Education Questions and Answers

Jenny Pickerill (PhD) is a Professor of Environmental Geography at the University of Sheffield. She has been teaching on environmental issues, eco-building, and social change for many years, is a journal editor, has published several books and many articles and is also a guest lecturer at The Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales. She has built her own eco-house in Leicestershire, England from reclaimed materials. She has spent over a decade working with environmental activist and social change organisations, and co-edited a book on the self-build eco-homes. She is currently doing a research project on affordable eco-housing, having been awarded a travelling fellowship by the Winston Churchill Trust in order to improve approaches and practices to affordable eco-building. She is also working on a project with physical scientists exploring how best to help prepare rural communities survive climate change. She writes the Green Building Blog about low-cost eco-housing and continues to seek to improve environmental education at Universities, particularly ways in which we can incorporate practical learning into theoretical programmes.

Q: I am a final year architecture student from India and WANT to build a PLANETARIUM using earth sheltering as a technique. For which I would like to ask:


I think to answer that question you need to determine what the average temperature of the earth is in the region you are planning to build. I would assume given the size of India that there is quite a variety in air temperature across the country, but is that also reflected in changing temperature of the earth? For example, do you have frosts? The basic principle of earth shelter however - to provide a stable temperature - should be as applicable in hot humid climates as cool and temperate climates. It should ensure warmth in winter and cool inside temperatures in summer. I have certainly seen examples in hot and arid climates work very well, I am simply a little less sure of how it might work in a more humid environment.


In terms of books, there is obviously a broad range of books about how to build a sheltered house (for example, Earth-Sheltered Houses: How to Build an Affordable Underground Home by Rob Roy). The British Earth Sheltering Association (http://www.besa-uk.org/) might also be useful. It might also be useful to have a look at the extensive website of an earth-sheltered community in Britain - Hockerton (http://www.hockertonhousingproject.org.uk/). In terms of academic papers there is an interesting one by: Littlewood, J. R. Geens, A, J. The thermal performance results for a family occupied earth sheltered house in the UK. International Journal of Engineering, Design and Technology. No 2 June 2004, pp. 37-55.


I think the key to any academic research, as in your thesis, is to provide enough detail to prove that it will work. This does not necessarily mean providing plans, though as an architecture student you would probably want to, but it does require that you justify your choices clearly and outline the key concepts and challenges of earth sheltering as a design choice. I think with any research it is especially important to identify the potential problems and outline how you would be able to overcome them.

Q: I am doing a research paper and presentation for my Communications class at Edmonds Community College. I have chosen the subject of Green Construction. Since it is so large I would really like to explore alternatives to the wood or cement exterior walls. If you can guide me I would greatly appreciate it. I will of course keep reading your site but any thoughts you might have to make it even more interesting for my classmates would be welcome input.

A: I find that ways to make green construction interesting is to ask people to reflect upon the ways in which they live in their house and what does and doesn't work in it. For example, in Britain the vast majority of our homes are cold in winter. When I did a recent survey in a class of undergraduate students 99% said that they were cold at home and most mornings in winter could 'see their breath' as they got ready to go to University. It is then easier to explain why different ways of building our homes - using straw bale external walls for example - create warm and cosy homes instead. So I would encourage you to think of ways in which to relate the importance of better walls to your audience.

Q: I've been searching for a superior degree in natural building or something related to that in Europe. I'm currently taking a degree in Design at IADE, in Lisbon, Portugal, and I want to continue my education taking a Masters Degree on some kind of Ecological Design, related with natural building, and the only ones I'm finding are in the States, or at that side of the Atlantic.. I'm asking if you could please use your expertise and knowledge to help me find something in Europe.

A: You are right is saying that there are generally more directly explicit degrees in natural building in the US, however, there are some really good places in the UK which might be worth looking at further: (1) The Centre for Alternative Technology (Wales) is a world-leader in sustainable design and includes a big emphasis on natural building. They have a Graduate School (http://gse.cat.org.uk) with a range of programmes, some more technical than others. (2) The University of Sheffield has a masters course in Sustainable Architecture (www.sheffield.ac.uk) and a very good reputation for researching alternative forms of building. (3) The other alternative would be to contact some of the UK organisations which support and advocate natural building - like the Earth Building UK group (www.ebuk.uk.com) or the AECB (www.aecb.net) who might be able to recommend further courses.

