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Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture


Remodel Green: Make Your House Serve Your Life
My new book is hot off the press! It is always exciting to have the actual book in my hand and see the real manifestation of all those days of work. Remodel Green: Make Your House Serve Your Life is the second book in my series about green home building (the first was Rolling Shelter: Vehicles We Have Called Home) and it chronicles much of the personal remodeling I have done over my life.

I organized the chapters to focus on specific aspects of green remodeling, using examples from my experience to illustrate the points I make. The book is lavishly illustrated with photos from all of those projects, so it is a fun book to browse. My dear friend, Lee Temple from www.PrimaMundi.com, wrote a fine Foreword for the book, placing its message in the greater context of global environmental awareness. To remodel an existing structure to suit your needs is fundamentally a sustainable activity, because it means that you are salvaging a considerable amount of embodied energy rather than causing all of the new embodied energy that any new building would entail. 

I write about how to fit a house to your needs, and how to assess what those needs really are in the first place. I emphasize the value of compact design and show how I remodeled a garage to create a large office, a small shop and attic storage space. I also explain how we remodeled a small manufactured home to provide all the space we needed. I delve back into the 1970's when my wife and I joined two of my sisters and their families to make homes together in an old Catholic kid's summer camp. Our share of the space was a rickety row of cabins joined together with an exterior walkway, so you can imagine how challenging that was.

One chapter is about allowing the sun into your house for passive solar heat and shows how I have done this on several occasions. I created a sunspace addition on the south side of one house, and in another I added extra windows, along with thermal mass. In Mexico, I enclosed two different patios to create passive solar rooms.

Strategies for passively cooling your house are explored, with examples of wrapping the house with radiant barrier foil, adding more thermal mass to the inside, or creating bermed walls. I write about more exotic measures, such as tempering the incoming air by ducting it through underground pipes, or creating wind catchers, as is commonly done in the Middle East.

I explain how to go about adding photovoltaic panels to produce all of the renewable electricity you might need. In my case this was a net metering situation connected to the grid, but also combined a backup battery for times that the grid might be down. Solar thermal panels for domestic hot water are also explained.

One chapter is devoted to water conservation, with examples of two separate rainwater catchment systems. I have had experience with several composting toilets; one was Swedish Clivus Multrum design that I fabricated myself. I write about the pros and cons of compost toilets.

I advocate the use of local, natural, and recycled materials for building, and show many examples of how I have done this with my remodeling projects. Doing this can often save a lot of money, which I consider to be another sustainable attribute.

I deal with nutritional sustenance, through growing your own produce with gardens, greenhouses and cold frames. And then I show how I have created several naturally cooled pantries or root cellars to store the produce that is grown.

Then I go back in time again to that family commune at the summer camp and write about how beneficial it was to share so many facilities, as well as social and logistical benefits.

The last chapter is a look toward the future and how important it really is to pay attention to how we use materials, resources and energy, so that the future will be pleasant for us and our progeny.




Making Better Buildings


Chris Magwood’s Making Better Buildings is a comparative guide to sustainable construction for homeowners and contractors. It is also a masterpiece of research and experience folded into an encyclopedic reference book for anyone interested in sustainable approaches to our built environment. Clearly a labor of love and a commitment to improving our situation on Earth, this book will have enduring value.

To my knowledge, building science has never been approached with such an attitude of precise evaluation of all of the factors that affect the environmental impact of materials and building systems. Chris Magwood looks at both common, and not-so-common, ways of building to see how they stack up against each other, giving the reader the opportunity to compare every environmental and economic aspect. His criteria for this evaluation embrace environmental impacts, embodied energy, waste, energy efficiency, material costs, labor inputs, ease of construction for homeowners, sourcing/availability, durability, code compliance, indoor air quality, and future development. The environmental impacts include harvesting the material, manufacturing, transportation, and installation. Simple bar graphs indicate at a glance just how “green” each material or system might be.

In addition to this meticulous look at materials and systems, Chris provides an overview of how each system works, in terms of methodology and skill. Here we can benefit from his many years of experience as a builder and teacher to offer tips for successful installations.

Foundation systems evaluated include earthbag, stone, rammed earth tires, screw and wooden piers, poured concrete, concrete masonry units, autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, certain insulated concrete forms, and rubble trenches. At the end of the chapter Chris explains why he decided not to evaluate several very common foundation systems, such as pressure treated wood and concrete slab foundations. Basically he feels that these are so inherently unsustainable that he doesn’t want to encourage their use. I would have preferred that he included these popular concepts to allow the reader to form his own opinion about how sustainable they might be, based on the data itself.

Wall systems evaluated include wood frame, straw bale, cob, cordwood, rammed earth, compressed earth block, and adobe. Chris indicates that many of the foundation systems can also be extended upward to incorporate whole walls, such as using earthbags for this. In this regard he failed to recognize that since earthbags can be filled with a wide range of materials (besides compacted earth), they can be tailored to meet a wide range of needs ranging from highly insulated to entirely thermal mass walls.

Choices for insulating walls include cotton batt, straw/clay, hempcrete, hemp batt, perlite loose-fill, mineral wool, cementitious foam, wool batt, and cellulose. Again, some very popular insulated wall systems (including structural insulated panels and insulated concrete forms) are not thoroughly evaluated, other than to specify why they are too unsustainable.

Floor and roof structures are combined into one chapter, and include wood framing, wood trusses, wooden I-beams, glulam framing, open web steel joists, timber framing (and post and beam), conical grain bin roofs, slab based floors. Then, as a separate chapter, various sheathing and cladding materials are evaluated. Earthen plaster, wood planks, plywood and oriented stand board, gypsum board, magnesium oxide board, fired clay brick, lime plaster, and stone are all indicated as useful for cladding walls. Roof sheathing includes metal roofing, cedar shakes and shingles, thatch, slate, composite shingles, green/living roofs, and clay tile. For flooring materials we have earthen floors, hardwood, softwood, tile, linoleum, bamboo, cork, and concrete.

The environmental viability of various surface finishing materials is evaluated. Here we have earthen plaster, lime plaster and paint, milk paint, silicate paint, acrylic paint, oil paint, natural oils and waxes, wallpaper and coverings.

The final chapters deal with utilities and mechanical systems. As sources for water, there are surface water, well water, rainwater catchment, and desalinated water. To pump that water, most common pumping systems are described.  Possible water filtration is outlined. Common pipe materials are evaluated for their environmental impact. For waste treatment, we have municipal wastewater systems, septic systems, and compost toilets.

For heating and cooling, passive solar, solar hydronic, solar hot air, various heat pumps, boilers, on-demand heaters, tank heaters, forced air furnaces, wood and pellet stoves, and masonry heaters are all considered. For electricity, there is grid power, photovoltaic power, wind turbines, and micro hydro turbines.

From all of these lists you can gain a sense of how comprehensive this book really is. Over 400 pages of in depth data and evaluation give both professionals and homeowners the ability to make informed choices about all of the materials and systems that go into putting together a house.

One thing became abundantly clear to me as I read through all the various chapters: building codes are pathetically out-dated, and don’t really take into account the truly important environmental considerations in their prescriptive codes. This must change if we want to move toward a sustainable future!




Rolling Shelter: Vehicles We Have Called Home


Are you interested in RV living? Rolling Shelter: Vehicles We Have Called Home is a personal account of Kelly and Rosana Hart's life in two different buses, three vans, two small motor homes, two travel trailers combined into one house, and two cars. Kelly tells stories about how they spent time exploring the western United States, Mexico and Guatemala, all the while living in various RV's. This book will inspire you and give you some ideas for how you might take advantage of vehicles to provide shelter in your life.

In full color, the book features over 200 photographs and 5 detailed floor plans. With descriptions of how the conversions were accomplished, it is valuable both as an overview of vehicular dwelling and as a construction manual for how you might convert your own.

