Thursday, February 7, 2008

Photos of cottage inside & out

Took a dozen pix today.  Let me give you a tour, and some commentary in cheers-and-jeers format.

But first a little background:  This is the third and smallest building constructed on the Hunt Utilities Group Campus, and incorporates features from both of the previous ones.  The Hunts' main project (which I fully support) is the development of cold-climate buildings
  • which are self-heating and cooling,
  • allow you go grow your own food, and
  • produce no sewage effluent.
There is a bit more to it than that.  The project is called the Agricultural Resilient Communities project, and there is a notion of fostering local self-reliance, particularly in food production.  (Because that represents a lifestyle and cultural shift for most Americans, there is much discussion on campus as to what else can/should be done to sell/facilitate that attitude adjustment. More on that in later posts.) 

The initial design of the cottage was done before those precise goals came into focus, and the cottage project went through two changes of management during its design and construction, resulting in some ... oddities.  Even so, the cottage is now seen as being on the critical path to those goals.  It's a very serious attempt at self-heating.  As for growing food, the soil is no good, but that can be taken as a realistic challenge, and it does have an attached greenhouse.  The water recycling is a testing priority for this year.

Let's walk around the outside.  Here's the view from the southeast.  
  • The place is super-insulated, with two foot thick straw bale walls on three sides, and a foot thick styrofoam roof.
  • It faces south, and is longer in the east-west direction.  (On the inside it is about 17 x 42 feet overall.)  This is good from a heating-and-cooling point of view.  You know I think the White House is such a building?  And if it's good enough for the President it's good enough for me.  By contrast, houses which are long in the north-south direction tend to be cold in the winter, as the sun then comes mostly from the south and they have few windows facing south to catch the sun, and hot in the summer as the sun bakes the west side throughout the long afternoon, until it finally sets in the northwest.  I used to live in a northwest-corner apartment, and in the summer a heat pulse would come through the west wall about 11 pm to midnight - stifling.
  • It has an attached greenhouse about 7 x 45 feet, which could be used for growing food plants or processing greywater.
  • It has three-way heat:  passive solar from the greenhouse, active solar from the water-heat panels above the greenhouse, and resistance electric heat for backup.  
  • I would call this a geo-solar cottage.  It has in-floor radiant heat and extra loops at 4-8 inches depth and at about 3 feet, to store heat in the ground underneath the building.  The soil here is very sandy.  In this correspondent's present opinion, for a cold, cloudy climate, this the best concept going - a combination of super-insulation above grade and a massive underground heat sink, capable of storing months worth of heat.
  • An example of what John Ringel might call "slice of cheese" architecture, that is, a uniform cross section, unnecessarily typical of passive solar design.  
  • The solar water heat system is not yet operational, due to the mind-altering complexity of the plumbing.

Let's walk around to the left and look at from the west side.
  • Again, check out the thick insulation on the roof.  Note that the greenhouse roof does not have overhead glass, but is insulated and opaque on the ceiling and sides as well.  Probably that is the right choice in this climate, to retain heat in the winter.
  • There are also buried tubes under the greenhouse to exchange heat with the earth.  In addition to the in-floor water tubes like in the main house, there are also 4 inch air pipes to circulate greenhouse air into the ground. 
  • SUV (my bad).  
  • Again, Ugly.  It should be possible to make a perfectly quaint east- or west-facing Victorian design, for example, into a solar masterpiece by extending the back and glazing the south side.  In fact, this is what Bill Labine has done with his place in Avon, NY.
  • You can start to see what the single-pitch roof is doing to the shape of the space upstairs.  More on that below.

