Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 36, Fall/Winter 1994
Desert Architecture III: Building a Sustainable Future

Editor's note: The new crop of energy-efficient building materials

by John M. Bancroft

"It is an axiom of the building process that the earliest decisions are the most important. The architect's design concept has energy consequences and establishes the limits within which all subsequent energy decisions are made."

Seymour Jarmul
The Architect's Guide to Energy Conservation: Realistic Energy Planning for Buildings

Styling this issue of The Arid Lands Newsletter "Desert Architecture III" implies that it was preceded by "Desert Architecture I" and "Desert Architecture II." It was.

The first volume in this de facto series was a book published by the Office of Arid Lands Studies in 1980 and titled Desert Housing: Balancing Experience and Technology for Dwelling in Hot Arid Climates. The book was edited by Kenneth N. Clark, who also contributes an article to "Desert Architecture III," and by Patricia Paylore, the founding editor and guiding spirit of The Arid Lands Newsletter.

Clark and Paylore enlisted in their aid the expertise of fifteen of their colleagues from the U.S. and abroad, who among them had learned valuable lessons in the deserts of the American Southwest, Australia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Mexico, North Africa, and Turkey. Their topics ranged from the venerable art of building with adobe to modern solar technology. They even took a stab at that moving target summed in the phrase "development policy."

Their book, although now out of print, is still very much in demand fourteen years after publication, as attested by the frequency with which all or part of it is photocopied at The University of Arizona's Architecture Library and the requests for copies at professional meetings. There is some talk here of bringing out a revised second edition of the book, but to do that we'll need more than anecdotal evidence of demand for it; publishers, now more than ever, must mind the market, after all. If you'd like to vote either way ("I'd buy a copy."/"Don't bother." ), we'd be pleased to hear from you.

"Desert Architecture II" was the Spring/Summer 1989 number of The Arid Lands Newsletter (# 28), edited by my predecessor, Emily E. Whitehead. Articles in that issue considered, among other topics, tower houses in Yemen and courtyard houses all over the ancient and modern arid world.

New energy-efficient materials

Many of the principles advanced in this issue's predecessors remain constant and true, of course, but the market has seen a number of major innovations in materials and technology in recent years. New and readily available products range from "lumber" made of recycled plastic to roof sheathing that, in its first incarnation, might have been your morning newspaper.

Among the most exciting innovations are basic building materials that promise much greater energy efficiency than the run of modern materials and, as a result, much less reliance on energy-hungry mechanical heating and cooling systems. Adobe, rammed earth, and straw bale construction (see "Publications" in this issue) are among the low-tech solutions that have been known in one part of the world or another for generations, but other, often higher-tech options have just appeared.

Structural material innovations include those sold under the trade names Energy Block, Ice Block, Integra Thermal Mass Block, and the Rastra Building System, which has a history of use in both very hot and very cold climates of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia but has only lately gained broad acceptance in the U.S. These materials, though compounded of various elements and sold in a variety of configurations, share a single goal: improving the energy efficiency of structures.

The Rastra Building System, for example, according to information supplied by the U.S. manufacturer (Rastra Building Systems Inc. of Riverside, California; phone, 909-653-3346), achieves an R-value of from 24 to 41.67, depending upon the construction method used and finishing techniques; the basic Rastra building unit (varying in size from 10 in. thick x 15 in. wide x 10 ft. long to 12 in. x 30 in. x 10 ft.) is meant to be reinforced with rebar and grouted with poured concrete after assembly on site.

The materials from which Rastra units are fabricated add to their attractiveness. In the molding process, post-consumer foamed styrene (derived from the recycling of such items as fast food containers and packing materials) is mixed with concrete, yielding not only a recycled material content of 86 percent but also a relatively light building "block" with a sound insulation rating of 53 db and, when grouted, remarkable fire resistance.

My purpose here is not to claim that Rastra per se is the greatest invention since sliced tofu, but to point out that it is possible to mass produce a building material that not only does not contribute to deforestation but that also saves both significant energy over the life of a building and a substantial sum of money the owner might otherwise spend on heating and cooling that building.

Add to the equation low-e windows, "old-fashioned" dual-pane windows, newer gas-filled dual-pane windows, and transparent reflective glass coatings; various earth-sheltered, earth-integrated, and "earthship" structures (the latter crafted of soil and whatever variety of junk is handy, from used automobile tires to empty soft drink cans); compact fluorescent light bulbs on reusable electronic ballasts and super-insulated refrigerators designed for solar-powered households (which require less energy to run and produce less waste heat); three-phase heat pumps that provide heating, cooling, and hot water, and low-flow plumbing fixtures, and you have what looks like a pretty good high-tech solution to the problem of dwindling natural resources and soaring energy costs.

Maybe. And at the very least these innovations constitute useful pieces of a puzzle. But while any advance in technology that eases the strain on an overtaxed natural resource base without contributing to the pollution that threatens to poison us all is welcome, especially in those affluent societies with a largely unabated appetite for fossil fuels and a thus far unassailable addiction to the consumerist creed, what's really needed is innovative thinking. And not only innovative ideas but widespread exposure to those ideas followed by their wholesale application.

Desert Architecture III

Which is where the contributors to ""Desert Architecture III" come in. In "Architecture and Environment," Hassan Fathy, the celebrated Egyptian architect, starts us off with a reminder that there are valuable lessons to be learned from the vernacular architecture of the world's hot dry places. Safei el-Deen Hamed, a landscape architect who teaches at The University of Maryland at College Park, follows up, in "Paradise on Earth: Historical Gardens of the Arid Middle East," with an examination of both the spiritual and the very practical pleasures of the traditional walled gardens of Islam. And from the same culturally rich region of the arid world comes Yair Etzion, an architect and professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who, in "A Bio-Climatic Approach to Desert Architecture," blends experience and theory, modern science and common sense in an objective look at a house he both designed and lives in. In "Sustainable Community Planning," Ken Clark, an architect who chairs The University of Arizona's Interdisciplinary Program in Planning, takes a step back from the challenge of designing energy-smart individual buildings to take a broader view of the energy/shelter equation in the context of the planning for Tucson's Civano Solar Village.

We certainly have not covered all the possibilities in this issue, or even in what has turned out to be a series on the subject, but given the importance of affordable, livable, energy-efficient shelter in an increasingly crowded world, there most certainly will be a "Desert Architecture IV." Articles and suggestions for that issue are welcome, and I'll hope to hear from you.

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