Friday, June 12, 2009

Old-School Green: 3 Sustainable Super Stories

What do Paolo Soleri, Michael Shealy, and Dennis Holloway have in common? Before LEED Certification, the Kyoto Protocol, and public awareness of Global Warming, these three visionaries saw the potential benefit of--and even requirement for--sustainable architecture with low environmental impact. Their projects would not only prove it could be done, but their work would be the foundation for other projects to build upon decades later. Their efforts also fueled a mainstream awareness and movement that led humanity to realize the wealth of alternatives alternatives to more traditional, destructive designs.

Our story actually begins millenia ago, but our commentary picks up in the 1970's, when a rediscovery of passive solar heating had begun to gain more interest among a small group of ecologically conscious individuals. In a time where recycling was only known to most people as "the return deposit" on glass bottles, these three figured out ways to recycle materials, energy, and architectural designs, to create a habitable structure with a zero or near-zero environmental footprint.

by Paolo Soleri
In 1970, the Italian-born Paolo Soleri put a new concept called an Arcology into action, and began construction on Arcosanti in the middle of the Arizona desert. The idea was to create a hyper dense city that maximized human interaction and access to vital infrastructure such as water and sewage. At the same time, it would minimize use of energy, consumption of raw materials, land, and generation of waste and environmental pollution. The Arcology, a marriage of architecture and ecology, was a new word, but an old concept, having been all-but-forgotten in the disposable mindset of Post-Industrial America.

The eventual goal of Arcosanti is the Arcosanti 5000, an environmentally-friendly mega structure capable of providing housing and services for 5000 residents. Though the current population is a highly variable 50-150 people, consisting mostly of students, the project itself has housed, educated, and influenced over 6000 people since 1970.

Should it ever come to fruition, the inside would be quite beautiful, with lush, shared gardens watered with recycled blackwater. Though less than even 5% complete at the moment, the project cannot be considered a failure, but rather as an ongoing, living laboratory for sustainable architects, engineers, students, and even experienced professionals.

The plans for the site are somewhat fluid, but at present there are 13 major structures, including apartments, a cafeteria, ceramics apse, swimming pool, office, storefronts, amphitheater, a bronze-casting apse, greenhouses, and more. The space and planning for the structures is based on freedom of movement by foot, accessibility to services, and maximum use of--and protection from--the elements. With 50,000 tourists a year visiting the site, it also serves as a visual example and experience for those not in the sustainability field, whose memories of it have translated into widespread political, monetary, and popular support for Green Building movements around the globe.

by Dennis Holloway and the University of Minnesota
The 1973 Oil Crisis was a wake-up call to many people, notably Dennis Holloway and the University of Minnesota's Architectural and Landscaping Departments. Whereas Soleri's dream had been born of environmentalism, Holloway's dream was born of pragmatic economical reasons: humanity could not continue to assume fossil fuels would always be available for use. There was a present and future need to drastically reduce the future resource footprint of modern buildings. The idea arose for a house that would recycle everything within itself: energy, water, waste, heat, etc.

The house was named after the Ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The then-Professor Holloway led 160 students to the design and implementation of a house that included such features as a sod roof, solar-based space and water heaters, wind-powered electrical generator, composting toilet, and an enclosed sewage and water recycling system.

Project Ouroboros was the first solar house in the Upper Midwest of the United States. The entire southern portion of the house is designed to collect and make use of solar energy, tilted at a 60 degree angle for optimal exposure to the sun during the winter months. The solar collection is used for a greenhouse in the lower part, and water heating in the upper part. The original trickle-type water collectors were replaced in 1975 with sandwich-type collectors that heat the water in a similar fashion to the modern day flash (tankless) water-heaters. To keep the house cool in the summers, an overhang keeps almost all sun off of the windows, and vents allow for natural ventilation. Further, evapo-transpiration from the sod roof carries off excess heat from the top of the house. Whereas Arcosanti was started in the middle of the burning, inhospitable Arizona desert. The Ouroborous House is built in the middle of the frozen, inhospitable Minnesota tundra. Both are extremes of environment, and required radically different approaches to design to solve the problems each environment posed to the inhabitants.