Q: I'm a mechanical engineer for the last 20 years and considering studying architecture in a school environment. Searching the internet for green or sustainable architectural programs does not turn up the magic list or much information in general related to becoming an architect. I find lots of information on workshops and some accredited alternate program courses. But if I wish to practice as an archtect, I believe some type of accredidation will be required. Do you know of any information source that would assist me at this time?

A: (Amanda Woodward) It is true that to be a licensed architect you have to have a professional education.  Where 10 years ago, many paths could lead to licensing, it is becoming increasing difficult to take alternate routes.  NAAB, the National Architecture Accreditation Board, reviews architecture programs and issues accreditations in 1 year, 3 year, and 5 year increments (depending on the quality of the program, problems to be resolved, etc).  To review accredited programs, go to their website: http://www.naab.org

If you do want to get a professional degree, you will probably want to look at 3+ programs, which are architecture programs for people with 'unrelated' degrees.  You will probably be able to get credit for related classes (like structures, HVAC, etc.) given your background, but it won't shave much time off of the 3 years.  Kelly's list covers all of the US programs that I am aware of with any legitimate focus on sustainability. 

That said, I have not found a US program that is very far along the green/sustainable path.  There is a strong culture within the profession and especially within US schools that seems to preclude it.  I have a degree in Chemical engineering, I attended the University of Colorado for a Masters of Architecture, then stayed on to work on a PhD, looking specifically at this problem. 

It is important to clarify what you mean by green/sustainable design.  For example, Arizona State has a very strong solar architecture program, while the University of Oregon has long focused on a 'systems' approach to design.  UT Austin's sustainability thread looks intriguing, but I've not spoken to anyone who is involved it in.  My advice is to contact students and faculty in these programs.  Find out what the focus is, how well funded it is, faculty involvement and expertise, etc.

It is my experience that one has to create opportunities for oneself.  If you can find faculty and students that share your interests, you can tune your education to develop interests and knowledge of sustainability.  If you choose to go the 'professional education' route, I would still supplement your activities with workshops, 'alternative' education programs and the like.

All this applies to you if licensure is important.  You can do a lot of design work without being licensed.  In Colorado, I believe an architect is required only for buildings larger than 10,000 square feet.  In this case, several of the 'alternative' programs may give you much more depth and focus than the institutionalized programs.

Q: Kelly, I am inquiring about your education and professional background. My boyfriend is interested in beginning a new career, he currently works for a contractor building homes, and we are curious as to your background, so as to assist him in pursuing this new dream. Any help or information you can give would be greatly helpful to us both.

A (Kelly): I am primarily a self-taught individual; my schooling came from my father, who was a builder and cabinet maker, and from many years of experience as a carpenter and craftsperson. I have always believed that I can accomplish almost anything that I put my mind to, so by trial and error I have come to my particular way of doing things. This approach isn't for everyone, so I don't necessarily recommend it. I have listed on the education page a lot of other ways to learn about natural building and sustainable architecture.

Q: From a beginner's standpoint, where can I go to get educated about designing and building my own sustainable home. I am looking for something in-depth enough to actually give me the personal means to design and build my home on my own or with a few friends?

A: (Amanda Woodward) You've come to the right place.  Greenhomebuilding has wonderful resources for green building.  I have several recommendations for you: 1. Educate yourself - read, research, watch videos, look around, visit green houes and get a feel for what you'd like to build 2. Get started building:  you may not want to dive right into a house - a large scale project with lots of systems to think about - so you could try a small project or find a weekend or week-long workshop that will teach hand-on.  (for example www.yestermorrow.org http://www.cobworks.com ) 3.  As you do each of these, acquaint yourself with 'experts' in the field and the type of building you are considering.  These folks will be invaluable as consultants as you move along the path to creating your own home!  I strongly believe in research, imagine, do, research, imagine, do!  Your ideas, skills and knowledge get better with each cycle!

Q: I am currently a non-traditional student and would like to further my education to do exactly what Green Home Building does: help our earth by creating ways for home seekers (or owners) to promote green ways of living with educated choices in regards to materials used for residential living (hopefully the commercial industry, as well). Anyways, I was wondering how I could be involved with this type of movement? Do I need to be a licensed architect? or is there a way to be involved with green building via another route? Contracting companies or interior design firms? I am graduating with a degree in studio art and have a handle on the design aspects - and I have a degree in microbiology - (I'd rather make a difference with my art abilities), so I'm well apprised of the science aspect of building. I'm really just stymied as to how I can get into the field?

