Is Sprawl Development Simply Unaffordable?

photo of sprawling city; is sprawl development simply unaffordable?

Sprawling development costs more than it pays back.

Is sprawl development simply unaffordable? Also called “suburban sprawl,” this has been the dominant development pattern in the U.S. since World War II.

This article for Sourceable.net cites Sustainable Prosperity, a think tank at the University of Ottawa. The group published a report about sprawl in 2013. “Suburban Sprawl: Exposing Hidden Costs, Identifying Innovations,” offers a number of observations and conclusions regarding sprawl.

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns calls the traditional suburban development pattern a “Ponzi scheme.”

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Are Prefab Homes Ready for the Mass Market?

are prefab homes ready for the mass market? prefab home

Prefab homes come in a variety of styles, such as this modern style.

Are Prefab Homes Ready for the Mass Market?

Prefab, or prefabricated, homes are not a new idea. The idea dates back England in the 19th century, though they really looked poised for success in the U.S. in the 20th century. Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Home, steel Lustron Homes, modular homes, manufactured homes, and panelized homes all offered people a new way to get a new house.

Are prefab homes ready for the mass market? The homes themselves are better than ever, and offer solutions from very low cost to completely custom homes.

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Sustainable Doesn’t Have to Cost More

sustainable homes, Sourceable, sustainable doesn't have to cost more

Builders and architects are learning how to build energy efficient homes at cost parity.

 Sustainable doesn’t have to cost more

Here’s another article for Sourceable.net. Builders and architects are making loads of progress and are learning how to build extremely energy-efficient homes at a competitive cost. It’s now true: sustainable doesn’t have to cost more.

Adam Cohen of Structures Design/Build has now built an eye-catching, traditionally styled home in Virginia for about $150/square foot. And it’s a certified Passive House, no less!

Here’s another approach, from Blue Ridge Energy Systems in North Carolina.

And here’s the Newenhouse, a Passive House in Viroqua, Wisconsin, with yet another approach.

Newenhouse, Passive House, sustainable doesn't have to cost more

The NewenHouse front facade, as seen from Hickory Street.

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Landscape Architecture and the Developing World

New York City's Central Park

Landscape architecture has has a lot to offer the developing world, such as adapting to climate change.

 

In this article about landscape architecture and the developing world for Sourceable.net, I took a look at what landscape architecture can do for the developing world. In particular,  landscape architects can address climate change, urbanization, and population growth. These factors combine for a certain synergy, making each one more destructive to the landscapes that people need.

More information about this topic here, here, and here.

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Learning to Build A Rocket Mass Stove

Last Sunday, February 9, a couple dozen people gathered in a cold barn outside Erie, Colorado, to continue work on a rocket mass stove. Learning to build a rocket mass stove is easy, but there are techniques that are helpful.

Here’s a good explanation of the concept:

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If you still don’t get it, here’s the gist: you build a small, hot-burning fire with small pieces of wood. The design of the rocket-mass stove encourages a strong draft, which gets the wood burning vigorously. The hot gases from combustion are drawn through the slightly pitched “chimney,” which transfers its heat to the surrounding cob bench. Cob is a simple earth mixture of clay and sand that is ideal for thermal mass for a cob bench. Building with cob is cheap, simple, and highly labor intensive.

Mike and Avery, who led the workshop, are permaculturalists and natural builders. A few weeks ago, they led a workshop to build the “firebox” and “flue” parts of the heater. Those tasks are more complex, but definitely manageable. They based the design on the book “Rocket Mass Heaters: Superefficient Woodstoves You Can Build” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

people stomping cob, then learning to build a rocket mass stove

Stomping cob is energy intensive, so gather as many people as you can.

 

 

 

firebox of rocket mass heater

Here’s where you build a fire in a rocket mass heater.

 

placing cob on the heat tubes

This is about 35′ of heat tubes, so the heat from the gases can migrate into the cooler cob.

Building with cob is hard work, but very low cost, nontoxic, and flexible with design.

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Seeing the Bones of A Sustainable Home

In southwest Iowa, just outside the town of Red Oak, a sustainable home is under way. Architect James Plagmann of Boulder, Colorado, designed the home using sustainable materials and practices.

