Green Building Blog

low cost eco-building

Regenerative design in eco-building February 26, 2011

Filed under: Politics of building,USA — naturalbuild @ 8:42 am

While in the USA several people refered to the concept of ‘regenerative design’, a term I had not heard used in Britain. Regenerative design is when the process of a build takes into full account the people and environment in which it is situated. It becomes regenerative when choices of which materials are used enable other renewable resources which might be depleted to recover. In other words by using appropriate materials it provides time for other renewable resources to regenerate. Such an approach intends to reduce waste and increase efficient use of resources. In this way it owes much to holistic understandings of the environment, and to the philosophy and practice of permaculture.

Akihan also defines it as “regenerative architecture, and the regenerative mode of thinking is to move beyond the linear throughput model of inputs-consumption-waste that characterize all of our current development. Beyond being zero energy or being carbon neutral, it is a fundamental repositioning of the question. Regenerative seeks to go beyond doing no harm – it is the co-evolution of human and natural systems, to design to actively heal the environment”. Thus it is a proactive and all encompassing approach to building design which argues that we can make a positive contribute to the environment.

If we were to adopt this approach we should think carefully not just about what renewable materials are local, but what supply is available. this is probably best understood in relation to the increasing use of wood in eco-building in Britain and our need to be careful to replenish it. As such it raises fundamental questions about our choices of build materials beyond simply what we might conceive as being ecological or natural.


Thom Wheeler’s Adobe Studio and House, Taos, New Mexico, USA February 18, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 11:19 pm

It takes a while to absorb and understand the scale of Thom’s adobe house and studio in Taos, New Mexico. If at first glance from the outside it looks like an ancient castle, with its large tall entrance ways and wooden beams, then stepping inside is like entering the great hall. The high ceilings, giant fire place, and Thom’s amazing art everywhere overwhelms the senses.


Thom Wheelers adobe house, Taos, New Mexico, USA

I came to see Thom’s place because I wanted to understand the possibilities of contemporary adobe building. Although not intended as a low cost or particularly ecological build it does help illustrate the creative potential of adapting ancient techniques for new environments. Thom said he chose adobe for aesthetic reasons but has found the house to be ideal for retaining heat in winter and being cool in summer (his main heat source is radiant under floor heating). It is the ability to mould and shape adobe that is particularly appealing here – the curved sculptural look and as Thom says ‘you can’t get a perfect finish with adobe and that imperfect look makes it wonderful’.


Art everywhere

Completed in 1985 it was built using 3,600 adobe bricks from Ohkay Owingeh (previously known as San Juan Pueblo) and local wood for the beams, and its floor footprint is a total of 4,200 square foot, though 1,000 foot of that is just for the porches. Most unusually compared to other contemporary adobe builds it is two storey with 16 foot (almost 5 metres) ceilings. There is something to be said for the robust safe feeling that a house this size made from adobe gives you. With walls 30 inch (76 cm) thick there is a solid and secure feeling to the structure and of course its historical precedent in this region of New Mexico helps it sit in the landscape. It is also exceptionally long lasting and has been designed to last 1,000 years.

Adobe, especially on this scale, is expensive and Thom argues that ‘adobe is the most expensive way to build a new house. It is very labour intensive and you have to maintain it. It takes a long time and most people don’t have two years to build a house’. He has tried to mitigate some of these requirements by using stucco on external walls to reduce the amount of maintenance needed. Stucco is a render which was traditionally made from lime, sand and water, but now tends to use Portland cement instead of the lime, making it less than ideal environmentally. It is a difficult compromise given that adobe buildings need recovering every few years which is labour intensive and thus expensive. As a result many contemporary buildings in New Mexico might be designed to look traditional but in fact are only partially adobe.


Inside Thom’s adobe house

But Thom’s house teaches us that innovative design and majestic aesthetics can be created from ostensibly ecological materials. Thus perhaps encouraging people who might have little concern for the environment to experiment with these methods and materials purely because of the aesthetics (and the reduced heating bills) could broaden the appeal of green building. In other words it is not always necessary to advocate green building as being about the environment or saving money, but sometimes it is worth celebrating that eco-houses are often simply more beautiful. The more I looked around Thom’s house the more there was to see, not just because of his amazing art, but the building as a whole felt like an adventure into the amazing possibilities of what a home could be.


