Archive for the ‘DIY’ Category

Why aren’t we using Aerblock when we build?

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Aerblock as an ecological building material like pumice or laterite

Why aren’t we using building materials like Aerblock instead of wood? Habitat Forum 1976 alumni Michael Baron is involved in manufacturing this safe, lightweight, storm-proof, insulating, healthy-air concrete material that mimics ancient pumice building blocks.

Aerblocks are so light they float, and yet they withstand major natural disasters. Their application is almost universal—from disaster reconstruction in Haiti and Jamaica to full-scale luxury housing and large building projects.

Construction lobbies have helped thwart the adoption of this material in North America, but it is used in many parts of the world. Why does North America lag so far behind? The only region to have adopted it in any significant way so far is Florida, only thanks to a hurricane problem that is so severe it has overridden the efforts of business to block it.

In other parts of the world, the adoption of Aerblock would aid in health and community development. Not only does it keep out the heat and other threats to health, it is a simple and intuitive material to build with. Its interlocking blocks fit together so simply that untrained and uneducated builders can put together a decent shelter with the aid of pictorial instructions. Because Aerblock doesn’t require grout, which requires training to apply and is a major a source of failure, it’s more likely to be democratically adopted and buildings are less prone to fall down. It mimics an ancient style of building with pumice blocks, a natural building style. It’s worth noting that some of these ancient pumice buildings are still standing today.

Baron contacted me in relation to my book research on Habitat Forum ’76, and then went on to tell me about his work with Aerblock. I asked if Aerblock would work in a rainy, cool climate like Vancouver, and he said that contrary to popular assumption it would be ideal here. He has in fact been attempting to set up a small manufacturing plant here as a result of his long ties with the city. I asked him why this hasn’t been adopted in construction, apart from the deterrent effects of the wood lobby, and he pointed to something I’ve witnessed myself in my own attempt to salvage my building. There is a great deal of inertia in the construction industry. It’s cheaper to go on doing the same old wasteful things than it is to take the time to reeducate yourself and invest in newer, more sustainable technologies – even when the materials are ultimately cheaper or when they clearly benefit the homeowner. I had to battle subcontractors and suppliers over choosing newer, more ecological materials.

It’s interesting how many alumni of the groundbreaking Habitat ’76 conference are still working on sustainable architecture and appropriate technology 37 years later. Why are we right back where we started when we first began to talk about these things? Rhetorical question.

Aerblock

“Our Mission: We strive to play a crucial role in furthering the advancement of aerated, lightweight cementitious technologies here in the US and around the world, as a legacy building material, for generations to come!”

Below: Vlack Temple in Colorado, constructed with Aerblock; Haiti reconstruction; fully modern, large-scale house;

Aerblock - church in Colorado

Aerblock Haiti

Aerblock - adobe-style mansion

 

Rock concert

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Rock Concert

 

You may have had to be there. In the 70s.

 

 

Waterfall

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Chinaicewaterfallbuildingeviction

It is hard not to view this frozen waterfall as an artwork, but it only functions as art inadvertently. Its effect is quietly visceral, though, a response I don’t have to art often enough. The last resident in this building in China, holding out against expropriation by developers, makes a DIY drip system for preventing his pipes from freezing after owners shut off the heating system.  Via io9 via here.

“Refusing to leave his abandoned apartment building in Jilin City, China, Wen Hsu feared that the uninsulated pipes running through his building would freeze during the winter. His solution? Just leave the tap running.

Wen has lived in this building for 35 years and he’s the last remaining resident. He decided to stay put even after real estate investors bought all the apartments in the block in preparation for a new mall.

Worried that his water supply would be cut off by the frigid temperatures, he left the warm water running and diverted it down the side of the building — and this is the result.

Wen says that the developers have offered him too small an amount to be able to buy another apartment, so he’s refusing to sell his home.

The incident has drawn attention to his case in the Chinese media and officials are now asking the developers to settle the matter so that the project can move on.”

waterfall in Jilin City, China, outside building

Buy Nothing Day

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Buy Nothing Day was launched by Vancouver’s Adbusters Magazine.

“The journey towards a sane sustainable future begins with a single step. It could all start with a personal challenge, such as this: make a vow to yourself to participate in Buy Nothing Day this year. This November 23rd, go cold turkey on consumption for 24 hours … see what happens … you just might have an unexpected, emancipatory epiphany! … Join millions of us in over 60 countries on November 23/24 and see what it feels like. Then, after Buy Nothing Day, take the next step … for generations, Christmas has been hijacked by commercial forces … this year, let’s take it back.”

My extended family did a Christmas like this a few times. My nephews were 6 and 7 years old the first time. You had to make all presents with things you found, and nothing could be bought. No bought wrapping paper either–everything had to be recycled. These are the best Christmases we ever had. Inventive, hilarious and fun.

I’m not sure that personal choice alone is going to effectively challenge consumer capitalism, but it’s worth a try. North America’s profligate spending and wastefulness is truly repellent.

