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Turning Shipping Containers Into Customizable, Affordable Housing

Julia Levitt, WorldChanging
We recently started following the development of a cool new project taking root at Clemson University in South Carolina. Architecture faculty Martha Skinner and Doug Hecker and Landscape Architecture faculty Pernille Christensen are working with their students to design livable, sustainable dwellings using the large shipping containers sent to Caribbean nations.

According to assistant professor Caitlyn Dyckman, the containers are generally considered waste because it’s more expensive to bring them back to port than to leave them in the Caribbean. But the right redesign approach could turn these large vessels into viable housing.

“Our goal for the initial start up phase of the project is to come up with a design that, like the ISO container, can navigate the many different scenarios — Haiti, Dominica, Jamaica etc. — in the Caribbean, and at the same time be “open” enough to take root and adapt so that families can take ownership of the dwelling to meet their needs but within their means,” says Hecker.
(26 February 2009)

Junked cars morph into green manufactured houses

Ruth Mullen, The Oregonian
What do you get when you put five engineers alone in a room for a year and give them a problem to solve?

Rob Boydstun got a revolutionary new product: affordable green housing.

The president of Boydstun Metal Works has gone from building commercial car carriers to constructing manufactured green homes out of the crushed carcasses of junked vehicles. (About four to six cars per house.)

“I knew I needed to diversify in order to stay afloat,” says Boydstun, who launched his startup, Miranda Homes (, about a year and a half ago. “Our goal was to build a home that is sustainable but also affordable.”

Boydstun does so in all earnestness — and not just because his empty assembly plant is a painful daily reminder of the 400 employees he has laid off in the past year because of the downturn in the automobile industry.

Boydstun wants to change the way we build houses.

By turning a fresh eye on the construction industry — and taking full advantage of his own established infrastructure — Boydstun has trimmed the fat from an often wasteful construction process and created a highly efficient home to boot.
(26 February 2009)

Review: Garbage Warrior

Amanda Kovattana, Flickr-blog
I thought Michael Reynolds, the architect behind the earthships, was going to be a cranky, anti-establishment, radical, given the tone of the earthship books, so was pleasantly surprised to see, in this film, that he is an old softie and humanitarian who started out as a traditionally trained architect.

This Australian film directed by Oliver Hodge actually has a story beyond just the techniques used in building the earthships. There is the idea of self-sustaining, energy generating, food producing houses and the ecotopia self-built, earthship community that sprung up around this dream. There is the government to contend with and onerous building codes, so the long haired Mr. Reynolds ties back his grey locks, dons a suit and fights city hall. There’s also a beautiful, dark haired, heroine inside the system who goes to bat with him to attempt to pass a new law that will allow experimental housing in New Mexico fully illustrating what we’re up against in attempting to bring innovative change through government. Michael Reynolds makes the point that New Mexico was a test site for the bomb so why can’t it be a test site for housing too.

He makes the poignant comment that would apply universally to artists, regarding the building codes that were created to insure that houses were fullproof. “I had lost my freedom to fail.”

He wanted real people to be able to discover for themselves how to make better shelter. The government representatives wanted to know what he meant by real people. Government regulations require state certified contractors and inspectors. They wanted to know what he meant by independent. They wanted to know what ideas he thought were out there that hadn’t already been incorporated into current building practices. One can’t know that until one is allowed to find out. That’s the point.

And like so many leaders and innovators before him, he makes the point that outside of the law is where the information lies. And that’s why real people must be allowed to discover this information as they live it.

He was advised to watch his language and not mention global warming or oil shortages for fear of sounding like a crazed radical.

The films turning point is the inspiring 14 day build out, when six white guys go to India to build a house for poor brown people on the coast after the tsunami. It was a sustainable house built of plastic and glass bottles, bamboo and cement as a demonstration of how ordinary people can help themselves with locally available materials. The local engineers lapped it up. Not to mention that the building looked beautiful as did all the earthship buildings. So here we have disaster innovation to illustrate how people can evolve enormously when they’ve lost everything and not just become fodder for disaster capitalists to exploit them and enslave them.
(26 February 2009)

Dealing with the Coming Plague of Empty Superstores

Jebediah Reed, Infrstructurist
Big Box of Trouble:

… The problem of retail vacancies on this scale is so new that it hasn’t really been studied yet. Perhaps the only authority on the subject of empty big box stores is Oberlin College professor and artist Julia Christensen. She has spent the last seven years traveling around the country seeking out and documenting cases of communities reclaiming abandoned big boxes and putting them to a socially productive use–for instance, as museums, libraries, rec centers, and schools. She wrote about it all in her recently published book Big Box Reuse (MIT Press). A few days ago, we got her thoughts on how towns and cities can make beneficial use of these vacant structures and turn a hole in the local fabric into a community asset.

… Q: You describe big box stores as unsustainable. In what way particularly?

A: The main thing is that they are built on a car-centric structure. So you can’t really get to these buildings without cars. Then there’s the acres and acres of impermeable parking lots, land that we’re just paving over.

Q: Plus, each comes with its own infrastructure package which is generally useless for anything else.

A: Yes. No matter what we do with these buildings we’re still looking at millions and millions of dollars worth of corporation specific infrastructure that’s going into town after town.

Q: Roads, extra lanes, and so on. Let’s just consider the parking lots for a moment. What do you do with all those acres of asphalt? Have you found any cases where they have been effectively transformed into something better?

A: Well, again it’s all relative. You know, what do you do? But there was a church that I visited in Pinellas Park, Florida–a reclaimed big box store–and they actually planted trees all over their parking lot, greened it up quite a bit. And what they found is that the companies around there began to green up their parking lots too. So they sort of raised the bar in the area. I’ve also seen communities, when they start to realize that these structures will inevitably be abandoned, stipulate things like greener parking lots or berms so the lot isn’t visible from pedestrian byways.
(25 February 2009)