From time to time things seem odd with the way houses are built. This section is a selection of random thoughts and ideas

I have recently been thinking about the Scott Turner’s book “The Extended Organism the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures”. This seems to be the way to think of a house. In his argument he considers the information for a structure, for example, a termite’s nest is part of the genetic information of the animal. I get the feeling that there could be something going on here for human houses, towns and cities. Not in the same strict way as a termite nest is part of the external organism but something similar. An alternative could be that the way to think about a house is to consider it to be an external body with the same functions as a living organism. With this metaphor it could be useful to think about modern houses and their components as analogous to the components of a multicellular animal.

So the framework is the endoskeleton, the internal walls the endothelium, the external walls the epithelium. Currently houses don’t work this way, and they don’t have sensors, eyes, ears, olfaction, kidneys, livers, brains. It seems to me that if the roof and the walls were leaves and could photosynthesise it would be a short step towards autonomy. And if we supply the house with a few recycling units to reprocess the resource streams (currently termed waste) then the house could start to look like a termite colony: wormaries, composting, biomass gas generation, water remediation, hydroponics, glass houses. The brain to manage all this could be a cheap second hand chip and simple programs to activate fans, and window systems to control humidity control. That’s the vision of an UpDown house – a living system powered by the considered behaviour of the occupants.

It might almost be a new life form.

December 05

Impediments to Sustainable Shelter

This investigation into the impediments to building a sustainable shelter evolved over the last few years as a way of trying to understand the experiences I had in developing my UpDown Housing project. This commentary continues to be a work in progress.

It is divided up into major areas of interest.

The first consideration takes the long view; looking at the planet, our place in nature, the reality that there are not enough earths to provide for our current footprint, and a look at the arguments that are being developed for a sustainable future.

The second consideration presents some precedents for sustainable housing: vernacular houses found in other cultures, ‘Chattel Houses’ in Barbados, for example, and goes on to consider the current situation in the first world: what constitutes the cultural template of an ‘adequate house’. This section examines ‘stakeholders’, and how the principal stakeholder, the owner or occupier, has been pretty much excluded from the design and build process.

The third section discusses what the house of the future might look like if all the impediments to a sustainable building could be overcome: a house that mimics a living system, a house that is metaphorically equivalent to an extra skin, a house that contributes to the well-being of its occupiers and to the immediate environment and ecology, and in a larger way, contributes to the well-being and health of the planet.

Such a living shelter would truly be sustainable. Such a living shelter would respond intelligently to the water and sunlight falling on it and the wind passing through it. It would have systems that were equivalent to lungs, heart, digestive system, kidneys and brain. It would be intelligent. It would also be interconnected like an extended organism with other houses of the same ilk into a sustainable community and, eventually, a city. Such a house would be integrated into the landscape and there would be no ‘waste’ streams only resource streams; food for the biosphere: worms, insects, bacteria, fungi, plants, mammals, reptiles, fish and birds; food for the technosphere: metals, ceramics, and plastics.

We are seeing some of these things already with photovoltaic roofs that provide more electrical energy than a dwelling requires; composting systems that digest the biological resource streams and produce a vermacast for plants, microcomputers built into the house to control air flow and water management. So there are fledging precedents to the grand integrated design which I see in my mind’s eye.

There will be a time when new materials and building methods will allow wide variety of forms yet be recyclable and reusable. A new design vernacular will emerge and the secondary and tertiary add-ons, like living walls, will become accepted as part of the shelter. I believe that I have designed just such a system in UpDown Housing.

This vision must become a reality if we are to have a sustainable future.

Sustainable Shelter

We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited for it, but there you are.1

The Long View
Why are we so profligate as a species?

Examples of sustainable shelter exist in Melanesia and Polynesia
Houses are disposable
Housing as a commodity

The contrived profit generation in housing developments
Built structures are glued to the land, they become fixed to it
Houses for the future
How to assist the owner to develop a design literacy and an ecological literacy
So what are the impediments to sustainable shelter?
Design grammar and modularity in design and building
The economics of mass production
End point manufacture
The static nature of the building and the difficulties in changing it or to anticipate and design for future needs
Why isn’t the material and ecological investment recoverable from existing housing stock at the end of its use?
The possibility of shelter being alive and productive
The sustainable house should meet several criteria:

The Long View

The big deal about one species stuffing it up for all the rest?

