Education about Sustainable Architecture

Kelly Hart is your host here at greenhomebuilding.com, and has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. Kelly spent many years as a professional remodeler, during which time he became acquainted with many of the pitfalls of conventional construction. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation (he has a patent for a process for making animated films), video production and now website development. One of the more recent video programs that he produced is A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture, which explores a whole range of building concepts that are earth friendly. Kelly is knowledgeable about both simple design concepts and more complex technological aspects of home building that enhance sustainable living. He has even designed and built a solar-electric car that he drives around his neighborhood. Kelly, and his wife Rosana, live in the earthbag/papercrete home that is profiled on the earthbag page. He is available, at a modest fee, for consulting about sustainable building design, either for remodeling existing structures to more fully embrace these concepts, or for new architectural designs.

Questions and Answers

Q: I am recently changing tacks in my life and am interested in finding out about earth sheltered building in my area. I have 40 acres near the pedrogosa mountains (douglas) in southeastern arizona with no water or electricity, but both are available with buckets of money, which I now have. I will be moving there within the month to set up or buy a business that will sustain my life style. I am 55 and have dreamed of doing just this thing since the 60s. Now the technology is caught up and I am not too old yet to lay down and die. My main gig is a/c, appliance repair and anything else a high powered handyman does. I would like to know if there is a school available for to learn how to build a ship.

A: I don't know of any schools that are specifically dedicated to building earthships, but there are many ways to find out about natural building and sustainable architecture in general. I suggest that you check out the news page: for a listing of related workshops. Good luck with your new life!

Q: I've seen some information on your website regarding various workshops folks around the country are offering in alternative building practices, and implementing alternative energy solutions, but I was wondering if there is a longer program, perhaps at a University, where I could go and gain expertise. To get involved, are there any formal apprenticeships or schools out there?

A: You might check out the University of Virginia where William McDonough is now acting as chair of the department. You might also check out the University of Arizona School of Architecture. They have a strong solar program. You might also check out the University of Oregon School of Architecture. Also San Francisco Institute of Architecture and New College of California.

Q: I am a Postgraduate Diploma student in the field of Architecture. A Nigerian schooling in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Osun State, Nigeria. I will like to focus on the field of Architecture and the Renewable Energy - Sustainable Architecture. It is not a popular field in Nigeria for now. Please can you help?

A: I am pleased to hear about your interest in sustainable architecture. It is unfortunately true that the older, traditional ways of building that are much more earth-friendly than newer technologies, have not been so popular in many places, including Nigeria. It will be through the efforts of people like you who can show how the older ways are really better, that change will occur. Hopefully my website can help point the way toward more sustainable building, and make useful ideas available for more people. You might use this website to help show others the direction that we need to go as people on earth to insure survival. Good luck with your studies.

Q: I was much delighted by your prompt reply to my earlier mail. Thanks a lot. Could you please assist me with the website addresses of some universities I could apply to for architectural studies in any part of the world. Especially those with sustainable architecture options.

A: Here are some links to possible places to study sustainable architecture:

Q: I am a student attending Falkirk College doing a degree in Graphic Design. I am writing a report on Green Building Design and I have to send a questionnaire out. I was wondering if there was anyone in particular I should send it to.

A: (Paulina Wojciechowska) There is someone in Northern Ireland called Tim Wooley who teaches in the Belfast school of architecture and co-authored a book on green building design. Its a difficult question because there is now a lot of people who are doing eco-design and a lot of literature on it. The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) in London has a great bookshop with eco-design books, also the Intermediate Technology bookshop in London on Southampton Row, as well as the Centre of Alternative Technology in Wales. Those are the book or information sources in the UK. There is also the Construction Resources Centre in London that sells eco-building materials and they have lists of architects that do eco-stuff. There is also the Association for Environmentally Conscious Building (www.aecb.net) who have lists of eco-professionals....and of course there is the whole eco-design world in the US..

