Small House That is Huge on Sustainability


One of the winners of this year’s American Institute of Architecture’s Small Project Practitioners Knowledge Community 8th annual Small Project Awards is Small House in an Olive Grove designed by Cooper Joseph Studio. The home is located in the Dry Creek Valley near Sonoma, California and functions almost completely off-the-grid.

The house is a 3-storey, 850 square feet home that is located at the top of an olive orchard, hence the name, and is north-facing to minimize heat gain and offer good natural cooling. The house is anchored to the steep hillside with a number of retaining walls and cascading exterior decks, each of which is connected to an interior space. The bedroom is located on the top floor; the mezzanine level holds the kitchen and dining area, while the living area is in the lower level of the house.


The power needed to run the household is provided via a 930 square-foot solar panel field, which was placed on a nearby hillside. This solar panel system is capable of producing 21,578 kWh of electricity per year. The solar field is also elevated 10 feet off the ground and acts as a sun shelter for the agricultural shed beneath it. The Xeriscape plantings around the house are able to conserve water, especially during drought months, and they will require no irrigation once they have stabilized. The storm runoff from the hills is redirected and filtered using a series of culverts, underground piping and grading shifts, which provides a steady source of water.

Most of the façade of the home was left in the original concrete look, though some redwood siding and shading was also added to minimize solar heat gain and provide shade. Large windows were installed throughout the home to maximize natural daylighting,

The house was commissioned by two scientists who were interested in growing olives to produce olive oil, keeping bees for honey, and gardening. They wanted a home that would let them live off the land as much as possible, which is exactly what this house provides.




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KBHome Unveils ZeroHouse 2.0 Which is Both Water and Energy Efficient


The builder KB Home just unveiled their newest project, the ZeroHouse 2.0, which is located in Los Angeles County, CA. The home is also called “Double ZeroHouse” since it is both water and energy efficient. This home is the first built by this contractor to have both net-zero energy status, and zero freshwater irrigation. According to KB Home estimates, the ZeroHouse 2.0 is capable of conserving 150,000-gallons of water per year, which is a 70% reduction compared to a typical home. ZeroHouse 2.0 is also capable of producing all the energy it needs.

In terms of water efficiency, the ZeroHouse 2.0 is equipped with an advanced water recycling system, a water recycling dishwasher, and a graywater heat recovery system. The water recycling system works by treating graywater from bathroom showers, tubs, sinks, and washing machines to near-potable quality. This water is then reused to water the garden.

The home is also fitted with a water-recycling dishwasher that consumes 33% less water than other highly-efficient dishwashers. It does this by saving water from the previous rinse cycle for use in the first pre-rinse cycle of the next load. Furthermore, the home is also equipped with a graywater heat recovery system, which extracts energy from drainwater and uses it to preheat water for the home’s tankless water heater. This also reduces the water heating costs.

ZeroHouse 2.0 collects solar energy through a SunPower solar energy system, which is capable of supplying all the energy needed, and gives the home net-zero energy status. The house is also fitted with Low-E windows, which are dual- pane and filled with Argon gas.


The home also features a radiant barrier roof, which works to impede heat flow into the attic from the sun. This reduces the attic temperature and, consequently, the strain on the air conditioner in the summer. The indoor air quality is ensured via a super-efficient air ventilation and purification system, which prevents the build- up of indoor air pollutants.

In addition to this, ZeroHouse 2.0 is also equipped with a number of energy-efficient and sustainable elements. The house is equipped with Moen WaterSense–labeled faucets, toilets and showerhead, which use 30% less water than standard models. Also, only low-VOC paints and finishes were used in the building process. The home is also fitted only with EnergyStar rated appliances to further lessen the energy needs of the household.

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A Home That is Heated and Cooled Organically


A team of students at Waseda University in Japan have constructed a prototype for a house that can be heated by composting straw. They dubbed the dwelling the “Recipe for Life” house. Using the heat generating composting process for the purpose of heating a dwelling is not a new idea, but it is definitely one that should be explored further, and perhaps brought closer to the public. The Recipe for Life prototype house is certainly an interesting proposition in that regard.


The interior walls of the house are made of acrylic boxes, which are packed with the straw for composting. The exterior walls are also covered by straw, over which wooden panels, with handles for easier removal are placed. The prototype the students built uses a traditional composting technique called “bokashi” (which translates as “fermented organic matter”) that is quite simple to achieve. As it ferments, the straw inside the walls releases about 30 degree Celsius (86 degree Fahrenheit) of heat for a period of 4 weeks. The fermentation process of straw is considered low-odor, though the nature of the process means that there is at least some odor present. The design also makes it possible to cool the home in the hotter months of the year.

