by Kristina Woods Butler and Karin Slyker
Urs Peter Flueckiger is a 2010 Integrated Scholar at Texas Tech. In this interview he explains the Sustainable Cabin design-build project. Video produced by Scott Irbeck, Office of Communications & Marketing.
Conceptual drawings of the Sustainable Cabin project
Texas Tech Researcher Creates Sustainable Cabin
On the banks of Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) built a house, 10 feet by 15 feet, furnished only with a bed, a table, a desk with a lamp and three chairs – one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society.
“What’s the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Thoreau hypothesized.
Now, Texas Tech researchers, inspired by the author and poet’s reflections upon simple living in natural surroundings, have built upon that foundation by crafting a prefabricated, sustainable design-build project. The Colleges of Architecture, Visual and Performing Arts and Engineering all contributed to the project.
As the planet’s reserves of water and energy sources become increasingly limited, architects must develop forms of architecture that incorporate – even celebrate – sustainable design practices. The result, the Sustainable Cabin built by professors and students; a living laboratory designed for the harsh microclimate of Foard County, about 45 miles west of Wichita Falls, Texas, to test and quantify sustainable architectural concepts.
Thoreau was not the only person who experimented with sustainable relationships with nature. His cabin, along with Le Corbusier’s (1887 – 1965) Cabanon in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in Southern France, are studies of the minimal spatial needs for living. And they are examples of structures that successfully relate to their sites and to the environment, while being mindful of significant budget constraints. Together, they inspired the Sustainable Cabin.
Putting Together the Pieces
The cabin’s interior is an example of modern living in its simplest form. One of the concepts of the project was the use of current, affordable, off-the-shelf products instead of the high-dollar approach of many current sustainable structures. This included the use of energy-efficient, renewable energy and recycled materials, as well as local materials from the West Texas region.
The Sustainable Cabin was constructed from the recycled metal chassis of a double-wide mobile home, with the exterior made from corrugated iron and cedar. The inside includes bamboo flooring, yellow pine and thermal insulation made from recycled cotton (mostly recycled blue jeans). The Morso wood stove is made from reused scrap iron, and electricity comes from photovoltaic solar panels.
The performance of these systems will be tested and evaluated. The data will then help future architects make crucial and lucrative design decisions, and help them to envision how to retrofit existing homes with sustainable technology.
Texas Tech’s College of Visual and Performing Arts contributed the cabin’s art, and the Department of Mechanical Engineering contributed to the building and mechanical development of the cabin.
Click images to enlarge.
A Living Laboratory
The idea of experimenting with smart building came about in 2007, when Urs Peter Flueckiger, associate professor of architecture at Texas Tech, was studying sustainable architectural design and became interested in modern and economical structures. Prior to the project, Fluekiger and his wife designed their own affordable, durable and modernist home using local industrial materials from West Texas. From there, his interest grew and combined with his teaching efforts to develop the concept of the Sustainable Cabin.
"I tried to use this as an opportunity to look at how we could create the space here in West Texas that would benefit the society and also, most importantly, the students in terms of how sustainability can be done in architecture," Fluekiger said.
The two-year design-build project, where students actually design and build the structure, started as an elective course. The idea was to give the students an all-around learning experience with both a classroom and a lab-type setting.
"They actually start to replace their computer mouse and screen with a hammer and nail," Flueckiger said. "The students have a hands-on approach of how something is built. It gives a sort of counter weight, and the tactile part of it is actually quite important in this."
Sustaining into the Future
The project not only benefits the students, but also society as a whole by helping these architects learn how to study, create and implement affordable and sustainable concepts in their designs to respond to environmental concerns.
It took about four classes to finish the cabin. Each student, sponsor and faculty member involved is physically credited inside the structure with their name written on the door frame. Each class took part in various segments of the process, providing a learning experience Flueckiger says is unique for many architects.
"Later on, the students are going to work on projects where they are in actual offices, so that hands-on approach of touching the 2 by 4, they will never have that, because architects draw buildings, they don’t make the actual buildings. But with this approach, they will have more experience and say 'I remember how this was when I worked on that. This is not that easy; it was quite tough.'"
The cabin was generously supported by the Pease River Foundation in Crowell. An agreement between the foundation and Texas Tech will allow future students to conduct research, visit the cabin on-site and monitor data. In addition, students will have the opportunity to learn about site and orientation, for example, how much rain falls during the year and how they can use that information.
"I hope that it will serve many generations of students as a learning-study object out in the great West Texas Landscape."
The finished product was one of five design-build projects featured in the December, 2010 issue of Architectural Record. In addition, the sustainable cabin is also featured in design/architecture blog MocoLoco, and on archdaily.com.
The project is generously supported by a Texas Tech University Research Enrichment Fund Grant, Fred Koch, The Pease River Foundation; F. Marie Hall; John Dea, Dea Doors and Windows; Mike Harendt, MBCI Metal Buildings; Rex Neitsch, EcoBlue; Lumber Liquidators, Amarillo; Morso North America Energy Efficient Woodstoves; Larry Harvey AIA, Chapman Harvey Architects; and Cris Been from Therma Breeze solar technology, Lubbock.
Kristina Woods Butler is a Sr. Editor for the Office of the Vice President for Research, and Karin Slyker is a Sr. Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.