One of the true joys of living in a vehicle is that it can be moved to new and exciting locations with relative ease. If you like to travel, but prefer to have your own bed and your own kitchen, then consider living in a motor home of some sort.

The chapters include: "Our First Bus Home" showing the artistic conversion of a school bus parked on the rugged California coast; "Extra Wheels" describes a versatile step van and a Navy radar van used as a film studio; "Van Dwelling" features a Ford Econoline van equipped for travel into remote places and a VW Vanagon camper; "Juniper Ridge" shows how they made a unique home combining two long travel trailers into one home that could accommodate some of their llamas; "Tortuga & CanDo" were both small Dolphin motor homes built on Toyota trucks; "Here & There" was a full scale conversion of a 40 foot inter-city bus in which they traveled around the western United States.
 




The Greened House Effect

Published in 2013 by Chelsea Green, The Greened House Effect: Renovating Your Home with a Deep Energy Retrofit, by Jeff Wilson, is a worthy read. Jeff Wilson is committed to doing what he can to conserve energy and safeguard our environment, and he does this through tackling his own home with a deep energy retrofit (DER). As a media professional focused on sustainable architecture and a former builder, he brings considerable knowledge to the topic. His detailed account of the experience is both instructive and entertaining.

The Wilson family had dreamed of building a new house in the countryside, abandoning their 70 year old house in Athens, Ohio. But then they realized that the more ecological thing to do was to stay put, drive less, and make their existing house more comfortable and energy efficient. They hired a professional energy consultant to perform a thorough energy audit of the old house, and he found many places to focus their attention on to get the best return on their investment.

While discussing the choices they made for their particular situation, Jeff covers practically all aspects of accomplishing a DER in general. His aim is to inform the reader of all of the options available for their personal situation. So while he describes the specifics of performing the renovation from the exterior of their house, he also explains how the same ends could be met through an interior retrofit.

The goal in all of this work is to greatly improve comfort and energy efficiency through adding insulation, sealing out air leaks, and reducing thermal bridging throughout the exterior envelope of the house. This includes foundations, floors, walls and roofs. The Wilsons managed to reduce the cost of the energy used in their house by 85% with the modifications they made, which included the replacement of some inefficient appliances.

While they were in the disruptive process of renovation, they decided that this would also be a good time to make a needed addition to their house, providing garage and office space. This led to completely changing the angle of part of their roof, and this made it possible to conveniently add solar electric panels on that roof. They mitigated the cost of the photovoltaic system through tax and renewable energy credits.

Jeff does mention how passive solar retrofitting can increase efficiency, bringing in sunlight to help heat your home, but he never explains why he opted not to do this in his own DER project. I would have preferred more emphasis on passive solar design, particularly given that a major home renovation can often benefit from this. Likewise, the role of thermal mass within the thermal envelope of the home is not adequately discussed. I feel that any house can be improved thermally with the strategic distribution of thermal mass, even when passive solar windows are not employed.

I appreciate the depth of detailed information provided in this book and recommend it to anyone considering taking on a home renovation project and would like to make their home more energy efficient.




The Barefoot Architect -- A Review


This is the first English edition of a book originally written in Spanish, published in the 1980’s and distributed widely in Mexico and throughout Latin America. Shelter Publications made this new edition available in 2008 because of the relevance of the content to our current times.

A massive paperback of about 700 pages, The Barefoot Architect could almost be considered a complete compendium of indigenous building techniques from Latin America. Van Lengen’s approach to explaining the concepts presented is extremely graphic, so the book is full of thousands of hand-drawn images, and these images really help convey the subtleties of designs and ideas.

At the outset the reader is given the basics of how to design a house, along with the fundamentals of drawing plans. The constant objective is to provide the tools for people to come up with their own plans based on the guidelines outlined in the book.

In designing a house, the local climate will determine many aspect of what is appropriate. To help emphasize this van Lengen divides climate zones into “humid tropical,” “dry tropical” and “temperate” zones. Most of the strategies presented for “temperate” zones are applicable to building in North America and Europe, although these regions could benefit from a greater emphasis on insulation.

Guidelines are given for choosing a site based on environmental considerations in order to provide sufficient ventilation, light, heat, drainage, etc. The recommendations go beyond single residential development, with public or commercial buildings and whole communities embraced; this is also a book about urban or village planning to some extent.

Each climate zone is examined in detail according to what house shapes and design elements are appropriate. In the humid tropics you want high-pitched roofs that readily shed rain, don’t heat up so much in the sun, and allow space under them for interior heat to rise. Substantial eaves will keep moisture off the walls. Good ventilation is essential. Specific building instructions are given for working with common materials found in the tropics, such as bamboo and palm leaves.

In the dry tropics comfort depends on good air circulation and providing plenty of shaded areas, such as with open courtyards. Details for constructing wind catchers and natural evaporative cooling concepts are shown. Earth berming is encouraged to help moderate temperatures. Vaults and domes work well in arid climates, and the construction of these is detailed.

In temperate climates that require heating it is best to pay attention to how the sun can be harnessed to do this, and many aspects of passive solar design are presented. Simple fireplace and wood stove designs are detailed. Ways to keep cold winds from sapping heat from the house are explained. Tempering inlet air by passing it through the ground is another strategy discussed.

Following the climate specific sections, the book dives into exploring a variety of building materials, mostly of natural origin. These include earth, sand, lime, wood, cactus, bamboo, sisal, ferrocement and seacrete. Guidelines for how to choose appropriate materials, with an emphasis on sustainability, are provided. Van Lengen details some uncommon techniques that could be quite useful for a variety of projects, such as making “concrete shell panels” for supporting roofs.

The largest section of the book (186 pages) is devoted to the construction of all of the different parts of a house, starting with foundations and proceeding through walls, floors, roofs, doors, windows, and utilities. I recognize many of the methods as being quite common in Mexico from the time that I lived there. Stone, adobe, wattle and daub, plant fiber, bricks, home-made concrete lintels, thatching, green roofs and joinery techniques are just a few of the topics covered. You can learn how to make stairs, leveling tools, sinks, silos, wheelbarrows, lathes and ladders in this book.

The chapter on energy covers windmills, waterwheels, solar water heaters, solar dryers, an ice maker, masonry stoves and solar cookers. The amazing thing is that enough description is given for a person to make all of these items from common, easy to find materials.

There is a substantial chapter on water that describes ways to develop water from a spring or creek, how to make several styles of pumps, how to make pipes from bamboo, how to make cisterns and how to dig a well. Various methods of filtering, purifying and distilling water are also shown, along with how to make a simple evaporative cooler. The final chapter is about sanitation and covers outhouses, composting toilets and drainage around a house.

It is amazing that one book can explain so much in enough detail for a person to actually take advantage of what is presented. Anyone interested in developing a basic, down-to-earth homestead could save hundreds or thousands of dollars by follow the advice given in this book. But not just money is being saved, it is our world through ecological, sustainable solutions like those presented here that will make life possible in the future.




The Natural Building Companion: A Review


The Natural Building Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to Integrative Design and Construction, by Jacob Deva Racusin and Ace McArleton, published in 2012 by Chelsea Green Publishing is a book with a rare degree of detail on the topics covered. It is an extremely valuable resource for those interested in actually building with the materials that it covers, which are primarily wood, straw, earth and stone. The experience and focus of the authors is on appropriate techniques for the climate of the Northeastern United States. This book would make an excellent text book, and indeed the authors are associated with Yestermorrow, the design/build school in Vermont.
 

It begins with a thorough investigation of the context for natural building, especially in the Northeast; ecological factors, proper siting for buildings, the geology of mineral building materials, as well as local plant and animal products, are all covered with great detail.

