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Permaculture building (structure) philosophy?

 
pollinator
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I have watched permaculture videos with buildings that are what many would call a mud hut or shanty shack, and others with GRAND timber frame pavilions and cottages.

How do you decide what is the right size and permanence?  I know I could rationalize a 10,000 foot building with concrete floors because I will have a shop and teach classes and store materials for my future permaculture construction company and and and... But how do you HONESTLY assess those things? When is it better to build with steel or concrete or when is it better to build something that will compost itself back to the earth in a few years or something in between?
 
pollinator
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R Scott wrote:I have watched permaculture videos with buildings that are what many would call a mud hut or shanty shack, and others with GRAND timber frame pavilions and cottages.

How do you decide what is the right size and permanence?  I know I could rationalize a 10,000 foot building with concrete floors because I will have a shop and teach classes and store materials for my future permaculture construction company and and and... But how do you HONESTLY assess those things? When is it better to build with steel or concrete or when is it better to build something that will compost itself back to the earth in a few years or something in between?



I think it depends on use. But building something to last results in less waste from having to rebuild. Stick framed buildings are usually not made to last. Sure, they might be good for 100 years, but there are timber frame buildings that are over 1000 years old, so a stick frame looks like a child to an old timber frame. Then you have your temporary buildings like a place to store a bumper hay crop. If you will still need it in 20 years, I'd go with something with a foundation. But speaking of foundations, look at how long a lime mortar lasts compared to a portland mortar. Lime mortar self heals small cracks, gets stronger with age, and looks white (unless you mix in a lot of sand) for that nice contrast between stones or bricks.
 
author
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I agree with all that's been said above. For 16 years I've been in self build world, my husband architect and builder. We've built and lived in a tiny house



and nearly got to live in a mansion, before it burnt down!


https://resources.stuff.co.nz/content/dam/images/1/f/2/k/c/o/image.gallery.galleryLandscape.600x400.1f2kb9.png/1477517847220.jpg

There's a lot to be said for the smaller, less permanent, built quick type dwelling, and I also am inclined to the plan for everything and future generations option that a big building gives. With our big house, we sited it on a slop, unsuitable for growing without significant intervention and perfectly placed to meet solar gain and water catchment without bringing in energy, just harnessing energy in the landscape. For me it was important it did not disrupt any existing biodiversity, probably would have had a small house if that was the case, like our woodland home above.

It seems to boil down in part to matching what you need and the functions to meet that, with the resources available. Limiting factors, such as money, health, site permissions, opportunity had a large influence on what we chose to build at different times and places. I believe in big ideas and I also think sometimes our house ideas departed from what we needed, or were able to do and had become abstract.
 
pollinator
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I wanted to build an earthship but I read about them having problems in temperate and moist climates. Then I read a book about earth sheltered/bermed houses that said don't build them where there's moss growing on the bottom of the trees and there's moss on pretty much every tree here, on rocks and on the ground. Then during a heavy rainy season and heavy rain, I saw water bubbling up out of a hole on one of my garden beds on flat land. I had already started digging into a hillside for the earthship and watched water dribbling out the side of the dug out spot for a year. I'm no longer going to try and build with tires packed with dirt. I'll be scraping down to subsoil on a flat spot just above where I had started digging into the hillside. Then I'll be digging trenches around it for drainage tile(pipe) and rock. Then I'll be putting foam insulation down, a layer of heavy poly sheeting and another layer of foam, and then pouring a concrete slab. It will be used foam from old chicken houses they're upgrading around here. Dry stacked concrete block for walls, with surface bonding and the nasty black gook over that for waterproofing. I will be using locally harvested timbers for the rafters and will make some timber/log furnishings. I also prefer salvage material as much as possible. The cabin we're living in is all used material, except for the drywall.

If I was in New Mexico, I would do the earthship but I'm not. We're loaded with Springs in the area and have clay soil with a hard pan and other obstructions below that as evidenced by my mini geyser in the garden bed. I could do a straw bale house and sit it on a knoll but my goal is to have almost zero HVAC. The bathroom, kitchen and laundry will be close to each other to save on plumbing materials. I was hoping to do passive radiant floor heating which requires the collectors to be lower than the floor and I may still do that. The place will face South and have lots of glass on that wall, plus a rock trombe wall made from local rock.

