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Home Shelter

Cultural & Ecological designing


last update: December 12, 2001

"The walls, with the windows and doors attached to them, form the house, but it is the empty space within that creates the essence of the house. This is the rule: the material harbors usefulness, and the immaterial imparts the true essence."
-- Lao Tse
"Any housing solution that involves paying for industrially produced building materials and commercial building contractors is doomed to certain failure. If houses are to be built at all, in sufficient quantity, they must be built without money. We must go right outside the framework of the money system, bypass the factories, and ignore the contractors."
-- Hassan Fathy

Structures and Methods

[ Structures and Methods | Accessories | Information Resources ]
  • Adobe Housing/Adobe Roofs - low-cost, no-wood, desert-climate appropriate housing information, examples and workshops by Simone Swan and the Swan Group, a non-profit " of skilled workers who want to stay together to uphold the human right to decent housing."
  • Cal-Earth - earth-building techniques under development by architect Nader Khalili and associates to enable and empower affordable and aesthetic housing. Info on and images of stacked earth-filled bags stabilized with barbed wire, known as "superblock." Also a list of publications and info on Khalili and the various programs run by his Geltaftan Foundation. Patrick and Carroll Newberry are building a home with these techniques in Georgia.
  • Castleblock - a full-service alternative materials distribution/design/build business, featuring remanufactured foam-cement block structure systems and other "recycled" products such as "Rumber" (lumber made of recycled plastic and tire rubber) and structural fiber-reinforced cement board. My friend Kyle works with Castleblock products and projects and is using these materials in his own home on Kaua'i, Hawai'i.
  • Cast Earth construction - A structural material made with earth and calcined gypsum, poured in forms using commercial equipment and techniques and yeilding some of the energy and environmental benefits of earthen construction.
  • Cob construction! The word 'cob' comes from an old English word meaning "a lump or rounded mass." Cob building uses sand and clay (earth!) mixed with straw as the primary structural material for the construction of inexpensive, durable, energy-efficient passive solar shelter. Cob construction is easy to learn and requires relatively few tools. Structures can be readily shaped and sculpted in ways few other materials allow for. Here's a gathering of links to a variety of cob-related sites.
    • Cob Cottage Company - Cob Cottage Co. has information, publications, a video and diverse workshops on cob and other low-cost, low-impact, cross-cultural building methods. Pictures, too! Note: I have taken one of their week-long workshops and it was superb!
    • Down To Earth - aiming " work with community groups and together demonstrate the viability of cob structures." Particular focus is on working with communities experiencing economic hardship due to unsustainable resource extraction. There are projects underway in Vancouver and Bella Coola, British Columbia, including a cob building workshop and a summer youth program.
    • Cobworks - cob and natural building workshops, design and build services and cob rental accomodations in the gulf islands of western Canada.
    • Footprints - offering cob and natural building workshops on and near Vancouver Island in the Pacific Nortwest, North America.
    • Groundworks - Workshops, basic information, a book on cob building, pictures, and announcements of natural building symposiums. Groundworks offers both women's workshops and mixed-gender workshops.
    • Jan's Cob and Natural Building - Jan Sturmann, builder/designer/teacher with cob and other natural materials, offers listings of courses and events, info about cob, pictures, articles, and further links.
    • CobNet - "an internet resource on earth houses, sacred spaces, and alternative construction." Information and links plus images of various phases of cob construction and finished buidings. See also the related Systers of Creation site.
