Architecture & Home Design: Raising the Bar

A short summary of 35 years of research into green home design…

This is my favourite home design so far: small, natural, deep green, curvilinear, passive solar, cozy and charming, and an earth home – all the feautres I love the best. (Video below)

Wherever possible, now that we know, or should know, basic principles of deep green, truly sustainable design, every home and building should be passive solar, as well as net zero in terms of carbon, energy and water; and every home or building should be an Earth Home – meaning, it uses heating and cooling from the sun and the earth, naturally. Anything less is radically substandard, and in light of the environmental emergency we are facing, criminally negligent, and grossly unethical.

50 years ago we might have been excused for not realizing there was an environmental crisis – maybe. 40 years ago we could be excused for not understanding the gravity and urgency of the crisis. 30 years ago, or even 20 or 10 years ago, we might be forgiven for not understanding the core principles of truly sustainable building or architecture, even if building or architecture is our profession. But not now. There are no more excuses.

Pleading ignorance now simply means that we have not bothered to look into what constitutes serious ecological standards and truly sustainable design (as opposed to the pale green that still typically passes for “eco” design); and that is not only unprofessional: it is also simply unconscionable, and unethical.

I would say that this applies generally and widely to our modern 21st century society: we have more knowledge now about many things, including race, gender, xenophobia, class, fascism versus freedom, ecology, and how the systems we use affect ourselves and our world – be they economic, political, energy infrastructure, water and waste systems, food and agriculture systems, transportation systems, engineering and design, manufacturing and resource industries, and housing and construction – that we now face the challenge, and the potentially liberating joy, of raising the bar in many, if not most areas of modern life. We should be excited about that prospect, not chagrined.

A Hobbit house can be charming, comfortable, warm, dry, and beautiful. But that is only one variation or style of earth home. You can choose modernist, hippie chic, technophillic, or whatever style you like. The important point is that it is built into the earth, into a natural or man-made hillside. (Excavate for a large root cellar and dig two ponds – one for animals and fish, one for swimming; which are things every rural home should have – and you will have the earth for a manmade hill.) With that design, the home can stay at least 17 degrees C (+/-64F) all year round, whether it is 30 degrees outside, or minus 30.  (To ensure it, combine straw bale/plaster construction with the passive solar and earth house design; an attached solar greenhouse on the sunny side; proper awnings, shade trees, wind breaks, ponds as well as cisterns, green roofs… and ventilation, of course; and adobe floors for thermal mass – and you have set a new and beautiful standard.) That is simply intelligent, ecological design, 101.

Every carpenter, architect or home builder needs to know: if it’s not passive solar, off grid renewable energy, net zero, water wise, healthy and non-toxic, and an earth home, then it is simply far below acceptable 21st century standards.

These are the realities of our time. And they can mean an improvement in our quality of life, not a diminishment.

I’m excited. I think we all should be!

(Now, to do my masters in sustainable architecture…. But first, I have other projects in mind to attend to.)

July 20, 2020

15 Responses to “Architecture & Home Design: Raising the Bar”

  1. jtoddring Says:

    And yes, such a tiny home is perfect for one or two people, but may feel too small for a family. In that case, make additions. Then, when it’s time for some adult time, you can say, as you should anyway, “Go play outside!” ….or, instead of saying, Go play in your room; you can say, Go play in your cave!

    Ok, maybe it was more amusing in my own mind. In any case, yes, just build additions!

    I still love what my great Swiss aunt used to say: “Complicated works too.”

    But why complicate things? As Thoreau said, Simplify, simplify.


  2. jtoddring Says:

    “I am a conscientious objector to nearly everything in the modern world.” I am more moderate myself, but I have to say, those are the words of a true kindred spirit – like Thoreau.

    This video is important for showing just how inexpensive a home can be, even if we do not take simplicity or back to nature values to the same degree. It is also important for philosophy, for sociology or social commentary, and for one woman’s good common sense – something that is today extremely rare; though fortunately becoming quickly less so, as the voluntary simplicity, tiny home, ecological consciousness, and return to nature movements, explode into the mainstream.


  3. jtoddring Says:

    A structural engineer excellent advice on building an unconventional home. Depending on where you want to build and how you want to build, this could be very important information.

    The energy modellng software tip is particularly cool – though if you understand the basic design principles, I would say it is needed only for optional fine tuning, or for bureaucratic hurdles.

    Note also that regions of the world are makng code exceptions for low impact ecological housing, as in Wales. In other areas, pssive solar design and straw bale-stucco construction are recognized and approved as valid housing.

    Research, plan, dream, then execute, I say! Do it! The Earth will thank you, and it will be an adventure as well!

    See New Society Publishers for great books on green home design. Watch for passive solar, earth home, adobe, natural plaster, straw bale, hempcrete, healthy homes, and net zero, in particular.



  4. jtoddring Says:

    Combine the best elements of various systems, I say. The latest “Earth Ship” design is excellent (and can be any style from conventional to unconventional). But I don’t see why straw bales would not be better than dirt filled tires for walls, however.

