Thursday, November 24, 2011

Net Zero - Part III

This house is net positive, meaning it "creates more energy than it uses," and its existence is proof that sustainable architecture can be beautiful and upscale.  The architect, Thomas Doerr, designed this home to use passive solar heating along with quality insulation and solar power.  Many aspects of the design show thoughtful decision making processes, looking for the least impact on the environment along with truly beautiful craftsmanship. 

My favorite quote from this video is, "Their electric meter spins backwards."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Net Zero Home - Part II

Since we know it's possible to build net-zero, creating buildings that do not need to use the local grid, it's important that new construction meet that goal (or better, net positive, which is making more energy than the building uses).  However, reusing existing buildings is always best whenever possible for many reasons.  For one, it preserves our heritage.  Also, it protects natural habitats, since reusing existing development prevents new construction and sprawl.  Finally, it usually takes less material, which reduces overall consumption and waste.

This video shows how one family was able to renovate their 110-year-old Folk Victorian home into a net zero home by using quality insulation, changing their light bulbs to compact fluorescent, using energy and water efficient appliances, installing geothermal heating and using solar power.  Despite all these changes, their home maintains all of the original charm and character, both for the present and future generations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Net Zero Home - Part I

As Winter approaches, many face energy bills that skyrocket as temperatures plummet.  There is another way to build, though, that requires minimal to no heating and cooling from municipal supplies.  It is possible to construct a building so that it sustains itself through proper insulation, quality materials, geothermal heating/cooling and solar power.  In fact, it is possible to sell energy to the local utility company rather than buying it, if one's building is designed so well as to be net positive on occasion.

This video shows the first net zero house in Michigan, which is known for its cold climate.  How many people in frosty northern climates would love to pay no utility bills in the middle of Winter?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Shipping Container Living = Cool + Cheap

Did you know that shipping containers are very useful for living in as a house?  They can withstand earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and all sorts of disasters.  They are cheap and readily available all over the world.  Here are some great examples of what you can do with a shipping container:

The video below shows a very cool weekend retreat created by a couple of architects as an educational tool.

The next video shows a time lapse view of constructing a house of a more typical size out of shipping containers.  It didn't take long!

Next is a short clip showing how shipping containers are used for student housing in Amsterdam. 

Finally, this last video is somewhat long, but it shows all the possibilities of shipping container living that have already proven successful. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Living Small in the City

We've looked at tiny houses for the past few days, and they are wonderful.  However, in the interest of urban density, which is needed to preserve habitat and drastically lower carbon emissions, which is paramount to reigning in climate change, let's move on to what a "tiny house" would look like in the city.  These apartments are too big by some standards to qualify as tiny per se, but, at 590 square feet, they are still quite modest.  I like that the architects Eva Prats and Ricardo Flores have designed this building around the concept of community, with the understanding that social interaction is a key ingredient in our happiness.  I also like that all of the apartments have balconies for the residents to enjoy outside space.  It's nice that there is a courtyard with plants and a fountain, because this will create a wind-free, moderate micro-climate from which people can benefit, even if it's just by opening a window.  It's nice, too, that a "low rent" community gets to live somewhere so beautiful.  This looks like some of the high scale luxury apartment complexes I've seen, yet it's a reasonable and low-impact place to live.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A Smaller Life Can Lead to Contentment

For Dee Williams of Olympia, Washington, she found a contentment in 84 square feet that she couldn't find living larger.  Living smaller led to simplification, and simplification led to ease.  It's not possible for her to complicate her lifestyle too much, and her carbon footprint is miniscule for an American.  She has a lifetime of security, never having to pay rent or a mortgage, and she always has a place to call home.  Her utility bills are $8 a month!  She may need a different sleeping arrangement one day when she is very elderly, but when that day comes, she'll probably be happy to sleep in her living room, or she will have had the opportunity to save up a healthy retirement with the money she didn't spend during her lifetime.  

Why do we think we need so much space?  Maybe all that space, with its accompanying chores, bills, rent/mortgage and carbon footprint just isn't worth the price, especially in an economic climate like this one.  Living small is easier, cheaper and friendlier to the environment.  It's something to think about.  I know my family needs to consider space requirements in the months to come as we consider our housing options, and we're going to keep these ideas in mind.

