Dirt Houses are Good for the Planet

Inefficiently constructed housing is a problem for the planet and people. Poor insulation, intensive manufacturing process, and costs all have long term impacts on energy usage and people’s budgets. There is a solution to this that has been used the world over: building homes using dirt. Sod, adobe, and other materials have been used to make homes for millennia and perhaps it’s time we return to these natural methods. Iceland is one such country where the discussion of returning housing to its roots is alive and well.

Still, when discussing the contemporary benefits of turf homes to Sigurdardottir, she is largely positive about it. “Turf houses with their grassy green roofs are perfectly environmentally-friendly buildings and sustainable,” she says. “The material is taken from wetland areas where the grass root is thick and strong. It lasts for decades in dry weather and rots eventually like wood, just a little faster. [It] is then used as a filling in new walls or put into holes to smooth the meadow or spread it over it like fertilizer. Dry turf provides good insulation against cold weather.”

And there’s a growing coterie of people asking questions about the contemporary applications of turf homes. Last year, an exhibition in Seltjarnarnes called Earth Homing, Reinventing Turf Homes sought to explore the contemporary applications of turf houses.

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Let’s Empty Half the Earth of People

the suburbs

The housing pattern pictured above is not sustainable, nor is how we as a species consume the planet’s resources. A way to think about our sustainability is to think of it as an annual budget and by August we’ve already consumed our annual supply of renewable resources, meaning the rest of the year is over budget and we have to consume non-renewable resources. A way to reduce our carbon footprint to help us survive the ongoing climate crisis is to move people into urban centres and depopulate large swaths of the planet. By leaving large open areas for nature to thrive we can help the planet deal with the 8 billion people consuming all of its resoruces.

So emptying half the Earth of its humans wouldn’t have to be imposed: it’s happening anyway. It would be more a matter of managing how we made the move, and what kind of arrangement we left behind. One important factor here would be to avoid extremes and absolutes of definition and practice, and any sense of idealistic purity. We are mongrel creatures on a mongrel planet, and we have to be flexible to survive. So these emptied landscapes should not be called wilderness. Wilderness is a good idea in certain contexts, but these emptied lands would be working landscapes, commons perhaps, where pasturage and agriculture might still have a place. All those people in cities still need to eat, and food production requires land. Even if we start growing food in vats, the feedstocks for those vats will come from the land. These mostly depopulated landscapes would be given over to new kinds of agriculture and pasturage, kinds that include habitat corridors where our fellow creatures can get around without being stopped by fences or killed by trains.

This vision is one possible format for our survival on this planet. They will have to be green cities, sure. We will have to have decarbonised transport and energy production, white roofs, gardens in every empty lot, full-capture recycling, and all the rest of the technologies of sustainability we are already developing. That includes technologies we call law and justice – the system software, so to speak. Yes, justice: robust women’s rights stabilise families and population. Income adequacy and progressive taxation keep the poorest and richest from damaging the biosphere in the ways that extreme poverty or wealth do. Peace, justice, equality and the rule of law are all necessary survival strategies.

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Download This Home

the suburbs

The standard North American home (pictured above) is horrible inefficient and quite bad for the environment. As the climate crisis conies to worsen we need to change the way we provide shelter for people: and that’s exactly what Phoenix, Arizona did. Arizona is experience such extreme heat that everyday objects are melting and car tires explode, sometimes the airport can’t function either. This led the City of Phoenix to launch a competition for making the most affordable and environmentally friendly home.

The winning home building plan is available for free online from the city, meaning you can download a home.

The winner of the contest, Marlene Imirzian & Associates Architects, went even lower. The studio’s affordable, three-bedroom home, dubbed HOME nz, has an impressive HERS rating of zero. A $100,000 prize went to Imirzian’s firm, and the design is now available for widespread use; the City of Phoenix has made the construction plans for HOME nz available for free to encourage the public to build more eco-friendly homes. “The city of Phoenix has a very visionary sustainability director and department who are looking for leadership for built work in the Phoenix area,” says Imirzian. “[The] goal was to show how simple moves could result in significant [environmental] changes.”

