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West U's Environmental Oasis
by Charles Stillman

On the corner of Sunset Blvd and Sewanee St in West University is a wonderful example of sustainable architecture. The house and its surrounding landscape are models of smart, eco-friendly and resource efficient design. Patsy Cravens has long been conscious of the harm done to the environment and says that throughout her life, she has “always been interested in treading with care on nature.” Patsy’s mother, Mary Catherine Cullinan, lectured for more than 25 years about the dangers posed by chemicals, particularly fertilizers, and the value of organic gardening. So when Patsy decided to build her new house, she naturally sought to apply sustainable principles to its design and construction.

A lush garden bursting with variety and color greets you on your way to the front door. In place of the customary St. Augustine grass of her neighbors, Patsy has opted for xeriscaping- the practice of landscaping with native flora. Despite the overwhelming prevalence of St. Augustine grass on Houston’s residential landscapes, the grass is not native to this area. Non-native plant species tend to be resource and maintenance intensive- requiring significantly more water, nutrients and overall care than their native counterparts and St. Augustine is no exception. In lieu of grass, beautiful gardens carpet the front and back yards- their design inspired by nature itself. Under the masterful direction of gardener Will Fleming, the diverse garden vegetation includes beautiful flowers like the iris, grasses such as wheat flax and trees including several that bear fruit, as well as a number of assorted native plants and vegetables. All thrive in the twelve inches of rich organic soil that houses their roots. The gardens are an oasis for the birds, butterflies and other insects in the area. Patsy had a rain catchment system installed to utilize rain water. Rain is collected from the roof gutters and runs through a system of pipes before being filtered and collected in a large cistern. Always looking to conserve resources, Patsy opted to use a second-hand culvert for the cistern. Water is transferred through another set of pipes to the gardens for irrigation. A large fountain that doubles as a sculpture, carries water from the roof into a small pond housing goldfish and lily pads by the house.

The smartly planned house was designed by architect and University of Texas at Austin professor David Heymann. Mainland Construction helped transform Heymann’s plans into reality. The house is a superb example of passive solar design, a method of building with the sun in mind. It is situated so as to reduce heat gain from the sun, while taking full advantage of its light. To limit direct exposure to the sun, passive solar structures are built with their longest dimensions facing north and south. The east and west sides of Patsy’s house, which bear the brunt of the sun’s heat are narrow and shaded. A twelve foot roof overhang on the south side of the home shades the large windows and walls from the intense summer sun.

The eco-friendly and resource efficient design theme continues inside. A few of these elements include the reclaimed wood that is used in the flooring and kitchen countertops. Icestone, a composite using recycled concrete and glass, is featured in the bathroom countertops. Rubber is used for the studio floors. The large, highly-efficient windows along its north and south sides block a large portion of the sun’s heat from making its way inside, while allowing for plenty of sunlight and beautiful views of the gardens outside. Fly ash, a waste byproduct of the coal combustion process, was used in the creation of the home’s concrete foundation.

To accompany the other advanced features of the house, Patsy had a geothermal heat pump system installed by Gulf Coast Heating and Air Conditioning to cool and heat her home. Geothermal energy is a clean and renewable energy source that takes advantage of the near constant, unfluctuating temperature just below ground. Below the Earth’s surface, the soil maintains a temperature between 50° and 60°F. A system of pipes planted far below ground ferry water to and from a heat pump. The system works by exchanging heat. When its cold outside the warmer liquid is used as a heat source and drawn to the heat pump where its heat is concentrated and pumped indoors. In warmer weather, the heat pump removes heat from inside the house and sends it to the underground system of pipes where the colder liquid acts to cool the air. The cooler air is further chilled by compressors and sent back indoors. Compared to the conventional electric systems which draw from outside air to cool or heat a structure, geothermal heat pump systems are much quieter, require less maintenance, and last longer. They are also considerably more efficient. An EPA study found that geothermal heat pumps were as much as 72 percent more efficient than electric heating and air conditioning systems. The Department of Energy estimates that the average home can save from $300 to $800 a year in energy costs by using a geothermal system.

Patsy’s visionary home embraces the best of both worlds with its thoughtful mix of native landscaping and the advanced, eco-friendly and resource efficient features of the home. Great care has been taken to make as little an environmental impact as possible, without needing to sacrifice any modern amenities. For more information on building in a more sustainable manner or ways to retrofit your current home please visit:

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