Q: I am interested in building a green home. I live in the Hudson Valley of New York. My wife and I have been looking to buy our first house. Unfortunately, most prices are too high, and the designs we see are not very conducive to our lifestyle. I stumbled on to you site and was wondering if you could point us in the right direction.

A: There are many shades of green these days, and choosing what might be right for you can be confusing. I might suggest that you start out by taking a look at the video I made, called A Sampler of Alternative Homes: Approaching Sustainable Architecture, since it will introduce you to a variety of building techniques and green concepts. This can be ordered on-line at greenhomebuilding store. Another good resource is this book: The Art of Natural Building: Design, Construction, Resources...which is also available at the greenhomebuilding store.

Q: What particular advice would you give to a contractor who wishes to expand his/her repertoire into this field?

A: Become educated by reading some of the many books available about alternative building and participate in some of the many workshops and seminars that are being offered; there are listings for both of these at www.greenhomebuilding.com.

Q: I am an aspiring architect, and I share your vision of building with nature in mind. What are your recommendations for a student in architecture to build on the idea of conservation?

A: Most of my thinking about sustainable architecture is presented at www.greenhomebuilding.com. I encourage you to delve into it, get your hands dirty with experience, and don't lose faith that the future will be better than our current reality.

Q: As a designer working on creating Design Awareness , I strongly believe that Eco friendly & energy efficient buildings are the need of the day, but there is a major lack of awareness both in the professionals & the public at large. My firm 'KRIYA' has been set up with the intention of promoting eco-friendly work & helping in spreading awareness regarding 'Green living' . It would be a great opportunity in my life to work with professionals like you for gaining experience & for developing the right kind of knowledge.

A: I am pleased to hear of your work promoting "green" concepts for architectural renovation. I agree with you that this is the need of the day, and that education in this realm is of great importance. I applaud what you are doing to further this awareness. It is especially good to learn of these efforts happening in India and other places around the world, since this awareness needs to be global in scope for a transformation of the direction that civilization has taken over the last few centuries.

Q: For some time I have been searching the internet trying to find schools/universities etc. that offer degrees/training in ecological/green architecture. Any information or advise would be a great help.

A: The Fall, 2004 issue of The Last Straw Journal has a fairly thorough list of programs (http://www.strawhomes.com/). Some programs are conspicuously missing, including the well known green architecture program at the University of Oregon. The University of Texas in Austin has a well respected program. Also, New College in San Francisco has a good program in natural building.

Q: In your opinion is the public aware of the benefits of natural building, and is there a demand on this type of architecture?

A: I would say that there is greater awareness of the issues and the solutions all the time; I have noticed that many more architects are offering "green" design options, the media is more likely to report on this trend, and the traffic to my website, has increased substantially over the years.

Q: I have an obsession to build a natural house and have watched the related sites evolve. I need to ask: Why are there no reality TV shows about alternative buildings and lifestyles? The virtues and techniques could be showcased. God knows the masses need a better alternative, and yours is too much in the side-lines. It would provide a grand occasion for refinements in systems and techniques, ... it could even be formatted like Survivor!

A: I agree that the TV landscape would be much better served with some significant coverage of sustainable living, but unfortunately topics of this sort rarely get the exposure and real consideration they deserve from the media. I have recently communicated with a couple of video producers who are either planning or are actually working on a series of programs about alternative building, but don't expect these to appear on one of the major networks...if they see the light of day, it will be on HGTV or a similar cable channel.

Q: I am an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in California. I am highly interested in the future of green building. I am wondering why, with proven long term cost benefits, that green building has been so under utilized. Would governmental legislation or incentives help or is this just something that needs more time before it takes off? In your opinion, what needs to be done to further utilize and encourage this concept of green building?

