Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Tuesday Review: The Integral Urban House

The Integral Urban House, Farallones Institute, 1979. Published by Sierra Club

Any book that is 27 years old and attempts to tackle the concepts of how to create sustainable cycles in a home had me worried it would be horribly out of date. This book, despite its age, does not fail in its mission, and does not feel particularly outdated. The authors spend a great deal of effort detailing many things, as if they were taking pride in creating the owners manual that may would use over the years. Unfortunately, some of their expectations of the coming prevalence of some technologies were overly optimistic, and only now seem to be getting even a little bit of attention.

I was disappointed that the authors didn't spend more time talking about the specifics or their project house. They fail to discuss any of the process that went into building the systems and rather focus on the details necessary to deploy their ideas anywhere. While they achieved their goals, I found myself wanting more in this one area.

I can't summarize this book any better than the writer of the introduction, Sim Van der Ryn

This book shows you ow to achieve a high quality urban way of life using a fraction of the resources we are accustomed to, at lower cost, with less waste, pollution and ugliness.
Unfortunately for the reader, sometimes this approach is mind-numbingly detailed, as it should be for anyone who is undertaking any of the projects and systems proposed in this 450 page tome. Also unfortunately, it is out of print, but should be available at many public libraries or through used book sources. It is also very great to see that the design process they propose includes gathering data about energy, water and other usage within the home before embarking on projects to make changes to the home's systems.

The book's approach is to explain why it is beneficial to even conceive of the notion of a urban home that is connected tightly to its own energy production, waste disposal, and food production. This book is not, however, about being completely independent, though given enough space (thereby defeating the urban part, likely) their ideas and projects could be turned to good measure in suburban settings with larger plots available for food production.

Managing the energy, water and wastes of the house are covered in the second section. The energy chapter details energy conservation through improving the homes thermal properties with insulation and attention to details of how efficiently heat is produced. The water section talks in some depth about modifying plumbing systems to capture gray water from the home for reuse in watering, an idea that has been getting circulated more commonly recently, despite opposition in building codes. Waste management, as with most topics, goes into great depth as to the types of waste generated in the home, and how they can be managed on the premises, using composting toilets, compost heaps for other organic wastes.

Part three of the book goes into great detail about how to grow food, and is the portion of the book that took the longest to slog through. It is quite detailed and could be used as a food producers handbook for gardening in small spaces with its great attention to soils, nutrients, crop selection. The topic of food is not limited to growing plants and their intricate needs. The authors detail the raising of small stock in the form of chickens and rabbits. Breeding, slaughter, and handling are covered to supplement the protein needs of house residents.

The section concludes with an examination of directly using solar energy to provide heating and hot water for the home. While the providers have probably changed, the theories and practices have not as far as I can tell. Passive solar heating, active solar using water or air with and without storage are all covered. It is here that the authors were optimistic that technologies such as solar hot water heaters would become common.

In the last part of the book, the authors focus on the homes interaction with the wider world. They address in detail the wildlife, insects and discuss their benefits and management as part of the ecosystem that the occupants of the house create. They then move on to discuss the integration of the home with its street and neighborhood.

I'd be curious to see an updated version or book that attempts to fill the same niche, updated to reflect options that have become available over the past two decades. As stated above, the project details would be interesting to hear as well as owners of existing housing stocks begin to consider what projects they can undertake to reduce their energy needs and costs aside from using more efficient devices.