Thursday, September 29, 2005

New Projects

A number of new projects are in the works at the Geiger Research Institute and will be available soon from our website at

* Earthbag construction manual for domes: Step-by-step, pictorial instructions, designed for use in developing regions and ease of translation, are being developed in collaboration with Akio Inoue of Tenri University and Kelly Hart of, both well known experts in earthbag building.

* Earthbag construction manual for vertical walls: Step-by-step, pictorial instructions, designed for use in developing regions and ease of translation, are being developed in collaboration with Kelly Hart of Both manuals will be available for free on the Geiger Research Institute website.

* Small diameter wood: Building on previous efforts to encourage the use of small diameter wood (the small trees that are choking our forests and contributing to out-of-control forest fires), the Geiger Research Institute is developing a complete building system that reduces costs and eliminates the use of unsustainably harvested and imported dimensional lumber.

* Tsunami-resistant housing: In collaboration with the US Military Academy at West Point, who is providing the tsunami/hurricane/earthquake engineering design, and a team of licensed architects, CAD designers and other building professionals, are finalizing a housing plan for the tsunami stricken area of SE Asia. All plans and specifications will be freely available on the Geiger Research Institute website.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Strawbale Shelter Workshop

A Native American Affordable Housing Workshop was completed September 3-4, 2005 in Crestone, Colorado in collaboration with Brave Heart Construction. Workshop participants built a strawbale emergency shelter and then learned how to modify it to create a permanent strawbale home for use in Native American communities.

The strawbale shelter built during the workshop was based on these plans: Free Straw Bale Emergency Shelter Plans

Natural building workshops at the Geiger Research Institute are designed for natural builders, architects, educators, designers and anyone interested in building low-tech, affordable housing. Although everyone's skill level will vary, these workshops are excellent for gaining practical experience in each aspect of natural building.

For information on future workshops, go to our Workshops page.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Lakota Sustainable Housing

A sustainable development workshop was held on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, August 8th -18th, 2005. PennElys GoodShield, Project Coordinator of the Sustainable Nations Development Project, organized the workshop to encourage sustainable development in Native American communities.

The workshop took place on Henry Red Cloud’s land, a descendent of Chief Red Cloud, who is determined to restore Oglala Lakota Sioux traditions and self sufficiency according to traditional wisdom. Seven generations have passed with their people living among the white man. "After the seventh generation, we would become self-sufficient by taking their goodness and the goodness of the Lakota," Henry Red Cloud said, “and secure the future of the next seven generations.”

Excitement over new possibilities was certainly in the air, judging by the enthusiasm evident among participants. Topics ranged from photovoltaics and wind energy systems, to sustainable building and straw-bale construction.

Instructors at the workshop included Johnny Weiss of Solar Energy International, Duran Dalton of NativeSUN, and PennElys GoodShield. David Brave Heart of Brave Heart Construction (a native of Pine Ridge) and Dr. Owen Geiger of the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building were the strawbale instructors. There were 17 students hailing from Arizona, Manitoba, Minnesota, California, Oklahoma and New Mexico, as well as local South Dakota.

The final structure was quite elegant and very satisfying: a graceful round strawbale building, that was in keeping with traditional Lakota structures, was topped with a roof not unlike that of a tipi. Overall, I was left with the impression of somehow being a part of history – the Lakota are beginning to fulfill their destiny of self sufficiency and it appears great things lie ahead.

For pictures and more information: Sustainable Nations Training

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Rebuilding New Orleans Sustainably

It is time for the citizens of New Orleans, along with the rest of the United States, to take a long hard look at reconstruction options. The United Nations recently mandated a buffer zone be created along the coastlines of tsunami-impacted regions of Southeast Asia. The same logic should be applied to other areas that are prone to natural disasters.

One of the first things architecture and construction students learn about is site selection (“Building Fundamentals 101,” so to speak). Is the site under consideration in a flood plain? Is there adequate drainage and protection against moisture damage? What about other hazards in the vicinity such as radon, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.? It is only prudent to pause and consider these and other issues as the future course of the city is chartered.

The suggestions offered here are echoed by former President Jimmy Carter, who is recommending that "many housing and other development projects would need to be moved, strengthened or excluded from beachfronts and other sites where sand dunes, wetlands and other natural protective areas need to be preserved."