Here we’re seeing the bones of a sustainable home as it’s being built.

passive solar green home under construction, seeing the bones of a sustainable home

The south-facing front facade admits light for solar gain.

green, sustainable home interior under construction, seeing the bones of a sustainable home

Concrete walls provide thermal mass and tornado protection, clerestory windows provide light to interior rooms.

 

Plagmann has designed a number of extremely green, energy efficient homes. He’s used many of those energy-saving features in this home, as well, such as:

  • Passive solar design, with broad overhanging eaves, south-facing windows, and thermal mass.
  • Poured concrete walls provide protection against tornadoes, along with thermal mass.
  • Daylighting to bring light into interior rooms.
  • A heat-recovery ventilator to capture heat that would be wasted, and combined with a heat pump, helps to obviate the need for a standard air conditioner.
  • A ground-source heat pump provides heat in cold weather and cooling in warm weather, and feeds radiant tubing within the slab floor.
  • A well-insulated shell maintains constant temperature and minimizes thermal bridging.
  • Air sealing to minimize drafts.
  • Partial earth-sheltering to minimize temperature swings inside the house.

At 2,640 square feet, the house is not tiny, but part of that area is a tool room and greenhouse. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished house!

 

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The Regenerative Capacity of Permaculture

What’s the potential of permaculture to repair damaged land? Permaculturalist Geoff Lawton says, “You can fix all the world’s problems in a garden.” He worked on a small parcel in Jordan, first creating a swale for water catchment, then planting a variety of trees, building irrigation, and mulching heavily. Within a few months the figs were producing. This demonstrates the regenerative capacity of permaculture. Geoff Lawton’s site is here.

Permaculture: Greening the Desert

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Here are some other examples of people able to make desert land productive:

Qatar’s Plans to Turn the Desert Green Will Leave You Astonished

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Growing Forests in the Desert

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More wildly successful examples of regenerative approaches here.

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Grain Bin Homes

What would you think of a home built from a grain bin? They strike me as sort of like a metal yurt. Grain bin homes offer some challenges, but advantages as well, such as:

  • simple to build with unskilled labor
  • pest-resistant
  • fireproof
  • wind resistant
  • maintenance free
  • recycled/recyclable materials
  • moveable/reusable.

Challenges include the different tools and skills you’d need to modify the bin.

Grain bin homes for disaster areas

You could buy a new kit, such as those made by Sukup Manufacturing, and modify it to suit your needs. These kits are produced for use around the world, especially places that have endured natural disasters. Sukup built some in Haiti in 2012, and the company says it has shipped kits to Kenya and the Philippines.

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The company says each bin is 18 feet in diameter, yielding 254 square feet. They’re made of 20-gauge recycled steel, and can be made taller if desired. Assembly by an unskilled crew takes less than two days. One kit fits in the back of a pickup truck, and 14-16 kits will fit in a shipping container. I can see delivering the loaded container to a village, building all the kits, and converting the container into a sanitary toilet building. Another container could contain interior finish materials for each bin kit, such as insulation, finished wall coverings, and so on.

Depending on the climate where the bin is built, it would be nice to have a more substantial foundation, but it would definitely not need to be a full concrete slab. Cost is reasonable, at roughly $6000 per kit for nonprofit groups.

Your dream home

You could also use a new kit as the basis for your dream home. This video shows how grain bins are built, with workers using hydraulic jacks to lift the roof, then attaching the wall panels layer by layer at ground level. No scaffolding needed for assembly.

Reusing a bin

Existing agricultural bins can be recycled, as this guy has done. If you’re handy, resourceful, and creative, you’d could create a low-budget funky home, studio, or shop.

Many more examples here.

Regardless of the size or whether it’s new or reused, a bin can be a cheap green home. You could also create a tiny house village from bins.

 

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Metrics for Great Cities

The Most-Livable Cities Share Common Traits

I recently noticed, while writing an article about walkability, some overlap among top-performing U.S. cities in positive metrics. I think these are important because they’re all the result of good policies, not mere good fortune. What are the metrics for great cities?

