Updated: 5/30/07; 9:49:48 AM
    Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.

daily link  Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Personal Update  

This site has suffered much neglect owing to work since my move to Santa Fe. The textbook business I began on arrival carries on but, as grateful as I am for any form of work after decades of being disabled and jobless, I tire of the constant stress of its roller-coaster fortunes, the endless parade of flakes, the constant paranoia, and the threat of total collapse at the whim of a corporate monopoly. If American college students knew half of what I do now about this industry and how its market works they'd be rioting on every campus and torching their school bookstores...

I've grown quite frustrated with the lack of progress in my pursuit of sustainable/non-toxic real estate development in this area. Day by day, as I see the news of the increasingly dramatic impact as a consequence of todays accelerating global environmental change, I feel an ever greater imperative for new architecture. Millions around the world will soon be in forced migration. The face of civilization is about to change forever and there's a chance my long-term goals with this could ease the pain of that change in at least some small way. And yet here I sit struggling to get a single project off the ground. Maybe I should be more concerned for myself but I can't help feeling like a hand-cuffed lifeguard forced to watch people drown.

I've sought out the help of more experienced real estate investors, but found them elusive -with the exception, of course, of the countless purveyors of foolish real estate scams and get-rich-quick 'programs' that have contributed so much to the housing market tribulations of late. Much of the problem relates to the difficulties my disability imposes on travel. I've been able to explore little of the region since moving to New Mexico. But it may also be that the essential situation of this region, with runaway gentrification in the cities, a half million dollar median home price, construction costs outrageously inflated, minimum parcel sizes overly large due to water management issues, simply has no practical solution, making it impossible for all but the very wealthy to get a start in this here. I don't want to have to resort to building the typical toxic suburban crap just to get a start at this. I'd rather not do anything at all than contribute to that insanity. Sustainable building really has some critical problems at the low end of things a lot of people in the field seem to be ignoring and which contribute to its tortuously slow pace of progress.

But I have found some encouragement from the building techniques I've learned about from my landlord. A long time sustainable builder, he's curiously had little call to analyze his building costs because most of his past clients -owing to the reluctance of banks to support sustainable building- paid for projects out of pocket and simply gave him a general target budget to work within. But recently he's gotten project offers that compelled him to very carefully itemize his costs, and the results have been quite interesting. Conventional stick frame construction starts at $200 per square foot in the Santa Fe area. Sustainable construction -despite this being a world center of sustainable building- starts at $300. My landlord has perfected techniques of soil-cement construction he learned from the legendary Ken Kern (whose book I mentioned below) and now projects a construction cost in the area of $125-$150 per square foot while producing structures completely indistinguishable from hand built adobe -and in some ways superior in performance. This is also a very flexible technique, offering potential for the use of textured formwork to eliminate the expense of adobe rendering (since the material is so stable, it needs no covering like adobe brick), textile block systems, and stacked stone inclusion facing. Combined with simple design, the potential exists for the construction of sustainable and non-toxic homes at drastically below-market costs. But, again, I run into trouble for lack of any architects in the region who will give me the time of day and the problem of traveling around to track down prospect properties.

Similarly, I've been frustrated by an inability to find anyone who will collaborate with me -or even casually discuss- my concepts of pavilion and skybreak architecture, as I've been planning to employ for my own permanent home. This seems like such an incredibly rich area for novel design ideally matched to the emerging 21st Century trends while having long precedent in Modernism and yet you'd think I was proposing making homes out of jell-o given the response I've seen. Generally, this site has seen remarkably positive feedback for which I'm quite grateful. But for some reason these ideas elude most readers. Maybe it's just my crude writing, or maybe it's just very hard for people to visualize, though I've had little luck interesting area architects in the concepts either. It often seems as though I frighten these people in some way. It looks like I'll simply have to shelve these promising ideas until I can somehow build the necessary wealth to demonstrate them entirely on my own.

On a more positive note, things have been looking up for prospects of giving the remarkable TomaTech building system a try. Since the real estate situation in the Santa Fe area has proven so difficult, I've had to broaden my range of prospects, though this makes me even more dependent upon the aid of others. Recently a colleague of mine expressed an interest in moving to Hawaii and aiding my search there. Hawaii is well known to have a real estate situation largely identical to what I found here in Santa Fe -if not much worse in many respects. But it's climate and cultural aesthetics are perfectly suited to the Tomahouse designs that can't be used here in this high-desert climate. We've learned there is a peculiar situation on the islands that seems to offer a great opportunity for the use of TomaTech,

Most of the rental housing market of the islands is dominated by vacation rentals. But I've learned there is a steadily growing dissatisfaction among tourists to the islands because of the nature of this housing. It seems that tourists from around the globe are beginning to notice that they can travel from Florida, to the Caribbean, to Latin America, and to Hawaii and all the vacation rental homes look virtually identical. It's all the same old suburban American crap. Nothing looks appropriate to the locations. It's really difficult to take a vacation in Hawaii and find any place to stay that communicates an impression of an island aesthetic -at least outside of resort venues that look like a set from Gilligan's Island. Lenders and builders, with their perennial obsession for quick and easy sales through lowest-common-denominator design, have systematically homogenized the community aesthetics all over the world. But this works against those hoping to invest in vacation rentals. No one wants to go to Hawaii and be left feeling like they might as well still be in New Jersey.

Similarly, resident Hawaiians are becoming increasingly frustrated by the declining quality of housing the market is dumping on them at increasingly high prices. They don't like this suburban homogenization either but are even more troubled by the truly terrible quality of construction they are being forced to spend outrageous sums for. I've been hearing story after story of people paying half a million dollars or more for veritable shacks -not counting the cost of land!

It would seem that TomaTech could offer an excellent solution to both of these issues. With such low labor and great speed for their construction they can come in far below market in square foot costs despite their relatively high materials cost. Yet their quality couldn't be matched by local builders for less than thousands per square foot. These are whole buildings crafted with the finish of fine furniture and some of the most sophisticated in European technology. They are like luxury yachts you can build yourself. At the same time their designs, blending Asian, Indonesian, and Modernist aesthetics, are ideally matched to the island environment without resorting to looking like some cartoon cliche. These really do epitomize a kind of contemporary island aesthetic. So it's possible I've clued into something very powerful here. Everyone I have ever shown the Tomahouses sites to have responded with jaw-dropped amazement. But it will be some time still before my colleague can make his move to the islands and his experience in this area is not that great. We'll just have to see what happens.

I really wish I could find more experienced people to collaborate with. I've practically lived the life of a hermit because of my disability for decades. I need mentors -especially when it comes to a field like real estate development where so very little of the available literature is even legitimate. Yet everyone in this nation is so self-absorbed or afraid of each other -and the Internet's current reputation as a virtual jungle devoid of any practical mechanisms for trust-building certainly isn't helping matters. 

12:48:13 AM  permalink 

daily link  Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Owner-Built Home 

This now somewhat rare 1972 book by grandfather of the sustainable building movement Ken Kern offers an incredible wealth of practical information in an astoundingly small package, even accounting for the aging of some of its product details. A must for anyone with an interest in sustainable or low-toxic architecture. Here one can find in condensed form an overview of every major building technique in the contemporary repertoire of sustainable construction and design. The book is also an exceptional example of high quality self-published literature -still a radical notion when its was first published. It's amazing how little has actually changed in the general technology and theory of sustainable building since the 1970s -aside from the very high-tech concepts and products of the predominately European Eco-Tech movement. Though I'm reluctant to recommend a book this rare -I chanced on my own copy in a Santa Fe thrift store- it appears some copies are readily found on-line.


7:13:52 PM  permalink 

Z-Box - Rooms As Furniture 

This recent article from the Gizmodo gadget blog as well as this article from the Apartment Therapy blog detail and interesting example of design by Dan Hizel that is especially relevant to this site's on-going commentary on the subject of 'pavilion' and 'skybreak architecture.

Dubbed the Z-Box, this item is a 12'x12'x10' free-standing box structure designed for use in loft apartments which houses an elegant wood paneled bedroom space surrounded by an internally illuminated collection of cabinets, closets and shelves and equipped with its own power outlets. This clever structure appears to be composed of a simple angle-iron frame -perhaps after the example of work by designer Andrea Zittel- which is externally covered in a stainless steel optical screening panel that creates the impression of translucence. Purported to soon be the basis of a modular kit of parts intended for owner-assembly and ease of apartment loft installation, the supposed current price tag of some $18,000 will probably keep this out of Ikea's catalog. Another example of the miraculous alchemical powers of contemporary architects...

Readers of this site, and fans of contemporary architecture, will immediately see the analogy here to the mobile Japanese-style room boxes of Shigeru Ban's much-publicised Naked House, though the modular component system and volumetric use of tight apartment space hails back to the Living Structures work of Ken Isaacs.

Z-Box presents a very good demonstration of the kind of light modular habitat structures I've frequently described in my commentary on skybreak housing (a concept based on the use of large span wind/rain shelter structures like pillow-panel domes and permanent tents as shelters for light quick-built habitable structures that can be easily built and modified by their occupants) and pavilion housing. (homes based on free-standing roof structures enclosed in glass or other material panels used as free-standing equivalents of loft space adapted into rooms with modular partition structures and free-standing furniture) However, it seems likely that the average person may do equally as well or better in terms of look and cost using light modular post-and-beam structures of wood or the ubiquitous aluminum T-slot framing. There is great untapped potential in this notion of merging room and furniture, both in terms of novel design and the prospects for easy end-user construction and the spontaneous adaptability that 21st century lifestyles demand. And as the choice of materials in the Z-Box suggests, the prospects are also quite good for meeting the needs of chemically sensitive users. Lets hope this design venue sees much more exploration. 

daily link  Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Green House 

Sustainable archiecture has long been stereotyped by its typical choice of low-tech materials, energy-efficiency utilitarianism, and predominate organic design themes, driving some designers away from the field because of what they percieve as far too limited a potential design repertoire. But for some time a different branch of sustainable design, sometimes referred to as Eco-Tech, has been emerging among the community of New Modernists, picking up a trail first blazed by the likes of Buckminster Fuller. This alternative approach to sustainability is based on a very different paradigm where the way a building performs as a system and a consumer or producer of energy and other resources is far more important to its ultimate sustainability than the materials it's made out of. This is an approach which embraces new technology rather than turning away from it, seeing its smarter, more responsible, use as a path to a greener future.

Eco-Tech is a movement that has developed mostly among designers in Europe, Asia, and Australia, where Modernism in general has seen less cultural resistance than in America. In the US the theory of Eco-Tech has been the province primarily of a few futurist writers and alternative energy tinkerers. But there are some designers here -still mostly Modernists- now cluing in to this movement as a means to expanding the sustainable design repertoire.

With The Green House we get a nice introduction to this very different take on sustainability through a large selection of sample buildings from around the world. Predominately Modernist and European, these examples offers an intriguing look at how new technology is affording some very radical design a level of sustainability that even earth and straw bale would be hard pressed to match. Perhaps one of the most dramatic examples in this book is the R128 house designed by Werner Sobek in Stuttgart Germany. Here we see the ultimate sustainability non-sequitur; the Modernist metal framed glass box which -in the dead cold of a German winter- produces more energy than it consumes!

There is also a nod to the issue of housing toxicity among the examples in this book. While few of these homes might qualify as truly non-toxic housing, and few could qualify as 'affordable' by any fancifully creative accountant's interpretation of the word, there are some interesting elements in some of these homes that could well apply to any non-toxic home design, though often due to the basic nature of Modernist Minimalism to employ materials in their natural state rather than adultrate them with the usual finishings. One excellent example of this is the Tuscon Mountain House by designer Rick Joy. Here is a home design which, though probably never actively attempting low toxicity, has nontheless probably come as clost being low toxic as any home specifically designed for it, simply as a consequence of its design aesthetic and Modernst preference for simple spaces and unadulterated materials.

Altogether, this book is an excellent look at sustainability from a very different point of vie and should open some eyes to possibilities never imagined before.


7:17:41 PM  permalink 

daily link  Monday, June 12, 2006

EcoNest - Creating Sustainable Sancuaries of Clay, Straw, and Timber 

This recent book by Paula Baker-Laporte and Robert Laporte details these architects' current focus of work, the 'EcoNest' sustainable and non-toxic cottage based on their revival and improvement of the clay, straw, and post & beam 'wattle and daub' construction techniques common to traditional archiecture of Europe and Japan. Paula Baker-Laporte is one of US's few non-toxic housing specialist archiects and has been known largely for her work in the US Southwest using pumicecrete construction. She is also author of the book Prescriptions for a Healthy House, one of the important textbooks and sourcebooks for non-toxic housing. (mentioned previously on this site)

With EcoNest the Laportes present a detailed and lavishly photographed introduction to a method of construction and style of design that are not only sustainable and non-toxic but also exceptionally graceful and comforting in its organic aesthetic. More strongly inspired by the Japanese tradition of this construction method than by the European tradition, the homes showcased in this book seamlessly blend the sensibilities of traditional Japanese homes with those of contemporary sustainable design as well as the traditions of Southwestern design. Quite often I have observed that there is an interesting complimentary aspect to both Asian styles of design and indigenous Pueblo design which seems rooted in their mutual minimalism and veneration for organic materials. The few but growing number of designers devoted to what I call the 'organic by composition' aesthetic seem to have noticed this as well and in the more contemporary of sustainable home designs we often see hints of an Asian influence. But in these showcase EcoNest homes the Laportes' offer the most sophisticated expression of this to date. There is no mere mimicry and transplanting of the stylistic artifacts of Asian design -no sense of the 'Mikado stage set' that many attempts to employ Asian influence in contemporary design are reduced to- but rather a true integration of essential aesthetic in combination with the integration of fabrication technique, the result being a comfortable new pragmatic design sensibility well adapted to the particular mix of environments these homes have been placed in. Indeed, 'comfort' rather than 'luxury' seems to be the essence of these homes.

Unfortunately, those looking to this book for a detailed system of instructions for this clay and straw building technique and the design of homes based on it will be disappointed. This book is quite the light read and ultimately comes across as a very elaborate sales brochure for the Laportes' EcoNest-specific design practice. But then, these homes -as much as the Laportes give lip-service to their economy- are dependent on very skill and labor intensive techniques. These are homes crafted like art objects and it is highly unlikely that they could be produced by mainstream contract labor, be affordable to the mainstream homeowner, or be possible for the owner-builder without exceptional talent. Even as modest in size as they are, I doubt they could be produced within half a million dollars in the US at current rates for this sort of skill and labor. Thus, as beautiful as they are, they fail to offer any realistic solution to the needs of the vast majority of people with a practical need for non-toxic housing -a complaint I have had with other work by the Laportes' and the rest of the very small community of non-toxic housing designers.

Still, there is no question that these homes offer something very profound to the emerging culture of sustainable home design. There are few better demonstrations of the essence of the organic aesthetic.


6:48:30 PM  permalink 

Who Killed The Electric Car? 

