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Houses designed to decompose in 40-60 years  RSS feed

 
                    
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I've been hearing about this concept lately.  I'm of the opinion that it's seriously not a good idea, and here's why:

1) There's a whole lot of labor that goes into the construction of any sort of dwelling.  I doubt it would take that much longer or require that much more effort to construct a building that would last a hundred+ years (and thus house several generations with one generation's labor) than 40 years (each generation builds anew).  It seems to me to be a waste of effort to construct a dwelling knowing that it will become unusable in the nearish future. 

2)  The main argument for this concept seems to be that the house can be constructed entirely of materials that will decompose.  I'd like to see a window that will decompose in the same time frame as a beam of wood.  Are these decomposable houses windowless structures?  The biggie, of course, is concrete.  The argument being that if the foundation is made of a material that will be there practically indefinitely, the human footprint of the house is also practically indefinite.  But how long would it really take for a house to fully compost back to the point of 'no trace?"  Something tells me it would take far, far longer than the amount of time the house is habitable.  Also, the land around the dwelling generally changes dramatically because of the humans living there.  That, in my mind, is the true "footprint" of human settlements.  Ever found an old foundation out in the woods?  The first indication of human presence is probably the road/path to and from the spot, the next is probably fruit trees, the third is probably a nearby water source.  These things would encourage me to think of that "horrible" cement foundation as a fine starting point for a new structure. 

3) The next person who comes along, and finds the half decomposed structure located in a nice spot for a house, will then have to spend a lot of energy completely undoing the house the rest of the way before they can begin building something new.  Again, this seems to me to be wasted energy and labor. 

4)  The flip side to the above, and what would and does actually frequently happen, is that it's easier to go find a fresh site on which to build a new house.  The result is that this not-yet-completely-vanished human footprint causes a totally new human foot print to appear in a different location.  Along with this new house come all the roads, non native food plants, toilets, out buildings, etc. 

5)  What if you design the house to fall apart in 40 years, and it starts falling apart in 15-20 years?  Then you're probably elderly and not able to build another structure, but you have created a house that will be uninhabitable before you're dead.  Oopps!  That's a not very easily fixed mistake. 

I notice a certain amount of fear associated with the attempt at building something that will serve as a human dwelling for a very long time.  We assume our children will want some other design.  We assume our design isn't going to be good enough.  I think this goes along with the modern phenomena of building being consigned to a specialists job. 

The most amazing homes I've ever been in were constructed by the people that lived in them hundreds of years ago.  The patina in these dwellings that comes from time and the gradual soaking up of human energy is beautiful and tangible.  Thru the judicious use of some cement (or very very skillfully stacked rock foundations), these buildings have served to house several generations of people, thus preserving other untouched and wild places.  Subsequent generations can simply live in the house their forefathers built without needing to worry about spending several years of their time (and some or a lot of money) providing shelter for themselves. 

Should also point out that I'm NOT thinking of modern developmental buildings that use huge amounts of toxic and very non-biodegradeable materials to make a home that will for all practical purposes be uninhabitable in less than 100 years (mostly because they are hopelessly tied to "the grid" for heating, cooling, water, etc. and have really awful designs to begin with). 

I'm talking about houses that permies like us build for ourselves, with every attempt to be earth friendly and responsible in design and construction techniques. 
 
Max Kennedy
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Could one ask for a link to information about the builders and idea's behind the houses.  Are they general use as you imply or would they be temporary, eg research stations in ecologically sensetive area's, and thus a relatively quick return to nature a good idea.  If the former I would have to agree that this is a waste of materials and BAD!
 
                    
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Eh, no link or anything, just an idea I've heard mentioned/praised in permie type discussions in several situations. 

I agree, temp housing for temp living situations is a great idea.  But it wouldn't need to be anything as fancy as a small home.  More like an elaborate tent. 
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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marina phillips wrote: I'd like to see a window that will decompose in the same time frame as a beam of wood. 


Polylactic acid will do that. It's also shatter-resistant. The RepRap project is interested in it because it could potentially be synthesized at home via fermentation, unlike most of the other polymers they use.

Or lower-tech, there's always waxed paper and similar translucent biomaterials.

Lowest-tech of all, my favorite material dates back to the invention of windows, before the phrase "wind door" had been corrupted: no glazing at all, only shutters. It decomposes before you even know it's there!

That said, I think the real idea is that after quick demolition of the roof, it will decompose in a few decades, but if continuously inhabited with a leak-free roof, it will last for centuries. Cob/thatch dwellings, and many, many other traditional designs, fit that description, outliving several royal dynasties while they stand but gone in a couple seasons once knocked over.

 
                    
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Good points, Joel. 