Continuing on around the left we see the north side.
Recognition and celebration:
  • Not a lot of heat lost from the north side, with just that one tiny window.  
  • They did avoid repeating one of the goofs from the first building on campus:  Old Main is also a straw bale building with a single-pitch roof, and they put the parking lot and main entrance on the north side.  Whenever there's a freeze-thaw, slush and water runs off the roof and freezes onto the sidewalk in front of the door.  Not a problem here.
  • This side has great prospects for some kind of summer patio living.
Development opportunities:
  • This is the side that faces the rest of the campus.  In its setting, the cottage suffers from being an element in an uncompleted design.  This correspondent has not seen documents, but is assured by reliable sources that there was a plan for some additional cottages arranged roughly in a circle towards the southeast, surrounding a central community building.  This one existing cottage is facing these imaginary friends and has its back turned to the other three real buildings, which are pretty far away anyhow - a mid-to-long par 3, say, off to the north.  It sits by itself on flat open ground.  The closest vegetation is a line of pine trees on the west side, and another on the south, about 30-40 yards away.  Thus it is isolated and exposed at the same time - isolated from other buildings and exposed to the elements.  To this correspondent, it no longer seems likely that the aforementioned development plan will be carried out.  From a permaculture standpoint, perhaps the best thing to do is to capitalize on the isolation and reduce the exposure.  If it was partially engulfed in a food forest, it would be even more private and cozy, and that would also do a lot to soften its jutting rooflines.
  • Relative to the picture above, to go anywhere upon leaving the house, you need to walk down and to the left (northeast).  The doors however are on the west and the south, so you must walk around the cottage.  Right now that's an obstacle course in most directions.  The walk around to the south could be made much more inviting.  

Let's go back to the south side and into the attached greenhouse.
  • Again, in my present opinion, an attached greenhouse is an essential feature for sustainability here in the north.  It's potential functions:
  1. Growing food plants/gardening season extender.  
  2. Passive solar gain for the house.
  3. A warm place for teaming with microbes (on water recycling and composting).
  4. A vestibule/mud room entry in winter.
  • Much depends on being able to keep it warm using passive techniques.  The glazing is double-walled polycarbonate, and the air tubes go down about 3 feet into the earth.  I think those big white water tanks are supposed to be part of the answer too.
  • Its connection to the house passes the permaculture "slipper test" - it is only four steps from the stove to the greenhouse door.

Let's go on in. Here we are in the living room looking back out towards the greenhouse.
Thumbs up:
  • Look at all the windows onto the greenhouse!

There's an east-facing window in the living room.  In the downstairs the walls are natural mud plaster on the east west and north.  I'm not sure how it was applied.

Here's the view from the living room looking toward the kitchen.
  • As you can see, the walls are dark and the floor is very dark.  Balancing this is the huge amount of blond knotty-pine paneling on the walls and ceiling, and the white spray foam on the ceiling upstairs.  The paneling is very attractive.
  • The designers managed to achieve spaciousness and coziness at the same time.  The loft spaces, wide-open floor plan, and windows onto the greenhouse give spaciousness, while the small windows, deep sills, and earth tones give coziness.  
  • Not that I'm an expert or anything, but I think the place probably has pretty good Feng Shui compliance, based on the heavy use of natural materials and the orientation to the sun.
Here we are at the sink, looking north out the little windows.
  • Several possible uses for this little nook.  It could be a good place to grow some herbs.  The kitchen composter might go there.  It might be possible to convert it into a cold-box using the outside cold.
  • It's difficult to open the window, as the wall is thicker than the countertop is wide.
  • This is a ridiculously shallow sink for a house without a dishwasher.

Here's the view looking back towards the living room.
Thumbs up:
  • The kitchen cabinets are nice.
  • Kudos to countertop dude/dudette, nice job!
Thumbs down:
  • The bathroom is just weird.  That's kind of the more experimental part I guess.  I didn't even take a picture of it yet.

From the top of the ladder looking down.
  • The stairs don't take up much space.  It's not a spiral thank God.
  • The ladder is really too steep to descend facing forward, unless you've got good knees, balance, and tiny feet.
  • The wicket at the top is less than 30 inches wide.  
  • Even if there were railings, they'd only get in the way of moving stuff up there.  Seriously, how are you supposed to get a bureau, or king-sized heart-shaped waterbed up there?

