Tag Archive: Design

It was really only a few short years ago that I was reading blogs about others living simple, off the grid lives. It was a dream, with parts romanticized but also parts feared. Could I really do that?

But now I am doing that. And I am blessed to have a community of people around me also doing that in their own similar and unique ways. And I love it. Sitting here on this below freezing day, with the wind whipping around outside, I am cozy inside my tiny house at a comfortable 75 degrees, in a tank top and what I call my Aladdin pants,  reflecting on a life that I know is uniquely blessed, and yet that sometime I forget is not what most of the world calls normal yet.


Mayu, out in the snow, on a clear winters day.

What is this life I am talking about? For me is is a life where my electricity comes from the sun, a little wood stove keeps me warm, I poop in a 5 gallon bucket which I empty every few days into a compost bin, and I carry in my water, using generally no more than 4 gallons a day, for drinking, dishes, hand washing, and cooking.

You might say, wow, that life is not for me. But let me tell you of all the beauty and luxury that I also have, and how these simple systems have worked out for me. In this post I am going to focus on heat and my wood stove and its performance, but keep your eye out for future posts on pooping in a 5 gallon bucket, living with off grid solar, and living without running water.

First, the warmth! The beautiful, guilt free, cozy warmth of a wood stove heated house! I do not like the cold, and so I keep my little house at a comfortable 70-90 degrees fahrenheit. Yes, that is right, because I like to wear my sundresses inside through the cold New York winters! Parker, my partner, says one of his favorite things about Mayu is being able to sleep on top of the covers, even on the coldest days- something he can not achieve in his old, drafty, downtown apartment, even with the petroleum powered heat blasting. I have truly been blown away by my little Little Cod Marine stove. Choosing a heat source for a tiny house  is something I and many tiny house builders agonize over. It is still a niche market and information is hard to find, but I could not be happier with my choice.


My beautiful Little Cod, giving off its radiant heat

For those who are perhaps trying to make a similar choice here is a bit about my process and why I am so so happy with the choice I made.

I knew from the beginning I wanted to heat with wood. I love the smell of a wood heated house, the unbeatable quality of warmth that they give off, and the ambiance that real fire creates. It is a primal thing, I believe, something wired into us that we have been doing since the beginning of time: making fire and gathering around fire, cooking, singing, sharing stories, warming our toes.

But I had my worries too. Would everything in my house freeze if I left for an 8 hour work day and the stove went out? Would the ash and the wood be too messy in my little house? Would I be able to find a stove that didn’t take up too much space but provided enough heat for my little house? Would it be too much heat and would I cook myself out of my little house? Well, this first winter has been a good trial, and here is what I found out.

First, my house holds heat incredible well! So my fear of things freezing has proven unwarranted. The care I took both to insulate, but particularly to air seal was well worth it! My house is NOT drafty. Unlike many friends who I hear say how they can really feel the difference on a windy day, my house stays just as warm on a still day as on a windy day. And yet it also seems to breath, as I have experienced no moisture problems despite not using any mechanical ventilation system. I accredit this to a few particular details: Taping all plywood sheathing seams with zip tape, using Mento airtight but vapor open house wrap, using Roxul insulation bats in my wall cavities and Roxul boards as an exterior wrap, and taping not only the exterior window flanges but also the interior of my windows with Tescon Vana tape. All this means that my house holds heat! This winter my house was often vacant for weeks at a time, yet only three times have I come home to find anything frozen, and that was only in the bathroom, which tends to be a bit colder than the rest of the house, and 2 out of the 3 times it was just thin films of ice, not frozen solid. In the morning, after the fire has been out for most of the night, the house is generally close to sixty degrees, meaning it has only dropped maybe 20 degrees from the toasty 80 degrees I usually get it up to before bed. On a sunny day, the house seems to get some good solar gain so even if empty and without a fire it is usually at least 15 degrees warmer than it is outside. And so basically, my fears of everything freezing inside have been obliterated. When I do plumb my house I probably would still drain the pipes if I was leaving for more than a weekend and it was supposed to be cold, but I no longer have fears of pipes freezing while at work, or even if I sleep downtown at a friend’s for a night!

