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Less water: Grass grows right up over the house

January 23, 2012

In the wake of creating the organic pods for the Gingerbread Octopod, I am drawn to the rounded forms of the following three designs. It’s funny how structures are rarely straight in nature, but almost always straight when made by humans.

Here is a collection of nine homes in Switzerland, described in the article: Awesome Hidden Lair Tucked Under Mounds of Green Grass. Design and images by Vetsch Architektur. The homes are integrated into nature, as well as offering ample opportunity for living in community.

One drawback of many earth-sheltered homes has been the lack of light from more than one direction. While they can have expansive south-facing windows, these houses feel buried to some degree.

A cool design in the UK incorporates a flower shaped collection of outdoor terrace areas that bring light into the house from many different directions in the 8000 SF zero carbon underground home. Described in the article: Gary Neville’s Underground Eco Home Blends into the Earth, it is designed by Make Architects.

And another home built in Wales shows the power of this type of design to enable people to use local materials. It doesn’t have to be an expensive technology and can be quite low impact on the surrounding natural environment.

A quote from the builder Simon Dale:

Simple, low-impact homes can be built where they are needed, with natural materials and accessible methods. These buildings can easily provide high levels of comfort and efficiency at a tiny fraction of the cost of their conventional equivalents. Effective and reliable systems for water, sewage, heating, refrigeration and even modest electricity can be simply made in low-tech ways with reused and natural materials.

For more information see the article: Extraordinary Off Grid Hobbit Home in Wales Only Cost £3000 to Build, or check out the builder’s website: A Low Impact Woodland Home.

Buildings are straight and square because it is easier to mass-produce, transport, store, and plan for straight and square. While I would certain advocate caution about using this style of buried building for our waterlogged soils in Seattle, it is always interesting to look at the many ways of doing things. There is certainly an appeal to the organic forms and integration with nature that could be integrated into more urban designs as well.

One concept gaining popularity is the use of vegetation on the building, whether on the roof or exterior walls. It is a great way to integrate nature, create natural habitat, reduce stormwater impacts, add visual and acoustic buffering, increase insulation, provide shade, and reduce the urban heat island effect. Plus it looks cool. Interested in green walls? Check out this groovy infographic about all of the different types.

There are many great technologies being developed to support the integration of landscape and buildings, and some of them are possible to do as a retrofit on your existing home. You can see these and other lovely images of green walls at the blog post: growing a green wall.

I’m particularly interested in the idea of growing food on a vertical system, such as this beautiful installation in South Korea.

As I type this post under the green roof on my home office, I am considering how best to incorporate a future planned green wall update, as well as how to plant the green roof on the chicken coop. I would certainly call this a growth opportunity!

Related blog posts:
Less water: The aesthetic of living walls
LemonDrop Addition Update: State of the Green Roof

Happy (Octo-licious) Holidays!

December 23, 2011

When thinking of a new gingerbread design for this year, my son requested that we build an Octopod, so… here is the result.

For anyone not familiar with the Octonauts, they are a team of animals who live underwater in the Octopod:

I feel pretty pleased with the pioneering efforts of baking gingerbread around an ovenproof bowl to create the rounded pods. Three pounds of powdered sugar later, there is significant icing coverage to create the dreamlike fantasy effect of the Octonauts’ aesthetic. And I think we have fully explored the structural properties of the gingerbread and icing combination. Perhaps next year we can push the boundaries of architectural baked goods even further.

If you missed the Green Urban Gingerbread House from 2010, here are some links to the (tasty and educational) results of last year’s baking exploration:

It seems so much more subdued than it did last year…. What do you think we should build next year?

Less space: Skinny homes that feel expansive

November 15, 2011

Urban residential architecture struggles with the challenge of creating spaces that are beautiful and uplifting for homes that have a very small footprint. In these four examples, there are many strategies used to “open up” the small spaces:

  • Sculpting space with light
  • Vertical spatial connections
  • Sleek built-in storage
  • Connection to the outdoors

Shaft House, Toronto, 1400 SF

This skinny house is 16 feet wide, with a focus on compact design and use of a vertical shaft through the middle of the design. Note that the shaft not only sends light deep into the narrow house but also uses the “stack effect” which is when heated air rises and draws air in and up through the house. The staggered floor levels create an interesting experience of the vertical space, with many opportunities to look out over a space.

