Inspiration Station: Sustainable housing ideas

Building an "Earthship" tire house,
Found a gem of a website the other day called The Independent Patriot; a kind of step-by-step living guide to worst-case-scenario preparedness. The site, while a bit conspiratorial and fatalistic, features everything from information on long-term survival to food production and storage. "Wow" factor of peering into a fallout-shelter mentality aside, this guy's take on sustainable housing is downright inspirational.

Straw bale houses, buildings made out of old tires, rainwater catchment and graywater systems: you name it, this guy has outlined it. Great food for thought. Click here to get a peek at the new frontier of sustainable living (information is also pasted below).

Energy Efficient Structures

Monolithic DomeMonolithic Dome
Monolithic domes provide superior insulation and protection from the elements, while giving the owner greater flexibility with interior construction. They can also provide and increased level of security when properly designed. These homes are compatible with passive and active solar systems, natural lighting, and underground cooling tubes. This style of home should be a top choice for people interested in independent living and home security. A monolithic dome is not typical "dome home." These domes are constructed by forming a ring-shaped foundation and attaching a flexible PVC "airform" which is then inflated to make the shape of the house. Several inches of polyurethane foam are then sprayed onto the inside of the dome, followed by steel rebar and several inches of concrete. The outside can also be coated with chain link and stucco to make an impermeable, fire-proof, hurricane-proof, earthquake-proof dome structure that is extremely well-insulated and provides an interior space with no supporting beams.
The structures can come in several different shapes and sizes. each airform is custom designed and fabricated. The cost of construction is similar to conventional construction, but the energy and maintenance savings can be substantial - especially in extremely hot or cold climates. These structures can be earth-bermed or covered with vines. Monolithic domes with stucco on the outside and 3"-4" of shotcrete on the inside also provide increased protection from small-arms fire.

Earth-Sheltered Earth -Sheltered Home
Earth-sheltered homes range from homes with earth pushed up against the walls to homes that are entirely underground. Typically, an earth-sheltered home is set into a hill with earth on three sides and on top. The front is usually exposed to the south. The main advantage of an earth-sheltered home is the insulation offered by the thick covering of earth. Earth-sheltered homes maintain a constant 60-degree temperature, year-round, in hot or cold climates. They can be easily heated, and will hold the heat, due to the thick insulation.
Earth-sheltered homes have comparable construction costs to conventional homes, but cost far less to maintain. With proper use of skylights and windows on the southern exposure, they can have the interior appearance of a conventional home.

Insulating Concrete Forms
Insulating Concrete Forms (ICF) allow you to build a conventional-looking home with reinforced, double-insulated concrete walls. The forms for the walls are made of insulation "blocks" that are stacked and bound together. The space between the foam insulation is where the concrete is poured. The forms are placed over steel rebar and all plumbing and electrical is run through the walls before the concrete is poured. ICF blocks offer several ways of attaching sheetrock or wood paneling. Almost any type of exterior surface can be applied. The walls are thicker than a typical home, but they also provide much better insulation and strength. Multiple-story homes can be built with ICF.

Straw Bale Home
Straw Bale
Straw-bale homes offer a unique twist on highly-insulated structures. The main building component is straw, and the walls are at least two feet thick. The straw makes the building extremely well-insulated, and gives a "soft" feel to the corners. Straw-bale homes can either have load-bearing straw walls, or they can be framed and filled in with straw bales. All utilities are run through the walls as the bales are stacked. Bales are impaled on steel rebar for stabilization. The walls are typically covered with plaster or stucco. If properly sealed and plastered, they will not have problems with water, but high humidity can be an issue, since the water vapor can work its way into the straw. There is no increased risk of fire with the use of straw bales. Straw bales are extremely dense and provide little oxygen for fires to feed on. They are actually a better fire barrier than convention wood-framed walls.

Earthship (Tire House
EarthshipThe Earthship concept goes beyond just home construction. It is aimed at providing a complete off-grid system that handles everything from water collection to gray water and sewage treatment. These homes are typically built into the side of a hill and use old tires as the primary wall building material. The tires are stacked like bricks and filled with rammed earth as each layer is laid. The buildings are oriented to the south, with a greenhouse wall that allows in light and lets you grow plants that help filter gray water. The integrated power and water systems make these homes very interesting. Some of these concepts could be used in conjunction with other earth-sheltered homes.

