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A green house—with extras

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"It's a weird house," admits Deborah Carnes Christie, author of the Green House. She is looking at a floor plan of her 2,300-square-foot home during a recent book reading. "But it's incredibly functional."

Function, you'll quickly learn, is Christie's guiding principle. When she first sketched her home designs on an index card, she obsessively cut wasted space typical of homes where she had lived for the past 30 years. She slashed dining rooms, foyers and those nooks and crannies that give even the oldest un-green home character, and instead created a "shotgun" house: long, rectangular and open end to end—a clean design.

However, Green House, a self published manual, memoir and reference guide, outlines the process of creating a low-pollution, passive solar, modernistic home in 17 chapters.

Sprinkled with nuggets like, "Although I love the look of flat roofs, I could not choose a flat roof in the rainy climate of North Carolina," the book is practical when addressing building green to suit the geography versus building green to suit an ideology. For example, since the Piedmont region has a mild climate and is typically wooded, building a passive solar home may not be as eco-friendly as building a well insulated, energy-efficient home. "In a climate where two-thirds of the condition load is spent for cooling rather than heating, the benefits of passive solar heating may not outweigh the advantages of shade on a hot summer day."

She's not pushing green as being for every one, nor is she saying we all have to live in passive solar homes. Christie, 60, a retired lawyer and husband George, 75, a Duke law professor, built their home to accommodate their golden years. The absence of hallways is a nod to wheelchairs. Assiduous attention is given to low counters, accessible bathrooms without doors and a caretaker's cottage over the garage.

Working with architect John Hartley of Hartley Construction, Christie sorted through her five design goals before construction began:

  • Function before form: a home she could live in, but would accommodate a comfortable upper-class lifestyle
  • Energy efficiency: solar water heating, heating and air conditioning do's and don'ts
  • Health: low-pollution principles that borrow from John Bower's The Healthy House
  • Low maintenance: choosing stucco versus highmaintenance wood siding
  • Light coming from two sources: not just southern facing windows, but those along the north wall of the house

Christie discusses the process of choosing low-pollution paints (What do you know about offgassing?), window-coverings, flooring and cabinetry for non-toxic healthy homes. Open fireplaces, attached garages and unsealed crawlspaces invite air pollution into the house (Who knew?) She favors fluorescent lighting because it emits less heat, and enthuses on the benefits of installing concrete floors—they are more fragile than one would think—but are ideal for retaining the solar heat.

And since this is Christie's dream home, don't be shocked when you read she has indulged in certain luxuries that aren't strictly sustainable, such as a kitchen with two of everything—dishwashers, stoves, refrigerators and sinks.

But here's the $64,000 question. Actually it's significantly more than that: Is it practical to build a green house? The final price tag for the Green House was a very uneconomical $751,075.

If you're dreaming, planning or building your own eco-friendly abode, judiciously read this guide. The pricetag might come down if you do away with the Murphy beds and two of everything in the kitchen.

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