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 www.greenhomebuilding.com, 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.

March 26, 2008

Timber Framing

When I initially designed www.greenhomebuilding.com I intentionally avoided advocating the use of much wood in building, because of my concern for the health of our forests and their ecosystems, with all of the over-harvesting of timber that has occurred around the globe. There is also the fact that forests help sequester CO2 (a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere.

This was a difficult choice for me, since my father was a wood worker and I grew up learning many of these skills; I love working with wood and I worked for years as a carpenter. It is certainly one of the most versatile of all building materials, and is a renewable resource, when harvested sensibly.

I have finally come to realize that building with wood (at least partially) can still be a sound ecological choice, which is particularly true in regions where forests have regenerated to the point that they can be harvested sustainably. This means that the trees are carefully monitored to make sure that the health and character of the forest is maintained; only certain trees are culled periodically, leaving the remaining trees to grow and contribute to a healthy ecosystem. It is possible to buy wood that has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but if this means that you are buying wood shipped great distances, then this becomes a less ecological choice; use local materials!

Furthermore, with timber framing it is possible to use large wooden posts and beams in such a way as to create strong and versatile load-bearing structures, which can then be completed by either in-filling between the wooden structural members, or completely wrapping the timber frame structure with a variety of other materials (as is recommended in colder climates). Since this method of building has been recognized and approved by most code authorities, it is a way of approaching a natural building project that would otherwise be difficult for the authorities to sanction.

So I have now created a page about Timber Framing,
greenhomebuilding.com/timber, with lots of media resources and informative links listed. I have also enlisted the gracious assistance of a preeminent timber framing specialist to answer questions from the public about this ancient art.

Will Beemer is a charter member and co-Executive Director of the Timber Framers Guild, and is owner of the Heartwood School for the Homebuilding Crafts in Washington, MA. For over 30 years, this school has been offering students a chance to improve their woodworking and timber framing skills. Will helps teach many courses at Heartwood and has been designing and building houses for over 35 years. He was a construction foreman at the Arcosanti project in Arizona, and design instructor at Cornell University. He has organized and taught building workshops around the world, including timber framing courses through the Guild and at Palomar College in San Diego, the North House Folk School and at the Colorado State University Mountain Campus. He has written for Fine Homebuilding, Joiner's Quarterly, and Timber Framing magazines.

You are invited to visit the new page about Timber Framing and to seek guidance about this art from Will Beemer.

March 19, 2008

Natural Building Network

There is a fantastic on-line resource for all people interested in natural building: www.naturalbuildingnetwork.org. This site was initiated in 2005 by a group of people who collectively have considerable experience in the realm of natural building, which they define as "any building system which places the highest value on social and environmental sustainability. It assumes the need to minimize the environmental impact of our housing and other supporting systems while providing healthy, beautiful, comfortable and spiritually uplifting homes for everyone."

The Natural Building Network is a non-profit membership association, where the joining members can place listings for their services and talents and network world-wide. Towards this end, there are directories of natural builders by location, by specialty, and by their willingness to teach others their skills. This helps the members find suitable employment and helps the public find experienced builders who live in their area. Additionally there are classified listings of announcements about related matters. The Network website also features listings of workshops and events around the world, along with resources for further education.

This network and website offer a much-needed central facility for collecting information about natural builders around the world.

March 08, 2008

Nader Khalili Died

The Father of Earthbag Building, Nader Khalili, died peacefully, surrounded by his family, a couple of days ago. He was 71 years old.

Here is part of a letter sent out by his family to former students:

“The flames that ignited him in life and the quest that brought each of you to Cal-Earth to learn from him have touched all of us and led us on this path….the right path……. for arts, humanity and the environment. His work and words have inspired us and his spirit is powerfully alive in every work and word, building and echo that your enthusiastic and loving hands have helped to create for this world.

His soul imbues every grain of sand and every memory contained in Cal-Earth, which expresses so much of his personal life of the last 17 years. And your works, like seeds have been growing and flourishing in every corner of the world…”

Born as an Iranian, Nader lived most of his life in the United States, gaining an architectural degree. He worked on the design of high-rise buildings and taught architecture in Southern California. In 1991 he founded Cal-Earth (the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture) based in the desert region of Hesperia , California. From this center, he taught classes and workshops on the use of both bricks and bags to fashion domes, arches, vaults, and irregular shapes. These forms sprang from his early exposure to Middle Eastern architecture.

The earthbag concept evolved from attending a 1984 NASA symposium for brainstorming ways to build shelters on the moon. He realized that bags filled with lunar “dirt” could be stacked into domes or vaults to provide shelter. This concept was later refined to include stretching barbed wire between the courses of bags to help stabilize the structure. Nader never referred to this building technique as earthbag building; he preferred to call it “Super Adobe,” referring to the fact that he generally filled the bags (or long tubes) with an adobe soil mix.

In 1999 Nader was issued a U.S. Patent for his Super Adobe technique and he subsequently tried to require contractual arrangements for its use. At this point, however, he had been publicizing the idea for so long it was not an enforcable patent, and few would comply with his request.

This fact points to the complex nature of Nader’s personality. He truly loved humanity and the arts, and was an eloquent and passionate speaker. He often said that his ideas were a gift to humanity and he hoped they would provide shelter for the poor and disadvantaged. At the same time, he wanted to control the economic potential of his invention, and he pursued this vigorously.

Nader was the author of several books, including Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture: How to Build Your Own, about literally making ceramic houses, and Sidewalks on the Moon, an autobiography. He also wrote several books about the the mystic poetry of Rumi. Interestingly, he never really wrote a book about his Super Adobe invention, allowing others to take the lead in doing this.

With the passing of Nader Khalili we have come to a point where his ideas and work can truly become universal. All of us who explore the potential of the earthbag concept and expand on its possibilities can help further his vision for bettering the world. We owe a great debt to this truly inspired individual. May he rest in peace!