The primary difference between Soleri's vision and Holloway's is that of method, shape, and space. Arcosanti is an organic mixture of shade, curves, and maximization wide open spaces. The Ouroboros House is a combination of insulation, angles, and minimization of external surface area. Minnesotans aren't called "God's Frozen People" for nothing. The winters can get down to −60 °F (−51 °C), and the temperature has been known to drop by as much as 40 degrees Fahrenheit in one hour. To solve this problem, the earth is literally piled against the north, east, and west walls of the house to protect it from brutal winds. The earth itself acts as additional insulation to supplement the more than nine inches of fiberglass insulation throughout the walls and ceiling. The roof is even angled such that the snow drifts themselves provide additional insulation against the cold. The completed Ouroboros House was comfortable, self-sustained, and clocked in at only $95,000. Considering it had zero federal support, and was all-new unproven techniques being used at the time, this was a remarkably low price, and requires none of the additional costs of an electric or water bill, and its pollution footprint is negligible.

by Michael Shealy
The fusion of Arcosanti and Ouroboros came about after a popular series of "Earthship" books and theories by Michael Reynolds was read by Michael Shealy. Shealy loved the idea of a tire house, and decided to put the plan into action to build a retirement home for he, his wife, and his dog. Located in Colorado, The Tire House would have to endure both hot summers and cold winters. The home would need to be capable of allowing for a comfortable and spacious interior, and the plans themselves would have to endure outright hostile opposition by permit authorities.

The actual construction of the house started in 1989 and took about four and a half years to complete, with many years of tweaking afterward. The primary building components of the house were simple: used tires, aluminum cans, local clay soil, and logs. Both the clay and the logs were taken from the very footprint of the house itself, and the vast majority of the labor was done by hand by Shealy and his wife.

Shealy is quick to point out that this is not an Earthship house, rather the house itself was inspired by the concepts presented in the volume. The tires form the primary walls and load-bearing support for the structure. They were laid flat, filled with unfrozen dirt, then pounded until the dirt compacted, filled again, pounded, and repeated until rock-solid. Get enough of these stacked in alternating positions, cover the tires with clay, and what results is an incredibly well-insulated, heavy-load bearing wall that requires no concrete foundation. For areas that required more precision than the tires could afford, 3-layer walls of cans and hardboard insulation provided the surrounding for doors and windows. Afterward, like the tires, they are simply covered in local clay for added insulation and aesthetics, though in areas without local clay, plaster or cement could be used.

The result is a pragmatic, tasteful, and above-all, efficient off-grid home where the internal temperature is 63-80 degrees, year-round, despite winters of -27º F, and summers of 95º. The exception to this is the solar-array windows overlooking the greenhouse, where it is warm enough to grow tomatoes, indoors, all year long. Shealy not only provided an actual real-life, usable example of comfortable, sustainable housing, he did so on a rock-bottom budget, and he did so without an architectural degree. He made several mistakes along the way and took care to document them carefully, that others could learn from them. He has since gone on to help build and design over 30 more such structures.

Previous to these examples, most Americans had become so convinced that the only way to live was through endless consumption, waste, and energy usage. Architecture for the purposes of solving local environmental problems had largely atrophied as a result. And as American culture spread throughout the world, her wasteful practices spread with her. What Soleri, Holloway, and Shealy did was not an original concept, but rather a forgotten one. They reminded us that civilized society can create structures out of mostly recycled materials. They rediscovered architectural methods to deal with extremes of wind and temperature prior to central air. They pioneered a modern movement towards Green Building and began the fight against Global Warming back when it was still being referred to as The Callendar Effect in obscure meteorological circles.

With Holloway's internal home recycling and use of solar power, Soleri's use of recycled building materials and argument for comfortable high-density living, and Shealy's practical application of all but the latter, we have the solution before our eyes, just in time. Mega-structures such as The Gazprom Tower, Copenhagen's Gateway, and the China Insurance Corporate Headquarters are only a handful of examples of how, worldwide, architects are now incorporating and using the environment, rather than attempting to ignore it.

1 comment:

  1. Great research Brandon. Woderful approach to a sustainable living.


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