Since Phoenix’s dry, sun-bleached environment involves extreme heat, the design incorporates high-performance glass, which reduces heat transmission from outside, and retractable fabric screens for greater shade and passive cooling without the help of an AC unit. But HOME nz is a useful and applicable model no matter the climate. “If the volume performs well in terms of the separation of the interior and exterior then no matter where you build your house, it will be managed optimally by what you’re surrounding the house with,” notes Imirzian. “It would do just as well in a very cold climate or [a place] where you need conditioning or heating.”

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Solve the Global Housing Crisis by Recognizing Buyers

the suburbs

The cost of housing has skyrocketed since the banker-caused 2008 financial crisis and there are no signs of prices stabilizing. In Toronto we’ve seen the price of housing rise faster than wages and the same can be said for nearly every major city on the planet. A key reason this is happening stems from using housing as a commodity for money laundering. Yes, that’s right the cost of your house is higher because governments are letting criminals artificially inflate the market.

In the states, like elsewhere, housing can be bought by secretive numbered companies (which don’t disclose who owns what). So the American Treasury ran a very simple pilot project to stop money laundering through real estate by looking into these secretive buyers. They made insurance companies find out who actually owned companies that were buying luxury real estate in a few cities.

It also seems to have had an effect on the market. Since the scheme started, there has been an almost 70% drop in companies buying real estate with just cash, according to an academic paper published last year. Those figures suggest that “anonymity plays a significant role” in people using secretive shell companies to buy property, and money-laundering was a “likely cause” for wanting that secrecy, Ville Rantala, a finance professor at Miami Business School and co-author of the paper, told Quartz after the paper’s publication last summer.

This is more than just a moral issue—it has national security implications. Rantala pointed to Russians hit by sanctions after the Kremlin’s efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election. “If there are these kinds of loopholes, it’s hard to know whether people targeted by sanctions may be able to make purchases in the US—so there’s really cause to be concerned about anonymous buyers,” he said.

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Christiana Figueres: The Climate Risk Reward Ratio has Changed

The architect of the Paris Agreement, Christiana Figueres, is optimistic about the future of the planet and she sees the technology sector key in moving our economy to a carbon neutral system. She sees the exponential growth in the technology sector and argues that we need that sector’s help to manage “exponential growth in sustainable solutions”. Indeed, she claimed that “the tech sector is the portal to solving climate change” at a press conference at Collision Conference.

I doubt any parent alive today wants to be blamed for the environmental problems their children will face. – Figueres

Technology

We can’t have technology growing for growth’s sake. -Figueres

As she sees it, we are in a race between two exponential curves: sustainable tech growth and climate change. Her hope is that the tech sector can help move the economy away from fossil fuels. We need to decarbonize the economy as fast as possible.

Companies are starting to note that our climate crisis greatly endangers their future business plans.

Transportation

We are killing 7 million people per year because of air pollution that is entirely avoidable if we move to electric mobility. -Figueres

The economy is slowly moving away from fossil fuels, but this needs to happen faster. The risks are too great to continue our slow progress. She even notes that all the major automakers are moving to all electric – even Harley Davidson.

Cities need to regulate the types of cars and busses allowed in their borders so citizens are dangerously exposed to pollution. We have the knowledge, we just need the policies.

Housing

More corporations understanding that its in their own interest to decarbonize. -Figueres

We need purposeful growth and millennials get that, and that’s true when it comes to housing. Figueres envisions a short term goal of retrofitting existing buildings. She wonders why aren’t people retrofitting their buildings since insulation of homes is important to reducing energy combustion.

Figueres calls for policy makers to demand that new buildings power themselves and contribute to a healthier city. Again, we have the technology, we have the knowledge, we just need the policies.

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