A new movie has appeared recently which may be of particular interest to those concerned about a healthier habitat. Who Killed The Electric Car? is a documentary concerning the curious appearance and disappearance of the GM EV1, one of the most advanced and eminently practical of all electric cars produced by American auto makers. Having long been in need of lower-toxic transportation as well as being keen on the technology for environmental and aesthetic reasons, I have long wondered about what happened to this extremely promising high-tech vehicle which supposedly cost a billion to develop and performed outstandingly but was given only a half-assed marketing effort by its manufacturer, offered only by lease through a few Saturn dealers, and quickly obsolesced without explanation, countless new units being sent for destruction.

GM is not the only US company to have pulled this same peculiar stunt. Around the year 2000 Ford Corp. briefly hyped their own electric car program called Think based on a compact car developed by a Norwegian company with a form-factor similar to today's popular 'Smart' cars. The storied development of the car was even featured in a science and technology documentary. Reports at the time were that the company had imported some large quantity of the vehicles but their marketing consisted almost entirely of a single web site which targeted a youth market with a style of graphics that parroted the ad design style of Apple Computer. Test marketed in a couple of dealerships given no education about it, it was quickly deemed a 'failure' and this massive number of vehicles were sent to the shredders just like the EV1. I actually wrote to Ford Corp. when I learned of this impending atrocity and begged to be donated two of the vehicles for my own use as non-toxic transportation. (one to drive, one to store for replacement parts) Of course, this request was denied with the usual executive excuse of 'corporate policy'. I could just imagine the soul-less middle-management drones giggling over my naivety. I wonder if this film will feature this car's story as well, though I suppose I'll have to wait until it's available on DVD to find out. (movie theaters being intolerable due to their chronically toxic interiors and perfumed patrons)

Today the only immediate hope of low-toxic transportation is the MDI Air Car developed in France. It functions identically to an electric car, only it uses compressed air to store energy resulting in a much lighter vehicle and much lower cost. It's engine, developed by a Formula 1 racing legend- is even lubricated with vegetable oils. But the company's plans to establish a manufacturing plant for it in New York state apparently fizzled-out after political tensions arose between Europe and the US and right-wing politicians started their childish 'Freedom Fries' campaign. Yet another opportunity squandered by hubris... 

2:51:09 PM  permalink 


An interesting new use for straw as a building material has emerged recently in the form of a system called Strawjet, now being developed at Ashland School of Environmental Technology. The use of straw bale for non-toxic housing has tended to be tricky due to the problem of residual pesticides on on all non-organic agricultural products and the need for great care in preventing any possibility of mold or pest intrusion in the rendering encapsulating the straw bales. This new technology offers a new form of straw construction that may reduce these problems, though at present much more field experience is needed to determine its non-toxic housing potential.

Strawjet is based on the use of a special winding and binding mechanism which allows a harvester to produce a continuous thick cable of dense compressed straw fiber which is woven into composite panels and pultruded into beams with a cementous encapsulant. Individual cable cores can be replaced with pipe to serve as in-wall or in-beam utility conduits. Some very interesting architecture has been proposed for this technology, though not yet demonstrated. All in all, a promising technology but still in its very early stages of development. 

9:19:27 AM  permalink 

Personal Update 

Some readers have been enquiring about me lately due to the much lower pace of updates to the sate this past year so I thought it would be good to post and update.

Since moving to New Mexico last year, I have been struggling to get by in a textbook business a friend here introduced me to. It's a precaious line of work exploiting the very peculiar -and largely little understood- monopolistic situation the college textbook publishers have been allowed to create in the US. Initially looking very stable, it quickly turned into a struggle due to the persistent incompetence and capriciousness of wholesalers and the various book suppliers. I was hoping to finally get free of the albatross of SSI but find myself still stuff with it to survive. It always amazes me how, in a country so constantly giving lip service to the supposed virtues of capitalism, so many people in business -especially in executive positions- have utterly no business acumen! I guess if there is any definitive virtue of capitalism it's the ability to keep so many mean-spirited knuckleheads off the street... I would very much like to try another line of work. The instability of this line of work is terribly stressful and has been eliminating any of the gains in health I hoped for from this new cleaner environment.

As for my new home, I got as lucky as one is ever likely to get in finding low toxic housing on short notice in this country. Here is a picture of my cottage on a mesa south of Santa Fe.

My landlord -a sustainable building advocate- built this house himself. It was a sort of proving ground for his building techniques, it's design something of an ad hoc experiment and its interior illustrating its stages of construction and his developing skills. It's a quirky design where the fellow honed his skills through trial-and-error and generally succeeded. It's not ideal for my health needs, since it was never really designed to be non-toxic, and has its problems. But my landlord's appreciation for natural materials and native vernacular building methods for their aesthetic virtues meant that, incidentally, he arrived at a very low toxic dwelling. His own home nearby is based on a native-inspired 'compound' design featuring an open courtyard linking a ring of independent rooms all set into a terrace on the edge of a small canyon. It's good to have people who can appreciate and work with the kind of architecture I study so nearby, but then this whole region is one of America's few centers for sustainable architecture. Good prospects for collaboration sometime in the future.

Unfortunately, my exploration into starting my own career as a sustainable and non-toxic real estate developer has not gotten very far. While this is a haven for sustainable building, it is not a place where one can do it economically. Median housing prices are as bad as anywhere on the East Coast. Property values are rising steadily -which would be a good thing were it not for the fact that -due to a combination of very high construction costs and large minimum parcel sizes- everything has already moved so far out of my meager reach that it is now impossible for one to build a cottage the size of the one I'm renting for less than a half a million dollars! One would think this situation would dampen the real estate market -especially with the problems of a drought situation thrown in- but the opposite is the case. Building is booming with multi-million-dollar pueblo-style mansions popping up like adobe-colored mushrooms all over the place! I feel quite left-out of the party. I have great aspirations for development -hoping to one day be able to found the first proto-arcologies and marine colonies- but it looks like, as good a place for alternative architecture as this region is, it may be impossible for me to get started in alone.

In recent news, I have been in correspondence lately with Frank Toma; the developer of the powerful TomaTech building system based on the newly introduced larger scale aluminum T-slot framing. Readers may recall previous mention of this technology on this site. Mr. Toma, now working out of both Bali and Germany, asked my advice on a non-toxic vacation cottage project for Fiji he has been working on. Hopefully this will develop into an article here as the project gets to the building stage. In exchange for my help, Mr. Toma offered to send me some components from the building system for me to examine and I will be writing more on this should they arrive.

TomaTech is a very promising building system. It's the closest our civilization has come to date to a true plug-in architecture, providing housing with all the design virtues of contemporary computers. And it helps that it is also extremely easy to accommodate the needs of non-toxic housing with.I have recently featured the technology in an article I'm planning for my future Office of Post-Industrial Technology web site. Though perhaps not relevant to this site, this article concerns the development of a post-industrial demonstration community called The Ever-Changing Palace -a community founded on the principle of communal living in support of industrial independence and built around the core of a Fab Lab. The use of TomaTech makes perfect sense in this context, the community being a deliberately 'unplanned' community where the use of a perpetually demountable building system is chosen to allow for spontaneous and perpetual evolution of the community structure and its architecture as well as the option to make the whole community nomadic -moving about the world as part of its mission to spread the virtues of post-industrial technology and add to that skill base with the indigenous ingenuity of other cultures.

I have also been doing a lot of writing lately (basically to fight depression) on my pet subject The Millennial Project; the marine and space development scheme envisioned by futurist Marshal Savage. TMP has grown rather out-of-date over the years and I have been toying with its update to contemporary technology and a contemporary understanding of architecture and technology trends. Though not particularly relevant to the topic of this site, anyone who has ever wondered what living at sea or in space is really like can get a glimpse of my own thoughts on this in the archives of the Yahoo Groups forum LUF-Team. Or I'd be happy to share material in email with anyone who is interested. 

8:36:16 AM  permalink 

daily link  Sunday, February 26, 2006

Site for Quanitco Lustron Images 

Relating to my past article "Lustron Mania" on the unique porcelain coated steel Lustron homes of the Post War period, this site was recently mentioned on the Lustron Homes Yahoo Groups forum and offers a collection of good color photos of the collection of Lustron homes built at the Quantico Marine base in Virginia -now focus of a relocation project by MCS advocates. The homes have been declared obsolete by the military and were slated for demolition but have attracted attention by Lustron enthusiasts, architectural historians, and MCS patients, leading to attempts at a program to have the donated and relocated. Looking at these pictures from 2003, I was surprised at the apparent good condition of these homes considering the US military's reputation with handling their obsolete buildings and structures. Unfortunately, with typical relocation and rennovation costs for these homes currently floating around $160,000, the prospect of availing oneself of one of these 'free' Lustrons is not necessarily a bargain. 
11:12:08 AM  permalink 

daily link  Monday, November 14, 2005

The Envirnmental Illness Resource 

I've recently learned of an excellent gateway web site offering information on and recources for the spectrum of Environment Illness. Offers news, discussion forums, and sections on illness classification, treatment, and chemical and allegen avoidance. Looks to be a very valuable resource for EIs and others concerned with allergies and unwanted chemical exposure. 
8:37:15 AM  permalink 

daily link  Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Auroville Earth Unit 

The Aurovile Earth Unit is a research and education facility established by the Auroville religious communty in Southern India. This facility performs some of the most sophisticted earth constuction engineering and archiectural design in the world and is responsible for Auroville's oustanding array of earthen archiecture. Thier web site is an excellent source of information on the subject and features numerous photographs of their research projects and the many remarkable buildings of Auroville. 
5:18:41 PM  permalink 

Wonderful Wombs - Healthy Heating 

Wonderful Wombs is a blog site on the subject of radiant floor heating and the related but newer technoogy of radiant tube air conditioning. It's parent site is Healthy Heating which showcases information on the radiant HVAC subject.

Radiant floor heating is actually an ancient technology whose roots lay in the 'hypocaust' heating invented by the ancient Romans. It first came into use in its modern fluid tube form (often called 'hydronic heating') early in the 20th century and was frequently featured in homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the many Modernist designers. It remains one of the preferred heating technologies among architects today. But despite this heritage, radiant heating has seen limited acceptance among builders in the US due to a basic lack of knowledge. It is perpetually percieved as 'new', 'futuristic', or 'high-tech' despite a nearly 100 year history of use in this country. But in recent years it has seen a steadily growing acceptance, especially in the parts of the country better suited to slab foundations.

Radiant floor heating is one of the preferred heating technologies for non-toxic housing because it reduces the need for ductwork which has a tendancy to accumulate dusts and fungus. It dosen't, of course, eliminate the need for proper ventilation in a home but ductwork for that can be greatly reduced or sometimes completely eliminated when it need not be routed through a furnace. Radiant heating also uses electric water heating systems and can easily integrate with solar water heaters, which eliminates the need for oil and gas combustion systems that are a source of indoor pollution. Highly efficient compared to other heating technologies, radiant floor heating may make electric heating much more practical in areas where electric power may exceed the cost of gas or oil power. And in terms of basic comfort, most users consider it superior to everything else. Drafts and uneven heating are virtually eliminated, operation is totally silent, and the human sense of comfortable warmth quite good at much lower average heating temperatures, thus further saving energy.

Radiant air conditioning (also called 'chilled beam' systems) is a much more recent technology which basically reverses the operation of the radiant heating system using cooling tubes in a ceiling to absorb heat discharged by a heat pump similar to that of a central air conditioning unit or 'ductless' AC system. First appearing in systems designed for the suspended ceiling frames of commercial and office buildings, it suffered from complications in collecting and elliminating condensation on the overhead tubing. But more recent systems have gone far in reducing or eliminating that problem. Home use of this technology seems to still be limited, possibly because of the need for thick suspended ceiling spaces to accommodate equipment not yet adapted in scale to residential use. 

5:13:43 PM  permalink 

Auram 3000 

Developed by the Auroville religious community in Southern India and marketed by the Aureka Corp., the Auram 3000 represent the current state of the art in earthen block construction technology. The Auram is a variation of the 'cinva ram' developed in the mid 20th century for making Compressed Earth Blocks for use as a higher strength lower labor alternative to traditional earth blocks such as adobe and a more sustainable lower energy alternative to fired brick. But unlike all other cinva ram devices, the Auram uses a system of interchangeable steel molds which produce a large family of specialized precision block shapes. This allows for a versatility of earthen construction impossible with other techniques or devices. The Auram produces various forms of interlocking hollow blocks which reduce production labor, provide insulation, and which can be used in combination with poured concrete for hybrid construction that allows the earth block to be used for much more than simple walls. It's 'hourdis block' shape allows for the construction of CEB floor decks and roofs without the need for arches, vaults, and domes. Its 'U' channel block makes hybrid beams and lintels. Round column blocks can be used to make columns and posts, or in combination with pre-fab concrete step plates, to make spiral staircases. The high precision and uniformity of strength of the blocks as well as the ability to use hybrid concrete and earth composition allows for structures much larger and higher than typical with other earthen construction. Auroville has built earthquake resistant CEB buildings over 4 storeys high and domes and vaults over 10 meters wide. CEB has many advantages over other kinds of earthen construction. Small modular unit sizes make block construction easier for the DIY builder and the high precision and interlocking block shapes of the Auram CEBs minimize block laying labor by reducing the need for mortar and eliminating the need for special brick-laying skill. Using about 5-10% cement as stabilizer, CEB is more sustainable than other stabilized earth materials while still being resilient enough to be used without a plaster or adobe finish render. Traditional adobe MUST be protected by a finish render while cement and asphalt stabilized adobe doesn't always need a render but is so rough in appearance that it compels it just for aesthetics. Auram blocks fit together with only the slightest of visible seams and so have a very finished appearance without any other finishing needed -even in an indoor setting.

Used extensively throughout the Auroville community itself, the Auram is responsible for some of the most sophisticated and large scale earthen construction built to date. The Auroville Earth Unit web site contains numerous examples of their earth construction work and well showcases the Auram's versatility. And with CEB now under consideration as a key technology for the construction of settlements in space using at-hand indigenous materials, this technology may see a long future indeed.

In areas with relatively uncontaminated earth (sadly, a scarcity in some parts of the US) the Auram could be an excellent tool for the construction of economical non-toxic housing. It's potential for low-cost housing is well demonstrated in India and the Auram has been adopted by UNESCO for disaster relief housing construction. Because so much of the structure can be made out of the same simple material, cost is reduced by eliminating multiple trades and relying more on this single low-cost material while the reliance on a single material makes the whole task of ensuring low-toxicity much easier. The only downsides to the Auram are its reliance entirely on human labor -a virtue in energy-starved India but a liability in the US where labor costs are still much higher than fuel costs. Of course, for the extremely sensitive, the less one's building tools rely on fuel the less likely the chances of the building materials getting contaminated by exhaust or spilled fuels and oil. Purchasing a complete Auram package with all its molds would be a big investment for the DIY enthusiast, costing over $10,000, though the basic machine itself costs a couple thousand. Also, there is currently no place in the US where one can purchase these machines. They must be imported from India with at least a two-week delivery. Still, there is great potential in this product and the building system based on it. This author is currently considering becoming a US import dealer for this machine and would be interested in hearing from people who might want to use this building method in a demonstration. 

