Documenting a personal quest for non-toxic housing.
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.
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.
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.
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.