    • Cob Crew home page - The main activities of CobCrew are earth building and landscaping with Texas Native Plants in Bastrop County, TX. Plans, pictures and narrative descriptions of their work-in-progress.
    • Cob Ovens - a good first project! Here's links to some examples: weathered traditional oven; snail-oven construction sequence (scroll down the page to find it).
    • CobList - an internet discussion group focusing on cob construction and related issues. Includes searchable archives!
  • Earthwood Building School - specializing in one- to five-day workshops in Cordwood Masonry and Earth Sheltered housing. This is a small organization run by Rob and Jaki Roy. Nice pictures and explanations, a calendar of workshops, publications and videos, and of course links to other cordwood-related sites!
  • Fox Maple School of Traditional Building - offering workshops and apprenticeships encompassing timber framing, thatching, and timber-frame infill methods such as straw-clay, wattle and daub and others both old and new.
  • Frost-protected shallow foundations - A place to start learning about internationally proven quicker, cheaper ways to create frost-protected foundations for any kind of structure. There's also an online version or the design guide and appendix can be downloaded.
  • Goshen Timber-Frame Information Service - a timber-frame construction company that offers online info on history, advantages, costs, and techniques. There is a small bookstore, a WebBoard for questions and answers, a chat space and other diverse info. They also offer very inexpensive workshops of various durations.
  • McGhee Custom Thatching - a commercial thatching contractor's site with copious information on thatching methods and materials, pictures, workshops and a FAQ.
  • The Monolithic Dome - a commercial site for information, pictures, testimonials, statistics and so on from a builder of airformed, sprayed foam and concrete dome structures.
  • Pacific Domes - premanufactured geodesic dome structures from 12 to 30 feet in size.
  • Pacific Yurts - premanufactured "yurt" structures in various sizes and with various options. The structural design is extremely clever, resulting in a light, sturdy and potentially portable building.
  • Performance Building Systems, Inc. - offering plans and kits for arch-shaped, earth-sheltered dwellings.
  • Pumice-crete Building Systems - pumice (lightweight volcanic rock) and relatively small amounts of portland cement are the basis for this structural and insulating wall system. Includes a description of pumice-crete, pictures of various applications, info on hybrid applications plus info on services, workshops and training available.
  • The ReUse Center and DeConstruction Services - the ReUse center sells salvaged building and construction materials provided by DeConstruction Services, which also sells materials directly from salvage sites. Both are projects of The Green Institute, located in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, MN, USA.
  • Safari Thatch and Bamboo, Inc. - a commercial site selling a variety of thatching and woven fiber materials and bamboo products.
  • Shelter Systems - premanufactured portable geodesic domes, greenhouses, emergency shelters, and other simple structures with a variety of designs and options available.
  • Solar Survival Architecture - Principal Michael Reynolds developed the Earthship dwelling and related concepts, using earth-packed tires for underlying structure and thermal mass. See also several other earthship-related sites, such as Our Earthship, Earthship Landing, Pleasant Valley Earthship Chronicles, the CSF Earthship site, Ray Wilk's Earthship Page and Clay Kent's pages.
  • Surfin' Strawbale - a major list of links, most with verbose descriptions, to straw bale construction information, resources, and various related topics. Features an excellent sorted compilation of practical and theoretical information from the CREST Strawbale mailing list. Hosted by the Masonry Heater Association, another relevant site...
  • Straw Bale codes - here are some existing and proposed building codes related to straw bale construction.
  • Timbran wood frame & earth building - a site encompassing 'mud and stud' (a vernacular form of building construction common in much of Lincolnshire, England from the medieval era to the 18th century), other forms of earthen architecture, and in general structures built by hand from natural materials.