4:28:30 PM  permalink 


Cohousing - Cohousing - A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves - Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett

Having read much of late on the subject of cohousing, this book appears to be one of the most definitive as an introduction to the concept and an overview of cohousing history. It begins with a look at cohousing in Denmark where the movement for this style of living seems to have originated and we are offered a collection of community examples detailing both the general architecture and the development history with emphasis on the personal experiences of the people setting up and living in these communities. Later, the book moves on to American examples which illustrate some interesting differences. Americans seem to have a much greater difficulty in comprehending and adapting to the cohousing paradigm and with working together as a group, apparently because of our culture's focus on the autonomy of the nuclear family -even though such autonomy is a very recent cultural invention. There is also more reluctance in America to explore novel architecture. So while in Denmark we see cohousing communities based on glass covered streets and large adapted factory buildings, here most -with the one exception of an urban based 'loft' style conversion- cohousing projects use a style of architecture virtually indistinguishable from conventional suburbs except for the spacing of homes and the lack of cars. Of course, this perspective may be due to the age of the text as this author is aware of a number of American cohousing projects which have employed much more sophisticated architecture and community layouts closer to the Danish model.

This book is an important read for anyone thinking seriously and rationally about the future and the prospects of family life in it. As we now depart the age of cheap fuel, suburbs as they have existed to date are becoming increasingly unsustainable. And that's not in an environmental sense but rather in terms of simple domestic practicality. The suburbs of today, because of their ad-hoc dispersed organization and disconnection from venues of work and commerce, are only livable in an economy of cheap transportation. Take that away and they are no more practical for the average middle-class family than a cabin in the wilderness. Meanwhile, cities face a similar crisis as their similarly ad-hoc organization is similarly dependent upon cheap energy to compensate for their inefficiency. They will likewise become unlivable as their antiquated infrastructures fail under the strain of rising costs. The obvious solution -as many futurists have been predicting since the 1960s- is a reinvention of the village, the creation of more self-contained micro-urban environments where reliance on the automobile is minimized or eliminated and transportation among key subsistence resources is confined to a few efficient routes. Those in the cohousing communities are already ahead of the curve in adapting to the practical realities of this new age. They are living the lifestyle we may all soon be compelled to share, and from the looks of it, we may be quite pleasantly surprised.

This author has often considered the possibility of cohousing as a means to meet the steadily growing need for non-toxic MCS patient housing, allowing the possibility of MCS patients on fixed disability incomes to pool resources to reduce housing costs. This has been tried in the past but with mixed results -HUD's own attempts at this in California becoming something of a fiasco. There are complications with this notion which have been difficult to overcome. First, in the experience of most cohousing communities, savings on the usual cost of housing has only been realized with government subsidy or by the even more difficult prospect of large volumes of sweat equity from prospective residents. Cohousing projects typically have a hard time keeping budgets low because participating families often customize their individual home designs too much and they must work with architects whose 'custom' designs are an excuse for contractors to charge more than usual. Consequently, most current people adopting cohousing do so for the lifestyle, not for economy. MCS patients, of course, are familiar with a similar situation, having to spend much more on homes to meet their needs because contractors normally overcharge for anything which is new, different, or 'custom'. This has compelled some people to go one step beyond cohousing into cohabitation; multiple people sharing a common house. This is very tricky to do if MCS patient tolerances are not complimentary.

Which brings us to the second key complication with this idea; MCS patients all have different tolerances and sensitivities and these sensitivities relate to quality of life. The average person's quality of life is often related to the use of a lot of products which often rely on chemicals in some form and may have latent toxicity or simply a latent odor people normally aren't aware of. When someone succumbs to MCS they are compelled to give up a lot of things they used to casually use everyday because they've become intolerable; soaps and cleaners, perfumes, cosmetics, hair sprays, synthetic fiber clothing or bedding, types of food, types of appliances, books, magazines, newspapers, the list goes on forever. This sacrifice incurs a lot of change in lifestyle and often means a great loss in quality of life. This has broken up families or forced MCS suffers to live in leper-like seclusion from their families as it becomes very difficult for healthy family members to give up these things for the sake of another -especially in the contemporary American culture where marriage and the nuclear family are held together by increasingly tenuous bonds.

Since every MCS patient tends to have different tolerances, this translates to a different spectrum of industrial goods they can or can't use or have near them and thus a different level of quality of life. None will sacrifice any more than their tolerance limits dictate. The cost in quality of life is too high. This also means different kinds of architecture as one type of 'healthy home' composition will not suit all MCS patients even if they are ostensibly fully non-toxic. For example, one can use all natural chemical free lumber to make a non-toxic home but some of that lumber may be aromatic wood species which some MCS patients cannot stand the slightest odor of.

Put two MCS patients together in the same house and they must negotiate with each other over most every detail of the goods and products they use everyday in order to work out a mutually acceptable level of quality of life relative to their individual tolerances. This makes it very difficult to put large groups of MCS patients together in a closely-spaced community. Indeed, some planned MCS communities have specified minimum parcels of over 10 acres per home just to minimize the potential drift from pollution from one home to the next.

All this would seem to suggest that MCS cohousing is fundamentally infeasible or impossible. But it may be that, in the emerging economic reality of the 21st century, none but the very rich will even have the option of living outside of a cohousing situation. So is there any way to actually make MCS cohousing work? Through my own research on this, I suspect that the answer lies in seeking the absolute maximum in non-toxicity of habitat with the least compromise in quality of life by seeking out and cultivating the maximum number of chemical-free alternatives to the goods quality of life depends on. In other words, you eliminate the sacrifice in quality of life by eliminating the need to sacrifice those goods when those goods can be made -pretty much the same or better- in a chemical free form. As I've learned in my research of non-toxic housing, it is simply society's ignorance of and indifference to the alternatives which tends to drive the MCS patient to homelessness. Even MCS specialist physicians know virtually nothing about non-toxic housing or non-toxic alternative goods and do little research into that because they -foolishly in my opinion- don't think that's part of their job. They just tell their patents to stay away from stuff that makes them sick and if those patients can't find the alternatives on their own they can -in our better living through chemistry culture- quickly be left with nothing they can live with! But there are a lot of alternatives and their number is growing steadily and so, with careful and comprehensive planning and the cultivation of a community not just as housing but as a marketplace and source for these alternative products, it may be possible to make MCS cohousing work. Even this, though, will not be a complete solution. At best it can only be a 'one size fits most' option. And because of the first complication, without government support it probably would not be cheap. But it would still be better than what the housing market has to offer today.


4:03:20 PM  permalink 

daily link  Wednesday, July 13, 2005

How To Survive Without A Salary 

The unfortunately named How To Survive Without A Salary by Charles Long is a book that should be required reading in every school on the planet Earth, and at the very least required reading for every disabled person who must cope with the limitations of a fixed income. I say 'unfortunately named' because this title implies to many people that it is just another of the innumerable get-rich-quick scam books flooding the market today. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as this book is really about how to avoid the negative effects of the biggest scam there is; the contemporary consumer culture.

How To Survive Without A Salary is a guide to a frugal and efficient way of living that seeks to make the most of every dollar and every minute and a reality check on the way consumerism exploits our ignorance, laziness, and compulsive nature. While the lifestyle it describes is definitely not practical for all, the insight, tips, and advice it offers is of very practical use to just about everyone. This author has lost copies of this book lending them to acquaintances. People who borrow it often find it too useful to return...


4:23:47 PM  permalink 

The New Natural House Book and The Natural House Catalog 

Both of these books are by David Pearson and I include them together as they deserve to be treated as a set. The New Natural House Book is essentially an overview of the issue of housing health and common means of abatement and non-toxic home design. It does not get into much technical detail, focusing instead on a discussion of healthy materials and extensively photographed examples of housing. The book goes far to create a visual impression suggesting the true squalor in the non-healthy homes common to American suburbs. Many of the homes featured here were also featured in the Sydney and Joan Baggs book The Healthy House.

The Natural House Catalog was originally written as a companion to the earlier edition of The Natural House Book and features an extensive catalog of sources for non-toxic and natural building materials and home products. It was long this author's chief sourcebook for non-toxic products. Some of this material may now be incorporated into the newer edition and there has been a great expansion in the availability of non-toxic products as public awareness has grown. This book definitely deserves a new edition of its own.


3:59:17 PM  permalink 

The Healthy House 

One of the first books this author found specific to the subject of non-toxic housing The Healthy House remains an excellent introduction to the subject. Written by Australians Sydney and Joan Baggs, The Healthy House is a light overview of a broad selection of building techniques and materials mixing both a technical or clinical notion of house healthfulness or 'baubiologie' with a more aesthetic or 'spiritual' sensibility more typical of organic designers as well as the usual strong doze of eco-sensibility common to texts on sustainable architecture. The book is also interesting in that it features a number of eco-village projects -though alas some of these have already become defunct before being built. Altogether, a good introduction to the subject of low toxic architecture, though with few examples from the US.


3:39:27 PM  permalink 

Prescriptions for a Healthy House 

Written by New Mexico architect Paula Baker-Laporte, Prescriptions for a Healthy House is an in-depth guide to non-toxic home construction, materials, and products intended to meet the needs of both prospectic home buyers and the people involved in building them. The book is very useful as a sourcebook for techniques and products. There are a number of interesting products that I have not seen noted elsewhere, such as the enzyme based earth treatments used as a non-toxic alternative to asphalt for driveway construction.

Baker-Laporte favors the use of pumicecrete construction for non-toxic housing as well as it's logical pueblo style of design. She has frequently used this material and it features in homes she's designed for The Commons cohousing community in Santa Fe. However, she also employs a contemporary version of wattle and daub construction for a line of homes she calls EcoNests which are not noted in this book.

Altogether a very useful sourcebook and guide to the issues and subject of healthy housing but without very specific information on building techique.


3:22:48 PM  permalink 

Healthy House Building for the New Millennium 

One of the more recent healthy architecture books this author has read, Healthy House Building for the New Millennium by John Bower details the full construction process for a model non-toxic home based on a unique approach. Bower Advocates the use of a method called ADA or Airtight Drywall Approach along with a super-insulated double-wall system which allows fairly conventional building materials to be employed for non-toxic housing including that specific to the needs of people with environmental sensitivity. The model Healthy House featured in the book is built using light gauge steel framing fiberglass batt insulation, and conventional drywall products. Using careful drywall finishing techniques, an airtight enclosure is created. This would normally present a number of potential problems for indoor air quality but these have been overcome by virtue of the ADA approach which locks out the latent contaminants in the wall materials and by careful choice of low-toxic interior finishing products and furnishings.

The approach is similar to the abatement techniques some healthy home contractors have employed to make existing homes more tolerable for MCS patients. My only concern with it is that Bower presumes a much higher degree of skill and care than is probably typical of the average building contractor. While the model Healthy House is cost-effective, extremely energy efficient, and has apparently worked well for sensitive individuals, it seems unlikely that the majority of contractors would be able to duplicate the skill and diligence Bower himself has demonstrated. So duplication of this home design seems challenging.

Bower's other texts on the healthy housing subject, offered through the Healthy Housing Institute and via Amazon.com, look very promising and I hope to review them in the future.


2:59:54 PM  permalink 

daily link  Monday, July 4, 2005

Update - Site Reorganization 

After a harrowing Spring and a 2000 mile relocation, a reorganization of the Shelter web site and a change of focus for this project.

Readers of this site will recall that I was facing the loss of my home of 40 years after the sudden New Year's Eve death of my last supporting relative. Things looked quite bad. With no local prospect of work within the limits of my disability, not enough inheritance to afford any kind of housing but just enough to threaten my continued disability income, and no real help emerging from this web site, I was facing imminent homelessness or -even worse- permanent internment in some hellish state nursing home. But thanks to the help of a kind and generous colleague I was able to find a low toxic adobe cottage to rent in a quiet high desert location south of Santa Fe and have obtained help is establishing a simple home business to pay for it.

For someone who has been effectively home-bound for decades, the 2000 mile relocation was something of an ordeal. And I arrived in a period of freakish cold and stormy weather for the region. I own little aside from books and computers so had to scramble for basic furnishings. Thankfully, the region is quite well supplied with thrift, consignment, and pawn shops where some decent bargains in used furnishings could be found. (these having the advantage of being outgassed as well as cheap) Though I had to rent the cottage sight-unseen, it proved to be much as advertised and though not ideal for my needs, is sufficient for the time being. The mesa-top location is quiet, low in pollution, and offers nice views of the surrounding hills, mountains, and the lights of Santa Fe. Santa Fe is also one of the few centers in this country for sustainable architecture and interest in non-toxic housing. There are many contractors and architects here with the skills and sensibilities to construct the kind of housing I need. So future prospect for a non-toxic home of my own look good. Considering my situation, I could probably have not done much better.

Having gained a reprieve and largely settled-in, I have begun a reorganization of this web site and a change in its role. Shelter will now change from a personal project site to an on-going catalog of non-toxic housing technology and products. As can be seen from the navigation links in the adjacent side-bar, this site now features several new category sections cataloging entries in the matter of more conventional technology and architecture review blogs.

The Building Systems section will catalog the various building technologies I have found and studied.

The Designs section will collect examples of existing homes using alternative and non-toxic architecture and will also feature discussion on new and speculative home design concepts.

The Infrastructure section deals with the technologies of power and energy distribution, heating and cooling, plumbing, waste handling, and the like.

The Materials section catalogs alternative non-toxic materials and the companies supplying them.

The Tools section catalogs interesting tools for home building and design -both hardware tools and computer software.

The Products section collects all the other types of products relevant to the non-toxic home including furnishings, household care products, household health products, some complete kit homes, and anything else which seems relevant to the theme.

The Literature section will list books and other media on the subject of non-toxic housing and related themes of alternative architecture.

And, finally, the Links section will catalog links to other sites relevant to the non-toxic housing and alternative archiecture subjects.

Right now you can examine the Building Systems section where I have completed a large list of articles cataloging and discussing the non-toxic building methods I have found to date. Future articles will be seen both here on this home page and in their respective category sections. Readers may link the individual cateogry pages to filter out any articles they might have less interest in.

Most of the original content of this site can still be found in the Gallery section. I have removed a few things now less relevant, such as much controversial (for some reason...) autobiography.

In the near future this site may also spawn another web site on the subject of Post-Industrial technology and the cultivation of Post-Industrial culture. Keep an eye out for further announcements on this soon.

To close, a thank you to all readers who have been following this project and expecially to those who were kind enough to write with their feedback and enquiries. I trust this site will still be of interest to you all. 

7:45:29 PM  permalink 

daily link  Saturday, January 22, 2005

Update - Yet Another T-Slot House 

Nw that it's too late to help me, even more T-slot houses appear. Looks like an emerging design trend. The iT House (Flash site) is, again, so similar to the things I've devised it's scary. In fact, this house is based on the same Bosch brand industrial automation T-slot framing products I note in my Gallery section article on the Urban Nomads and their modular building technology. But for some reason these architects were able to get access to a larger scale and cheaper set of T-slot components than the Bosch company is willing to offer to you or me. This is either custom fabricated -which seems unlikely- or they have been hiding this stuff for some specialized purposes. I guess it's another case of who you know, not what you know.

