I get asked all the time about my design process and how it contributes to a regenerative lifestyle and a truly living home. Rather than answering each person individually, I’ve decided to make this one into a podcast and blog post that you can read on the website under the “news” tab in the navigation bar. I’ll certainly get deep into the design process in this episode and there’s even a free PDF of the Abundant Edge building design criteria available as a free download on the show notes for this episode on the website, but before I go into all of that I want to start by talking about why natural building is such an important and often overlooked and under-appreciated aspect of permaculture. I see how big the movement around permaculture landscape management has become and why people are so attracted to it, and I think it’s all wonderful and valuable and an essential step for us as a global culture to take if we intend to continue living on this planet, but I also feel that some of the priorities are a little lopsided when it comes to the essentials for life as human beings, especially in modern times.
A good way of putting things into perspective is by looking at the survival rule of threes. Many of you probably already know them, they refer to food, water and shelter. In general, a healthy human being can survive 30 days without food, 3 days without water, but only 3 hours without shelter. Now obviously the shelter rule only applies in situations of extreme weather like extreme cold, heat or storms. In many places in the world you could live just fine without shelter for about 99% of the year, but you sure want to have a good shelter option for that last 1% to say nothing about climates where half the year or more you want to have a cozy space just to be comfortable for most of the day…but the point is that most permaculture courses focus heavily on providing the food and water in an abundant system design and only touch on the topic of shelter by glossing over passive solar design, gray water systems, or how to select a good site for a house in a landscape, but let’s take a look at why the built environment deserves a lot more attention if we really want to design regenerative living systems.
First of all, the worlds population is rapidly urbanizing. For the first time in history more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities and 2 billion more people are expected to move to cities in just the next 20 years. While I completely understand the romance and desire to move to the countryside (I myself have my own little shared farm and live part of the year in a little rural indigenous mayan village in Guatemala after all), increasingly this is becoming impractical for most people on the planet. Over 90 per cent of that urban growth is occurring in developing countries, which add an estimated 70 million new urban residents each year. Think of how much construction (both formal and informal in the construction of slums) that’s going to require! So let’s take a look at what impact the construction industry is having on our planet to get an idea of how this building boom might continue to affect our planet.
According to new research by construction blog Bimhow, the construction sector currently contributes 23% of air pollution, 50% of the climate change causing waste products, 40% of drinking water pollution, and 50% of landfill wastes. In separate research by the U.S. Green Building Council, the construction industry accounts for 40% of worldwide energy usage. This isn’t even calculating how much energy these buildings use after they’re built. Furthermore, the EPA found that the U.S. construction industry accounts for 160 million tons, or 25 percent, of non-industrial waste generation every year.
Research by Kleiwerks intl. (who’s former director Janele Kapoor has a remarkable interview on this podcast on community building back in episode 10) says that building material, such as concrete, aluminum, and steel, are directly responsible for “large quantities of CO2 emissions” due to the high content of “embodied energy” in their production, with 9.8 million tons of CO2 generated from the production of “76 million tons of finished concrete in the US.” This amounts to roughly 5% of carbon emissions worldwide. If this wasn’t worrying enough, construction activities consume “half of all the resources” extracted from nature, from everything to logging to mining, and account for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, one-quarter of wood consumption, and one-quarter of global waste,” Everything about the processes of our built world are broken, from the way we build, the materials we use, to the systems we install that demand constant consumption. The weirdest part is that we know how to build without doing all this damage and the knowledge has been with us for millennia.
The truth is that homes and buildings are the nucleus of any site. There the majority of all energy and resources flow through and are either wasted or maximized for the best and most efficient use.
Yet most permaculture designs start at zone 1. Zone 0 is really where it all begins!
With the majority of permaculture enthusiasts not having either the desire or ability to start a whole farm or move to larger acreage, applying permaculture to the home will have far more impact on environmental health than anywhere in your yard or garden.
So let’s start talking solutions! When paired with permaculture design principles, natural building has the potential to save you way more money and reduce your waste much more than growing your own food and building soil on a small scale. This comes back to a principle that you’ll hear me preach a lot about which is that it’s often more effective to reduce your waste and destruction than to mask it with a few small positive acts. I’ll never say anything against planting an herb spiral or installing a water catchment barrel for example, but if doing those things causes you to overlook excessive electricity consumption, or huge amounts of your useful resources going directly to a landfill, then they might be the bandaid that keeps you from addressing a gaping wound.
