A little background before I begin is in order. Home inspectors on the internet fall into two groups: those who use forums to discuss issues; and those who use blogs to communicate. Those of the blog camp reach out to the public more than forum users, since one main forum is meant only for inspectors. Inspectors who blog are quite few. Those who post on a regular basis are fewer still, and most of us know one another through networking sites like Active Rain. When a controversy arises about best practices of home design, it is quickly discovered by all.
A new firm hawking its services managed to ignite such a flare up, in which I did become slightly involved. The details are unimportant of the actually discussion, because upon thinking about it, I found that a bigger issue was at hand. How should a home be designed to fit the best interests of the client and the environment?
Traditional design of dwellings for many centuries up to the early part of the twentieth involved using passive design elements to accomplish objectives for the home. For example, in a hot, sunny climate, porches surrounded homes to provide shade on the walls. Stair cases were positioned in the center of the house to take the drafts from windows through the house pushing hot air up and out. This meant different windows had to be opened and closed at different times of the day. Ceilings were higher to allow the hot air to rise while keeping cooler air down where people lived. Walls were thicker to provide thermal insulation so heat stayed out or in, depending on the time of year. This methods are all passive, because they do not rely on the use of a machine. Except for the need to open and close windows, no effort was needed by the homeowner, nor energy used.
We became creative with adding comfort to our homes, and we found that by mechanical means we could improve the quality of our life. Air conditioners, water heaters, and fans are examples of mechanical devices that offer comfort. For the most part, they run without much need for our involvement too, but they do use energy. As our understanding of how to prevent certain problems from occurring, like moisture build-up, we found mechanical means of dealing with them. Instead of opening a window to vent steam from a bathroom, we could turn on a fan.
This is where home inspectors find issues in a structure. Bathroom fans are seen as getting rid of odors by the public, so they are not properly set up to do their intended job. Attic fans to remove heat are frequently disconnected, when they start making noise; thereby causing another problem in the attic. This list could go on, but my point is that mechanical systems use energy from service providers, and they can be found to be of no use when not maintained or used for their intended purpose.
Many architects looking into creating green buildings have returned to passive design elements, because they will continue to work without power or human intervention. However, some mechanical methods can be quite useful. A solar powered vent for an attic space can be quite useful. You will not be pulling power from the grid, and you have a mechanical means of accomplishing the task. Many homes may not have the best access to being fully off the grid, so a combination of passive design and wise equipment choices will be the best option for most homeowners.
Although your home may not have been built with a passive design in mind, you can take steps to create these elements into the home. A deciduous tree can provide shade during the summer to cool the home, while providing warmth from sun light during the winter. I think that a smart use of mechanical methods is needed in our homes, while relying on more passive elements is a necessary step in making our homes green.