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Learning to Build (With Straw) and Power (With Solar) a Home by DVD

Exterior walls are insulated with bales of straw; the framing is of salvaged lumber.
Exterior walls are insulated with bales of straw; the framing is of salvaged lumber. (Photos By Ted Owens)

Owens does not discuss the cost of his house in the DVD, but the information is available on his Web site, . The total for the house was $88,000. This may seem high, given his extensive use of natural materials, but, as he explained in an e-mail, this sum was actually low because he did much of the labor himself. A neighbor's house of similar size that was built with conventional materials under the supervision of a contractor was $120,000.

The second DVD, "Green Building: Your Edge in the Home Building Marketplace," is a series of four taped lectures produced by What's Working, a green building consulting firm based in Boulder, Colo.

The first two lectures are given by David Johnston, the president of What's Working and a green building expert, the third lecture is by indoor air expert Mark Richmond, and the fourth is by mold expert David Berman. Each lecture is about two hours -- a bit long -- but they are well edited and the speakers are entertaining. I also found that watching a lecture on a DVD has its upside -- you can rewind the disc as many times as you need to absorb all the material and take notes.

The lectures were prepared for a professional audience, but a nonprofessional who knows some home construction basics will find them easy to follow.

In Johnston's discussions about home building, he touches on many aspects of construction that homeowners never think about -- including the waste stream generated by the construction of a new house. A 2,000-square-foot, conventionally built house produces about 13 tons of waste. There is so much reusable material, you can go dumpster diving and build an entire house with it, as Johnston's friend did in Colorado. Despite this amusing anecdote, it's no joke -- nationally, construction waste accounts for about 12 percent of our entire waste stream. But, Johnston says, as much as 60 percent of the construction waste could be recycled if the builder took the time.

Richmond's presentation on indoor air quality includes many interesting facts about commonly used synthetic building products. Many of these slowly release gases or vapors into the air of a newly completed house. This process is called off-gassing and the volatile organic compounds that are emitted are called VOCs. In many cases, the VOCs contain formaldehyde, which is now classified as a confirmed human carcinogen by the World Health Organization. In response, manufacturers are increasingly offering low-VOC or zero-VOC products. These are heavily tested to ensure that they perform well. In many cases, Richmond says, their new chemistry makes them a better product than the older, higher-VOC ones.

In his mold and moisture lecture, mold specialist Berman explains that molds are "nature's garbage men whose job is to digest organic plant and animal waste and break it down." Molds can grow almost anywhere and thrive, as long as their host is a carbon-based material. Suitable hosts include such seemingly inhospitable media as petroleum and paper. To gain a toehold, molds require water, but only a minuscule amount (Berman calls it a "water film") and not for very long. Once started, mold can survive with the moisture that it draws from the air, even though its host may have dried out. Mold growth is not instantaneous, however. If the water film dries out within 12 to 24 hours, the mold growth is stopped. To keep moisture and mold out of your house, Berman offers numerous strategies.

The visuals of "Green Building" cannot compete with those in "Building With Awareness," but both are welcome. One offers visual explanations that would be impossible in a book format while the other offers a huge amount of information, which is easy to digest in a format that is similar to a college lecture.

The two DVDs are available through book stores and at Web sites that sell DVDs. Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at

© 2006, Katherine Salant

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company