan Chiras, can you turn your own home into a very green building?

Mr. CHIRAS: Oh, absolutely. The potential's enormous, you know?

FLATOW: Where we just start first? What do you attack first?

Mr. CHIRAS: The very first thing you should do is get an energy audit. You know, either do your own audit or hire someone to do an energy audit, and they'll come in and help you figure out where the leaks are in your building envelope, you know, the walls and ceilings and whatnot. They'll recommend insulation. They'll recommend other measures. But start with an energy audit.

Then step number two is seal up the leaks in the building envelope, in the walls, the foundation. Our houses are like Swiss cheese, you know? If you add up all those little, tiny leaks...

FLATOW: Right, right.

Mr. CHIRAS: the building envelope, it would be equivalent to a three-foot-by-three-foot window open 24 hours a day...


Mr. CHIRAS: ...365 days a year. So start there. You know, that's the most economical thing you can do.

FLATOW: You know, you often hear that energy conservation is the easiest big chunk...

Mr. CHIRAS: Yes.

FLATOW: ...the low-hanging fruit to take out of the energy picture...

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and that's what you're saying.

Mr. CHIRAS: Absolutely.

FLATOW: So what number - number two, what would you do? After you get that energy audit and you've done your conservation, what would you do next?

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah. Once you've done - then you turn to insulation. Most of our houses are woefully under-insulated. And you go into some of these old houses, and they've got two inches of insulation in the ceilings. So that's the other thing. Bundle it up. You know, add a good, thick layer of insulation in the ceiling, and if you can, in the walls.


Mr. CHIRAS: And if you're over a crawlspace, if your house is built over a crawlspace, insulate under the floor.

FLATOW: Interesting. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. If you have a question here in the audience, you want to step up to the microphone and ask about green buildings, you can do that. And one interesting thing, Dan Hellmuth, about the Living Building Challenge - and I find this hard to actually do in practical terms - is there's a rule to try to find everything within a local community, right? All your ingredients for the building have to try to come from the local area within a certain radius...


FLATOW: ...right? I havent found a light bulb yet that doesnt come from China. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELLMUTH: We couldnt find ceiling fans. They werent - the last ceiling fan made in the U.S. was made in July 2009.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Mr. HELLMUTH: And so when we couldnt find stuff that was locally available, we used a lot of salvaged materials. So we went out with - Neill Shafer(ph), one of the project managers from Wash U, and we scavenged around. We got some used wood doors from the city museum. And so we had a lot of fun doing things like that.

For instance, we have a beautiful rain chain. It's actually rain flower that we used to divert water into a rain barrel. And all the rain chains are made in Taiwan or India, which is great, but that didnt meet the requirement, so we had an artist make it out of aluminum. He actually made a rain flower chain and it's a small thing but it's a really beautiful thing. It's a fun way for architects to work. We don't get a chance to do some of these things that often.

FLATOW: You know, with unemployment the way it is, and we're talking about losing jobs overseas, you would think that - and this would be a great industry, all these building material - industry in this country.

Mr. HELLMUTH: Well, we've lost - we were losing our ability to make things. And I think everyone is waking up to that, you know, the whole idea of being able to raise our own food and make our things. I think we're all getting interested in figuring out how to make that economical again. I think there's a sea change.

FLATOW: What made you decide - or the builders decide to build this structure? Is this a demonstration project, educational project?

Mr. HELLMUTH: It's a big experiment, and that's why I think Washington University deserves a tremendous amount of credit for going through all the pain and agony that we went through. But in initial, we did a design trip, which is a brainstorming meeting upfront. And the people working there, Kevin Smith and John Chase, the director, and everybody involved with it, they're all biologists and environmental scientists.

And when we talked about the living, building challenge - that's about the ecology of building - so they instantly liked the idea of it. And it was a relatively small building, a little bit off the grid. We weren't on a sewer system. We were on a well system. So we had the ability to experiment a little bit. It would have been a little bit more difficult in an urban environment.

FLATOW: All right. Let's go to a question in the audience. Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1 (Audience): Speaking of urban environments, one of the big things I see, like, in everyday life right now, is trying to - like people with renting properties, so they're not actually the homeowners. So how would we like - are there programs out there for people who are renters...

FLATOW: Good question. Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1...who, like, who own the properties, who are actually going out and have - the renters actually go ahead and...

FLATOW: Because your landlord or the owner is not going to want to install that stuff, right?

Unidentified Man #1: Right.

FLATOW: Yeah. How do you talk them into it? Is there a credit or some sort of, you know?

Mr. CHIRAS: That's a real tough one because you pay the utility bill and they'd have to pay for the energy upgrades. Well, there have been times where I rented, I actually just paid for them myself because I knew...