And my Little Cod stove is a beast in terms of the heat it puts out! The first real test was when I had my house warming party on a fall October day and the door was propped open all evening as people went in and out. Once the sun went down it was a bit chilly but people cycled through the house and were amazed at how comfortably warm it was inside due to the wood stove going, despite the door and windows being open! Once I figured out my method, which is a little bit of paper, about three pieces of Fatwood fire starter sticks, and then some 1″ thick medium sized dry hardwood pieces, I found I can get a good hot fire going with one light in under 10 minutes. The draft on this little stove is awesome, in my opinion, and the cast iron radiates the heat out just like a big stove. You do have to stoke it more often than a big stove since you are using smaller pieces of wood, but once I have a good bed of coals and the house is pretty warm I will put a pretty large piece in and close the damper all the way and I can get a good slow burn for a couple hours.

Now, in terms of mess, here is what I have found about a tiny house: Yes, things can get messy fast, but it also is so quick to clean! Maybe about once a week I shake out my little Oaxacan rug, take my broom, and sweep the floor, which is really only maybe 60 square feet of floor space, so it takes maybe all of 5 minutes! Then I take my little dustpan and brush, sweep off the fire area and sweep up the pile on the floor and I am done! Sometime I also sweet the stairs, another minutes worth of work, and maybe wipe down the counter top. And I suppose about once a season I will take things off shelves and wipe those down of dust. But really, it is so quick and easy to clean! Now when I see other people’s large houses, or even my boyfriend’s apartment, I just think, what a pain to clean! Sure, you can get away not cleaning for longer, putting your dirty laundry under the bed, moving your pile of junk mail from one surface to another, but then when you do have to clean its a whole day event! No thank you. I’d rather not.

And how about a little wood stove taking up too much space? This potential issue is all about design: How do you design it into your little space in a way that it adds to the whole rather than feeling like a hazard or erroneous item? For me, I wanted the stove to be located somewhat centrally, so as to be able to be enjoyed from all parts of the house. I also knew there was a good chance I would use it to cook on so I wanted to also locate it in a place that would allow for that. With my galley way style kitchen, the wall that the wood stove sits on doesn’t feel like it impedes the flow or dominates the space at all. It sits right next to my little RV propane camper stove, so the two can easily be interchanged for cooking, both forming a nice work flow triangle with my fridge and sink which sit across from them. One reason why I chose the Little Cod stove was because of its low clearances. And when I spoke to the owner on the phone he said he has his with just 3″ of clearance with a heat shield and has never had a problem. Mine has about 6″ of clearance to the heat shield behind it and the stove pipe in places is quite a bit closer, but I also feel quite comfortable with it. What is nice about a real cast iron stove is it can burn quite hot, which mine often does, but the mass of the cast iron still creates a pretty nice, even, radiating warmth. It’s never felt uncomfortable hot in front of it and I feel like its effect in terms of warming the space is like a much larger cast iron stove in a larger space- nice warm heat radiating throughout. Also, the simple design for air flow on this stove is impressively effective! Open the intake fully and the fire quickly gets roaring. If I want a slower, cooler burning fire I either close the intake and/or add bigger logs that tend to burn slower. I have also been quite impressed that this little stove seems to burn quite clean! I have had no issues with creosote, and tapping on the stove pipe when its cool indicates no build of creosote. And I rarely even see smoke coming from the chimney- a sure sign of a clean burning fire.

A note on the Kimberly stove, one of the main competitors for the Little Cod in the tiny house application: When I went to the Mother Earth News Fair the owner and inventor of Kimberly Stoves was there.  There is a lot of hype about this little stove that costs almost $5,000 when all is said and done, and the inventor is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a sneaky salesperson, saying how it is really the only wood stove that will work in a tiny house. When I went to the Mother Earth news fair I already had money down on my Little Cod, which has a loong wait list of many many months, but I started to doubt my decision talking to the inventor of the Kimberly. Was the Kimberly really the only stove that would work in such a small space? He would sell it to me right there, for the discounted price of only $4000… I was close to going for it, despite preferring the more traditional look of the Little Cod to the sleek, modern look of the Kimberly, and having already agonized about the decision after many hours of internet research. But I didn’t bite, and I am glad I didn’t. The Kimberly may indeed be a great stove, but a few things to note: It is definitely NOT the only stove that will work in a tiny house. My Little Cod works beautifully, and I have since met friends that have had much success with other kinds of stoves in their tiny houses. And, one of those friends had a frustrating experience with the Kimberly, eventually taking it out and replacing it with a Two Dog Stove.  She is much happier with this stove, which has kept her warm for over 3 winters now with no modifications to the chimney. Her experience with Kimberly stoves was that she could not get a good draft or get the stove to produce enough heat for the Vermont winters where she lived. And she said she spent hours on the phone with the the company and Roger himself, the inventor, trouble shooting, trying different things, and then eventually asking if she could return it or get a refund, both of which they refused to do. And so eventually she just swallowed the price tag and moved on to a different stove, which she says is so much better- simpler, heats up her place faster, and much much cheaper (only $250)! So I guess I would say be cautious with the Kimberly. If you like the look and have the money, and your house is well sealed and perhaps you live in a warmer climate, then it may be an option for you. But it is not the only stove out there that will work, and it may not even work, despite all the big claims.

