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low cost eco-building

Freedom to experiment in eco-building August 16, 2010

Filed under: Notes from fieldwork,Politics of building,USA — naturalbuild @ 4:51 pm

During my travels meeting eco-builders in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado the conversation often quickly turns to the difference between Europe and the USA. People are keen to know whether life is better across the Atlantic. Many lament that Europe is so much further forward in terms of environmental legislation and regulations, expressing a general despondency about the state of environmental consciousness and action within the USA. People have often suggested that Europe is better at either forcing or encouraging people to make changes for the better environmental good. A good example of this in England and Wales is the recent introduction of feed-in tariffs for installing photovoltaic panels (where you are guaranteed to be paid a certain amount per unit of electricity produced). If you have savings with which to buy the panels (so this is clearly not open to all) you can begin to generate quite a significant sum from these tariffs while also reducing your electricity bills. This type of government incentive is finally beginning to make putting environmental concerns into practice financially viable rather than just relying upon people’s willingness to do an environmental good.

However, for all that Europe might be doing on the legislation front (and lets be honest it is not as good as it looks and it is still not good enough) and for the positive steps taken in recent years, it lacks something that the United States has in huge quantities, especially in the examples that I have seen in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. That is a sense of freedom and a spirit of experimentation. I would wager that this is related to the broader North American psyche of individualism, self-belief, confidence and a ‘can do’ attitude that can be lacking in certain parts of England. Whatever the reason the results are some radical and unusual green buildings that are superior in inventiveness – in thinking outside of the box  – than the types of housing I have seen in England or Europe. What is more, many of the eco-builders I have met are continuously seeking to adjust and improve their buildings. By living in them and understanding what works and what does not they continue to be inventive in making buildings even better. We have plenty of creative builders, but we do not seem to push the boundaries as far.

There is a danger that our legislation and regulations actually hold back our ability to experiment, be bold, and have the vision to put some of our more radical ideas into practice. There are many examples here of houses which do not fit existing notions of what a house should look like, feel like, or do, including the infamous Earthship, earthbag dome houses, spiral straw bale houses, hybrid houses made out of a combination of straw bale and cob or adobe, and two-story majestic adobe homes.

The tradition of just getting on and building your own house appears to be a lot stronger in the USA. Of course it is hard to generalise across such a huge nation, but there are pockets or hubs of eco-building experimentation that feel like green building heaven for anyone used to the restrictions (planning, financial, cultural, and space) of England. Within these hubs there is a critical mass of like-minded others which many have said has been crucial to facilitating their confidence and knowledge in getting on and building and trying different methods and approaches. Many accredited this critical mass to their success. It is certainly hard to build a different type of house if you are the only one in a whole town doing so and it marks you out in an uncomfortable way. In addition there is the advantage of space out here where you can get on and build without too many prying eyes which is a real advantage to the eco-building movement in the USA. In England you do not get far before your neighbours start asking questions.

On paper Europe has taken very significant steps in recent years to facilitate, legislate, and encourage green building, but that is not to say that we are necessarily getting it right. I am cautious about a system that becomes too bureaucratic in the way that we determine what houses should or should not be built, and to what criteria. In places such as Crestone (Colorado) where there are no building codes (building regulations) and the only limitation to what you can build is determined by a Property Owners Association (depending on what plot you have, not all areas are covered by the Association), there are actually not as many ‘failures’ as one might expect. In other words, most have built reasonable, solid, nice looking homes without building codes determining the approved method for doing so. This is because if you are going to build a house for yourself of course you are going to want it to stand up, for it to be comfortable, and to last for a long time.

I am not suggesting we should abandon all building codes and many builders I have spoken to here have said that in the main they are not a restriction to individual eco-building (though they can be to larger eco-community developments). Building codes can be navigated and in many ways are important for ensuring that houses are robust enough to withstand climatic or regional conditions, like earthquakes or heavy rain. Building codes are perhaps most important when housing is being built for other people, when a developer could make a house look robust and fine but actually is it poorly built. But for self-builders, and in order to really encourage inventive radical visionary eco-building we need to re-examine whether our building regulations are too heavy-handed and are actually suppressing the experimentation which we need.