I’m sitting at my computer, fingers at the ready, waiting for the reflections to flow: what is ‘House’, what is ‘Sustainability’, what is the big deal about humans modifying the planet to suit themselves? After all, the aerobes, 3.5 billion years ago, made it an inhospitable place for the anaerobes and the poisonous gas – oxygen – produced by the aerobes made it possible for us to evolve. No one is mourning the anerobes’ lot, no one is out there championing their rights, just like no one was championing the rights of New Zealand’s unique fauna and flora’s demise when the Polynesian bipeds arrived in their long canoes. Maybe it is all just another mindless evolutionary process modfying the planet, yet another time to suit a new species. But that view doesn’t look so good. It is different this time; we know we are squandering an ecological investment and our ecological inheritance. It is already happening, as Niles Eldredge points out in the ‘Sixth Extinction’ -it is well underway.2 It is now an issue of how we can minimise or ameliorate the depth of the extinction. However, before any managed change, what we are rapidly discarding has to be priced with a new valuing system that includes a concept of an ‘ecological investment’ or ‘ecological inheritance’.

A consideration of sustainable shelter also requires a world view and an ethical position of our own impact on the planet – our ecological footprint.

Earth views from space have profoundly changed how we see the planet. In recent years, principally through the arguments and writings of James Lovelock and Lynn Margolis, the Earth is seen as alive.3 Google Earth now lets anyone cruise about the planet on their computer screen.

This Earth centred view is a powerful tool in developing an appreciation of integrated environments and it is easy to see the ecological investment in Earth systems – to imagine the physiology of the planet and what makes the Earth tick. Increasingly, the penny is dropping, that if you poison the air, pollute the water, and squander the resources in your own back yard, the impact is global, not just local.

An Earth centered view throws up other concerns about living here. What is an ethical position to take when considering shelter? What is necessary or adequate? What is its environmental investment? What are our responsibilities when it comes to making decisions about what to eat, what to wear, what transport options to take, what houses to live in, how big should they be, and how to dispose of what we don’t want, and how much medical resource we are entitled to when our biology wears out?

I am trying to sort out an ethic that supports that we are part of the natural order of things and have a right to be here. It’s the problem of knowing that our population explosion and our resource use is unsustainable. That’s the issue. I think the fear is that ‘nature’ has a number of very efficient and intelligent mechanisms to self-correct; a significant pathogen that will reduce the weight and burden of human-kind. Another ‘take’ on what is happening is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon; and, in the Gaian model, an evolutionary experiment giving the planet a more robust intelligence to protect it from external catastrophes – making rockets to blast asteroids and the like. This is all a bit far-fetched, but our current global dilemma might just be a blip while the planet gets it right. Look out for the virus though.

Why are we so profligate as a species?

We are most certainly the only animal that makes conscious choices that are bad for our survival as a species. Leakey 2008.

The smart thing to do is to use biological economics and stay within the ecological envelope when using natural resources. It is intelligent to get the best outcome for minimal input of energy. A more interesting question is why do we construct, in our culture, ideas and aspirations that are so profligate and so distracted from biological economics? I suggest that there are two basic reasons: ignorance and beliefs.

The belief system embedded in Judeo-Christian philosophy – that the planet and its material and biological resources are for our use – is well expressed in a recent book Responsible Dominion: A Christian approach to sustainable development by Ian Hore-Lacy who argues 4:

God has clearly created resources for the benefit of people who are the apex of his creation, depending on how you define all that, and there are different views, I realise, but I don’t think there’s much room to disagree that a) he’s created the resources and b) they’re there for people. And that it’s a reasonable expectation for those people who’ve got very little access to those resources and utilisation of them now, to aspire to the same enjoyment of them that you and I have.5

This position is in stark contrast to Stephen J Gould’s view quoted at the head of these reflections. In contrast, it isn’t our right to wantonly use the planet’s resources. The role is one of stewardship. We may not be suited for it, but there you are. We are irrevocably changing the planet so it behoves us to have some insight into the consequence. This is counter to biological processes and biological history: a species with insight into its actions.

