embodied energy in a building

Embodied Energy In A Building

What is embodied Energy?

When we are talking about our design and material choices in a natural home, we often discuss the embodied energy. This can be defined as:

Embodied energy is the energy consumed by all of the processes associated with the production of a building, from the mining and processing of natural resources to manufacturing, transport and product delivery. Embodied energy does not include the operation and disposal of the building material, which would be considered in a life cycle approach. Embodied energy is the ‘upstream’ or ‘front-end’ component of the life cycle impact of a home.

Why does Embodied Energy Matter?

I once wrote to a well-known insulation manufacturer asking for their calculations on the embodied energy in their product. The reply came back that insulation doesn’t have an embodied energy because it saves you energy. Alarming no?

So if I build a house with the most energy intensive insulation available, and I mean really fill the house with the stuff, way over code. The fact that the building may cost the earth practically nothing to heat and cool over its lifetime… is massively overshadowed by the enormous energy debt the house is in to start with. Even if the house exists for 200 years it might never pay off its initial construction debt.

Others come to similar conclusions; in one study, A comprehensive assessment of the life cycle energy demand of passive houses, the authors concluded that a family living in a Passive House, a very high standard that demands a lot of insulation, will, over the life of the house, only use a tiny bit less energy than those who live in a conventional house.

Like this author, they conclude that the only way to seriously reduce our life cycle energy cost is to live in smaller apartments downtown, but that is another slideshow.

But when you look at the list of materials in the passive house they studied (on TreeHugger here) you see it is full of 135 cubic meters of polyurethane foam insulation, sixty cubic meters of concrete, clay brick cladding and clay tile roof. There is a seriously high amount of embodied energy and carbon in this house.


Read more in this great slideshow from Lloyd Alter @ treehugger –

This is a series where I take my lectures presented as adjunct professor teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto, and distill them down to a sort of Pecha Kucha slide show.

Green Buildings Improve Health

A nice little article in National Geographic about green & healthy homes

That influence stems from a startling stat: Americans spend an average of nearly 90 percent of their time indoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet what we breathe indoors is on average two to five times more toxic than what is typically outside, the agency warns, because of poor ventilation and off-gassing of toxic chemicals from a host of products, from carpeting to furniture.





Natural floor insulation

Thermofloc is a natural floor insulation. Made from cellulose that has added minerals to make it fire retardant. It is simple to install and is much more affordable than any other natural insulation we found.


double whisk mixer

To break apart the insulation blocks we used a double whisk mortar mixer. By using an online calculator to work out how much we needed for our floor dimensions, we could be sure to achieve the correct density and therefore U-value.


NaturePlus – Thermofloc is the first cellulose insulation to be awarded the coveted NaturePlus mark of quality and sustainability.

  • Laid density of 40kg/m3
  • Thermal conductivity 0.039W/mK
  • Fire classification as per EN13501-1
  • Free of hazardous substances as defined by ETA-05-0186

Assessments show Thermofloc does not provide a suitable habitat for rodents and as such rodents will avoid nesting within the insulation.

Straw bale building – The how to guide

In straw bale building we use a few key techniques that are unique to the trade.

Around our windows we have posts, so we need to put a notch in our bales to fit them snugly.

We do this using a Dewalt Alligator saw which is made for cutting building blocks, wood, drywall, insulation and Class 12 clay blocks. It also cuts straw bale very nicely, without throwing up a lot of dust.

I have also used a chainsaw to do this job. While the chainsaw does do an excellent job, it’s certainly more dangerous and a lot louder, plus throws dust into the air.

Here interns, Brendan and Rowena show us how it’s done using a template to ensure the right size notch. (Music by Money Mark)

Tools for straw bale building

straw bale building tools

Here we see our beautifully constructed straw bale walls. In front of them, two of the tools of the trade.

First up, we have the persuader. This larger than life hammer is used to knock the bales into alignment.

Secondly, we have the baling needle. This is threaded with twine and passed through the bales like a giant knitting needle in order to re-string the bales to custom sizes.

Dressing the Bales

dressing the bales

The first thing we do to our bales is to dress them. This means we physically manipulate the straw in the end of the bale to make a flat and square end. This means our bales fit together better with fewer air gaps.

Our Natural Building Interns

Hartwyn natural building interns

Long overdue group shot of our fantastic natural building interns!

Introducing (From the left): Me, Brendan, Rowena, Blythe, Jake & Jamie.

This is the team doing the bulk of the work. They have given up 8 weeks of their lives to come and build this house. I’m so very proud of how far they have come and what they have created.

We are now getting into finishing land, so i’m really excited to unleash them on the clay and trowels!

Locally sourced materials

It is important to us to build with locally sourced materials. We have lots of clay, so are utilising that as much as possible. If this build were elsewhere in the country we would be choosing a different approach. We can’t just have a template for a ‘sustainable home’ that doesn’t factor in what local materials are available as transportation accounts for a huge amount of energy usage.

our straw crop is locally sourced
Our straw crop – a few days before it was baled (Photo Jake Chadwick)

Our locally sourced materials

  • Our straw comes from a farm less than 5 miles from the site. We were able to go to the farmer, check the size and density of the bales… and even request that they be made as tight as possible… which they did! (The even cranked it so hard the baler broke – once the part was replaced, fantastic dense bales were the result – The best I have ever used!).
  • Most of the timber is from a local saw mill, using locally sourced timber.
  • Our gravel and sand is from a local pit.
  • The sheep wool insulation is all from Welsh sheep.
  • We are making clay plasters from clay dug on site.
  • All of our lime comes from Ty Mawr Lime, 60 miles away.

These are our obvious success stories….

Not so local

We have not been able to source everything locally, our smartply for example, came from the Czech Republic. Not great!

Other considerations

There have been other more subtle design choices that have allowed us to use more local materials. An example of this is how we have sheeted the roof. The conventional way is to use 18mm ply sheets, usually shipped across the country, if not Europe. We have opted to use larch planks from our local saw mill – It takes longer to build, but the environmental impact is far better.

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