In the summer, the acrylic boxes that make up the walls of the house are packed with straw. This straw then dries inside the large, see-through boxes that are stacked along the interior walls of the house. During this process, moisture is released, which cools the interior of the house. In the winter, on the other hand, the straw ferments inside the walls, giving off lots of heat as a byproduct.



For this house to function properly, the straw would have to be exchange a few times per year. Also, the fermentation process only produces heat once it has reached a certain stage in its organic breakdown process. This means that the heating of a house utilizing this system would have to be interrupted when the time to replace the straw comes. This is certainly one of the drawbacks of this method. The design does, however, provide household heating and cooling in a totally natural, and organic fashion and is definitely worth exploring further in an effort to find more practical applications.

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Build Your Own Underground Greenhouse


Growing food in the colder months of the year is a challenge, and growers in colder climates that want to extend the crop-growing season are always looking for a better way to do so. Greenhouses are a great option, but they cost a lot of money to construct and heat during the colder months. The American sustainable agriculture non-profit organization Benson Institute has come up with a set of easy to follow instructions on how to build a much cheaper alternative, the so-called walipini, which means “place of warmth” in Aymara Indian. The walipini is basically an underground, pit greenhouse in which it possible to grow vegetables all year, even in the coldest regions of the world.

The walipini is built using the principles of earth-sheltered building and passive solar heating. The Walipini is basically a rectangular hole in the ground that should be 6 to 8 feet deep. Once the hole is dug, it should be covered by plastic sheathing. The longest side of the rectangular hole should face the winter sun, which is to the north in the Southern Hemisphere and to the south in the Northern Hemisphere. At the back of the structure, there should be a thick wall of rammed earth, while at the front there should be a much lower wall, which provides the ability to angle the plastic roof in the correct fashion.



The roof serves two functions, namely to protect the plants and to heat the greenhouse. The plastic roof is made up of two layers of plastic, namely a sheet on the top and one on the bottom of the roof/poles. It works to seal the hole in the ground, and creates an insulating airspace for the garden. In addition to that, it lets in the sun’s warmth and traps it, which creates an even temperature inside the walipini and allows for successful year-round vegetable growth.

By being built underground, the walipini also takes advantage of the earth’s thermal mass, meaning that a lot less energy is needed to heat up its interior compared to a conventional greenhouse. The structure must of course be waterproofed and ventilated correctly, face the sun at the right angle and have an adequate drainage system. The Benson Institute has a detailed manual on the construction process available here.



The Benson Institute built a 20-foot by 74-foot field model walipini in La Paz, Bolivia, which they say, cost only about $300 to build. The low cost is due to volunteer labor and using materials such as plastic ultraviolet (UV) protective sheeting and PVC piping, which are very affordable.

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AIR House Connects Inhabitants with Nature in Simple, Sustainable Style


The first team from the Czech Republic to enter the Solar Decathlon is Team CTU, made up of 26 students who set their sights on designing and building a prototype for future housing while raising awareness of solar energy, energy efficiency, and Czech architecture and engineering.

Their submission in the Solar Decathlon 2013, for which judging takes place in October 2013 in Irvine, California, is AIR House, which stands for Affordable – Innovative – Recyclable. Utilizing energy effective materials and technologies, AIR House provides a comfortable environment for older generations that appeals to the senses and respects the environment.


Designed to be transportable and easily constructed, AIR House features a flexible layout that can adjust to the needs of its inhabitants while responding to outdoor environmental conditions. Use of outdoor living spaces is maximized to reduce the load on mechanical systems.

Many materials used in the construction of AIR House can be recycled at the end of the life cycle of the building. Cross-laminated timber panels, which have zero emissions and are produced with zero waste, were used for their visual quality and pleasing effect on humans. Its “house within a house” concept incorporates a First Skin that consists of a thermal insulation envelope and a Second Skin that provides protection from thermal stress and generates energy.

A net zero energy home, AIR House gets all of the energy that it needs from solar radiation by way of fifty square meters of solar photovoltaic panels and is equipped with smart home technologies. When the home is not naturally ventilated, a heat recuperation ventilation system optimizes air exchange and reduces heat loss.

In addition to the use of low-flow and energy efficient-fixtures, a grey water collection system provides for irrigation of the surrounding vegetation. LED lighting enhances natural daylighting while full-spectrum lighting is used in the evening to stimulate melatonin production.



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