All in all, the iT House is an ideal non-toxic housing platform, but it's a costly one. It's probably come far too late to help me, but I think others EIs with an need for this kind of housing should take a look at this. It would be quite easy to integrate a great diversity of alternative non-toxic materials to this structure as well as to enhance it using the off-the-shelf T-slot framing components. They've even managed to integrate the kind of easy T-slot connection into a ceiling system making it easy to adapt this house on demand with snap-in partitions and appliances. It comes very close to the ideal of plug-in architecture. It's only downsides are a likely limitation to warmer climates and the architects' fascination with the use of vinyl based window transfers as a means to decorate the otherwise very minimalistic structures. One would have to order the home without this for a non-toxic home -and I'm rather doubtful of the long-term resilience of such transfers to UV even for the non-EI home.

In other news, I have learned that availability of the Tony's T-Houses Bali-T kit homes has been unaffected by the recent tsunami disaster. Good news as this is one of the cheapest prefab non-toxic housing options available -although it's still just out of my reach and only usable in Hawaii due to the unusual type of design.

Also, readers may find interesting an idea I have been trying to interest the executives of eBay in. I have found that virtually everything I would need for relocation and a home can potentially be found on eBay -if I could get the professional help to make it work. There are prefab steel buildings which could be adapted into a non-toxic home, land offerings in areas I have considered going to for low pollution, equipment for off-grid living, no end to the supply of used furnishings which -because it's old- is sufficiently outgassed to be safe for me, and even some kinds of food I could eat. In theory, my entire relocation and everything I need could be obtained on eBay and possibly at a cost I could afford. But it would only be possible with the help of a team of eBay experts able to stretch my resources to their maximum and a team of assistants to aid in the logistics of pulling this all together -since I could not myself perform due diligence on things like land by myself.

This idea seemed to me to be a great potential promotional gimmick for the eBay company. They have gotten a lot of negative publicity lately from people using the service to sell ridiculous things. It's created the impression that eBay is not usable for anything practical. My project would offer them the opportunity to demonstrate that one can, in fact, do very practical things with the service. Even provide adaptive housing to the disabled and relocate one's whole life. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to reach the eBay executive offices. This icon of Internet business has no means to send an email letter to anyone other than customer support. Customer support actually told me they were completely incapable of communicating with anyone outside their department. I literally had to write the marketing department a letter and send it by snail mail. So much for the Information Age...

Alas, this is just another long-shot. I suspect I'm just grasping at straws with such notions. Cleverness just isn't enough to escape this kind of slow-death-spiral. Not in this country, not in this era, not in this society. 

5:55:30 PM  permalink 

daily link  Sunday, January 2, 2005


My situation has quickly become more critical. My elderly relative's prognosis quickly went from months, to weeks, to days. Then yesterday, just hours after being moved from hospital to hospice, she passed. I'm very thankful that she suffered so little discomfort and indignity in the end. We should all be so lucky when the time comes. But for me the whirlwind has now arrived and I have no idea where it may leave me -though the likely destinations tend to look rather grim. I may have little time left where I am and little to no personal control over what is happening. It now seems that only the most immediate solutions may still be practical and my expectations for aid are low. Bad as my situation may be, what is my plight to that of the millions now in even more dire situations in coastal Asia? I'm lost in the noise of a whole world in crisis.

Still, a glimmer of light has appeared. Tonight I stumbled onto a link to a new modular component housing product that is virtually the exact thing I have been seeking for the past 20 years. Called the Tomahouse, this is an advanced aluminum T-slot profile and modular panel based building system using a simple modular pavilion structure scheme. It's similar in some ways to what Unique Structural Systems was offering but never managed to get to market and it so closely matches everything I have ever thought about modular component housing design that it's scary. It's like these people plucked this out of my own head -or perhaps I'm being taunted by some malicious deity, the perfect answer to my problems now being dangled just out of reach in front of me at the moment it's too late to matter... If only this company had existed years ago! I could have stockpiled these sorts of parts even in NJ and handled construction alone just as I has hoped! Now, whether or not this discovery comes in time to help me depends largely on how cooperative this company is -and by now most readers of this site should know how rare such cooperation is these days.

I do not know how much longer this site will be on-line or how much longer I will have Internet access. My articles have been helpful to some so I will try to keep this running as long as I can. Again, I thank all those who've sent me encouraging feedback and support. 

12:22:02 AM  permalink 

daily link  Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Season of Crisis  

The impending crisis I've anticipated these many years is finally at hand. I have finally run out of time. This past holiday weekend my elderly supporting relative -who has been struggling with illness since November- was hospitalized and diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was given "from weeks to months" and will soon be put into hospice care. Thankfully for her, this ordeal should be as short and as comfortable as could be hoped. However, for me this means that I now have an equally short period of time to find a solution to my housing needs or I will be homeless. My options are few and difficult.

Frankly, my decades long research into alternative and non-toxic architecture has proven to be a failure. I have failed to discover any technological answer to the one fundamental problem that has barred me from the housing I need; the fact that there is no known form of non-toxic housing cheap enough for someone on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) to afford alone. There are no government agencies, programs, or non-profit organizations I can turn to for help because the issue of disabled housing has simply never been very important to US society. (and before anyone wastes their time suggesting it again; no, Habitat for Humanity does not do adaptive housing for the disabled. HfH is not the kind of organization most people seem to think it is. They don't build houses for the poor. They build cut-rate houses for banks to coerce them into mortgaging them to the 'financially challenged'. No bank provides mortgages to people on SSI, period) I'm on my own.

With so little time now left, my options have been drastically reduced. Since the government doesn't allow SSI recipients to have any kind of savings, I had hoped to ultimately find a building technology that would allow me to incrementally stockpile light easy to handle components for a home or somehow be able to invest sweat equity here into modular components I could transport to the low-pollution locations I need to relocate to. But this simply never panned out. The building industry is just not sophisticated enough to produce anything suitable for this. Now my choices are limited to those things that can be made/purchased more-or-less immediately and that means two options; either I immediately find about two dozen people -at least some skilled- who will donate a month or more of time to build a home for me by hand using one of the several earthen or related building techniques, or I find someone who can put up a lot of money to pay for one of the few quick-build forms of non-toxic housing based on ferro-cement, excavated structure, prefab steel structures, or shipping containers, or even more money to buy one of the few readily available 'healthy homes' now on the market. (one can see most of that tiny market here) Even the limited choices among the quick build homes is now reduced. The two cheapest of the few non-toxic kit home products are now probably unavailable due to the Indonesian quake that struck this past weekened.

My emergency housing options are limited to two things; a small adapted Airstream trailer I found for sale a while ago (seen here) and a product called the ChuckHouse which offers a bit more room, comes with solar power, but is more expensive, more difficult to transport, and whose claim to being made exclusively of non-toxic materials cannot be confirmed because they would not answer any detailed questions on finishing materials. Both these are limited to very mild climate locations, would cost a lot to transport, and are too small to allow me to pursue any kind of work. So while they would provide emergency shelter, they are ultimately a dead end. And though I could afford one of them on credit, I may not be able to afford them and the land to put them on -and even if I could, I would probably have to buy land through the Internet sight-unseen and just hope for the best. A VERY scary prospect.

The situation does not look good. If any readers to this site can offer real help or some concrete viable suggestions (not off-the-cuff notions that haven't been thought out) I need to hear from you NOW. This is it, folks. This is the endgame. If only this were not such a primitive country, but then if it weren't so primitive I probably wouldn't have contracted this illness in the first place.

For obvious reasons, this may be my last post to this site for some time, if not for good. I now must concentrate totally on coping with my relative's last days and finding a way to avoid the same fate. Should I be unable to continue this site in the future, I wish to thank all the many readers who have to date offered their encouraging feedback and generous support. 

2:20:49 AM  permalink 

daily link  Wednesday, December 8, 2004


Still no progress, though I have made some promising contacts in the past couple of weeks. Hopefully there may be something significant to report soon. In the mean time, I thought readers might be interested in an article I completed recently on space settlement design and posted to a space architecture forum. Have long been interested in space advocacy, I've been puzzled by the obvious scarcity of any realistic portrayals of practical space settlements in any media. There are, of course, plenty of proposals and images for space outposts but these are not places where people would go to live in space permanently. They are temporary elements of exploration programs. A true permanently inhabitable space settlement has very different requirements and purpose. So I have, for a time, been pondering exactly what a realistic space settlement would be like given existing technology. You may find my conclusions, and my proposed design strategy, interesting. 
9:43:43 PM  permalink 

daily link  Saturday, November 27, 2004

Slow Progress 

As Winter approaches, there is very little progress to report. I seem to have run into some kind of point of diminishing returns on my research and efforts. It has become like pulling teeth to communicate with any company today -especially those right here in the US. The rate of response to my inquiries has dropped to near-zero and the 'flake out' rate (the rate at which follow-up correspondence is just ignored for no apparent reason) has gotten to near 100%.

This has long been a problem due to the way different mediums of communication seem to become obsolete after a time in the business world. Business executives and professionals seem to cope with high communication volume by inventing a steadily increasing number of excuses for filtering-out more and more messages until a given medium of communication is ignored altogether as 'no longer professional'. (and then they puzzle over where all their clients/customers went...) This is often driven by nuisance marketing; the various forms of what in today's computer parlance we call spam but which has been a plague on all open mediums of communications throughout history. And the executive class has always had a certain compulsion for exclusive means of communication so they can minimize their potential exposure to the 'unwashed', often adopting new communications technologies simply because they are too expensive for the rabble to afford to use. Telex seemed rooted in that notion; a private electronic channel of communications for corporations and no one else...

I found that 'snail mail' and fax had become useless for me many years ago, and the telephone a short time thereafter thanks to the advent of automated phone systems which, of course, are engineered to increase company productivity by making communication with the outside world impossible. Now it seems email has become obsolete as well -or perhaps my occasional paranoid suspicions were right after all and I've somehow been blacklisted. I don't know what it is. All I do know is that it seems to have become virtually impossible to reach anyone in any company, and impossible to maintain communication with them for any length of time in the rare instance when you can reach them.

I'm beginning to suspect that I've reached the practical limits of my research. I've ferreted out virtually every alternative building technology in existence and every practical means of building non-toxic housing known. Most of the new things I find now seem to be simply minor variations of technologies I've found previously, with no significant savings in cost or convenience -or help from anyone working with or manufacturing them- on offer. It seems that there will be no near-term breakthroughs here in terms of cost or technology and this leaves me in the situation that there is no means of achieving my goal of acquiring non-toxic housing by my solitary labor and disability income. The housing approaches described in my Final Project section seem to be the absolutely most efficient ones current technology can offer. Non-toxic housing will probably never get any simpler or cheaper than the Pavilion Architecture I've described there. And yet that remains far out of my reach. I'm no closer than I was decades ago. It's troubling.

Still, I have some nominally promising news to report. As noted in the articles in my Gallery section, I've long had an interest in a material known as Tefzel; an elastomeric film which is one of the most low-toxic plastics known and which has the very useful properties of being very tough yet more transparent than glass. Tefzel first saw architectural application in the form of a system of membrane 'pillow panels' used as cladding for a geodesic 'pillow dome' built by Buckminster Fuller's New Alchemy Institute. It was not until the turn of the century that this feat was duplicated on a more ambitious scale for the famous Eden Project greenhouse complex in the UK. Commonly used as a lining material for bulk food packaging, the architectural applications of tefzel are many. It can be used for conventional but extremely light windows, as a material for tension or membrane roof systems, as inflatable panels, and for large pneumatic enclosures like the common inflatable domes used for tennis courts. It doesn't outgas, is unaffected by UV or extreme temperature, is strong enough to resist cutting by most knives, has the self-cleaning properties of teflon based tension roof materials, and has a virtually indefinite life span. It does not sustain flames and when it is forced to burn it burns completely leaving a residue which some references describe as nothing more than steam and vinegar. And yet despite all these virtues I could find no other examples of its use beyond the two pillow dome projects. No one in the US seemed to have any knowledge of how to use this material -even though it is made here by Dow Chemical.

Recently I finally discovered the company who had made the pillow panels for the Eden Project; a company in Germany called FoilTec. On their web site I discovered that -in Europe at least- all the many architectural applications of this material have been well explored with very impressive results. I'm a bit annoyed by having had to wait this long to find this company. If the people in the American division of the Mero Corporation (the space frame system maker that had built the dome space frame structure for the Eden Project) had not been so utterly clueless about what was obviously one of that company's highest profile projects I would have learned of this FoilTec company many years ago!

FoilTec's version of Tefzel is a product called Texlon and it is available as custom fabricated skins or structures with a variety of options. They offer it in fully transparent and translucent forms and can also apply a metalized pattern that tailors its transparency to any desired degree of transmission or can be applied for aesthetic effect. The material is apparently very easy to work with since the company offers replacement for damaged membrane parts within 48 hours world-wide regardless of structure size. The project examples on the web site show an impressive range of uses. It has proven especially effective for large area atrium enclosures and various forms of greenhouses or solarum roofs, its very low mass allowing for very light support structures providing very wide spans yet with no compromises in durability or weather resistance compared to glass. They even enclosed whole city streets with this! Used for a variety of large pneumatic enclosures for German laboratories studying solar effects on different types of atmosphere, the exceptional transparency and thinness of seams produces structures that virtually disappear. In some pictures it's as if some kind of force-field where being used for an enclosure rather than anything solid. The effect is quite impressive.

So, how would one make practical use of this material for non-toxic housing? I see three significant ways to use it. First, in the conventional roll of skylights and atrium roofing. Readers will recall one design I proposed for excavated housing based on radial forms that made optional use of a membrane skylight dome to enclose its central atrium courts, thus eliminating the need for glass windows to weather-proof the open room chambers, allowing Japanese style screens to be used instead. Atrium roofs are typically very expensive and complicated to build due to the heavy weight of glass and the limited maximum area of glass panels. Those problems are gone with Texlon. Only the largest of residential scale atriums would even need a truss or tensegrity truss structure and they could be handled by very few people because everything would be so light.

Similarly, Texlon allows one to make window wall systems with extremely large area panels that even a single individual could easily handle alone. Windows fashioned like Japanese screens would be as resilient as glass and optionally as well insulated, though their sound dampening properties would be poor.

Texlon could be the basis of a low-toxic membrane roof system for pavilion structures. Several of the project examples on the FoilTec site show clever engineered lumber framed pavilion structures where the entire roof has been used as a transparent or translucent skylight. Similar structures based on non-toxic lumber or alloy truss systems could provide a very light but strong roof system for a pavilion home with the compelling virtue of a bright sunlit environment.

But perhaps the most interesting potential use is Skybreak housing. first proposed by students of Buckminster Fuller as a means to the most practical use of the geodesic dome for housing, the Skybreak concept is based on the use of a large area clear span transparent dome enclosure as a basic environment enclosure for a home made of independent free-standing modular structures made of light comfortable materials set in an indoor garden landscape. Put simply, it's like living in a greenhouse using prefab Japanese tea house buildings for rooms, their roofing and walls optional and needed only for shade, privacy, and supplemental insulation. This ultimately became the definitive concept for geodesic dome housing -the dome houses common today having nothing to do with any of Fuller's own work. But the technology needed for transparent domes never materialized until the end of Fuller's life -that technology being the tefzel based pillow panel dome.