The next section dives into the science and performance of building technologies, dealing first with structural issues related to straw bale and mass walls. Thermal performance strategies for natural building are investigated with a lot of corroborating data from actual testing the authors have done.

A whole chapter is devoted to issues related to moisture and how it affects buildings. How to keep excess moisture out of buildings, the importance of breathable walls, how to provide good drainage around buildings, and the effectiveness of rain screen design is explored. Mitigating the risk of fire and insect damage is also discussed.

How do you approach making proper design choices in the first place, taking into account the need for balancing cost, time and quality? Where are your priorities in this regard? They point out that non-standard construction often takes more time, and thus costs more, but the end product may be of higher quality.

One of the best chapters in my opinion is devoted to foundations for buildings, with some of the clearest illustrations I’ve seen for exactly how various types of foundations are actually made. These cover frost wall foundations using AAC blocks, insulated concrete forms, rubble trench, frost-protected shallow foundations, pole and pier, and rammed tires. A chapter on various framing methods for natural buildings focuses on post and beam, timber framing, pole framing, stud wall framing, and even steel framing.

Exploring natural insulative wall systems, such as straw bale, is really at the heart of this book. It goes into great detail on this subject, almost to the point of being a separate book within a book. Along with straw bale, both straw-clay and woodchip-clay are covered.

The use of earth and stone to construct natural mass wall structures comprises another chapter. This includes the use of adobe, wattle and daub, stone, rammed earth, rammed tire, and earthbag. There is a side bar in this chapter that describes cordwood, and I feel that their treatment of this well established natural building technique is unfortunately unduly negative.

There is an excellent section on natural plasters and paints and how to mix and apply them. This is one of the best presentations of a subject that is frequently skirted in books that I’ve seen. A range of appropriate roofs for natural buildings is covered, and so are flooring options. To finish the book, available choices for mechanical systems and utilities are explained.

Altogether, I feel that this book is well worth its hefty price ($60), given that it not only provides such a wealth of detail and analysis, but it is also packaged with a comprehensive DVD of instructional material that dovetails with the content. I give the book high marks indeed.




Kelly Hart Interviewed on Talkupy
I will be interviewed on an internet podcast this coming Tuesday, September 4th, at 11AM Eastern Time. The program is called Talkupy with Annie Lindstrom, (as in "occupy") and should last about an hour. I will be discussing how to build homes using nature as your guide. If you miss the show it can accessed at their archives. Go to www.blogtalkradio.com/talkupy/2012/09/04/kelly-hart--building-homes-with-nature-1 to either listen to the live podcast or find the archived show.



Tiny Homes--Simple Shelter

Lloyd Kahn has done it again! He has published another seminal work on the general topic of shelter. This one is devoted to the art of living in small spaces…in style. Tiny Homes, Simple shelter: Scaling Back in the 21st Century is another amazing book with over a thousand photos detailing more than you could ever imagine about the beauty and construction of tiny houses. By “tiny” Lloyd means no larger than 500 sq. ft., but many of them are much smaller than this.

Having built and lived in many odd small structures, I can certainly appreciate the craft and utility of this approach to shelter. What I didn’t realize was the extent to which this movement has captured the imagination of common folk. Clearly the economic climate is part of the reason for this, as is the ecological realization that scaling back is often the right thing to do. Small design goes hand in hand with using recycled materials, and the result is cheap, ecological homes. There are builders across the country who are now finding a market for little buildings that can easily be hauled to any site after they have been built.

Dwellers of these little homes are finding that life can be simpler when space is at a premium, partly because the temptation to buy more stuff is thwarted by the impracticality of storing it. Also, one has to become neater and more orderly about keeping things in their place; otherwise life becomes unbearable. And folks find that they actually spend more time outside, another pleasurable and healthful benefit.

Lloyd has organized this colorful book into several chapters, each of which deals with the topic in a different way. There are homes that are fixed on foundations, on wheels, designed by architects or not, prefabs and kits, those made of earthy materials, treehouses, motorhomes, and even boats. The aesthetics can suit any impulse, from the funkiest of hippie hovel to high end architectural achievement. Some of these abodes are true artistic masterpieces of woodworker’s craft, and some are strictly utilitarian in style and function.

Nearly all of the homes shown are described in some detail, either by the builder or the dweller, so there is personal narrative that is woven throughout the book. This makes the work inspiring on many levels; often these little homes were built by folks who have never built anything before, and become empowered by the experience of making something they can actually live in.

Because these little homes can be hauled to a location or built on site with fewer materials, they are often located in spectacular places, with views and a relationship with the nature around them that is breathtaking.

I applaud this movement toward living more simply and ecologically, and I applaud Lloyd Kahn for providing a totally pleasurable glimpse into this little world!




Kelly Hart Speaking at Bonfire Heights
I have been asked to make a presentation at a wonderful event that will be happening in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California this Fall. It is called Bonfire Heights and judging by the range of speakers and workshops planned it should be quite worthwhile and a lot of fun. Besides my presentation about "Building with Nature," others will be discussing permaculture, Occupy Wall Street, truth telling, finding the right career, building community, and more. There is  an associated blog about this event and I was interviewed for this.



Building Sustainability: Graduate Programs and Sustainable Architecture
by guest blogger Brooke Folliot

Sustainability has quickly become a buzzword in business, news media and even pop culture for the past several years. While, most people have a vague idea that sustainability refers to a need to be careful with our resources, there is still a fair amount of confusion regarding what sustainability really means. Many businesses have begun touting sustainable building as a way of PR posturing, creating an image of empathy and humanity. Still, many academic organizations have begun to take sustainable building very seriously. For architecture and design students, and even those who are simply interested in living sustainably, a growing number of available resources are cropping up. Architecture and design graduate degree programs in the US and around the world are adapting their programs around a philosophy that fosters a greater appreciation of our limited resources.
Many of the schools with the most admired graduate programs should come as no surprise: Harvard University, Columbia, MIT and Yale are listed by Architectural Record as the most admired graduate programs. However, from a perspective of sustainable design practices, a list of schools that are still highly regarded, but a little more attainable for the average architecture student, are listed: University of Oregon, Virginia Polytechnic and State University and University of California, Berkeley are all acknowledged for their progressively-minded programs emphasizing sustainability. The Ivy league does seem to be heading in the same direction, with Yale recently adding a joint-degree program between the Architecture School and the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
       
No doubt there are many people interested in sustainable building without the means or interest in pursuing a full architecture degree, and an increasing number of schools are catering directly to these students. Schools have begun offering free downloads of courses in architecture, urban design and engineering, and while these downloadable lectures offer no way to earn credits towards a degree, they offer anyone with an internet connection and an interest in sustainability the same lecture notes, videos and assignments as registered students. MIT, University of Notre Dame and Utah State University offer on-line lectures on Artchitecture, Art and Planning. University of Hong Kong even offers English language courses in sustainable architecture and energy-efficient design.
       
One problem sustainable building programs have had in the past is a lack of consensus on what sustainable building actually entails. In 2000 this issue was addressed with the creation of the LEED building certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Design. To receive LEED accreditation a building must meet the sustainability standards in materials, efficiency and energy usage created by the US Green Building Council. It is a straightforward way for companies to gauge how they compare to other buildings, and it also can act as a partial standard for universities to use in educating their students.
In the coming years, corporations and governments worldwide will be looking at updating their facilities to maximize sustainability. After all, while it sounds great from a PR standpoint for a business to proclaim they are 'Going Green!', in the end, sustainability means serious energy savings. According to the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting, for example, the city has begun replacing their existing streetlight fixtures with LED units, which they claim will save energy by 40% every year and reduce maintenance costs. In the end, these measures mean serious savings for governments and companies. With sustainable building still a relatively new concept, the market seems to have large potential for growth, ensuring we will see more programs and more opportunities for architects, designers and laymen to learn and apply sustainable building at work and at home.