Analysing how indigenous island cultures have solved the sustainability problem, including building shelter, suggests some intuitive understanding and solutions to embracing biological and sustainable economics. The bottom line is we can not manufacture eight more earths to provide the resources, so that 8 billion humans can enjoy the same consumption as the big users: USA, Australia, Europe.

A disturbing observation: most of America’s production over the last 60 years is now inside landfills. Landfills are some of the biggest man-made structures on earth.6 How intelligent is that? This high value resource (usually called waste) has been tucked away as a heterogeneous glob. Recovering material from these dumps will be expensive, (although one innovator has suggested that mining the tens of thousands of abandoned landfills could produce 20% of the USA’s oil and about 40% of its electricity production from mined land fills).7

While I am alluding to an ethic of how to live here, it could easily be translated as pragmatism; it is in our best interests to work within the capacity of the planet to provide. We are inextricably entwined and embraced by the planet’s physiochemical and biological systems and we have a responsibility to husband our ecological inheritance. These are not new ideas in contemporary ecological thinking or ancient cultures.

If we had an accounting system, an ecological currency that was pegged to an ecological gold standard, it would be possible to do a true cost accounting for any built structure and its ‘cost’ profile would look very different. A move towards this more embracing accounting can be found in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) programs. As I understand LCA, the concept of ecological investment and resource investment, as I have introduced here, is not clearly articulated. Something approaching it has been developed in Victoria, Australia.8

Examples of sustainable shelter exist in Melanesia and Polynesia

My experience in the Solomon Islands has given me an opportunity to investigate vernacular architecture. It seems to me that Polynesian and Melanesian cultures do have something to offer. The houses are built with local materials: bamboo, palms and vines. The components are recyclable, repairable, biodegradable. When they are abandoned they undergo decay and become part of the humus where they stand. In a cyclone the roof and wall cladding can be swept away and the skeleton of the building often remains to be re-roofed and re-clad. This is in contrast to the unforgiving concrete block and iron buildings on the foreshore with an ecological investment hundreds, maybe thousands of times, greater. In a cyclone they fly apart.

Traditional houses have a small footprint. With the use of steel fittings, the design is scalable using the same construction techniques and materials. The King Solomon Hotel in Honiara , for example, has a footprint in order of magnitude greater than a vernacular house, made possible with large beams, nuts and bolts, and metal brackets. However, it is roofed and clad with palm-leaf; it is an example of the possible. It is cool. When it rains the water is partly absorbed by the outer leaf. When the sun comes out the evaporation creates an evaporative-cooling effect. This large building’s roof works like a forest canopy.

Such an approach could be the gold standard of appropriateness and sustainability in a tropical climate. With a few modifications they could meet the health, security, and privacy values of their brick, mortar, and corrugated iron counterparts, and at a fraction of the cost with all the intelligent benefits embodied in the vernacular house.

Curiously, it is illegal to build a vernacular house in Hawaii and this is also true for New Zealand; they do not meet the building code requirements.

Houses are disposable

On August 21st 2004, Deirdre Macken reported in the Australian Financial Review: ‘Disposable houses for the way we live now.’9

Her concern was the immediate demolition of restored colonial houses to make way for development. The developers had submitted plans and received resource consent prior to the sale. The materials, historical value, spiritual, cultural and financial values of the house have no part in the decision to maximise the site value with high rise apartments. In a mature society this vandalism would not be tolerated. It’s not just the waste, it’s the flagrant unsustainability of this approach at all levels: biological, social, and cultural. This is vandalism of the worst sort. So why do we tolerate it?

Do It Yourself TV shows like ‘Back Yard Blitz’ reinforce this ethic and have the dumper sitting on the curb ready for the ‘rubbish’ generated during the course of the show, and off it goes to the dump.