And my last concern- would I cook myself out? Well, I like it nice and warm. I will say my loft is generally a good bit warmer than the rest of the house, due to heat rising. So if you don’t like sleeping in the heat you could have a bit of a problem. I generally like to get the downstairs to a good 70 degrees which means the loft is a bit above 80, which means I can sleep naked if I want to, sometimes starting on top of my covers and moving under them at some point in the night as it cools down a bit. I love it, especially on the cold winter days when my body is craving being warm. And the few times it has felt just a little too hot up there, I’ll open a window for a bit to cool it down and that does the trick pretty quick. Also, I’d like to note that although it is toasty up there with the fire going, in the summer months, with windows open on three sides of the loft, I have a wonderful cross breeze and was never too hot, despite not having a ceiling fan or anything.

So there you have it! My adventures with wood stove heating have been a success! And I would give the Little Cod a five star rating. Did I mentioned that I Love love Love that it has a glass pane allowing me to see the fire!

One other thing I have yet to really calculate is how much wood I need to go through a whole winter. Like I mentioned, I was traveling for good chunks of this winter, but when I was around I would say I went through one apple crate’s worth of wood a day, probably about the equivalent of 4 or 5 pieces of regular sized firewood. And thats if I am home most of the day and keeping a slow fire going. The amount of wood you go through will vary depending on what size wood you use, and that is something I recommend you experiment with. But anyway, I haven’t done a conversion as to how many cords of wood that would be, as I am not buying cordwood but instead getting scraps from a local hardwood sawmill. But it is definitely pretty efficient I would say compared to heating a larger space or having to heat a not very well insulated or air sealed space!

So if you are considering heating your little home with wood I would say go for it. And think about how much care and money you are willing to put into insulating and air sealing and plan your stove size accordingly. And look forwards to cozy winter evenings playing cards and Bananagrams in front of your fire, drinking coconut milk hot chocolate warmed by your wood stove.


Where I often write these blog posts from: My cozy window nook, complete with a sheep skin, and pillows my parents got me from Mexico, some dried flowers, garlic, and a beeswax candle on the windowsill.

It feels like I have been putting the winter coat on my house the last couple days, and it has been quite exciting! Even though it is just roxul insulation board that I am doing on the exterior it somehow makes the house suddenly look much more finished. Take a look!


Here it is from one more angle. Not bad, eh?


Today I tackled the window trim of my tricky, but beautiful octagon window and am quite pleased with how it came out.

IMG_4399 IMG_4400

Tomorrow I hope to start putting up furring strips which will allow me to start putting up exterior siding when my family comes for a big work weekend next week! So I have spent this evening sketching and brainstorming how I want to put up my siding, as my furring strips will determine this. Here are my sketches.


Above is my north wall and below is my south wall. I am pretty sure I like this design, of horizontal for most of it with small vertical sections in the dormer.


And in the top right is my west wall. Pretty set on horizontal for this whole wall. But then my east wall… I don’t know what I want to do there! 

As you can tell from my 4 possible sketches, I am undecided for my back east wall, which has the little overhang and braces. I would love opinions and feedback on these possible designs, and any and all permutations of top and bottom. which is why I have 1a and 1b, etc.

Someone once told me that horizontal gives a grounded, Earth energy feeling, and that vertical is more the Tree energy and diagonal is Fire energy. It feels good for my house to be mostly earth energy, grounded and sturdy. But I feel I want a little bit of Fire and Tree energy as well. Perhaps I am getting too philosophical here but the upper left design of my east wall, 1a and 1b, is the one I am drawn to most at this point and it feels to me like it has a nice balance of energies. Although diagonals may be Fire, it somehow to me also feels like it has a boat like Water energy. Can you see how it could look like the bow of a boat? A boat that can cut through even fire… And then I also see mountains and hills in the herring bone pattern, making it have a grounded earth energy… This pattern may be the trickiest to pull off but I probably will only build my own house once, so why not go all out? I would love to hear what others think about the possible designs I am considering. Do you have any thoughts or opinions?