A: (Kelly) There are many ways to interface your career with green building. You do not necessarily need to be an architect to design houses, but of course it helps. Many of the designers represented at www.dreamgreenhomes.com are not trained architects, they just understand the basics of good design. Often it is necessary to have a local engineer sign off on building plans anyway. Or you can become trained in some other aspect of building, such as being a craftsman to actually help with construction. For this there are many opportunities to learn, some of them listed on this page, and often this sort of work can take an artistic turn. Some of the most interesting homes have been designed  or crafted by artists. I'm sure you will find the right niche if you just keep poking around.

Q: I'm doing a PowerPoint presentation for my class on what my dream job is....a green home design architect. I'm really intrigued by everything they make with Green Design. Anyhow, the paper had a few listed requirements i.e. salary, benefits, what exactly they do, and what they do on a normal basis (like what their day is like day to day) If you can help me out with any of this I would appreciate it greatly.

A (Sven Alstrom): We are really the same profession and salary as standard residential architects. That is we make about the same income throughout our career as high school teachers and high school principals. But we don't have summer off and we have less retirement and often no health care benefits. So in terms of salary, the profession is not very good.
Usually we work standard office hours and about 10 to 20% of our workday is in research and product research and how to apply that to specific projects. Most of us have drawing skills and I would say that about 60% of us provide drawings for projects. The main benefit of being in the field of architecture is in helping to implement peoples ideas and usher those ideas into the real world. In this sense we are like composers & musicians that are asked to perform and make things happen a certain way. The harmony of that type of work resonates with certain people and we enjoy being surrounded by this type of work.

A (John Connell): Excellent choice.  It's a great job but no two days are the same.  Variety is the spice of life. You will spend approximately: 10% of your time designing 15% of your time presenting and dealing with clients 35-40% of your time preparing construction documents and specifications.  This includes research and keeping up on the latest stuff. 5% of your time dealing with lawyers, insurance agents and the like. 5-10% of your time doing promotion, outreach and teaching; 10% overseeing the bid process; 15% of your time supervising the construction. Salary varies widely and largely depends on where you work in the country.  I'm in Vermont so no one gets paid much for anything.  But you can make $90k+ as a green licensed architect if you're smart.  I would suggest you also get a degree or at least some training in interior design as that's where much of the action is.  Also, you will be required to complete continuing education courses every year.  These can be really enlightening or somewhat of a drag. As always, life is what you make it.  I love this job because it's constantly changing.  After 28 years as a green independent architect, I am now running the design department at Connor Homes where we design and build preFAB early American designs and ship them as kits all over the East.  I get to design and build 4-6 houses a month in stead of 4-6 houses a year.  And they hired me to make their entire operation green! Sweet!

Q: In your opinion would going to architectural school (sustainable design focus) be a good career move or rather to become involved with a company that would be more of an apprenticeship program? I'm 35 and considering a change, getting out of the institutional education system and more into the sustainable practices education / living realm.

A: (Kelly) It partly depends on what level of involvement you want to pursue. If you want to become an architect, then obviously you'll need the technical training and credentials to work. If you want to become more of a trades person, then getting hands-on experience in a working environment would be appropriate.

Q: I am a 29 year young woman preparing myself to return to school and finish with my degree this time! :) My road has been long but I am SO excited about what it's allowed me to figure out concerning my purpose. I have decided to go for a degree in Architecture, and my research has shown me that I can likely customize an education that fits my particular interests in sustainability. I feel I need both the formal architecture and environmental design background as well as the natural home building knowledge. So I have two questions for you: 1. Being that no college architecture program I know of teaches natural home building, at what point might you find it best for me to attain that knowledge through the courses and workshops I find online? I know I can read the books anytime, but expect to need that hands on experience. Would you recommend before I go back to school, over one summer, or after I've attained at least my Bachelors?

A: (Kelly) I am not an academic, so I am probably not the best person to advise you on this, but I'll give you my opinion anyway. I place considerable value on practical experience as a precursor to coming up with practical designs; there is no substitute for knowing how materials behave in the real world when conceptualizing possible designs. All too frequently architects will design something that an experienced builder will just shake her head at. So I think getting at least some experience under your belt will help you achieve your broader goal.