We do what we can. It's still better than buying a house in a subdivision that was built by the lowest bidder with no thought put in to energy efficiency. Concrete sucks but I don't see any other way for me here.
 
Jasmine Dale
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Our first house was on a clay soil, though the slope itself was well drained. As it was quite small, we found it manageable to do earthworks that kept it dry. You might be able to see from the plans below how we handled the water and back wall.



The second house, we followed similar pattern, leaving a 2m air corridor/ shed round the north side of the wall, with french drains under the stone wall that supported the straw. This house is 10years old now and there has been no moisture ingress even though the field is full of springs, however we did do a test hole that showed us water drained away very quickly. This gave us confidence and the subsoil/bedrock is shale, so it doesn't hold water. Mike Reynolds earthsip books gave us lots of information, although he says you must make a berm above ground in high rainfall, temperate climates. In our case, creating the 2m gap round the back has kept the straw bale walls dry and provided a stable temperature root store for produce...these ideas drew on permaculture principles of appropriate location and designing every element to have more than one function...

Here's a side shot to show the shed/air gap and part earth sheltered design

 
pollinator
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I think that building appropriately for the designed use is crucial when deciding how to go. Personally, I think the Oehler-style constructions that Paul based his wofati on, the ones that look like they'll not outlive the residents, even if they be elderly, might be suitable for a traditional hermit. It makes sense that one's home disintegrates around one in absence of maintenance, should that home become one's tomb.

I like a lot of the wisdom that has gone into Paul's wofati idea, and in true permacultural fashion, intend to take what bits I think are brilliant and then go in a different direction.

I think the most permaculturally-sound thing that a homesteader can do is to design and build a home from natural materials, sourced from as near as is practicable, and situated optimally for the terrain, so that the end product not only survives the builder and the first tenants, but in absence of mechanical damage, also survives everything else.

Yes, I would love to build a wofati-inspired ground-connected house. I just want it to last a thousand years or more, at need, and longer with good maintenance. I''m talking proper manipulation of the hydrology, as mentioned above, lime-based mortars and natural plasters, and rammed earth walls and pillars, with lumber for the ceiling and the cross members, and a forest savannah roof capable of handling the weight of grazing cattle.

Also, I would want to build modularly, so that I can stay in a structure finished in the course of a season, but so that structure won't be limited in size, necessarily, by the length of that season.

I think it's also beholden upon land stewards to consider the usability of the land in their long-term plans. I think it's wonderful that temporary structures can be designed to return to the earth. But if one builds such a one in the best, or perhaps the only, suitable location for such a building, either that ideal spot is occupied during the decomposition of said structure, or the rotting remains of the temporary building need to be cleared before that location can be used again. This may be fine for those who own heavy equipment, or have land with many suitable building sites, but I would suggest that these are things that one might be very lucky to have easily to hand.

Contrasting this with a structure built to be as permanent as the available materials allow, I think my choice would be to design my structure to last. The next stewards by might really appreciate all my hard work. And if not, they can clear it themselves, or use it as storage, or just lock the door and forget about it.

In the end, who knows who might have a use for it? I mean, it will even have new uses, and new tenants, as a giant compost heap, should it come to that. I just feel that longevity makes the energy expenditure, as well as any embodied carbon, easier to justify in the long-term. Otherwise, why don't we live in brush huts?

-CK
 
John Pollard
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Jasmine Dale wrote:
Mike Reynolds earthsip books gave us lots of information, although he says you must make a berm above ground in high rainfall, temperate climates.


I've watched a lot of his stuff but never read any books by him. Interesting to hear. I did read about various earthships having problems in temperate/rainy climates. Even the gravel roads that were cut into hillsides around here decades ago, you can see water oozing out of them after rain. It moves sideways, or in the case of that garden bed of mine, straight up. I stood there with my mouth hanging open the first time I saw that. Our cabin sits on poles, not very deep in the ground. All I has was post hole diggers so when I hit hard pan at 22 inches, I couldn't go any further. Those 22 inch deep holes filled with water that oozed in sideways and even after two weeks of no rain, still had water in them. Crazy

I do have a small part of the property that, according to soild reports, is "somewhat excessively drained". I've dug in that area a little and the soil is almost white from being flushed of nutrients. Problem is, that's right up against the road and with predominate winds, we'd be covered in road dust all the time.