Man, I’ve fallen behind on blog posts due to the holidays…. Well, back tracking a bit, lets first go to my last week in Seattle with Penny ( Dec. 12th – 19th)…

This week has been a week full of exciting opportunities, connections, and learnings.

First, Penny got me in the door of one of the largest architecture firms in Seattle; Callison. Although the work that this firm does is, in many ways, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of work I see myself doing I am always interested in learning about the other side and hearing other perspectives. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that at least some of the people in this firm were equally interested in hearing about my side of the building spectrum and what I am interested in doing. John, a wonderful Principal in the firm, was incredibly unassuming and talked with me with great interest for almost three hours! I showed him a bit of some videos about earthship building in Haiti as part of disaster relief efforts, some of my own drawings of houses I hope to build one day, and just shared my knowledge about the natural and alternative building world. It was quite an empowering experience to realize that I could reach across the lines of the building world and find a receptive audience.

After my visit to Callison Penny and I took a break from our architecture/building focused tour of the Seattle area and took a trip to Fidelity where I learned a bit about investing and money managing. Money is something that makes many people, including myself uncomfortable. Often I wish I just didn’t have to deal with it. But Penny has been really helpful in talking very frankly with me about money and walking me through things like why it might be important to start building a credit history or investing, and how one can make the system work for you. One thing Penny does, which I think is quite brilliant, is she uses a zero APR credit card to get miles for almost all her purchases and bill paying which has allowed her to travel on many of her trips practically free. And since she is good about managing her money she has never paid a cent in interest or other fees to the credit card company.

When Penny found out that I also knew nothing about investing she decided to invite me to come with her to Fidelity and learn a bit. I was a bit hesitant at first, and still have my questions and doubts about the world of investing, but I must say that the whole investing process seems much less scary and intimidating now. Here is how I understand it (beware, I am NOT and expert, so don’t take my word on any of this money stuff); there are four “pots” that people generally put their money into: 401k’s, IRA’s, Taxable accounts, and emergency money.

A 401k is always attached to an employer. It is money that you ask your employer to take directly out of your paycheck, before taxes, and put aside to invest in a pool of mutual funds that they have already chosen. Often employers will match what you put in your 401k up to a certain percentage of your total paycheck. This match is basically free money that you can now use to invest, so I can’t see a reason to not at least put as much money as they will match into your 401k. But, this money cannot be touched until you are 59, at least with current laws.

Then there is an IRA: an Independent Retirement Account. There re two main kinds of IRA’s: Traditional and ROTH IRA’s. Traditional IRA’s are money you set aside to invest that is not yet taxed. So when you reach retirement age (59) and take that money out you will have to then pay taxes on however much you now have. A ROTH IRA, on the other hand, is an account in which you put money to invest after taxes. So, lets say you put $5000 in that account. Then you would pay taxes on that original $5000 but when you go to take the money out at age 59, even if that money has now grown to 1 million through investing, you do not have to pay any additional taxes. That is kind of incredible, if you ask me. Any money put in an IRA cannot be touched until you are 59, but one could at a certain point decide that you have made enough money and do not want to risk a market crash and pull the money out of all stocks, bonds, etc. and just let it sit in your IRA. Or, you could put the money in lower risks investments, such as only bonds and CD’s. There is also something called a SEP IRA which is for people that are self employed. These work like a traditional IRA, so they are before taxes, but one thing I am not clear on is why a self employed person cannot have a ROTH IRA since as far as I can tell IRA’s in general are independent retirement accounts and not attached to an employer.

Then there are your taxable accounts, which are just things like your savings and checkings account from which you can invest money at will and take money whenever you want (You don’t have to wait until you are 59 to touch this money).

The last pool is your emergency money, which is money you will not invest and is basically always available. Remember, money invested is not really available for your to spend until you sell the stock or bond. So your emergency pot is the money you keep under your mattress for hard times, if you know what I mean. And it seems that it would always be smart, if possible, to have at least 1 year’s worth of saving in this pot in case you lose your job and/or the market crashes, or both happen at once….

So those are the four pots of money. And then you have the different kinds of investments you can make with money from each of these pots (except the last, emergency pot. That stays out of the volatile hands of the market).

First there are mutual funds, which are a portfolio of companies or stocks that change in order to maintain the goal of the mutual fund, which, for instance, could be at least 5% returns annually. These are generally pretty low risk but also somewhat lower returns.

Then there are Index funds. These have a predetermined set of companies rather then a predetermined goal of a certain amount of returns. So, for example, an index fund might consist of 5 of the largest companies in the world, or it could be focused on socially responsible, small businesses, or businesses related to the computers software…. My understanding is Index funds can be higher risk then mutual funds but they can also have much higher returns if chosen carefully.