A: There is increasing awareness and interest in green building concepts; I know this from the traffic that www.greenhomebuilding.com receives daily ( about 2,000 people). Unfortunately our culture does not adopt meaningful change without a strong economic impetus, but I think that impetus is on its way. The cost of energy is about to escalate wildly as the depletion of fossil fuel continues. This will force people to find ways to conserve energy wherever they can, and housing is definitely one of them. Government legislation might hasten this, but I would not hold my breath for this, given the recent track record. I think if we just continue to educate people about the possibilities offered by truly sustainable architecture, its time in the sun will arrive.

Q: I'm a student at university in Turkey and searching for a PhD thesis subject about sustainable architecture. Could you advise me an original study area?

A: Turkey has a very rich history of indigenous, vernacular architecture, including the use of natural caves for residential use. I suggest that you thoroughly explore the origins and use of this practice and relate it to the principles of sustainable architecture that are presented on this website.

Q: I am interested in your advise about how to approach the sustainable building/R.E./alternative building industry as a possible career. As I continue building my own cordwood and timber frame cabin on my family farm in Tennessee, I'm realizing my love for this type of work and want to pursue it more. I enjoy the combination of design, hands-on building, and the good tension that comes with building sustainably and responsibly. What companies or individuals do I need to connect with to pursue this?

A: It sounds like you are already getting some good hands-on experience with your building project. Expanding that knowledge might be useful, through attending one or more of the many workshops around the country that are being offered (see this page for lots of possibilities); doing this will not only give you more experience, but also provide you with further networking prospects. Also, you might check this directory for contacts in your area: http://directory.greenbuilder.com

C: As I am new to the concept of green building and have been doing research on various ideas the last couple of years and I have recently purchased property in Colorado, I am now looking over different concepts etc..but there are so many !!!!

R: It can be a little overwhelming when you first start to investigate all of the approaches to building sustainably, but after awhile you will probably realize that you become more focused on certain possibilities that relate to your own aesthetics, abilities, housing needs, materials at hand, etc.

C: I am very interested in green architecture, and I want to develop this type in my own country, Indonesia. I hope I am able to learn more deeply with the experts like you..It am sad that my country, which is well known as a rich tropical country, has become a disaster country: illegal logging, tsunami etc..this is the reason why I should do something.

R: It is through the efforts of people like you who care about the environment that real change will occur. Indonesia is indeed a rich country with fine traditions and I believe that it can become a leader in global environmental reconstruction. It is often those places that suffer the most where significant positive change emerge.

C: It's an honor to be part of the environmental development. Most of Indonesian people still don't realize the impact of environment disaster for human beings. Greed becomes dominate in most people ia a paradigm. Is there any suggestion from you 'how to start this movement.' Maybe you have some literary references that I need for this. Honestly the major problem is less capital. My background is as an architect with an interest in green homes since I was in college. But it is only my obsession till now. I want to make it real. Of course with big support from you and the experts.

R: Every step that you and others take toward improving the consciousness of people is worthwhile. So I suggest that you continue to become informed about the issues related to sustainable living and help disseminate this information in any way that you can. It doesn't necessarily take a lot of money to do this.

C: That's the simple and wise answer, but with a deep meaning. Maybe you're right indeed. I'll do what I can do now and hope the impact will be a more power influence for all people.

Q: How is going green shaping construction?

A: The public is becoming more aware of the need for green alternatives to standard construction, and so with this increased awareness comes greater demand for such building.

Q: How long, if it all, do you think it will take for green to become the norm in construction?

A: With the pressures on society from global warming and peak oil we will inevitably be moving in this direction...probably sooner than most would expect.

Q: The more I research the more interested I have become in living green. My husband and I would like to build our green dream home someday, we are very young and it would not be for a few years yet. I have seen a business opportunity as well as an important message that I would like to become part of. I have been trying to figure out how I and my family could become part of this wonderful trend and maybe change some peoples way of thinking and in the process live a little greener myself, when I came across your website. I think I saw my future in you and your wife Rosana.I think the world is very large and so is the market for your type of building. There will never be a shortage of customers, the future is green and I would love to be a part of it. I believe in Karma and it takes people like yourself who have already got their foot in the door, to pass on your wealth of knowledge so the next generation can keep this new way of life going and growing.