Wouldn't all homes built out of natural materials decompose in some period of time without a good roof?  Wet wood starts to rot pretty quickly.  I know of very few people in modern times (particularly in the US) who are making thatch roofs.  The skills and extensive wetlands aren't there these days. 

There's something to be said for parts of a house needing very little maintenance, especially the most important parts.  With a well laid metal metal roof, a building can be uninhabited for decades, until the next person who wants to lives there comes along and decides to move in.  This was the case with the cabin I'm living in right now.  Water dripping from the hole in the roof where the chimney was is the cause of the only floor rot in the thing, built 40-60 years ago and uninhabited for at least three decades.  With enough time it would become a small pile of nails on top of some rocks.  But without that hole in the roof (or one quick fire) it would have taken a very long time.   

I'm sure the reason we can find only the foundation of old houses out in the woods is due to wax paper windows or shutters.  Or some opportunist carting off the glass for their own new project.  I think glass, double paned, is an amazing resource that we should feel free to use to make our homes more comfortable and efficient.  Shutters wouldn't do much good in the winter, when you want light inside the house the most.  Plus, these old timers carried their water to and from the well/spring/creek, and did without the joys of electric lights

Is polylactic acid available for windows, or is this just an idea, Joel?  Sounds like a good one!  Is that a realistic option for those of us wanting to build homes in the next few years? 

Who's seen a house with compostable plumbing pipes (in the first world, I'm not talking about traditional bamboo buildings in south east asia)?  Are the proponents of these buildings planning to do without electrical wiring in their walls? 

I'm just trying to think this idea all the way through, because I get the feeling it's mostly appreciated by people who don't have a very good idea of what it's like to build and live in a house that doesn't have indoor plumbing or electricity, and both of those things are the least compostable elements of any human dwelling. 

I DO have an idea of what that's like (because I moved into aforementioned bare bones cabin), and it's completely do-able, but you sleep a lot in the winter, and you start to despise carrying water after about six months.  I'd be impressed with someone with the option to not live that way to chose to do so.  If that's all you know, it's one thing, but we're spoiled in this country/century and not very many permies I know are willing to give up all of their creature comforts.  Instead, the focus is on how to make those creature comforts more earth-friendly. 

If you're going to put these materials that have a high embodied energy into your home, wouldn't it make sense to put them in a building that was designed to last as long as you possibly can make it last?  I feel like a hundred years from now there won't be many people hating on the (intact) glass windows, plumbing pipes, and metal roofs we left behind, especially if they're components of a well insulated building on top of a really beautiful cement foundation.  They will be hating on all the plastic shards leftover from stuff that have long since lost their usefulness....
 
                          
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I visited a community recently that has had some member turn over and some members change residences because their housing needs changed over time. They're very focused on natural building and on building lasting structures, but they hadn't considered designing for change as part of making a lasting structure. It's something they're giving more thought to now.

Polylactic acid is the stuff they make out of corn? It had not occurred to me to use it in windows; I wouldn't think it could stand up to the heat and UV action it might see in the summer without degrading. I also didn't know you could homebrew it; that's interesting!
 
paul wheaton
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Have you been reading the Nearing and Nearing book the good life?  In it, they advocate something similar:  anything made of wood will be a lifetime of mending only to have it get to the point that you can't keep up with the mending anymore. 

They are fans of building from stone.  It takes a LOT longer, but the structures last a lot longer too.

 
                    
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Ah geeze.  Stone IS slow going for construction, but I guess it's the ultimate in durability.  Could be dangerous for earthquake zones, me thinks.  And I imagine would be like living in a cave, which is not so appealing to me.  I've seen many old buildings, barns in particular, with four to five feet of stone stem wall, keeping the wood structure perched on top much drier and rot-resistant over the years.  I think wood can be very durable as long as it's the right species choice, and steps are taken to keep it dry and relatively safe from insects. 

Haven't read that book or even heard of it.  A search on Abe brings up a whole slew of books those two have written, together or singly.  I wonder if our library has one of them.....or I'll wait til the next time I get an itchy book order finger.  Maine is the place for examples of beautiful old timber frames!

A pet peeve of my partners in wooden construction (and we see it all the time) is rafters/joists/horizontal members left long and sticking out into the rain.  He advocates keeping all beams well under the cover of the roof.  A big long wooden stick poking out in to the elements is like a giant moisture wick into your home. 

I'm interested in clay roof tiles, as that's the longest lasting (and fire proof) roofing I can think of that I can possibly make myself.  Plasters instead of wooden paneling for exterior treatments make sense in this fire prone area.  In this neck of the woods cedar bees will begin to bore 1/4" diameter holes to lay their eggs into older (20 or so years since installation) paneling. 
 