Architect Angus Macdonald Now at Dream Green Homes
 I am pleased to announce that Angus W. Macdonald has joined our team of architects and designers who are represented at www.dreamgreenhomes.com. Angus received his Masters degree from the Yale School of Architecture along with the AIA medal for Excellence in the Study of Architecture in 1967. He wrote a construction manual for owner-builders on earth tempered housing, about how to site, design, finance, and build energy independent passive solar earth berm dwellings. The book was published by the Mother Earth News in 1982. His residential design received NAHB awards for best of show in Fredericksburg, VA, in the under $150,000 and under $250,000 categories in 1990.

In 1996, he filed a patent on the am-cor™ unified steel and cement constructional system composed of light gauge galvanized steel frame panels coated on site with a continuous ferrocement skin. Macdonald's practice is now in Warrenton, Virginia. He holds licenses in: VA, PA, VT, TX, MI, and Washington, DC. He practices general architecture, with emphasis on residential design.

You can see one of his featured plans, Solareon Court, on the website and it is pictured above. The Solareon Court plan features a greenhouse type courtyard with a clerestory facing south. It can be built into a hillside, or superinsulated on flat land. The structure features a post & beam solar greenhouse room with a glass block fountain. Interior plan is open and simple, suitable for Ikea style wardrobes and storage units. This house is truly affordable; an owner builder could build such a plan for under $100,000. Houses that have been built like this need no fossil fuel to maintain comfortable interior year-round.




Adobe Windmills
I have recently been in correspondence with an Iranian researcher, Mostafa Aref haghi, who has chronicled a tradition in Iran of building adobe windmills. At first I thought that it was virtually impossible to build a windmill using adobe. But then as I studied the material that he sent I came to realize that yes, indeed, it is possible to build a windmill using adobe!


Basically the adobe structure provides support for a vertical wood-bladed mill that can be used to grind grain or put to other use. In some cases the adobe structure can also provide a channel for directing the wind toward the mill. I have posted a PDF file with many pictures and some description of these old structures that can be seen at http://greenhomebuilding.com/pdf/adobewindmills.pdf




Passive Solar Architecture

Here is a hefty book with a lengthy title: Passive Solar Architecture: Heating, Cooling, Ventilation, Daylighting and More Using Natural Flows. Written by two veterans of the Passive Solar movement, David Bainbridge and Ken Haggard, this book actually exceeds the promise of the title; it covers everything mentioned plus quite a bit more.

Published in 2011, it is entirely current and relevant to our changing times regarding economic and ecological realities. For the authors “passive architecture” is an umbrella term that includes all dimensions of sustainability in the built environment. They say that, “For human survival and a livable future, the idea and application of sustainability must become part of an epochal cultural shift.” They do their best to nudge this shift along with the publication of this book.

According to the authors, “The failure of the current worldwide economic system is in large part a failure of accounting.” To address this failure, they advocate focusing on triple-bottom-line accounting which includes ecology, economy, and social equity. With this perspective all life-cycle costs over the service life of a building are taken into consideration, including all health and environmental costs.

This book is far from being just theoretical; they very quickly delve into the details of how to achieve a truly energy efficient building. Starting with how a building is situated in place and what materials choices are best, considering the microclimate of that place. The importance of exposure to sun and wind are fully investigated. Human comfort is critical to their thinking, and they make an excellent case that passive approaches to heating, cooling, and lighting yield greater comfort.

The conventional approach to providing heating and cooling during the era of cheap energy has been to simply leave this aspect of design up to a mechanical engineer, who would calculate the appropriate size and placement of an HVAC system. We can no longer afford to design buildings this way.

The interaction of solar gain, thermal mass and insulation is thoroughly explored, starting with the history of passive architecture. Many specific examples and construction details
are provided for both residential and larger scale projects. They stress the importance of finding just the right balance among all of the elements of a passive solar design.

It is rare that architects pay attention to ways to cool and ventilate a building using natural systems of air flow and thermal dynamics, but it is amazing how well this approach can work. This book analyzes strategies for using night time ventilation and radiation and evaporative cooling, as well as landscaping and green roofs or roof ponds. Wind catchers are an ancient way to help cool interior space.

Carefully planned use of natural day light can help save energy, keep space cooler, and make occupants more comfortable and productive. This is another aspect of architecture that has been largely neglected, but must be considered as we become more aware of how to live holistically. An entire chapter is devoted to ways of accomplishing passive lighting that are effective and aesthetically pleasing.

A survey of on-site resources that can be utilized include opportunities for providing solar hot water, the production of electricity, rainwater collection, gray-water use, and the useful processing of human waste. All of these strategies are examined in some detail. This book evaluates green materials and why to use them, both at the time of construction and at the end of the useful life of a building. This includes using recycled materials.

This book represents a valiant effort to comprehensively explore all aspects of sustainable architecture, and I commend the authors on an excellent job of doing just that. The only fault I noticed is that they fail to mention the value of earth-sheltering as a way to enhance all aspects of thermal performance in a building.

This book is lavishly illustrated in color with photos, diagrams and charts on practically every page. It would make an excellent text book, and I’m sure that the authors realize this since both of them are teachers.

The final chapters are a series of essays on integrated design by the authors and a selection of other experts. They say that, “the key to success with this integrated approach to environmental design is achieving synergy. Synergy happens where and when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts become optimized in relationship to the whole.” Let’s hope that we can all achieve such synergy as a collection of societies living on Earth.




Basic Earthbag Building DVD
I am pleased to announce that Owen Geiger’s Basic Earthbag Building DVD is finally available for purchase.


Owen is a natural teacher who understands how to present information in a clear and understandable way and this DVD is excellent for introducing folks to the basic essentials of sound building practice using earthbags. Much of the DVD is derived from actual instruction at workshops, so you witness the whole process from the ground up.

After an introduction to the tools and supplies that are necessary for building, they construct a small sample wall with a rubble trench foundation. Every step is fully explained and demonstrated as the wall proceeds.

The second portion of the DVD takes you through the process of building a functional cool pantry that is attached to a house. Here you can see how doors can be framed and roofs attached. There are many tips and tricks that emerge from watching that could be invaluable in constructing most any project.

At the end there are some bonus scenes that include tips for building a dome, an animated fly-through of Owen’s Enviro Dome, and a tour of Owen’s completed Earthbag Roundhouse.

With over three hours of solid instruction, this DVD would be a valuable addition to anybody’s building library. You can review portions of this DVD by exploring the short clips that are shown on Owen’s YouTube Channel. And you can purchase the DVD directly from the manufacturer for $28.




Handmade Houses: the World of Vernacular Architecture
For such a little book Handmade Houses & Other Buildings by John May (published by Thames & Hudson) really does explore the world of vernacular architecture in an informative and amazingly detailed manner. 

It starts out with a full color "Gallery of Building Media" that showcases houses made with the primary materials found around the world: wood, stone, earth, bamboo, reeds, snow, skins and animal fiber, and recycled materials. The author points out that "vernacular architecture, by its very nature, is built from local materials that are readily to hand and is thus defined by the geology and ecology of the region and by local climate conditions. Constructed by the community using traditional tools, these structures are highly practical, energy-efficient, and blend with the landscape. These buildings carry many of the attributes that we are now seeking in 'green architecture' as we struggle to adapt our built environment to the demands and concerns of the climate-change era." I might add that these building also tend to do all of this in an elegant and lovely manner.

The remainder of the book is divided into the major regions of the globe where one can find such architecture and showcases many fine examples of what you might expect from each. A two-page layout is devoted to every example, with both descriptive and cultural data provided. The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book, with considerable detail lavished on exactly how the buildings are assembled and with what materials. One could literally attempt to duplicate many of the structures just from what is shown.