Although we know a great deal about how to build better homes (even if we often continue to ignore this knowledge) we do not yet have all the answers. There is not a perfect eco-house out there – even the Earthships acknowledge that they have room for improvement and Mike Reynolds has been improving them for over two decades. We still need space to experiment, to radically rethink how we build and collect the resources we need to survive (such as energy and water). We need freedom and we need it at home, wherever that is, so that we can experiment with buildings in the climate they need to function in, with the materials that are local, and live in them during all the seasons to see if they actually work. Of course we can import ideas from abroad and internationally share our successes and failures, but we need more space for homegrown inventors to put their ideas into practice, and to do this we might need a little less regulation and a little more confidence.

[Taos, New Mexico, USA, 15th August 2010]

 

Los Angeles Eco-Village, California, USA August 7, 2010

Filed under: Cost of housing,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 5:04 am

Centrally located between downtown LA and Hollywood, just behind one of the main road arteries of the city is Los Angeles Eco-Village. An oasis of calm and greenery the two blocks of 1920’s apartment buildings have been bought and converted by the group. Established in 1996 it is a long running and permanent fixture which not only houses thirty or so people but acts as a central hub for many green activities and campaigns in the city. Its purpose is perhaps best summed up by the building manager, Lara Morrison, who said living here is about ‘improving your quality of life while reducing your resource use’.

The front of 117 Bimini Place

The two buildings themselves were brought by CRSP (Cooperative Resources and Services Project) when they had fallen into disrepair and had a low occupancy rate. Lois Arkin (CRSP Executive Director), who had long lived locally, felt it important to help rebuild the community in the wake of the 1992 riots which resulted in several buildings in the area burning to the ground. A group of people interested in creating an eco-village had been looking for a spare plot of land on which to build afresh, but it soon became evident that it was preferable to work with a community needing help and revitalisation (it is a low to middle income area). So they set about eco-renovating the apartments, careful to allow existing tenants to stay, and gradually ecologically-minded tenants moved in. It is still an ongoing process with only four apartments with solar power and five with grey-water recycling systems (which until recently was illegal in the state of California). But most have been renovated to habitable standard and lots of eco-materials used in the process like ceramic tiles, bamboo and cork floors, or the car-tyre flooring used on the stairs. No air conditioning units are used by village members though a few ceiling fans have had to be installed in the second floor apartments to cope with the summer heat. But wooden blinds and shading using plants have helped keep some places cooler. It is an old building and there are structural and financial limits to what can be retrofitted to enable natural ventilation.

A kitchen in one of the apartments and Bimini Terrace

Ecological living here is as much about changing behavioural practice as it is about green buildings where composting and recycling are encouraged, vegetarian meals shared at the weekly ‘pot luck’ dinners (where everyone brings a dish to share), water and energy use metered in the Bimini Terrace block (but not yet in 117 Bimini building), and tenants receive a US$25 monthly rent reduction if they do not own a car. New tenants have to pass a rigorous 18 month membership process whereby they prove their eco-credentials and fit with community living (there are weekly Quorum meetings where consensus is used to make group decisions).

The porch entrance and lobby

Living here is also about changing relations within community. As in many big cities it is usual for neighbours to never say hello and for community ties to be weak. Part of the goal of the eco-village is to enhance local friendships, encourage people to talk to each other, and make the community feel safer so that people allow their children to play outside.

The chairs under the magnolia tree and a mosaic door stop

The accommodation is structured around 48 individual apartments of varying sizes from roughly 400 to 1000 square foot. Several of these have been turned over to communal use – a large community (meeting) room with adjoined kitchen, a bike store and food bulk room (where members can buy shares of rice, coffee, pasta etc from large storage boxes), and laundry. Communal use is made of the large lobby (which is also used for events) and the courtyard with inviting chairs and tables sat under the shade of the magnolia tree. At the back of the blocks several garages have been converted into workshops.

The bike store room and metal gate from old bikes

For many years the blocks were owned by CRSP and let to individuals but the group are now in the process of incorporating as a limited equity housing co-operative (with a Community Land Trust owning the land, Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust) and in doing so formally buying the blocks from CRSP for perpetuity. Affordability of apartments has always been central to the project where the definition of affordable is when 30% or less of your income is spent on housing costs. This district is currently a ‘rent burdened’ area whereby many must pay more than 30% of their income for what is often sub-standard housing. Current rents are between $455 and $730 (depending on size of living space) and are several hundred dollars cheaper than equivalent places in the area. The financing for purchasing the buildings came from private supporters who have since been paid off and the rent has always covered repayment, renovation and maintenance costs. Now that these loans have been repaid they can afford to buy the buildings as a cooperative and use the rent as repayment.