Then there are Bonds. A bond is basically an amount of money you “loan” to a company that they then pay back to you over a set amount of time with a set amount of interest. So you generally know exactly how much you will make if you keep your bond for the life of the bond. These are low risk for exactly this reason. But you could still be screwed if the company from which you bought the bond were to tank.

Lastly there are CD’s, or certificates of deposit. These are like bonds but you buy them from the bank, so they are even more secure. They are actually government insured so even if the bank were to fail, for some reason, to pay you back the government would pay you. But the interest rates are also generally much lower so the gains are much smaller.

Overall, it seems that most people recommend maintaining diversity with all these different kinds of investments; having some in lower risks investments and some in higher, and also diversifying in the kinds of companies and stocks you invest in; large, medium, or small, and once focused more on value, growth, or a blend of the two. And, on a site like fidelity.com you can look at all these different kinds of investments and buy and sell them on your own right from the site if you hold an account with fidelity.

Ok, enough talk about money. Back to architecture, building, and design….

A few days later Penny and I met with Martha Rose, a woman who is doing her part to make an impact on the building world. Martha comes from a construction background but now designs and builds extremely tight homes in the Seattle area. She strives to build homes that are highly efficient, comfortable, and use as little chemically treated materials as possible. Her homes are in many ways catering to those who experience chemical sensitivities. For me, the most inspiring part was to see a woman builder who does not have an architectural background but is designing the homes she builds and is succeeding in making a living building these homes and marketing them to the mainstream.

After receiving a tour of Martha Rose’s latest project, City Cabins,  we went to meet with Terry Phalen, who is the founder of living Shelter Design, a small architectural firm. Terry is a licensed architect but she got her license not by going through an architectural program but by apprenticing with architects and then taking the licensing exam. This is something that can only been done in some states, Washington being one of them, and an architectural license obtained in this way is also only recognized in certain states.  As I learned about Terry’s alternative path to becoming an architect I also found out that another possible way to become an architect is to do a 2 to 3 year master’s program rather than go through the usual five year programs. These were all interesting alternatives that I will keep in mind for myself if I find that a license or degree in architecture is something that I want. But it was also interesting sitting at a table with Terry and Penny and hearing from both of them that hands on building experience is not something that most architects have and both of them seemed to agree that an architectural degree or license may not be necessary for the kind of work that I want to do. They also pointed out that with an architect’s license comes increased liability and responsibility, so in some ways less freedom to be creative or take small risks. Its like being a doctor; once you have an MD you are also liable for malpractice and expected to deliver a certain quality of care.

The finale of our day was meeting Sam, a friend of Penny’s that I knew from way back in Boston and getting a tour of Sam’s kung fu teacher’s place. Johann, Sam’s kung fu teacher, has a sweet set up on a piece of land that he has been working on for years. He has created a maize through an edible forest garden that he has been growing for over 15 years! In this maize he has many different species of bamboo, fruiting trees, and little boardwalks, to name just a few things. His land also had lots of out buildings that demonstrated creative ways to build alternatively but still to code, including a yurt, a beautiful little “god house,” which is basically a little temple, and and kung fu training room with a rope ladder up to a second floor!

For now, I think continuing to gain hands on building skills through apprentice like programs is what interests me most. Two “schools” that I have bookmarked in my mind as possibilities for my future are Yestermorrow, and the Earthship Biotecture Academy.

Yestermorrow especially intrigues me. It is a design and build school in Vermont  that offers over 15o different hands on courses and a range of options for how one can enroll, from taking individual courses that range from a day to 2 or more weeks long when one has time and money to do so, or doing a certificate or semester program, or interning and obtaining a certain amount of class hours for free in exchange for “work,” which really sounds in itself like a hugely educational experience.

So there are my highlights from my last week in Seattle with Penny. It’s amazing how much you can learn without actually being in school when you have a little bit of time on your hands and the freedom to follow your own interests.

Learning from an architect

Staying with Penny has brought many blessings. One is that she is an architect with an incredible sense of design and a high standard for craftsmanship. Being in her house and hearing little tidbits about what she notices done well or poorly in the design of different buildings and spaces has made me want to bring this level of craftsmanship to whatever buildings I may design and build.

Penny also has lots of architects tools in house and so I have gotten the chance to do one of my drawings to scale and I am quite happy with how it turned out! Here is my yurt inspired house to scale. The version on the left is with an interior diameter of 30 ft and the one on the right is with an interior diameter of 25 ft.

