Thursday, April 12, 2007

"MeFab" Open Architecture Project

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 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 Tucson, but I think that with minor adaptation this design will be broadly applicable to locations with temperate climate and moderate to high solar exposure. Here it is:

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: (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.


Anonymous said...

Hey 0--

Part of me wants to say, 'hey, cool!', but then the other part of me is cringing a little... (only a little)

I think you're getting ahead of yourself a little Jeff. Collaborating and sharing design concepts is an AWESOME idea... but you're kind of suggesting a one-size-fits-all (with customization) approach.

Stop that!

Local, vernacular, elegant. Each home needs to be settled into its own precise location and ecology. What contours do you find in the land? What is the (micro) climate? What living (and dead) structures currently surround the build site? How long can they be expected to remain? What materials are going to be integrated into the structure? How does the person who lives there, live?

And so on. and so forth. You know all this.... but then there's the excitement of thinking about it all, eh? :-)


Jeff Vail said...


I think you make good points. My response is two fold: first, you're absolutely right, and second, by focusing sufficiently on the "adaptable" aspect, I think your concerns are addressed.

Take garden design, for example: to suggest a single garden design for all would be folly. However, to suggest elements--and to participate in an open-source collaboration to improve those elements--can be invaluable. Look at the permaculture notion of the "key-hole garden" or the "herb spiral." Each are modules that are the result of collaborative design, and each fit well into the "many solutions" paradigm because they are not inclusive solutions. Similarly, I think that the simple and modular aspects of this house design really do the same thing. It comes in below the level of totality that would conflict with, for example, your concerns about land contours. And its weaknesses in the area of climate and materials are precisely because it is not intended to be a global solution--my contribution is tailored to Southern Arizona. What I'm hoping to get going is some sort of collaborative on how this design can be adapted. But your point is well taken--I should have called not just for adaptions and improvements to THIS design, but also recommendations of other designs, and I should have more explicitly focused on the modular and adaptive aspects! I guess, in light of your comments, I'm hoping to find a balance, leveraging the power of open-source collaboration without--as you pointed out--trying to suggest a global solution to architecture...

Jeff Vail said...

I should clarify my sun-direction graphics in figure 1: the arrow points to the direction of where the sun is (points South in the Northern Hemisphere), NOT simulating the sun's rays... sorry for the confusion, all in my zeal to make it apply to North and South hemisphere...

JCamasto said...

So far, this appears designed primarily for cooling, as I see no windows in the southern wall. If this is the case, you'll also be blocking a lot of natural daylighting...

If your going to use the roof for solar air heating, then you won't want to pile a bunch of PV panels on there... - put 'em on the ground (cheaper, easier). Maybe a passive (or active) hot water heater on the roof, though, gravity to "water wall"..,

How do you plan (ie: what direction) for expansion?


Joel said...

The first change I'd suggest would be to replace the fireplace with a clay, wood-fired stove in the corner between the kitchen and the main living area, with its exhaust pipe running through an earthen bench bilt into the living room wall, before reaching a chimney at the northeast corner of the house. An chimney-sweep clean-out could be included at the elbow between bench and the chimney.

Since you'll be digging a lot of volume for the walls (be they cob, rammed, or fieldstone), how about a basement?
I'd suggest filling most of this basement with the cistern you have planned, plus two more. (By the way, be sure to include a valve on the catchment system to shunt the first few gallons of rain into the graywater one wants to drink guano or fermented oak leaves. I suggest a chamber with a float valve, to make the switchover automatic...the chamber can be drained at leisure.)
The two extra tanks are well-insulated, and form a closed system; while water vapor passes in and out, they contain a fixed amount of salt between them:
*warm, weak brine
*cool, strong brine
This adds a lot of complication, but allows for hot water on cloudy days and a solar-powered refrigerator.
The warm tank takes in energy from solar collectors in, e.g., the roof, and may also contain heat exchangers of its own; alternately, the warm water can be pumped to heat exchangers where desired.
At night, when the condenser is easy to cool, a still takes this warm water and removes moisture and some heat; the resulting strong brine is cooled by geothermal exchange and/or roof panels at night, before being stored in the cool/strong tank.
Air can then be passed over the strong brine, which will absorb water and some heat in a dessicator/pre-cooler, before heading up to the roof on its way back to the weak/warm tank. The dessicated air can then be passed through a special climate-control section of the pantry, which has three tiers: the bottom is the cool, dry tier, through which the air passes first. The center is for cold foods, cooled by an evaporative refrigerator (think Zeer), which will work year-round thanks to the dessicated air. The top is a moist-cool section...'nuff said. As to exhaust from the top, a solar chimney of its own may be in order, but the gain in moisture from refrigeration may be enough to drive a current, given the relative molecular weights of H2O and N2. It could also be pumped back into the dessicator by a fan.
If the system has enough capacity, it could be used to run an absorptive air conditioner (swamp cooler + dessicator = AC), or even a freezer (using distilled water at very low pressure, which suggests a tall column of brine).
I know it isn't very vernacular, but at least I didn't suggest an ammonia-hydrogen system. All-in-all, I think these extra complications would be justified for locations with prolonged extremes of temperature, or a combination of high humidity and low precipitation (since the still provides reliable drinking water).