Housing as a commodity

Let me say that in my country, and your country, and most other countries, 95 percent of the built environment is merchandise. It’s not architecture. It’s merchandise. Glenn Murcutt, New Zealand Listener 10

To appreciate this view of a house; its commodity value, how capital can be raised against it, how you can afford to pay for it, the peer pressures of the society of how it should look, and how big it should be, and what is considered adequate – the list goes on – requires some unravelling.

In 2005 I attempted to negotiate with a developer next door to where I lived in Christchurch, New Zealand. There was a row of identical cottages, eight in all. I lived in one of them. The destruction of the other seven was a fait accompli. They were built in 1904. The flooring, the cladding, and many other components were still serviceable. I was concerned that the bulldozers would arrive and that the cottages would be crushed and taken away as landfill. All my efforts to negotiate to salvage materials from those houses were in vain. While the negotiations were going on, opportunists broke in to all the buildings and took out the copper tanks, the claw-foot baths and fittings, aluminium doors. Three attempts were made to burn them down. It was so frustrating to watch this wanton destruction over the fence when I would happily have done selective salvage of the wood to be used for the maintenance of the house I lived in. Why is it not a requirement of the building consent to salvage and recycle these buildings?

The components of these houses, the fixtures and fittings, may not be reusable, but they still have had tonnes of greenhouse gases invested in their manufacture: the metal door handles and fittings, the nails, the corrugated iron, the plumbing, the glass, to fuel supply to the power to saws, thicknessers, the spindle moulders, that shaped the thousand year old rimu and kauri, the fuel to make the paints, varnishes, the money spent on the infrastructure, the design, the foundations, the plumbing connections to the city network. These are all discounted in the equation of value. This is ‘end point manufacture’.

What about the gardens’ plants and the heritage fruit trees, the insects, the worms, the ecological infrastructure that provide and contribute something to the quality of the air and bio-diversity of the area? None of this is amortised into the red side of the balance sheet of development.

In ‘The Architecture of Happiness’ Alain de Botton closes the book with the following:

We owe it to the fields that our houses will not be the inferiors of the virgin land they have replaced. We owe it to the worms and the trees that the buildings we cover them with will stand as promises of the highest and most intelligent kinds of happiness.11

The contrived profit generation in housing developments

The current financing structure for developers encourages them to look at all the components and the costs of putting the building together. Each component class has its own devaluation schedule. By carefully managing the various components of the new housing items, significant tax advantages can be realised. This makes the paper value of the development very attractive.

The purchaser-investor can also take advantage of this depreciative accounting when buying the building and is encouraged to use this as part of their investment portfolio. The trick is to maintain this negative gearing within the portfolio by buying more housing stock for longterm profit. Banks encourage this creative accounting. The ‘return on investment’ is high. The building is not a dwelling; it is a paper investment model, the dwelling is a commodity. The occupants don’t feature in this equation, except that they provide a cash flow from rent to support the debt and further capital raising for additional purchases. This has nothing to do with a home or shelter. The home as an investment unit is a cultural construct, a capitalist artefact. That houses house people is irrelevant except that they are income generating units via rent.

The effects of such development on the adjacent community aren’t considered; if lucky, an environment impact study might be required for the development but there is little consideration given to the social impact on the existing community. Many of the infill multi-storey apartments give good returns to the developers, and their depreciation schedules over the ‘life time’ of the building make them attractive to investors but this ‘depreciation’ model doesn’t encourage maintenance or a value on the building and they can rapidly metamorphose into slum shelter. The tenants have no interest in the community or its amenities. They have no social investment.

Built structures are glued to the land, they become fixed to it

That’s the broad brush stroke of the ethical vista and it has permeated my view since I was a teenager when I started designing houses. It was 25 years later when I got the chance to design and build my workshop studio, complete with conservatory, passive solar heating, and the anticipation of solar water heating, and it was mostly constructed out of recycled materials. It struck me, as the building process progressed, that it was all nailed and glued together and permanently fixed to the site. Half way through the construction I decided I would not use nails but screws and bolts so that I could de-construct it and move it to another site at some future date. The time is rapidly approaching as the tide of development has come up the hill where I have this building and is enveloping the property.

