John B. Carnett

The Green Dream Gets Ready for a Green Roof

Laying down the foundation for my rooftop garden

Why bother with an unsightly and inefficient flat tar roof when you can look out the window at a teeming green garden? That's why I'm turning part of my roof green. I'll post more detail about what I'm growing and the DIY tray-based system I'm growing plants in, but before any of that can happen, the roof itself needs to be prepared to hold several inches of dirt without collapsing or flooding my upstairs. For that, I went with a multi-layer system: insulation, rigid roof board and a thermoplastic barrier.

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The Green Dream Home Gets a Crucial Second Skin

An extra panel system called ZIP saves the day

Building this house has been a constant learning experience, and today was no exception. My original plan was to build the walls from special insulated structural panels from Kama-Eebs, add some simple "X" braces to control shear, and throw on some housewrap before attaching my siding. And that would have been the cheapest and most ideal solution, but the more I looked at the final Kama panels installed the more I began to question the wisdom of that idea.

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Green Dream Hits a Snag

The insulated panels are the perfect building material ... as long as they fit

We recently installed the panel roof system over the kitchen area and hit the first of our inevitable early-adopter glitches. The roof panels are 11 inches thick and much heavier than the wall panels, as they have much more embedded steel to carry both my green roof and the snow load here in upstate New York. The things are dense and required a serious effort for two to carry around. Even with all that beefiness, the engineer asked me to put a horizontal steel beam through the middle of the room for added support. The panels were supposed to meet at the beam and fit seamlessly together. The key words there: supposed to. Read on for the reality.

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The Green Dream Gets Walls

I’m standing on top of the third floor after a very productive day of putting the Kama Eebs panels and the upper joists in place. When the panels arrived, we had just put them in piles all around my site so it was a bit of work just playing the find-and-seek game to get the proper panel to the correct wall location. But then it was just a matter of gluing and screwing the track into place, spraying foam onto both the shiplap joint and the track and tilting the panel into place. Once you have a tight fit, you screw the track and the shiplap joint together and move on to the next unit.

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Green Dream: The Walls Are Here!

The delivery of the first batch of walls sets off a flurry of activity

One of the most unique things about my green home is the walls: instead of a standard "stick-frame" construction, I'm using special insulated panels from a company called Kama-Eebs, which have all sorts of advantages in efficiency and heat retention.

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Welding, Part One: Gear Selection

My welding hobby started shortly after I got a bid for a steel staircase. As with everything, the money always causes me to do the Carnett calculation:

  • How much is the equipment?
  • How much is the material?
  • How much did that guy say he wanted?
  • How much can I save?

Then I run off to buy the gear.

This of course leaves out the skill to do any of these things -- but the Carnett calculation includes the discovery phase, where I make all my mistakes, ask just about anyone for help, and somehow come out on the other side a more skilled operator. And 50 percent of the time, I really do save money.

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White-Out at Sixty-Five Miles Per Hour

Carnett has an automotive setback

My primary means of getting around town is a 1979 Land Rover that has been fitted out with a 2005 300 TDI engine. You may have seen me walking this morning with my head down. Yes, I walked 30 minutes for a cup of coffee. I enjoy walking, but it is hard to build a house without a truck.

My Land Rover doesn't have one temp gauge; it has two. I look at both and compare them and wonder why one is higher. None of the gauges are correct, so it really matters very little. That was till yesterday, when I found myself at 65 mph with my head out the window, the cabin filled with white smoke, and a serious panic on. I managed to find the shoulder, and bailed out, thinking the rig was on fire.

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The Green Dream

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Green Dream Gallery: Breaking Ground

A few photos on site from the early stages of the build

Even though I spend most of my time thinking about geothermal heating systems and backyard solar plants for my green home, in the end, a house is a house; holes must be dug, foundations must be laid, steel delivered and erected, and so on. Here's a look at our progress in that less glamorous but wholly necessary department.

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Green Dream: Putting the Earth to Work With a Geothermal Heating System

Drilling a geothermal well to help cool and heat the dream home

Any green home worth its weight in compost draws heavily on solar energy. Mine is equipped with all the standard offerings, such as a solar-powered boiler, the subject of my last column. Trouble is, the sun doesn’t always shine. So to make up the difference during cold, dark winters and rainy spells, I’m turning to another eco-friendly energy source: my backyard. The two 325-foot-deep geothermal wells I’m boring there will use the constant 50°F temperature of the Earth at that depth to meet all my extra heating and cooling demands.

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Green Dream: The Swiss Cheese Staircase

Our Green Dream builder conjures a steel sculpture that will also get people to the second floor

Next week I’m going to build the primary steel staircase for the house. Over the last 24 hours the design has changed more than three times. It’s not that I don’t know what I want, it’s just that I have a crazy architect, Timon Phillips, and an even more crazy friend, Vin Marshall, who engineered and designed what I’m calling the “mouse tower” concept and will be welding it with me. (Lesson one of a DIY build: If your friends are as nuts as you are, nothing in your home is going to be normal or easy.)

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Green Dream: An All-Electric ATV

The Green Dream needs a green ride around the property

Polaris has just introduced an electric version of the Ranger 400 side-by-side. This is very exciting to me. As you may remember, I'm the guy who built a rather non-green jet turbine side-by-side, but 114 dB does get old after a while.

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The Green Dream: A Whole-House Lighting System That Creates Its Own Energy

Every home needs lights. But for the Green Dream? Forget copper wire between lights and light switches, three-way switches and batteries; I’m looking at Verve’s lighting control system—-a wireless solution that uses radio frequencies to control a home’s lights, allowing you to put your light switches wherever you want--on your wall, in your pocket or even the dash of your car.

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Green Dream: A Solar Power Plant in Your Backyard

John B. Carnett, PopSci's staff photographer, is using the latest green technology to build his dream home. This is the first entry in his new blog tracking the build--follow along at

No, it's not a death ray. The folks at RawSolar are creating what looks like a very affordable solar thermal tracking dish. This is a mini version of the concentrating solar power systems you see commercially in the 25 kilowatt range.

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