For insulation, I've heard that rice husks and sunflower pith are both pretty good. In making the cisterns themselves, water glass (sodium silicate, made by roasting lye with sand) might be useful. It waterproofs both concrete and traditional mortar (lime). It's also handy for sealing eggshells when there's no refrigeration, but that's another story.

Last, the Humanure Handbook left me convinced that the bucket method is more elegant than a toilet that composts in place.

Anonymous said...

This has already been done.

Go to Earthship Biotecture ( and

I've spent nights in an Earthship that had no (read zero, zilch, nada) active heating or cooling systems, yet maintained a 65-75F internal temperature in external temperatures ranging from -30 to over 100F.

The challenge isn't the design, it's getting people (architects, realtors, homebuyers, etc) to change their paradigms.

Jeff Vail said...

I've been following the "Earthship" thing for some time. I'm really not very impressed... the aesthetic is terrible, with those dark "bays," and the mini-gardens inside the slanted glass is kind of gimmicky. That said there are some good ideas here, but as Janene pointed out, no one solution... Earthships may perform fine from a temperature perspective (if you can set aside the aesthetic--take a look at the pictures one those sites, for example) in parts of CO and NM, but there are serious cooling issues with that design in the the Tucson area, for example. Take a look at the geographic distribution of existing earthships, and be wary of moving beyond that.

Jeff Vail said...

Just a few more notes on my earthship rant...

More problems with the design:
- One person, explored building an earthship, noted in an online discussion about problems with the slanted glass: "it completely overheats the house and freezes the house at night. You can install shades but they are expensive and kind of defeat the purpose." That's because the slanted glass acts as a radiative sky-facing cooler at night, often cooling the air inside faster than the thermal mass of the structure can compensate. If they have this kind of problems with overheating in places like Durango and Taos, it would be an oven in Tucson--and because they have those ugly, deep bays, there really is a ventilation issue.

The whole "company" and designer behind it seem a bit fishy to me. Here's a quote from one of their books: "it's not an earth ship if you change it." What's the deal with that? Oh, yeah, it's that they try to keep the whole thing proprietary and sell you the plans as a business.

Another comment:
"There are tons of earthships where I live and the people are miserable in the summer"

Other than cobbling together already well understood notions of earth sheltering and passive solar gain, I don't see one innovative thing about it, so I don't see how they justify selling the plans to a poor performing structure?

Now, as I said above, I think that some cool aesthetics can be achieved if you reject the "earthship orthodoxy" and modify as necessary for your locale. Take a look at this cool picture:

I also have environmental & safety worries about processing toilet blackwater in a greenhouse that is also your kitchen/livingroom/bedroom. Why not just use a composting toilet?

Also, they use old tires to form the walls, and there are concerns that the old tires off-gas into the house. Has any testing ever been done to confirm that this isn't a problem? I would want that before I use industrial waste to build my bedroom walls.

The simple fact is, there is a tendency to back oneself into a corner with thermal mass. 12" - 14" of rammed earth will generally provide a 12-hour thermal cycle. In the Tucson area, the average annual temperature is 68. Using passive solar chimneys to draw air through an earthtube--getting the air to about 68 degrees--and then exchanging that heat/cool with the rammed earth wall, you can keep your thermal mass at about 68 degrees all year long. That's elegant simplicity, IMO--it doesn't require digging your earthship into a hillside or building a huge earth-tire berm, and it gives you much greater flexibility when it comes to deisng--little things, like being able to have openings on more than one side of the building to allow for ventilation!

By all means, consider the best way to incorporate thermal mass and earth sheltering concepts into your particular needs and site. But hey, if you still really want to build an "earthship," go right ahead...

Travis said...

That roof doesn't seem to take into account the angle of direct sunlight from the southern exposure. I'm assuming that you want some passive solar gain during the winter but limit it in the summer. I more traditional peaked roof with properly calculated roof overhangs on the southern exposure will shade the windows in the summer (when the sun is at a higher angle) and allow for direct sun in the winter.

You may also consider using a super insulated exterior wall such as a larson truss system with cellulose or strawbale with earthplaster and then have the cob/adobe/rammed earth on the interior walls as your thermal mass which will absorb solar gain in the winter and all for a passive cooling in the summer by opening the windows at night and closing them during the day.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm soon to be Ryan's "sister-in-law". I've studied architecture and what you propose is what almost every architecture student dreams of designing.

