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Jennifer Hodges — Orthogonal Paradigm

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

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Engineering Your Environment: Examples of Sustainable Housing in Rural Alabama

In a rural town in northeast Alabama, four families live in four very interesting homes.  Twice yearly these families kindly open their doors to visitors from across the nation, in hopes of inspiring personal responsibility and teaching people about sustainable living.  The 3-hour walking tour includes a dodeca-yurt, an underground home, a strawbale house, and a homemade house that combines dozens of passive strategies for self-sustaining, eco-friendly living.



Meet Daryl, my tour guide, standing in front of his home.  Daryl is an engineer who designs and configures solar water heaters for the residential market across the southeast.  He integrates his 9-to-5 with his good stewardship to indulge in his real passion: environmental responsibility.  As passionate environmentalists, Daryl and his wife have taken personal responsibility to a new level, engineering every square inch of their home for optimum function, sustainability and well, true need.  In fact, a yellow card suspended from a string by their bathroom mirror reads: “Is it needed?  Is it kind?  Is it sustainable?” This, is their motto – their committment to being good stewards of the earth.

Daryl’s home can only be summed up in one word: ecclectic.  Solar water tanks and photovoltaic panels dot the roof above operable clerestory windows.  Deep, shade-providing overhangs hover over large, salvaged, double-insulated windows, in several sizes and colors.  A covered, screened porch is adjacent the living area that is jammed-packed with books and art.  And an uncovered, “sun” porch is lined with blossoming flowers and herbs.  A vegetable garden, solar cooking device, mushroom garden, and compost piles also provide them with sustainable ways to cook, grow food, and sustainably fertilize their gardens.

L to R: South facade, Sleeping loft above/living area below, Sun porch, Solar cooking device

Inside, the treads of the homemade stairs up to the sleeping loft, were trimmed by Daryl to minimize surface area, allowing the maximum amount of sunlight penetration to the kitchen and living areas below.  The two-story high space allows hot air to rise and solar-powered fans blow the heated air out of the high clerestory windows above.   In fact, all of their electricity is generated with photovoltaics and stored in a battery bank in the basement.

While not exactly what architects would typically call “aesthetically- pleasing design,” I thought it was perfect: the ultimate in fine-tuned engineering based on the true NEED for shelter.  Each piece of Daryl’s home was analyzed and planned for optimum daylighting, heating in the winter, cooling in the summer, and to be completely self-sustaining.


South facade

Next stop on this gorgeous day, was the underground house.  The group of 20 or so walked up a small hill and didn’t immediately realize we were walking on it’s roof, which also serves as their vegetable and herb garden.   Beyond the garden, was the top of the house, where a “drain-back solar hot water system” was mounted at the optimum angle for this specific latitude.   In this system, water ”drains back,” or out of the piping when the outdoor temperature is too low, so the pipes do not freeze.  Water is then heated by a wood stove in the winter.

Around the south side of the home (the only exposed facade), the owners planted grapes for shade throughout the summer.  In the fall and winter, when the plants die back, the sunlight is allowed to come streaming in, and helps heat the home.   Inside, the structure of the home consisted of three giant boxed-in I-beams resting on load-bearing walls.  All vertical surfaces are painted bright white to reflect natural light around the interior spaces.  In the kitchen and hallways, light wells (skylights) deliver a column of natural light from above.  At night and on cloudy days, the homeowners employ low-wattage lamps and LEDs to supplement the natural light.

Kitchen light well (L), Worm compost (C), Solar water heating device (R).

Because they have so many large window openings to maximize daylighting, and since glass is not a good insulator, the homeowners use thick, double-honeycomb window shades at night, to hold in heat from the wood-burning stove during the winter.  These type of shades can increase the the R-value of the window, depending on the cellular structure inside the shades.  In conjunction with double-paned windows, this can increase the energy efficiency of the the window by as much as 65%.

Outside, they taught us about Vermiculture, or Worm Composting.  All of these homeowners utilize worm composting, which basically uses Red Wigglers (a specific kind of species for this), in a bed of shredded newspaper, and some soil.  They keep it moist, using irrigation water from their rain-collection cistern.  They collect all of their food waste (coffee grounds, carrot tops, cirtus rinds – you name it) and add it to the compost.  You can even shred glossy magazines, bills, and junk mail and add to the mix.  The worms eat this over time, digest it, and their nutrient-rich waste makes the most fertile soil for growing.  They also filter the worm compost, to collect the liquid which is a highly-concentrated, nutrient-rich, powerful and organic fertilizer.  And, because they recycle all glass, metal and plastic, these families virtually have no trash or waste going to landfills, and do not even have a trash collection service to their homes.