Roofing Goes Green with Solar Shingles

While browsing Time Magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2009, I noticed lucky number 13: The Solar Shingle. With Better Farm's continued efforts to lower our energy consumption, this seems like a cheaper and easier (can be installed by a regular roofer) solution. While not yet available to buy, a little web research sounds promising...
The New York Times
October 7, 2009, 11:46 am
Dow Unveils Solar Shingles

Dow Chemical has unveiled a residential roof shingle in the form of a solar panel designed to be integrated into asphalt-tiled roofs.

Jane Palmieri, managing director of Dow’s Solar Solutions unit, said the Powerhouse thin-film shingle slashes installation costs because it can be installed by a roofer who is already building or retrofitting a roof.

“As a roofer is nailing asphalt shingle on roof, wherever the array needs to be installed he just switches to solar shingle,” said Ms. Palmieri, who said the solar singles are similarly attached to the roof with nails.

“You don’t have to have a solar installation crew do the work or have an electrician on site,” she added. “The solar shingle can be handled like any other shingle – it can be palletized, dropped from a roof, walked on.”

An electrician is still needed to connect the completed array to an inverter and to a home’s electrical system, but unlike conventional solar panels that must be wired together, the solar shingles plug into each other to form the array.

Read the rest of the article here.

Fast Company
Covert Solar Power? Dow's Solar Shingles for Rooftops are Burglar-Proof
BY Ariel SchwartzTue Oct 6, 2009 at 2:09 PM

...There's another hidden benefit to Dow's shingles--they are less likely to be visible to thieves than traditional panels. California has seen a slew of rooftop panel burglaries in the past few years. Thieves make off with the solar panels and sell them on the black market. But shingles nestled into a roof can't just be removed by snipping off a few wires.

Read the rest of article here.

Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles Could Finally Have You Hugging Trees
by Sean Fallon
Oct 7 2009

...As you can see, the panels look like standard asphalt shingles—and they can be installed without any specialized knowledge. In fact, they only take about 10 hours to install on average compared to the 22-30 hours for traditional panels. Since a basic roofer could handle the job in a short amount of time, installation costs should be more manageable. Plus, Dow claims that their Powerhouse will be 30% to 40% cheaper than other solar shingle designs.

Read the rest of the article here.

Solar shingles photo from

Catching on to Water Catchment

Before I begin: I've been in the process of earning my certificate in Permaculture under the amazing Claudia Joseph, whose intensive knowledge of everything from mulch to maintenance has provided information for posts on this blog as well as on my personal blog on all things green(ish). And this particular knowledge on water catchment came via one of her fascinating guest teachers, Lars Chellberg, who works for the Council on the Environment of NYC and the Water Resources Group. Okay, onward!

As most people have heard by now, the more water we save for reuse, and the less that simply runs straight down our drains, the better. Do you have a roof and storm gutters? Well then you've already started to channel useful rainwater...although having it spill unused onto a random spot on your lawn is not the best finale. Installing a water catchment system may be more complex than placing an open whiskey barrel under the spout...but the construction doesn't have to be hard:

Once the rain comes partway down the downspout, a seasonal plunger (literally a plunger) forces the water into the catchment system's pipes:

There is the issue of leaves and other large debris washing off the roof, which is where the first flush part of the system comes in. The roofwasher:

This part essentially forces the particles to accumulate at the bottom of a separate section, so only water eventually makes it into the collection tank. It is important to empty the roof washer area after each major rain to let out all the junk.

And once your collection tank starts to fill up you can hook a hose straight up to it, or transport some of the water to a separate irrigation system, like this bucket kit idea for a veggie garden:

And even after being used to water your veggies (or wash your dog), the excess water can then run naturally downhill to a rain garden:

And if you're worried that a water catchment system on your property will be unsightly, feel free to disguise it with shrubs...or some creative flair:

So there's the majorly abridged version. But lucky lucky, the entire 54-page, in-depth, how-to booklet is available as a free download. So get to it!


Luckily, Better Farm came to us with the bones of the house in fairly good shape. There are a couple boring, but necessary, tasks that need doin', including the installation (finally) of rain gutters.

I was zoning out to a "green/eco-friendly" home decorating show recently, and they suggested Galvalume gutters, due to their strength and long-term durability. The coating is made from 55 percent aluminum and 45 percent zinc; and is applied with a continuous hot dipping process (HOT!). The result is a coating that protects the steel from moisture, contaminants, and scratches. The shine weathers evenly and has approximately nine times the longevity of plain ol' galvanized gutters. No straight-to-landfill for these babies.

Since that'll also take care of the flooding basement situation, we can then focus on other stylish add-ons, like the plethora of options for eco-friendly roofing. Or, forget roofing altogether—let's just lease some solar panels!