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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Name: Kelly Hart
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 (but is now mostly living in Mexico) and consults about sustainable building design.

April 09, 2010

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April 02, 2010

Earthbag Structures for Disaster-Prone Areas

Ever since the earthquake in Haiti we have been inundated with requests for information about using earthbags for reconstruction efforts. Owen Geiger and I have joined with Patti Stouter to assemble a coherent response to this need that is based on our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of earthbag building, coupled with some knowledge of the cultural factors involved.

What has evolved is a body of information that is readily available to anyone with internet access, and can be found at…a new website created just for this purpose. What you will find there are basic tutorials for building, details about how to go about choosing appropriate plans, a discussion of the cultural factors that should influence your decisions (especially for Haiti), some basic plans for emergency shelters and for more permanent housing (and some that can transition from one to the other), structural details, profiles of actual projects with pictures, a discussion of the costs involved, a listing of resources available and where training might be found, plus some technical data about testing that has been done with earthbags.

In addition to this we have created a private discussion forum for those who are directly involved and want to network with others, and there is information about how to join this.

Each page has a Translate Button at the top where you can choose from dozens of languages with which to read the page, including Haitian Creole.

We feel that this will be a valuable resource for anyone wanting to assist people in need of shelter around the world, especially in disaster-prone regions. We expect that this website will be expanding considerably over time, as we develop more plans, construction details, and can profile more projects.

March 17, 2010

Haitian Wisdom

With all of the recent interest in helping to rebuild the fallen built environment in Haiti, I would like to recommend an excellent resource for understanding how the Haitian culture has been reflected in their architecture over the years. Haitian Wisdom is a 29-page PDF document written by Patti Stouter that is very well researched and presented with many illustrations.

Anyone planning to offering shelter, either temporary or permanent, would be well-advised to review this informative document. Well meaning aid groups often falter when they produce solutions for shelter that do not take into account the sort of cultural factors that are clearly defined here. Inappropriate shelter is often simply abandoned or never occupied because it doesn't fit the culture.

"Traditional communities are combinations of buildings that have developed slowly from the values and knowledge of the local people. The signals and symbols of social status or other meaning may seem subtle to outsiders, but they are obvious to residents. Existing vernacular areas may seem random to designers from Anglo or European cultures. But they often display a brilliant use of appropriate space and sheltering for transitions from the private space of the stoop, to informal neighborhood gathering spaces like public water supplies, to the more public market places."

"What Haitians call ‘home’ is the yard or compound. This includes both buildings and a carefully maintained and swept inhabited area. No dwelling is complete without some form of useful and sheltering yard, and yards represent many layers of symbolic meaning. In cities most household chores are done outside, including washing and drying clothes. In the country the yard also
includes space for flowering bushes, herbs, and a few vegetables. Animals are penned and cared for. Food is dried and stored in a roofed silo that is raised above the ground. These uses are basic and must be provided appropriate space that is large enough and comfortable enough for work."

This little booklet is an enjoyable read, even if you are not involved in relief work in Haiti, just from a cultural point of view, to understand how culture and architecture blend.

March 09, 2010

A Guide to States with No Building Codes

No Building Codes: A Guide to States with No Building Codes is an e-book by Terry Herb, 2010. Owner-builders across the United States are frustrated with the vast array of building codes adopted by so many states. Thankfully, there are still states left where you can build the kind of home you want without dealing with inspections and fees. You just have to do it in the right location--where building codes don't exist. Why pay thousands of dollars to architects for engineered plans because the building code officials tell you they need them; but you don't need them? There is a simple solution for the pioneers and out-of-the-box thinkers of today who want to swing a hammer without the hot breath of a code inspector on their necks. This downloadable e-book contains: An outline map of each of the 50 states with counties outlined as well; current code information for every state; for states with no building code, insightful commentary and information is provided to steer you in the right direction to determine if a state is right for you; researched and validated information; web links to help you learn more about the states that may interest you.
Buy Now

March 08, 2010

A Green Infrastructure Unlocks Several Successful Environmental Initiatives

Guest blogger, Dan Grifen, has written the following:

The world is in a constant state of flux and the environment is no different. Lately, it seems as though flash flooding, earthquakes, and hurricanes are occurring all too often. The severity of them is seemingly unprecedented. Additionally, cities like Washington, D.C. - normally accustomed to mild winters - are experiencing record snow fall while those that expect heavy precipitation, like Syracuse, NY, are setting records for not having any of it. While this may or may not have anything to do with global warming, it certainly is a reminder that the environment is capable of a lot of unexpected changes and we should be doing what we can to balance our use of natural resources and minimize our carbon footprint. Otherwise, the odd, eyebrow-raising nature of weather patterns we’re currently experiencing may end up being catastrophic events down the road.

