Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Quick Look at how It's Done..

Not too long after completing my recent post about earth-bag homes, I came across this cool time lapse video that shows a quick, but informative, documentation of what the building process for one of these homes actually looks like. After seeing this, I can't help but feel like I need to go out and build one of these for myself to see if it's really as easy as they make it look..

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Dome Homes

Since their discovery and popularization by people such as R. Fuller Buckminster in the early 20th century, geodesic domes have gained a great amount of attention both for their unconventional geometric forms, as well as their structural integrity, but in recent years, people have been pursuing the dome home as a potential solution to many of today's unsustainable practices in the field of architecture. 

The form of the geodesic dome is considered to be the best way to maximize the amount of space within a structure while using the minimum amount of building materials, using up to 60% less material to achieve the same space as conventional homes. Dome homes are also recognized for their ability to conserve energy and remain well insulated, even during the cold months of winter. 

These days, you can even order prefabricated, ready to assemble dome home kits from a number of different supplies. These kits can be made from a wide range of different materials, and can be quickly assembled by just a few workers in a matter of days, or sometimes hours in the case of some smaller projects. 

Although there seem to be a handful of potential drawbacks to building this kind of structure (from difficulty meeting local building codes, to problems partitioning the often times huge open spaces), but that doesn't rule domes out at a potential sustainable living space of the future, at least not in my mind. 

This video features an incredible geodesic dome house in North Branch, Minnesota called Bear Creek. 

Monday, April 20, 2009

Building With Earthbags

Building our homes from the Earth is not a new idea; in fact, it may be a very old one which we're only now beginning to rediscover and explore in our modern context - but there're certainly many advantages that come with this fairly unconventional approach to sustainable architecture. 

What is an earthbag? Well, simply put.. it's a bag filled with dirt, sand, gravel, or any number of other readily available materials you might find lying around outside. Although this may sound like a primitive way of constructing a home, the simplicity of this technique brings with it a number of advantages which make it an idea worth spending some time on..

For a long time, bags of earth have been used by the military to create durable, weather, earthquake and bullet resistant barriers to protect soldiers in times of war, but were now beginning to understand the power of earth to provide us with sustainable and efficient shelter which can protect us from the elements of nature in our daily lives.

One aspect of earthbag homes which particularly stands out is the fact that the bags can be stacked in virtually any arrangement, including a dome form; this is important because in areas where wood or metal beams may be hard to come by, a fully enclosed and structurally sound building can easily be constructed without the support of any internal tensile materials, and with very little building skill.  Earthbags, depending on what materials they're filled with, also have the potential to either insulate a structure, or provide thermal mass which can effectively store heat and stabilize the internal climate of a building. 

I came across a non-profit organization called Cal-Earth ( who specializes in educating people on how to build earthbag homes, and even offers courses which teach the fundamentals of this innovative approach to sustainable architecture. The video below gives a glimpse into the construction process involved in building one of these homes, and also offers some insight into the philosophy behind the Cal-Earth organization.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Factory Built Homes

For those people who're interested in making their home construction projects more eco-friendly, but who aren't quite willing, or perhaps adventurous enough to move away from the more traditional forms of home construction, the prospect of ready-to-assemble "factory built" homes may be an effective way to make the transition into sustainability. 

"Factory built" means that the structure is fully designed and manufactured in a factory prior to assembly at the construction site. By doing so, the amount of waste resulting from the manufacturing and construction of a housing project can be reduced by as much as 70%! Also, the fact that the home is designed and manufactured at one site helps to ensure that everything used in the construction, and the home's plans will all fall within the specific building restrictions for the given area. The precision allowed by this process helps ensure highly efficient insulation of the home, which also greatly reduces the amount of heating/air conditioning needed to regulate the climate of the home, thus further reducing the impact of living within it. 

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Live In An Earthship..

The other day I came across a video called "Earthships", which contrary to what the name would lead to to believe, had nothing to do with space travel or extraterrestrial life - what the movie did contain was some information which could prove to be very valuable to the future development of our society and the protection of our ecosystems. 


Motivated by his will to help protect the Earth's environment, Dennis Weaver, a former actor who appeared in T.V. shows like "Gunsmoke", hosts the above video about the construction process involved in constructing these homes, called "earthships". Michael Reynolds is the innovator of this design and he's spent many years experimenting with his technique, and has even written several books on the topic. Earthships utilize soil, old tires, and cans (amongst other salvaged materials) to create a cheap, easy to construct, and eco-friendly living space.  

The main idea behind an earthship is that all of the main structural walls are constructed by collecting thousands of old tires, which are taken from local junkyards and landfills, and densely packing them with earth. Each tire can supposedly hold between 200-300 pounds of earth, at which point them can be stacked one-on-another like massive bricks. 

