Rural Studio

In a way this post continues my previous post on Passivhaus. I’ve had these resources open in my browser for some time and didn’t quite not in what context I should place them here on Bhudeva. Passivhaus gave me to the context that was looking for me.

Rural Homes is a project run out of Auburn University in Alabama, USA. We learned about it through Itsik Hirsch – a talented architect and teacher at the Israel Institute of Technology who also happens to be a dear person to us and my uncle. Itsik teaches what is called “studio” – which, as I understand it, is an experimental learning space which usually makes up a major part of architecture studies. It is where students do actual architectural work and gain precious practical experience. But in most cases that experience remains theoretical because their projects are not actually built.

The Rural Homes project took the “studio” in an inspiring direction. In it students are challenged to create feasible and affordable solutions for people who live in extremely poor living conditions. The challenge is not just to create a design on paper, the students actually go out and build the house themselves. It is a tremendously inspiring project that touches many people’s lives. It is a wonderful (and in my experience rare) example of academic study and research directly connecting to and benefiting the society in which it exists.

Following is an interview with the man behind this beautiful project – Samuel Mockbee:

For more information:

So what does Passivhaus have to do with all this? Very little and that is the essence of my critic of it. Rural Studio should be a reality check for Passivhaus. The greatest place for impacting both the lives of both people, the environment and this entire planet we inhabit (which are really so intertwined to the point that they are one and the same) is where most of the people are, not where a small percentage of rich people can indulge in ideology.

Our reality is somewhere in between Passivhaus and Rural Studio. I am inspired by Rural Studio and deterred by Passivhaus. I feel that Rural Studio touches my life and that Passivhaus overlooks it. Maybe I am bit too harsh towards Passivhaus and though I can speculate on why that is I will keep that to myself – it is a question I believe Passivhaus can benefit from asking.

The Rural Studio from BluePrint Productions on Vimeo.

Passivhaus

Introduction

Passivhaus is one of the terms out there in eco-green-sustaintable building land. It may look like its spelled wrong but that’s because its originally from Germany. It represents a very strict and high standard of energy efficiency in a building. It isn’t (yet) an official requirement or standard but it is gathering momentum as an unspoken standard.

There are three complementary core ideas behind the idea of a Passivhaus:

  1. Complete and thorough thermal insulation of the house which prevents conductivity of heat from the inside-out or the outside-in.
  2. Complete air-tightness which prevents exchange of heat through air leaks (windows, doors, pipes, chimneys … every opening needs to be sealed!).
  3. An efficient ventilation system that both exchanges air (from the outside and the otherwise airtight house) and does so without losing heat.

This is one of those images that is better then a thousand words. The apartment building on the left is standard/traditional building while the apartment building on the right is built according to the Passivhaus standard. That’s the bottom line of Passivhaus – keeping the heat from escaping means you need to expend less energy to heat the inside.

Extreme!?

I have come across Passivhaus numerous times in recent weeks and my recurring personal impression is that it is too extreme:

  • It seems like more of an academic indulgence then a practical construction practice.
  • It’s objective and success is measured in a single number – the amount of energy needed to heat a square-meter of space.
  • It demands rigorous builing disciplines which require uncompromised excellence in construction.
  • It demands the use of specialized insulation materials which can be expensive (especially if you consider the ecological foot-print involved in manufacturing them).
  • It creates a house that demands constant attention, maintenance and proper use by its residents (every window opened and every hole drilled in the wall is a potential energy hazard).

All of which results in a delicately balanced system: if it isn’t absolutely sealed, perfectly ventilated by a carefully installed system and properly used it just won’t work. There is no room for error. This maybe OK in a scientific experiment but not so for life, nature and people.

In any case it doesn’t feel right for us: we have a limited budget, average construction capabilities, standard building materials, etc. We are going to do the best that we can with what we have. It’s an 80/20 kind of thing – where 20% of the effort takes you 80% of the way you need to go and it would take another 80% of effort to go the rest of the way. We’re aiming for a good middleground – pushing the limits of what we have – but that, by definition, is not enough to go for 100%. Passivhaus is uncompromising, but we live in a reality which demands compromise.

“A passivehouse is cost-effective when the combined capitalized costs (construction, including design and installed equipment, plus operating costs for 30 years) do not exceed those of an average new home.”

Source: PassiveHouse.com

I am hesitant to relate to this statement as that may give it unwarranted legitimacy –  cost is just too narrow a perspective to view ecological housing. But if I do meet it head on, as is, I would say that it sets its sights much too low. I hope to build a house where the combined capitalized costs are much lower then those of a new average home (whatever that is). I also hope to build a house who’s qualitative effects (both for us and others) far outway it’s economic effects.

Maybe Passivhaus is, for the time being, a high-end building experiment? Maybe in time it will spawn accessible, affordable and feasible techniques, solutions, technologies, practices … that can become a defacto standard that simply makes sense to follow? For now, it is out of touch with us and our needs.