Read more at: Toronto’s Shaft House Maximizes Space & Daylight on a Snug 20 ft Wide Lot. Design and images by atelier rzlbd.

East Village Shoebox, New York City, 500 SF

This small NYC apartment does quite a bit with a 500 SF footprint, two windows, and limited vertical space. They cleverly integrate storage into practically every corner and surface of the space, and use a built-in bed loft to provide some spatial variety. With limited natural light, they also focus on creating pools of light within the interior portions of the long skinny space.

Read more at: JPDA Turns an East Village Shoebox Apartment into an Ultra Efficient Space. Design and images by JPDA.

Super Skinny Horinouchi House, Tokyo, 560 SF footprint

This house uses an awkward triangular-shaped piece of land to create a home that still manages to feel quite bright and open. Sliding glass wall/windows open up to connect indoors with outdoors, expanding the useable space when weather permits. The large ground floor bedroom is next to the entry, and can be completely separated with a translucent curtain as visitors move up beautiful open stairs to the bright and expansive living spaces above.

Read more at: Super Skinny Hornouchi House Reaches the Pinnacle of Space Management in Japan. Design and images by Mizuishi Architect Atelier.

Outdoors Indoors Home, Shinagawa-Ku, Japan, 385 SF footprint

This home in Japan is on a very small lot, but reaches up vertically to an indoor rock climbing wall area with access to a roof deck. Skylights and light shafts on two sides of the space serve to flood the space with natural light. The space expands vertically with views up through the spaces and the experience of climbing the bright open stairs.

Read more at: Super Slim Outdoors Indoors Home in Japan is Capped With a Rock Climbing Wall. Design and images by be-fun-design.

Less toxic stuff: I think that I shall never see a building lovely as a tree

October 19, 2011

In the quest to explore non-toxic and natural materials, I have come across some recent articles about the use of trees in architecture. It is interesting to consider – trees are an excellent solution to multiple design challenges:

Solar design – Trees are the ultimate model of solar collection, with multiple green solar cells that transform sunlight into energy and feed it into the “power grid” of the tree’s trunk and branches. Deciduous trees are often used in passive solar site design. Planted next to a building, they can provide shade in the summer, but allow warming sun through bare branches in the winter.

A recent article entitled “Bosco Verticale: An Urban Forest Grows in Milan” describes a skyscraper under construction in Italy takes this concept to a new level – literally – a forest tower that benefits from trees planted on each level. Design and image by Stefano Boeri.

Structural integrity – We are all familiar with wood as a building resource, but the whole tree is a marvel of structural strength, from the roots that not only extract nutrients and water from the soil, but also provide an anchor into the earth for the top-heavy power collection system (a.k.a. leaves). Trees can be used as windbreaks, and they can be planted strategically to stabilize soils.

A recent article, “Whole Trees – Pruned for Stunning Architecture and Better Forest Management,” shows examples of using whole trees as structural members in building design. It is not only beautiful in its organic form, but the whole tree has far superior strength to the processed lumber that we typically use. So structural members can be more slender and graceful in effect than what you might expect. Design and image from Whole Trees Architecture.

Healthy ecosystem – Trees clean and oxygenate the air we breathe, removing carbon from the atmosphere and filtering a variety of toxins. They provide habitat and food for multiple animal species. And when their lives come to an end, they decompose and return to the earth from which they came. No landfill issues here.

There are some interesting images at The Green Cathedral Is an Interpretation of Paris’ Notre Dame in Trees which show a re-creation of the Notre Dame footprint built entirely from trees in the Netherlands,  an elegant tribute to the sacred energy of a tree reaching toward the sky. While it may be impractical to build our buildings entirely from trees, designers are beginning to envision a future where our buildings (and other aspects of our lives) are part of a renewing cycle, which can be part of the cycle of nature rather than in opposition to it.

I will end with Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem about trees. But I like to fill in “building” wherever she has written “poem”.

I think that I shall never see 
A poem lovely as a tree.    
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest 
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast; 
A tree that looks at God all day,        
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;    
A tree that may in summer wear 
A nest of robins in her hair;    
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; 
Who intimately lives with rain.    
Poems are made by fools like me, 
But only God can make a tree.

Perhaps one day more of our creations will have the beauty and efficiency of a tree.

