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.

October 23, 2011

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.

October 12, 2011

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!