Porch and upstairs balcony detail

For further information about Thom Wheelers House and Studio see his website: and an interesting article about his build by Kate Winslow. His studio in Taos is often open to the public. Further information on the use of adobe in New Mexico is available in the excellent book by Carol Crews – Clay Culture: Plasters, Paints and Preservation  (2010) published by Gourmet Adobe Press.

[18th Februray 2011]


Home truths: Clay and earth eco-building February 10, 2011

[This article appeared in the magazine Clay Technology February 2011]

Improving efficiency and reducing waste in our building methods is becoming increasingly important. The pressure for change is evident from government carbon reduction targets but also from consumers concerned about rising energy prices and climate change. By visiting over thirty examples of eco-housing in Britain, Spain, Thailand, Argentina and the USA it is apparent that ecological methods remain marginalised and often misunderstood. Thus there is a need to understand what social, political and economic conditions encourage or hinder eco-building.

Barriers to development

Economic considerations are not limited simply to a desire for materials to be cheap. Although the need to develop lost-cost eco-housing is important to ensure that environmentally friendly designs do not become the privilege of the wealthy, many builders I interviewed wanted to be able to make clear and informed choices as to the trade-off between financial and environmental costs, and between initial costs and lifecycle benefits in terms of energy savings.

A house made from bags of earth layered like bricks, Crestone, Colorado, USA

There is an entrenched myth that eco-building is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long-term they are actually cheaper; we are too used to considering cost only at the build stage. Tied to cost considerations are the difficulties eco-builders have in finding impartial and independent advice about different building materials. There is a lack of empirical evidence of the success or failure of different materials and methods and a frustration that many products are only sold by those with vested interests. This is most pronounced in the selling of environmental technologies such as micro-energy generation where for example, small roof-top wind turbines have long been proved to be inefficient. In relation to clay technologies more open discussion of some of the problems of using rammed earth techniques and adobe in our climate are necessary to build consumer confidence in taking what is still perceived as a risk in using such materials.  In other words until the problems and limitations of using some materials is more openly discussed lessons on how to improve and the specific suitability (or not) of approaches to Briatin cannot be learnt. Thus many eco-builders struggle to attain accurate information and mistakes are repeated, this is enhanced by the reluctance to talk openly about what does not work when the concepts of eco-building are still so marginalised.

Underlying traditions

Despite significant advances in the technological development of new materials and methods for eco-building, adoption is often limited by social and cultural assumptions and norms. This is in part because some build techniques seek to reinvigorate traditional methods.

For example, historically adobe clay bricks were used extensively in western Argentina. Clay was locally available, free and provided enough thermal mass necessary to survive cold winters. As bricks replaced its use, adobe came to be perceived as only for those on low incomes, and bricks as a sign of wealth and status. However, with little firewood available, many homes in this region are now cold and a new adobe house being built in San Francisco Del Monte De Oro is helping to revive an interest in traditional techniques and overcome the stigma of unfired clay. It was only after locals could see and feel that the new adobe brick forms were working and had a contemporary aesthetic that they began to reconsider their perceptions. Moreover, given that making adobe bricks is particularly labour intensive and time consuming there remains a market opportunity for local businesses.


Adobe house being built in San Francisco Del Monte De Oro, San Luis Province, Argentina and adobe bricks at Pun Pun Organic farm, Chang Mai, Thailand

Just as importantly, new materials and designs sometimes require radical shifts in cultural values and the changing of local understandings of what constitutes a house. This is most apparent in New Mexico, USA, where the development of Earthships (completely autonomous houses made from recycled car tyres) have been proved technically highly successful but their replication is limited due to their different aesthetic. Understanding cultural perceptions of buildings then becomes central to any attempt to encourage eco-building. This is best done through the sharing of relevant research and through careful reflection by those who design and build radically different forms of housing. A balance is required between technical brilliance and how the final build looks and feels. Thus what we can most immediately do is ensure that innovative building retains an aesthetic which ‘fits’ with other buildings regionally. This can mean that radical innovation is slowed down but potentially more of the ideas are adopted by a wider section of the population.