What a pleasure to delve into the of forms and functions that have sprung from the fertile mind of man! I have to say that for shear inventiveness, the world of vernacular architecture puts many modern, professionally designed buildings, to shame. Of course this is the realm from which modern architecture has evolved, and it is worth paying homage to these archaic forms and solutions for housing. They are the very roots of all architecture.

Which brings us to the modern era, where the most prominent vernacular building happens to be found in the shanty towns of urban environments. In these circumstances, the recycled cast-away materials of society provide most of the building blocks available to the inhabitants. Squatter settlements can be found around the world, often barely tolerated by the local authorities. The folks who live there actually may prefer the kind of life they have carved out for themselves, where they live and work at the same place, operating within a kind of underground economy.

Modern day "Earthships" stem from this tradition, where used tires and other recycled items are prominent resources. And of course the whole notion of "natural building" is really an extension of vernacular architecture, and has value for many of the same reasons of living with a low carbon footprint. Many approaches to building naturally are really revivals of old ways of building.

This book is a great reminder of the value and inspiration that can be found in vernacular architecture. I highly recommend it.




Earth USA 2011
The Sixth International Conference on Earthen Building and Architecture, Earth USA 2011, met in Albuquerque, NM at the National Hispanic Cultural Center September 30 through October 2, 2011.

One hundred twenty participants came from fourteen countries and presented papers on various aspects of earthen construction. At the conclusion of the Conference participants worked collectively to prepare this message summarizing information, opinions and conclusions:

Earthen materials are globally available. Usually it is the dry climates that are bring to mind Adobe, Cob, Sod, Rammed Earth and Compressed Earth Blocks. However new locations for earthen buildings are always being reported. This year the surprise came from Norway where historical adobe homes are located near Oslo. Other reports came from China, Bulgaria, England, Oklahoma and Texas. Often these reports are of a few, isolated instances of earthen buildings. Germany, however, has long been known to have at least two million earthen homes.

Earthen homes are appropriate across the spectrum of building costs. Homes are built at zero cost in some countries while in places like New Mexico and Saudi Arabia contemporary adobe is considered the premium building material for homes and monumental buildings. Several papers at the Conference dealt with innovations that can reduce building costs in those areas where labor is expensive. In other parts of the world, labor is less expensive and employment is a sought after opportunity for citizens. Working with earth can create new jobs for young and old. It is richly intergenerational and educational in nature.

Materials costs are not tied closely to the petrochemical industry. In New Mexico, the cost of an adobe brick has doubled in thirty years while the cost of a 2 x 4 wood stud for frame construction has increased five-fold in the same period.

It must always be remembered that of all building materials, those of earth have the least embodied energy; their carbon footprint can be almost zero; and they are the most easily recycled, reused, repurposed or just plain returned to dust. Brown is the original green, the original back to nature.

Other authors reported on the efforts to codify the use of earthen materials in construction: There is much collaborative effort across the globe which also includes educating code writers and enforcers. Germans lead the way with thoroughly embedded building construction norms in their national codes which will soon be inserted into the European Union standards. Australia, New Zealand and the United States follow right behind. In the USA, adobe is now part of the 2009 International Building Code beginning with 2102.1 where it is defined. There is also The American Society for Testing Materials ASTM E2392, Standard Guide for Design of Earthen Wall Building Systems. Adobe is included in the Construction Specifications Institute system as 04 24 00, Adobe Unit Masonry with two subcategories, 04 24 13 Site Cast and 04 24 16 Manufactured. This means that earthen materials are now mainstreamed in the eyes of codes and standards.

Participants noted that earthen materials have cultural connotations. They are simply part of the lives of many cultures. While abandoned in many areas, there is a growing interest on the part of youth. New communities using earth as the basic building material are being created in Australia, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Most of the world requires great effort on the part of proponents of earth materials to preserve buildings from destruction in the face of modern development. Saudi Arabia has banned the further destruction of any earthen buildings of antiquity as a fine example to the rest of the world.

Architects, builders and dwellers have long had spiritual connections with the material and there are those who feel it creates living structures, certainly healthy structures without any of the chemicals often found in the modern home. The walls stabilize temperature and humidity through their thermal mass and porosity which promotes breathability and even phase change action as moisture moves in and out of walls.

Earthquake resistance is always a concern. Correct and careful building techniques go a long way to make any building safer. Age-old and new techniques can be incorporated in the design or retrofit to existing structures to increase their safety. Earthen structures are adept at resisting cyclones, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, bugs and even bullets.

While all this is as old as dirt, it is as new as the next idea. Architects, designers and youth should be encouraged to create new shapes, forms and methods to create structures of wider appeal to more people. It need not be limited to the warm, round, brown buildings often brought to mind by the Santa Fe/Taos/Pueblo style; thoughtful, good design can increase its appeal while still maintaining timelessness.

After all, this is Planet Earth.
www.earthusa.org




Building Affordable Earth-Sheltered Homes
I am always suspicious when I see a book title proclaiming the book is complete and everything you need to know about a subject. This usually is not possible, especially with any complex topic. So when I received a review copy of The Complete Guide to Building Affordable Earth-Sheltered Homes: Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply by Robert McConkey, I raised my eyebrows. And in this case, it was for good reason to be skeptical.

I think that a better title for this book would have been Building Tips from a Seasoned Contractor, with Some Emphasis on Earth-Sheltered Housing. There is some good information in the book, but you really have to dig through a lot of poorly edited prose to  find it. This book could have been about half the size and still contained everything useful in it. And some of the illustrations have such poor resolution they are unreadable; it looks like they were pulled off the internet. I am surprised that Atlantic Publishing let this out the door the way it is.

Well, enough grouching...what of value can I point to?  The advantages of earth-sheltered homes over more conventional housing in terms of energy savings,  personal comfort, less general maintenance, and disaster resistance are explained, along with the possible difficulty in obtaining a mortgage or finding a buyer. Some historical perspective on earth-sheltering is also offered.

When considering appropriate design, the author mentions the challenge of providing sufficient natural daylight, and how this can be addressed. How to conform to building codes? How to provide proper drainage around the house? What building materials are appropriate? What planning needs to occur?

General site selection and excavation needs are discussed. A detailed description of forming and pouring concrete stems from the author's years of experience in doing this on many types of projects. Electrical and plumbing needs are discussed from a general point of view, without much specific attention to the needs of earth-sheltered homes. Different heating options are briefly mentioned.

Some of the greatest value of this book emerges from the author's experience as a building contractor. He frequently mentions ways that you might save money by careful shopping, selecting  and negotiating with sub-contractors, locating the right equipment, avoiding construction delays, etc.

Obviously there can be challenges for anything underground to keep it warm, dry, and with fresh air. The chapter on waterproofing, insulating and ventilating the home does address these needs more specifically for earth-sheltering. Most of the discussion about finishing details is really general to any home construction.

And that is about it; not a whole of lot of meat to this book...certainly far from the promise of its title!




A Solar Buyer’s Guide
A Solar Buyer’s Guide for the Home and Business: Navigating the Maze of Solar Options, Incentives, and Installers by Stephen and Rebekah Hren covers a lot of territory for a small book (152 pages). This husband and wife team both work in the renewable energy field, with Rebekah installing PV systems and Stephen designing and building passive and active solar heated homes.

The introduction goes into the history of the use of solar energy and analyzes why one would want to employ it. The first chapters discuss the variety of ways that solar energy can be employed architecturally.  Panels that produce thermal water and those that produce electricity are differentiated and space heating options are discussed. The pros and cons of these various systems are explored, both in terms of how appropriate they might be for your site and for your pocketbook.

Some care is taken to help you evaluate what your “solar window” might be, that is how much potential solar energy is available at your particular site. Then the other part of the equation is how much energy do you actually need, or use?