I remember in one video, Reynolds said having that back wall of the greenhouse aka trombe wall made of local stone would be the ultimate so that's my plan.
 
Jasmine Dale
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having that back wall of the greenhouse aka trombe wall made of local stone would be the ultimate so that's my plan.  



We had success with digging into the slope with this glasshouse, shale and subsoil behind the cob. It was an investment in terms of earthworks, however, 4 years later it is laden with sweet grapes and keeps it's temperature very stable in extreme weather and extends the growing season by 2-3 months, well before spring and well into winter. Husband experimented using waste geotextile to fortify layers between the back wall, decided not necessary in retrospect.



It was also sited on a slope to move excess summer heat uphill to an adjacent earth sheltered house.


 
pollinator
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Jasmine Dale wrote:

having that back wall of the greenhouse aka trombe wall made of local stone would be the ultimate so that's my plan.  



We had success with digging into the slope with this glasshouse, shale and subsoil behind the cob. It was an investment in terms of earthworks, however, 4 years later it is laden with sweet grapes and keeps it's temperature very stable in extreme weather and extends the growing season by 2-3 months, well before spring and well into winter. Husband experimented using waste geotextile to fortify layers between the back wall, decided not necessary in retrospect.



It was also sited on a slope to move excess summer heat uphill to an adjacent earth sheltered house.





I like it! What's the front like; is it dug in only at the back?

Have you done any waterproofing/insulating of the earth behind it?
 
Jasmine Dale
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Yes, only dug in at the back, it was a lean to greenhouse, so suited that method. No waterproofing or insulation (the earth wall is a thermal mass par excellence)...if we hadn't had free draining shale some sort of drainage behind the wall would have been necessary.
The photo below is of another glasshouse we whopped on the front of our tiny home, that is in effect insulated by the house on the cold north side (appropriate location etc). We made a french drain under the earth bag retaining wall that supports the frame.





The design, layout and so on for these greenhouses was very much led by the landform, materials available and their relative location to sun, shade, wind, water and slope. We've made a book that takes you through all the steps of the design process to support making designs that involve least resources, catch maximum energy in all its forms and attends to the thrival of the people involved. As you probably know, burn out is a major hazard in the self build game. I really believe it's worth careful observation of the site and self before embarking on building projects.


 
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The last thing I built for myself was a 550 square foot cabin that cost $2,000 back in 2004. It took about one month to build. I build a nice cottage for a customer, for $11,000, in 2011. About 70% of that was my labour. Most of it was recycled from other buildings. In less than three years, he recouped his money, by renting it out.

My next project will be in the Philippines, and I have a simple rule for myself there. Three months in total. That might be one month to build and two months worth of income, or I might use one month's worth of income and take longer to build it. A simple but serviceable house can be built with that much time and money.

After a couple years, we will probably put our first house to some other use, most likely as a bunkhouse for visitors and workers. Then I will build a one-year house. Something I can construct in 3 months, using 9 months worth of income.

I will only build using money that I have already earned. There won't be a mortgage.

In 15 to 20 years, we will be ready to harvest several hundred teak trees. These will either be milled and sold, or I will come up with some grand project to greatly expand the motel and other structures around that place. But that's a little too far off, to project costs.
 
pollinator
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My mantra has always been: Do as much for yourself as you can.

That automatically forces a person to build with what the land provides. I may get some grief for this, but I use concrete a lot because I have a gravel pit and can make a cubic yard of it very cheaply. But this farm is also teeming with slate, so I have used that quite a bit in my houses as well. Naturally I use a lot of wood because this is Maine, and I have a sawmill. In my case, my house is a timber framed affair on a concrete slab, using geothermal heat, with White Pine Floors and Pine Ceilings. I am not saying everyone should do this, because that depends on what they have, but for me this seems like an ethical, logical, and efficient way to build a home for my family just based on what I have.

In another lifetime, I might actually build a cordwood home. Again, I like the use of wood scraps, but this is Maine where we have a lot of wood.
 