Less energy: Solar is a growth industry in the recession

October 6, 2011

I blogged last week about the tipping point for solar, and it seems like the news keeps coming about the growth of solar energy. Demand is growing, prices are dropping, and the technology keeps getting better.

A recent article entitled “Keeping Up With the Solar (and Wind) Joneses” talks about the inspirational effect of installing solar in a small West Virginia town. The article references the Solar Foundation’s 2011 Solar Jobs Census, which documents a 6.8% growth in solar jobs from August 2010 to August 2011.  As the article further quotes from the census: “To put this into context, the overall economy only grew 0.7% and the fossil fuel electric generation industry actually experienced a 2% decrease in its workforce during that same period. Clearly the solar industry is doing something right.”

Another article entitled “Growing Solar Power Industry Signals Need For Federal And State Support” describes the falling costs of solar – 11 percent in the first half of 2011 and 17 percent in 2010. The article makes the point that solar and other renewable energy sources receive federal funding at one tenth the level that nuclear was funded at during its early years. The recent successes of solar are in spite of meager funding.

Solar is harder and more expensive to do at a small scale (such as for a single family home), but each panel installed is a small step towards a clean energy future. In addition to the reasons I referenced in the blog post last week, one good reason to invest in solar is to drive the market. Much like the market for organic food – once there is sufficient desire the prices will come down. The demand for solar is starting to drive prices down, but there is still much progress needed. You can help by considering solar on your home, or if your home isn’t well located for solar access you can invest in a community solar installation, such as Seattle City Light’s program.

Less energy: Is the tipping point for solar coming?

September 29, 2011

I confess to being a solar geek. Starting with working at the North Carolina Solar Center and organizing solar home tours for the NC Solar Energy Association (now the NC Sustainable Energy Association), I have been interested in solar for most of my working life. Passive solar has always been a “no-brainer” in my opinion in terms of designing to take advantage of solar heat, but the economics of photovoltaic (solar electric) systems has historically been a challenge.

But recent articles herald the news from studies in China that solar PV may be as cheap as coal by 2015. Of course, this depends on the rate of technological advances continuing, which further depends on continuing to invest in solar research. (Here’s a good reason to support government investment in renewable energy technologies!) Significantly cheaper PV technology would certainly be a game changer.

However, there are many reasons to invest in solar PV now that are not just about return on investment. I think it is interesting to think about how we make spending and investment decisions. They really are not always based solely on what makes the most financial sense. I am particularly drawn to the idea of an investment that is better for the planet, allows me to take control of my own power needs, that is more resistant to future energy price spikes, and protects against power outages. A couple of recent articles about reasons to go solar: “Ruminations on ROI and Solar PV” and “5 Reasons Why Going Solar is About More Than Just Money”.

As I write this I can look out at a beautiful sunny Seattle day. This would be a great day for harvesting solar energy, but it is important to note that solar PV works on cloudy days too, although not quite as well. However, because of our long days during the summer, the average power generated by solar PV in Seattle is comparable to other areas of the country that seem sunnier. Germany is a world leader in solar PV use, and they have a similar climate to the Pacific Northwest.

For now, I’m going to dream of a bright future where solar becomes cost competitive and rapidly replaces fossil fuels for power generation. How is that for “looking on the sunny side”?

Less money: Plenitude economy

September 15, 2011

As a follow-up to the recent post “Less money: Want to save the planet? Work less and spend less”, check out this cool video describing an economic model based on just that — called the Plenitude Economy (thanks to Sustainable West Seattle for posting). As I look at ways to live more lightly on the earth, and ways to focus my design work, I am drawn to finding ways to support more hands-on involvement of people in their homes and their lifestyles.

A home is a very personal space and it can be rewarding (and save money) to do work yourself, whether the whole project or some parts of it. Home renovations for “do-yourselfers” require strategizing ways to make the design easy to build and/or finding ways to carve out parts of the work that are “weekend project” friendly. Homes can also be designed to support a more hands-on lifestyle, such as planning for harvesting food, gathering rainwater, drying laundry on a clothesline, or raising chickens.

For Seattle-based folks, there is an interesting upcoming event: “Sustainable Alternatives to Growth Economics” Sept 19, 7pm at Youngstown Arts Cultural Arts Center, organized by Sustainable West Seattle.


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