Originally a Mongolian nomadic home, this 12-sided structure was originally “designed” out of necessity to easily fold out the walls, add animal furs to the “walls” to repel high winter winds, add the conical roof, and viola!  Instant house.

Sun porch (L), South facade (C), Interior ceiling with skylight (R).

So while I don’t subscribe to the fact that a 12-sided structure is a wise thing to do THESE days, architecturally or constructability-wise, it does make for an amazing interior space.  The light inside was intense and beautiful.  The wood structure seemed seamless and added a warmth to the space.  However, their furniture was positioned around the perimeter of the room, making for an awkward residual space and for a seemingly large room, did not accommodate many people – standing room only.  The piercing light coming in from the skylight above was so strong  the homeowners had to later add a UV fabric over it and replace the faded fabrics on all their furniture and rugs.

The couple that lived in the yurt was the only family to have OUTdoor plumbing.  Yes, you read correctly.  The outhouse was located about 50 yards from the yurt, just inside the woods.  The small outhouse had “Rules for Use” written on the sidewall of the doorless “toilet” which included scooping a coffee mug-full of sand and covering your business when you are done.  It seemed to work much like a human litter box.  It was pretty odd using it, and got down-right embarrassing when another tour participant walked up to the litter box while I was still on it.   I am all for sustainable living, and the yurt was cool, but outdoor plumbing is a bit too primitive for me and day-to-day life.


With it’s huge window openings, minimalist interior, all bright-white stucco walls, cast concrete roof tiles, and beautifully-crafted interior components, the strawbale house was my favorite of the tour.

The exterior walls of this home were constructed in a long process: Steel reinforcement bars are welded to a base plate.  Strawbales are continuously stacked, threaded onto the re-bar.  The bales are then covered with chicken wire and “woven” to secure the bales both vertically and horizontally.  At the top of the wall, threaded rods are welded to the re-bar tip, threaded through a continuous steel plate, and secured with a nut.  The nuts are tightened and the bales are fully-compressed.   A full, 3-layer stucco system is applied to both the interior and exterior, in total creating about a 16 inch-thick wall.

L to R: East facade/Front Porch, Interior, Sleeping porch, Handmade stairs.

This home was so beautiful, but my concerns grew about mold, fire, and insects – after all, this is Alabama, where much of the year is spent with super-high humidity.  So I posed the question to Daryl and the homeowner, and was quickly reassured all openings were completely and expertly sealed.  Of course, as architects, we have the basic understanding that moisture will find its way inside, regardless, so we should always provide a way for it to dry or escape.   I was told the risk of fire is a common myth about strawbale homes, as stucco acts as a fire-retardant much like gypsum board.  And they did not address possible insect infestation (I was wondering if there was a straw-eating insect that could plague the home, much like termites effect wood homes).

South facade

This home is completely off the power utility grid.  Lit only by daylight in the day and low-wattage lamps and LEDs by night, the solar panels beside their garden, deliver 2.5kW of photovoltaic electricity, stored in 12 batteries in the cellar.  Also in the cellar, is a homemade walk-in refrigerator with super-insulated walls and door, with a solar-powered compressor.  Upstairs, the stunning stucco walls reflect sunlight around the handmade stairs and wooden elements.  Their kitchen refrigerator is run by propane.  They do not have an active heating or cooling system, but instead rely on passive strategies: cross-ventilation in the summer and indirect thermal mass in the winter.

I would highly recommend the Solar Home Tour for any environmental enthusiast, designer, engineer, or homeowner.   This inspirational tour reminded me that sustainable design can create interesting spatial experiences as well as be functional and environmentally responsible.

For more information or to register for an upcoming Solar Home Tour, contact the Blount County Chamber of Commerce.

Mile-High Design

Map of downtown highlighting the Pedestrian Mall, the Capitol, and DenverArt Museum

Recently on a road trip out west, I found myself in Denver, Colorado.  Historically known as a gold-rush town of the 1850s and for the towering Rocky Mountains, Denver is now making its mark in the art and culture world.