Here are a few reasons not to rebuild New Orleans in the present location:
1. High risk of more natural disasters: New Orleans has been quite fortunate over the years when you consider that it was built in one of the worst possible locations. Rebuilding on the current site will put people in harm's way unnecessarily.
2. Lower reconstruction costs: Most builders will tell you that it is less expensive to build new than it is to rebuild severely damaged buildings and infrastructure. Historic buildings and buildings with low to moderate damage could be relocated.
3. Lower long-term costs: Building on higher ground a safe distance away from the coast would eliminate the expense of creating and maintaining a flood control system. Floodwalls in New Orleans keep sinking in the mud and require continual maintenance.
4. Reconstruction could begin almost immediately and quite possibly be completed more quickly (assuming that government agencies can sort out land ownership records in a timely manner): There would be no need to wait for draining and drying the city, repairing infrastructure, removing mold, etc., and no need to build or repair levees and other flood prevention systems. One source estimated that it would take several years just to restore running water and sewers.
5. Health hazards: New Orleans has become a toxic waste dump of sewage, chemicals and decaying bodies that will permeate every inch of the city, including every home and business. Most buildings will be filled with mold once the floodwaters recede. Rescue personnel, construction workers and future residents will be subjected to these hazards. Outbreaks of disease, higher health care costs and lawsuits are imminent, and therefore need to be added to the cost of reconstruction if New Orleans is rebuilt in its present location.
6. Burden on taxpayers: Taxpayers are going to pay for rescue operations and then be required to rebuild the city in an area that is clearly not suitable for habitation. At the same time, schools, roads, water treatment plants, parks, you name it, across the US are already underfunded. Rebuilding New Orleans in a more sensible area could save tens of billions of dollars. And surely, there will be other natural disasters over the coming years while the city is being rebuilt and we need to ensure that adequate resources are available to deal with them in a timely manner.
7. Restoration of the environment: The Mississippi delta and the surrounding coastline should be restored for environmental reasons, as well as reduce the brunt of future storm surges. This is impossible to accomplish with a city in the way. Maybe New Orleans should be completely flooded once all toxic materials have been removed, and then allowed to become a sunken city.
8. Rebuild to a higher standard: Let’s take this opportunity to rebuild New Orleans better than it was, including making it more sustainable. Properly designed and sited on higher ground, the new city would be more resistant to future natural disasters and also benefit from innumerable modern features.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Zero Energy Housing

Phase I of the zero-energy housing research program at the Geiger Research Institute introduces the primary strategies, principles and guidelines that can be applied to a wide variety of house designs.

Links on energy-efficient housing, sustainable building, solar design and appropriate technology point readers to resources that help define the scope of the program. Phase II will provide a finished house design that incorporates these concepts.

Zero-energy housing strategies:
1. Build small
2. Efficient use of space
3. Low-embodied energy building materials (primarily locally available, natural materials)
4. Superinsulation
5. Balance of mass and insulation
6. Multiple use features (serve more than one purpose)
7. Lifestyle change of inhabitants
8. Maximum solar design
9. Appropriate technology
10. Energy-efficient appliances and fixtures
11. Energy and resource-efficient shape
12. Safe and healthy design

More information is available at: Zero Energy Housing

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Model for Affordable Housing Projects

Tribal, state and federal governments, housing organizations and the free market system have all failed to solve the housing crisis in large part because the houses they produce are not affordable for those they intend to serve. Current housing programs fail to address the poorest of the poor due to reliance on outside contractors, costly building materials, overly complex house designs and excessive building codes. These programs lack community participation, cultural appropriateness, sustainability, adequate funding and job training.

This plan by Dr. Owen Geiger provides a housing model that addresses all these issues. The recommended housing solution is a hands-on training program that creates self-build housing with locally available, natural materials to lower construction costs to a level where housing is affordable for everyone. This housing plan creates jobs, empowers homeowners and provides solutions to the major housing barriers that have held back previous efforts. It demonstrates how to build community as well as houses through bringing people together for a common cause, and turns the building process itself into one of celebration that helps restore traditional Native American ways.

The building process proposed in this project emphasizes a sustainable approach to housing development using natural building methods such as straw-bale construction. Natural building methods utilize readily available materials such as straw, stone and earth, as opposed to costly materials such as milled lumber, steel and concrete. The most effective way to provide affordable and comfortable housing is to utilize low-cost, locally available materials because other alternatives are often prohibitively expensive, impractical or simply unavailable. This housing plan provides a guideline to safe, comfortable, affordable housing that is within the grasp of all Navajos and anyone else in need of shelter. This model could eventually be adapted for use in other Native American communities, colonias along the US/Mexico border and other communities around the world in need of affordable housing.

This publication is now available from the Geiger Research Institute of Sustainable Building for $20 as a download. Visit the Contact Us webpage to place an order.