Yet, what can be done that isn’t currently being done? Cutting down on carbon emissions and recycling have been at the forefronts of the go green movement. However, some initiatives that target a completely new, green infrastructure have gone unnoticed but are essential to competitiveness, long term sustainability, job growth, energy independence and national security.

According to the Department of Energy, heating and cooling account for 50 to 70% of the energy used in the average American home. A large proportion of energy is lost through cracks in walls and ceilings. In terms of energy conservation, individuals can make immediate improvements to their energy profile simply by adding insulation to their home. Arguably, the best insulation for any green home is Cellulose which, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, requires less energy to make and is made of 75% recycled material. This is great for air quality in the home and also for the environment. There’s also renewable Cotton, abundant Fiberglass, and even Soy based foam insulation, which has the highest percentage of renewable resource ingredients in the industry with 60%. By doing this, any homeowner can add value to their home while conserving energy and reducing their utility bill. Long term savings outweigh upfront costs. The implementation of Smart Meters can help them find other areas of their home where energy can be used more efficiently. In some locations, local governments are providing residents with them for free. This seems to be the best strategy for getting residents the tools necessary to cut energy costs. The theory suggests that consumers will make necessary changes to their energy consumption if they can actually see exactly where it is being used inefficiently.

Aside from individual efforts, there are a lot of groups and organizations that people can get involved with that tackle larger projects. The University-National Park Energy Partnership Program (UNPEPP) is a great example. UNPEPP is a public private partnership (PPP) that puts federal grant money in the hands of young, impressionable university students eager to change the United States landscape one national park at a time. Universities all across America use the federal grant money to create internship opportunities for students to travel to a national park in their area and work with energy and environmental professors, experts and park personnel to perform energy audits, recommend energy conservation measures and implement renewable energy technology (RET) that ultimately save the parks thousands in energy costs and significantly reduce their carbon footprint. The UNPEPP 10 year Report is posted on the website. This type of partnership is a rewarding experience for everyone involved and similar PPPs should be on the forefront of the green energy movement.

A third component of building the green energy infrastructure involves business owners. While individual efforts generally result in relatively smaller improvements and PPPs sometimes get delayed by energy policies hung up by the legislative process, private businesses march to the beat of their own drum. They are in a position to tackle large scale projects that can create a large impact without delay. A lot of businesses see the potential for going green. Many of them have come on board. There is actually a scoring system that was devised in 1998, called LEED Certification to help gauge just how far a company has gone to incorporate green initiatives into their designs. Specifically, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System provides a benchmark for the environmentally sustainable creation and use of buildings and neighborhoods. According to USGBC, 72% of electricity consumption and 39% of energy use come from buildings in the United States alone. LEED certified buildings use efficient resources to improve performance with energy conservation, CO2 emissions reduction, and water efficiency all while enhancing the ecosystems they are a part of - rather than diminishing them.

One major company, Globetrotters Engineering Corporation (GEC), an architectural company founded by engineer and CEO, Niranjan Shah, is an example of a company that adheres to LEED certification. GEC is responsible for the management of many facets of modernization and expansion of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago (the first privately managed terminal in the United States). Niranjan Shah proved that implementation of green design can be successful, helpful to society and profitable all at the same time. An example of another company that earned LEED Certification is the Washington D.C. based mortgage company, Fannie Mae, which was responsible for the first-ever LEED data center. There are countless other companies that are earning LEED certification. Government incentives given to companies that earn LEED certification is a way to boost the number of participants and achieve the environmental sustainability results that environmentally friendly federal energy policies target but can’t necessarily get passed through legislation.

On a much larger scale, organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), founded by Bill Clinton and counselor Doug Band, are doing their part to bring the strongest political leaders together to tackle world problems. However, small projects at home, public private partnerships and LEED certification are methods that combine to allow everyone a chance to get involved to curtail inefficient energy use. The necessity to highlight them cannot be understated. The planet is home to all of us and the best way to ensure sustainability is to live and work as environmentally friendly as possible.