Houses for the future

There is a growing number of publications and websites discussing what future houses will look like. In 2005 the ‘House of the Future’ website, for example, illustrated six designs.12 They are all built about the idea of permanency. The emphasis is on affordability, and concerns about the designs being device ready. Other preoccupations are affordable houses for Third World countries.13 Two writers and thinkers have stripped back the layers to get at the heart of just what a ‘house’ and a home is; Mark Wakely in his book ‘Dream Home’14 and Glenn Murcutt in his many comments and interviews.

In the interview mentioned earlier in the New Zealand Listener, Glenn Murcutt had the following insightful things to say about houses:

“Let me say that in my country, and your country, and most other countries, 95 percent of the built environment is merchandise. It’s not architecture. It’s merchandise”. What separates the two is art – art that springs from logic, from taking into account what Murcutt calls “the ‘ings’ of things. The entering, the arriving, the greeting, the progressing, the communicating, the preparing, the eating, the discussing, the leaving, the sleeping, the loving, the caring, the touching – all the senses – the smelling, the feeling, the seeing, all of these things”.

How to assist the owner to develop a design literacy and an ecological literacy

Most of the popular building block toys for children have been developed by educationalists with the idea of teaching construction at an early age. However children already seem to have a sense of home or house. When asked to draw a house most children draw a box with a roof, a door and two windows: a smiling face.14

While this may still be a feature of early childhood education, go to any craft or toy store and the dolls houses are mansions –pre-built. I think it is time to revisit what a ‘house’ should look like and draw on the insights from psychology, studies in design grammar, and develop a house ‘mecano’ so children can explore constructing unique buildings from the building blocks. This approach to teaching architecture was suggested by Aristotle, Michelangelo, and Le Corbusier. I feel this is an important education goal, since it teaches architectural literacy. This approach teaches the purpose and function of shelter and develops confidence that they could build a house themselves.

So what are the impediments to sustainable shelter?

Writing these reflections has been a revelation to me since the impediments are numerous and include rules and regulations that inhibit or prohibit appropriate building. The construction compliance encourages squandering of resources.

While there have been numerous developments in building, at the heart of all the innovations in shelter design is an emphasis on UP, that is, the construction of the dwelling, the additions, retro fitting. There are academic articles that discuss the role of the house in society, or the role of the building in the city. Buildings are seen as a statement or a metaphor for the city or the nation state. Little or no consideration is given to the DOWN, the de-construction of the structure, the recycling of its components, the life cycle of the dwelling, its ecological footprint, its ecological and social investment or its ‘ecological envelope’.

In some tropical indigenous societies, when a couple gets married, the village builds them a house. There are no mortgages. The plans are in the heads of the builders. They have participated in this exercise many times before for friends and relations. They are built of renewable and recyclable resources: bamboo and weavable reeds and grasses. The designs are a product of 25 thousand years of bench testing. The houses are not commodities that can be under or over capitalised. They are not used as collateral against borrowing. They do not, apart from a societal obligation, make serfs of the newlyweds. They are affordable, achievable, and sustainable. The stakeholders are woven into the process.

Design grammar and modularity in design and building

Over the last two hundred years a number of writers have commented that a house is usually a one off, a bespoke building. Recently it has been suggested that a linguist approach to design has much to offer – a design grammar and syntax.15 In this system a structure can have a first and second level modularity and still have a unique design and presence – an individual look and feel. This approach lowers costs and reduces waste in construction. There’s still no serious discussion or consideration at the time of the house’s construction about the fate of the components in the future and no discussion of the problem of gluing the structure to the land.

Architects might think a design grammar is limiting and might resist the idea of modularity since it limits what is possible. What I am proposing here is aimed at shelter in general. If such a modularity was adopted it is still possible to specify exceptions within that grammar matrix. The advantages are: lower construction costs, higher standards of construction through prefabrication, a building that is easier to modify and extend, and a greater percentage of the building being able to be recovered at the end of the building’s life cycle.