Jasmine Dale
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Dale Hodgins wrote:
I have a simple rule for myself there. Three months in total. That might be one month to build and two months worth of income, or I might use one month's worth of income and take longer to build it. A simple but serviceable house can be built with that much time and money.

After a couple years, we will probably put our first house to some other use, most likely as a bunkhouse for visitors and workers. Then I will build a one-year house. Something I can construct in 3 months, using 9 months worth of income.

I will only build using money that I have already earned. There won't be a mortgage.



This plan seems very good advice for anyone embarking on building projects, using small and slow solutions, responding to feedback and self regulation, obtaining a yield. And keeping it real by being  'simple and serviceable.' we had hundreds of great volunteers over the years on building projects asking advice.. and the philosophy above would address many of the pitfalls of not matching the inputs of a house to the outputs.
 
pollinator
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Ryan Hobbs wrote:...Stick framed buildings are usually not made to last. Sure, they might be good for 100 years, but there are timber frame buildings that are over 1000 years old, so a stick frame looks like a child to an old timber frame...



I think the author was being generous to stick frame buildings, which makes his point about the relative value of different building philosophies all the more valid.  I am sure that stick frame buildings might well last 100 years if they are well maintained, but the modern North American mass produced stick frame home is designed and built in a way that discourages maintenance.  The homeowner is led to believe maintenance is unnecessary.

I can't quote numbers to back this up, but my gut tells me that 40 or 50 years is a more realistic life expectancy for most stick frame buildings.  I look around me and I see buildings of that age or younger - both residential and commercial - being torn down all the time to make room for spiffy new construction.
 
Matthew Nistico
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There have been a lot of great opinions and case studies advanced in this thread!  I wish there were an ultimate answer to the OP's question, but I think it boils down to that classic catch-all of permaculture design: "it depends."  One can make sound arguments for both the quick-and-compostable and the built-to-last approaches, so I'd say it really depends on what are your own personal goals and constraints.  Those will dictate your design criteria, which will in turn suggest appropriate choices in materials and techniques.

Too many natural materials builders - and I know, I've talked to lots of them - fall in love with some particular material or technique.  They see a picture in a book or on Youtube of a cob cottage, or a round house, or a cord wood house and say "that's so cool, that's what I want to build!"  But they give no thought to whether that technique actually meets their own unique design criteria, which they probably have not even bothered to define.  They are doing the design process backwards, starting with the end result!

In my own case, when I set out to design and build my own home (I'm still not finished) I chose to build big and expensive with hopes that my grandchildren could still inhabit what I built.  There were a lot of factors that went into that decision.  For one thing, I live in a wheelchair.  That means a couple of things.  First, I require more square footage.  Second, even while I have worked my ass off during the last ten years building up my little permaculture homestead, I have also by necessity hired a lot of labor.

When it comes to green building projects, the small, cheap, less-durable, shanty-shack-in-the-woods approach depends largely on providing all of your own labor.  The whole point of living in a shack that won't last more than a decade is the ability to say "hey, I built it in three months for $2000."  And indeed, to get 10 years of living out of so small a commitment in time and money is a good deal.  But if you are paying for labor, then that quickly turns into a very pricey shack!  While it may still be very "small footprint" ecologically speaking, that same shanty shack built for $20,000 just isn't a good investment.

I was also thinking about total occupancy: I live alone, but hope to have a family one day, and certainly don't wish to move from the homestead I spent a decade building just because it's no longer big enough.  And while I don't plan on leaving, it is still a possibility, so there is also resale value to consider.  In the current market, small homes have much less resale value.  Quirky cob sculptures likely have some resale value, but only to about 1 in 1000 potential buyers.  Shanty shacks can't be given away.  Not to mention that I don't have the desire or ability to live on a remote mountain top, so there is the reality of building codes to work around.

In my case, I ended up with a fairly "conventional alternative" design: a large, single-story, passive solar home with straw bale walls, a metal roof, a wood stove (with room to install a rocket mass heater once the code officials have departed), and no AC on a monolithic concrete slab-on-grade foundation.  By wofati standards, you would consider my house to have a large energy footprint.  Yet it is still a fraction of the footprint of a conventional home.  For my needs, I am content with the compromise.  At the end of the day, if I can live in the South without an AC - and I am already confident of this from observing the unfinished building's performance - I will call that a green building win.  And if I have done my job well as a designer - a solid foundation, good drainage, good detailing around windows, 3' roof overhangs all around, etc. - then the results should stand for many decades to come.  Time will tell.

