Posted by: terrapraeta | May 4, 2009

Dream Home

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house!
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife!

Letting the days go by/let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by/water flowing underground
Into the blue again/after the money’s gone
Once in a lifetime/water flowing underground.

Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

Over the last several months, I have written rather extensively about building community: why to do it, what characteristics it likely should have to be successful and the science behind those characteristics. Beyond interpersonal features, there are also many questions about how to make this work in a practical sense. Last week, I began to address that with Gaia’s Garden, describing the tool of permaculture and how I would like to use it. Soon, I will discuss Renewable Energy pros and cons as well – but today, I would like to talk about Green building.

I have always had a fascination with architectural design. I have spent hours, sometimes, drawing floor plans and imagining what me dream home would look like. For most of my life, that meant big, open spaces, high ceilings, lots of windows, rich textures and comfortable furnishings. You know, the American Dream, tp style 🙂

More recently, I have come to understand our ecological crisis, our energy crisis, and the fundamental causes of those, as well as general human dissatisfaction. So I have embraced the concepts of community, egalitarianism, localization, voluntary simplicity as pieces of my perceived solution to those fundamental problems. So what about my old passion? Must I give up my joy in architecture, my ‘dream’ home, my love of comfortable, well designed spaces?

The answer, of course, is no. But at the same time, I have found that my priorities have changed. Big windows are great: if they are oriented and insulated to make the best use of ambient solar heat. Large spaces are fine, but only so long as they are useful and efficient to heat and cool. Textural complexity should be a function of natural materials, used effectively and efficiently – not merely an expression of wealth. And so forth.

There are a large variety of green building techniques that have been developed in recent years – everything from simple improved efficiency ‘traditional’ suburban homes, to old fashioned cobb, cordwood and yurts, through modern variations on adobe, and rammed earth. Instead of trying to cover all of these in detail, I thought I’d do what I love – and tell you what my neo-dream home now looks like, and how it will be built.

The two building technologies that I have found most intriguing are EarthBag Construction, and Earth Sheltered Buildings. I am still looking into tensile strength issues, but I think I would like to combine the two techniques in my home. I love the wonderful curves and arches of Earthbag construction, whereas I have heard Earth-Sheltered buildings described as the one technique that allows the ecology around us to heal from the damage inherently done by building upon it.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Jim Davis of Davis Caves a couple years back. As he described it, they use a lot of passive solar techniques in their designs, but these are insufficient, in themselves, as a heating source in colder climates. This really disappointed me at the time, as I loved the idea of earth sheltering, but also want to incorporate passive heating and cooling into my design. However, since then, I have learned enough to understand where their designs fail: earth sheltered homes are generally built almost entirely of reinforced concrete. This means that the building as a whole has and incredibly high thermal mass. This can good, as there is a lot of mass to absorb heat: unfortunately, it also means that there is a huge mass that must be heated in order to accommodate passive solar. Ideally, however, passive heating requires small, compact thermal masses that can be easily heated each day to maximize the radiant intensity of said heat.

This has led me to look for alternative to reinforced concrete. Instead, I am looking at Earthbags as the primary structural component (perhaps with rebar reinforcement), and small concrete and tile thermal masses placed at strategic locations through the building.

All of this may change as I have recently discovered Annualized Geo-Solar. Most passive solar design relies on the daily absorption and radiance of solar energy. AGS, by comparison, runs on a seasonal (yearly) cycle, allowing heat to be absorbed and stored throughout the summer months and then released months later, during the coldest part of the year. Introduced and championed by architect Don Stephen, AGS taps into the thermal mass of the Earth itself, using the natural heat-transfer systems and cycle times to maximize storage and transfer rates. It may be that I will end up living in a much warmer climate when I build my dream home – so this may be irrelevant for me – but I am extremely impressed with the possibilities of such a system!

Moving on, I have also been rather impressed with EarthShips. Less from a specific design angle, and more because they include complete sustainable systems in their designs: rainwater collection, grey and black water systems, greenhouses for food and interior climate modification, solar and wind energy systems and so forth.

One of the topics they address fairly well is climate control. Earthships are characterized by a greenhouse module running the complete length of the solar axis. They also generally include water features in the greenhouse that are both pleasing to the eye and ear and, in combination with the green growing things, serve to humidify the interior spaces of the home. Although I do not see myself buying an Earthship kit, nor using their overall design schema, I do think I will refer to it often as I consider the supplemental systems and structures of my design.

One final thought on design structure: I have seen suggestions regarding water distribution that make complete sense to me. Specifically, that the kitchen and the bathrooms be placed centrally in relation to the water heater/rainwater collection point, to minimize the amount of energy required to move and heat the water. So obvious, yet so often completely ignored!

It is also important to me, at this point, that the construction process be something that my honey and I can be intimately involved in. Techniques like Earth-Sheltering require some pretty industrial tools and equipment, whereas Earth Bag construction can be done by anyone with the energy and time to spare. My hope is that we settle on design specs that will allow us (with friends, community members, family) to do the majority of the construction ourselves.

I have thought, frequently, that I would love to sit down and draw up some designs: would have loved to incorporate a specific design in this article. Yet I find that I have become so aware of the terrain, climate and ecological integration of my ‘dream home’ that I simply cannot get myself to start drawing up a design without knowing those features intimately. (I also will need to know whether I am building a private home or a community space!) So, I guess, that until I find property and pick a home site, I must content myself with generalities. But boy will I have fun once I do find it!

(Originally Posted January 7, 2007)



  1. […] talk about “Keeping warm and cool differently”. I agree, but I would add passive solar systems to the […]

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