    With an Earth Ship home costing the same as conventional homes, at $200-300/sqft, and straw bale costing the same, or less; but dirt plus tires giving roughly R-1, per one foot thickness, or R-2 for a typical tire-dirt wall, versus straw bale which can achieve R-24-50: to me the math is simple. Stop obsessing about tires. It was a good idea. Straw bale is even better.

    Of course, combine straw bale with passive solar, attached but partitioned solar greenhouse, etc, with the earth home design, naturally. The only major change is tires to super insulating straw bales, for a radical boost to insulation, for no significant difference to cost.

    To me it is a no-brainer. Think outside the box – outside ALL boxes. Combine the best of different systems.

    Mike Reynolds is an innovator, a pioneer, and maybe even a genius. He is not god. His is not omniscient. I’m sure he would say the same thing, but more modestly.


  5. jtoddring Says:

    Sustainable Building Essentials book launch


  6. jtoddring Says:


    • jtoddring Says:

      Concrete is not an eco-friendly building material, and should be avoided. Insulation is also important, of course. Natural is one thing; low impact is another.


  7. jtoddring Says:

    Removable glass roof and wall panels would be ideal functionally and easthetically. This is very utilitarian, and ugly, but the concept is good.

    ‪The greenhouse should be integrated into a passive solar, earth home design, but still, this is a giant step forward.

    Sunken greenhouse wraps home & feeds suburban antifragile co-op. via @YouTube‬


  8. jtoddring Says:

    This beautiful tiny home, as much as I love it, is a good example of why a tiny home is not necessarily a green home. (High fossil fuel use, energy use and carbon output, low insulation, not passive solar, use of toxic and polluting building materials, no compost toilet, no grey water or rain water systems….) But the tiny home, green home, housing, design and construction trends are all rapidly evolving, so we are well on our way. It is an exciting time. And design wise, this tiny home offers great ideas, and much inspiration.


  9. jtoddring Says:

    More great ideas here. Try combining a solar hot water heater, with wood stove hot water heating, followed by a solar powered electric hot water tank that can be turned on with a two hour timer, followed by a propane, or better, electric, on demand hot water heater, for better environmental performance.

    R-40 walls and R-60 roof are impressive here. Again, I’d prefer extra thick straw bale/adobe combined with passive solar and earth home design, and an attached, sunken solar greenhouse. With that, heating and cooling can be entirely by sun and earth alone, with a wood stove simply for charm.


  10. jtoddring Says:

    Great ideas, great philosophy, beautifully functional design, and important tips for tiny homes or offgrid living:


  11. jtoddring Says:


  12. jtoddring Says:

    Green Homes: Systems Thinking Required

    Think outside the box – outside ALL boxes, including the club we’re in.

    This short video presentation (below) is the best summary I have seen so far as to the core principles of leading edge green home design and building construction. It still is lacking, however. Asking a home to use 6 KW of energy generation capacity, whether on site or off, or 60% of the home’s energy “needs”, is absurd. That’s Net Zero? That’s leading edge? No, it is not. It is only a beginning.

    Take the standards given here as baseline targets for insulation, and double them with super-thick (cheap and affordable) straw bale/stucco construction. Don’t settle for R-20 walls. Don’t settle for R-40 walls, as the Net Zero leading edge calls for. Double it again.

    Apply the Passive House standards to the Net Zero concept, along with passive solar design, of course, and instead of needing 6 KW of energy generation to heat and cool the home, you can do it with 1 KW – the equivalent power used by a hair dryer.

    Take the super-insulation principle further with 60″ straw bale / plaster walls; then bury the house on the north, east, west, and north side of the roof, into a man-made hill (earth ship or earth home design core principle); and add an attached partitioned solar greenhouse to the entire south wall; and the home will require near zero energy for heating or cooling – because the sun and earth do the heating and cooling naturally.

    What we have, is a society with radically substandard and grossly unethical, self-destructive and ecologically disastrous standards and norms. The leading edge in the green home design and construction field, as one example, is light years beyond and above our pitiful social standards for what is an acceptable “code compliant” building or home. Yet the leading edge in green home design and building, as is also typical, is highly fragmented into different camps or schools of thought.

    What is a green home, or an eco home? There is pale green, and various shades of green. But the answer in any case depends who you ask.

    Passive house, net zero, passive solar, straw bale, natural building, healthy home, earth ship, or earth home – we need to integrate the best all of these modalities, systems, or ways of thinking – not sit in our little camp and presume we have it all figured out. None of these schools of thought have the complete answer. But when you combine these seven broad categories or schools of thought, then you truly have something you can call “leading edge”, and deep green.

    The time is now. Start communicating and talking to one another, people. Enough group think and clannishness, I’m sorry to say. We need systems thinkers, and thinkers who can integrate various diverse systems, and systems of thought. And we need it now.

    And it is right within our grasp, sitting in the palm of our hand.

    July 28, 2020


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