I offer these as examples of my own goals, constraints, choices, and results.  Your own will differ.  But consider them carefully, whatever they are, because they are paramount.  And this, too: what type of lifestyle do you see yourself living in the home you wish to build?  What does that lifestyle look like?  How do the building techniques you are considering fit that lifestyle?

I really do feel that the key is to follow this design process: personal goals/constraints/lifestyle choices > design criteria > specific techniques and materials > final floor plan.  Do that, and the details should sort themselves out.  In the process, you will discover what balance is right for you between expensive, energy intensive, durable materials vs cheap, compostable, natural materials.

As a final thought, it is worth pointing out that some materials are hard to pigeon hole on either side of this debate.  Stone, for instance, is the most durable of materials and is totally natural.  Yet it is also very expensive and very energy intensive assuming that it has been quarried, cut, and shipped to you.  Stones dug from your own site and mortared together whole, on the other hand, are a durable material that is also natural, cheap, and low energy.  If they happen to be present, and if this technique fits your design criteria, that is.

So, sometimes you just might be able to have your cake and eat it, too!
 
R Scott
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THANK YOU for all the great ideas!

My wife and I are both in love with the idea of an earthship, the big one with the HUGE greenhouse.  But we are not in love with packing tires and our new land is southeast temperate, rugged, steep forest with a thousand springs.  Maybe not the right solution, but this has helped us think about what exactly we like (living in a greenhouse) and maybe some more location appropriate techniques.
 
Dale Hodgins
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I think that by controlling costs very strictly, we can reduce a lot of the environmental impact of home built structures.

Obviously, we'd want to make sure that they are still durable and energy-efficient. By setting a very strict budget, it almost guarantees that we will use resources off the land, use recycled resources and use less resources. Strict budget also prevents the building of giant monstrosities that enclose far more space than is needed. I've seen many things presented on TV, as being green, because they used something or other certified wood or something or other certified appliances, but it's readily apparent that they have built four times larger than I would have, for the same number of people.
......
My wife's village is an extreme example of building frugality and environmentally-sound building. Every home in the village is built from wood and bamboo, grown within the village. Half of the buildings have a thatched roof and the other half have a galvanized steel roof. Some of them have a glass window or two and some have a kitchen sink that was manufactured somewhere. Many of them also contain nails, but some are done just with wooden joinery and the type of joints that can be achieved by boiling thin strips of bamboo. These homes don't need to be heated or cooled , so it's really just an umbrella that blocks the wind.

I will use more manufactured products, since I must have glass windows and bug screens. I may purchase some type of insulation, but may use rice hulls coated in clay slip instead.

Our electric bill in the city last month cost $9 Canadian. We have a fridge, very small air conditioner, for the bed only, electric hot plate, electric kettle, lights and a washing machine. Once we are on a farm with a freezer and many electric tools and an evaporative cooler of my design, we might go through $20 per month in electricity, if we hook up to the grid. If not, we will spend a little bit on solar panels.

In the city we cooked with electricity. In a farm situation, I would only use biogas and charcoal if we are roasting a pig.
.......
I was approached by many people in the Philippines, concerning my building needs. People would like to sell me all sorts of luxurious things that they assume foreigners will want. One man told me how much it would be for him to provide me with a kitchen similar to the one in the picture he held. I agreed with him that it was a very nice picture and then explained how I will build my entire house, for much less than his fancy kitchen... The most important aspect of that, is that I will never hire a contractor. It's a fool's mission, for any foreigner who thinks he's going to get a decent price and quality work, when a contractor is hired. He may get one or the other, but not both.

I will buy material and then I will hire labour. I won't throw any money at someone whose job it is to make me believe that I'm getting something, more valuable than what I'm actually getting. I won't deal with a go-between, who takes a kickback from suppliers, or who requires laborers to give him half of their wages, as a condition of employment. There's so much skullduggery that can be avoided, simply by being your own contractor.
 
Matthew Nistico
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Dale Hodgins wrote:...My wife's village is an extreme example of building frugality and environmentally-sound building... These homes don't need to be heated or cooled , so it's really just an umbrella that blocks the wind...