[ Structures and Methods | Accessories | Information Resources ]
  • Authentic Roof - manufacturer of roofing tiles with the appearance and durabilty of slate, made from recycled materials.
  • Backwoods Solar Electric Systems - in business since 1984; researching and experimenting since 1974. Good equipment and good advice for most aspects of off-grid power supplies, including wind and micro-hydro. Also a variety of appliances large and small emphasizing low power consumption and suitability to off-grid power sources. 8530 Rapid Lightning Road, Sandpoint, ID 83864, USA; (208) 263-4290.
  • Bora-Care - a borate based wood preservative that offers a less toxic alternative to "industry-standard" wood preservative treatments. Includes FAQ, full Materials Safety Data Sheet and additional technical information.
  • Clivus Multrum - The "old-timers" in composting toilet design and fabrication - offering greywater system design, high-efficiency woodstoves, and of course low-flush and no-flush human manure processing systems.
  • Composting Toilet World - lots and lots of information on composting toilets of all types, including do-it-yourself versions, commercial suppliers, publications, associations, consultants, a newsletter and online forum, greywater info and (of course) links.
  • Duluth Timber Company - offering re-milled wood products salvaged from old buildings of all types and turned into flooring, furniture, structural timber and more.
  • Eco-Products - a distributor of recycled and "environmentally friendly" building supplies. Currently serving Colorado and neighboring states. Building supplies, finishes, various fixtures and equipment.
  • EcoStar - a manufacturer of roofing tiles and other building products made from recycled rubber and plastic.
  • EcoTimber International - a supplier of "responsibly harvested" and salvaged/re-milled wood building materials.
  • Environmental Home Center - A supplier of low- and non-toxic building and furnishing materials and methods for residential and commercial projects.
  • Galvamet - a manufacturer of composite metal/foam roofing and panel systems. Load-bearing capacity minimizes or eliminates roof framing; built-in noise and temperature insulation; roof water catchment ability.
  • Greenstone Cocoon cellulose insulation - a commercial site (Louisiana-Pacific) covering one manufacturer's cellulose insulation product. Fact sheets, comparisons with fiberglass, do-it-yourself help, and sections for "consumers" and "professionals."
  • Homestead Resources - at the Blackbird Ridge homestead site. Links to plans and instructions for composting toilets, greywater marshes, masonry stoves, stills, grain threshers, cisterns, musical instruments ane more.
  • Radiant Floor Heating systems - commercial suppliers of products and servcies for these types of heating systems include Heatway, Wirsbo and REHAU.
  • Lowkeep - super-efficient, low-energy-usage refrigerators and freezers made in Michigan, USA. Features, prices, specifications, FAQ, and energy use graph.
  • Masonry Heater Association - an organization providing information and resources for masonry heaters, an old/new thermal-mass based heat source typically using wood as an energy source and offering high net efficiency. Beautiful pictures here! They also host the Surfin' Strawbale links page.
  • Mike Wye and Assoiciates - "Suppliers of Traditional and Ecological Building Products." Lime putty, renders, mortars, plasters, washes; cob and clay blocks and bricks; hands-on workshops; repair and restoration work; and lots of info on traditional lime and earth building.
  • Mr. Solar - a rich site for gathering info on solar electric and other alternative power systems. There are articles, tables, links, anecdotes, pictures...lots of stuff! Also a comprehensive catalog of products, including wind and water power options and lots of data to go with them all.
  • Passive and Active Solar Hot Water Systems - from the North Carolina Solar Center comes this fact-filled site on different types of solar hot water systems, including diagrams and illustrations.
  • Rainwater Harvesting and Purification System - one family's example of their urban, officially approved catchment system for providing water to their home in Portland, Oregon, USA.
  • Rota Loo - cleverly designed composting toilets from an Australian manufacturer, Environment Equipment Pty Ltd. Their designs appear especially well-suited to public applications and heavy-use sites as well as typical residential situations.
  • RV Power Products - offering inverters, solar panels and products for solar battery charging and monitoring - their maximum power point tracking charge controllers are of particular interest to off-grid dwellers.
  • - a retail supplier of sun, wind and water power systems as well as accesories, appliances and miscellaneous goodies.
  • Solar Freedom International - "Builders of high quality, affordable solar ovens." Also providers of demonstrations and presentations, oven-building workshops, plans, and other solar cooking and solar design information and consultation.
  • Straw Board - particle/fiber-board type building material made using straw and/or other agricultural fibers instead of wood. These products typically use less (or no) toxic adhesives in their manufacture and may offer other benefits depending on material and process.
  • Sun Surveyor - patterns and instructions to make your own simple tool "...for measuring at one time without needing clear weather, the the daily solar exposure possible at a specific place for the whole year." Useful for passive solar dwelling design, placement of solar heating devices and photovoltaic panels, and even plant and garden bed placement!
  • Sunny John - a design article for a solar moldering toilet, a low cost and low maintenance type of composting toilet. Includes background info on composting toilets and general and specific considerations for building this type of unit. NOTE: the original blackrange pages have disappeared, and this mirror site is missing images and pages - please notify me if you have a link to a complete set of pages!
  • U. S. Plastic Lumber - manufacturers of recycled plastic and composite lumber and related products for decking and other outdoor uses. Multiple product lines (Carefree Building Products, SmartDeck, TriMax, etc.).