The one on the left, with 30 ft interior diameter would have right around 700 ft of floor space, quite a bit for a cob house, which is why I decided to draw it again with a 25 ft interior diameter, which would give about 480 square feet of floor space. I think both designs work and would provide for all of the needs of me and a partner. The outer walls are 2.5 feet thick, which is just in the middle of the range for a structural cob wall in a cold climate. The inner walls are 1 ft wide and create four main areas within the yurt; the largest circular area is the kitchen, the smaller circle the bedroom, then the living area with a desk, shower corner (the toilet would be a separate composting toilet outhouse), and a window seat that is big enough to be a spare bed, and a back door as a second entrance that could also lead to a greenhouse since that is the south side of the building. And the forth small area would be a pantry/root cellar, located of course on the North side of the house. I would love to grow old in a cozy cob yurt like this one.

Over the past year  or so I have been dreaming of building my own cob house. Every time an idea comes to me I write or draw it, leading to the accumulation of many possible house designs. The designs are still rather rudimentary as I consider all of this part of brainstorming, an important part of any design process.

The design process that I do my best to follow is the one used by many permaculture designers (if you want to become a certified permaculture designer click here to see info on the amazing course I took with living routes at the Sirius Ecovillage in Shutesbury, MA). Below is a diagram of this process taken from the blog of AppleSeed Permaculture (click on the link for a more in depth explanation of the design process)- a blog that has a lot of good info on permaculture.

Based on this diagram I have been working on articulating my goals. As of now here is my goal statement for what I am calling my evolving dream. Keep in mind this is my big, long term vision. I hope it will one day manifest!

” My land has all the necessities to sustain a community; a clean water source for drinking and bathing, woods and open space with good solar exposure for growing food and siting buildings. It is surrounded by a vibrant, progressive community and natural beauty.

My home is small but sufficient for me, a partner, and a child. I designed and built it with my own two hands and it is made of all natural and non toxic, sustainably harvested materials. It blends into the land and exemplifies sustainable design. It gets good natural light, and provides for my heating, cooling, cooking, and other needs at little or no cost to me or my environment. It has the ability to evolve over time as my family, needs, and means change.

There is at least one large common space on the land that can be used for small retreats and for educational purposes, including creating and doing art, both visual and movement based. There is also a common dining area with a kitchen, and simple accommodations such as tent platforms, and small dwellings. All structures demonstrate sustainable design, showcasing a myriad of natural and green building techniques, and were built through community builds and workshops.

The whole land exemplifies permaculture principles and is filled with an abundance of wild and cultivated edibles and medicinals. It is a safe and holding space for all people of any race, age, gender, faith, orientation, and culture. We try our very hardest to make everything that we offer at, and through this place, as accessible as possible to all.”

Phew…. That is a long goal statement and, I realize, a tall order. But why not dream big!

So I have my goals articulation, but I don’t yet have a site, making it hard to analyze and assess the site. In permaculture the site often dictates, or at least strongly shapes one’s design so one might wonder why I have already begun to brainstorm building designs when I don’t even have a site yet! Well, part of it is just pure excitement and impatience and a desire to do something while I wait for the time when I feel ready and am able to commit to a site. And also, I have found that through my designs I am beginning to clarify my vision and therefore what I would look for in a piece of land. When I started I did not realize I really wanted land with it’s own water source, including a place to bathe in such as a natural spring, river, or pond. I also did not realize that I really do want land that is big enough to one day house more then just my family and become an educational retreat center. All of these realizations have been immensely helpful and so I am glad that I have started to think about the design possibilities before committing to any one location or site. And who knows! If I am part of a small eco-village or retreat center maybe more then one of these designs will manifest into reality! It has also been fun to see what themes and similarities have emerged as I become clear as to what I like and want, and it has also been interesting to see what has evolved and changed as I have more information and knowledge to inform my design process.

So, for a few of my designs. I think this is the very first one I did, back in fall of 2010. South in this design in up. I will try to always make it clear which way is south as, at least in the Northern hemisphere south the direction in which you want to orient all major windows on a building if you are following passive solar design principles. Passive solar maximizes the natural light you receive and helps to heat your house naturally during the winter and keep it cool during the summer. You will notice the benefits of being south facing if you look at hills or mountains near you. Notice that the south facing slope is always warmer then the north, appearing sometimes even a few weeks ahead in springtime then north facing slopes!