Your basic design and concept is a great starting point from which many possibilities and alterations can be made. I've read through the other comments and they all have a point. First of all a comment on one of the comments... there is no such thing as natural daylight, daylight is natural. Windows, no matter where they are located will bring in some amount of light. North facing windows bring in soft indirect light, great for offices and studios. You don't want your cistern/water underneath your house unless you intend to make a boat. An external one can add some architectural interest to the exterior or can create some landscape feature out of it. A few issues come into play. Have you ever used a composting toilet? They can really smell even with proper ventilation. A Living Machine might be something to consider especially if you are considering using this modular style to create communities. (They are pretty cool, look it up online.) This waste water treatment usually calls for a greenhouse, but in milder climates this process can be achived without a greenhouse. This living machine has been used in Sonoma, CA. I think this might be a better option for use in communities as opposed to a composting toilet.

Anothe issue is its orientation on the site, but your design is simple enough that it can be easily adapted to make it work. I would deffinately suggest roof overhangs if building this the desert or any rainy climate. They can create outdoor spaces and shealter from outdoor elements.

A great book for looking into passive solar heating and cooling is Mechanical and Electrical Equipment for buildings. (watch out it's a thick book) It's a required textbook at the UofO for Architecture. The first 500 pages deal with thermal control and different passive systems for heating and ventilating. It was co-authored by a UO professor and you know us Oregonians, we're all hippies up here.

Jeff Vail said...

Another Drucker! Welcome! Good to have someone with expertise weigh in every now and then on my ramblings... I'll definitely check out the book, though if it has too much math it may scare me away (opposite Ryan in that way...)

Anonymous said...


All I can say is, go to Earthship Biotecture, take the tour, and stay in one or at the Dobson House Earthship B&B up the road.

You're right about the aesthetics and about the relative inflexibility of the design concept; however, that's because it was designed to (1) provide full passive climate control, (2) be constructed from the "natural" resources thrown off by society, and (3) be simple enough that anyone with little training could build one.

The picture that you reference is of the Nautilus, one of the earliest, and most beautiful earthships. It's construction was more challenging than the "packaged" earthship which lacks it's graceful lines.

I should also tactfully provide the following corrections to some of your facts regarding earthships:

1. The south-facing windows will not allow the summer sun to penetrate into the house because of their angle and the roof overhang.

2. The south-facing windows are usually isolated in a "solar hallway" which can be sealed off from the house at night.

3. All blackwater discharges OUTSIDE of the residence. The greywater from the kitchen sink and shower discharges into the house to water interior planters.

4. The tire off-gassing issue has been studied and found to be a non-issue. The walls are orders of magnitude stronger and safer than a stick-built home.

5. Earthships have been built all over the world, and work well when sized (ratio of windows to thermal mass) are taken into account. Biotecture built one in Hawaii last year and are headed to France this year.

The one area where Earthships do have problems, IMHO, is handling humidity; however, that's a problem common to any residence that does not employ active dehumidification.

Hope that helps. I can honestly say that of all the low-cost, owner-builder technologies I have studied (and that's most of them) Earthships are the only one I'd consider. Strawbale and compressed earth block (if you can afford 20k for the machine) would be close seconds.

Scott Drumm

rich said...

Hi Jeff

Cool idea, and great comments to build on.

A couple more....

As mentioned, roof overhangs will be a huge benefit. A vine covered pergola on the shade side of the house, with a living area beneath it, will be a boon on those many hot days. Designing the ventilation of the house to draw in this cooler air in the summer will temper the extremes in temperature.

Also, with such a small house, you'll be wanting outdoor living areas, anyway.

As we've discussed before, trellises over the sun side(s) of the house will help moderate solar gain. I grew up in the hot regions, and fled as soon as I was able, but I suspect the fine-tuning of heat management would be a site-and-climate-specific endeavor, played out over the years.

"it's not an earth ship if you change it." Yikes. No one can cover all of the bases on the first go 'round.

The long E-W orientation of the house is less efficient from a heating and cooling standpoint, as well as a building material one. (Higher surface-to-volume ratio) You're building lots of wall for not as much living space as you'd get if it was more square (or to take it to the idealistic extreme, circular). Not that that's a bad thing, but it'd be something to think about. It'd be a question for folks in that climate who know far more than me.


dryki said...

Check out Chris Alexander's "Pattern Language". He has it online now. Bolts right into your rhizome theory.

A few obvious things: arrow to north, light on two sides of every room. Provide half-heated and unheated spaces, an entry. Flat or very low pitched roof will be good for solar or garden structure above, but avoid roof penetrations.

Anonymous said...

I am with you on the design and have come up with a similar one.

20' wide and as long as you like.

Similar to a VG earthship with removable 4' overhangs on south side.

Solar closets.....

if needed.

