Thursday, July 28, 2005

Urbana's Ecological Construction Laboratory

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When most of us think about saving energy in our homes, we think about turning down the thermostat a few degrees in the winter, and maybe adding some insulation or better sealing windows and doors against drafts. Such measures really can help to cut power bills and keep indoor air temperatures comfortable. But they allow for only incremental reductions in the amount of energy a typical house requires.

To reduce energy use in homes and other buildings more dramatically, we really need to start at the planning stage. If we do that, says German-born Urbana architect Katrin Klingenberg, it’s possible to construct a single-family home that uses ninety percent less energy than that used by a house built to conventional standards. It is Klingenberg’s goal to see housing that meets this higher standard become the norm in the American Midwest.

In spring of 2002, Klingenberg and her husband Nicolas Smith located in Urbana intending to build such an energy-efficient home together. When Smith’s life was tragically cut short, Klingenberg decided to follow through on the dream they had shared, and build the house that Smith had designed. She also established the Ecological Construction Laboratory, or E-colab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing, implementing, and fostering the widespread adoption of highly energy-efficient and sustainable construction techniques.

The remarkable energy-efficiency of the house that Klingenberg built and now lives in is achieved by use of a design and construction techniques based on two simple objectives: minimizing thermal losses, and maximizing thermal gains.

Thermal losses are minimized by sealing the home completely against air leaks, and super-insulating the walls, floor, and ceilings, so that they prevent the transfer of heat up to three times as well as typical new construction.

Thermal gains are maximized by grabbing all of the free natural heating and cooling available. The house’s southern exposure is made up almost entirely of triple-pane windows, so that in winter, when the sun tracks low in the sky, the floor is warmed during the day and then slowly releases heat overnight. Klingenberg’s house also uses a highly efficient air exchanger for ventilation, which provides a constant flow of air from the outside with minimal loss of heating or cooling. Air coming into the exchanger is also conditioned by passing through an “earth tube,” a hundred-foot-long loop of plastic pipe buried six feet below the ground, where the temperature is a constant fifty-five degrees. Klingenberg’s house has no furnace; at the coldest times of year a heating element similar to the one in your hairdryer provides all the supplemental warming that’s needed.

Are you curious about the extra investment required to build a house that’s so energy-efficient it doesn’t need a furnace? Klingenberg estimates that her house cost roughly ten percent above the price of conventional construction, an amount that can be recovered in five years or so of energy savings. Once that initial investment is recouped, all of that money not spent on energy is money in the bank.

The idea behind Ecolab’s current project, a four-bedroom house to be built this year with financial assistance from the City of Urbana, is to extend the benefits of living in a super-energy-efficient home to a low-income family, and to demonstrate that such construction is viable right now, not in some distant future.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

An Appreciation for Local Rivers

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For me, summer means time spent on local rivers, fishing whenever that’s possible. But I’m told fishing stories interest only other anglers, so let me tell about some of the other things I’ve come across on the river this year.

On a recent Sunday morning, ten miles upstream from Kickapoo State Park near Danville, a friend and I slip through a patch of forest undergrowth on our way to the Middle Fork River. My friend nearly steps on a wild turkey that’s hunkered down in the brush. Cover blown, the bird explodes into flight, like . . . well, like nothing else I know. Twenty pounds worth of swirling, booming black, on the wing and moving away so fast it’s out of sight before we’ve regained our composure.

Later that morning I’m in the river up to my chest, quietly positioning myself to fish a long, deep pool. Hearing some commotion in the fast water upstream, I turn that way. My brain won’t make sense of the image my eyes submit. A dark brown creature drifts toward me with the current. Curls of a fat, tubular body break the surface of the muddy water in five different places across the stream. There are no anacondas, no alligators in Illinois, but. The image resolves. Not reptile, but mammal, not one creature, but three. River otters, so engaged in games with each other that they are carried to within ten feet of me before they realize I’m not a stump. Heads up high now, they snort with displeasure, and make for the bank. There, they take cover in the tangled roots of a downed tree, peeking out at me in turns to assess the threat I pose, before they move on out of sight in the streamside vegetation.

Family outings involve less fishing, but ample opportunity to enjoy the other pleasures the river has to offer.

Canoeing with my wife and children, we glide past a towering sandy bluff, home to a colony of bank swallows. These birds nest in small burrows they excavate in the vertical face above the stream. There is so much coming and going from the line of little caves that it’s impossible to focus the eye on one spot.

In the shallows a great blue heron squawks as we approach and takes off downstream to avoid us. It seems as though we come upon the same bird time after time for the next five miles, but surely he has circled back behind us at some point, and it’s really his downstream neighbors we disturb.

The gravel bars where we stop to rest or picnic offer delights for everyone. The shells of mussels with names as interesting as their appearance: purple wartybacks, fat muckets, heelsplitters, pistolgrips. There are crayfish and tadpoles, too, fast enough to present a challenge, but not so fast that children can’t catch them.

