Fiberglass windows, polystyrene insulation, and HRV’s. We’re doing and trying it all in our scramble to develop more energy efficient living. And we’re always waiting for that next, new invention to save the day, (and our standard of living!).

But what did we do before technology? Before xenon filled super-insulated windows and low-flush toilets. Before blow-in insulation and evacuated solar thermal tubes. For a change of pace, let’s try an ecologist perspective on sustainable living rather than an engineers. All you’ve got are the tools of nature to clean the air, filter waste, fill the fridge and keep you warm. Sound too impossible to be true?

Rendering by Malcolm Gladwell - Fact or Fiction?

Rendering by Malcolm Wells - Can we live like this? Fact or Fiction?

In the 1970’s a movement started by ecologist John Todd had such amazing results. Continued through his New Alchemy Institute, Todd explored an earlier concept of the bio-shelter: a self-contained, zero “waste” facility that could sustain the average human (note: an informed reader has commented that no bio-shelter to date has fully achieved this). The actual definition of a bioshelter, according to Sean Wellesley-Miller & Day Ghahroudi offers a very holistic interpretation of the process as something that..”maintains a symbiotic relationship with the immediate exterior environment…and comparable to an organism that functions as a membrane between the inner and outer world.”

Known as “arks”, the shelters deal with both human waste in the form of air and sewage and provide consumable crop yields. Similarly, the arks have passive solar and renewable energy systems inherent in their ideology. They are a synthesis of science and nature, primarily consisting of a waste treatment system composed of a series of tanks containing vegetation, composting, aquatic life and bacteria. While extremely scientific in its approach, the system is inherently described as “a way of life” by John Todd, rather than a mere technology.

Image of Aquaculture from Treehugger.com

Image of Aquaculture from Treehugger.com

The original Cape Code Ark, the first bio-shelter, was only a food producing center. Years later, a residence was added that met the shelter at its midpoint, along a perpendicular angle to its southern exposure orientation. The formation is relatively a “T” shape, where the living space is predominately removed from the actual ark.

Cape Cod Ark from New Alchemy Institute Site

Cape Cod Ark from New Alchemy Institute Site

The Prince Edward Island Ark, designed to be an encapsulated residence, has a more integrated feel. The rectilinear building places the waste treatment area toward the south half of the building, but the living quarters run parallel to this structure and at all points are visually or physically connected to each other.

Prince Edward Island Ark from New Alchemy Site

Prince Edward Island Ark from New Alchemy Site

Unfortunately, the New Alchemy Institute closed its doors some twenty years later, but the real-world lesson provides a tremendous amount of hope for our impending future. Facing the need for off-the-grid systems from energy to air to waste, the bio-shelter offers a solution that not only functionally solves ours needs but brings us back in touch with nature in a manner that doesn’t fully jeapordize our current standards of living.

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