Also, from a design standpoint, departing from consumerism produces the happy result of automatically creating better design. Every time. At the risk of stating the obvious, our anti-consumerist design/gift guidelines could be:

• Less is more. This is almost always true.
• Buy less and when you do buy, buy items of significantly high quality, items you’ll never tire of and that will improve with age. The expenditure is worth it, and in the end you’ll find this has actually cost you the same or less than the sum of many cheap expenditures.
• Nothing substitutes for the handmade
• Artisanal, high-quality, local production from carefully chosen materials can be far better-looking than factory-produced brand name goods or furniture (but some artisans have to stop adding busy, funky, weird detailing to everything. (3 different woods/materials in one table; curlicues.) Awkward aesthetics are wasteful too–we tire of them, so they work against longevity).
• If you must buy new, try to buy mostly things made/grown in your own town/region/country.
• Use found objects. Items with some history bring some humanity with them. So many spaces are utterly dead because they lack the marks of  their natural origins, or of the human hand, history and use. Bring a fallen tree branch into the house. Google “biophilia” to found out how seeing natural objects is beneficial to health and serenity.
• Don’t buy anything made of chipboard! Better to find solid wood items at thrift shops. At IKEA, some items are far better quality than others. Avoid anything made of cheap laminates.
• Older couches and chairs often have solid hardwood under-structures. Collect these! Instead of buying a new couch, get an old one re-sprung and re-upholstered. This also supports local labour, and you end up with a far better product with longevity; perhaps even an heirloom. Or just throw a nice blanket over the thing.
• Collage a card for a friend/relative rather than buying a present. In the long run these mean far more to people than objects do. I know I don’t want anything bought new. It’s never right.
• Old second-hand books are a fantastic present. We should support local bookstores in general.
• Enjoy your improved surroundings. They will make you happy.

Stereo systems and speakers, 1960s & 70s style

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Stereo shelf, storage for records

Stereo shelf, storage for records

Why don’t we do this kind of thing anymore? You saw it a lot in the 1960s and 70s—speakers embedded in display shelves or on a wall, as part of the decor. Maybe it’s partly that components were better looking then, in general, but you could still do this now. Why don’t we? Is it because stereo components are now considered throwaway, and you’d never make built-ins because your components wouldn’t last long enough to justify it? The stereo system above has been in continuous working order since it was installed in the 1970s in Vancouver in an architect’s house. The only change is that a CD player has been added into the built-in box that doubles as display shelf.

Maybe those who rent would be disinclined to make alterations like this, but what about everyone else? Whatever happened to using stereo components as elements in room design? Maybe these items were valued far more highly then than they are now, and not perhaps out of audiophilia so much as an overall sense of design and function.

On a related topic, have you ever tried to get good storage for your vinyl nowadays? Good luck. If the unit above (it’s the wooden credenza thing on the floor) were available now, I’d buy it. It’s beautiful and simple, and it looks like solid wood.

The photo below is from The Practical Encyclopedia of Good Decorating and Home Improvement, Greystone Press, 1970. Check out the speakers on the built-in bench or shelf along the wall, the great reel-to-reel deck, and then the amp held up by cupids on the wall. Not to mention the vari-coloured wall, separated into quadrants via different paint colours. So great.

 

Stereo wall, 70s living room

I can’t find further good examples of this setup just at the moment, but here are some entertaining vintage stereo/storage shots: LP storage unit from ancienthistory,  And then there’s this, when things go space age. And pots and pans in one drawer, turnable in another via teddy_qui_dit (more here and here),

 

A house with a grass roof

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Above: Farm house in Keldur, Iceland. These are “earth sheltered” houses, an ancient form of passive solar, sustainable architecture. It’s the practice of “packing earth against building walls for external thermal mass, to reduce heat loss and maintain steady indoor temperature.”

From Wikipedia: “A sod roof or turf roof is a traditional Scandinavian type of green roof covered with sod on top of several layers of birch bark on gently sloping wooden roof boards. Until the late 19th century, it was the most common roof on rural log houses in large parts of Scandinavia. Its distribution roughly corresponds to the distribution of the log building technique in the vernacular architecture of Finland and the Scandinavian peninsula.” Apparently the birch bark was an effective waterproofing layer.

In my neighbourhood, applications to build green rooves have recently been rejected by City Hall, despite the current civic administration’s green agenda. We may be seeing a case of two agendas at odds: the heritage agenda for the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver, with its housing stock of imported Victorian/Edwardian styles, and City Hall’s green agenda. The latter apparently doesn’t trump the former, though there may also be engineering concerns at play. Anyway, I came up against this when I became interested in building a carport/garage with a green roof.

Clearly this is a historic method, even in damp, dark places. These houses are examples of a very, very old building practice. In the case of the earth sheltered houses above I’d be curious to know if the interiors were damp, but I expect the houses with sod rooves were probably pretty comfortable.

The most beloved local example of a grass roof is in Coombs, B.C. where a popular stop on Vancouver Island is a small restaurant whose roof is covered in small grazing goats. Very popular with B.C. children and tourists. Our new convention centre in BC also has a notable green roof. But I’ll be interested to see if this method makes it to the local housing level in Vancouver, whose code is one of the strictest in N. America. A code so strict that it inhibits the building of any interesting architecture, and in fact precludes the building of house styles actually indigenous or vernacular to this region.

Four houses directly below are via Inhabitat.

Below, sod roof with goats at Coombs, B.C.

Coombs, BC

Coombs

Goats on the roof

Goats on the Roof.JPG

Below, the new Vancouver Convention Centre with its green roof

VCEP ROOF

The Centre, Vancouver Convention Centre

The Centre, Vancouver Convention Centre