The cost of the various possibilities is explored. Is it really going to pay back what you invest in it? What is the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to buying solar energy equipment? Can you get some help from the Federal government or state and local jurisdictions to defray the costs? If the answers to these questions are not in the book, it is suggested where you can find out.

Many of the intricacies of what is required for the various types of solar electric systems are carefully explained. So whether you want a simple grid-tied system, or a more complex battery backup or off-grid, stand-alone system, the book will help you understand what will be needed.

Similarly, hot water systems are described in enough detail to have a pretty good idea of what is involved, and what would work best in your situation. There are a number of diagrams to help you visualize all of this. Even swimming pool heaters are discussed.

Heating your house with the sun can be done with some major remodeling to introduce passive solar concepts, or it can be done with simpler solar air heating units that just attach to the side or roof of your house. Or there is the possibility of placing solar thermal panels on your roof, and then directing that heat into your house through radiators or hydronic tubes in the floor. There is a long chapter that discusses all of these options.

Once you have decided what route to take in using solar energy for your situation, you will probably need to hire some expert help implementing your plan. One chapter is devoted to finding a good contractor at this stage. Since you have read up on everything that is involved you will be much better prepared to ask the right questions and evaluate your options.

The last chapters talk about other simple technologies that employ solar energy, such as a solar clothes dryer (a clothesline) and various types of solar cookers, as well as daylighting with light tubes.

This inexpensive book is well worth its price in giving you an overview of what can be done with the sun to help you live cleaner and more economically.




Living Homes: a Review
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction; Building Your High-Efficiency Dream Home on a Shoestring Budget, by Thomas J. Elpel, 2010. Originally published in 1998, this is the sixth edition. 

This hefty book (250 pages, 8.5" X 11") is chock full of detailed information, personal musings, photos and diagrams, and practical tips. Thomas Elpel is a do-it-yourselfer after my own heart, and what he has compiled here chronicles his adventures of building his own home in rural Montana as well as experiences with other building projects. He and his wife were forced by circumstances to find inexpensive solutions for all of the challenges of building their home, and they managed to do this without sacrificing their commitment to energy efficiency and sustainability.

Their home is a true hybrid, with the first floor being slip-formed stone masonry and the second story of logs, all sourced locally and ecologically. Thomas explains in great detail exactly how he put together this house, sufficiently for others to follow his lead without much more need for instruction.

In addition, the book is liberally dosed with Thomas's philosophy of how to homestead ecologically in the 21st Century. He starts with how to choose an appropriate location, then proceeds to describe strategies for disaster-proofing your home. He emphasizes how important it is to define the goals you have for your home before even coming up with a design.

Part Two of the book explores principles of energy efficiency, delving into a discussion of the need for excellent insulation, coupled with thermal mass and solar gain for a truly ecological house. The pros and cons of various insulation systems are defined, with charts of R-values. etc. There is a chapter devoted to interior air quality.

Part Three launches into the nitty gritty of exactly how to build using the methods that the author is familiar with. There is a thorough review of various strategies for creating footings, foundations and floors. This leads to a primer about the properties of concrete and how to mix and pour it. The instructions for building stone walls are specific to slip-forming, which tends to be fairly straight forward and simpler for folks who are not skilled in the art of free-form stone masonry. Thomas admits that slip-forming may result in a less aesthetically appealing result, but the advantages are speed of building, ease of reinforcing the wall, and the option for easily incorporating insulation right in the middle of the wall, which has a tremendous thermal advantage.

A whole other approach to making stone walls is described in some detail: tilt-up construction, where the walls are all created flat on the ground and then later lifted with a crane into place. Obviously these walls need to be extremely well planned and reinforced to survive the lifting procedure, but this method can be done rather quickly. The author demonstrates how this is done using an example of a friend's house that he helped build.

The log-building technique that Thomas chose to use for his house is one of the simpler approaches, where little notching and careful fitting and trimming is required. Round logs are just stacked one on top of the other, using rebar pins to hold them in place. It is possible to build entire walls this way, and then cut out doors and windows later. The spaces between the logs are eventually insulated and chinked to make the wall air tight.

The basics of strawbale building are presented in one chapter, detailing how a large load-bearing strawbale shop was built. The information about strawbale is not as thorough as it is with the previous chapters on stone and log building, but there is enough of an overview to give the reader an idea of what is involved.

All of the wall-building techniques described so far require a framed roof of some sort, and the author goes into some detail about the possibilities for doing this. One method shown is fairly simple and straight forward, where a log ridge pole is placed first, and then rafters are bolted together on top of this, supported at the other end with another log. This can then support a variety of roofing materials, such as metal sheets or shingles. On his own house, Thomas used recycled pieces of thick structural insulated panels (SIPs) to piece together a roof.

For their floor, Thomas and his wife became experts at making "terra tiles," which are cast-in-place tiles composed of earth, cement and colorant. There is enough detail in this chapter to attempt a similar project. The rudiments of wood-frame carpentry are presented as options for making interior walls and floors. Window and door options are explored, with the pros and cons of various types of glazing pointed out.

In order to present a thorough overview of all of the basics of house building, the author also has surprisingly comprehensive chapters on plumbing and electrical wiring. This includes a look at the options for rain water catchment, gray water recycling, waste management, and even capturing biogas. Strategies for solar water and space heating are discussed.

An extra bonus is a lengthy chapter on the theory and details of building a masonry stove, which shows how they built one for their home. This is probably the most energy efficient method of heating with wood possible. Another do-it-yourself chapter shows how they built their own concrete kitchen countertops. A final chapter discusses ways to save money by using recycled paints.

All-in-all I give this book very high marks for providing useful information compiled in a logical and detailed manner. A person really could attempt to build their own house using nothing but this book as a guide, which is more than can be said for most building how-to guides. At times the author becomes rather chatty and some of the text could use some editing, but overall, the read is interesting and very informative...well worth reading, especially if you are thinking about building your own energy efficient and economical house.




Earthbag Building Guide
Owen Geiger and I started www.earthbagbuilding.com several years ago and share the popular associated blog. During this time we have examined most earthbag projects that have been publicized in any way and have shared and learned about successes and failures. Owen's new e-book combines this knowledge with lots of hands-on practical experience to provide a concise, well organized step-by-step guide.



This builder’s guide provides simple, clear explanations of each step of construction, from earthbag foundations that don’t require concrete, to complete information on tools and supplies, as well as tips, tricks and advanced earthbag techniques.

All major aspects of building earthbag houses with vertical walls are covered: Planning; Dirt cheap building techniques; Building code issues; Electrical and Plumbing; Cost estimating; Insulation; Landscaping options. It is profusely illustrated with about 185 color photos and detail drawings. This is now available as a PDF download for $20.

To read the Complete Table of Contents and several reviews see earthbagbuilding.com




Adobe Homes for All Climates: a Review
Published in 2010, Adobe Homes for All Climates: Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques, by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree presents a comprehensive look at how one might go about building with adobe. It is based on many years of experience by the authors building residences, mainly in New Zealand. They evolved very specific techniques for every aspect of the building process, from fabricating the adobe blocks to erecting and plastering the walls.

Since the authors were involved in the business of adobe construction, they were motivated to find the most efficient, durable, and pleasing ways of building they could. For this reason, they rely completely on cement-stabilized materials, which cure rapidly enough to be handled within a day and can be trusted to endure virtually any kind of weather once the walls are in place. This practice departs from traditional unstabilized adobe construction, which may require more maintenance over time, but perhaps would be a "greener" choice, because of the lower embodied energy.

One of the more unique aspects of their system is the use of specialized molds for fabricating the blocks. The main difference with some of the molds they recommend is that they provide large holes in the center that can be used to route not only water and electric utilities, but also conceal concrete and steel reinforcement. With this method it is relatively easy to create a structure that would be acceptable to the most stringent codes for seismic reinforcement.