The economics of mass production

That houses have escaped the economies of mass production has been voiced by many architects and designers. Various attempts to modularise house components are emerging. Two pioneers are Ikea, and Toyota (see www.houses.com and the www.fabprefab.com for a fuller discussion and history of prefabrication). They are all firmly in the UP category. The modules are glued, screwed, and nailed together. No consideration is given to the ecological envelope of the building and its components, but at least there is some thought given to the economies of construction and the reduction of waste.

In one sense a house is made up of modular elements, first level modularity: standard framing, flooring, and internal wall board, usually in proportions of 1 to 2, but that is as far as it goes. Each house is a one off. One solution would be to have a system with design redundancy and a modular building system that has levels of iteration. By that, I mean, modules within modules within modules. The modules can be ‘memes,’ part of a concrete set of elements in the design grammar. This idea is not new. ‘Dream Homes’ discusses the idea of a design grammer as developed by Alvaro Siza and Jose Duarte. 16

End point manufacture

In the industrial world things are made that have significant resources invested into them but only have one use. A plastic straw is a good example plastic bags another. The ‘waste’ in pre-industrial cultures was not end point manufacture. The materials could be reused or would decompose, the hydrogen bonds between the proteins and sugars broken apart by a variety of physical and biological processes. These molecules are then recycled and reassembled by natural machines; any living organism, back into the components of new life. With end point manufacture and design, the item is suspeded forever in the environment.

A recent book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ 17 presents an analysis of this and some exciting ideas on how to overhaul our industrial world by intelligent design that allows keeping the items made in the techno-sphere in that realm and use of materials that are recoverable and recyclable in that sphere. The problem occurs when the items from the techno-sphere are mixed up with the bio-sphere.

As I was walking home one night in Honiara I came across one of the many squashed cans in the road. I commented to my walking companion that the dollar value of its manufacture could keep a family in food for a week. There it was being trampled on by hundreds of Solomon Islanders daily, its investment lost and its value irretrievable .

In 2004, I went to a meeting to listen to representatives from the Building Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) discussing how to remedy the then crisis in the building industry: the Leaky Building Syndrome. They were concerned about quality of new houses and why they were leaking. I felt the problem was even deeper and my question was: what initiatives were being taken to encourage the building industry to label components of the building with numbers and stamps? Apart from being able to audit a building, such a system would enable the various components to be sorted and put into the resource stream, rather than a waste stream, when the building was deconstructed. No response.

This seems to be so obvious and has a precedent in the automotive industry, and in the other electronics industries, so why isn’t it being done for the housing industry? With a government edict that a dwelling should be designed and certificated with a 50 years life cycle, you would expect a system that mandates for the recovery of the resources in an unmixed stream as part of that certification process. One of the difficulties of this approach is that the fixtures and glues that bond the structure together do not lend themselves to easy dismantling. Once welded into a unit it is very difficult to de-construct without damaging the resource invested components. There needs to be a DOWN philosophy, as well as an UP philosophy in construction. DOWN philosophy addresses the issues of the high and low value resources that can be recovered from the building.

The static nature of the building and the difficulties in changing it or to anticipate and design for future needs

Another challenge embedded in the current house building model is how do you fit the building to the requirements of the individual, family, or community’s ever-changing needs? While the nervous financial institutions will happily advance funds on the standard , three or four bedroom house with its ‘master bedroom’, en suite, etc, they are reluctant to consider a house more appropriately designed for the needs of a contemporary family. It’s all about resale value and the security to the bank in case of a mortgagee sale. In addition, the current building permit system forces a decision as to what you want to do and how you want to live your life at one time for all time. The house is then designed around that, but, as we all know, tomorrow our dreams, life circumstances, and aspirations change. Where in the design brief is there the flexibility to change the shape of the interior, in an easy way, to satisfy the demands of those changes, and that the building is designed with this written into the building permit at the time of construction? The walls are fixed. Little or no thought is given to the possibility of going up with a second or third storey- the most cost-effective and efficient use of footprint at the time of the building application. In business, the Business Plan spells out the present and future value with investment into the business. Why not with houses and shelter? The best time to design the engineering for future development is when the building is designed . But a lender and financial advisor’s response would be ‘are you overcapitalising?’