March 05, 2010

Magnesium Based Cement

There is a whole class of cement that was very popular in the days before the invention and manufacture of Portland cement quickly replaced its use. Generally classified as magnesium-based cement, this material was used in historic times in Europe, India, and China, among other countries. The Great Wall of China and many of the stupas in India, still standing today, were all made with magnesium-based cements. It is unfortunate that Portland cement has replaced the use of these magnesium products because there are many ways in which they are superior.

Primary among these is the fact that they require much less energy to produce and do not off-gas as much CO2 as Portland cement in their manufacture. The phosphates typically used to combine with the magnesium can even be sourced from animal wastes or fermented plants. Add to this fact that these cements develop considerably greater compressive and tension strengths compared to Portland cement, and you wonder why they are not more commonly used these days. The promotion and proliferation of Portland cement occurred when energy was cheap and health concerns of the public were simply not an issue.

Another advantage of Magnesium-based cements are that they have a natural affinity for cellulose materials, such as plant fibers or wood chips; Portland cement repels cellulose. So you can actually use wood chips as an aggregate to achieve lighter weight and more insulative products. Magnesium oxide when combined with clay and cellulose creates cements that breathe water vapor; they never rot because they always expel moisture. MgO cements do not conduct electricity, nor heat and cold, and have been used for flooring for radar stations and hospital operating rooms.

While a bag of Magnesium cement might cost 2 to 3 times the same weight of Portland cement, that doesn't mean that it is more costly to use. This is because with the attributes of the MgO cement, you can create very strong thin-shelled structures using a variety of lightweight and inexpensive fibers; something that ordinary Portland could never do.

An example of this is what Michael Collins, an artist/visionary/eco-builder, has been creating with magnesium cements. Since these cements completely cure within hours of application, amazing sculptural forms can be created almost spontaneously and become usable within a day. Michael points out that a team of workers could build a small house in one day, and people could be living in it the next. This opens up a huge opportunity for emergency shelters around the world to be constructed almost immediately. There is no off-gassing nor toxic residue to deal with; in fact the material seems to have health-giving benefits for the human body because of its electrical properties.

I asked Michael how much dry MgO/Phosphate cement would be needed to make a small two-room house, and he thought that it could be done with three 50 lb. bags, totaling perhaps $150 in materials. He has described one simple method of building this way which is posted on his questions and answers column. If you have any questions about the possibilities of building with this amazing material, Michael is happy to answer them for you. Just go to the Ask the Experts page. And I have posted a longer article about Magnesium based cements at, that links to several companies that manufacture products based on it.

An interesting example of how this technology is being used can be seen at where they sell what they call "Concrete Canvas," consisting of "a 3-dimensional fibre matrix containing a specially formulated dry concrete mix. A PVC backing on one surface of the cloth ensures the material is completely waterproof; while hydrophilic fibres on the opposite surface aid hydration by drawing the water into the cement. After hydration, Concrete Canvas hardens to a strong, durable, water proof and fire proof concrete surface."

This same company also sells an inflatable shelter, made with similar materials, that is large enough to serve as a hospital room in emergency situations. "The 25sqm variant can be deployed by 2 people without any training in under an hour and is ready to use in only 24 hours. The key to this Concrete Canvas Shelter is the use of inflation to create a surface that is optimized for compressive loading. This allows thin walled concrete structures to be formed which are both robust and lightweight." I understand that these inflatable kits cost around $25,000 each, making what Michael Collins suggest extremely affordable in comparison.

February 11, 2010

Green Electrical Contracting

According to a 2009 Booz Allen Hamilton study, green construction will skyrocket over the next five years. The report projects green construction to generate $554 billion dollars in GDP, provide $396 billion in labor earnings and support or create over 7.9 million jobs from 2009 to 2013. These figures are way up from the previous 8-year period. From 2000-2008, GDP from green construction was just $173 billion, labor earnings was $123 billion and number of jobs created was 2.4 million.

Much of this activity will be related to electrical work. In the next ten to twenty years, “electrical contractor” will no longer be a suitable job title for electricians. They will transition into “energy contractors” to support the fast-growing green construction market as home owners and corporations adopt alternative methods (e.g. solar, wind, etc) to power buildings. What’s driving this? Federal incentives, lower material costs and savings from reduced energy spending, as well as desire to adopt more sustainable levels of energy use.

To read more about this new wave of electrical contracting, see Houston Neal's article about it.