Alone on this road trip, I walked through the city and observed.  The people are very active and the downtown area is alive with movement.  The 16th Street Mall, designed by architect I.M. Pei, is a mile-long pedestrian street that connects the Civic Plaza to Union Station via the trendy “LoDo” (lower downtown) district.  This mall, cutting right through the heart of the downtown business district, creates a dynamic place to walk, skateboard, bicycle, eat, shop, or just sit and observe.

The streets are pristine.  Flowering plants and lush trees line the brick-paved streets.  There are musicians – harpists, guitarists.  There are Green Peace folks trying to get the word out about genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) in American food.  People are catching the free (and on-time) shuttle.  I walked the mall down one side, past Union Station and to the South Platte River, turned around and walked up the other side and took the bus back to the majestic capitol building.

Colorado's State Capitol

Home of Colorado’s Legislature, the capitol building in Denver is breathtaking.  It’s grandeur is matched only by the U.S. capitol building in D.C., from which it’s 1890 design gained inspiration.  The building is composed of Colorado white granite and the large bell-shaped dome is plated with 24-karat gold.

Past the Civic plazas and Greek Amphitheatre lined with Doric columns and marble sculptures, I find the arts district: The Colorado History Museum, The Children’s Museum of Denver, the controversial Denver Public Library (designed by architect Michael Graves), the Museum of Contemporary Art, and most notably, the Denver Art Museum.

Frederic C. Hamilton Building Addition to the Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum has been in the news recently due to the opening of the Frederic C. Hamilton Building, designed by German architect Daniel Libeskind.  The sharp, angular mass of titanium panels (9,000 to be exact) towered over me as I walked under the enormous point that cantilevers over the street, seemingly daring the adjacent building to touch it. The 146,000sf building with 55,000sf of display space opened in fall of 2006, so I inquired about the construction team’s presence.  Apparently there was a leak.

While I understand the draw of the worldwide visionary’s work, I can’t help but view this Denver Art Museum addition as a mechanical parasite feeding off the original building.  In fact, as I rounded the corner after my encounter with the giant point, I caught a glimpse of the original building, now eclipsed by this sci-fi appendage.

Interior of Hamilton Building (L), "Quantum Cloud XXXIII" by Antony Gromely (C), Interior Hamilton Building (R).

The North Building by Italian architect Gio Ponti

As I walked towards the original part of the museum and away from Libeskind’s ogre, a much more innovative and endearing building emerged – the North Building.  Designed in the 1970s by Italian-architect Gio Ponti (1891-1979), the North Building (as it’s now known) was a true work of art.

Though Ponti is popular in Europe, he isn’t well-known in America, primarily because the Denver Art Museum remains his only public building on this continent.  Ponti was a true artist who not only designed buildings, but also flatware, furniture, theater costumes, and even designed the interior of an ocean liner.

Approaching the building, images of the Tower of London are conjured, as this castle-like fortress looms over a landscaped moat below.  The towers are surfaced with a combination of flat and pyramid-shaped tiles, which reflect sunlight and create interesting patterns.  Over 1 million of these tiles were manufactured by Corning Glass Works for the towers, and it took workers two years to set them by hand.  At the building’s ‘crown,’ shapes are cut out to frame certain views of Denver’s many landmarks.

Close-up of the hand-set Corning Glass tiles

The meticulously-punched openings in the façade orchestrate light patterns inside, which remind me of LeCorbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, where interiorly, the light becomes the architecture, rather than the building’s form.

As a functional museum, the layout is straightforward and easy to navigate (which, as a navigationally-challenged person, is very important to me – - having been lost and turned around in Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin for hours, which is another story altogether…).

The collections and exhibits include pre-Columbian, African, Asian, Oceanic, European and American work, as well as one of the largest collections of American Indian art and artifacts.  And of course, modern art, housed largely in the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building.

All in all, Denver took me by surprise.  I’ve been to the “Gateway to the West” before, but that was about 18 years ago for a school competition.  And then, I only visited the U.S. Mint and the capitol building.   The cleanliness of the city, the friendliness of the people, and its new and growing arts and entertainment district make the Mile-High City a must-see for designers, art-enthusiasts or folks who just love to experience a lively downtown area.


Denver Art Museum, Scala Publishers, 2006.

Downtown Denver

Mile High City

Denver Art Museum