This post sort of jumps around a bit, at least it seems to me, so I'm not sure I am following.  But I assume that you are talking about homes in the Philippines?  Because if you are referencing homes in Canada, then I will definitely like to know how they are situated that they don't require heating or cooling...?
 
Matthew Nistico
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Dale Hodgins wrote:...I may purchase some type of insulation, but may use rice hulls coated in clay slip instead.



Rice hulls hold a lot of promise as a natural building material, yet so far as I know they have not yet caught on even among the alternative/green owner-builder crowd.

I did a search here and found only two threads on permies.com even mentioning them.  There is some good info here for those who would like to learn a little more: http://naturalhomes.org/img/ricehullhouse.pdf
 
Dale Hodgins
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Matthew Nistico wrote:

Dale Hodgins wrote:...My wife's village is an extreme example of building frugality and environmentally-sound building... These homes don't need to be heated or cooled , so it's really just an umbrella that blocks the wind...



This post sort of jumps around a bit, at least it seems to me, so I'm not sure I am following.  But I assume that you are talking about homes in the Philippines?  Because if you are referencing homes in Canada, then I will definitely like to know how they are situated that they don't require heating or cooling...?

These homes are in the Philippines. I did mention that they are built from coconut wood and bamboo that grows within the village. This rules out every Canadian location that I've heard about. :-)
 
Matthew Nistico
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R Scott wrote:My wife and I are both in love with the idea of an earthship, the big one with the HUGE greenhouse.  But we are not in love with packing tires and our new land is southeast temperate, rugged, steep forest with a thousand springs.  Maybe not the right solution, but this has helped us think about what exactly we like (living in a greenhouse) and maybe some more location appropriate techniques.



I won't even pretend the knowledge or experience to discuss the wisdom of adapting earthships to your climate and locale.  But I will simply report what I have seen...

Just two months ago I participated in a workshop in the Western North Carolina mountains wherein we installed a rocket mass heater into the house of a local homesteading family.  Also a rugged, humid, temperate forest environment (actually a cool temperate rain forest!).  Really great people, BTW, and a wonderful workshop led by Uncle Mud.

Their house wasn't exactly an earthship, but it was definitely an earthship-inspired design: passive solar, earth-bermed to the rear (north), off grid, water harvesting, photovoltaics, similar floor plan, no AC, etc.  It was set into the side of a fairly steep south-facing slope.  They did not have a front greenhouse space, but rather a continuous living/kitchen space along their south wall with nearly floor-to-ceiling glazing.  They used plastered earth bags for the structure of their rear exterior walls, rather than rammed tires.  Frankly, ramming tires sounds like a lot of work to me.  I interpret your post to believe that you agree.  If I were to attempt an earthship construction, I might use bags as well.  I should also note that their rear walls were not completely bermed, as in most earthship designs, but bermed maybe 75% up, so to leave room for a row of short windows across the tops of the north-facing walls.

Anyway, due to my special needs, I scored the guest room inside the house, whereas the rest of the participants were camping (thanks again for your generosity in this regard, Uncle Mud!).  I also stayed an extra day to help the family complete the finish plaster on the RMH, so altogether I was five days and four nights inside their house.  It seemed pretty nice to me, and all indications were that it was functioning very well for them.  I asked a lot of architectural questions, and they certainly reported no problems with moisture infiltration so far.

I wouldn't take this as proof of concept if I were you.  If I were considering a similar design, I'd like to come back in another decade and see how their building continued to perform, as I think their home was only about four years old.  Still, all the preliminary signs were very positive!
 
Matthew Nistico
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Dale Hodgins wrote:

Matthew Nistico wrote:

Dale Hodgins wrote:...My wife's village is an extreme example of building frugality and environmentally-sound building... These homes don't need to be heated or cooled , so it's really just an umbrella that blocks the wind...



This post sort of jumps around a bit, at least it seems to me, so I'm not sure I am following.  But I assume that you are talking about homes in the Philippines?  Because if you are referencing homes in Canada, then I will definitely like to know how they are situated that they don't require heating or cooling...?