At this time of year, when travel may take us to places where natural beauty is super-abundant, it’s important to remember that the river corridors of east central Illinois boast high quality natural areas worth exploring and protecting.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes at Allerton Park

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When you think about the treasures of the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park near Monticello, you probably don’t think of endangered rattlesnakes. But scientists have recently confirmed that the eastern massasauga, a small, shy rattlesnake native to our region still inhabits parts of Allerton Park south of the Sangamon river.

Now, if the word “rattlesnake” brings to mind the monstrous creatures of old westerns, which lay in wait for unsuspecting cowboys, you’ll be gratified to know that the massasauga is a much smaller and more timid creature.

With adults averaging less than two feet long, the massasauga is one of the smallest rattlesnakes in North America. It is often confused with other common, non-venomous snakes but its tail is tipped with a rattle, which it will rattle as a warning when cornered. Other snakes mimic this action by shaking their tails but they do not have rattles.

Massasaugas use a variety of habitats, from old fields and savannas to floodplain forest, marshland and bogs. They are active from April through October, feeding on small rodents and sunning themselves during the day. In winter massasaugas hibernate, either in burrows created by other animals, especially crayfish, or under rock piles.

At the time of European settlement massasaugas were apparently abundant in the northern two-thirds of Illinois, with a range that extended from New York in the east to Ontario in the north and west into Iowa.

Habitat alteration, drainage of wetlands and intentional killing of snakes resulted in a swift decline for massasaugas in Illinois during the 1800s. Writing in 1893, one observer noted, “On the prairies of Illinois, before the country became thickly populated, these reptiles were extremely abundant, and the killing of two or three dozen in a season was not an unusual thing for a farmer’s boy. Now, in that same region, not one is seen in years.”

In 1994, massasaugas were listed as a state endangered species in Illinois, and are currently believed to hang on in only three or four small populations, including the one at Allerton Park.

There have been records of massasaugas at Allerton since the 1930s. Legend has it that rattlesnakes found north of the river, in the vicinity of the house and formal gardens, were moved to the restored prairie on the south side.

Recent searches for massasaugas organized by Eric Smith, a regional Heritage Biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, came up empty until Mosheh Wolf found a baby massasauga in 2000. In 2002, researchers from the U of I and the Department of Natural Resources captured an adult male, nicknamed Al, who was large enough to be implanted with a radio transmitter. In the ensuing years, Al has led researchers to two female snakes, which together have given birth to more than twenty young over this period. Tracking Al has also made it possible for Allerton managers to time their prairie burns so as not to put him and other massasaugas at risk.

Speaking of risk, I would emphasize that although Al is venomous, the risk he poses for people who enjoy Allerton’s natural areas is miniscule. Massasaugas prefer to avoid people, and have proven to be very good at doing so.

A special thanks to Chris Phillips, of the Center for Biodiversity at the Illinois Natural History Survey, and Fran Harty of the Nature Conservancy, for their help with today’s story.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Trees, Green Space, and Human Well-being

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If you think of trees and green space as amenities—things people like, but which they can live well without—researchers with the Human-Environment Research Lab at the University of Illinois would like you to think again. A group that includes both psychologists and environmental planners, they’ve been studying how people’s well-being is affected by the presence or absence of nature in their immediate surroundings for more than a decade.

In their most recent study, conducted on a nationwide scale, psychologists Andrea Taylor and Frances Kuo have found that children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD, experienced a significant reduction in symptoms after they participated in activities in green settings. Whatever the activity—whether it was playing basketball or reading a book—the degree of relief from ADHD symptoms was tied to the greenness of the setting in which it took place, with relatively green settings like tree-lined streets, backyards and parks trumping the indoors or outdoor places that lacked greenery.

The potential use of activity in green places as a treatment for symptoms of ADHD should come as welcome news for those concerned with the some 2 million school-aged children in the U.S. who live with this neurological disorder. Whether a “dose of green” is used in conjunction with or in place of other therapies, it costs nothing and it comes without the side effects of the drugs most commonly used to treat ADHD.

Taylor and Kuo’s findings about the benefits of trees and greenery for the alleviation of ADHD symptoms serve as an extension of previous research by the Human-Environment Research Lab on the role of green spaces in human well-being.

Working primarily in Chicago’s public housing neighborhoods, Lab researchers have compared life in housing units that are identical except for the amount of trees and greenspace around them. There they have found that, all else being equal, trees and greenspace make life better in some very important and measurable ways.

In another study that focused on the connection between greenery and attention, for example, researchers found that inner-city girls who had green views from their windows at home possessed a greater degree of self-discipline than girls who did not. On average, according to the study, the greener a girl’s view from home the better she concentrates, the less she acts impulsively and the longer she can delay gratification. These capacities equip girls to behave in ways that foster success both in school and later life.

Interestingly, this study found that the benefits of a green view from home did not extend to boys, perhaps, the authors speculated, because boys tend to play farther from home than girls.

Other studies conducted by the Human-Environment Research Lab suggest that residents of housing with trees and green space immediately outside experience a host of further benefits: a greater sense of community, a reduced risk of street crime, lower levels of violence and aggression between domestic partners, and a better capacity to cope with life’s demands, especially the stresses of living in poverty.

There is a cumulative message in all of this. As a society, we need to recognize that trees and greenspace are not luxuries, but necessary components of healthy human habitat.