A: Thanks for the kind words and I am honored that my wife and I might serve as role models for you. I launched www.greenhomebuilding.com  several years ago with the hopes that it would serve to inspire people like you to make more sustainable living choices, and am pleased when this happens. This website now averages nearly 5,000 visitors each day, so the message is getting out there.

I encourage you to continue to educate yourself, both through my site and other resources, and I am sure that your unique niche within this realm will present itself to you, whether it is through educating others or thorough physically being involved in construction. We all have a part to play in bringing the world to true consciousness about living lightly on the land. This will happen one way or another, and it is a privilege to be part of the process.

Q: What would you say to a recent college graduate who is uncertain about her future, but knows she wants to do something out of the ordinary and life changing? I'm interested in so many things but have never been able to narrow it down to a single life track. Here, in what you are doing, all of my interests collide: art, nature, design, community, human well being. Basically, I'm trying to ask, where can I get a job in such a field? Where can I go to learn about green architecture? Where do I even start?

A: I am pleased that my website has struck this chord with you at this point in your life. There are so many directions that you could go from here; it depends on what aspects of green architecture or sustainable living are most central to your interests and talents. I have a page that is specifically about education, which lists lots of prospects, from formal degree programs to informal one or two day workshops. Also there is a bulletin board where people list various opportunities that might interest you. I would suggest that you dive into some of these opportunities, get your hands a bit dirty, and discover what you enjoy with all of this, while meeting some wonderful like-minded folks.

Q: I do the accounting for an advertising firm in Northern California, that promotes Home Shows and Car Shows. Not being involved in the advertising itself, I could care less what went on these shows, until 1 year ago, when I began attending them. I noticed that both our shows and the competition are trying to push their greenness. Not sure if they are sincere or just a way of green washing. One common thing in all of them, is that I haven't seen any booths carrying natural building, whether it be cob, strawbale, earthbags. Yes, I did see lots of recyclables, even recyclable steel. And also lots of pre-fabricated, which I guess could be cheap. But of course, the subject of durability is not mentioned at all.

I am wondering why natural builders don't promote their ideas and products at these 3-days shows?
Is it because the booths are to expensive to rent, plus the airfare? Or is it because, the shows don't really create any meaningful value for natural builders? In other words, you somehow believe that word of mouth is going to sort of do the job.

A: You have raised an excellent question. I think the answer lies in several areas:

1) It is a matter of scale. Advertising at home shows make sense for larger companies, both manufacturers and contractors, who can afford the cost of attending and expect to reap rewards from the exposure. Most natural builders are very small, either individuals or companies, for whom this expense (both time and money) would be a burden. If and when natural building becomes more mainstream and there is more demand, and larger companies begin to be formed around these concepts, this could change.

2) There is a tendency for natural builders to set themselves aside from conventional approaches to marketing, because they have chosen an alternative path from the mainstream. It is almost philosophical in some cases, where people abhor the whole idea of advertising in conventional ways.

3) Many natural builders are really artists at heart, and artists notoriously have trouble marketing themselves.

I expect that this will change as the demand for truly green building practices continues. As you say, there is a great deal of  "green-washing" going on, and there is obviously a need for greater exposure of natural building to the public.

Q: To extend the impact of Sustainable Architecture, we have decided to create online gaming software that requires players to create green buildings. The main aim is for players to gain exposure to the type of materials used in reality for Sustainable Architecture, and also to raise awareness of the existence of such buildings. There will even be competitions held to raise the 'fun element' in the game. Target Group: Youths. Why? Tthey are the future generation that will be most affected by environmental problems. Please tell us what you think of this proposal, as we need some professional opinion on it.

A: I think that anything that tends to bring awareness of the need for sustainable ways of living is worthwhile, especially for the youth, and gaming may well be a effective way of doing this.