Unusual as this housing concept may be, other designers have been exploring it recently using different kinds of large clear-span structures. One of the most well known is Shigeru Ban's Naked House, a home in Japan based on a large wood framed clear span box with a translucent membrane skin inside which the funtional rooms of the home consist of very traditional Japanese style rooms built inside wooden boxes on casters, allowing them to be freely moved about the large space. I've long had an interest in this idea because prefab industrial membrane roof buildings tend to be quite inexpensive and quick to construct and because -like the open-plan pavilion homes I've concluded are my most likely housing option- Skybreak housing reduces interior finishing to nothing more than an arrangement of free-standing furniture and appliances. It's almost like making a home by erecting a really large tent and moving furniture into it. It just doesn't get much easier than that! The catch, though, is that no existing membrane roof or tension roof buildings offer more than a translucent skin, they don't accommodate conventional windows very easily, and most of them use very toxic architectural membranes or fabrics.

Using Texlon one can make Skybreak enclosure structures that are low-toxic and fully transparent. One can also make their surface selectively transparent using the metalized shading option. The perimeter edges can be left completely transparent for views while the upper parts are increasingly less transparent to reduce heat gain. And since it can be used for pneumatic structures, a Texlon roof could be a suitable enclosure all by itself, reducing on-site construction to just a perimeter foundation. This is a very compelling notion for an architectural experiment, whether or not one has any interest in non-toxic or rapid-deployment housing.

Alas, these applications are ones I will probably never have the opportunity of trying. While the German parent division of FoilTec is easily contacted, once again the American division that they insist I deal with proved to be impossible. It took a very long time -even with the German HQ's prodding- to get any information out of them and after I received a promising package of brochures, the company just ignored my subsequent enquires into pricing and available services. They just flaked out like so many other companies I've struggled to communicate with lately. So my exploration into this very promising material, once again, runs into a dead-end. Perhaps others may have better luck with this than I. 

4:00:03 AM  permalink 

daily link  Sunday, September 19, 2004


A new and promising building system has been brought to my attention recently. The German company Bambutec is now offering tools and components for a very novel bamboo and wood based space frame system. The system uses bamboo or milled wood struts with precision milled ends that plug into laminate lumber joints with precision milled sockets. The components are permanently fixed together with epoxy. Cladding attachment is performed at the joints. Simple as this seems, the system is capable of large scale structures and seems able to produce both truss based and geodesic based structures. Housing structures have been built using a bay frame truss structure with a triangulated sandwich wall framing. They also offer an arch truss system with a 10 meter span that looks quite suitable for housing.

I was concerned about this meeting non-toxic housing requirements when using epoxy but I've been told by the company that they have used milk-derived casien adhesive for both joints and the laminate lumber joints with equally good results allowing for a completely VOC-free building system. However, that still depends on using chemically unadulterated wood and bamboo -which may require importing all that material from Europe or using the few and expensive 'organic' lumber sources there are here in the US. Also, keeping the lumber VOC-free means using designs that well protect the wood structure from the elements without the need for chemical sealants, though I know of some VOC-free wood sealants from Palmer Industries (the makers of non-toxic Airkrete insulation) and others that might be suitable for exposed structure use. Altogether, this is an intriguing system that seems to offer some strong possibilities. My only complaint with it is the lack of demountability, which seems to have become an increasingly important capability within the logistics of my situation. But I'm definitely looking into it.

Also, a member of the ReadyMade Magazine readers forum informed me of an aluminum building system I had not heard of before. Called Aluma-Strut and offered by the Texas based Aluminum Engineered Systems company, this appears to be a medium scale beam and post with truss roof system using an unusual round profile shape with locking flanges for four attachment faces. It's rather like a scaffolding system evolved into a permanent structure building system. The system apparently relies on load bearing perimeter wall structures supporting truss floor and roof joists or pitched roof trusses with an interior clear span of up to 60 feet. The system is apparently designed to emulate the look of conventional housing, though is also used for commercial and induatrial buildings.

This looks to be another very promising building system but the company does not appear to sell any standardized components via a catalog. Instead, they are contracted to produce a housing 'package' on a made-to-order basis. This precludes the possibility of stockpiling components incrementally -the same problem faced with using the pre-fab park shelter products I previously explored. But it is engineered to accommodate sweat equity, rather than relying on exclusive assembler contractors with heavy equipment. That is a strong advantage. And it should be easy for a volunteer team to use this system as the parts are light and easy to assemble with simple tools. Not as quick and easy as theatrical truss structures but not too far from that.

Lastly, I have gotten the final word from the BLM and Park Service on those mining claim properties I was interested in. It turns out that the sites are under Park Service jurisdiction and this adds further restrictions on their use due to environmental regulations. It's simply not possible to build any kind of 'worker housing' if there is any readily available private land for sale within 'commuting distance' of the site. Of course, it's not their concern whether such land is affordable or not nor is 'commuting distance' clearly defined. So that pretty much puts the kibosh on that notion. 

4:09:44 PM  permalink 

daily link  Monday, September 6, 2004


Some readers have asked me about the modeling tools I've used for the pictures on my site so I thought I would pass along news on a new modeling package I learned about from a product note in Desktop Engineering magazine. Called SketchUp, this modeling package looks like a real successor to the easy-to-use Deneba CAD which I have used for many years but which has not been updated for a long time. Designed as a conceptual design-level tool for architects and industrial designers, this package features a very intuitive user interface, some very clever tools, a large assortment of rendering modes, and some good features for doing live presentations. It's available in Mac OSX and Windows versions and free demos are available for download. The nearly $500 price tag is not exactly cheap but it is very inexpensive compared to a lot of other professional modeling packages which are very difficult to use for casual interactive modeling. You might not be able to do CAD-CAM with this, but for getting a design started with the least hassle this looks very promising. I'm considering saving up for it when Deneba CAD has become too long-in-the-tooth to use. 
9:32:43 PM  permalink 

daily link  Monday, August 30, 2004


I would like to hear from anyone near the Scott River area of Siskiyou County in northern California who would be willing to examine and photograph a couple of pieces of property I am interested in. Anyone who can help with this please contact me as soon as possible.


10:11:13 PM  permalink 

daily link  Thursday, August 19, 2004

Project Update 

Finally, a price list. I was at last able to get pricing on the H40V theatrical truss components from one of Prolyte's US distributors. However, there is still no practical solution to the mixing of ladder truss and box truss components for a box frame structure. Having custom welded connectors on these already pricey components is simple not on. But after some pondering I've come to realize that there is another structural approach to the use of these components; a 'bay frame' system.

Some large clear-span structures such as aircraft hangars use flat truss members for both wall and roof support. This is done by creating a series of parallel frames spanning the sides and top of the building, sort of like the spars in the hull of a boat or the wing of a plane, that surrounds a clear span space or 'bay'. Perpendicular cross-supports and sometimes diagonal tension cables are used to stabilize these frames but when metal roof and wall panels are installed the system collectively functions as a 'stressed skin' or 'monocoque' structure. This approach leaves the two ends of the 'bay' completely open so they can accommodate those large doors such structures are noted for.

Using just the H40V box frame and box corner components alone a similar kind of structure can be made, each bay frame consisting of one 5m truss, two 2-3m sides, and two box corners. To include a floor deck one would add box corners and another 5m truss at the bottom to form a complete rectangle. A series of these frames are then joined together at the corners by short 1m box truss units and thus the bay is extended for as 'deep' as one requires. If a floor deck is used one must add further 1m truss units to the bottom of several corners for foundation supports. On a concrete slab the frames just plug into sockets set in the concrete floor. Bays are added side-to-side by adding more bay frames to the sides of the existing ones at their corners, sharing the intervening vertical members. The 1m spacing is close enough to support the heavier grade of structural metal panel roofing or catwalk grating/aluminum deck for flooring while leaving plenty of room for portals/doorways between each bay. Adding bays side to side is actually more efficient then just extending the 'depth' of one bay since it uses fewer parts, sharing vertical members.

With this approach a simple home might be built as a series of side-by-side boxes, each with two wide openings at the bay ends for windows and doors and a skin of metal roofing panel. A 'microhouse' might be built with one 10m long bay.

But this strategy has a much larger number of these more expensive components -especially the box corners. According to the newly obtained price list the box corners will cost about $800 each, 5m trusses almost $1000 each, 2.5m trusses about $600, 1m trusses $400. A roughly 5m square (about 256sf) structure finished will probably be in the area of $20,000. That's just one modest room. At a cost-per-square-foot guestimate, this is probably about $100 per square foot on slab foundation, well over that using a floor deck with pier foundation.

Though cheaper than other currently available modular component products and suited to incremental stockpiling, this is expensive. My income might cover one part a month. At that rate I'd wait a good decade to save up enough parts for a small home -and I just hope the company is still making them by the time I've saved enough. And there's still the issue of experimentation to deal with, and its attendant waste due to trial-and-error testing. But I can't help thinking there's some possibility here. This is something I could build by myself, even if affording it would take more time than I have. A very small test structure could be realized with the income over about a year. But unless that could win further support, it would probably be an exercise in futility. Though I've seen a great deal of welcome feedback to this project site, I've seen no actual interest in supporting any of the building approaches I've described. Is a bet on lottery-ticket odds better than no bet at all? I feel like the street person struggling over the best way to spend his last dollar. Does it matter?

In other news, a colleague has recently pointed out an interesting approach to obtaining affordable land in low pollution areas; unpatented mining claims. There's a company selling mining claims in the California 'gold country' with some excellent placer mining parcels on offer. These are proven gold-bearing river claims but, of course, all that I'm concerned with is that fact that they provide generous acreage in pollution-free areas at a very low price. I'd only be interested in panning for gold as a bit of low-impact exercise and source of pocket money -which is all you can realistically expect from that anyway. You don't 'own' such land in the conventional sense. You just own the right to its use and mineral content and the right to be compensated should the government decide they want it for something else. But, contrary to popular belief, that's better than the property terms you actually get in a lot of East Coast housing developments.

The only real problem I so far see is that you are limited to building things that are ostensibly related to the business of mining, which might limit some of my options for home-based work activities. (do I tell the BLM the hydroponics vegetable garden is a phytomining lab?) And you can't use trailers for housing because they don't meet the Universal Building Code -which may be why so few people take this approach. This is rough country where normal construction is sometimes difficult and most people's notion of housing doesn't get more sophisticated than the suburban tract home.

But I know very little about this region of the country, its climate, its available services, or possible hazards. This idea needs more research and I will need to find people who can tell me more about the region, can go and examine these claim sites for sale, and clue me in to any catches I've overlooked. If there are any readers familiar with the California 'gold country' region around Klamath National Park I would like to hear from them. 

2:23:56 AM  permalink 

daily link  Thursday, August 5, 2004

Project Update 

After some months of study, the theatrical truss concept appears to be a dead-end. Two different US distributors of the parts and still no price list. Now the engineers at the Prolyte HQ in the Netherlands tell me that ladder trusses would not be usable for roof joists without joints welded to the primary truss beams. I thought this was overkill myself until a reader on the ReadyMade magazine forums pointed out that the bolted clamp connectors commonly used with theatrical truss have a tendency to loosen themselves over time. This would explain why these welded joints were necessary. But the cost of that sort of custom work is untenable so it effectively kills this concept. Back to the ferro-cement and pre-fab park shelters as the most likely choices, though they too remain difficult, labor being an issue for the former and limitation to exclusive building contractors the problem with the latter.

Another interesting possibility emerged recently when I learned of a fully dismantled Lustron home being offered for sale complete with the trailer it was packed in for about $12k. But the logistics could not be worked out. There was no way I could afford that and land at the same time and nowhere I could park this 40' trailer for years as I waited to pay it off. It was also in need of some parts replacement and refurbishing I could not do myself, would need additional upgrades including foam insulation and radiant floor heating in the new foundation slab and the ultimate on-site construction, with it's several hundred pound roof trusses and some 9000 parts, is beyond the lone individual. Still, I've obtained a copy of the Lustron assembly manual and continue to study this idea.

I also learned of a nice non-toxic adapted Airstream trailer that recently went up for sale. It's one of the few trailers adapted by the Tad Taylor company and appears to be in surprisingly good shape. But it's tiny. Far too small for a permanent residence and prohibited for that in many areas. Though low priced compared to what these usually go for (typically 60-70% of what a normal house costs) at $8500, it's not exactly cost-effective for the tiny square footage and comes with the additional cost of about $2000 for its relocation from the midwest. Logistically, it's impractical when I have no place at present to park such a thing but it could serve as transitional shelter to support the construction of something else or might serve as a last-ditch emergency shelter -assuming it's still around in the event.

Meanwhile, my physician has warned me that my current housing situation is having a definite negative impact on my already poor health. It's been tolerable for a long time but escalation of the local pollution due to a flurry of new housing and the loss of serviceable kitchen facilities are taking their toll. I've been noticing the effects in a steadily declining work pace. I've gotten many months behind in my reading and my writing pace as slowed greatly. Physical stamina is now non-existent. My doctor could offer little advice for dealing with this since relocation is the only option and it seems nothing beyond what I've been doing all along -projects like this- is going to help with that. The path just keeps getting steeper. 

3:04:15 AM  permalink 

daily link  Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Site Update 

I have added some description and illustrations to the Final Project Design page concerning the research into the use of Prolyte truss components as mentioned previously. The illustrations detail a pavilion home design using a linear room space layout based on a 30m x 10m structure using 38 primary truss components and a simple slab foundation. This looks like an economical and easy structure to build, especially since the truss framing literally plugs together with no tools and everything else attaches with bolts and screws. How much this will cost depends in the truss component prices which I am still waiting for Prolyte's US distributor to provide.

I really find it difficult to imagine any building system easier than this except for a robotically fabricated monolithic concrete pavilion with a formed-in-place grid of plug-in sockets to mount everything else. (a scheme I've proposed for marine colony and space habitat structures) Of course, plug-in architecture is nothing new but it's always puzzled me why the obvious advantages have always remained elusive to the developers of mainstream housing. After all, for all the monotony of the suburban habitat, house interiors are renovated more frequently today than ever in human history. Why not engineer the bloody things with this in mind? What would be so wrong with a suburban house structure as a free-standing loft apartment? It's easier and cheaper to build and it creates a plug-in component and appliance market of tremendous scale. But then a thousand 'better ways' have come and gone in just the past 50 years. We never 'get it'.

In other news, I recently enjoyed some correspondence with retired cohousing project designer Rick Cowlishaw who discussed some ideas for pavilion housing suitable for the Hawaiian climate. Among his many suggestions was the notion of a pumicecrete pavilion using an inverse-pitch roof that allows for the collection of rainwater in a centralized tank. A novel idea that would be very attractive -giving the home the appearance of an enormous flower- but probably expensive to build compared to simpler structures. Many of his suggestions seemed less appropriate for someone on my marginal income but he did offer some very useful cost-saving ideas. For instance, he suggested that one could readily eliminate glass wall enclosures altogether in the mild Hawaii climate, using only simple sliding screen panels like the traditional shogi screens. However, the periodic severe weather is too much for this to withstand, thus he also suggested such things as centralized concrete walled waterproof storage bunkers to house the entire contents of the home during extreme weather. That would seem to more than eliminate any savings the use of screens might offer. 