Ernie Wisner
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just build Cob and use oiled paper windows. when done with it take the roof off. in short order it will begin to erode and in about 5 years all that will be standing is mounds. better use is to knock the walls down and use them in another structure the cob mix will be right and all you have to do is add water. if you want clear glass windows simply make them removable. fact is we have lots of permanent solutions to temporary problems already so you might as well make use of them multiple times.

All the energy that goes into a house is important but human energy is also renewable and can be exponential if you enjoy the process.
 
                          
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Why would one want to build  a self destructing house, 

there are so many places where low cost housing was built for temporary purposes and it is still being lived in many decades later,  and usually if it is a populated area there the slums of the area,

part of the problem with many modern building materials is that there junk and unless keep nearly perfectly dry they do self destruct,  things made with wood chips and saw dust,

and like said let the roof go and most structures deteriorate fairly quickly, in most areas of the country,

I guess build a sod house if you want some thing that will melt back into the land scape,
 
                          
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Or you could build houses like this:
[img=http://danny.oz.au/travel/scotland/p/5071-skara-brae.jpg>http://www.odinorkney.com/pages/maeshowe/images/n047.jpg][/img]

People could live in them for 600 years, and still come back and visit five thousand years after they were built. Imagine what the landscape would look like if everyone who had lived for the last five thousand years had built settlements this permanent.
 
Kathleen Sanderson
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I've visited some people who live in Vermont in a stone house they built themselves probably thirty years ago (most likely influenced by the Nearings).  It was very comfortable, even in the winter when we visited (it was December -- I bought a couple of goats from them).  They had wood heat.  And I don't think the walls were insulated, just very thick.  There were plenty of windows, though.

I've heard the argument that houses should be built to disintegrate when they are no longer needed (most of them do that, anyway), and I agree with Marina's arguments.  If I go to all that work and expense, I want something that is 1. still going to be totally sound (and preferably low-maintenance) for the rest of my life, and 2. I'd like to be able to pass it down to my children, grandchildren, and so on.  If the house is well-laid-out and constructed, and designed to function without external energy inputs other than from the sun, then I don't think it's going to become dated.  Human needs and functions really don't change all that much -- we need a place to sleep, cook, eat, bathe/toilet, do laundry, congregate, and store necessary stuff.  Nowadays people seem to congregate around a TV more than a fire (I don't have a TV and any home I build needs to have visible fire!), but they still congregate.  If possible, each person needs to have some private space, too -- maybe now they will spend their private time on a computer rather than writing letters, but the need for privacy is still there.  Maybe we use a washing machine rather than a tub and scrub board, but we still need a place to do the laundry....and so on.  The biggest difference is that it seems like right now most people buy all their food, and often keep very little on hand at home; while some of us still grow most of our food and need both a larger kitchen area and more storage space, not to mention the issues that come with keeping livestock (dairy equipment, butchering equipment, room for brooding chicks or caring for newborn goat kids, and so on). 

Kathleen
 
                          
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I read in home power magazine a few months ago about Green building,

I had written up a reply I was going to send then my computer decide to die and lost it,  so it never got sent,

but so many of the "green" things" they were pushing was IMO what I call cheap building, Western wood products in the 1970's had a flier and most of the things that were being promoted in that flier were being called Green in the article,  as a new builder in the early 70's I thought I would be on the cutting edge and try some of these measures, for the most part I got customers that were unhappy, and  felt they got a sub standard product, yes it took less lumber and was a little cheaper to construct, but the solidness and the quality of the building was less,

IMO to build with quality and long lasting products that do not need replacement and repair to keep functional is a much "greener" method of construction instead of leaving out things  and saving a few boards in construction, and making a building of lesser quality,

I realize that much of the country wants the new and better instead of keep the old and having it do the job,  but part of the problem is the planed obsolescence that is built into things,  for example look at trailer house, most are unlivable in 30 years, you nearly need to replace but how much more would the cost have been if one would have built with quality materials and made it to last, and how much is it to replace, it with new, then you have the "wast" to deal with with little that is recyclable or salvageable from that type of building,

I live in a 100+ year old home, no the floors are not flat or is it perfect, but I would rather live with real paster and wood floor and floor joist made of real lumber  in stend of saw chips,  and had raised 4 families in this house,  and hopefully many more  it is a well layed out home and a solid building,  I would not want a new home it would not be as good as this one,

but I do think the lay out of the building is important, s well as may be some thought of constructing with a sense of change,