Here we are at the top of the ladder looking east.

Here's the view from the other side of the upstairs looking west.  The living room is underneath us.

  • As you can see, the designers really went for architectural drama, with the loft spaces and wide-open floor plan both upstairs and down.  This is visually appealing.  It may also tend to counteract cabin fever.
  • There are ostensibly two bedrooms upstairs, except that they lack walls, doors, and closets.  In fact, there are no closets at all in this place.  I thought there was one, but Redbeard tells me it's for one of the water tanks.  This cottage is suitable for a single person, or a couple and maybe a little baby, but not for a family.  
  • The cottage has 60% more floor area than the 2-bedroom townhouse I was living before, but I think it has less usable space.  The townhouse had four closets, a pantry, and an outside storage locker.  None of that here.  The middle third of the upstairs is basically completely wasted, that is, it's devoted to this extravagant loft bridge.  
  • A much better extravagance of that size, for a Minnesota gardener's house, would have been a large vestibule/mud room at the side door, with a lowered floor, an entry settee, a walk-in closet, and an inside door.  Instead the west door enters into a hallway with the psych-not-a-closet on the right, and the bathroom on the left.  I seem to remember Frank Lloyd Wright famously wearied of talking to wives about closets, but I'm like, shut up Frank you are lacking in customer focus.  I tend to think that Agriculturally Resilient self-sufficionados are going to need at least as much equipment as regular suburbanites, and equipment needs storage space.
  • Due to the single-pitch roof, only about half the upstairs has a ceiling height greater than 6 feet.  Thus there is a lot of space upstairs which is awkward to use even for storage.  About the best you could do would be to put in some kind of bureau with drawers on very long slides.  I consider this wedge-shaped upstairs to be a mistake repeated from the Old Main building, one which should not be repeated prior to the heat death of the universe.  The basic concept of this building is similar to Old Main only in miniature - long east-west, two-story with single-pitch roof and wedged upstairs, three sections inside.  I think because of the reduced scale, certain things didn't work out as well, like no room for stairs.
  • "Long Building" is one of Christopher Alexander's Patterns, as I recall the advantage being privacy.  In this cottage that advantage is negated by all the openness.  In fact, the openness and the awkward ladder make the rooms connected to each other by sound and at the same time difficult to get between.
  • One final little Con:  the opening to the ceiling, on the side of the bridge where the ceiling is tall,  that opening is kind of narrow.  When you walk under it there is a little bit sense of walking under the open end of a pipe, just a little tension that draws your glance up to see if something is going to fall on you.  Maybe its because of the ceiling fan going around up there.
A final comment on the design:

The design aesthetic is an odd mixture I call "Meet the Jetstones" or maybe "Flintstones in Space".  It has a cob floor and ... vinyl casement windows.  It has straw bale walls and ... a styrofoam roof.  It has mud plaster and ... wireless internet.  It has rustic timber framing and ... an all-electric kitchen.  It has a sawdust toilet and ... a data acquisition system.  This is probably a reflection of its fractured project management history, and I think also is an indication of how sustainability is meaning different things to different people. 


Geoffrey said...

Awesome Graham, I look forward to coming up and visiting you in the spring! Did I spot natural mud plaster inside? And did you mention cob floors? What other aspects of the building feature natural materials? You mentioned the cabin is solar heated, is there backup, and what is backup and how much are you using the backup? (sorry if that's something you'll be exploring over the next months)

Paul said...

Very good descriptions Graham.
Your observations will go a long way to help create better houses and better systems.

Cosmic Monkey said...

Hey Graham,

Wow, it is awesome to see some of the design that the Happy Dancing Turtles worked on turn into reality! I remember that a lot of talk went into the layout, because the space limitations were so strict and we wanted to make it feel spacious. I think I pushed hard for the steep ladder stairs, so hopefully that doesn't suck too much. I would love to come by and check it out sometime..meanwhile I'm busy working on my own permaculture plans.

I totally agree that every building needs a mudroom.