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


Are Sustainability and Resiliance Mutually Exclusive?

A recent article in the Bulletin for Earthquake Engineering outlines the ways in which sustainability and hazard-resilience can and must work together for safe housing in Haiti. “While many agree that sustainable redevelopment and self-reliance is essential for Haiti, few appreciate how it can be practically achieved, particularly in the domain of urban residential redevelopment” (p. 2).

The authors outline the types of materials have been used in Haiti: “Historically, due to the lack of wood, for use either as formwork or as a partitioning alternative, and the high cost of steel, cement and quality aggregate, Haitians employed construction with heavy masonry walls made of hand pressed concrete masonry units (CMUs) and lightly reinforced, undersized concrete columns, made with inferior raw materials and having inadequate strength and ductility. This combination, along with the lack of beams that would better engage the columns against earthquake loads, created systems that actually performed well under strong winds common to the Caribbean, but were conversely proven to be extremely vulnerable to earthquakes, failing through brittle collapse modes, as documented in the authors’ personal reconnaissance database through their field work in Haiti” (p. 2).

The authors explain that Haiti has a unique mix of requirements — it is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has suffered massive deforestation, and is in areas prone to both earthquakes and hurricanes. Moreover, Haiti’s government shows very little oversight in construction. They conclude, “The lack of locally-available construction materials, including the wood necessary for formwork to cast earthquake-resilient concrete frames, the steel necessary to provide strength and robust ductile behavior, or the quality masonry for confined or load bearing masonry construction makes the expense of this style of construction too great to serve the needs of the majority of displaced Haitians living in extreme poverty” (p. 4).

They conclude, “As Haiti has taught us, vulnerability stems from two potential sources: (1) lack of knowledge and (2) lack of resources to implement this knowledge properly… The only remedy is to flank these efforts with policies that encourage and support research to develop alternative, low-cost, sustainable housing that provides hazard resilience, while operating within the economic and cultural constraints of these regions so that all families will have a legitimate pathway to empowerment.” (p. 7).

Do you have ideas for how to make buildings both sustainable and resilient in Haiti? Submit your proposal to

Top 10 Green Building Trends

Planetforward featured the top 10 green anticipated building trends (in two posts: one here and the other here). The top 10 are quoted below:

“1. The Smart Grid and Connected Home – Not only is this the fastest growing trend its also one that technology has made both affordable and achievable to the masses. Another selling point is that the dividends in energy and use are instant which always helps a new concept find an audience. Being able to view your energy use (even down to specific appliance) on a real time display and customise usage to work with your providers peak and off-peak costs is so logical that consumers are embracing the option rather readily. The budget conscious and the strategic are enjoying targeting reduction of energy use and the initial investment is reasonably nominal.

“2. Energy Labeling for Homes and Business – This concept is truly leveling the playing field if you are in the market for a new home or business location. It allows for house to house (or business to business) comparisons to be made when evaluating the energy efficiency of the property and educated buyers are taking not. It also allows those looking to sell a property to best ascertain the needed improvements to make their property more attractive for a buyer who is evaluating energy efficiencies. Some states have even added mandates to ensure any property receives an official energy score at the time of transaction as part of the official audit when selling or buying.

“3. Building Information Software –  Advances in CAD software have taken the design process from the theoretical to the real time evaluation level. The projected performance of a new construction can be reviewed and used to impact the actual nature of design. Via complex measurements the forecasted efficiency performance of a building can be measured pre-construct, whilst this benefit is currently aimed at larger buildings look for it to soon be an option for smaller and independent builders so that the housing market see the benefit in the years ahead.

“4. Financial Community supporting Green Building – This is really key and will prove instrumental as the market and mentality continue to evolve. The same way your driving habits impact your insurances, borrowers are now valuing your eco-sensibility for making reduced rate loans and providing insurance. The rule of thumb being that lenders see eco-buyers as a better investment and more likely to provide better maintenance of their homes or offices.

