In response to my recent post, The Design Imperative, Bob Rohatensky gave me some inspiration with an introduction to his open-source, renewable energy project www.shpegs.org. I’ve been toying for years now with various designs for a sustainable house. I have lofty goals—I want it to exemplify elegant simplicity, I want it to be based on vernacular technology & materials, I want it to be adaptable to many sites, many different sizes, needs, etc., I want it to be energy autonomous and incorporate low embodied-energy materials, and I want it be such a sexy design that all of that goes completely unnoticed.
What better way to pursue these goals than through the open-source design process?
For the time being at least, I’m calling this “MeFab,” to signify its use of vernacular technology and materials, and to place it in juxtaposition with the latest trend toward high-design, pre-fab housing (which tends to exemplify the anti-vernacular, proprietary, “high-tech to the rescue” approach to architecture).
My starting point design is for an 800 square foot, one bedroom, one bath residence that can seamlessly, and in phases, expand to a three bedroom + office, two bath residence of 1600 square feet. My conception is for a Southern Arizona environment such as
Figure 1: Overview. The basic design is of two, parallel rammed earth walls defining a rectangular residence. While my initial design calls for exposed, rammed earth walls, any high thermal mass wall would work: cob, adobe, brick, concrete, cord-wood masonry, etc. At the left end is the bedroom, with a semi-exposed closet bracketed by full-height closet on the right and a half-height dresser behind the bed platform on the left. The central bathroom incorporates a composting toilet. The bathroom and the kitchen share a single water-wall containing all plumbing, and facilitating an elegant process of taking water from the holding cistern and returning it via a graywater outlet (blue arrow) to the garden. The kitchen is bounded on the right by an island/bar eating area, and then opens into the main living area, which includes bookshelves and a high-efficiency wood burning fireplace I the top wall. The left and right ends of the building consist of large window-walls. The exact configuration is flexible, but I am envisioning something of like the Nana Wall (though this particular brand solution is, admittedly, not very vernacular).
Elevation & Climate Control System: The shed-roof maximizes the simplicity of the rainwater catchment system (into cistern marked “C”), as well as maximizing the roof space available for solar hot water, solar chimneys, and photovoltaics. I have struggled quite a bit over how to produce an elegantly simple climate control system for the house. This illustration reflects where my design is at the moment: a flexible solar/geothermal air system maintains a consistent, moderate temperature of the thermal mass walls and slab, keeping the house comfortable at all times with a minimal of reliance on the stove for supplementary heating. Tubes running under the earth (denoted “1”) cool or warm air to the average annual temperature, and then transfer that heat/cool to the thermal mass before being drawn out by a roof-mounted solar chimney. At some times of year, it may be advantageous in the early morning hours to draw outside air, which would be significantly cooler than the annual average from the earth tubes, through the system (this intake marked “2”), however, I am not sure that this added complexity is worth while in most climates. During more extreme cold, pre-heated air (from a roof-mounted solar air heating array, marked “3”) is drawn through the thermal mass walls.
Figure 2: This graphic shows the potential for this design to be expanded in phases as necessary to meet the needs of individual residents. My theory is that many people can afford to build an 800 square foot, 1 bed/1bath residence, but that if economic conditions permit, and especially if they have a family, they will eventually want something bigger. By designing in this expandability, I think it enhances the likelihood that people will build the smaller structure sooner (and hence be more prepared for an uncertain future) because they know that they can expand it later (as opposed to waiting until they have saved enough to build the entire 1600sf structure).COLLABORATE! If you'd like the PowerPoint file used to produce the above graphics (I didn’t use AutoCad, though that is the architectural standard, because I’d rather this be a vernacular effort, not one constrained to architects…), then type this into your browser URL field: http://www.jeffvail.net/MeFab.ppt (linking doesn't seem to work because I named the file with upper and lower case, sorry, so you need to type it that way). If this kind of thing interest you to any degree, please participate! Feel free to modify these graphics, or produce your own, and I’ll post them here for discussion. Or take them and do what you want with them anywhere else... If you’d prefer to simply post comments, critiques, or recommendations, go right ahead. If you have suggestions about improving this open-source design process, please let me know as well.
NOTE: This is by no means the first “open architecture project” (see, e.g. the Open Architecture Network), but it is the only one to my knowledge that is not carried away with non-vernacular, high-technology, happy-motoring-utopia architecture.