Take a look at this video of Dee Williams' home from PBS to explore her home:

Monday, November 14, 2011

Tiny House = "Reduce"

Remember the three “R’s”?  “Reduce” is the first, and most critical of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” motto of the environmental movement.  The miniature cabins found in the small house movement are a great way to live smaller, taking up less space, fewer resources and creating less carbon emissions.  Plus, as sixteen year old Austin Hay has proved, even a kid can make one.  These houses don’t solve the world’s problems exactly, since urban density is paramount to lowering our collective carbon footprints, but they can solve an individual’s or family’s problems in a very low impact way.  For instance, how many families have had to foreclose on their homes that were too big and too expensive?  A small home like the Fencl (what Austin is making) by Tumbleweed Tiny House Company not only costs much less than a typical house in the United States, but it is also portable, so it can be your home indefinitely without being subject to the whims of fortune.  Austin Hay has put together a brilliant strategy of building his Fencl while he’s in high school and living with his parents then taking it to college and beyond.  He’ll never have to pay rent or a mortgage.  All he needs is a place to park, an electrical outlet and a place to deal with his graywater.  I’m not sure what his system is for graywater, but he mentions using a composting toilet in the video below.  You can check out Austin’s website for updates. 

This video of Austin’s tiny house project was created by Kirsten Dirksen of

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tokyo's Sky City: Not for the faint of heart

The Tokyo Sky City vision (it's in the design phase now with no plans for construction yet) looks to me like the designers are trying hard to come up with helpful solutions to overcrowding and resource management, and I get why they're thinking along these lines - it's very creative and solution-oriented.  Building up rather than out has a lot of advantages when it comes to creating less carbon emissions, and urban density has a lot going for it in the realm of sustainability, though I understand the impetus behind this project is land pricing.  However, this idea of the Sky City looks to me like one big security fail.  Any skyscraper of course bears the burden of emergency preparedness, but I can't imagine what would happen to the people in a building that fits a whole city of 100,000 people in the event of tragedy.  Perhaps I have more to learn about this design concept, but my gut reaction is that I'd never want to live there.  If I'm being honest, though, I'd love to visit if this plan ever becomes reality.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sustainable and Beautiful = Long Term Success

I appreciate the questions raised in the paper "Undoing the Relation: Image, Sustainability and Architecture" where the authors Anne-Marie Willis and Tony Fry suggest that instead of focusing on the aesthetics of a building design in the planning stage, instead we ask the questions:
  • "What is this building to sustain?"
  • "Is what it is to sustain itself sustainable?"
  • "How can it be designed so as to sustain that which is sustainable?"
These are valueable questions, partially because it's focusing on what needs to be done rather than what would look impressive, and also because these questions encourage looking at the whole ongoing process of the building, as an entity with a job over the course of time.

Photo: Erik Christensen

Beauty and aesthetics are not to be ignored, however, because these factors heavily factor in to the designs ability foster reproduction.  When people see a visual image of a building that gives them an emotional pull, they then find themselves plotting how to make what they saw happen again, but for themselves this time.  As an example, I would point to any green roof with plants doing well.  For whatever reason, this image lights up the hearts of just about anyone.  It could be due to biophilia, genetic memory, instincts or any number of factors, but a lot of people just love a green roof.  To extend the scale of the image, I've noticed that people also love the idea of green roofs and walls in an urban context.  When I've shown pictures of imaginary cities to people with a sea of skyscrapers full of living roofs, they always exclaim over how "cool" that is.  It's like people just know there's something "right" about it.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a person say they wish they could live in a "place like that" when they've seen an image of a house or a city with green roofs.  Now, I don't mean to suggest that green roofs are appropriate for every project by any means.  What I'm saying is that sometimes a beautiful image carries a lot of weight in the hearts and minds of people, and, when that happens, it's more likely to show up again and again.  Someone might spend years plotting how to live their life so that they can eventually live under such a beautiful roof.

