Published in the Sun October 7, 2012
Johnny Delirious took off his hat, pointed to his very bald head, and said, “We need to think round.” Mr. Delirious was only one of the many speakers at the 12th annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair in Fredericksburg last weekend who advocate for a radical shift in how we think about building homes.
Building square houses out of sticks is a technique of the past, claims Mr. Delirious. Johnny’s company, Monolithic Constructors Inc., builds domes for homes, churches, gymnasiums. The domes are made by spraying polyurethane foam and concrete in the inside of a giant inflatable form. The resulting structure is so tough it can withstand a direct hit by an F-5 tornado, and Johnny had pictures to prove it. He also claimed that the domes are fireproof, bulletproof (good for survivalists), and that one unfortunate dome had been pulled intact out of a crevasse after an earthquake. Johnny goes by the name Delirious because twenty years ago he turned down the opportunity for a liver transplant for hepatitis C but survived anyway. I found his arguments for domed structures more persuasive than his medical advice, but there was no denying his enthusiasm for both topics.
Other speakers at the fair were less colorful but no less passionate about new ways to tackle 21st century problems. Peter Pfeiffer, renowned Austin architect and green building scientist, used the USDA’s food pyramid to demonstrate the relative importance of various energy efficiency techniques. Just like whole grains and vegetables should make up the bulk of our diets, sensible measures such as shading windows, radiant barriers on roofs, and living in appropriately sized homes provide far more bang for the buck than sexy additions like solar panels. As attractive as solar panels may be, they are like dessert, and should only be considered after the rest of the home’s energy efficiency diet is healthy.
Janet Meek, retired US diplomat to Korea and Djibouti and former midwife, was in Fredericksburg to testify to the benefits of living in a cob home. Cob is a mixture of mud and straw. Because air conditioning is by far the largest consumer of electricity in a Texas home, Janet had made the principled decision to build her dream home in Hunt without air conditioning. Her cob walls are hand formed and two feet thick. But lest you get the wrong idea, this home is not a hut such as might be seen in National Geographic, but rather should grace the pages of Southern Living. During the hot part of summer Janet lets the house ventilate at night, and then she closes up to keep the cool in during the day. Janet admits that when the outside temperature rises above 100 degrees, the practical solution is to relax on the porch with a cold drink. During the summer of 2011 the interior of the house reached the high 80s, but with ceiling fans it felt much cooler, and her electric bills are next to nothing. Most of the time she is well acclimated and comfortable, as were our ancestors for thousands of years. Her spare bedroom has a small air conditioner for guests who have not yet adjusted to the low carbon lifestyle.
Kindra Welch, the architect who designed and built Janet’s house, said the majority of homes built in the US these days are in a “Race to the Bottom Line.” She means that today’s houses are often built fast and cheap, and designed for profit in the short term. In her opinion we should be looking at things in the context of 1000 years. Builders should consider the life cycle of the materials used and the cumulative effect on the environment. There are three possible qualities for any building: Good, Fast, and Inexpensive. You can have any two, but not all three.
The Roundup was not just about green building. Alternative energy was also a topic of interest. Gary Krysztopik, an electrical engineer, has been building electric cars in San Antonio for six years. Gary says that a car can be run on the same amount of electricity that would be required just to refine the equivalent gasoline, eliminating the energy costs of exploring, pumping, spilling, and transporting the oil. According to Gary, “We are better off buying foreign cars that run on US electrons than buying US cars that run on foreign oil.”
The Roundup featured innovators in solar energy, biodiesel, water conservation and rainwater harvesting, wind energy, and organic farming. Attendees ranged from engineers to hippies to hippy engineers with a few survivalists in the mix. It was a great opportunity to think outside the box, or as Johnny Delirious would say, “Think round.”