Outdoor seating and hallway

What is most striking about the block is the amount and variety of greenery. The buildings are surrounded by fruit trees and flowers which edge out into the road and the newly constructed ‘bulb-outs’ (curved pavement areas advocated for by village members to the city council designed to slow traffic and green the neighbourhood). The courtyard is a forest of edible plants around a huge magnolia tree with tomatoes, herbs, peppers, chard, borridge, bananas, peaches, apples, apricots, figs, mint and comfrey. There are chickens too and plans for bees. Out on the street members recently secured permission to grow macadamia nut trees on the verge (after long health and safety discussions about people slipping on fallen fruit) and are in the process of establishing a learning garden (White House Place Learning Garden) across the road where they will run workshops for school children.


The courtyard garden, chickens and tomatoes

One of the eco-village values is to ‘engage our neighbors and broader communities in mutual dialogue to learn, teach and act’ and to ‘take responsibility for each other and the planet through local environmental and social action’ (notice on community board) and these are reflected in the number of different activities that are run from here. There are bicycle rights groups and an organic vegetable box scheme packing and distribution point. There is constant pressure on the city to improve the public transit network and the eco-village now has excellent access to public transport – with a new subway station in the last ten years and a RapidBus line. There is also a group seeking to revitalise the Los Angeles river, and as an entity the eco-village tends to get lobbied to give its support to certain initiatives or support mayoral candidates, for example. While I was visiting there was a presentation by the LA Sierra Club trying to get the members to back a campaign against coal. Finally there is lots of artwork, they have painted their street intersection and electricity pole, and there is a colourful metal gate made from old bicycle parts.

The painted electricity pole and sunflower in the courtyard

The painted street intersection and art on the courtyard wall

If you would like to visit the eco-village it is located at 117 Bimini Place, Los Angeles, CA 9004 (it also incorporates 127-133 Bimini Terrace). They run tours fortnightly on Saturdays but you must make reservations (crsp@igc.org or 213/738-1254) and there is a $10 tour fee (though this is also a sliding scale depending on your income).  They are unable to accommodate drop-in tourists.

If you would like to visit for longer you can arrange to stay in one of the apartments for a few days or weeks; contact Lara Morrison, laraeco@hotmail.com. To get there by public transport take the red underground metro line to the Beverley/ Vermont stop, walk south along Vermont for two blocks and then right up 1st Street a few metres until you see Bimini Place on your right and the intersection of White Place.

[Arizona, 6th August 2010]

 

Aldea Velatropa, Cuidad Universitaria, Buenos Aires, Argentina August 5, 2010

Just to the north of Block 3 of the University, in the area known as Cuidad Universitaria (University City) are some concrete foundations surrounded by trees. At first glance it looks deserted but delve a little further into the undergrowth and you soon come across tell-tale signs of colourful political art work, a half-constructed some, gardens and the tents. Here, in central Buenos Aires, like the eco-village Velatropa. This university land of approximately one acre has now been occupied for three year (with no resistance from the University or the state).

Wooden dome and wind turbine

It has a transient population dominated by young University students (or those recent graduated) but even in winter, when I visited, had 20 residents. Although most people sleep intents there are several permanent eco-buildings on-site. The best of these is the main communal structure which houses a meeting space, library, art studio and kitchen which extends outside to several external ovens and food storage areas. This building is an experimental combination of adobe bricks, wattle and daub (using bamboo), bottle walls, beautifully shaped curved glass and quirks like a shutter made from flattened tin cans.

The kitchen and communal building, and a wall of the communal structure

The library and view of the windows from inside the communal building

Experimenting and recycling are two key activities onsite. All the materials for the buildings have been reclaimed and sourced for free. There are carefully ordered stacks of wood and ingeniously made bolts on the domes made from old drinks cans. Bricks are being made by compressing plastic bags into used plastic bottles and adobe bricks are made onsite. A reclaimed wooden dome is being given wattle and daub walls using bamboo to create the structure on which to ‘hang’ the clay. Elsewhere onsite a sandbag building is half complete. Someone has built a wind turbine from a bicycle wheel and recycled plastics and a solar hot water heater from old drinks bottles. This experimentation does mean that not everything works perfectly and in the recent rains the inside of the art studio was damp, perhaps built without a protective raised foundation. But that everything here has been made for free is the bigger message they are trying to convey.