Why isn’t the material and ecological investment recoverable from existing housing stock at the end of its use?

So what is going wrong? Why does the average punter, who is thinking about building a new house – build something that is four times bigger than the average house of 100 years ago, a house that had twice as many occupants? What’s driving this largesse? Why would anybody in their right mind pay a 16th of their mortgage to house a vehicle that is designed to last outside in the weather? Is it peer pressure, is it fashion, or is it a cultural madness?

The possibility of shelter being alive and productive

Shelter, both small and large, is conceived as a passive shell, something that is static. Yet all that surface area: the roof, the walls, the windows, in addition to their primary function, which is encasement, can provide a secondary function. The secondary function can include: water collection, electron capture with photovoltaic cells, and solar water heating. Wall cladding could be designed as a grey water management system. Imagine a cladding that was a hydroponic skin in which salad vegetables and other exotic plants grew, and at the same time, remediated grey water into a potable and reusable resource. The city councils might have a little difficulty in accepting that this cladding was an acceptable alternative to Hardy Plank or corrugated iron and BRANZ may have difficulty giving it its ‘leaky house’ stamp of approval, as they did with my suggestions of labelling the components of the building.

When a building is considered a matrix or a skeleton, it has the potential to be a living system. What is currently flushed away and considered waste is a resource. I have experimented with a number of recycling systems. I have a number of ponds and these provide habitats for native fish, frogs, water lilies and a host of micro-organisms and plants. The azolla growing on the surface of the ponds provides a nitrogen rich fertiliser for the garden. The wormaries manage all the household resource streams including cardboard and non-inked papers. The worms love pounded and crushed green-lipped mussel shells. The wormaries can be used to treat grey water. An Australian company developed by a sustainability genius, Dean Cameron, has pioneered and perfected a natural water treatment system.18 I can envisage this system becoming integrated into a living house and the vermicast becoming part of the hydroponic system on the walls to grow lettuces, salad vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

The sustainable house should meet several criteria:

When the impediments to sustainable shelter are isolated, solutions spring out as obvious:

  • A house should be made of recyclable components
  • The pieces of the building should be taken out of the depreciation scales
  • used by developers and the inflation index and be treated as an investment – an ecological investment
  • The houses should sustain or even enhance their ecological value over the lifetime of the building
  • They should be constructed of reusable parts
  • They should be attached but not cemented to the site
  • The house should grow up and become an autonomous living system
  • In function a house should mimic biological systems
  • All the components invested into the building, both real, ephemeral, and intellectual need to be truly valued and this begs for the development of true ecological and cultural cost accounting

What is required is a radical rethink of the purpose and possible other functions of shelter; imagination to think how to utilise the nutrients, water, and sunshine; imagination to put the components into place and interconnect them: true biomimicary. The occupants should be intimately interlinked and intertwined within the life of the house – a composite organism.

This reflection of ‘House’ has been an ongoing meditation–a work in progress. I have realised the template for these ideas in my UpDown House designs. This initiative is a practical realisation of an iterative modularity and a design grammar that allows for any number of shapes and levels of construction. It is also scalable. It provides an answer to the limitations of current building practices as well as anticipating retrofitting, additions and subtractions, and modification to become a self contained and autonomous living system. Each component is designed to be reused until it decomposes or is refabricated.

Kevin Scally August 2009. Minor revisions October 2010

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/nz/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.


1. Gould, S.J. The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History. (W.W. Norton & Co.: 1987).

2. Eldredge, N. The sixth extinction. (2001).

3. Margulis, L. & Sagan, D. Acquiring Genomes: The Theory of the Origins of the Species. (Basic Books: 2003).

4. Responsible dominion-A Christian approach to sustainable development Ian Hore-Lacy. 18, 198(2006).

5. The Religion Report – 13 September 2006 – Ian Hore-Lacy. at <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/religionreport/stories/2006/1739317.htm>

6. Addressing food wastage in the US – Science Show – 8 April 2006. at <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2006/1608131.htm>

7. Making oil out of waste – Science Show – 15 April 2006. at <http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2006/1613572.htm>

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