An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Eco-building as an opportunity

Finally, political context shapes what building types are permissible. Despite some successes in Britain our planning system favours buildings which conform to existing styles and norms. While this might limit some innovation it supports the continued reliance on clay technologies. Recent successes include new cob houses in Devon inspired by Kevin McCabe and the use of rammed earth at the Centre for Alternative Technology and at Hill Holt Wood, Lincolnshire. British companies like Clayworks have also sought to overcome the cost and time limitations of these more traditional methods by developing a range of compressed clay bricks (adobe) and clay plasters using mainly waste materials. In addition unfired clay bricks have been used as internal walls in many British eco-homes and with the use of lime mortar rather than Portland cement traditional bricks become more reusable. In these ways clay technologies are highly suitable for eco-building in Britain and could play an even bigger role as new innovations are developed. That said, those international places I visited without planning laws and building regulations, in particular, produced successful and innovative eco-housing. The freedom to experiment was often necessary to prove new ideas work and we should consider following the USA in creating experimental build zones. The New Mexico Sustainable Development Testing Site Act provides two acres for the trialling of new building methods. This site is deemed completely free of building regulations and planning restrictions. Such sites provide proof-of-concept space which can also provide evidence for the necessary changes in building regulations and planning to enable innovative eco-building. In Britain such sites would enable better longevity and weather durability tests for novel clay products.

There are a large variety of eco-buildings, from those which rely on complex technologies to cheap self-built roundhouses in Wales. Common to eco-buildings internationally, however, is a desire to use locally sourced materials, and to build safe and robust homes. British companies are in a good position to accommodate both these demands with the evolving use of clay technologies.

[10th February 2011]


Lama Foundation, San Cristobal, New Mexico, USA February 4, 2011

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs,USA — naturalbuild @ 7:19 am

Dancing on a wooden floor in an adobe dome built the 1960s was not really how I had envisaged my visit to the Lama Foundation . Yet this collective moment of fun somehow helped connect me to this community in a way I had not expected.


Open day dance inside the dome (built 1968) and the dome from the outside at The Lama Foundation

Clutching to the steep hillside of the Sangre de Cristo mountains north of Taos the Lama Foundation has been building since 1968. Principally a spiritual centre – following the teachings of Ram Dass and his infamous Be Here Now book which was compiled and published onsite – it has an eclectic mixture of eco-houses. These houses have changed quite radically over the years not least because on 5th May 1996 a fire destroyed the majority of the site, leaving rather miraculously the central dome and the old wooden octagonal kitchen. As much loved as the initial dwellings were there was a view that many had been in poor repair (much of the wood had rotted) and ill-equipped to cope with the extremes of the New Mexico climate (long winters, heavy snow and constant winds).


The old wooden kitchen and carved wooden door

Now the range and diversity of the houses is inspirational. There is a log cabin, a straw-bale house, a new base for their cottage industry being made from straw-bale and adobe combined, some yurts for visitors, small vault homes, a hybrid house and many more. Over the years different visitors and residents have experimented with a variety of methods and styles – particularly hybrid approaches. This is when different methods such as straw-bale are used alongside adobe blocks or stone walls. Thus they make use of straw-bale in the north-facing walls (to keep the place warm) and adobe in a south-facing wall (because it allows a building to heat up more quickly than straw).


Hybrid eco-house at The Lama Foundation, and a inside wall – half adobe half straw

Use of adobe on site was originally inspired by the nearby Pueblo constructions in Taos and many local Indigenous Americans came to the site in the early years to teach the newcomers how to build with earth. The adobe prayer room near the main done is particularly interesting – with a very small entrance (you have to crawl inside) and a sunken circle in which to sit it is completely peaceful. Many of the houses are also deliberately small – such as the vaults designed by Shay Salomon – which are thus cheaper to build and easy to heat. The vaults are straw-bale with aluminium shingle roofs which hang over to the ground each side. Moreover under New Mexico building code very small buildings do not have to comply. The community setting encourages the building of small individual houses and the collective use of the large communal space. There are communal bathrooms, kitchen, library, music room, winter meeting room, and outdoor sheltered eating area.


The adobe prayer room and communal bathroom


The small vault houses

Building here is a collective process and part of a spiritual practice for many, one resident said they ‘build with clay, mud and love’. Another noted ‘building a house is so human and it has been taken away from us … it is so satisfying being able to build a house’. Some of the ‘special places’ like the stone hermitage have been built in silence and others such as the two vaults were built just by women. In fact Lama has hosted several women-only build workshops which were deemed necessary in order to create a safe space in which women could experiment in building and expand their confidence without the intrusion of men. Nevertheless the majority of building on site is still done by men.