Urban Forests

The urban forest is the collective tree and shrub cover in and around cities, located on both private and public land. According to American Forests, a nonprofit forest-advocacy organization, the urban forest is able to:

  • Remove air pollution
  • Produce oxygen
  • Absorb rainwater and pollutants in rainwater that would otherwise run into streams and groundwater
  • Provide shade
  • Block wind
  • Reduce energy demand
  • Reduce noise levels
  • Store carbon
  • Provide habitat for animals, and
  • Make people happier and more relaxed.

American Forests evaluated the 50 most-populous U.S. cities’ urban forests in regard to:

  • Civic engagement in maintaining the urban forest
  • Urban forest strategies and city greening to address city infrastructure challenges
  • Accessibility of urban forest and greenspaces to the public
  • Overall health and condition of the city’s urban forest
  • Documented knowledge about its urban forests, and
  • Urban forest management plans and management activities.

Why did American Forests undertake the project?

Scott Steen, American Forests CEO and one of the judges for the project, said the group wanted to “showcase the tangible value that urban forests provide to cities and their residents, including economic, aesthetic, social and physical well-being. Various studies have shown a correlation between trees and lower rates of crime, reduced levels of stress and lower body mass.”

Image #1: New York City skyline, Graham Styles

In addition, “No two cities have worked exactly the same way to achieve their place on our top 10 list, but they each serve as a role model for others,” Steen said.

Energy Efficiency

Achieving greater energy efficiency, like living in a healthy urban forest, results in a better quality of life for people. It also saves people and businesses money, and has the potential to obviate the need for more power plants as the country’s population grows.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) evaluated 34 major U.S. cities on their efforts to reduce energy use and costs. ACEEE ranked each city based on the following sectors’ successes to reduce energy use:

  • Local government
  • Community initiatives
  • Buildings
  • Utilities
  • Transportation

Boston walkable neighborhood

Walk Score

My previous article looked at Walk Scores in more detail. You can review it here. The walkability rankings were compiled by the group Walk Score. It’s important to remember that different neighborhoods in a city can have hugely disparate scores. Denver’s overall score is 55.7, but the Berkeley neighborhood on Denver’s west side, for example, at 93 is a “Walker’s Paradise.”

Here’s how the data looks when combined:

Urban Forest

Energy Efficiency

Walk Score

New York City

Top 10

69.75 (3rd)

88 (1st)

Seattle

Top 10

65.25 (5th)

71 (8th)

Washington, D.C.

Top 10

56.25 (7th)

74 (7th)

Portland, OR

Top 10

70 (2nd)

63 (15th)

Minneapolis

Top 10

55.25 (8th)

65 (12th)

Denver

Top 10

52.75 (11th)

56 (23rd)

Austin, TX

Top 10

62 (6th)

35 (34th)

Sacramento

Top 10

40.75 (18th)

43 (24th)

Charlotte, NC

Top 10

23.75 (31st)

24 (50th)

Boston

not ranked

76.75 (1st)

80 (3rd)

San Francisco

not ranked

69.75 (3rd)

84 (2nd)

Philadelphia

not ranked

54.5 (10th)

77 (4th)

Chicago

not ranked

54.75 (9th)

75 (6th)

Milwaukee, WI

Top 10

not ranked

59 (20th)

Clearly many other metrics would be useful. These three are interesting, I think, because each confers benefits beyond the individual person. Energy efficiency is good for individuals, businesses, and the environment. Walkable cities are good for people’s health and for property values. The urban forest gives people cleaner air and water, cooler temperatures, and often a sense of peace and well being.

What other metrics would be useful in this sort of comparison?

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Tiny Homes Can Serve Diverse Housing Needs

tiny homes can serve diverse housing needs

Here’s a link to a story I wrote about tiny homes and tiny home communities for Sourceable.net.

Tiny homes have been gaining popularity among people who want to downsize their lives, live in an environmentally responsible way, have a home that’s portable, build their own small home for a remote property, or have little money for housing.

Now a few people are working to create tiny home communities, as tiny homes can serve diverse housing needs. Jay Shafer of Four Lights Tiny Houses is actively working on “The Napolean Complex,” a tiny house community in Northern California.

Tiny homes are hot right now!

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