Wednesday, April 29, 2009


This week's newspaper column.

This past Earth Day, I led an effort to build a pine straw dog house clad with native clay complete with green roof dubbed Eco-Fido. The inspiration came from a little-known but rapidly-growing building technique: strawbale construction.

A truly American invention, this natural way of building dates back to the nineteenth century when European migrants settling in the Midwest utilized abundant baled wheat straw in lieu of lumber to construct homes.

As the green movement grows, strawbale construction is more popular than ever with new structures popping up throughout the country. (Insert your joke about the Big Bad Wolf here).

Strawbales can be used as infill insulation in a wood-framed building or as a replacement for the framing itself. Although building codes in many jurisdictions do not yet recognize strawbales as a structural material - California being a notable exception – it’s proving to be quite adequate for small to medium sized residential construction. Some homes built over a century ago are still standing nicely resisting strong winds, pests, and inclement weather. Strawbale homes have shown to fare well in earthquakes as well.

The basic system consists of stacking wheat or rice straw bales in a brick-like fashion reinforced by steel, bamboo, or rope ties, and coated with stucco or earthen clay inside and out.

Strawbale construction roughly triples the insulation value, and as a natural substance, there’s no out gassing of toxic fumes as is common with conventional materials. The owner of a strawbale home I designed in Wisconsin boasts that his home is so quiet he’d never know he was near a road if he didn’t occasionally look out the front window to see cars passing.

Encapsulated tightly packed straw does not contain enough oxygen to be a fire hazard; strawbale walls hold up more than twice as long as conventional walls in recent laboratory fire testing.

What about humidity? Strawbale walls seem to retain their integrity in wetter climates as well.

In the 1930’s, inventor and physician William Burritt built a strawable mansion on top of a mountain in Huntsville, Alabama. Legend has it that he once took rest in a roadside barn and noticed how much cooler the interior was in relation to typical homes of the day so he decided to emulate the stacked bales of straw he noticed in the barn. Today, that home serves as Huntsville’s city museum.

Strawbale construction is decidedly democratic in that the simplicity of the process and the manageable weight of the materials invites the participation of novices alongside professionals; it’s not uncommon to see petite women trimming and stacking bales and even children like to get into the act spreading plaster or mud.

And that pine straw and mud dog house? I built the frame, but Headstart students, ages 3-5, helped in mixing the mud (by squishing it with bare feet) and assisted in applying the wet clay with eager little hands.

Friday, April 17, 2009

High Speed Rail Speeds Ahead

In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, $8 billion has been allocated to the development of high speed passenger rail service.

Under the direction of new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, rail corridors linking major US cities have been identified along with a strategic plan for implementation.

All aboard!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Clothesline for the White House

Alexander Lee of The Clothesline Project advocates the using of solar energy to dry White House laundray; he's proposing a presidential clothesline.

In a growing movement, more people are drying their clothes naturally on clotheslines. The energy is free and you can't beat the sun-soaked smell of clean sheets.

Unfortunately, many neighborhood covenants outlaw natural drying, but times are changing. A clothesline on the White House lawn would send a powerful message to the nation that drying clothes naturally is OK.

Click on this Baltimore Sun article for a rundown on the proposal.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Fork in the Road

images: Neil Young promo and Fork in the Road video frame

Neil Young's new album is all about his new electric car, the "LincVolt" - a reconditioned '59 Lincoln Continental.

Check out a video of the title track at this link.

the part 1 and part 2 of a Charlie Rose interview where Young talks about the politics and philosophy of a conversion to alternative energies, and if you have a bit more time, check out the entire interview.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

BeauSoleil: RubBoard

US National Archives

The Cajun instrument known as the frotoir is the result of a complex and rich evolutionary process. Basically the frotoir is a rub-board- a corrugated metal device used to wash clothing by hand. The highly recognizable sixteenth notes in Cajun and Zydeco music come from the rapid rubbing of a spoon on the frotoir- the “chanka-chanka.” Legend has it that Clifton Chenier, the pre-eminent Cajun accordion player asked and a certain Mr. Landry, an oil-field machinist, to adapt the traditional rectangular rub-board to a more ergonomic form better-suited to playing Cajun and Zydeco music. This meeting of industrial machine processes and culture led to a beautifully formed single piece of stainless steel with shoulder supports and a contoured playing surface.

In many ways, the BeauSoleil Home reflects this same tradition of a melding of culture and industry. The design of the home relies upon the most advanced technology for energy generation and climate control. But it also relies upon the adaptation of traditional building forms and materials as well as passive cooling strategies. Like the frotoir, the BeauSoleil Home is not extravagant or over-wrought. It is simple and modest. The BeauSoleil home is first and foremost functional. Just as Cajun culture has traditionally done, it makes the most of a little. Social interaction, in the form of entertaining and cooking, are the daily rituals which inspire its form. The home adapts to the unexpected, whether it be an unexpected guest and a subsequent crawfish boil or a hurricane.