11:49:05 PM  permalink 

daily link  Saturday, May 8, 2004

All The World's A Stage 

I've been in correspondence recently with the Netherlands offices of the Prolyte company concerning the use of their theatrical truss products for housing. As those readers of my gallery section know, I've long been interested in the use of theatrical trusses as a modular building system for non-toxic housing because they are made with paint-free aluminum and offer the benefits of easy transportation, quick low-skill assembly and disassembly, and very high structural performance. Prolyte's products are especially well suited to this because of a very convenient box corner design that offers high strength column integration and easy 'pass through' connection for trusses when using different panel materials. And the assortment of accessories made by different companies for use with these trusses is huge, offering many possibilities for adaptive reuse. But I've never been able to get anyone in the show-biz industry to discuss this with me. Finally deciding to go to the source, I was pleased to find that the Prolyte people didn't think this was all that strange an application and their engineers quickly pointed me to the appropriate truss model line to use for this; the H40V multi-purpose line. This particular product line has apparently already been certified for building use under the strict German building regulations. Their engineers also were kind enough to provide me with roof loading calculations for the simple home design featured in my Final Project design page and the numbers suggest a very respectable performance for the flat roofed design.

This looks like a very strong possibility. With these kinds of trusses the parts count for a home becomes very small and the trusses can be readily stored in adverse environments. It's still not clear what the cost for the use of this truss would be. I must still wait for word from the US distributors as to pricing and availability. But theatrical truss is fairly ubiquitous and there's strong possibility of finding most, if not all, a house would need on the used theatre equipment market. Of course, that would call for help from those same show-biz insiders that have been refusing to talk to me for some time. 

7:39:07 PM  permalink 

daily link  Thursday, April 29, 2004

Thinking About The Future 

I've been thinking a lot lately about the notion of a post-industrial intentional community; an eco-village focused not merely on the goal of sustainability but rather on the continuing cultivation of post-industrial technology. Most true eco-villages have tended to be testing grounds for this in the form of 'soft' technologies which quite often overlap the sphere of post-industrial technology. But contemporary environmentalism has become increasingly anti-technology, focussing on a low-tech agrarian vision modeled on the example of Amish culture that sees environmental sustainability as necessitating personal sacrifice in standard of living. This is very different from the post-industrial vision which sees the responsible and open use of technology in concert with rational design as the key to sustainability without sacrifice. It's a difference between walking backward into the future and walking forward.

This used to be an ideal shared by the originally pragmatic ecology movement, the post-industrial movement being largely absorbed into it as a result. But it was lost when contemporary environmentalism adopted the same intellectually fraudulent dystopian dogma of Thomas Malthus its own enemies themselves have long prescribed to and devolved into a Jihad over which flavor of apocalypse we should be thrown into; the one that looks like Bladerunner or the one that looks like the Irish Potato Famine. But, in reality, our civilization is heading in neither of those directions. It is evolving toward a post-industrial future, even if most people are utterly ignorant to that fact or even what the term 'post-industrial' means. So it's occurred to me that maybe it's time to revive and renew that pragmatic post-industrial meme to make this an easier and less painful transition. Perhaps it's time someone focused an intentional community sharply on a post-industrial vision and the goal of cultivating that vision and its technology widely.

What am I talking about here when I speak of a post-industrial vision? What does 'post-industrial' mean?

The term was first coined by a loose band of intellectuals in the post-war era who became disturbed by what they perceived as the inherent unsustainability of the civilization, consumer culture, and system of economics western corporations were systematically imposing on the world. They anticipated an imminent collapse of the current systems of industrialization and global economics for two reasons; first, they were environmentally unsustainable and therefore doomed. Our contemporary economics system is a zero-sum game that can only exist if it keeps growing, seeking out new sources of cheap resources to exploit and new markets to sell stuff to. But one of the obvious lessons of WWII and the post-war period was that we were soon to run out of any 'new' territory to exploit. Capitalism was effectively taking over the whole globe -even Communist portions of it indirectly. The conventional model of corporate industrialization is too primitive to function in a closed-cycle resource ecology. It squanders too much energy and resources across unnecessarily long and redundant transportation lines, doesn't track or recover post-use resources, doesn't know how to recycle or design for recycling, doesn't take responsibility for post-use pollution, doesn't understand that pollution equals inefficiency and that any stuff a process has to throw away is earnings squandered. So in a system of zero-sum economics industrialization as we know it is doomed to fail at some point, and that point was looking very imminent.

The other reason was that they believed that society was coming close to its limit of tolerance for the social, cultural, and psychological damage the consumer and corporate culture were generating and that social and political upheaval would soon result. Corporate industrialization had greatly improved the standard of living for people in the western world but, in the process, had disrupted traditional patterns of society all over the world and systematically subjected vast populations to economic exploitation. As economics starts to fail a process of class triage sets in. The middle-classes can't maintain their standard of living anymore. They start falling off the speeding-up treadmill in increasing numbers. The lower classes can't maintain even the crude basics of survival, swelling the ranks of an increasingly desperate underclass. At some point, these intellectuals reasoned, the larger portion of global society would decide they'd had enough. The result, a wave of civil unrest accelerating the already inevitable collapse of global economics and taking governments with it.

Looking at the history between 1950 and 1980 it is easy to see why these people would anticipate such things. We were very plainly dancing on the brink in that period and all sorts of people were predicting any number of different apocalypses then. But there was a way to avoid these impending disasters. You could cultivate new alternative industrial technologies, new social structures, and new community architectures which could effectively function in a closed-cycle renewable energy driven ecology of resource utilization much like the ecological systems of nature. You could quietly, smoothly, subtly, obsolesce the old system before it ran itself off the cliff and spare the environment and society a lot of the damage and suffering it might otherwise face -maybe even save civilization and the environment both from complete destruction. Thus was born the notion of cultivating a post-industrial culture; a culture with the sustainable technology to maintain a high standard of living and high quality of life in the absence of large scale centralized industry and the dead-end economic system that supports that. A culture based on rational materials and energy use and personal industry; means of fabrication at the individual scale using free public domain technology allowing a person to make -and recycle- for himself and his immediate neighbors things he might otherwise have to buy with cash from corporate industry. A means to maintain his standard of living directly by his own personal labor -and with the least amount of that labor, material, and energy as possible. The keys to freedom lay in control and ownership of the means of production.

Now, this is an idea rather different from anti-technology 'back to nature' notions based on the presumption that sustainability is about self-sacrifice and subsistence farming. The post-industrial culture knows it can't go backwards because the world population is too great. You could reduce all civilization to a pre-industrial state and it would still result in mass death and reduction of the global environment to a desert. So it seeks to progress civilization to sustainability rather than regressing it. Much sustainability gains are possible simply by changing the way we make and use things, by simplifying our lives, and by being more rational about what we really need and what really constitutes quality of life. Many of these changes are already happening of their own accord as a consequence of information technology and evolving industrial technologies.

Sounds great but why do we hear very little of this movement today? Partly because, as noted previously, it was largely absorbed into the early ecology movement which originally shared -and in fact appropriated- much of its ideals. There was little distinction between the two until contemporary environmentalists became disciples of Malthus.

Also, the disasters predicted never quite manifested sufficiently to be taken seriously. The social upheavals and energy crisis of the 60s and 70s didn't slap westerners in the head hard enough to get them to fully wake up. The inventions of intercontinental container shipping, financial telecommunications networks, and information technology coupled to an Asian industrial boom, the fall of Communism, the drug-addict-like compulsive consumerism of Americans, increasing intervention of governments to prop-up economics when it starts to fail, and the systematic cultivation of a culture of denial by right-wing political factions and the corporate interests allied to them have helped to give the old dinosaur system a temporary reprieve. There was always another convenient little war, political distraction, or shiny new consumer fetish to keep people from paying attention to what was happening around them.

At the time the at-hand technology was also rather inadequate to its proposed task even if it could effectively point in the right direction. Industrial autonomy still required fairly large facilities. Most theorists projected post-industrial communities needing very large populations to achieve effective self-sufficiency -and that with radical lifestyle changes. This is partly what inspired ideas like Paulo Soleri's Arcologies -a very post-industrial concept. It has long been difficult to establish community projects that start out at such a large scale and involve radical changes in the 'normal' lifestyle -at least without the gravitas of a religious movement. Even some of the oldest contemporary eco-villages are no where near that population level.

In addition, by the 1980s the creeping fundementalism in the environmentalist movement had begun to drive away a lot of intellectuals, replacing them with New Age mystics who only served to taint the credibility of the movement in general. That's why environmentalism suffered such a great decline in popular attention over the two previous decades. People gave up, sold out, or found what seemed like more fertile ground in the dazzling new technologies of the Information Age.

But the threats have not gone away, as witnessed by the steady increase of apocalyptic predictions by a steadily growing number of economists. And we are beginning to see the waves of famine, terrorism, war, dismantling of social services, whittling away of personal freedom, and radical global financial restructuring that hint at the vested interests' circling of the wagons in anticipation of the end of the game. They apparently do have some inkling of what is coming and are struggling to keep the dinosaur on life support as they squeeze the last bit of profit out of it before it finally gives up the ghost. It's a fool's errand, though. In a few decades they will only find themselves sitting on mountains of Confederate dollars.

Today the technology tools we need for an effective post-industrial culture are close at hand. We are already beginning to see a transformation of industry away from distant large scale centralized production as a result of the inherent technology trend toward systems of decreasing scale and increasing flexibility. Indeed, the large centralized factory is already obsolete. Today more goods are produced by multi-purpose job-shop facilities than by large centralized factories. Most contemporary industrial production is now a process of fan-in and fan-out across global networks of small fabrication and distribution sites with products being finished progressively closer to the point of sale. And this past two decades has seen an explosion in home-based cottage industry doing things that once were impossible without large factories. Already at least one new auto maker is experimenting with on-demand manufacture of cars within the auto dealership itself from modular components. In a few years that could be the way most products are made. Nanotech advocates now routinely predict a civilization virtually identical to that advocated by the post-industrial visionaries of 60s. Whether we realize it or not, our civilization is transforming into a post-industrial one. The challenge at hand is to shepherd that transition for maximum positive effect and minimum human suffering.

So, what would a post-industrial intentional community be like? Ostensibly little different from the typical eco-village except that it is more technology and craft oriented, more focused on making things. And not just any technology but open-source technology that enables people to make an expanding diversity of things themselves from materials obtained or recycled locally. The architecture may seem similar with its focus on renewable energy and sustainable materials. And there might also be that same old subsistence farm -or something equivalent based on hydroponics. But there would also be machine shops, labs, offices, and studios, some integrated into homes and others in shared facilities akin to a light industry business incubator. And the structure of the community is more compact and unified. A single integrated community-structure rather than a scattered mass of homesteads in order that energy, resource, and labor efficiency is optimized. Altogether, it may be similar to the 'Bolo' communities described by author P.M.

I think the architecture of such a community must meet a couple of key criteria beyond that of typical 'green' architecture. The physical structure of the community must not be 'hard wired' because it is likely to change in population, size and organization as it evolves. I don't believe in static community design. That's an oxymoron. The notion that any structure will have one use throughout its lifetime is anachronistic in the 21st Century. A community and its structures must be allowed to freely evolve in response to its occupants individual interactions. The failure to support this is one of the roots of the pathological dysfunction of contemporary urban habitats. Thus this community should employ structures easy to adapt, renovate, or even move whole and that would favor systems of modular construction or use of extremely low cost and simple materials. Initial construction would be challenging because of limited capitol, limited resident skill, nacent industrial capability, and perhaps limited time. This would favor the adaptive reuse of industrial cast-offs like ISO shipping containers or the use of kit housing products but it's important that such things be chosen based on their potential for reverse-engineering and/or recycling/reuse. Something like modular factory-built homes or kit homes using nailed construction are bad choices as these are not easily duplicated by post-industrial means or easily recycled or adapted without material waste. However, kit homes based on modular component post & beam construction, space frames, modular truss systems, and so on are freely adaptable and can serve as valuable textbooks for their own construction and design method, being easily reverse-engineered so their components can be owner-duplicated endlessly and possibly improved upon.

Altogether we get a picture of a kind of freely morphing community structure made of modular interchangeable components. A simple and loosely defined ring form seems appropriate, defining a strict boundary between the natural and human environments, between the personal, community, and external boundaries, following the examples of both primitive human settlements and the futurist arcologies.

While at-hand technology is much more capable than it was 20-30 years ago, it still isn't all quite there to achieve industrial autonomy right away. The base of knowledge isn't in place. Technique has to be worked out. This of course, is the reason for this community's existence -to do this work. Just as an artifact needs to be specifically designed and engineered for factory fabrication, so too must it be designed and engineered for a post-industrial mode of fabrication. And, in the context of the post-industrial culture and its efficiency-oriented community structures, the need for a lot of consumer goods can simply be factored out by smart design. If one has a computer one technically shouldn't need a diversity of other home electronics as the one device -if properly designed- can handle all media and communications. Similarly, the need for factory-made toilet paper can be reduced by the use of bidets. The need for replacement light bulbs eliminated by the use of fiber optic lighting. The need for disposable storage bags, wraps, and boxes eliminated by reusable containers. So this community would be starting from scratch, seeking to cultivate this knowledge and skill over time, functioning rather like a live-in research and engineering lab that develops this new technology, demonstrates its use, and shares it with the world.

Since it can't immediately realize industrial autonomy the initial residents of such a community need to generate cash to buy the things they haven't yet figured out how to make or do without -tools being key among them. Most eco-communities have this same problem and solve it by either the acceptance of the sacrifice in standard of living for a 'higher cause' or having their members simply treat the community as a residence while they work elsewhere in the region. A post-industrial community, however, would encourage cottage industry among its residents instead because it makes better use of the same tools it seeks autonomy with. Everything it can make for itself is potentially something it can also make to sell to its regional neighbors. Self-publishing books and other media on the technology a community develops is also a good way to generate modest cash income while disseminating its knowledge. Many eco-community residents have built writing careers on that. Even once a post-industrial civilization ultimately emerges many communities may specialize in the creation of exclusive types of goods relating to regional resource spectrums and the individual cultures evolved within the community or region; artistic creations, cultural artifacts, regional food specialties.

Altogether the creation of such a community seems a pretty feasible, worthwhile, even necessary thing. The only problem is that, as well as I may be able to imagine it, I personally would probably never be able to live in such a community. In the long term this post-industrial culture will produce a habitat that's largely free of the toxic chemicals which make life for an MCS patient such an ordeal. But initially it would be impractical to expect a group of people coming out of the chemical-addicted contemporary culture to accept the rigors of the non-toxic lifestyle for the sake of any one person. So it looks like this will be just a fantasy for me. Still, I hope there are others who eventually see the sense to such a concept. There is clearly a post-industrial sensibility emerging today even if people don't yet have a name for it, be it inspired by the post-industrial designers of the past now being rediscovered by the fans of New Modernism, the Bolo-like future societies described by today's 'diamond age' SF writers, the post-industrial visions described by the nanotechnology engineers, or the simple quests for practical self-sufficiency of communities like Gaviotas Columbia.

