Pallet Houses – Southern Methodist University

As a symbol of sustainability, Southern Methodist University‘s new Master’s of Arts in Sustainability and Development unveiled a new “pallet house.” The 250-square-foot house was constructed using 55 shipping pallets. Check out the images here.

Shipping pallets is an innovative idea for recycling materials into housing. What ideas do you have? Submit your proposals at


Guest Blogger – Sources of Inspiration for Global Design and Sustainability

Whether you believe in global warming or not, the fact that we have severely altered our landscapes across the globe has had a global and immediate effect on our communities, rich or poor. We have created a planet of fragmented ecosystems where we rely on outside materials for building, food crops and energy. It is urgent that we combine both modern technology and traditional ways to establish a more self-sufficient way of life. We are in dire need of a new way of looking at the world and ourselves based on place specific strategies. If each community reconfigures how we live, together we can work towards a more sustainable future.

I would like to share two sources of inspiration that, I believe, fit in with the spirit of this design challenge. The first is a more comprehensive approach to design. During the 70’s, Bill Mollisen and David Holmgren developed a framework of principles that integrate a broader framework of knowledge that aims to empower people to move from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible and productive citizens. Generalists are able to adapt in less than pristine environments. They can survive in multiple habitats and eat food from multiple sources. By encouraging more sustainable farming or gardening, energy efficient building, use of appropriate technologies and the building of local business and community, this movement, called Permaculture, offers an empowering vision of creative adaptation to what must become a period of descending use of energy.

This first example I have found influential as a more holistic conceptual framework of knowledge and how small local changes directly and indirectly affect our relationship with the environment. The second example is not just finding inspiration in how to live with nature, but more how we can learn and copy it. Biomimicry looks at nature as model, measure and mentor. Humans are struggling with problems that nature has already solved. Animals and plants have found what is appropriate to survive here on Earth. This concept of looking for solutions has been applied to design and architecture. This video is one of many examples of how we can all learn from the natural world that inspires innovation.

What inspires you?

– Elizabeth Correa, Architectural Designer

LA Times – Bamboo Housing

Check out the way bamboo can be used in modern architecture.

Simon Velez, a Columbian architect, advocates for the use of bamboo — the largest grass member of the grass family. Bamboo had often been used in more impoverished areas within Columbia. Velez responds, “In Colombia, there is a stigma attached to bamboo as being the ‘wood of the poor,’ and many architects turn their noses up at it… But I’ve discovered it has a lot of advantages.”

Velez found that bamboo has a strong weight-to-resistance ratio, which is twice as strong as steel. Moreover, bamboo can replace itself quickly — it can grow 30 yards in 6 months.

How can we use bamboo to help develop sustainable housing worldwide?

Guest Blogger – Choose Your Own Adventure: The Role of Choice in Housing

Photo by Dustin Mix

I was talking to a friend a few days ago about the book series from grade school called Choose Your Own Adventure. If you don’t remember or aren’t familiar with these books, they were the type where you read a chapter and at the end, based on what you had gathered to that point, would be faced with making a decision on the protagonist’s next action. Based on your choice, you’d be directed to another section of the book and repeat the process until the story was resolved. Books had multiple endings based on the decisions you made, ranging from finding treasure to being defeated by “evil” forces. For us control freaks, these books were addicting. No longer was reading a book a passive, purely observational exercise, but now I could have some sort of influence on the story. I would read these books intensely, combing for the slightest of hints in each chapter as to what decision I should make next and obsessing over getting to the best possible ending. The satisfaction of getting to that ending was such a different feeling than reading a traditional fictional book. The power of transferring the choice of how the story would end from the author to the reader was liberating, addicting, and at times even frustrating. But the ability to direct the story was what drew me in.

In many ways, the urban housing problem in developing countries is a result of a disregard for the theme of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Across the globe, people are born into circumstances that set them up for a life riddled with a lack of choice. Whether it is choice hindered by economics, education, geography, discrimination, or a host of other factors, the world’s poorest often have been at the mercy of decisions and institutions in which they have no voice. Solving the problem of substandard housing in urban slums across the globe is a complicated and dynamic undertaking. However, the basis for any such solution should be the provision of choice; an act of empowerment. Human beings have no inherent desire to live in the squalor and inhumane conditions that define slums. Given the ability to choose between a safe or dangerous home, people will choose safety. Given the ability to choose between sanitary waste systems or an open latrine, people will choose sanitation. Given the ability to protect their families or be exposed to the elements, people will choose protection. The choice to live in a safe and clean environment and to provide shelter for one’s family is human instinct. Having that choice, having the power over the state of one’s situation, is at the core of what it means to have dignity. This dignity, inherent to existing as a human being, is to have access to the things it takes to survive in this world, however dynamic those things may be.

Photo By Dustin Mix

“Housing the world’s poor” is an often used phrase in the discussion of urban slums. If the urban slum problem is going to be addressed, the phrase needs to be more of a result than an action. Empowerment and choice is where the solution lies. Shaping and crafting an environment in which people have the choice and power to influence their living conditions is the most critical engineering task the world faces in addressing this problem. The problem is much bigger and more complex than simply providing a roof to live under. Housing is an indicator of so much more than just the availability of building materials or construction expertise. Housing is a measure and outward illustration of quality of life. The goal of improving the living conditions of the 1 billion people that are currently living in substandard conditions will manifest itself through that indicator.

Photo by Dustin Mix

Choose Your Own Adventure books didn’t always turn out the way I wanted. But as frustrating as it was to admit, I was always responsible for how I got to each ending, through the choices I had made. There won’t always be happy endings, but building systems that allow people the chance to reach a favorable ending is an adventure we all should choose.

Dustin Mix, Structural Engineering Graduate Student at the University of Notre Dame

Science on a Mission: Engineering in Haiti

Photo by Alexandros Taflanidis

A recent blog post on the Scientific American website discusses how researchers from the University of Notre Dame are working to conquer problems of sustainable housing in Haiti.

Civil Engineering Professors Alexandros Taflanidis and Tracy Kijewski-Correa were asked to travel to Haiti to give aid and advice after the 2010 earthquake. After seeing the devastation, Kijewski-Correa reported that the problem was beyond the buildings; in an interview, she said, “Cultural and economic factors need attention. We can’t just provide building codes.”

Read the article to find out more, or check out their project website at Engineering2Empower.