Q: I am a Brazilian student of Chemistry (bachelor degree) and I wanted to get information about if (or how) could I get in a master program on sustainable buildings. I think maybe in studying materials (based on green sources, like reusable sources and raw material). Could you give me a guide? I think about a program in Canada, and with scholarship for a foreign student.

A: I would not limit yourself to just Canada, there are lots of good programmes in England and Australia too. Funding is always a lot harder obviously, but a high rated University tends to have scholarships for overseas students. For example, I would recommend:

MSc Energy and Sustainable Building Design at De Montfort University, England: www.iesd.dmu.ac.uk

Sustainable Building Technology Masters (MSc) at Nottingham University, England: http://pgstudy.nottingham.ac.uk

MSc Design Science (Sustainable Design) in Sydney, Australia: https://sydney.edu.au

I know of this course, Building Science (MBSc/MASc) at Ryerson University, Canada: www.ryerson.ca. However, unlike the ones in Australia and the UK I am afraid I do not know their quality and reputation.

There is also a really interesting distance learning course
Master of Science in Green Building at San Francisco Institute of Architectire: www.sfia.net

Q: For the past few years I've been voraciously studying natural building and sustainable living. I've just graduated college and I'm interested in making a career of it. I wonder if you'd have a moment to share any advice, ideas, leads, or referrals to a young person trying to enter into the field of natural building?

A: (Kelly) I suggest that you begin by getting some experience in the field through taking workshops, connecting with others who are doing what you would like to do, becoming educated about all of the possibilities. There are learning opportunities posted at here and here. You might join the Natural Building Network to find like-minded folks.

Q: I am a student of Advanced Sustainable Design at the University of Edinburgh, UK. I am from New Delhi, India and have completed my education as an architect. My dissertation topic revolves around the feasibility of straw bale construction in the Indian context. I would be grateful if you could lead me to anyone who is working on straw bale construction in India or any completed/ ongoing projects that you are aware of.

A: Rather than try and find straw bale examples in India I wonder if it might be useful to contact the numerous people working on straw bale in the UK (given that you are there) and then identify the issues that would need translating? I am thinking, for example of Barbara Jones (www.strawworks.co.uk) and the work of Craig White architects on the LILAC projects in Leeds (www.lilac.coop). These are two very different examples of how straw bale is being developed and used. You are probably best placed to analyze these examples, and talk to the architects, to then identify issues around different humidity, rainfall, temperature etc that would need accounting for. Equally I would encourage you to look at the work of Builders Beyond Borders (www.buildersbeyondborders.org) who do a great deal of work in translating eco-housing ideas of the west into different contexts. I am afraid I do not know of any direct examples in India, but I hope that some of these suggestions are helpful.

Q: I'm attempting to start a career in sustainable living practices. I'd like to focus on natural building, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, etc., for single family residences or for communities. In regards to natural building, it seems that to make a career doing this you can pay for training, become an apprentice and then maybe start your own business. Another option (for those with bills to pay) is to get a degree in architecture or engineering to make a living, then get the natural building education to branch out into. Are there any other practical ways to make a career out of this? Are there really any employment opportunities without starting your own business?

A: You are largely right, there are three keys ways in which to get into a career in sustainable living practices - education, starting a business or becoming an apprentice. I think I would add, however, that there are an increasing number of charities and non-governmental organizations which need experts in green living. While these jobs do not necessarily
pay very much they provide a valuable way in to the employment sector and excellent experience. In most cities there is an eco-charity or a body which is tasked with encouraging sustainable behavior. This might be less focused on green building initially, but can provide a good starting point.

Q: I'm in the early stages of looking into strawbale houses in North Wales, but need to learn more about how to go about it.

A: Straw Works (www.strawworks.co.uk). I have found attending self-building workshops, like the School of Natural Building (www.strawworks.co.uk/the-school-of-natural-building/), is a great way to meet others if you want to build. The plot finder website is good for finding land (www.plotfinder.net). I would also suggest visiting some of the eco-communities in Wales as they often know of others who want to build together or who are building. I would try Centre for Alternative Technology (www.cat.org.uk) and Tir y Gafel (www.lammas.org.uk).


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