I've also been considering starting a web site devoted to this idea, called The Office of Post-Industrial Technology. This would be a journal cataloging the emerging technologies and tools with a post-industrial application, tracking the current evolution to this new culture. I had wanted to use this blog account for this but the software will currently not allow for sufficient separation of different subject sites. It will have to wait until these features are added or I can afford another account somewhere. 

11:29:09 PM  permalink 

daily link  Thursday, April 22, 2004


In response to a post on the Bamboo Village research center in Hawaii, I heard from a representative of the Bamboo Living company, also in Hawaii. This company offers a large collection of prefabricated kit homes made with natural bamboo. The designs are much more sophisticated than most other bamboo homes I've seen in the past, using a concealed plate joint system and entirely bolted and pegged connections. And the look of the structures is surprisingly elegant -far from the cliches of 'Tiki Hut' theme architecture. Made in Vietnam from a specific construction grade bamboo that is treated with non-toxic borates, assembled into modular panels and frames, test assembled, and shipped to Hawaii for final assembly, these homes seem to share with the Bali-T a limit to a warm tropical climate location. Their bamboo composition makes them highly sustainable due to the very rapid growth rate; this construction grade bamboo growing to harvest size in a mere seven years compared to the many decades for conventional lumber species. My only complaints with these kits is their somewhat high prices -though they are consistent with most American made kit home products- and the use of what seems to be conventional plywood sheathing for roofing and sub-flooring. I've asked if this is perhaps actually a kind of bamboo plywood but have not heard back. Bamboo flooring is, of course, widely used and sometimes chosen for non-toxic housing. In theory, it should be just as suitable for plywood/chip-board alternatives, though so far I've heard of none. 
10:34:55 PM  permalink 

daily link  Thursday, March 25, 2004

Hawaii and 'Light' Concrete 

I've been corresponding recently with members of a mailing list for a planned eco-village project in Hawaii. I'm hoping my assistance with their project may earn some help in gathering information or construction volunteers for my own needs. Hawaii may seem like an unlikely place for someone in my situation to consider. We tend to think of 'vacation havens' as being utterly impractical for affordable relocation. And it's true that the state has a fairly high cost of living, though in practice no worse than the Northeast states. But, in fact, Hawaii does present one of the cheaper options for non-toxic relocation by virtue of the fact that there are still some inland places where land goes for around $3000 an acre, the trade winds and low pollution -at least on the windward sides of the islands- reduce the amount of land one may need as a buffer against neighbors pollution, and the climate allows for the use of one of the few low cost off-the-shelf non-toxic kit home products available; the Bali-T from Tony's T-Houses in Bali. (designed for the Bali environment, the lack of insulation makes these homes unsuitable in other climates without some kind of separate environment enclosure) So Hawaii's a realistic contender. Furthermore, this kit housing product is pretty-much a turnkey form of eco-village architecture that is aesthetically ideal for the location. Maybe something good will develop.

I've also learned recently of a very interesting new building product called LiTraCon. It's a light transmitting concrete using a dense matrix of integral optical fibers. This is an interesting material that combines the translucence of fabric screens with the massiveness and strength of concrete. It currently appears limited to prefabricated blocks and cost is unknown.

This offers some validation for an idea I suggested long ago to approximate the old and technically impractical Science Fiction cliche of transparent domed habitats on other planets. The need for heavy radiation and meteor shielding of such structures makes using transparent materials unlikely. Ideas have been proposed for the use of water-filled multi-membrane domes but the technology for that is complex. So I suggested that one could make a dome of some regolith based cement that was virtually transparent by integrating an array of fiber optic cables linked to collector and emitter panels on the dome surface. These would communicate light and, if image corrected, views to the outside as if the dome were transparent while allowing the structure to be as thick as necessary to provide necessary shielding and structural integrity. The technique could even be combined with the SuperAdobe style regolith filled earth-bag techniques studied by NASA. Obviously, this approach is not cost-effective for applications other than tourism with the use of simpler heliostats linked to fiber optic cable lighting systems being much more practical for simple use of natural light. (and for compensating for differing light intensities for farming applications) But with tourism a growing area for space development it's a compelling idea. And it's a kind of structure that could be readily simulated with projection screen domes. 

8:24:13 PM  permalink 

daily link  Thursday, March 11, 2004

News Items 

A friend pointed out this interesting article from New Scientist on a robotic extruder that can 'print' houses like an ink jet printer or rapid prototyping machine using concrete or a cob-like adobe mixture. This page at the University of Southern California noted on Slashdot offers detailed images and some animations.

The concept is similar to things I had explored myself when studying robotic means to amplify my own limited 'sweat equity' for housing. But I had to abandon the notion when the robots proved too large and expensive for me to build by myself. Nice to know I was at least on the right track. Though one can expect some avant garde designers to toy with it, it seems likely that this new robot will prove more successful for industrial and commercial construction than mainstream housing because residential contractors and developers are still prejudiced against concrete and utterly ignorant of adobe. It may also offer possibilities for use in space habitat construction in environments where there is some water available for construction use.

This other robot article should also be of some interest. This robot should look familiar to readers of my MUOL space station proposal of some time ago, featured in this article in the Distant Star journal. The Modular Unmanned Orbital Laboratory was a proposal for a low cost on-orbit tele-operated facility intended to do the job of orbital industrial engineering research that should have been the primary job of the ISS. This new robot uses exactly the same scheme of design and mobility proposed for the MUOL service robots; switching a simple robot arm with a universal end-effector interface on both ends from one modular moveable anchor pad to another and using modular pallets of interchangeable tools. Nice to see the idea validated but it's also another frustrating reminder of what I could be doing if I wasn't sick all the time...

Also, I recently noticed some new updates on the N55 web site mentioned elsewhere on this site including a new section on the N55 space frame pontoon boat, a 'barmobile', new photos for the combination space frame house and floating platform, and a collection of music soundtracks composed for the various N55 manuals. I'm constantly amazed by all the clever post-industrial inventions coming from these European design groups. There should be more Americans involved in such work but for the moment the only American designer doing such things today seems to be Andrea Zittel. 

5:04:27 PM  permalink 

daily link  Saturday, February 28, 2004

New Technology 

I've recently learned of an interesting new variation on the Monolithic Dome technique being offered by a company called Domeshells Technology in Australia. The Monolithic Dome technique is based on the use of a pneumatic form which is inflated atop a simple slab foundation. Polyfoam is sprayed on the interior of the form and then a reinforcement mesh is applied to which a coating of shotcrete is applied to make a rigid structure. The pneumatic form remains in place as a proective covering for the insulation. This is a popular building method for dome homes but it has its limitations. The technique has never realized a significant savings over conventional construction, in part because the most expensive part of a 'kit' -the pneumatic form- cannot be reused. And the exterior plastic skin of this form is short-lived and must be repeatedly treated with paints in order to maintain its integrity.

In this new Domeshell technique a pneumatic form is inflated on a slab as with the Monolithic method but polyfoam is sprayed on the exterior in a layer thick enough to form a free-standing shell. The form is then removed for reuse. The foam shell is then simply covered in layers of fiberglass reinforced concrete on both sides and finished in plaster, stucco, or paint. No reinforcement mesh is needed because of the fiberglass reinforcement mixed into the concrete. This seems a much easier construction process. The Domeshell designs also offer some further advantages. With a high near-vertical riser, the domes are easier to fit conventional furnishings into. They also have portals for windows and doors pre-formed and the shells are easily clustered together at these points to make homes of any size. Clustering is a much more practical approach to the use of domed structures than the more common partitioning because one can dedicate individual rooms to single relatively small and easy to make units. This has been difficult to do with the Monolithic domes because they need special add-ons and form customization to accommodate clustering.

An interesting aspect of this new dome method is the way the fiberglass reinforced concrete eliminates the use of metal mesh reinforcement and is applied directly to the polyfoam. Building in foam insulation has always been tricky with ferro-cement structures because of the need to use mesh to support and define the shape of any individual concrete shell structure. Two such shells are needed to allow injection of polyfoam or other forms of insulation material. But here we see an approach that basically starts with the insulation defining the structural shape and then being made durable by the application of concrete without mesh to support it.

This offers a lot of potential design freedom. One is essentially free to design the exterior and interior shapes of structures independent of one another, except where they meet at portals for doors and windows, as long as whatever interior shapes collectively fit within the volume of the exterior shape. One would create rough shapes in polyfoam, pumice-crete, or foamed concrete and hand shape them with cutting/grinding tools into the finished form before applying the final concrete shell layers. High load bearing structures will still require metal reinforcement but this approach should be suitable for many structures within one or two storeys and would be well suited to designs employing mimicry of natural geological or botanical shapes. 

8:30:07 PM  permalink 

daily link  Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Winter Blues 

So, I'm lying in bed, half asleep, and I'm thinking to myself, I wish I could have a Real Man's Day some day. A day that sounds like the prelude to The Barber of Seville -but not performed by some whimpy Andre Rieu sort of orchestra. No. This is an ass-kicking German orchestra, humming with Aryan determination like the engine of a Mercedes Benz. An orchestra where the horn section is composed mostly of guys named Otto -and they've got places to GO, dammit! And it's either PAST you, or THROUGH you! Now THAT would be a day!

And then I painfully roll over, my body feeling like one of those action figures whose internal tension string has somehow snapped leaving the limbs all limp, and open blurry puffy eyes to see the dull red glow of a clock in a dimly lit room. And I realize this is not that day. This is another typical Winter day. A day that sounds like any Bjork tune chosen at random.

As you may have guessed, I don't tolerate Winters too well, hence the lack of updates to this sight of late. My work pace suffers greatly in the cold months, thus there has not been much to report of late. And there has been no feedback as yet to the Final Project section.

Recently, I did some more research into the concept of adapting ISO shipping containers for non-toxic housing use. Many readers of this site have shown great interest in this and offered helpful suggestions. But the concept remains frustrating. While the whole rest of the globe seems to be able to use these with no particular difficulty, finding places that can do these adaptations at any reasonable price here in the US seems to be impossible. And volunteer help for this seems rarer still.

I explored a new container home design that seemed to me to be very economical. One of the more involved -and therefor expensive- tasks in the conversion of a container is the cutting and framing of discrete window and door openings, especially in the corrugated steel plate of standard dry shipping containers. Some European architects working in container housing concepts have found a solution to this problem by employing designs which limit all functional openings to just the ends where the container doors normally are. That way there is no special welding work required. One simply uses windows and sliding panel doors the full area of the container end set into the primary frame of the container. Framing these becomes a simple task of bolting in place standard window and door framing profiles. And one can off-set them to allow the original container doors to be retained and closed for easier transport, as security doors, or as shades. Using this approach I arrived at a simple home design where six or more twenty foot long containers are joined side-by-side, their intervening wall plates removed to allow for larger clear-span rooms in pairs and triplets, and both ends open and framed for full area window panels in acrylic or dual-panel sliding doors. A few of the intervening container walls would be retained to make separate rooms, with four foot wide sections cut out on one end as doorways. The small gap left between the wall plates of the linked containers at these points would be exploited to host tall thin panel pocket doors. Five containers side-by-side approximate the length of a forty foot long container thus I imagined the use of one or two of these, stripped down to just roof and floor, connected to the face of the twenty foot series to serve as simple porches or decks. With six twenty foot containers one would have a simple home of 960 square feet divided into two double-wide rooms for living room and bedroom and two single-wide rooms at either end for kitchenette, utility, and bathroom.

Thinking I had figured out some uniquely economical approach, I contact some container modifying companies in the areas I wanted to move and discovered that this apparently could not be done, even in the smaller configuration, for less than $100,000! Trying to figure out why something so simple should be so expensive, I contacted the well known container mod architects Jones Partners Group in California who seemed to be of the opinion that this was actually pretty cheap and less than the average cost for housing in the US! $100 a square foot is cheap? Am I living on a different planet from everyone else? You can get a house hand-fabricated from tropical hardwood in Bali and shipped to the US and that only costs $35-$40 a square foot delivered and assembled! It just doesn't seem to make much sense to me when container homes are commonly considered poverty-level housing in most of the rest of the world. Once again, another foray into the container housing concept ends in frustration.

But all is not lost for this idea. This week I stumbled onto a company called Global Portable Buildings Inc. in California which is now offering a product they call the ChuckHouse. This product is an adapted Hi-Cube shipping container offered at a starting cost of purportedly $12,000 -finished, wired, and including a PV power system installed. Sure, this is still in the area of $75 per square foot but this is the finished cost. And, mind you, that's with a BRAND NEW container. But what really makes this product amazing is the company's claim that the ChuckHouse is finished entirely with non-toxic materials throughout. They seem to even have gone to the extent of using gel-cell batteries for the PV system -which, of course, precludes the outgassing associated with cheaper deep-cycle batteries. This is the first time I've heard ANY portable/prefab building maker ever show the slightest concern for that. It has never been a marketing point for these people before.

Whether this product is all it's cracked up to be remains to be seen. The interior photos show that they are finished with a veneer wall panel that could be just as easily be conventional toxic materials as not. There's no obvious indicator. So I'm waiting to see if I can get the manufactures to disclose a complete listing of all their materials. Also, they do not seem to offer these in a configuration that can be linked together into larger buildings, and even a forty foot container is pretty cramped accommodations for a permanent home. If this bears out, this may be the ready-made housing solution many EIs have been looking for. Right now there are EIs stuck in far cruder dwellings that cost as much as $40,000.

I've also had more interest lately in the Bali-T house from Tony's T-Houses -mentioned in my Gallery articles. I've learned that the Indonesian ironwood used for these homes is apparently much more tolerable of different climates than I had thought before. So, contrary to my earlier opinion, these may be usable in a much wider range of locations than just Hawaii and Florida. But the design of the homes does still impose limits. There is still apparently no practical way to insulate these structures except in terms of roof insulation and the use of things like quilted wall and ceiling hangings. And adding things like radiant floor heating seems impractical. So they will still be limited in use to places that see no really cold temperatures anytime of the year -except where they are placed within a second outer structure that can offer some additional insulation potential.

I have, in fact, been considering such an idea. Unlike the traditional Japanese homes from which they were derived, the Bali-T lacks a roofed outer-walkway structure. Every night, and in colder months, the residents of traditional Japanese homes installed a series of heavy wood panels along this outer walkway which provided security as well as an additional barrier against wind and cool temperatures. A Bali-T could achieve something similar by extending the edge of the roof line a bit and installing large triple-wall polycarbonate greenhouse glazing panels between the ground and the roof edge. This would create a trombe-wall type of solar gain effect on southerly facing sides of the structure and would be a clever way to integrate a greenhouse into the home. But solar gain by this may be far too great in desert climates and, of course, these corrugated glazing panels do not offer the clear view of windows. If one can moderate this solar gain better -perhaps by using translucent PV panel walls instead of just the polycarbonate- it might be a strong possibility for widening the range of potential locations. But, while their square foot cost is fairly low, the unit cost for these Bali-Ts is still rather high and since they cannot be stockpiled in parts incrementally this strategy is probably still out of my sole reach. 

10:40:33 PM  permalink 

daily link  Monday, December 22, 2003

Harebrained Schemes  

There's an idea for an experiment that has been nagging at the back of my mind for a few years. One could call it an experiment in networked 'dysconstruction', to borrow a term from the book Bolo'Bolo.

