Resources are a hot topic at the moment. Personally I am not feeling much for the image presented by our governments through the media which is based on scarcity. We are surrounded by an abundance of resources everywhere, but just distracted to see them. Our carbon based economy thrives by the control over resources and dependency of its customers. In my opinion this doesn’t go well with freedom and individual empowerment and I believe there must be another way.
Carbon positive building, using renewable alternatives for highly toxic materials like cement and researching natural locally available materials are all high on my list, yet I also like to explore how to use our habitat as a power plant and how to add meaning to the empty spaces of buildings. I want to provide a test and demo ground for prototypes that accelerate the transition towards the circular economy by building multiple small demonstration buildings with a large variety of natural, renewable and locally sourced resources and alternative technology on the land.
From linear thinking towards circular living
The circular economy is an economical system based on the cradle-to-cradle philosophy rather than the linear cradle-to-grave economy we have been accustomed to. Conventional linear approaches to sustainability, like recycling, often make the efficient use of energy and materials their ultimate goal. While this can be a useful transitional strategy, it only tends to reduce negative impacts without transforming harmful activity. Our current linear design thinking often solves one problem on the surface but contributes to many other problems down the line.
Cradle-to-cradle design goes beyond retrofitting industrial systems to reduce their harm. As architect, designer and founder of the Cradle-to-Cradle design philosophy William McDonough explains “Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us: it is a design failure. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere make airborne carbon a material in the wrong place, at the wrong dose and wrong duration. It is we who have made carbon a toxin—like lead in our drinking water. In the right place, carbon is a resource and tool.” In order to design and produce in a truly sustainable way, without bringing harm to our environment and each other, the only thing we have to do is to correct our error by changing our way of thinking. To take nature as our source, not as an inexhaustible resource.
The circular system knows two chains. An ecological chain where waste products are returned to nature without harming it. And a technical chain, where products or parts are designed without losing much quality during their use and can therefor easily be reused. That way their economical value remains. The circular system is both ecological as economical ‘repairing’ but requires a complete new approach to our current design practices.
After purchasing the land, I wondered about my next step on how to realize my idea of building a legal, non-toxic, carbon positive, off-grid natural habitat on a small budget, without compromising on modern day comfort. After months of research and meeting people, I was struggling with finding a suitable eco-minded team of an architect, engineer and builder to legally carry out the home I envisioned, which isn’t as common yet in Portugal. One day I woke up to the image of a cute yet comfortable treehouse. It was a corner in the forest that had tried to tell me that all along. This Treehouse would allow me some more time to find the right professionals to collaborate with, while working on an exciting project and having a roof over my head during the colder winter months.
In the meantime I was designing my solar system and received the phone number of a local guy who had experience with this. Turns out that Joāo is an awesome natural builder talent who studied at CAT, who, like me, adores trees, and is a very likeable human being. Due to that random meeting The Birdhouse quickly saw the light of day and by working next to him every day I’ve gained a tremendous amount of valuable skills and knowledge. It’s been such a rewarding experience to work in and with nature every day and to see visions quickly become reality in front of you. The fact that my house is build with only the energy from the sun and our own input makes it even more special to me. I had to throw all my previous project management experience over board, because in rural Portugal things don’t work according to schedules. Sourcing the right materials which I could afford was something I very much enjoyed and resulted in succeeding for 90% in my mission to build with natural, renewable, non toxic, locally sourced materials. Materials like screws, bolts, solar system components, kitchen appliances, plumbing and cables don’t fit in this category, but hopefully this will be possible in the future as well. The windows, doors and staircase I bought second hand in Portugal. I didn’t want to harm living trees by screwing in them, so the two story treehouse is build around the existing trees, so they are living among and beyond me through the roof. We contributed 600 (wo)man hours to this project and because of my choice for materials, it will require some more time from me to maintain and treat the mainly wooden structure over the years. I happily free up my time for this purpose, as it has a meditative effect on me and feels good to care for my immediate living space. In less than a year I am blessed with a cozy, comfortable, carbon positive, off-grid, beautiful home and winter is not even close.
I enjoyed watching the documentary Tiny, which made me question the size of my personal footprint and how much my life should be controlled by stuff. The amazing guys from the Cinder Cone, the Treehotel in Sweden and the Gankoyama Treehouse village in Japan have been a major inspiration for me to build The Birdhouse.
Instead of imagining a limitless world, I do see the creative power of limits and feel inspired to explore the provided space within. To me a sustainable world isn’t one global village but a globe with interconnected communities all over. I envision to live on the farm with two other permanent families and have one building occupied by changing professional collaborators who visit for a shorter stay. The farm also provide basic accommodation for those visiting for an educational program or experience. This way we can share resources like woodland, farm land, water, animals, equipment and natural building materials while keeping our individual household footprint to 1 acre each and share the surplus with outsiders. All structures, houses and farm buildings will be off-grid and build with renewable natural materials, preferably sourced at the farm and otherwise as local as possible. Every new structure will implement innovative materials and technologies to test and experiment with, in order to provide more data to the already existing information about sustainable building. To me an increase in local self-reliance is one of the foundations towards a sustainable future. I focus on the basics of food and shelter, where overall well-being is a priority as well. By providing a test and demoground for a variety of accommodation types; to experiment with alternative materials and technology; to transform real estate into healthy habitat ,I hope to contribute proven technologies that ensure more individual independence and local abundance and inspire others around the world.
The endless possibilities of modern buidling with natural, non-toxic materials are reflected in books like The hempcrete book. After three years of field research Alexander Prinsen is publishing his book The Art of Abundance mid 2017, which combines innovative vision and science to create a healthier, sustainable future with examples of successful initiatives and experiments all over the world. Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth has been a very exciting companion during my trip towards Portugal.