Information Resources

[ Structures and Methods | Accessories | Information Resources ]
  • Affordable By Design - July-August 1997 E Magazine cover story on mostly "mainstream" style eco-houses of various sizes and for various budgets.
  • Alternative Technology Association - based in Australia, this is "...a non-profit community group that aims to use and promote environmentally friendly technology...renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind and water; building with natural materials and conserving energy."
  • Blackbird Ridge Homestead Resources - a collection of links to online plans and instructions for a variety of simple technology items, from masonry stoves to compost toilets to earthen floors and plasters to musical instruments.
  • Builders Booksource - a great central source for books (and software) on shelter (including a wide variety of "alternative" methods); also landscape, art, crafts, history of building and design, and much more. The founders have a philosophy of integrating the various disciplines which I find quite refreshing...there's a good site search engine, too!
  • Building Technolgies Department - ...of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Research information on windows & daylighting, lighting systems, building energy simulation and commercial building systems.
  • Center for Construction and the Environment - at the University of Florida, intending " foster the implementation of sustainability principles into the creation of the built environment internationally...seminars, symposia, professional conferences, and courses on the subject of sustainable development and construction-related environmental regulations, activities, and research."
  • Center For Maximum Potential Building Systems - commonly known as "Max's Pot." A non-profit education, demonstration, and research organization in the areas of appropriate technologies and sustainable design practices. They aim to integrate building methods with landscape and overall design methods, and have a demonstration site in Austin, Texas, USA.
  • Demolition Waste Handling - "Recommended Management Practices for Removing Hazardous Building Components Prior to Demolition." Information on how to deal safely with potentially hazardous materials when deconstructing buildings and/or salvaging building materials.
  • The Earth Building Foundation - a source of technical information on earth building for architects, builders and planners; mostly about adobe in its various manifestations. A searchable bibliographic database is the best resource here. There's also information on codes (for New Mexico and San Diego, USA), a mini-FAQ on adobe, some course and workshop listings and a few other links.
  • Earth-Friendly and Self-Sufficient Architecture - an online discussion group focusing on natural, alternative and sustainable building materials, methods, energy sources and more. This site provides info about the list, subscription instructions and a searchable archive of previous postings.
  • Earth Plasters articles - four articles by experienced earth plasterers offering methods, techniques and recipies for a variety of climates and situations.
  • Educating Architects for a Sustainable Future - "Recommendations, strategies, and models for curriculum reform in architechtural education." Includes more than 140 recommendations, 50 implementation strategies, and 5 model curricula for sustainably oriented approaches to architectural education.
  • El Valle de las Palmas - a sustainable community project in northern Baja California, Mexico, focusing on alternative building methods and also including details on related issues such as community background, local and regional contexts, conceptual and operational successes and difficulties and more.
  • Elk River Press and Taylor Publishing - "Books for People who want to Build it themselves!" A central source for lots and lots and lots of books (and videos) about building, making and even growing things, focused on non-industrial and "alternative" methods, materials and philosophies. A majority of offerings are building-related, but there's also plenty of publications on related issues relevant to sustainability, from "Adobe" to "Wind Power..."
  • Environmental Building News - a newsletter on sustainable design and construction, with articles, reviews, and news stories. Addresses material selection, siting, indoor air quality, daylighting, and other relevant topics.
  • FerroCement News Group - "...a monitored site dedicated to the detailed collection, dissemination, and discussion of ferrocement (FC) technology for building construction." There is a discussion group/listserv as well as links to plans, examples, pictures, research, publications and organizations.
  • Home Power - "The Hands-on Journal of Home-made Power." Solar, micro-hydro, wind and more - these folks have been messin' with it all for a long time and have plenty of good basic information online, including the contents and lead article from their magazine, index of past articles, US solar map, insolation data (via Solstice), wiring diagrams, calendar of events, and further links (of course)...
  • Humanure and Composting Toilets Forum - a place to ask questions, offer answers and information and post messages relevant to humanure and composting toilets.
  • Humanure composting toilet - an online do-it-yourself guide, with photos and drawings, for constructing a simple "sawdust toilet" as described in more detail in The Humanure Handbook.
  • Institute for Planetary Renewal - an eclectic site that includes some information on both experimental new and historically proven techniques for low-cost construction of dwellings and other structures.
  • International Conference of Building Officials - These are the folks who produce (since 1927!) the so-called Uniform Building Code. Whether one is planning to be code-compliant or not, it never hurts to know more about what "they" are up to. Of special interest are recent articles on alternative building .