Another novel part of their system is that special holes can be provided at specified intervals that can be used to insert temporary pipes as support for scaffolding, a very handy way to avoid the cost and hassle of erecting conventional scaffolding. Eventually these holes are filled in and become invisible.

While there is a thorough discussion of the desired properties of soil that is suitable for an adobe mix, the authors caution that you should employ a soil engineer to make any final judgment about this. They are also cautious about their advice on foundation requirements, saying that an engineer should be involved in the design. I think that this caution is at least partially a matter of not wanting to be libel for any mistakes that an owner/builder might make, since they really give you enough information to figure all of this out yourself.

The chapters that deal with plaster are some of the most detailed and complete that I have seen anywhere. They really explain the whole process of making and applying stabilized earthen plasters, from beginning to end.

Since this book originated in New Zealand, some of the terminology is unique to that region and may not be familiar to all English speakers. One can generally figure out the intended meaning, however, through the context or the glossary at the end of the book.

With "for all climates" as part of the title, I expected a much more thorough discussion of how one would go about insulating an adobe wall. Instead, there are really just a couple of paragraphs that explain that in less temperate regions one might want to either make the wall thicker than the standard one foot, add some form of insulation to the exterior of the walls (especially on the north side in the northern hemisphere), or create an air gap cavity between two adjacent adobe walls. The book is beautifully illustrated with color pictures or diagrams on practically every page, but none of these show an insulated wall.

On the whole, I would recommend this book to anyone who might consider building with adobe, whether you employ their system or not, since there is a wealth of information that will be useful regardless. I commend the authors and publisher (Chelsea Green) for a job very well done!




Affordable Eco-homes Report
 Dr.Jenny Pickerill recently  traveled around the world on a Winston Churchill Trust Travelling Fellowship on a quest for information and insights on how folks in England (where she teaches at the University of Leicester) might better address needs for sustainable housing. One of her stops was in the rural area of Colorado state, where I live, and I had the pleasure of spending time with her, introducing her to some of green building activity in this area. Back at home in England now, Jenny has issued a preliminary report on her findings, which she is allowing me to quote below. I feel that her conclusions are pertinent to most places in the world.

We need both a technical assessment of materials and methods used, and a social assessment of people’s choices and decisions in order to understand eco-housing.

There is a diverse variety of eco-housing worldwide.  The definition used in this report is that an eco-building minimises resource use (in construction and life-cycle) while also providing a comfortable environment in which to live.

We already have the technical knowhow, and many working examples, to build resilient eco-houses in Britain. However, ecological building methods remain marginalised and often misunderstood. 

Eco-building will only be adopted if it offers what people demand from a house and that they can live how they want to within it.

The success of eco-housing is only as great as the behaviour of the people who live in it. Construction and technology cannot compensate for excessive energy use. 

There remains a perception that building an eco-house is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long term they are actually cheaper. More investment may be required upfront but it pays off in costing less to run throughout its lifetime. 

Living sustainably has been associated with forgoing (doing without) many elements of contemporary life. However, a good eco-house is actually more comfortable.

It is not technology, or even politics, which is holding us back in building more eco-houses, it is deep rooted cultural and social conventions in how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.

Choices of building materials are made according to complex compromises between cost, local availability, skills and expertise required, suitability for climate, ecological properties, maintenance requirements and cultural attachments to certain forms. Thus eco-materials need to satisfy many criteria before they are adopted. 

Eco-building involves more than technical changes to construction; it involves cultural shifts in how we consider our houses and homes.  There are dynamic relationships between physical structures and individual behavioural practices, culture, history and place.

There are many simple ways to make eco-housing more affordable, including:
  • Reducing the size
  • Simple design and avoiding the use of unnecessary technology  
  • Designing affordability in at the start 
  • Designing in modular units so that a building can be extended at a later stage 
  • Internal open plan design to enable maximum flexibility
  • Using the space between buildings  
  • Building collectively  
  • Sharing common facilities and infrastructure  
  • Sharing the cost of the land  
  • Avoiding the use of experts  
  • Participating in the debate about new planning regulations to ensure that eco-building is permissible.
  • Careful choice of materials   
  • Using pre-fabricated elements or existing structures  
  • Avoiding a purist approach 
  • Ensuring design is aesthetically pleasing 
  • Using hybrid combinations of materials 
Planning favours buildings which conform to existing styles and norms and building regulations need to be negotiated.

Eco-building is gendered in that is it perceived to be a male domain where men are presumed to be better builders, more men than women actually build and women find their ideas and contributions to eco-building are often belittled. Socially constructed notions of gender have determined that strength is the most important attribute required for building, which is not true.

The replication of eco-build techniques worldwide has less to do with whether the build actually worked or its cost, but is influenced by the less quantifiable factors of foreign importation of ideas, the appeal of the aesthetics, open discussion of failure, a critical mass of support, assertive pioneers, and people understanding how their existing houses work. 

Further research work is needed on how people understand their houses, how eco-build approaches are replicated, post-occupancy evaluations and the cultural dimensions of eco-building. 




Puerto Vallarta Model Home
I have been consulting with Mike Parker who started www.childrenofthedump.org in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico about how to build inexpensive, ecological housing for poor families who subsist off recycling materials from the city dump. They typically live in shacks and shanties that are often not adequate for their needs, nor do they provide proper housing for children who then are not able to get an adequate education to better themselves.

Puerto Vallarta is on the Pacific coast in the tropical zone of central Mexico, where the climate is generally quite hot and humid. These folks cannot afford air conditioning, so they need shelter that will help moderate the extreme heat naturally.



Mike and I have discussed a variety of ways to accomplish this and the design that we came up with should perform quite well in this regard. We are using large earthbags filled with adobe soil that provides both insulation and thermal mass. We are berming most of the structure about a meter high with substantial planter beds. We are insulating the roof with large bags of recycled styrofoam. We provide plenty of ventilation via screened openable windows, a central corridor straight through the house from door to door, and there is an openable stairwell to the roof/second floor. We exclude nearly all of the direct sunlight into the house with large overhangs and buttresses. And the breathable interior walls will help moderate the humidity as well. I think that this model home could serve most any place with a hot, humid climate.


Before I arrived in Puerto Vallarta (in January, 2011), Mike and the workers had already prepared the land, laid out the walls, dug the rubble trench foundation with a French drain, laid down three courses of bags full of gravel, and started laying the walls with adobe-filled bags.


Most the polypropylene earthbags employed were recycled from nearby bakeries. As with most bags used in Mexico, they were larger than is absolutely necessary for earthbag construction, measuring about 22″ X 39″. The people from the dump community had been saving bags gleaned from the trash for use in their own homes, and these are also mostly the larger ones. This fact means that once the bags are filled with damp adobe soil, they are very heavy, generally requiring two strong people to move them and place them on a wall. I showed them how they can be filled in place, using a bottomless bucket as a funnel and a metal slider to keep them from getting stuck on the barbed wire.


Earthquakes are not common in the Puerto Vallarta area, but they can happen, so there is always the concern of building structurally reinforced building that could withstand shaking. Standard Mexican construction takes this into consideration, using confined masonry techniques with steel-reinforced columns and bond beams that frame the common brick or concrete block construction. Mexican laborers are entirely accustomed to building this way, so this what we decided to use in framing doors and windows and creating a bond beam.

I came up with the above diagram, which shows exactly how to construct the walls, bond beams, roof rafters, roof/second floor platform, and the parapet/second story walls.

