Re: Saving the Planet - do we use straw bale?
From: Chris ScottHanson (
Date: Tue, 6 Jan 2004 21:00:11 -0700 (MST)
This project in Austin sounds wonderful, and I can heartily endorse Catt's suggestions for a climate with cooling loads and little or no heating loads.

Some years back I remember a brilliant design suggestion which was posited by James Hamilton of Tucson, AZ. He suggested a set of large shade roofs (metal I think he suggested), carefully placed to allow for all private units to be built of earthen materials underneath, and not touching these shade roofs.

I have also met some desert architects with great design ideas for communities. Jeff Zucker would be a good place to start. He lives in Manzanita Village in Prescott.

Chris ScottHanson

On Dec 30, 2003, at 12:31 PM, C.C. Barron wrote:

Just a small caveat to the (oft-heard) claim that it is more efficient to build multi-story megalithic buildings. That is true in a cooling climate, such as where Chris lives, where reducing the heat loss in winter is the
most important factor in efficiency.

But... in a climate like Texas the local vernacular architecture reflects the need for *shedding* as much heat as possible -- 1 1/2 story buildings
that will nestle in the shade of the trees (preferably existing ones --
trees take a long time to grow here), light-colored metal roofs to reflect heat, and "dog runs" -- breezeways through the building to encourage the
breezes to blow by and take away more heat.  It is good to have 2 story
units so that you can get a "chimney effect" going by opening windows
upstairs and down in the morning, then closing up (and air conditioning if necessary) in the afternoon. And the most important factor in this climate is building orientation -- little or no glazing on the west, shading on the
northwest, good glazing for daylighting on the east, north, and south
sides. Another must is a ground-floor screened porch on the east or south side big enough for a dining table. These factors all argue for smaller

As for building materials, stick construction makes perfect sense in the Pacific Northwest, where the trees grow. The vernacular here uses local
materials -- mostly limestone.  Straw bale is attractive for the thick
walls it gives, but because of the humidity and black mold, our group is considering Hebel block instead, which is manufactured near here. We've
been told it is very close to the same price as stick construction.  Of
course, if we are forced to by "value engineering," we may well end up
using wood -- we are just at the site design phase of the process now and
haven't designed our units yet.

With our properly oriented buildings, we'll have plenty of south-facing
roof for future solar thermal and PV, and we plan to do metal roofs for
both heat reflection and rainwater collection (which can be added later as
well, if we can't afford it up front).

In any case, we will be keeping in mind the most important impacts on the environment -- commute distance (by locating within walking distance of the school most of our kids attend), energy efficiency (passive solar design), and wise land use (clustering our buildings and leaving the creek alone). We are also an infill project -- not on expensive downtown land, but well
within the boundaries of Austin's sprawl and on existing city water and
electric grid.


Cat Barron
Interim Project Manager
Oak Village Commons
Austin, TX
(website is being updated -- look for a new site plan soon!)

Chris ScottHanson wrote:

Ron, et al...

There is much interest in alternative building systems and materials,
and has been from the beginning of the cohousing movement (The first
successful community in Denmark, c1972, was a solar project).  Many
groups have had some measure of success, but most often less than what
they wished for in the beginning.

As with many cohousing projects, the Winslow project used many advanced
energy saving techniques in 1991, even by today's standards.  JP
Cohousing (now finally under construction) is implementing much of
their Green Program, even though some of it was lost in the "Value
Engineering" process. Besides the projects that have been mentioned so far, one project in Bend, Oregon is a mix of various straw bale, rammed
earth, and I think possibly one earthship, as well.  Unfortunately, it
is mostly single family detached residences, with little benefit of
shared wall energy efficiencies.  Most organized cohousing groups find
that taking on the development process as a community is quite enough
of a leap, and quite enough risk to take.

It should be recognized that tightly clustered townhouses, or better
still, three dimensional multi-story apartment style construction is
MUCH more energy efficient than anything anyone can do with adobe,
straw bale, rammed earth or active solar collectors.  Choose an infill
site on an existing grid of utilities, with mass transit close by.
Adding the factor of community will further reduce the need for and use
of the car.  It is the reducing the use of the car, after all, that is
the single greatest thing anyone can do for the environment, and for
the planet.

Many special construction techniques can be used as symbols for our
commitment to the environment, or the planet.  But the bottom line is
this:  Straw Bale (or insert your favorite technique)  may be cool, or
maybe even fashionable in some locations, but...  IF your goal is
saving the planet, there are MANY other things that are much more cost
effective, especially when considering life cycle costing and
environmental footprint of your entire way of living, including but not
limited to your housing.

A final thought regarding Ron's questions...  When evaluating the
effectiveness of any building strategy, saving money with
standardization allows any community to redirect significant funds to
REAL and EFFECTIVE energy efficiency and sustainable building
practices. One must always ask - Does is look cool, or does it keep us
cool?  Are we saving the planet, or making a green fashion statement?

Chris ScottHanson

Cohousing Resources LLC & Ecodevelopment LLC
Ecovillages, Cohousing & Sustainable Communities
Development and Consulting for a Sustainable Future
    based on the Natural Power of Community

(206) 842-9160
(617) 344-8563 FAX

email:          Chris [at]
web site:

On Dec 17, 2003, at 7:48 PM, unno_2002 [at] wrote:

Is there any interest out there for a co-housing project, that does
not impose a standardized home design and construction method?

I've been wondering why I don't see such "neighborhoods", comprised
of earthships, domes, strawbale, etc. in some sort of mix.

Ron G.
Yuma, AZ (But looking for the Tucson and slightly "east" area.)

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