Some years ago I wrote an article for the LUF organization on daily life on the Aquarius marine colony proposed by Marshal Savage in the book The Millennial Project. A key feature of the colony infrastructure was the use of a Personal Package Transport system, integrated with the colony Personal Rapid Transit system using automated shuttle vehicles. A chronic problem for Aquarius, it has often been suggested, is the lack of manpower as the population of the colony, while large, would not have a vast lower class population on whose backs the 'less important' or 'undesirable' forms of work common on land could be dumped. Those activities would thus tend to compel the use of automation or the re-structuring of daily life in such a way as to preclude them in the first place. This, of course, is a key rationale for a PPT system. The PPT obsolesces conventional forms of product marketing, elaborate packaging, and distribution, eliminating much material waste and the need for masses of poorly paid people doing mind-numbing retail work. People would shop on-line and the items they purchased would be delivered automatically to their home within a few minutes.

To facilitate this, I suggested that Aquarius' domestic manufacturers would employ the use of a set of standardized reusable containers whose form factor was designed for the use of the PPT system. Likewise, purchasing agents buying imported goods from elsewhere in the world would compel some of their suppliers to use -at least for bulk goods- this same packaging, rather than the usual wasteful types of packaging. This would also be important as a way to eliminate the vast amount of trash associated with these more primitive forms of packaging which, of course, has an energy cost to the colony to dispose of. I imagined the standardized packaging of goods on Aquarius to be based on the use of a set of nesting containers working up to the maximum PPT unit shipping container size -something about one meter cubed- or the standard ISO marine containers. The containers would be made of highly durable material like metal, high density polyethylene, ceramic and glass -the latter two being the easiest for Aquarius to make. (since it could 'farm' lithophoric algae to provide the materials for them) They would be both recyclable -when they wore out- and directly reusable -which is more efficient that recycling. Instead of labels they would feature some kind of insert so that small removable labels for their contents would be simply attached or inserted.

I also imagined that this could be used to facilitate the use of automated food processors -one of which was supposedly in development when I wrote that. The robotic food processors would use food ingredients in consoles of modular containers to cook meals. Imagine a bread-maker taken to its logical conclusion. Linked up to the PPT, this would allow one's kitchen to automatically stock up on foods as they ran out. One could have food 'subscriptions' where commonly used food ingredients would be supplied continuously to the food processor at a flat monthly or yearly fee -or maybe even free according to the supply of what was produced on Aquarius itself.

Ever since I wrote about that I've been thinking about the power of the idea of standardized reusable containers for packaging everything without the horrendous waste of conventional packaging. Being an MCS sufferer, I tend to buy most of what I need by mail order. I've even planned for the eventuality of buying all my food supplies by mail-order, a concession to the remote location I must soon move to for sake of a clean environment. I don't have a lot of space and I live in a town where the recycling program is deliberately engineered to be as inconvenient as possible. So when I get stuff by mail order I tend to be very annoyed with the unnecessary packaging that comes with it. When you don't do a whole lot of store shopping, you start to really understand how stupid and inconvenient packaging is. So I wondered if there was some simple way one could educate the world at large about the virtue of this idea of standardized reusable packaging and from this thought came the idea for this experiment.

Imagine starting a barter network based on the use of a single kind of standardized durable container. For the sake of argument, let's say this is a thick walled glass container with a rectangular form factor but with rounded corners. It has a wide roughly rectangular lid but in a couple different types, one kind for simple bulk goods and one with a pouring spout for liquids. Maybe this lid attaches in the manner of a mason jar lid with a wire clamp lock. On one side of the container there's a kind of formed-in picture-frame into which a card can be inserted as a label. Or if that's too difficult to make, maybe a pair of grooves which hold a label on with elastic or wire. Or maybe we can make removable adhesive-less labels out of vinyl that sticks to the smooth glass surface, like those window decals for cars, and can be put through a computer printer. The container is fashioned to be very durable, designed with the idea that it can be reused hundreds or thousands of times and shipped in the mail or by UPS as-is without additional packaging around it. Different makers of the containers might include their own personal fabricator's logo for vanity's sake stamped/molded into the glass -much as with some makers of early reusable bottles or the makers of glass floats.

This barter network has a simple rule; you can trade anything _you_make_or_salvage_yourself_ and can package in this standard container, or the empty container itself can be a trade item. You have to work out values on a trade-by-trade basis but the container is the standard packaging unit -though one might use only a partially filled container or multiple containers. Now, this doesn't necessarily have to be a 'bulk material' item -things like dry or liquid foodstuffs. It's anything you can fit inside these containers, perhaps with some other filler as protection. So it could be as simple as some quantity of home-grown dried herbs or something as sophisticated as a finished circuit board, a toy, or a piece of jewelry. Note the mention of items 'salvaged'. You don't want people going to the store and buying stuff to put in the container. But if it's left-overs of something one has purchased that's OK. Lets say someone got a big box of nails and had some amount of them left over. Likewise, if one salvaged something useful from what was originally a commercial product or industrial waste -wire fished out of a computer company dumpster, nuts and bolts from a junk yard, aluminum shavings, etc. Even the broken remains of these containers could be put into other containers for them to be returned to their manufacturer.

The initiator of this network would, logically, be the first people to start making these containers, which would be their primary item of trade. For everyone else, they have to think about what things they can make/find and put into them. People could be as serious or as playful about this as they wish. Maybe some people would seriously try to get as much as their daily needs as possible in trade this way. Others might only be looking at this as a kind of performance art and wouldn't be very concerned about the 'value' of the things they trade. Maybe the only 'trade' going on is for communication, people just using these containers as a reusable shipping package to exchange mail. Maybe the container itself becomes a kind of ingredient of an item -like the proverbial model ship in a bottle or cake-in-a-jar. Or maybe it gets re-applied as part of some industry; used as a container for farming as with mushroom farming, sprout farming, or indoor crayfish farming. It doesn't matter. What matters is the adoption of this container as a standard packaging medium in a money-less network of exchange.

Now, there are some technical details to be worked out here, chiefly the pros and cons of various designs of container and materials for it. Is only one container adequate or is it necessary to have a few different types for different kinds of material? You absolutely don't want different containers for every kind of item. That defeats the purpose. Single-function containers are a dead-end. That's why we don't have reusable soda bottles anymore. They got brand-specific in design. So if multiple containers were used they should be limited to a very small assortment with large diversity of use. Initially, one would want to stick to just one container even if it limits some uses. The size should be large enough to hold a great variety of things in useful amounts but small enough that making, handling, and shipping them does not become unwieldy. I think something with a 3-5 liter capacity seems about right. Are there any off-the-shelf containers which could be repurposed to this project? I favor glass because it's fabrication is pretty low-tech, it's pretty tough, it is easy to clean and sterilize, is non-toxic (even polyethylene leaches), and thus suitable for food stuffs which are likely to be the most popular item to trade. But glass containers still take a fair amount of energy and skill to make and a rectangular form container is likely to need a molded glass technique requiring metal molds. Ceramic containers can be easier to fabricate but have the disadvantage of being opaque, may cost more, are more brittle, and are not recyclable unless one can employ more high-tech ceramic mixtures like ceramicrete. But then, the key idea here is reusability as a better alternative to recyclability. If a container has a life-span of a thousand exchanges, that's not bad even if it's not recyclable.

Altogether, I think this would be an interesting experiment. It might go nowhere or it might become a global fad. Even if it failed, the containers would be likely to become collectors items just because of the idea associated with them. Either way, it would get those participating thinking about the waste they generate as consumers and about their individual potential for industry. 

10:07:43 PM  permalink 

daily link  Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Book Review 

I recently had the opportunity to read a peculiar book which I've been trying to track down for some time. I had come to notice an interesting common feature among many of the recent so-called 'Diamond Age' science fiction novels. Many authors seem to be anticipating a very similar post-industrial future where the nations we know today have been obsolesced by numerous small communities bound by common aesthetic themes, cultures, lifestyles, and belief systems. In other words, it's as if groups of Star Trek fans, neo-pagans, medieval recreationists, hackers, homosexuals, goths, native American tribes, post-modern artists, environmentalists, hedonists, nihilists, and so on got together and formed little mini-states of their own centered on more-or-less self-sufficient communities expressing, through their architecture, their particular culture and interests. What would allow civilization to assume such a curious form? The nanotechnologies of the Diamond Age which, by virtue of their ability to provide near total self-sufficiency of the individual at no particular cost, eliminates economics as we know it and, subsequently, the systems of government and national boundaries which are based on it.

This notion stirred a memory of a book I had seen mentioned in Whole Earth Review many years ago. A book with the peculiar name Bolo'Bolo by an author known only as P.M. and whose illustrations features images of the world broken up into thousands of micro-states formed by collections of little self-sufficient communities dubbed 'bolos'. After some time I was finally able to find a source for the book and a web site dedicated to its ideas. After reading it, it seems to me that this may in fact be the origin of this idea so many science fiction authors are adopting.

Bolo'Bolo is, basically, about what life would be like if government and economics as we know them went obsolete. (note, that's 'went obsolete', not overthrown by revolution or destroyed by disaster) It's also a strong indictment of the collective system on which western industrial culture dominated civilization is based. Bolo'Bolo seems to collectivize a lot of the ideology of the post-industrialists of the 1960s and basically advocates the abandonment of economics and work as they exist today in favor of an easier but much more efficiently structured way of life which is centered on the 'bolo' a small community of about 500 individuals with common interests/culture who, more-or-less, provide for all their basic needs with a minimum of labor by virtue of careful use of technology and the simple close proximity of resources and facilities. Ideally, the bolo takes the form of a conjoined community structure akin to the famous Chinese Mansions of Yongdin Province. P.M. dubs these structures 'palaces' and they are meant to offer comfortable and casual shelter with as much efficiency of energy and material use as possible.

Now one might think this is merely another reinvention of the eco-village or commune as advocated by environmentalists. But Bolo'Bolo differs greatly from any environmental ideology in that is is not about sacrificing quality of life or standard of living in the name of some greater good. Nor is it about changing beliefs, culture, or lifestyles except where it pertains to the notions of economics and work. It's about organizing life for the maximum quality of life -the maximum freedom of personal time for the pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment. P.M. notes that prior to the invention of civilization human beings only needed to work for about 20% of their waking time in order to meet their survival needs. Here we are in the 21st century, with all this supposed labor-saving technology at hand, working as much as 80% of our waking time to maintain our standard of living with vast portions of the population subjected to misery and poverty. Why? P.M. suggests it's simple inefficiency, the inefficiency of our exploitative time-devouring system of economics and industry, something P.M. has characterized as the Global Work Machine.

In many ways Bolo'Bolo seems to echo the sentiments of another book; How To Live Without A Salary by Charles Long. Contrary to the 'get rich quick' intimations of its title, this book is a guidebook to a frugal but casual way of life that minimizes the individual dependence on salary income and goes into very specific detail on the mechanisms by which the contemporary consumer culture steals away our time in exchange for often useless and redundant junk. It's an invaluable book for any disabled or retired person needing to make the most of a fixed income, professional artists, writers, or entrepreneurs meeding to cope with highly variable income, or just anyone who has finally woken up and realized their personal time is more valuable than junk.

Is the civilization described in Bolo'Bolo really possible? Technically, yes, but from a sociological standpoint it could be very difficult to transition to -a fact P.M. does seem to acknowledge. This is where P.M. and the science fiction writers seem to diverge. P.M. sees the post-industrial evolution as being driven by deliberate social change -a global awakening of the population to the way they've hood-winked themselves with the 'arbeit macht frei' delusion. This seems to harken back to post-industrial theory of the 60s, where it was assumed that the corporate industrial way of doing things was doomed to collapse by virtue of its inherent unstainability and anti-social nature. But this seems to ignore the power of human rationalization and the tendency to perpetuate even self-destructive pathological behavior, a problem P.M. does acknowledge but offers limited solution to.

The Diamond Age authors seem to see this evolution as driven primarily by technology, or more specifically by the ability of post-industrial technology -nanotechnology in particular- to decentralize production to the point where every individual ultimately has the ability to make all he might need by himself at virtually no cost. Economics and business exist on the premise of facilitating access to goods and services beyond the means of the lone individual. Government exists on the premise of providing goods, services, and facilities which economics doesn't support for lack of profit motive or the need to protect the society from economic exploitation. (though in practice they tend to fail miserably at the latter...) But what happens when, by virtue of some self-replicating semi-intelligent tool capable of making most anything and cheap enough for everyone to own, most everyone can provide for all their own needs? Thus the technology becomes the force obsolescing economics and government as we know it -making them incrementally irrelevant as people's needs and lives simply diverge away from them- and providing the situation favoring the evolution of a bolo-like society.

I tend to see a more likely scenario as a combination of these two views. A social movement isn't powerful enough alone for this evolution because logic is weak in the face of rationalization and self-delusion. At present the technology for self-sufficiency in a bolo-like arrangement exists but still demands a degree of compromise in personal convenience for the western middle-class individual that will forever be used as an excuse to deny feasibility -even if one could manage make the middle-class acknowledge their responsibility for the misery the support of their standard of living inflicts upon the rest of the world. On the other hand, technology is rarely employed to its maximum potential without the general social recognition of that potential. This is plainly demonstrated by such things as hybrid auto technology which has, in fact, been feasible, practical, and frequently demonstrated for most of the 20th century but is only just now coming into mainstream use in the 21st. Perhaps this is the reason for the almost magic-like capabilities attributed to emerging nanotechnology. Could it be that the intellectual insiders of this new technology are deliberately exaggerating its potential in the hopes of insuring such high social expectations that the technology can truly reach its maximum, if more modest, potential?

I foresee an invisible revolution. A gradual emergence and adoption of post-industrial technology driven by an emerging culture and network of enthusiasts and entrepreneurs exploiting, through greater flexibility and ingenuity, the inherent flaws in the system to their own benefit and in the process out-evolving the Global Work Machine like quick proto-mammals scurrying under the feet of a slowly starving dinosaur. Many of these people may be unabashed capitalists but their culture will be, as P.M. puts, 'substructive'. In the end, it's all Confederate money when the technology and its network of users achieves a level of ubiquity where the exchange of materials and information become more practical than money and -as in the case of the Open Source software world- reputation and innovation become the predominate currency.

Altogether, Bolo'Bolo is a compelling vision and quite relevant to all those with an interest in post-industrial theory and technology as well as those with interests in planned community or eco-community development. The english translation of Bolo'Bolo can be ordered in the US from Autonomedia. A web site for Bolo'Bolo can be found at www.bolo-bolo.org. The web site offers some more recent articles on this topic, describes work a prototype bolo community project, and notes a number of books by P.M. which are as yet unavailable in English. The book How To Live Without A Salary is available at Amazon.com and can be seen here

3:21:17 PM  permalink 

daily link  Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Site Update 

Have added a Final Project page to the navigator links on the right. This page will be the front end for my final home project. At present it features a basic description of the choice of structure, a design page which will document the evolving design of the home, and a three phase itemized listing of all the elements the project calls for. I invite readers to offer their feedback on this project and would request that they explore the itemized listings to see if there is anything they would be willing to offer help with. 
10:10:01 PM  permalink 

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