I have a old horse barn as well that is over 100 years old now as well,, until 1985- it was as was built, but I remolded it for new horse power, by remodeling the building , do to the fact the stalls were structural  it made the remodel harder as it was not just clear out the stalls and pour a floor, but to redesign the building to be clear span inside so I could use for shop,  so I think if some thought is put in to the lay out and the possibility of remodel  it would make a building more valuable  to the future, generations, 
 
Ernie Wisner
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to me you all touched on an important bit in the replies.
layout and design there are Cob houses that are 500 years old and still in use.

this is not because the material its because those houses where laid out in a way that made them valuable to every generation as living spaces.

the idea of disposable houses is a reflection of our societies current situation where no one stays in anyplace for more than 5 years. this situation does not benefit people it benefits business. people need communities but business needs displacement; workers that are displaced tend to hang out with co workers and as a side bennie tend to spend longer hours working instead of participating in the community of a new place.

from a management point of view this is a good thing; another part is that if you move every 5 years you stay in debt also good for business cause it removes your power to quit a job.  a settled out of debt community has the power to make demands while it needs the jobs it has the power to make choices. for a multinational this is not a good thing; it means unions are made and standards of living must be maintained.

look around the country and you can see that the big boys pulled out from settled communities as fast as they could or if that was not possible moved in large numbers of workers from areas that had/have animosity to unions. works like a charm the unions break and they start removing benefits; wages stagnate; and the standard of living in the area drops like a stone.

as a note i dont like unions but i can see why they are good for settled communities; and how business has systematically removed the foundations of power from the worker.  disposable houses just dont look like a god idea when examined under this filter; seems like green building is just playing into the hand of the business world.
 
Kathleen Sanderson
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Good points, Ernie. 

I was thinking about the whole disposable houses thing last night.  It seems to me that the houses we all tend to admire the most are the really old ones, the ones with the patina of age on the good, solid wood and stone parts of it; the ones that have had generations of the same family living in them, making their life patterns there.  Think 'tradition!'

Kathleen
 
                            
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The idea of disposable housing to me (personally) doesn't seem to make much sense. I live in the oldest city in the hemisphere, and although there are constructions (pyramids) over 3,000 years old, there are also house that span back several centuries and are completely permeated with character, with history. Many are made from natural materials like adobe and wood that go back to the 17th century. Their interiors are warm in the winter, cool in the summer, with high mediterranean ceilings. I can't look at them without feeling a sense of awe wonder. Granted, many of these constructions are at risk in case of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc., but I would find it (in this case) much more "green" to take to rescuing and adapting these constructions to new conditions than clearing land to building something new that will not last. Granted, this is a very particular scenario and quite different from many other peoples...
 
Ernie Wisner
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Ceiba

thank you.

umm i would like to point out one thing about those lovely houses

these days we think of earth quakes and see those adobes and cob houses as vulnerable.
but they have with stood those earth quakes for all the years they have stood.

its ironic to me that a house that has stood for several hundred years in an earth quake zone is considered substandard these days.
the 7.6 quake in california cracked the wall of a 300 year old adobe mission while the 20 year old buildings and bridges designed to withstand earth quakes fell. to me this means we might want to reexamine our assumptions about modern housing. 

thank you I love to hear from your part of the world. brings back fond memories of the area.
 
                            
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That's quite true. Many of these old adobe houses have stood for 400+ years and withstood plenty of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Granted, a bit of maintenance and structural restoration would probably be a good thing for them, or perhaps some adjustments that would make them more functional in terms of space usage. Something I love about these old houses is the way they spread out around a common space, usually a courtyard. In a way, they lead to different types of social interaction; although some courtyards are abandoned or merely decorative, there is something very appealing about homes being built around a central garden...
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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I don't know if PLA is available as windows per se, but transparent sheets shouldn't be difficult to find. I agree UV would be a problem; I don't know if TiO[sub]2[/sub] could be sputtered onto the surface cheaply, but it would protect the surface and have other benefits, and is not a problem in soil. There are also probably organic pigments that would be appropriate for the same purpose.

Masonry can be designed to distribute stress appropriately, even in an earthquake. Gaudi is known for some aesthetic flights of fancy, but his work on structural design is simple and direct. Were I to build a cob structure here beside the Hayward fault line (seems silly, with so many houses sitting empty for the foreseeable future), I would definitely use his method (strings & bags of shot) to figure out angles that keep the appropriate sort of stress. I would build a few different models, and tilt them by various amounts, finding a design where the strings move around as little as possible for a realistic amount of tilting.
 
Max Kennedy
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Is that Antonie Gaudi?  If so is there a website describing th strings and bags of shot method.  It sounds familiar but I can't place it.  Thx in advance.
 
Joel Hollingsworth
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Yes, that's him.

Let us know if you find a good website...might be worth its own post!
 
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