In this design the front entrance opens up to a patio and greenhouse on the south side. A south facing greenhouse will optimize your ability to grow food in winter months and, if it is attached to the house as in this design, it will help to heat your house in winter months. The shower and bath are also in the greenhouse allowing for the steam and moisture created by these facilities to be released into the green house, which should be a warm and moist environment. Also, it would make for easy creation of a greywater or wetland purification system.

Almost all of my designs, including this one have a proportionally large kitchen. This is because in my experience the kitchen ends up being the center of the house. It is where people congregate, and often where the most time is spent, especially in a household that actually cooks its food. Also, in a household that cooks their food from fresh or preserved (canned, dried, etc.) local food and is trying to be sustainable a root cellar is an invaluable thing. This design has a root cellar in the lower left (NE corner) of the design. Placing the root cellar on the north side of a building is best as that side of the house will naturally be the cooler side with the least sun exposure. It is a bit hard to see but the stairs in this design also lead to a small loft that is above the desk and day bed area. This loft would act as the bedroom.

Another thing I tried to design into this house was the ability to built it in stages. The kitchen is almost circular and I thought could be built first. It is large enough that I could sleep and live in it with my basic needs taken care of until the rest of the structure was built. The patio and greenhouse would be built last, although a outhouse would be built earlier on of course.

Below is my third design and still one of my favorites. It is the house that inspired the image I call home, which has come to symbolize many things to me. I often call this my yin yang design.

In this design South is down. It is a bit hard to tell but the upper half of this yin yang is the structure while the lower half is actually a garden. The diameter of the circle I figure to be about 30 feet, making the area of house, if assumed to be half of the circle, to be about 350 square feet. For most in America this might seem incredible small but I would want the first house that I build to be small and manageable as the one thing about building by hand with cob is that it does take time. Also, as proof that living in such a small house is possible and people are doing it by choice, I have seen a family of three living quite comfortable in a yurt with a 25 foot diameter. That is only 490.625 square feet! And that was in Canada, not some third world country mind you. (I talk a bit about their lifestyle in another post, The Dream)

As an artist I like the contained wholeness of this design. It is elegant and simple. The shape of the upper half of the yin yang in the orientation that it is also maximizes the surfaces of the house facing South and gives both the bedroom area and the kitchen great south eastern exposure. I love the morning light so this is something that I like about this design.

Once again, there is a root cellar on the northern side of the house and this time the toilet and bath area is also attached on the north side. This would be good for cold winters when you don’t want to go outside to use the bathroom. This house could also be a single story or include a small loft above the bedroom area for storage or for a child to sleep.

Because I likes this design so much I also started to play with possibilities for the roof. Below are two possible roof designs I came up with.

 On the left is a more conventional roof design and honestly a design that appeals to me less. On the right is I design I did after seeing some pictures of beautiful cob houses with curved ridge beams, including one on page 232 of the Hand Sculpted House. These curved ridge beams give the house a beautiful, organic shape and I actually think this design would be relatively easy to build. The ridge beam would run pretty much east to west (with east being up in this picture) and the eastern end would be higher, allowing for a loft. Also, I realized that on the SE side of the house you could extend the beams creating a nice trellis over the patio that would be a natural extension of the house. I also tried to figure out where approximately one would need support posts. In The Hand Sculpted House they recommend that you do not span more then 12 to 14 feet without support, and so I drew in some support beams airing on the conservative side with spans no bigger then 10 feet.

My next few designs are for more typically shaped rectilinear plots. These design came after some thought during my green building course  given to the need to start creating sustainable designs for cities and the need for houses to be flexible and able to evolve over time. Much of this thinking came from watching a fascinating movie called How Buildings Learn. One of the beauty’s of cob is the ability to design furniture and individuality right into your structure often making a house that fits like a glove to the lifestyle of it’s inhabitants. But this does not always lend itself well to the possibility of the house changing owners. And so I decided to play around with a few more rectilinear designs that could more easily evolve and contain conventional movable furniture, etc.

The one below I designed specifically with San Miguel de Allende in mind. The houses in this beautiful spanish colonial city are filled with color, interior courtyards, and gardens. It is also a city filled with artists and the creatively incline and so an art studio felt like a must to me. I cannot imagine going to San Miguel and not doing art!

In this design South is up again. It is a bit confusing to know what is the open courtyard and what are encolesed structure so I will do my best to walk you through it. The main entrance to this plot on on the lower North side. You enter into a garden/courtyard space with a structure on either side of you. On the left is the root cellar, kitchen, main area, and a bedroom. On the right is a studio space and a screen in patio for when it is rainy or buggy out. Above both the studio and the bedroom could be a second and third bedroom, giving this design the potential to hold quite a few people, which seems fitting for a San Miguel house which is often rented out to vacationers or passing through many hands. The upper right (SW corner) is where the bathroom and bathing area is, as well as a compost operation from which soil for the gardens could be taken.