Construction of bricks for building from used plastic bags and plastic bottles

In fact, Velatropa are trying hard to illustrate just how wasteful society is by deliberately recycling all that they can. They collect waste from around campus and beyond and recycle it, they run workshops with school children on making art from waste, and work with architecture students on building using discarded materials. The site has several stacks of plastic bottles, tin cans, plastic bags and cardboard. When I visited they were drying out the filling of a futon mattress they found dumped nearby which they are using as cushion filling.

Wall of the communal building and wattle and daub dome in progress

Inside and outside the communal building

There is a dedication to self-sufficiency here, but urban style using the waste of those around them as much as growing what they need in their large and luscious gardens (lemon and grapefruit trees, beans and legumes, celery, herbs, lavender and aniseed and many more which I could not recognise). With every act that they do for themselves however, such as build onsite, they seek to impact far and wide. So they extend their gardening by making seed bombs – seeds wrapped in small clay balls – which they distribute onto other empty land. Every Saturday afternoon the local architecture students some and help them build, building workshops are held as are other events about sustainability.

The garden

Perhaps their main asset though is their site and the welcome they give to strangers. A arrived without warning or an introduction and with terrible Spanish. For the first hour my hosts spoke little English and yet they took the time to show me around, communicate what they were doing with warm smiles, sign language, and the gift of bots of plants to eat and smell. Rarely have I felt so welcome at a place.

If you would like to visit they have an excellent website which has bus information and satellite maps. You can also take a taxi from central Buenos Aires (costs around AR$50 pesos, about £10) and ask to be dropped at Block 3 of University City. Visiting late morning or in the afternoons is best.

[Buenos Aires, 31st July 2010]

 

Straw bale house, Yacanto, Córdoba, Argentina

Filed under: Argentina,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 7:43 pm

With glorious views of the Sierra de Comechingones, the straw bale house at Yacanto is possibly the largest straw bale house in South America. At 257 metres square (excluding the terrace) and two floors, it is a large house. It was built by Tim Cullen and completed in 2005, with a second small house finished early 2009. There is a wow factor with this house, especially inside where the high ceilings, huge rooms, numerous windows and solid thick walls create a feeling of permanence, space, and protection from the elements outside. The house is oat straw bale infill with block walls as its main supporting elements. The roof is corrugated aluminium necessary to cope with the odd hail storm but not be too heavy on the structure beneath. The walls have a soft yellow lime render. In all, the house took just nine months to build.

Straw bale house at Yacanto

The main advantage of straw bale for Tim is its thermal properties in relation to its costs. It is a temperate climate here with the extremes of cold winters and hot summers. His walls are 51 cm thick with a thermal capacity of 48. In comparison a single brick wall has a capacity of 19, a double with fibre-glass insulation (which is too expensive to be used in many local houses here) only raises the capacity into the 30’s. Moreover, he estimates that to achieve the same thermal properties using adobe or cob the walls would have to be 90 cm wide – a long and costly form of construction in comparison. The roof is also insulated with fibreglass, a membrane, and a wood and beam ceiling.

Door and veranda of the house

Ti had not built before and he simply read lots of books and sought advice from those in the USA and UK who had built straw bale. He does not consider such building complicated or requiring professional assistance, though he did get an engineer to check his structural calculations. He was able to make full use of information freely available online. His experience and success illustrates that paying professionals is often not necessary – if you adequately research your build.

The principle motivation for the use of straw bale in this building has been cost – that straw was the cheapest way to achieve the thermal capacity, but also that it was possible to build it using ‘unskilled’ labour, in other words often young men who not only have never built using straw before but had few building skills per se. Tim was able to direct this workforce using the knowledge he had gleaned from books and online. The second, smaller but still with two bedrooms, house only cost US$20,000 to build, just US$2,000 per square metre. This included the windows, doors, and bathroom and kitchen fixtures. He estimates that this is 50% less expensive than the same size house built in brick, and it is important to him that people should not be subjected to “debt slavery for life to inhabit a pile of junk”. While very functional as a house it is less aesthetically pleasing than the main building and on first inspection looks remarkably similar to local brick houses. But perhaps that is the point – it is better built, ecological in the materials it uses, cheap and is better suited to the climate, and yet it also does not require a cultural shift in order to be acceptable. For all intents and purposes it fits into the local cultural norms of what constitutes a home.

