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.

August 26, 2008

Oil Dependency

Having just finished reading “A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy and the Environment,” by Jay Hakes, my mind is spinning with all of the issues that this brings up. Hakes was the head of the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration, so he knows a fair amount about the topic.

He makes a pretty good case that not only will shaking the U.S. reliance on foreign oil help in all of these ways, but that it is possible. He points out that after measures put into action after the oil shortages in the 1970’s, the U. S. actually did cut its reliance on foreign oil by half…for a short while. This was accomplished through a combination of government resolve to solve the crisis and the public’s willingness to adopt some simple conservation measures. People actually did drive less and at slower speeds; they turned down their thermostats in the winter and up in the summer; they began to install solar water heaters.

Of course times have changed, and now we are painfully aware of the costs that we face from not having continued to boldly deal with these issues. The true cost and burden of our reliance on oil (not just foreign oil) will be paid by future generations. There is little doubt that the Iraq War is a battle for control of oil resources, for which we are paying dearly in dollars, blood, and tarnished reputation. There is little doubt that global climate change, fanned by our burning of fossil fuels is wreaking havoc with rising sea levels, loss of crops, loss of biodiversity, and increasing severity of storms.

Hakes points out that because of the time lag that often occurs between when tough mitigating measures are adopted and when their effects are noticed, there is frequently little resolve among politicians to act because unpopular measures usually don’t bring votes, especially if voters don’t see positive results.

It has taken a few centuries for us to get into this mess. For over 99% of the time that Homo sapiens has been roaming earth, we have done just fine without burning fossil fuel. Even during the great leap into agriculture from hunting and gathering, we relied solely on our labor, with the help of a few beasts of burden. Then, as ecologist William Catton writes, “Homo sapiens attained a kind of superhumanity by learning to convert the heat energy from fire into mechanical energy by means of various engines.” This discovery has jettisoned humanity into the industrial age, and we have comfortably settled into this new way of life, congratulating ourselves on our modern ways.

Now, with the peaking of fossil fuel supplies and increasing world-wide demand, there is only one direction for the price of oil to go: up. With spiraling prices, all aspects of our economy will be affected. The cost of living in this modern world will continue to increase.

But this simple fact may ultimately be our salvation, because economics will force us to find alternative ways of living, and these will inevitably lead us to cleaner, renewable forms of energy. The inexorable laws of economics will eventually force us to address these thorny issues, even when politicians and an unwilling public dig in their heels to avoid change. It will cost too much to do otherwise!

Of course we can choose to cushion the blow of economic and climatic upheaval by making wise decisions now. We can invest in renewable energy now. We can drive cleaner, more fuel efficient cars now. We can walk. We can grow more of our own food. We can make our homes more energy efficient. We can buy only what we really need. We can do all of these things…and we will be much healthier for it!

August 12, 2008

Building with Unbonded Pumice

Dr. Owen Geiger and I have just found that a book published in 1990 in Germany, Building with Pumice, written by Klaus Grasser and Gernot Minke, describes experiments done in the 1970’s at the Research Laboratory for Experimental Building at Kassel Polytechnic College in Germany that have considerable bearing on the history of earthbag building.

Most of the book is about the physical properties of pumice, how to obtain and process it, and how to make blocks or walls with pumice/cement, but the fifth and final chapter, titled “Building with Unbonded Pumice,” describes how they began to investigate the question of how natural building materials like sand and gravel could be used for building houses without the necessity of using binders. The use of fabric-packed bulk material was found to be a cost-efficient approach. They used pumice to pack in the bags, because it weighs less and has better thermal insulating properties than ordinary sand and gravel. Their first successful experiments were with corbeled dome shapes (an inverted catenary) which was obtained with the aid of a rotating vertical template mounted at the center of the structure.

1978, a prototype house using an earthquake-proof stacked-bag type of construction was built in Guatemala. They used cotton bags soaked in lime-wash to protect the material from rot and insects. When flattened, the bags measured roughly 8 X 10 cm. Vertical bamboo poles placed on both sides of the bags and interconnected with wire loops gave the stacked bags stability. The bamboo rods were fixed to the foundation and to the horizontal tie beam at the top.

Obviously the concept of constructing homes with fabric bags of mineral material predates Nader Khalili’s earliest experiments by many years, and I was certainly not the first to experiment with filling earthbags with pumice! The entire chapter is reproduced as an article at