More than 100 Years Old and Green

Julie Ruth
August 5, 2010
COLUMN : Code Arena | Codes & Standards

My mother lives in a house that is over 100 years old. She chooses to live there because it is home. She also chooses to live there in part because the house is completely paid for, and has been for some time.

But another reason she chooses to live there is the same reason she and my father choose to buy the house over 40 years ago–it’s a well built house in a good location. The exterior walls are three wythes of loadbearing, clay brick with a total thickness, including air pockets, of 13 inches. It sits on a solid limestone foundation that is between 18 to 22 inches thick, depending upon where you measure it. The interior floor and wall framing is solid yellow pine, as is the wall paneling in some rooms.

All the habitable rooms on the first floor (all five of them) have high ceilings with 6 foot high, double hung windows or a door on at least two exterior walls of each room. The windows bring in sunshine even on a cold winter day, and can be opened to provide good air circulation in the spring and fall when the outside temperature makes such an option desirable. The windows are shaded by wide, overhanging eaves on all four sides of the house, and a wide porch provides shade on the southern side of the house.

Although my mother lives in a rather small town, it is fairly self sufficient. Within a few blocks of her home are a public library, post office, movie theatre, hospital, town square, park district office, fire station, police office, grocery store, and a few doctors’ offices, beauticians, churches, restaurants and taverns. Within a mile are the schools, more parks, bowling alleys, baseball and softball diamonds, a public swimming pool and a stock car race track.

This past summer, as I was reviewing the comments submitted on the International Green Construction Code Public Version 1, it occurred to me–my mother’s house is green. The clay brick, the limestone, the pine framing, are all locally produced materials that would easily qualify for the criteria of the IgCC for indigenous materials. Indigenous materials–locally produced–are defined by the IgCC as those sourced within 500 miles of the manufacturing facility where they are turned into product, which in turn is within 500 miles of the site of the building in which they are used. The natural materials used do not subject the interior of the home to the emissions of toxins that could have a severe effect on the health of the homes occupant’s. And the building service life has exceeded 100 years, although it’s too soon to know if it will reach 200 years.

The 6 foot high, double hung windows of the first floor rooms provide ample daylight to the interior during daylight hours. The wide eaves and porch shade the windows and reduce the amount of solar heat that is transmitted through the windows to the interior, particularly during the summer.

The proximity of essential and desirable services to the home reduce the need to use an automobile to access them. In fact, many of the essential services my mother needs on a regular basis are within walking distance of her home – or at least within battery range of her electric scooter.

Practical necessity
My mother’s home wasn’t built this way, or in this location, because of a green construction code. It was built this way out of practical necessity. Locally available materials were used because it was easier, less expensive and more practical to bring them to the building site than materials from a greater distance. Large windows were used to bring in interior light because electricity was not yet available and in most cases, taking advantage of light from the outside was considered preferable to having to depend upon light from a candle or lantern.

The windows were shaded to reduce the heat gain during the summer, and double hung windows were used to permit the occupants to cool their home naturally, when possible. The home was located within walking distance of several services because walking was a primary mode of transportation at a time when the automobile had not yet been invented and not everyone had access to a horse or carriage to ride to where they needed to go.

Now the International Code Council is writing a code that tells us how to put back into place the practical practices that were common over 100 years ago. And the ICC is not alone in this. They have been preceded by US Green Building Council with its Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design criteria, and accompanied by the National Association of Home Builders in the development of ICC 700.

But it occurs to me that we may have drifted away from this way of building in the first place because we found other characteristics desirable. Perhaps we started using other materials simply because we liked having other options. Perhaps builders started building subdivisions because home buyers wanted homes that were not in the middle of the hustle and bustle of local commerce.

Green building encourages us to go back to practices that were good for us, good for the earth, and more practical from an economic standpoint. The question I have is–do we have the discipline to once again impose upon ourselves what once was dictated by practical necessity? Will we really be willing, long term, to put ourselves on a carbon consumption diet?

Code Arena is brought to you by the America Architectural Manufacturers Association. Julie Ruth may be reached through AAMA at 847/303-5664 or via e-mail at