“5. ‘Rightsizing’ of Homes – Bigger is better was the predominant logic in home construction and appreciation until we finally stopped and smelled the roses. The rising costs of energy coupled with the need for better urban planning are resulting in the large end of the market proving to be a poor investment in relative terms. The housing market remains cautious at best and property as an investment is not the ‘safe money’ it was a decade ago means tying up your funds in a large home is no longer very attractive. Couple that with interest rates that will change and the move to smaller homes is in no doubt.

“6. Eco districts – Perhaps above all of the other concepts this is the most logical step when new communities are being built. Again it involves learning from the past and is very European, constructing homes so that the residents can walk or bike to the places they work, shop or dine. Planned construction can reduce the reliance on cars and urban living can be achieved even in suburban areas. The incorporation of green space and making districts very pedestrian focused can be further enhanced by green coding on the building where the residents work and play.

“7. Water Conservation – The EPA have announced ‘watersense’ specifications for all new homes which reduces water consumption by 20% versus a traditional home. When you consider that over half of all water use is residential the positive impact of the program can be monumental. Energy labeling and certification for homes is probably just around the corners as such programs are already in place in Europe.

“8. Carbon Calculation – This may surprise you but building contribute about 50% of all carbon emissions that are released into our environment. In the years ahead this will become a critical component of green construction, presently both methods to measure a building’s performance coupled with more efficient construction methods are being developed. The evolution in this process will create carbon credits and local or regional units equipped to make improved recommendations and set standards.

“9. Net Zero Buildings – The ultimate badge of honour in residential or commercial construction. This type of construction would (naturally) generate more energy than it uses. While this presents quite a challenge, the move toward smaller more energy efficient buildings coupled with renewable energy resources onsite such as wind, solar or geo-exchange systems make this possible. The developments in solar alone make the concept in sunnier regions fully viable in the near future.

“10. Sustainable Building Education –  This is a bit of a catch all but is a necessary step for an industry that is needing to reinvent itself in some circumstances. Ensuring developers make time to learn about green building and establish credentials, will enable the momentum for being buyers not to be lost. So much of the progress will be contingent on local municipal bodies but the change is definitely occurring in many cities. The crest of this progress is once again when people understand and more importantly can actually see the value of greener construction. Hence the education aspect is vital in all spheres from roofing manufacturers, to city planners and even estate agents.”

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?

Hemp Houses

A 2008 article from Science Daily discusses the use of hemp in the creation of houses worldwide. Professor Peter Walker, Director of the BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials, said: “The environmental impact of the construction industry is huge. For example, it is estimated that worldwide the manufacture of cement contributes up to ten per cent of all industrial carbon dioxide emissions… We are looking at a variety of low carbon building materials including crop-based materials, innovative uses of traditional materials and developing low carbon cements and concretes to reduce impact of new infrastructure. As well as reducing the environmental footprint, many low carbon building materials offer other benefits, including healthier living through higher levels of thermal insulation and regulation of humidity levels.”

A 2009 article about the same research group investigates the use of hemp-lime — a lightweight composite building material made of fast-growing hemp bound by a lime adhesive. Director Walker stated, “Using renewable crops to make building materials makes real sense – it only takes an area the size of a rugby pitch four months to grow enough hemp to build a typical three bedroom house… Growing crops such as hemp can also provide economic and social benefits to rural economies through new agricultural markets for farmers and associated industries.”

Is hemp the future of sustainable housing?

Sustainable Housing: South African Case Studies



Photo by Corvair Owner

A 2010 article from Construction Management and Economics outlines nine case studies of different types of sustainable housing worldwide with the goal of improving the living conditions of those in South Africa. They examined these cases in terms of the seven principles of sustainable construction (Kibert 1994; Hill and Bowen 1995): 1) Minimize resource consumption, 2) Maximize resource reuse, 3) Use renewable or recyclable resources, 4) Protect the natural environment, 5) Create a healthy, non-toxic environment, 6) Pursue quality in the built environment, and 7) Promote socio-economic sustainability. From those seven principles, 49 indicators of sustainability were used to assess the merits of the construction.

Many sustainability practices had been implemented in these cases — energy- and water-efficiency, reuse of old buildings, non-use of toxic materials, consideration for the natural environment. However, the support of sustainable building by the users was still low, and there were still high initial costs to developing sustainable housing.
What other factors need to be considered when thinking about sustainable housing?