Photo: Chicago City Hall Green Roof, by TonyTheTiger
The authors are right, though, that in this time of climate crisis, add-on sustainability isn't going to cut it.  We have to rethink the way we live our lives and what processes need to die away.  A green roof doesn't solve that much, nor a worm bin nor a rain water barrel, if one is flying across the country several times a year and making 45 minute drives to work every day.  Adding solar panels to a house that is sucking up crazy amounts of energy only prolongs the inevitable collapse of resources.

The authors make another good suggestion:

"Sustainments are modest and accumulative, situation specific, starting wherever you are and can, in this sense sustainments ar emany of thse things currently designated as features of sustainable architecture - but they are more than this, because they are focused on time and process not just on space and object."  So, the pertinent thought process becomes how to make the building something that sustains over time rather than something that consumes over time, which is more important than what it looks like.

If architects and design teams could see, figuratively speaking, DNA strands instead of blueprints, and a face instead of a facade, we'd get closer to solving our problems.  Treating buildings with the same kind of consideration as a living creature or an ecosystem leads to making sustainable decisions that tie the building into the natural world, with its rhythms and processes, rather than working against the climate and conditions.  Good choices along these lines will work out better long term if they are visually attractive, however, because that adds the emotional component needed for people to apply and reapply these methods.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sumatran Coffee Contributes to Tiger Extinction

There are so many critically endangered species on this planet, it's like a horror story come to life.  When I consider the likely inevitability that we will lose the polar bear, sea turtles, the North Atlantic right whale, the giant panda, the orang-utan, the elephant, many frogs and the tiger, amongst countless others, I just want to cry. 

© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY
Speaking of tigers, the World Wildlife Federation says here, "This is clearly an emergency: if nothing is done, tigers will disappear from the wild within the next decade."  You know what I learned from reading this article?  This just kills me... I can hardly believe I've been contributing to the decline in tiger habitat on a regular basis.  You know how?  I've been drinking Sumatran coffee.  The WWF says here and in this report that, "[i]llegally grown coffee in Sumatra is driving the destruction of tiger habitat... Watch where your coffee comes from – and choose coffee grown according to environmentally friendly principles." Further reading on the topic warns that even Sumatran coffee supposedly grown on already deforested land gets illegally mixed by the growers with coffee grown in protected tiger habitat.  (For the record, Starbucks denies buying beans from Lampung, the area of Indonesia in question.)  Here is more information on what needs to be done to save what is left of the tiger population, which is possibly down to 3,200 individuals in the wild.

1 in 10 species worldwide are predicted to be extinct by 2100 due to global warming, according to University of Exeter research.  This is not the future we want for our generations to come!  Dr. Robert Wilson of the University of Exeter says, ""We need to act now to prevent threatened species from becoming extinct. This means cutting carbon emissions and protecting species from the other threats they face, such as habitat loss and pollution."  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Extreme Pollution in China

Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

I've never been to China, but I've heard stories from those who have.  There are places where people wear surgical masks just to walk around on the street to filter the air they are breathing.  The New York Times published an unsettling series of articles on the topic, including this one: As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes.  The NYT also published this chilling slideshow of pollution in China.

The article states, "Only 1 percent of China's 560 million urban dwellers breathes air considered safe by the European Union."  Like so many families, in the photo above, a "family of migrants moved to Ningxia Province from Inner Mongolia so that the father could work at a nearby factory."  While the already developed world is beginning to rein in its carbon spewing excesses, China is just hitting its stride.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Consumption in China

The NYT article was published in August of 2007.  It speculated that China might lead the world in carbon emissions by the end of the year.  Several sources say that China had already taken the lead at that time, and by 2008 they were definitely the leader in emissions (not by per capita, however.)

