Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture

Sustainable architecture is an exciting and important field, with many people reviving traditional methods of building and others creating innovations to established practices. Kelly Hart, webmaster of the popular website, posts text and photos featuring what he discovers from around the world.

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Location: Crestone, Colorado, United States

Kelly Hart has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation, video production and now website development. Kelly has lived in an earthbag/papercrete home that he built and consults about sustainable building design.

June 17, 2014

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, 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.

April 16, 2014

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!

August 28, 2013

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.

May 27, 2013

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.

April 30, 2013

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.

October 18, 2012

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.

September 01, 2012

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 to either listen to the live podcast or find the archived show.