Mr. CHIRAS: ...they'd pay off. I'm not aware there's a home energy weatherization program in the United States for lower income families right now. There's millions and millions of dollars available for that. And you might be able to talk a landlord into investing in some of these energy-efficiency measures. It's a real tough one, I have to admit.

FLATOW: Any of the new stimulus money going to energy efficiency?

Mr. CHIRAS: Well, there's lots of it, lots of it.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. CHIRAS: That's what I was saying. That's where that money came from, for the new stimulus money.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. CHIRAS: There's a lot of money, too, going into training people to do energy retrofits, to do solar. And so lots - and millions and millions of dollars going into training people, training trainers to train people, training people to start in this industry.

FLATOW: And if you - so if you want to retrofit your home, you might be able to save some tax money or get some rebates on...

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah. And a lot of things that you invest in as a homeowner...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. CHIRAS: ...receive tax credits for that...


Mr. CHIRAS: ...for energy-efficient windows and energy-efficient water heaters and that sort of thing. So yeah, there's a lot of money available for this.

FLATOW: Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #2 (Audience Member): I have a friend that's in the - just started in the energy auditing business, and what role are realtors and banks playing? And I know there's some kind of energy efficiency mortgage thing that's possible. What roles - from a business standpoint, what other things can they do?

Mr. CHIRAS: What standpoint - can the banks? You know, banks and realtors aren't really the leaders in this field, quite honestly. Most of it has been driven by energy auditors and homeowners themselves. So - and there is an energy-efficiency mortgages available. And what that means is if you buy an energy-efficient home, they'll give you a little bit larger mortgage...


Mr. CHIRAS: know, and - which is...

FLATOW: They won't give you a better rate...

Mr. CHIRAS: No, not necessarily. So - which is what...

FLATOW: That's what we really need.

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah.

FLATOW: We need a better rate, you know?

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah, precisely.

FLATOW: If you can get a tax credit or something for subsidizing...

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...a windmill or a wind turbine, why can't we do that...

Mr. CHIRAS: Well - and the thing to remember that I find real intriguing is that it actually costs more to build a cheaper home. You know, when we think about a home, we're always thinking that the price tag of the home, you know, that translates into a mortgage, that becomes a mortgage. But the cost of a home is more than just the mortgage. It's the mortgage plus repair bills, plus maintenance, plus replacement and energy.

So actually, you dont necessarily have to wait for the banks to do it for you by building a more energy-efficient home upfront. You're actually going to have a slightly larger mortgage but a much, much smaller energy bill, so your monthly outlay is going to be less than it would be if you bought a cheaper, less energy-efficient home. So it costs more to build a cheaper home.

FLATOW: I get you. Let's go to this gentleman here at the mic.

Unidentified Man #3 (Audience Member): Hi, thank you. I've seen a lot of green-certified commercial buildings, but I think Dan spoke earlier about social equity.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Man #3: I understand that Habitat for Humanity has done a whole bunch of LEED platinum buildings, LEED platinum homes in St. Louis. Can you speak a little bit about green building and affordable housing, please?

Mr. HELLMUTH: Well, I mean, I think that's the - it's what it really comes down to, because if we're not greening our whole building stock, we're not really addressing everything that we're doing. So I think being able to - what Washington University has done on a very high end as an experiment is one thing and it's very important. But I think it's also important to be able to do economically efficient green building and to figure out how to make that work. I think that's probably one of the biggest areas. And it is a challenge.

LEED addresses it. For LEED, for neighborhood development, actually, has some social equity credits as part of that. So that brings up that discussion when a developer is doing a larger development in a community, if they're using LEED for neighborhood development, social equity as actually part of that discussion, you can get credits for it...

Unidentified Man #3: You can?

Mr. HELLMUTH: Yes. And I think - and also Brownfields Redevelopment is part of that also.

FLATOW: Do you have to apply for that or is it...

Mr. HELLMUTH: No. It's just you have to you have to have a certain number of low income units in your building. You have to - you can't just have all luxury apartments, for instance, to enable to get that credit. So...

FLATOW: So people are thinking about it then.

Mr. HELLMUTH: Definitely.


Mr. CHIRAS: You know, if I could add, there's an awful lot of affordable green building, you know, housing for low income folks. Because community development organizations oftentimes build those structures and they pay the utility bills, so there is an impetuous for them to build very energy-efficient buildings. Habitat for Humanity learned early on that it was a real mistake to build cheap houses for people, and that's what they were doing. They were building relatively inexpensive homes but the utility bills were killing the occupants.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Yeah.

Mr. CHIRAS: So now they've wizened up a fair amount, and they're building, spending a little bit more to build these super energy-efficient homes and the occupants now have a really low mortgage, monthly mortgage, if you could call that, plus really low energy bills.