There has got to be a better way.  The planet cannot handle developing nations following this model.  Greenpeace has a website describing the solutions available for mitigating air pollution disaster: The Solutions.  To summarize their ideas, the most important step is weaning off of coal, China's main power source, and instead developing renewable energy technologies.  Next is strict regulation of pollution.  On a more positive note, China is one of the world's leaders in solar technology, producing something like 23% of the world's photovoltaic products.  I hope that they find a way to make solar power take over very, very quickly. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beautiful Underground Home

This house is pretty amazing.  Look how little habitat it disturbs!  Incredible.  See the article Beautiful Swiss House is Buried Under the Earth by Diane Pham of inhabitat. The article mentions that "[b]y building the house underground, the architects were able to almost completely eliminate the need for heating or cooling in the winter and summer months."  Kudos to the architects SeArch and Christian Müller for showing us what is possible.

sustainable design, green design, vals, switzerland, search, christian muller, green building, underground house, hill house

sustainable design, green design, vals, switzerland, search, christian muller, green building, underground house, hill house

Saturday, November 5, 2011

DIY Low Flush Toilet

It's easy to make your home toilet into a low flush toilet!

  1. Find a clean half gallon plastic jug with a lid.
  2. Add enough sand, gravel, rocks or what-have-you to the jug to weigh it down so it can't float, probably an inch or two of material.  
  3. Fill the rest of the jug with water.
  4. You can add a few drops of bleach to the jug to prevent gunk build up.  
  5. Add the lid to the jug.
  6. Place the container into the tank of your toilet, away from moving parts.  
  7. If you run into trouble, it will likely be from displacing too much water in the tank.  Don't get in the habit of flushing more than once, as that wastes more water than the original design.  This is an easy problem to fix... just try a smaller bottle, since every little bit helps.  When the time comes to replace the toilet, buy a WaterSense certified model and forgo the jug. 
  8. Want to make it more fun?  Check your water bill before and after making this easy alteration.  Ka-ching! 
Photo: Happy Simple Living
Toilets use more water than any other item in the home.  On the website for The ABC's Of Toilets, it says, "If all U.S. households installed water-saving features, water use would decrease by 30%.  This would save an estimated 5.4 billion gallons of water per day, resulting in daily dollar-volume savings of $11.3 million or more than $4 billion per year." 

Have you tried this?  Please tell your story in the comments section below. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Design To Withstand Climate Change

This is an interesting article, Design for Adaptation: Living in a Climate Changing World, from

Photo: Global Green

This article explains how buildings should be designed to adapt to a changing world, since the likelihood of climate change abruptly altering the world around us is high.  It's kind of sad, but practical.  It includes advice like raising buildings and mechanical equipment off the ground, since floods and sea levels might destroy the building otherwise.  There's lots of emphasis on passive heating/cooling, use of on-site generated renewable energy, and rain water harvesting.

I would have added, were it my article, a section urging urban food growing and seed banking, since if a community finds itself unable to acquire food from long distances in the event of an emergency, it would be better to have a plan already in place for this important aspect of life.  Communities ought to do this anyway, for their own well-being as well as decreasing dependence on industrial farming and petroleum.  I don't think enough people realize what is happening in the world of farming and how our ability to find viable seeds in the event of catastrophe is rapidly diminishing.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Hopeful Global Future

The modern mindset that has led to globalization has lots of optimistic ideals in it, like equality of all people and human rights, chiefly.  My understanding of the ubiquitous international style of architecture is that its chief intent is often practical, to bring affordable buildings to average people.  I think so many people associated traditional architecture with out-dated modes of thinking and living that represented oppression to them, that the values therein have largely been forgotten.  When I look around my neighborhood, I understand why the quaint old Victorian houses, with their ornate facades, have been abandoned in the wake of large boxy structures.  Money talks, and it's cheaper and easier to build a box, and so modern building must have seemed liberating in its inception.

So much of globalization had goals like that in mind.  Bring a better lifestyle to everyone, and the world will be a better place.  Bring economic uniformity to the world, so that we can all trade together, and let the rising tide raise all boats.

Of course, it hasn't exactly worked out that way, as the world's wealth is mostly in the hands of the few.  We've all bought into this system of trying to have more than our neighbors.  Just the other day, I heard of a local teacher exlaining to her grade school students that, "The best you can hope for is a large house.  The next best is a medium-sized house.  If you are poor, you must make do with a small house.  The very worst is living in an apartment."

Also, this global paradigm will never work out in the long run, as the environmental consequences are devastating.  That teacher has it all wrong.  The "best" is living tied into nature like any other animal, as an actually helpful member of the local ecosystem.