Do you think that Sustainable Architecture is a marketable field that countries all over the world should explore?

Absolutely! There is increasing interest in this field, as people become more aware of the magnitude of the issues related to it.

The designing and construction of eco-friendly buildings all over the world is a positive trend that should be extended. What is your opinion on this?

I think that this is really necessary for humanity to find ways for living sustainably; the alternates to this are rather bleak.

Do you think more effort should be put into raising awareness of green architecture in youths to extend the trend of Sustainable Architecture? Why?

Yes, because as you say, "they are the future generation that will be most affected by environmental problems," and also the new generations are more amenable to change and will be the ones eventually responsible for implimenting many of them.

Q: I live in N. California and am looking for honestly easy ways which are green and have a good insulation value. I was thinking about doing the super adobe homes from CalEarth, but the plans are expensive and the company is new. What do you suggest? I will be taking some workshops for cob and strawbale houses, but I am totally new to this.

A: The CalEarth plans are for earthbag construction, which can be fairly easy to learn. In fact, I have another website that is just about this method: www.earthbagbuilding.com . Cob is fairly easy to learn, but is rather labor intensive. Strawbale  building may go faster. But any construction project becomes complex when considered in totality, because any house includes many of the same basic components, all of which need to be attended to in detail. Taking workshops in techniques that interest you is an excellent way to get a sense of whether they might be appropriate for you.

Q: I am originally from Louisville transplanted in a small rural area in Eastern Kentucky. I am an artist and enjoy things a little off kilter anyway and I want to leave as small of an imprint as possible for the next generation. If I can teach new communities a different way to live, plus an eco friendly way to live, I would love any help you could give. The climate changes each year. There aren't a lot of factories, or jobs for that matter, unless you are in the coal industry (which I am not) or well educated for the top paying jobs. The quality of life here is the worst I have seen in at least 30 years because that's all they know. The majority of the community here is poor, uneducated drop outs living on assistance from the government. With help, if I can show them a different way of living that is more cost effective and that helps the community... I guess what I am trying to say is I want to make a difference but I need help or guidance from someone to point me in the right direction. Can you please help me so I may be a better citizen to my community and hopefully change the quality of life in this area?

A: It warms my heart to hear from people like you who understand the need to move to a more sustainable lifestyle and want to help others find a way to do so. There certainly are other ways to arrange the ways we build homes and develop communities that do not negatively affect our environment.

One of the more hopeful recent developments in this regard is the "Transition Town" movement, where people in communities in the U.S. and around the world are coming together to find local solutions to the big problems that face us. It does not require building a whole new infrastructure to do this; what it does require is that people commit to finding ways to supply their needs strictly on a local basis. This means growing your own food instead of relying on food that is transported from great distances. This means living in situations where you do not need to drive a great deal to accomplish your needs. This means making your homes more self-sufficient with passive solar designs, or alterations, and employing renewable energy technologies where possible. This means developing a local economy, perhaps even with local currency, so that money that is earned in your community stays in your community. This means supporting local small stores, instead of shopping at the larger chain stores. You can find out more about Transition Towns at http://www.transitiontowns.org/  and how you might go about organizing something like this in your community. You have my best wishes that you and you neighbors can lift yourselves out of the difficulties that you describe.

Q: Have you considered traveling the United States to help build Earthships, or do you simply recommend that those who are interested purchase your written materials and go from there?

A: I am mainly involved in trying to help educate people about the benefits of green building, and so most of my effort goes into maintaining my websites. There are many ways of approaching this, and Earthships are certainly one of these; others are described on my sites. I recommend that people become educated first, through reading online, reading books, watching videos, and hands-on experience before attempting any projects themselves. 

Q: I am so interested in learning more about natural building that it would take me forever to type it all out. I have been involved in the construction industry for about 5 years (from carpentry to currently an electrical apprentice). I am 26 and looking to build my own debt-free, off-grid, self-sustainable, and all those other hyphenated word, structures. Most of the work I have done is sub-standard spec house crap!Ii don't know where to start or what to do!?