The good news is that natural and regenerative building isn’t only for people who are building a home from scratch in the woods. Though there are countless examples of cute rustic little cottages built with mud and sticks, the exact same materials can be used to build gorgeous mansions, a modern bungalow, or even just to beautifully renovate an existing industrial structure. So you shouldn’t despair if you already have a great home in a good location, but just wish that it could be retrofitted to reflect your love of the environment. The only limitations are the skill sets of the builders and the imagination and tenacity of the owners.
As important as it is to design for food production, soil building, and water harvesting, you’ll never reach a regenerative lifestyle if your buildings are toxic, wasteful and consumptive. Buildings are the most essential, and too often overlooked part of a truly regenerative living system.
So let’s get into the design questions and criteria that I use, almost on a daily basis, to assess a build site, incorporate the needs and wants of my clients, and make sure that the environment around the building is not only protected, but actually cared for and coaxed into its full potential. The list bellow won’t guarantee that your structures are perfect, but you’ll be miles ahead of most designers if you at least consider all of the questions on the list.
The Abundant Edge Building Design Process
mapping (get at least the compass coordinates, the general contours, and any major features)
climate assessment (overall climate, average annual rainfall, major seasons and their average high and low temps. and likely major climactic events such as droughts)
natural disaster assessment (everything from earthquake risk, volcanoes, storms, and especially flood potential)
contour and slope (where and how does water and airflows move on the site)
drainage ability of soil (hole and bucket test on multiple sites on the land)
Where are the access points to the site? (roads, driveways, docks, etc)
Major features and vegetation of the site (everything from huge rocks and trees to gullies, creeks, and previously disturbed sites)
where are the micro climates on site
relative and absolute elevation
what materials are available on site (building materials such as clay soil, stones, lumber and suitable grasses could save you tons of money in construction)
what materials are available locally (check in with neighbors, community boards, municipal bodies, even dumpsters and landfills could have perfectly good building materials and tools)
what materials, available at a distance, have the lowest embodied energy and lowest toxicity (recycled or refurbished materials, giveaways on craigslist, anything second hand or recycled before buying new)
all of these different site factors will set the limitations for the project, but don’t be discouraged, limitations are essential for good design. The next limitation will really set the pace!
Client’s (or your own) budget
You’ll likely reassess your ambitions a good bit when you see the amount you have to work with so focus first on…
sanitation (keep it clean ya hippy! You don’t want to get sick)
cooking (start with the basics and get more luxurious from there)
sleeping (it takes up about a third of your life so consider it a necessity)
security (against weather, disease, breaches of privacy, etc)
storage (even if you don’t have a lot of stuff you’ll want to consider convenient and secure places to store essentials)
work space (if the occupants intend to work from home)
Good questions to ask
how will the building make best use of all of the resources and features of the site.
how will it deal with waste?
how will the design incorporate systems that make it easier to make positive choices rather than destructive ones
how will the design facilitate the functions of the inhabitants (passions, hobbies, relationships,
how will the design allow for the growth and expansion of the lives of the inhabitants both physically and emotionally (additions to the family? Personal growth? Aging?)
how does the building contribute to the surrounding ecology and community (or detract from it)
What details, features and feelings do the clients want? Why do they want them? Why do they think they want them?
Ideal temp range
extras (storage, appliances, big windows, comfy furniture, creative spaces, etc)
soundscape (noise privacy, accentuation, music?)
lighting (natural and otherwise)
What’s important to know about this list is that it’s meant to be a concise and easy to follow guide to making responsible and insightful choices. The list is constantly evolving and updating with the experience gained by myself and the Abundant Edge team. Keep an eye out for updated and revised versions in the future as we refine our systems and processes.
If any of you out there are interested in getting a more in depth education on professional natural building design, you can take a look at the courses on both natural building and permaculture design that we offer at Abundant Edge and you can find all of that information under the education tab on the website.
Most importantly, I would never expect you to remember all the things on this list, so to make it easier to access these design criteria conveniently I’ve put it all on a PDF that you can get for free by going to the show notes for this episode on Abundantedge.com and clicking the PDF download link.
I would also love to hear from all of you listeners/readers about your own design processes and priorities.
And if any of you have questions for me or any of the other team members, you can reach us directly on our facebook page by searching abundant edge. Leave your questions and comments there as posts or in private messaging and we’ll either answer them as soon as possible, or maybe even answer them in a podcast or blog post in the future. So that’s it for this special episode, thanks so much for listening and I’ll catch you again next week
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