According to designer and builder Ted Owens, author of Building with Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home (New Society; $42), the number one design element for energy efficiency is the direction the house is facing and the placement of the windows. In a recent telephone interview, he tells me in minute detail exactly where each of the windows in his 800-square-foot straw-bale home are located, how big they are and how this affects the house's ability to maintain an ideal temperature during all four of the year's seasons. Once again, I am reminded how the truly green home seems to function as a living entity, soaking up sun, storing rainwater, maintaining ideal temperatures, filtering light at the appropriate times and in the appropriate amounts and storing heat in its walls.
Owens, who takes the reader step by step through his process in Building with Awareness, tells me that he sees the sailboat as being the ultimate example of small design. In the sailboat, every space is used, and the ultimate goal of the design is total self-sufficiency. Owens thinks of this as his "sailboat mindset," and by the time I am done viewing a small portion of the five-hour-and-45-minute-long video that accompanies the text, I have jumped on board. The fact that the house is in New Mexico and I live in California does little to quell my desire to move in immediately. Of course, Owens is already living in the house, but this seems like an inconvenience that could surely be worked out. Couldn't he just build himself another one and sell me his?
This is exactly the type of attitude that Owens seeks to dispel with his guidebook. His book is about self-empowerment, not dependency, though, to be honest, even after reading the book and watching the DVD, I probably wouldn't be able to do much more than mix up some earth plaster, which seems to be the most doable task of the home's construction. Then again, I don't even own a hammer, and besides, building skills are not a prerequisite for enjoyment here. The goal of Owens' video and book is to raise the bar on the how-to genre, and the end result is something both interesting and informative. Even though I have no money, property or skills to build my own straw bale, I now have an understanding of the process. I've learned about earth plasters, photovoltaic cells, passive solar heating and cooling, rubble trench foundations, rainwater cisterns, straw-bale walls and how to make my own adobe bricks—all while sitting on my couch.
Owens tells me that one of the goals of this project is to jump-start the learning curve by showing viewers and readers how the house was designed, why it was designed the way it is and to examine any problems that came up during the building process. Owens believes that the time for being a proactive green builder is now, not some time in the distant future. We have the materials and the knowledge to build responsibly, to think small, efficient and sustainable, and our plethora of excuses for why this is not possible must be shed immediately like a snake's old constricting skin.
One of the most striking features of Owens' house is its beauty. The design seems utterly perfect—the little lifted-up living area, the loft with the gorgeous window, the nooks carved into the walls, the irresistible texture of everything. This is part of the beauty of straw bale, Owens tells me, and of working with natural materials in general. They are more forgiving, and slight imperfections only add to the overall aesthetic. By building small, Owens says, by taking into consideration exactly how much space he needed and why, he was able to spend more of his money on the fine details. The end result is a house that cost less to build, costs less to maintain and to heat, and which, despite its compact size, one could easily imagine never wanting to leave.
Seventeen years ago, Owens was working in commercial film production, a field that did not satisfy his creative urge to help solve some of the world's problems. He began to design the directions for building solar ovens out of boxes as a way to help people living in developing countries conserve their often sparse wood supplies. The box ovens would get up to 200 degrees, which demands a longer cooking time but saves on fuel. Building a hybrid home is not so different, I have concluded, than building an oven out of a box—both demand ingenuity, creativity and a willingness to utilize design in order to better ourselves and our surroundings.
For Owens, the straw-bale project has been both a continuation of his life's work, as well as an experiment, a way of pushing himself to explore what it would actually take to build a hybrid home powered by the sun. Though I am closer to building an oven out of a box than I am to building a house, I feel confident that, should the opportunity arise, I will not go into it blindly. I will have an increased awareness for the importance of putting the longevity of the planet on equal footing with my desire for a place to call my own.
To order a copy of 'Building with Awareness' and for a wealth of information on green building, go to [ http://www.buildingwithawareness.com ]www.buildingwithawareness.com.