A: I applaud your interest in pursuing a greener career. The best way to move in that direction is to become educated, both through reading and hands-on experience, and it sounds like you are beginning to do that. There is a tremendous amount of information at this website to get you started, including listings for workshop or training opportunities. These will not only get you involved with learning new ways of building, but perhaps more importantly, get you connected socially with like-minded people. The http://nbnetwork.org/  is another great way to connect with other natural builders.

Q: I'm curious to know if you might be familiar with a volunteer program or learning work exchange program that pertains to the green sustainable home.

A: I am not aware of any programs that have been established that specifically are oriented toward green construction. I know that sometime the Habitat for Humanity program will use green construction, such as strawbale in Colorado or rammed earth in New Mexico, but this is because of the interest of particular members in those localities. Sometimes I list situations on my bulletin board that might be of interest.

Q: My group and I are working on a project that requires us to design an eco friendly island resort that doesn't affect the environment and/or marine life. We were wondering if you could tell us if there's a way to create a sustainable living resort that doesn't affect the environment and marine life and also helps keep everyone healthy?

A: If you are speaking of a resort that is intended to attract visitors from foreign places, then I'm afraid that your intention in and of itself does not contribute to a sustainable environment, just because all of the travel involved inevitably contributes to global climate change and depletion of fossil fuel. As far as the building itself goes, there are certainly some building systems and technologies (many of them described at www.greenhomebuilding.com) that are more benign than others. Basically, you want to focus on using local, natural (or recycled) materials, and minimize the need for external energy inputs.

Q: What are the most recurring issues/obstacles you have had to overcome throughout your experiences within the field of natural building?

A: The lack of understanding or willingness of local building officials to value building methods they are not familiar with is high on the list. Also there can be lacking skilled or experienced contractors and workers in many regions.

Q: I am working with fifth graders to build a model of a home using green technology. We will be building the model in a classroom. I am thinking of using papercrete as the foundation and sink a wood frame that will support two floors. The floors will be a 12"x12" cellulose tile with bamboo flooring on top. I've read that papercrete takes 24 hrs to dry. If I used a pasteboard box with 4 inch high sides and poured papercrete in it, how long do you think it will take to dry?

A: That is a fun idea to build a model green home. I don't think that papercrete would be a good choice for the foundation, for a couple of reasons: it would never be a good choice in reality because it should not be in contact with the earth, and also it takes much longer than 24 hr. to dry... it usually takes more like a week. I would suggest making the foundation with concrete, which cures well enough in a about two days, and would directly pertain to the students learning about proper building methods.

Q: I plan to start an off-grid, natural building company. What are some of my main obstacles I may encounter in comparison to common building companies? What comes to mind for a piece of advice as I plan to do this?

A:  A primary obstacle for a natural building contractor is dealing with the codes and the local building department. Many codes are prescriptive and what they describe is the more conventional approach. Often you can build alternatively, but this requires convincing the authorities that the alternative approach will still honor the intent of the law, and this takes evaluation on the part of the building department. You need to be ready to convince them with valid evidence, so this can take time. Often they will require a state-licensed architect or engineer to sign off on the plans and this can add to the expense as well. So the first step in all of this is to nurture a good relationship with the authorities involved. All of the other hurdles to jump are fairly straightforward, such as procuring the right materials and learning how to build a certain way.

Q: I am looking to learn how to build an eco friendly home. I actually want to build a whole community. Was wondering what you’d recommend for someone who is brand new to all of it. I am passionate about and have always been drawn to sustainable and eco friendly living.

A: I suggest that you delve into some intensive education, through reading and/or watching videos, as well as taking workshops to get hands-on experience. Then you might see about finding an apprenticeship  situation to further your studies. You might start with studying this websites as there is a wealth of information embedded here.


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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.