The choice to use tires filled with earth to construct the walls of a building has many advantages: everything from being highly stable, well-insulating, easy to construct, and of course cheap - but along with all this is also the fact that landfills across the country are stacked high with old tires which generally have no purpose once they can't be driven on anymore, so this is the perfect way to reuse a product that would otherwise just be accumulating into massive heaps of garbage. Also, its pretty common for large piles of tires to catch fire, which ends up releasing large amounts of hazardous chemicals and other waste into the environment. 

After much fine tuning of the design, construction began on an enormous earthship located on a hillside in Colorado to show that this crazy approach to sustainable housing was not only a realistic, but also practical. In 1989 the "Sunridge Earthship" project was completed, becoming Colorado's first, and the world's largest building of its kind (at least up to that point). After its completion, the home contained over 3,000 tires, each with around 300 pounds of dirt, which make up the supporting foundation for the entire building. The roof is supported by wooden rafters, and the nonstructural interior walls, like closets, stairs, and bathrooms, are made from a combination of mortar and stacked aluminum cans (shown in the picture below) 

As a result of the large mass of the home's walls, the building requires no traditional heating or cooling system because the walls store heat and insulate the interior during cold months, and prevent the temperature from rising above comfortable levels during the summers. The home is also oriented southward with large front facing windows which utilize the greenhouse effect to regulate temperature during the winter and allow for the year round growth of fruits and vegetables within the home.

Another achievement of this project is that it's completely off the local electrical grid, and relies fully on solar and wind generators for its electrical power. Much of the water used on the property comes from rain and well-water, and the "gray" water from bathing and other uses is recycled. 

Check out ( for more information on Michael Reynold's earthships.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sustainable Building Materials In Paraguay

(article found at

For many decades the forests of Paraguay have suffered from the effects of severe deforestation throughout much of the country; so much so that now only an estimated 10% of the once densely vegetated land remains forested. In combination with this and a recent decline in the economic state of the country, some people are searching for alternative resources that can be used to sustainably fill the void left in their local economies by the shrinking forests and scarce amount of available resources. 

One woman who lives in the Caaguazu area, named Elsa, has begun to utilize a local crop, the loofah, to help supplement, and perhaps one day replace, wood as the primary building material used in the construction of their modest Paraguayan homes. Loofahs are an easy to grow fruit which can be eaten, dried and used as shower scrubs, cosmetic sponges, insoles, mats, and apparently even slippers! Elsa helped to educate the local people about the benefits of growing loofahs, and soon the local women were growing a large amount of high quality loofah fruits which were being exported or used for a wide range of different purposes by the local people. 

Although they were producing an excellent product, a large portion of the material being produced ended up going to the local landfill - In an effort to cut down on waste and make the process more efficient, Elsa joined forces with an engineer named Pedro Padros, to try to find some way to utilize the large amount of fibrous material from the plant which had previously been going to waste. They decided to use reground plastics in conjunction with the plant material to produce a cheap and durable composite building material. 

Following a number of trails and experiments, and aided by a grant from Paraguay's environmental ministry, they were eventually able to develop a flexible, lightweight, and recyclable panel which could be produced locally, and used in the construction of homes at a fraction of the cost required to build the same home from wood. Also, color can be added to the material during the mixing process, which means the owner will never have to spend time and money painting their home. According to the article above, the production costs started at $6 per square meter, and has since been cut in half. The ultimate goal of this project is to provide cheap and simple, yet lasting and effective housing which could be easily constructed with just a few short days of work. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

A Sustainable Farm in Australia

Here's another interesting sustainable housing project I came across recently..

This 25 acre farm, which is located about 3 hours North of Sydney, Australia, was constructed over 10 years by a couple, Judy and John, with the goal of creating a truly sustainable home/farm in the middle of the Australian bush. "Sustainable", according to Judy "means living now without compromising the future". I found this to be a simple and logical way of looking at sustainability; a word which is often thrown around without a clear definition of what we mean by it. "If we don't look after the environment, there will be nothing left", Judy explains. "What will be left for our children and grandchildren?" The couple constructed the home by hand over a 10 year period using materials taken almost entirely from the surrounding land (including 3,500 mud bricks and a lot of mortar). 
The home is completely disconnected from the local electrical grid - they rely on a chain of rechargeable batteries, which are charged daily by solar panels, to heat their home and power the basic appliances they depend on for daily life. All of the sewage produced in the home is filtered and dried into a compost by a simple fan-based setup, and the roof is used to collect rain water, which is then filtered and used for drinking water and other purposes. The home also has a 5,000 gallon water tank, which the couple claim can last them for a full 4 months (which is quite an accomplishment for a small farm in an area of Australia where water is becoming more and more scarce each year, and restrictions have already been setup to control the use of freshwater).