Straw bale house at The Lama Foundation and prayer flags

The way in which the Foundation has been set up limits residents to a maximum stay of seven years. Resident numbers are limited to the number of houses available on site (currently eight) and the site is most active in the summer months when a large number of volunteers (summer stewards) come and stay. However because the main focus of the site is spirituality rather than eco-building then the co-ordination of building or the skills available is very much dependent on who happens to be around. This has created maintenance problems for the core full-time residents who are there all year because of the sheer number of buildings and the use of natural materials which require regular attention and patching. This tension between a lack of time and skills and the focus being primarily elsewhere has led to the use of concrete and stucco in recent buildings which is not very environmental. They have had at times to make compromises. These compromises have been less about saving money and more about reducing labour requirements.

One resident noted that permaculture principles which were increasingly being integrated into community life suggest ‘you should start small and then work your way out, and so we should make sure we can cope with maintaining the buildings we currently have before we build more’. Thus the place seems to be in a constant flow of moving forward and correcting earlier mistakes. The main dome is quite cold (lacking insulation) and some damage to buildings is the result of a lack of sufficient roof overhang or ‘boot’ and the harsh weather. But more recent structures learn from these mistakes and a new straw-bale house has a foot stone boot to protect it.

The whole community is off-grid; generating electricity through photovoltaic cells, using compost toilets, wood for heat, and water from an on-site spring (and some rainwater is collected). Water is heated in the main through a propane heater because their solar capacity is limited.

Solar power in the roof

There is undoubtedly something magical at the Lama Foundation, less in a spiritual sense for me personally, but something about its location and the freedom in which eco-building has been experimented in. I left longing to stay and to move into my own little vault house on the mountain side.

The Lama Foundation regularly hold open days and events. Please see their website for further information:

Also see Cobb, A (2008) Early Lama Foundation, published by Lama Foundation and Salomon, S (2006) Little House on a Small Planet, published by The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, USA.

[4th February 2011]



It’s the people who make eco-houses wonderful February 3, 2011

The more eco-houses I visit and the more people ask me which were the best houses and which makes inspired me most, the more I realise it is the people who inspire me, not the houses. It is the way people have approached a build, navigated the problems, had the confidence and passion to try something new out which is the amazing part. In the main we know how to build good eco-houses – the same mantra has been repeated to me many times now; passive solar, natural local materials, self-build and volunteer labour, keep it small and simple, ventilate as well as insulate and make it a thing of beauty. For some this takes 2 years other’s 8, but most have built along these similar and good principles. What is different is how they have achieved this and in what circumstances – in rural Argentina by themselves, in a newly emerging community in southern Spain, or in central Los Angeles. Each has to overcome different problems – financial, social, collective, regulatory, neighbours, weather and bad luck – and it is in how they do this and still complete their build that I find most inspiring.


Jenny Pickerill with her hosts who are building an adobe house in San Francisco Del Monte De Oro, San Luis Province, Argentina and Delfine building a wooden zome at La ecoaldea del Michal, Molvizar, Spain

A great deal of thought, love, passion and energy gets put into each of these buildings and the more I look at them the more all I see are the faces of the people who have created them. At each visit I have tried to photograph the builders and their images now loom large to me, before the house itself. This is before you even begin to consider the act of living in the house, which is often a transformative process in itself where bits which did not quite work get changed, initial imagined layouts altered and, of course, the people themselves often taking on a more ecological way of life now that they have created the setting and shelter to live how they wanted. Neither do any of these houses or people stand still – all continue to evolve, motivated by the confidence of a finished build that they can improve or do more, or simply that they are the energetic sort who will always be moving forward in life.


Alix Henry, architect and self-builder, outside her Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico,  and Kelly Hart, my guide around eco-houses at Crestone, and builder Steve Kornher using his flying concrete method, USA

So what did I learn today on my visit to Peninsular Park Commons, a co-housing development in the north of Portland, Oregon? The houses were funky, with lots of eco-features, but more importantly they make great ice-cream, the pot-luck dinner included wheat-free peach cobbler, the blue grass music in the garden was a wonderful celtic mixture and the people were all welcoming and warm and interesting. I spent ten minutes looking around the houses and three hours enjoying the company of the people.


Amy at her Earth House in Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand, and Open Day at Peninsula Park Common co-housing project in Portland, Oregon, USA

So I would like to thank all the people who have made my trips and research so productive and such fun, especially those who have taken the time to drive me to places, talk to and explain things to me, and so often allow me to stay in their homes. It is the people who have made these houses wonderful. It is the people and the social aspects of eco-housing which deserve further study.

[Portland, Oregon, 21st August 2010]