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Earth Sheltered, Rammed Earth, and Cob Houses

It might not be easy being green, but it is becoming a necessity of modern life. With fuel costs skyrocketing and resources dwindling, green technology is the buzzword being used in everything from sandwich bags to home designs. Ironically, many of the new green technologies that are gaining popularity have been in use for thousands of years. Although rooted in a variety of disparate cultures, each of the following designs share characteristics common to green technology: an emphasis on sustainability, energy efficiency, and affordability.

Earth Sheltered Houses: Energy Efficiency From Thermal Mass

Earth sheltered housing could conceivably be one of the oldest forms of human shelter, dating back to prehistoric times. Not surprisingly, the same principles that drove prehistoric humans to build earth sheltered homes still apply today – energy efficiency, natural insulation due to thermal mass, low maintenance, easy adaptability to passive solar heating, and availability of building materials. As green architecture moves into the mainstream, earth sheltered housing is getting a makeover from being the housing design of choice for cavemen and hobbits, to Bill Gates’ 147.5 million dollar earth sheltered mansion.

Earth sheltered houses can either be fully underground or bermed (banked with earth.) In either housing design, the thermal mass of the earth acts as insulation, soundproofing, and weather barrier. In Low-Impact Housing: Ketchum House 1998 by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation [CMHC 2008] it was found that an earth sheltered home used only 12.9% of the overall energy consumption of a standard model home of the same dimensions. However, this energy efficiency does come with a cost – construction costs of this style of sustainable architecture are estimated to be 10-20% above that of a standard home design.

Rammed Earth Construction: Sustainable Architecture That is Accessible to All

Historically common in areas where wood is not readily available as a building material, rammed earth construction is a form of sustainable architecture that dates back to as early as 5000BCE. Recently, it has gained attention as being a green technology that is both energy efficient, sustainable, and economically affordable for most home builders.

Because the earth used in rammed earth construction is generally the subsoil, environmental damage from resource use is minimized. Like many other sustainable housing designs, rammed earth construction relies on thermal mass to control heating and cooling while simultaneously normalizing humidity and noise pollution. Furthermore, although mechanical means are available, the earth can be compressed by hand, making fabrication costs and environmental impact among the lowest of all green technologies, with constructions costs averaging about two-thirds that of traditional housing.

Cob Houses: Housing Design Meets Free Form Sculpture

Cob is another traditional building material that is making a comeback as a for of sustainable architecture. Consisting of thick walls made of sand, clay, straw, and mud, cob houses are economically affordable and energy efficient. Sharing the same desirable traits as other green technologies that employ thermal mass for insulating efficiency, cob houses are unique in their flexibility of design. The nature of the building materials gives the home designer, or artist, a nearly endless range of possibilities in housing design, so that a cob home can in effect become a work of art that also happens to be habitable.

From Housing Design of the Ancients to Modern Sustainable Architecture

The recent back to basics trend in sustainable architecture can only be a sign of things to come. Whether discussing earth sheltered, rammed earth or cob houses, housing designs that embrace the past with an eye to the future are becoming a viable option for home builders. Borrowing concepts such as thermal mass and renewable building supplies, there is no limit to what modern architects can achieve in green technology.

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