These homes are in the Philippines. I did mention that they are built from coconut wood and bamboo that grows within the village. This rules out every Canadian location that I've heard about. :-)


Oh yeah, good point.  My bad  ; )  I did surmise they were in the Philippines, but wasn't sure I was reading it correctly, so thought it best to seek clarification.
 
Dale Hodgins
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I am wary of any building style that is so laborious, that it requires the recruitment of unpaid volunteers.
.....
Going underground is a pretty extreme step, that may be justified in an extreme environment. I suspect that some go there,  because they have become sold on the idea, despite not living in an environment where it makes economic sense.

In doing so, they may build something so out of place, that it would be difficult to sell,  should that become necessary.

It's fun to learn about living in igloos,  gypsy wagons and pyramids.  When making serious life decisions, pragmatic reality checks may be needed.
 
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If we are talking philosophy of structures in a sustainable context, then a strong argument could be made for effective utilization and improvement of existing structures provides an inherent economy. If going forward energy use is minimized in the existing structure via improvements (for example heating via the coming MOST (Molecular Solar Thermal Energy Storage) systems the existing structure can beat out an unbuilt structure. Honestly a cadre of folks who have the means and time to build experimental structures in rural areas far away from civilization can potentially occupy a larger footprint long term then a larger group that reside in a 1920ā€™s apartment building in a city that has an efficient heating system and is well insulated and near a metro station, community gardens and a park.
 
Chris Kott
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I agree, to some extent, with you, Dale. If resale is an issue, it had better be possible to classify the structure in ways that building inspectors will grok. That's why, for my money, compressed earth block and rammed earth structures are two of the very best types of natural building for using in situ resources.

Retrofitting badly-built structures, like ones that have no options for heat but forced air or electric baseboard heaters, or occasionally hydronic systems, is just throwing good money after bad. If we need to make jobs in the transition, I would suggest we enlist Dale's aid in going over the how-tos of constructive demolition, as in, how to turn a giant, wasteful ruin of an apartment building into neat, possibly catelogued, piles of cleaned bricks, plumbing, wiring, and hardware, and perhaps vintage flooring.

Yes, this might only be an option for really run-down edifices, but as the quality of permacultural buildings becomes more apparent, their demand will rise, and more old buildings will come up for demolition.

At that point, if we want to build a better apartment building, we can do so with a minimum of waste, and in a more permaculturally-aligned manner, not constrained by the best building practices of the cheapest builder to quote the job thirty to fifty or more years ago.

Is it possible to properly design building retrofits so that they comply with permacultural design? I think so. Will these retrofitted old structures be as good as purpose-built new structures from reclaimed materials? I wouldn't hold my breath.

Besides, if the point is also to create new permaculture jobs during transitional times, careful demolition and reconstruction to a permacultural model will create more jobs for longer.

-CK
 
Dale Hodgins
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I think that most properly built stick frame houses in North America, are worth retrofitting. The majority of houses that I have demolished, would have lived another couple hundred years had there not been development pressure to replace them. Most were not near the end of their useful life. Instead, because of rising property values and an affluent population, many perfectly good houses have been torn down. I've also worked on moving about 85 of them. They move out of the city or off the beach and go to less expensive areas.

Probably 30% of the houses that I've torn down, were definitely too far gone to be economically saved.

With multi-unit buildings, it's often a different story. When you look at apartment buildings built in the 1970s, there is often so much wrong and so much that would have to be retrofitted, to meet modern codes and to just make them hold together, that demolition may be the best option.

Here in Victoria we have many buildings well over 100 years old that have been retrofitted and will last a long time into the future. We also have public housing that was built 40 years ago, and is falling apart.


At that time we had a public housing system that created ghettos of financially disadvantaged people. Now, publicly funded housing is spread more evenly through the city. This naturally creates more financial opportunity, as there's more mixing of social classes. I think we will see a day when most of these giant housing projects will be torn down.

There are massive public housing projects in cities like Chicago, where the model has failed miserably and the buildings are failing. So there's a huge opportunity to replace something that isn't working, with something better.

It would be very easy to fall down the political rabbit hole when talking about public housing. I'm only talking about the buildings and what can be done with them. We need to steer a mile clear of talking about who should pay for it, or whether or not we should have this type of housing. That's cider press stuff.
 
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