Porch on 3 sides is nice

Masonary or steel with exterior only insulation . Spray foam is interesting. has some good data.

I have land ...need help in final design

rohar1 said...

There is an architectural student completing his thesis on a sustainable urban environment using some of the SHPEGS concepts. He would probably have some input on your ideas when he frees up some time. I'll point him here.

I used to own a small construction and furniture manufacturing company as well as survived 4 whole-home reno projects and I have some thoughts on your topic I will put together in the next while.

Bob Rohatensky

Marcin said...

I believe that Compressed Earth Block (CEB) is a superior technology fit for the above. We have produced an affordable, open source machine, and aim to produce the machine starting October. The entire project, including business model development, is open source.

Read more about the ecological review of CEB from our wiki:

I'd like to tie in to your open source developments, and Bob's, more tightly. On the energy front, we are pursuing a micro-SHPEGS implementation using a boundary layer turbine, as engineering literature shows it to be at least 25% efficient, and possibly 40-50%, for small scale (1-100kW), unoptimized turbines. Our preliminary work on the turbine and solar concentrator systems is at


We are also looking for Factor 10 engineering - or significant cost reduction to make this viable, or cheaper than coal and nukes.

Here is more information on our work and development method, and our orgnization's propaganda:

We have just produced the world's frist open source, high performance (3-5 brick/minute), Compressed Earth Block (CEB) press: . That's our goal at Open Source Ecology: develop tools and technologies in the public domain for sustainable and just living. We believe that when engineering and technologies are part of the public domain, they benefit everyone.

We are developing technology and engineering in the public interest - with products that benefit everyone. We don’t stop at concepts – we are the world’s first organized effort at funding collaborative development of physical products. On top of that, we are disseminating our business models freely, as all our developments enter the public domain. We are thus a radical departure from corporate research and development (R&D) to products BY the people, FOR the people. We are building upon the rich information-sharing that has been brought about through the information age.

To pursue our work, we are relying on voluntary funding from a large number of small donations. This way, we involve many people in the development – whether in the technical developments or in project funding. We chose this because we are working on monthly prototyping cycles, where we adapt our progress from the results of every cycle. We go from prototypes, to refinements, and up to the production facilities for producing ecological technologies at absolutely the lowest possible cost. We chose crowd funding because it can be collected rapidly through networks on the internet - whereas grants or other funding methods take a year or even two years, and we’d like to be done many cycles over in that time.

To achieve this ideal, we need your help. We are asking you to reach out to your network or audience with our small funding request, on a monthly basis. We are interested in gathering about 25-50 network leaders, to pass our funding request, so we collect a few thousand dollars for each cycle by reaching thousands of people. The proposed timeline and budgets for the CEB developmeny cycles is shown at .

We also need human creative energy to review, augment, and document the design. Monetary contributions will be used to: (1), test and develop the prototype into a full working model; (2), develop an open source CEB press production method (using a computer automated XYZ torch table); and (3), to build an optimized production facility. We will pursue the open development of other technologies with proceeds from CEB sales. Our other projects of interest are shown at .

This process would go on regardless of your participation, but the more people that are involved, both as leaders and contributors, the more quickly technologies can be developed and shared. We are looking to develop long-term collaboration, so that we can develop a world-class product development effort that has high quality of life for everybody as its primary goal.

Is this really worth your time?

We think that open source technology developments are a critical piece to bringing power back into the hands of the people and developing decentralized economies based on abundance and wise use of local resources. Imagine if local enterprise could compete with the great global extractors. With the appropriate, replicable, localizable technologies, we believe that we can compete with globalization at the level of many different products.

For example, we chose to develop a CEB press for these reasons: 1. Blocks are made from local materials. 2. Blocks are uniform in shape and look like a brick, so CEB building can become socially acceptable. 3. CEBs are easy to build with, not requiring major skills or training. 4. CEB block prouductio, and CEB press production, are suitable for local enterprise. AND 5. High production machines are proprietary and expensive ($25,000 and up).

We believe that this high cost inhibits many entrepreneurs from investing in this technology. So, we set about to create a low-cost, easy to maintain, highly productive machine. Because the design is open source, someone could build their own machine for the cost of materials, $1350. Or, we will be able to build it for them for a predicted cost of $3-5k in our optimized facility.

We hope all the products developed at OSE are transformational and help people meet their basic needs and reduce dependency on irresponsible production. We think this transformation can happen now, but we need your help because it won't happen without mass participation.

In summary, let us know if you can help us with the funding side, as we discussed above. We welcome any comments, leads, and suggestions on how we can make this model of optimal production a viable option for everyone. We may be on to something here. Please help us make it happen. I think this funding model, if deployed successfully, could accelerate the progress of a large number of open source projects if it is replicated.


Brittany Gill,
Marcin Jakubowski, Ph.D.
Open Source Ecology, Founders

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