Here is another design I did with San Miguel in mind for a friend’s plot. It turns our I got the orientation on the plot not quite right but it was fun anyways to play around with some real dimensions.

In this design South is to the left. The lower left and the right hand side of the plot are outdoor garden/courtyard spaces. It definitely was a bit more of a challenge to design to real plot dimensions and I am honestly not sure that I love this design. The biggest challenge was that I knew there were some big trees on the north side of the plot that the owners did not want to cut down, but that left the south side, where one would usually put the gardens as the logical place to build. I did get to actually see the plot after I did this design and there are definitely things I would do differently, but it was a good exercise and drove home the importance of knowing your site and designing for what already exists in terms of landform, solar orientation, and other things.

Here is one last rectilinear design I did, with more of a temperate, Northeastern climate in mind.

In this design South is up, on the side of the greenhouse. Once again, I don’t know if I love this design as I honestly think I prefer more rounded shapes and spaces. Despite that, I was playing around with another design tool, a book called A Pattern Language and I think I learned some important things from this design. One of the things I paid particular attention to in this design was the need for transition spaces, especially when entering and leaving the house. Therefore the entryway is either through the greenhouse, shade room, or pantry, all of which provide a moment for transition before entering the home life.

A Pattern Language is a fascinating books that uses patterns that the authors found in what appeals to people and makes people feel good in a space. These patterns are then used to guide the design of everything from a room, a house, a garden, a neighborhood, a school or even a city. The book is a big fat book but is set up in an easily usable way where you literally can start in one spot, say the bedroom of a couple, and read about what such a space should include and then at the end of that short little section it will suggest other spaces that often go along with a bedroom for a couple, such as a family kitchen or a house for a couple. And by this method you can slowly work your way through a design piece by piece, leaning about what makes a sitting spot in a garden attractive, and why shifts in lighting between spaces can be important.  If you are a designer, architect, or planner I would highly recommend this book.

Ok, getting close to the end of my designs I promise. This next one though, is one of my favorites.

South is the lower right corner here. I love this design for similar reasons that I love my yin yang design. It is rather simple and feels very contained. This design was inspired by both the yin yang design and the yurt that the family in Canada was living in. I was amazed at how spacious their yurt felt, which only had a 25 ft diameter. This circular design could use the simple roof structure of a yurt and would have about a 30 ft. diameter, including the thick outer cob walls, so the total square footage would be right around 700 square feet. Only some of the inner curved walls would be full walls, while some would be more like space separators with the height of maybe a countertop or a a privacy screen. There is the potential to attach a wrap around green house on the SE side as well.

As you can see, I have stuck with the theme of having a large open kitchen that is the main gathering and social area. In this design the kitchen is also divided from a sitting area by a peninsula like countertop. Then in the NE is the bedroom, placed so that it will receive good morning light and in the North you once again have the root cellar/pantry.

And lastly, here is one possible design for a common space.

Here the entrance faces south, which is in the upper left corner. The center space would be particularly well suited to movement, dance, yoga and things of that nature but could be used for other things as well. I thought it would be nice to have the side spaces as changing rooms or mini sitting areas but they could also serve as offices, art space or some other purpose. I thought the space in the north though should be bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms.

As you can see I have also drawn in some of the outdoors, including an outdoor amphitheater, and my thought was that in good weather the structure could turn into more of a gazebo like space with large doors thrown open on all sides, providing additional seating space for the amphitheater and bringing the outdoors in.

So that concludes my designs for now! I hope they were of some interest. There are many details that I left out, such as the placement of internal thermal mass to store heat, the placement of wood stoves, and other illustrations of sustainable design principles, but I did my best to illustrate some. Hopefully these give you some idea of my designs and the possibilities when doing natural building with cob, an incredibly sculptural medium, or other materials.

Creative by Nature

Glimpses of a Creative Universe, by Christopher Chase...


Creating "new" from old has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time, but turned into a full-time adventure in building and living in a tiny "reclaimed" house. Beginning in 2012, I will live in this 120 square foot space for the length of my PhD studies in Literature and the Environment, and perhaps beyond. In this way, I hope to live a little smaller, leave a little lighter, and learn in what ways formal study can be acted in the every day.

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