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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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.

December 29, 2006

Papercrete Patents

Every once in a while I get an emailed question that takes some real research to answer, and here is one of them:

Dear Mr. Hart: I have read all your articles on Papercrete and find them very interesting. I have made my own Papercrete blocks and have had them tested for strength. I wish to make blocks to resell but unfortunately I have been told that there is a patent on the Papercrete blocks and that I would have to pay royalties to be able to sell them. The person that has the patent is Mr. Paul A. McKelvey from Redlands, California. I don't see how he could have a patent on Papercrete since it's been patented once, in 1928, and so many people have been using it since then. I would really like to know your thoughts on this subject.

After some digging around internet and a phone call, I was able to respond:

You are right that Mr. McKelvey should never have been issued a patent for that process, since it had already been patented. His patent is #5,785,419, issued on 7/28/98, and it was for a "lightweight building material and method of construction of cast-in-place structures" and the material comprises "cement, fly ash, cellulose fiber, and water."

Prior to his patent is #5,350,451, which was issued to Eric Patterson in Silver City, New Mexico (issued 9/27/94) for essentially the same material and process:

"A slurry composed of paper fibers, water, and cement that can then be used for a variety of construction applications is prepared. After draining the majority of the water, the slurry may be molded into blocks, sheets, or any other desired shape to be used as a construction material, or it can be sprayed onto wire shapes to form custom structures. The slurry product can be used as a mortar in conjunction with building blocks that have been made from the slurry, and it can be used as a plaster when mixed with conventional cement and sand mortar. The slurry can also be poured into forms in the same manner as concrete to form blocks for construction applications."

The only material difference between the two patents is the addition of fly ash to the later patent, and that is a common additive to Portland cement and should have not been allowed as a significant difference.

In any case, I just talked to Eric Patterson by phone and he says that he is not enforcing the control of his patent and is offering his process and material for the general public to be used in any way they deem appropriate, without any expectation of remuneration or contracted commissions. So he suggests that you proceed with your project, and use his patent as the one under which you are operating. If you do not include fly ash in your formula, then Mr. McKelvey would have no recourse for making claims against you.

December 15, 2006

Is Sustainability Possible?

I got the following email from Roger Jones:

"There should be come cautions about the word, "sustainable," and its variants. In a finite system, sustaniability is impossible. As the number of consumers increases, so does total consumption until a point is reached where all critical resources are consumed. In this respect, humans are physiologically driven, much like a plague of locusts or rabbits or mice.

The term, "green," is a reasonable compromise, since it implies doing things in ways that reduce per capita consumption, but even then, there will come a point where there is complete critical resource consumption. The only alternative in a finite system is to reduce the number of consumers.

I applaud your efforts and goodwill in this area, but believe ultimately they will fail, because, other than through war and long-term pollution, humans cannot exhibit deliberate behavior that will significantly limit their numbers. It would be asking too much to expect human behavior to change in time to avert a global environmental catastrophe.

This is not intended to be a critical note, just one to encourage you to reconsider the term, "sustainable." Thanks for your efforts."

In my reply to Roger, I said:

The concept of sustainability is a goal or a vector toward which I think we are obliged to point our actions; whether we succeed or not, only time will tell. I suspect that you are right that we humans, as a whole, are pretty much incapable of consciously limiting our resource consumption, so ultimately some form of natural "correction" will take place as an inevitable result of this. Still the goal of sustainability, which includes limiting our numbers, is the only one that makes sense. The subtitle of one of my video programs is "Approaching Sustainable Architecture"...and I feel that that is all we can expect, really, is to approach this goal, but we will never likely achieve it. Even back in the good old days of hunter/gatherer societies, this way of life was not sustainable, since look what it has evolved into!

As a response to this Roger wrote:

"Certainly my remarks must seem either cynical or pessimistic, but both of those views require us to look at the world from a solely anthropocentric orientation. It seems to me that a step farther back might be worthwhile.

At present levels of technology, best estimates are that the “"sustainable" planetary carrying capacity is 600 million human beings, assuming a lifestyle significantly lower than that currently enjoyed in "developed"” economies today. And yet, we are headed toward a global population of 8 billion within twenty years. The numbers as they now stand just don'’t work. In the face of these numbers, "sustainability" is at best a dream and realistically is a myth.

Having spent many years trying to "fix"” the problem from the other end, i.e., providing low-cost, "“green"” housing, finding ways to increase food supplies or to consume carbon by fixing it into useful and economically sound products, etc., it finally occurred to me to consider the probability of "“sustainable"” improvement beyond the status quo. The end result of that research was disappointing at best.

You are fortunate to have a positive outlook, still, and, I assume, to have hope.

Much of my last decade has included attending technical conferences of the likes of ChemRAWNs, Green Chemistry Conferences, International Symposia on Nanotechnologies and the like, my attendance sponsored, oddly enough, by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, various Federal laboratories and agencies and by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Through these I'’ve come to synthesize that we have probably done terminal damage to our planetary life support system, not from any single factor, but from a nexus of pollution contributions, particularly greenhouse gases and halogenated hydrocarbon compounds that tend to be bio-accumulative, that are environmentally persistent (having half-lives of ten to fifty thousand years), and, sadly, lipophilic, resulting in their rapid travel up the food chain. Of the few among the thousands of manmade compounds (compounds that cannot exist naturally) that are out there, that are in our body burdens and that we have even been able to identify (because they are altered by metabolisis), the vast majority are toxins, neurotoxins, mutagens or carcinogens,– and that is when these are studied individually, not in concert with the others in this chemical cocktail. When one combines all these pollution-based factors it is unlikely that there is a significant window of opportunity to make a correction. Coupled with humanity'’s physiological incapability to recognize and deal with non-immediate threats, it is unlikely we can begin developing or executing coping strategies in time to make a difference.

These realities are unpleasant to comprehend and even more difficult to correct. They are nonetheless correctible, but the time to do so is very, very limited, before the damage compounds itself through mass extinctions. If extinction continues (at present annual rates of increase), all large life-forms will disappear from this planet in less than one century. Sadly, few seem to either comprehend the consequences or, if they do, to care. Further, those in power or with financial means to do anything about it are in denial or worse. Isn'’t that fascinating? Humanity appears to be fiddling while the planet burns…"