Gaia by Renate Hennessy

I am hoping that within our lifetime we will see very drastic changes to this model of thinking.  Let's keep the good parts, like freedom and justice, and then extend that line of thinking to the planet we live on.  Maybe we can collectively get to the point where the Gaia Theory, or something similarly compelling, will have gained enough ground that globally we recognize that the earth is either a living entity or should be treated like one whether it is or not.  Let's extend our ideals of individual rights to the planet we live on, and learn to humble our aspirations so that we can fit into our niche within the living world.

I am also hoping that the industrial revolution will eventually be seen as a bumpy spot on the road of evolution.  I am hoping that the long-term outcome of the age of industry is all of the amazing green technology we will have as a result.  Our ability to communicate information in this day and age is probably the grandest achievement of modern times, and if we can just continue on that path in a sustainable way, eventually we can boast a high-tech life rich in biodiversity and regeneration.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Local Vs. Imported Food

The article "Environmental Cost of Shipping Groceries Around the World" in The New York Times caught my attention recently, and it surprised me a bit.  I have always assumed that it's better, environmentally speaking, to buy local food.  However, the article points out that sometimes imported food has a lower footprint than that which is grown locally in a hot house.  Who knew? 

At our house, it's kind of a mixed bag when it comes to the food we buy.  Every other week, at my kid's school, I pick up a box of veggies from Farm Fresh To You.  I enjoy the surprise factor of not knowing what will be in the box, which sometimes lead to fun, tasty discoveries.  A nice option that the farmer offers in its online payment program is that you can pick the style of the box you want, like whether you'd prefer a small box or a large box, how often you want it, and the types of produce you'd like.  We get a small box of mixed fruits and veggies that don't need to be cooked to eat, since I'm a busy mom who'd rather make a salad than cook.  The box itself gets reused, as you just return the box to the pickup location when you get the new one.  I like how it's very convenient and I don't have to do any extra driving to get my food.

I understand that buying organic, local meat (or not buying meat at all) would make a big dent on our footprint, too, but whether or not we do that depends on who is doing the grocery shopping.  My husband goes to the "just about to expire and super cheap" bin at the grocery store and picks a lot of meat out of there, cooks it all up, and then freezes it for us to eat while he's away.  He's a culinary genius and the chef in the family.

Since we live on a mini urban ranch, we also get a lot of produce just outside our door.  For instance, we get really tasty eggs from the chickens, whose diet we supplement with our kitchen scraps.  My toddler loves visiting the chickens, feeding them, and picking them up.  We get a delicious local honey from our bees.  We also get lots of fruits and herbs from the garden, as well as whatever veggies are in season.  I probably could go without buying the box of produce in the summertime, but I see it as a political act, trying to support organic farmers as they compete with industrial farms.

The New York Times article mentions taxing imported food, and it seems to me like a good idea to pass the true cost of the food on to the consumers.  However, it would be better if alternative fuel consuming transportation methods didn't get taxed in the process.  Some kind of program should give incentives to lower or omit emissions, since it's not necessarily always greener 100% of the time to choose local over imported.

My question is, who gets the tax money and what do they do with it?  It would be nice if that tax money went directly towards carbon trusts or carbon sequestering.  It was also make sense to eliminate the costs involved with taxing and allow companies to purchase carbon trusts in lieu of taxes, minimizing the need for middle men and letting the carbon trust organizations concentrate on how best to do what they do.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

How Are You Reducing Your Carbon Footprint?

In my last post, I wrote about my goals for reducing my carbon footprint, which include walking and biking more, buying less stuff, and avoiding packaging whenever possible.  This got me curious what other people are up to, since we are all in this together.  What are you doing?  What are you not doing?  Do you have any goals set for reducing our dependence on burning fossil fuels?  It could be something like figuring out a way to hit two stops in one car ride that used to happen in two car trips.  Or it could be even simpler, like vowing to turn off extra lights after 9 PM.  What can you do to make a difference?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.  If you are looking for further inspiration on ways to make a difference, Green Wiki has a good article with tips and suggestions on reducing an individual's carbon footprint.