FLATOW: And that's what counts.

Mr. CHIRAS: Yeah.

FLATOW: We're talking about green building this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here at the St. Louis Science Center. And joining us now is Flora Lichtman, our video producer. Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: And she has our Video Pick of the Week this week, which you can see up there on And you sort of hung around at the green building.

LICHTMAN: We went to the Living Learning Center. Senior producer Annette Heist tonight checked it out and Dan gave us a tour. And you know, we zoomed in on the part that interested me the most, which was the compost toilet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: She's a brave woman.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. This is what Dan said before the show. He said I can't believe you put those images up on the Web site. So it really is - it's uncensored.

FLATOW: But you were pleasantly surprised by the compost toilet, right?

LICHTMAN: Oh, it's amazing. I mean - and I heard, you know, you said yesterday that the technology has been around for a long time.

Mr. HELLMUTH: It's very simple technology. And it takes a little bit of getting used to. But I think what's so interesting, looking at a living building, the whole idea of it actually eliminates the concept of waste. There are no waste products. Everything is being used or being converted. And I think that's a really interesting concept if we're going to figure out how to mitigate the effect of the building...


Mr. HELLMUTH: ...on the environment.

LICHTMAN: You actually - you called it a constructed organism yesterday.


LICHTMAN: And that really helped me understand what the living building challenge was about. And I think you can probably explain that concept...

FLATOW: Yeah, what does that mean, a constructed...

Mr. HELLMUTH: Well, I mean, as we get into more sustainable and green design, we're often dealing with living systems. For instance, green rooms are living systems. They have (unintelligible) growing, they have soil, they have microorganisms. And as architects, we have to work with landscape architects, with biologists, botanists, it's not just - structural engineers. On a compost toilet, we have - there's a scientist that's designed that. It takes a little bit different upkeep. Again, it's a living system. And I think we're getting more and more into this kind of arena. And it's a little more complicated but it brings in a, you know, whole series of experts that really make it work.

FLATOW: And Flora, I'm guessing you got to see more than just the toilet while you were there, right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. A few other things as well. One thing that was really amazing, too, is just what you do with storm water and runoff. I mean, I was amazed that the drinking water comes from the sky.

Mr. HELLMUTH: Yeah. We were able to capture 100 percent of the drinking water for the building on the roof up - it's a south-facing roof with...

FLATOW: There's no yuck factor in this coming off the roof?

Mr. HELLMUTH: No. That's one of the least yuck factors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELLMUTH: And - but it does go through ultraviolet filtration...

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Mr. HELLMUTH: ...through a whole series of filters. And we work very closely with St. Louis County. We had a little bit of fun getting approval on all those things. But they were very gracious and got it approved. And the water is tested. So if you ever come out there and have a drink, it's tested every month, just as the well water was before that.

FLATOW: Right. And the building materials are...

Mr. HELLMUTH: The building materials, most of the wood from the project comes from Tyson. We - the - John Chase is doing a force restoration project where they were taking out eastern red cedar and hard maple, which were invasive native species. And so we asked the living building challenge folks, could we use some of this wood that's coming out? And they said, yes. And then we said, how are we going to do that?

And we found a guy named Scott Wonder(ph) that we went out with him - Travis Mormon(ph), Kevin Smith and I actually marked the trees. We - Scott cut the trees down, skidded them out, took them to his sawmill, made the pieces, made the siding, made the flooring...

FLATOW: Right there in the site.

Mr. HELLMUTH: ...and installed it. No, his sawmill was off-site.

FLATOW: Off-site. Wow. And so Flora, you had the full tour, got this all on video?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. We got this all on video. So you can go to the Web site and see it. And I think one of the other things that we - that came up was just how many compromises - these decisions aren't always that easy, right?

FLATOW: Because, as I say, you can't find a light bulb closer than China to -that's made in America.

Mr. HELLMUTH: No. And - but I think that's a wake-up for all of us. You know, things aren't made here anymore and, you know, we need to start making things here again.

FLATOW: This would be a good industry.


FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Flora.


FLATOW: And you can see Flora's Video Pick of the Week up on our Web site at And we also have dozens of other videos up there that you can view. And also, we're looking for your videos. Send us some of your videos. And if you're a scientist and you're making stuff, we'll give them to Flora and she'll turn them into gems. They may be great, but they'll be gems when Flora is done with them.

Thank you, all - thank you for joining us. Dan Chiras is president of Sustainable Systems Design. He is founder and director the Evergreen Institute Center for Renewable Energy and Green Building in Gerald, Missouri. And Dan Hellmuth is principal and cofounder of Hellmuth & Bicknese Architects in Maplewood, Missouri. Thank you for joining us today.

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