Architecturally, the BeauSoleil home is not overly formalistic or rationally ordered. Its small size (800 square feet) require a certain degree of order and efficiency but the home does not forsake its roots. The home has a very generous kitchen and bathroom. These are two areas which modern architects tended to label as “service” spaces. In fact, many of the past Decathlon homes relegate these rooms to thickened “walls,” barely inhabitable spaces. The BeauSoleil Home does not divide its spaces into “served” and “service” spaces as Louis Kahn and other modern architects did. Mechanical spaces do not drive the use of the space. These pieces of equipment are placed in lofts and penthouses where they belong- out of the way of human habitation.

In a competition where the rules tend to dictate the form of all of the homes, the BeauSoleil Home again refuses to ignore Louisiana. A majority of the Decathlon homes do not have porches. The rules tend to discourage these spaces which are considered marginal by the organizers. The BeauSoleil Home refuses to exclude the porch. Our culture requires the porch for day to day life. In fact, the home has two porches- the dogtrot or transitional porch and the kitchen porch. Contrary to the insinuation of the rules, these are not marginal spaces- they are the stages of everyday life.

-W. Geoff Gjertson, AIA
TEAM BeauSoleil Faculty Advisor

Monday, April 6, 2009

New Natural Battery

MIT scientists are working on a greener way to make lithium batteries using natural biological systems. A genetically engineered virus binds to microscopic carbon nanotubes creating a "scaffolding" effect for efficiently conducting electrons.

Lab experiments have shown these naturally constructed batteries are as efficient as conventionally produced lithium batteries while requiring much less energy to produce and reducing manufacturing-related pollution. And there is promise for stronger batteries as the engineered virus is fine tuned.

Listen to an NPR report here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Biking For BeauSoleil

Photos by TEAM BeauSoleil

Solar Decathlon Update: Every two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website. And check out a short film about the project.

BIKE FOR BEAUSOLEIL is a fundraiser and family event to raise money and community support for the BeauSoleil Louisiana Solar Home. BIKE FOR BEAUSOLEIL is a part of the College of the Arts FESTIVAL OF THE ARTS. The concept of the races is for the public to go green, live healthy, maintain good fitness, bring their family and support TEAM BeauSoleil.

The event will take place at the BeauSoleil Warehouse located at the United Way Complex, 215 E. Pinhook, on Saturday, April 4th at 9am to 1pm, with pre-registration starting at 8am. Pre-race refreshments will be served. There is a 10-mile fun ride, and the options of 30 or 50-mile rides for experienced cyclists.

All races will end back at the BeauSoleil Warehouse. Racers, their families and the public are welcome to visit the Warehouse beginning at 11 am for a family-friendly, fun-filled time. A post-ride Cajun meal will be served at that time to the racers, Jr. Hebert and the Maurice Playboys will be playing and the warehouse will be open for people to view the progress of the BeauSoleil home (the shell has been completed.) There will also be a fun jump to entertain the younger crowd. Hope to see you all there!

A report from the field:

Right now is a very busy time for TEAM BeauSoleil. We are working daily on the construction of our home and daily finding solutions to the challenges we face. The LEED class students are researching different materials and products that will help produce a sustainable and responsible home. The Russo Group and PR team are working diligently to spread our message, complete our Communications Plan, and raise funds. Many of the officers are working to complete our construction documents and project manual to resubmit to the DOE. 482 students are completing mock-ups of planters and storage solutions. Interior design students are selecting finishes and furniture. Engineering students are continuing research on the solar hot water heater and photovoltaic system. Business students are researching market viability of the BeauSoleil Louisiana Solar Home. We are all really busy, but the students are all learning so much and gaining valuable experience.

-Gretchen LaCombe Vanicor

TEAM BeauSoleil Project Manager

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Sustainable City

Architect and city planner Jaime Lerner revolutionized thinking about the power of planning in his hometown of Curitiba, Brazil.

In his three stints as mayor (beginning in 1971), Lerner fostered a strong sense of co-responsibility between the city and its inhabitants galvanizing support for quick implementation of sustainable ideas.

Today, an intricately designed city-wide bus system is utilized by the majority of city residents - regardless of social or economic status. In Curitiba, it is rare to wait more than 10 minutes for the next bus.

Consequently, as the demand for parking in the inner city subsided - even as the population grew - parks and green space were reintegrated into the city fabric making Curitiba one of the greenest cities in the world.

And this progress was accomplished without huge budgets. In fact, Lerner is fond of saying that creativity happens when you cut a zero from the budget.

Click here for a short lecture by Jaime Lerner on sustainable cities.