Humidity

Having said all that exploring Passivhaus has brought to my attention a factor I had not taken into consideration in all of my energy research: Indoor Air Quality. I have been following a very basic intuition: “generate heat” in trying to solve a problem we’ve been having for many winters: “being cold”. Most of my attention has been on how to preserve and generate heat (space and water) effectively.

I had not given any thought to one of the central themes of Passivhaus: quality of air. Quality of air (assuming there is good ventilation) is strongly effected by humidity … and humidity effects the overal experience of temperature … cold is much colder when humidity is too low and heat is much hotter when humidity is too high. I have experienced the effects of humidity in warm and cold temperatures in Israel and I have seen it (as accumulated moisture and mildew) in almost all Romanian homes I have visited.

I don’t know yet enough about ventillation and humidity.

Hemp

One of the much praised qualities of hemp masonry is it’s breathability. It seems to have a natural tendency to absorb and expel unneeded moisture. I don’t yet have enough information on the overall effects of hemp on moisture, ventilation or quality of air indoors – but I do have a good feeling about the effects of hemp!

Resources

Following are some of the resources I came across and consumed in trying to understand Passivhaus:

Interview with Ian Pritchett of Lime Technology

So pleasing to see a pleasant person who loves and believes in what he does. An interview with Ian Pritchett, Managing Director of Lime Technology:

Hempcrete Building

Informative video which did a great job of putting images to words:

Are Alternative Energy Technologies Relevant?

We are spending a lot of time looking at potential energy solutions – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal … anything and everything. There’s a lot of knowledge to be acquired and there are a lot of companies looking to sell their products and solutions.

The one thing they all have going for them is a promise of a so called better day – super efficient solutions to basic needs, making better use of the environment, lowering carbon foot print and what not. It’s all very appealing … but our overall impression is that most of these technologies are not relevant for us.

Experimental

A lot of these technologies are still experimental – there simply has not not been enough experience with these systems to get a clear picture of what they can do, how well they can do it and for how long. If you factor in mind diversities such as climate, culture, lifestyle, natural resources … then the picture becomes even less clear and conclusive.

If you are considering such systems you are probably better off thinking of them as experiments rather then solutions. Experiments are a process of trial and error that may or may not lead to a workable solution. Make sure you have a capacity for experimentation – because no matter what kind of promises and guarantees you will hear from product manufacturers – there  are more unknowns to their products then they care to admit.

Complexity

A key factor in any solution we consider is both it’s simplicity. The simpler the solution the less likely it is to break down and the easier (and less costly) it is to fix when it does happen to falter.

When the luxury of electric windows started appearing in cars they failed alot which was very bothersome (not  being able to roll-up or down a car window) and terribly expensive to fix. It took somewhere between 10 and 20 years to reach a point where the simple mechanism of an electric window became reliable.

In addition, the last 10 or 20 years of production seem to have suffered a drop in quality. There was a time when a washing machine was engineered to last 20 or 30 years, now most machines falter after 4 or 5 years. New machines are also so complicated to fix that often it is cheaper to throw them away and get new ones instead of fixing them.

This meeting of complexity and experimental doesn’t invoke confidence.

Indulgent

Most of the technologies are prohibitively expensive. We can’t help but feel that they are a fashionable indulgence more then feasible, ecological, responsible solutions to energy challenges.

Our meeting with these technologies (as is the case with most of the other people we know in this context) takes place in the context of moving into a simple and sustainable lifestyle – where do-it-yourself replaces consumerism, where money is a limited resource and where finance is not welcome. The price entry barrier is so ridiculously high that these technologies are simple not relevant.

Availability

Alternative energy home/residential products seem to be widely available in the USA and some developed west-European countries. They are not easy to come by in Romania (and I’m guessing in many other places) where they can be of great value (i.e. a self-sustainable village home).

This is another sign to me that these technologies are still more of a fashion then actual feasible solutions. They are highly available for the rich to play around with (and feel they all green about themselve as they consume copious amounts of energy) rather then where they can be best leveraged.

Production Waste

Looking at a lof of these solutions makes me wonder about how much ecological waste was created when they were produced. This is an often overlooked aspect of ecological solutions – they may run efficiently and saved you a lot of money – but how much of an ecological foorprint did they leave behind them when they were manufactured?

Overall it feels to us that this is not a good time to get involved in most alternative energy technologies. Any temptation to actually use them are tempred by the lack of clarity, complexity, limited availability and prohibitive costs of such solutions.

We will be looking into technologies which are simple, affordable, well established and relatively predictable such as photovoltaic and hydro-electric solutions.

We will be re-examining every aspect of our lifestyle to see where we can consume less and make the best of what we do consume.

We will be trying to create simple and feasible solutions using tried and true solutions, local knowledge and our own common-sense.