Using The Materials On Hand
versus coming up with new ones
I was going to write something about concrete as a building material, but in trying to draft that essay (or whatever this is called) I realized that the theme for me is trying to understand if utilizing current materials is a new way is maybe more viable than creating new ones. The problem with synthetic polymer chemists is we think many of the world’s problems can be solved by making new polymers (they probably could be, technically), but from an economical point of view this is much harder to execute. I think the question we should be asking is how can we use the materials we do have to make things better?
Concrete is a good example. It’s one of the lowest cost building materials we have, it’s incredibly strong, locally available to most places, and the carbon footprint of cement can be reduced in a myriad of ways. Concrete is strong enough to hold up skyscrapers, houses built from it can withstand hurricanes, it’s not going to burn in a wildfire, and it’s got so much thermal mass that it can help regulate heat. It’s an ideal building material, but for whatever reason in North America we still love wooden stick construction.
It appears that our climate is changing faster than our building codes. This is a problem. Hurricanes, wildfires, drought, and increasing energy costs, to name a few issues, are shaping how we live and where we live. If we want to adapt to our new climate, then our buildings will have to change. This recent article in the New York Times Magazine about Robert Downey Jr’s “pool house” made me wonder why we can’t build more of these dome shaped homes for people?
The now-90-year-old Italian industrial designer [Dante Bini] discovered that by topping a nylon-coated neoprene air bladder with wet steel-reinforced concrete, then slowly inflating it, he could make — in an hour or so, about the time it takes for the material to cure — a naturally aerodynamic and durable thin-shell bungalow.
My wife spent some time living on a Kibbutz in Lotan, Israel, and every few months she will get a wistful look in her eye, find a plot of land in rural New England, and attempts to convince me that we should build a house in the shape of a dome ourselves. Usually, it’s the lack of good takeout that holds us back. Here is an image I found of Kibbutz Lotan:
I believe the domed houses in Lotan are actually made from rammed earth and I won’t get into the details, but this an even older method of building than concrete. We have wonderful materials that can be used to build houses and concrete homes in the shape of a dome could be put up relatively quickly compared to a traditional framed house. After witnessing the destruction that Hurricane Ian wrought in Florida a few weeks ago the domed structure for future houses might help reduced wind damage. Here is a nice diagram from Deltech, a company that designs and builds prefabricated homes that are circular:
Building the shell of the smallest Deltec house might run about $100k, and a turnkey ready to live in house (2BR, 2BA, 912 sqft) might cost about $500k not including foundation work and land acquisition. I’ve really thought about coastal piece of land in Maine, a Deltec house, a speedy internet connection, and drinking coffee and watching the sunrise, but I digress.
In comparison to a traditional framed house, a truckload of concrete will run a few thousand dollars and supposedly it might cost $5000-$10000 for a very basic finished dome, I’m guessing with spray polyurethane as insulation and a plastic finish. 2013 pricing estimates from this website was quoting about $130/sqft for a finished house so do the math and maybe factor in inflation. Either way you slice it I think a concrete dome is significantly more cost efficient than a circular wood framed house.
This concept has come up before and never quite gained traction. Here is a 2014 Wired article and I suspect that the architect of RDJ’s “pool house,” Nicoló Bini (son of the inventor Dante Bini), is betting on people wanting to live in these types of homes. If architecture and fashion are similar, then the picture at the beginning of this post was a fashion show.
If you live in the Midwest and worry about tornadoes, then a Binishell house might be a good idea.
If you live anywhere with a potential risk for wildfires a Binishell house might be a good idea.
If you live in a desert you might want to consider a Binishell house, but also Earthships are cool too (read to the bottom for a cool video).
My point is that figuring out new ways to use old materials can be just as useful as creating something completely new. The benefit of using something old is that most people probably understand what it means, and you don’t have to spend time trying to educate them. People don’t necessarily want more choices and more innovation, especially when it comes to something personal like a home. People want to be more confident in the choice that make and sometimes “new” doesn’t inspire that much confidence.
Just look at how polyurethanes have crept into most facets of our lives. Polyurethanes keep our shoes held together, they insulate our homes, they are almost always your mattress or seat cushion, they are the “leather” in your car, and the spandex that clings to your body. I don’t think Otto Bayer would ever think that polyurethanes would be such an important synthetic polymer, but the fundamentals are mostly the same as they were in the 1940s.
We have a plethora of challenges right now and building enough housing for people is one of them. Building better housing for those of us who will live through climate change occurring will likely become a theme in the next 10 years if it isn’t already happening. Maybe the answers are not in the direction of more complexity and robotic manufacturing or modular construction, but rather a simple and elegant technique for shaping concrete. Maybe a robust spray polyurethane insulation is the piece to the puzzle that was needed for this to really gain traction and why it didn’t take off in the 1970s.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try new things. I’m an experimentalist at heart. I get a high when I make something new and I’m reliant on the kitchen for this since I’ve left the lab. Making new stuff can be addictive and exciting, but we can make new things by figuring out ways to utilize what we have in a better way too. I think it’s relatively easy to look at the tools available to us and think, “I can’t do much with these,” as opposed to putting on our MacGyver hats (I’m on team Richard Dean Anderson) and defusing a bomb with some chewing gum and a Swiss Army knife.
A slight tweak and looking at a classic problem with a different lens can lead to a non-obvious solution that might require talking to a patent attorney. Another way to look at creating something new is through the lens of it enabling a combination of a bunch of old stuff to work together and can it be the keystone the holds it all together?
What are you making?
Hey, you made it to the end. Here is the video of an Earthship as promised. The first time I saw this I thought it was radical, wild, and incredibly simple.
Earthship or Dome House? I can’t decide, but look at this amazing piece of land in Washington County, Maine and at $139k for amazing coastal views and maybe throw up a Binishell for $20k and spend a few years getting it finished? It’s gonna be warmer in the winter in a few years I hear.