  • Joiner's Quarterly - focused on construction and environment, with articles related to sustainable building futures. Not limited to timber-framing - includes thatching, earthen construction, straw bale and other techniques and methods.
  • Jonathan Zimmerman, Architect - specializing in the design of airformed concrete structures for residential and commercial uses, featuring high durability, low energy costs and design flexibility.
  • The Knapp's Homestead - personal pages put up by the Knapp family to help others learn about sustainable natural building and renewables through their own experiments and experiences.
  • Lime - plasters, washes, renders - three online articles on use of lime finishes in building. See also the National Lime Association.
  • Midwest Renewable Energy Association - Hosts a "world's largest" energy fair each year and offers teacher, community and public education, a newsletter and other regional activities.
  • National Association of Home Builders Research Center - what the commercial home-building industry is up to. Their publications and technical info include some material relevant to "green building," alternative materials and related research and tests.
  • Natural Building Resources - Lots of excellent pictures, plus info on various techniques and methods for "natural building." Online material from various natural building colloquia, links, and a calendar of events too.
  • The Natural Builder - "A resource for workshops, publications and information on how to build inspired structures utilizing adobe, monolithic adobe (cob), light clay, and straw bale construction, natural plasters and other natural building materials."
  • North Carolina Solar Center - Providing resources for solar energy in North Carolina, including a toll-free hotline, a referral network of professionals, technical and design assistance, free publications, curriculum materials for teachers, training sessions, tours of the demonstration Solar House, and a reference library.
  • Northern Crossarm - major wood treatment company site with industry information on ACQ wood preservative and comparisons to other environmentally toxic wood preservatives.
  • Northwest EcoBuilding Guild - "...proactively engaged in the cooperative and balanced creation of an ecologically sustainable built environment in the Northwest..." The EcoBuilding Guild is an educational forum, encouraging building practices that protect human health, encourage sustainable resource usage, and foster long term economic vitality. Check their area event and conference listings!
  • Oikos: Green Building Source - information on "green" building products and materials and techniques for sustainable design and construction. Searchable supplier/product database, books, videos and software, technical articles, and more.
  • Reusable Building Materials Exchange - for Washington state, USA. Browse and post listings of materials wanted or available in various material type categories (lumber, masonry, doors and windows, etc.).
  • Rocky Mountain Research Center - focusing on earth-sheltered housing using passive annual heat storage techniques, and offering publications and videos on the subject.
  • Shelter Publications Online - the people who brought us the book "Shelter" in 1973 - and they've reissued it! There's an upcoming sequel called "Homework" and a few other shelter-related publications available as well.
  • Solar Mike's Web Site - "Solar Mike" has an impressive array of info on solar-electric power systems - including his Interactive SolarScript© PV Design and Analysis Tables and hundreds of current links to additional resources (products, organizations, companies, publications, etc.).
  • Solar Utilities Network - solar power and energy efficiency information, energy saving projects, energy cost maps and home energy calculators, book lists and link lists and more - brought to you by Michael Potts, author of "The Independent Home".
  • Spirit and Place - features the work and writing of architect Christopher Day (see Readings), including available and forthcoming books and book excerpts, images, and essays on natural building, community-based building, consensus design process, current projects and more.
  • - operating "...under the sponsorship and direction of The Last Straw, the quarterly news journal of up-to-date information and resources..." for "...straw-bale construction and natural building." FAQs and technical info, workshops and activities, book and article references and other straw-bale resources.
  • Sun Country Log Homes - on-line library and catalogs, courses and workshops, and other resources for log home construction. The tools catalog may be of interest to anyone working with "natural" timber and other round wood.
  • Sustainable Building Sources -'s section on better options for shelter. Lots of related links, plus their Sustainable Building Sourcebook is slowly getting on-line. Be sure to check their general Sustainable Sources page for diverse links on communities, catalogs and commercial sites, articles and more.
  • Thermal Mass and R-Value - an article from Environmental Building News that offers some explanations of thermal mass, insulation values and related concepts relevant to natural and alternative building methods and materials.
  • Urban Homesteading in Portland, Oregon - an urban family's experiments and experiences with compost-heated hot water, straw bale structures, rooftop gardens, catchment water, wetlands for gray water treatment, and more interesting stuff! (This site has always been sloooowww whenever I go there - patience is a virtue...)
  • Yellow Mountain Institute - Sustainable building resources, focusing on earthship-type dwellings but also including cordwood and straw bale construction plus alternative energy and related systems information. Great pictures!
  • Zuni Mountain Sanctuary - a case study in applying permaculture principles to determining appropriate building sites and overall community design.

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