The Home: The Cornerstone of a Sustainable Future

May 21, 2007 at 8:56 pm 2 comments

In trying to solve problems, sometimes I find it useful to picture in my head the end result so that I can more clearly define the goals and objectives as well as the practical steps needed to achieve them. In considering the sustainability puzzle I ask myself what are the inevitable components that will make up a sustainable world? Ideally it will be a world without poverty and this implies that no one will lack food, clothing and shelter. Even though its is not distributed equitably, today the world produces enough food and clothing for everyone, so I want to focus on the issue of shelter.

The concept of the sustainability puzzle is simple, but complicated by the number of people involved. Simply put, the challenge is for the Earth’s population to utilize its resources in a way that does not deprive the many future generations of their fair share. In the context of housing, the challenge is framed around resources including materials, construction labor and energy requirements over the lifetime of the house. Now, the nature of this challenge is not a technical one, it is a design challenge of organizing the pieces in a replicable way – an easier challenge than going to Mars and arguably more urgent.

The architectural challenge is to design a home that achieves at least the following objectives:

LEED Platinum Efficiency: This is the highest efficiency rating thus far established by the US Green Building Council and is primarily conquered in the design phase. While terms such as LEED are known by “green conscious” builders in the United States, the objectives and methodology should be integrated into the design for those who do not even know the term. Let’s just say that this is a minimal efficiency standard that should be achieved in a sustainable design.

Owner Built: Benjamin Franklin offered us advice that endures time. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” And so too building one’s own house makes the home as a foundation of sustainability more affordable and therefore in the reach of more people. To achieve this goal the design implication is that the house must be easy to assemble and here lies an opportunity for innovation. Just as IKEA simplified the furniture assembly process through a few innovative gadgets, so too should a house be designed so that it becomes more of an assembly process rather than a construction process. The building material is also an important factor. I’m a big fan of strawbale construction and one reason is that as a material it aesthetically forgiving and the large building blocks make the building process more intuitive.

Modular Design: Part and parcel to the principal of designing a house that can be owner built is also one that can be built in pieces and contains components that can be added. This makes the construction process more affordable as it can be accomplished on a “pay as you go” basis. For example, the house I plan to build is purposely designed in a “U” shape so that one half can be built first to provide the essential core of the home, a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, and more living area can be added at a later date as money permits.

Sustainable Materials: The LEED rating system takes the type of material into account, but on a global scale, we need to get away from many of the energy intense materials that we currently are accustomed to. While strawbale may not be the panacea for all locations, it is a sustainable material in that it is an agricultural byproduct that can be supplied locally and is therefore very affordable. Furthermore, it has a high insular value that reduces energy inputs. While cob construction is an alternative, the shear weight of the material would seem to become a barrier to many.

Open Source Design Concept: The designs should be open and available to everyone for free if we truly want everyone to reduce energy use and achieve a minimal standard of living. While this flies against the current practice of architects creating unique designs individualized for the homebuilder, this is a cost that can’t be afforded by most.

House in a Box: If there are a few core designs, component kits could be sold to further lower costs and make the building process that much easier. These vital components include pipes, floor radiant heating tubing, nails, water barrier paper, electrical wires, switches and plugs, solar panels, faucets and even toilets and sinks. But don’t be deceived by the word “kit”, in all likelihood these would be delivered to the home assembly site on a pallet!

A sustainable design will definitely require a great deal of “out of the box” thinking to achieve these goals and possibly more. A truly integrated design will also take into account the surrounding landscape and could include an edible garden to further empower the homeowners and lessen the overall burden on transported goods. While there are definitely other pieces that make up the sustainability puzzle, I believe the long-term sustainability begins with a well-designed and practical house. I hope that architects will take on this challenge that could truly form the basis of our sustainable future.

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Entry filed under: Consumerism, Design, Economics, People, Philosophy, Population, Sustainability.

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