Basically what this has created is a design for a reinforced two-story earthbag building that might pass code standards for most seismic zones around the world, although I cannot guarantee this. In this particular building, the lower story walls are not reinforced the way they would be according to the specs provided by Precision Engineering, but those walls are heavily buttressed and have been reinforced with periodic vertical rebar, and tied at the bond beam with steel rafters/joists. They also have the barbed wire and the plaster wire mesh as specified. This will be a very solid building that should withstand most forces it will likely encounter during its life.

For more photos and description of this entire project see this page.




HyperAdobe
I have just become aware of an innovation in natural building that could become extremely popular in time. Hyperadobe is similar to conventional earthbag construction, except that is uses mesh tubing instead of the solid polypropylene fabric. This innovation comes to us from Fernando Pacheco, a Brazilian engineer, and it has been used in Brazil for at least two years.

The use of the mesh makes the resulting wall a kind of hybrid of rammed earth, cob, adobe and earthbag building, all rolled into one. It has the advantages of all of these earthen building techniques, without many of the drawbacks. This is because the mesh allows the damp adobe soil (sand and clay) to bond with itself right through the open weave of the netting, so that the wall becomes virtually monolithic.

Rammed earth also creates a monolithic wall, but it requires the use of very strong, rigid forms on both sides into which the soil is placed and compacted; Hyperadobe uses the tube netting as the form which is then incorporated into the wall itself and helps stabilize and reinforce it.

Cob needs to be thoroughly mixed with straw to help make it cohere as a solid, monolithic material, which is then placed on the wall in small increments (cobs) so as not to deform while it cures. Hyperadobe eliminates the need for the straw because the tubular netting holds it all together. This means that the wall can be built and solidly tamped immediately without the need to wait for the material to cure, and eliminates the time and labor consuming step of mixing the straw with the adobe soil.

Adobe blocks have to be individually manufactured in forms and dried in advance of being placed and mortared onto a wall. All of this is very labor and time intensive, and is completely eliminated with the Hyperadobe method.

Conventional earthbag building, while very similar to this method, differs in several important ways. Because the polypropylene bag material (either in tubes or individual bags) is relatively slippery, it must be combined with barbed wire (usually two strands per course) between each course. Because of the friction that naturally occurs between the adjacent net material when compacted together, the need for barbed wire is eliminated, especially in vertical wall structures where the superior tensile strength of the steel is not needed.

Also with poly earthbags, it takes much longer for the fill material to dry out or cure, since it doesn't breathe nearly as readily. This means that the Hyperadobe walls can be plastered sooner and may not need the application of separate plaster mesh because the mesh is already covering the wall. Many plasters, especially earthen plasters will adhere much more readily to the exposed soil within the netting, making the wall even more monolithic.

Hyperadobe uses a knit raschel, the same material used in packaging produce, which leads to less cost compared to the poly bags. Raschel is a knitted fabric which resembles hand crocheted fabrics, lace fabrics, and netting. The most common material used to knit raschel tubing is high density polyethylene (HDPE).

Both HDPE and polypropylene materials have poor resistance to the UV from sunlight, and must be protected as much as possible against such exposure. However the HDPE netting would have some natural protection because it become partially embedded in the fill material when tamped. The more opaque the plastic is, the more resistant it will be to UV, so if there is a color choice, black is the best.

To further understand this exciting new building technology, I suggest checking out the Step-by-Step instructions provided by the inventor himself. This is from one of my other websites that focuses entirely on earthbag building.




Masonry Heaters
There is a centuries old tradition in Europe that is only beginning to be known in North America: the use of masonry heaters. For some reason Americans are entirely familiar with wood stoves and fireplaces, but have only a hazy notion of what a masonry heater is. This is unfortunate because these devises represent the epitome in home heating comfort and efficiency!

In his exceptional book, Masonry Heaters: Designing, Building, and Living with a Piece of the Sun, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, Ken Matesz explores every aspect of these works of art. Also known as kachelofens, Russian fireplaces, Finnish fireplaces, Swedish stoves, contra-flow fireplaces, radiant fireplaces and mass-storage fireplaces, their basic functional design concepts are all similar, although their appearance can be vastly different.



Matesz calls them "a piece of the sun" because the heat that they provide is the same as that given by direct sunlight. This is radiant heat that you can feel being absorbed by your body when you are in the presence of the heater. Wood stoves and fireplaces also radiate this type of heat, but not nearly as efficiently; as soon as the fire goes out the heat quickly dims away. Not so with a masonry heater.

The whole idea with masonry heaters is to fire it only once or twice a day, building as big and hot a fire as the firebox will allow, giving it all the oxygen that it can consume, so that every bit of the fuel and the gases that are released are turned into heat. This is the cleanest, most efficient way to burn wood; there is virtually no creosote, hardly any smoke, and no fiddling with the fire over time. These heaters are often allowed in areas that have tight controls on air pollution because they burn so cleanly.

The wonderful trick of a well-designed masonry heater is that it will absorb every bit of the heat from the fire into the masonry shell of the heater itself. It does this by directing the exit flue from the firebox through a labyrinth of unseen tunnels within the heater before any cooled fumes are eventually allowed to go up the chimney and out of the house. Once the mass of the heater gets warm, it gently radiates that heat for up to twelve hours...long after the fire has gone out.



Often the heaters are designed with benches or areas where people can snuggle up to them to take advantage of the warm glow. They become like a welcome member of the family, one that people want to be near because of their radiant warmth. For this reason they are usually located at the center of the social area of the home, near the living room or dining room. Having such a prominent position in the house means that most owners want the heater to have a special presence, one that commands respect and admiration. Often the designs will lavish much attention on details and materials that speak of charm, durability and sometimes even opulence.

Another option well worth considering is the inclusion of a bake oven or even a cookstove as a part or adjunct to the heater. People say that once you try what one of these ovens can produce you will be sold on the idea.

Matesz has been designing and building masonry heaters for many years, and this new book glows with his expertise. He has a scientist's mind for analyzing all the variables that go into good design, as well as an artist's eye for the aesthetics that these durable works of art deserve. And as an author he writes very clearly, even passionately, about what he loves. This book is assembled with all the methodical care that he obviously lavishes on his building projects.

This is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I have seen. There are color photographs on almost every page, and most of these are examples of the amazing variety that masonry heaters can embody. The book is worthwhile just for inspiration in how one might design such heaters, but there is also enough information to have a thorough understanding of all the elements that go into good physical design.



I'm sure some are wondering how much these heaters might cost to have built. There are so many variables in size, configuration, and materials that the cost can only be given as a range. Matesz usually tells people that they cost around what you might expect to pay for a car. You might be happy with a basic Hundai or you might crave a top-of-the-line Mercedes, and so this is the range that you might expect. But bear in mind that a well made masonry stove can last for many generations and even outlast many of the homes where they reside.

There are a number of kits available for either the core refractory materials and all the necessary hardware, or both this and the exterior cladding as well. Some of these kits are manufactured in Europe. Soapstone is the premier material for the exterior, since it has thermal properties that exceed all other stone, brick or stucco. The ability of soapstone to store heat is remarkable.

To my way of thinking, the very best way to heat a home is with passive solar, since it is totally free, clean, and requires little fuss to utilize. Unfortunately, in much of world the climate doesn't cooperate in providing abundant sunlight during the cold season. Furthermore, most houses do not really take advantage of the solar opportunity, so in these situations the next best option for heating could easily be with a masonry heater.

To a large part, it is about energy independence. With solar you have this, and with a masonry heater all you need is a little wood (which can be odd scraps and tree parts that are not usually considered good firewood.) No matter if the electricity goes out or you run out of gas, or the price of these becomes intolerable, you can always still keep warm, without contributing to global warming. Wood is a renewable resource that reabsorbs CO2 as it grows, so there is a net zero emission.

I would advise a would-be masonry heater owner to hire expert help for designing and building the appliance, but armed with this book, you would know everything necessary ask the right questions and to make good decisions.




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