The smaller second straw bale house – outside and in

Most houses in the vicinity have been built to be cooling in the summer heat, rather than warming in the winter cold. They have been built to mitigate what is perceived to be the more difficult climate – that it is harder to cool than to heat a house. But with straw bale it is possible to curb the extremes of hot and cold and in the main house the larger number of windows have been deliberately positioned to maximise the possibility of natural ventilation in summer, without losing heat in winter. This house does not have, nor need, air-conditioning or ceiling fans, but it does need fires lit all day in winter. This concern about over-heating has also influenced the orientation – that passive solar gain is minimal because the house faces east to make the most of the stunning views of the Sierras. That said the small straw bale house has no windows in its southern wall in order to protect it from the harsh winds of Patagonia. The straw bale and natural lime render also enables the walls to breathe which help in temperature control.

View of the front of the house and inside main living room

This is an earthquake region, albeit that they are rare, and Timothy believes that the straw bale is flexible enough to withstand a seismic shock. In one recent quake a little plaster cracked but there was no major damage. Bigger threats from nature, however, are the ants, and the heavy rain and winds. There are a huge variety of ants here and they eat everything including straw. So the house has had to be protected from them. While in Argentina someone told me a story illustrating their ability. She was planting out some red flowers. She planted them, turned around to sort out the next seedling for transplanting, returned to the flowers to find the petals gone and a long line of ants carrying little bits of red away. These creatures are not to be underestimated and Argentina has been described as ‘a giant ant hill’. Thus the straw has had insecticide added and is lime covered which is a natural disinfectant. The floors are brick on top of four inches of coarse sand and four inches of brick rubble designed to discourage ants. Finally, in terms of natures’ threats to buildings are the heavy rains and winds of the region. Hence, large overhangs on the roof, a protective external plaster (three layers), and slanting window sills.

Detail of the roof

Straw bale building has no tradition in this region. Instead the design and principles were copied from a house in Canada featured in the The Straw Bale House Book. So the ideas have been imported and Tim was not born here. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that Timothy is not your stereotypical environmentalist and it has been important to him to demonstrate that eco-building happens beyond the usual realm of ‘hippies’ and saving money is enough motivation alone for choosing to build this way.

The future of straw bale building in Argentina, however, is far from clear. It has not really been taken up, not even by those workers Tim trained. There is still local fear and resistance to it as a building technique, though nationally this house has been the subject of a newspaper article and a documentary. Moreover, there is not a ready supply of straw bales in the region, partly because beef is a bigger form of agriculture and partly because what straw there is, is cut into large round bales which cannot retrospectively be turned into rectangular bales. Thus any straw bale builder has to commission the growth of straw specifically for purpose a year in advance (to allow for drying time).

There is another potential limitation to straw bale and that is the cultural emphasis on decorative housing – colourful and ornate (if it can be afforded) where Tim believes it becomes about “fashion over function”. For many his house does not fulfil the criteria of necessary appearance (though to a foreigners eye it has a majestic beauty) which in itself curtails its potential replication.

View of the front (facing east) of the house

When this house was constructed the building regulations were not enforced, but this is changing. Although in the pampa (countryside) it is possible to build as you wish, new regulations are being developed in the village which require prospective builders to submit plans and pay for approval. However, the local planners have said that straw bale will be permissible as long as adequate footings and columns are in place to withstand some seismic activity. Finally, this house does not use solar thermal water heating or any renewable energy technologies because they are prohibitively expensive.

The new geodesic greenhouse dome

This house is an example of careful research, cost-based choices, courage of convictions, and an open planning and building regulations system. It demonstrates a tension between function and aesthetics and a problem with a lack of locally available materials, but the small house in particular fits within many of the existing cultural norms of building and only time will tell if it is replicated further.

Flower pots on the wide window sills and the smaller second straw bale house

Tim is keen to welcome volunteers, especially those interested in helping expand his vegetable growing business (in a new and very large geodesic dome greenhouse), but please do not turn up unannounced. Contact him before arriving via email: timothycullen2@gmail.com. To get to Yacanto either fly or take a bus to Córdoba, then take a bus to Villas de las Roasas which is about 10 miles north of Yacanto. You will need Tim to meet you there. There are several bus companies that serve the route and several buses a day. The journey from Córdoba to Las Rosas takes between three and four hours and you have stunning views of the Sierra on your way. Please note that the house has three dogs who although very friendly might not suit someone not comfortable with dogs.

View of the changing colors of the Sierra at sunset from the house

[Buenos Aires, 31st July 2010]