eco friendly miniHome

We’re all about sustainable here at Urban Workbench, and weekends are for links and side projects. The thought of living in a trailer while building a new home sends shivers up my spine, until I came across this Canadian constructed miniHome linked at the Inhabitat Blog.

Inhabitat Blog Archive PREFAB FRIDAY: Sustain miniHOME:

DAWN.jpgEven when the miniHome was only 1-day old out of the factory, it didn’t have any of the noxious off-gassing and poor indoor air quality that plagues most vehicles, trailers, houses and manufactured products. That’s because we set out a very exclusive set of criteria for our manufacturer, which demanded:

  • No vinyl No formaldehyde
  • No toxic adhesives or finishes
  • All water-based, or plant oil-based finishes
  • No CFC’s or HCFC’s
  • All woods to be certified from sustainable sources (FSC certification)
  • High natural ventilation rate (windows open)
  • Constant fresh air supply (windows closed) via heat-recovery-ventilator
  • Durable and low-maintenance

Bookstair2.jpgThe price tag is pretty high, but for allergy sufferers and those wanting to escape a toxic 21st century lifestyle, perhaps this would be a good option for a family getaway. We would consider something like this for a during construction dwelling, additional accommodation, or once we’d built our real house, buy a holiday property and put this to good use as a “cabin”. The options are pretty good when you consider that it can be moved easily, (not as an RV trailer, but it can be towed with the right vehicle etc.)

You can check out their website at and they even have a blog with construction details, FAQs and events they are attending to promote their design. It gets you thinking about what size space you and your family could comfortably live in for an extended period of time, obviously storage space is a premium and downsizing would be an inevitable benefit.

(images from visit the site for more great photos for the product).

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Global Warming Podcast

For a great podcast mp3 on global warming from a scientific perspective (rather than an environmental scaremongers!), Australian author, Dr Barry Pittock of the CSIRO spoke on the ABC this morning. A transcript is available to read as well.

Seventy to eighty percent reductions of present greenhouse gas emissions are needed by 2100 to avoid potentially disastrous climate change. Moreover, if the poorer countries, which are not responsible for most emissions to date, are to be allowed to develop, the richer nations will need to shoulder more of the burden in the near future.

This requires a major technological revolution to move society from a carbon-intensive, fossil fuel based technology to a low carbon technology. This is a huge challenge, but one that can be met by setting suitable targets and incentives, combined with foresight, innovation and entrepreneurship. The cost of renewable energy has been falling fast over the last few decades and is increasingly competitive with fossil fuel energy, especially when the cost of pollution is taken into account.

This is the way of the future. Those individuals, companies and countries that seize the challenge and turn it into an opportunity will be in on the ground floor. Those who do not will lose out in the long run. The choice is ours.

A quick 14 minutes of information on global warming, climate change, environmental disasters, greenhouse gas emmisions, low-carbon energy sources, technological advancements, thoughts on coastal development and urban design, and free market vs government issues. You can find the transcript and audio here.

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Brisbane Blows Out Budget For Raintanks

I often wonder when councils are going to get it, we need more water, and we want to have some control over the sourcing of it.

Gardeners rush for rebate | The Courier-Mail:

THE Brisbane City Council water rebate budget is set to blow out by $10 million as residents rush to install rainwater tanks. The surge in tank sales is being blamed on tough level 3 water restrictions banning residents from using hoses to water gardens.

Brisbane City Council budgeted $5 million for rebates…

Under the scheme, residents get $500 for rainwater tanks up to 3000 litres, $750 for rainwater tanks up to 5000 litres and extra payouts if they are connected to a plumbing system.

A 3000 litre rainwater tank doesn’t give you much storage compared to summer garden usage in a climate like Brisbane. 4000-6000 litres would probably give the average Brisbane house some security of supply for a garden and some internal use like toilet flushing.

Level 3 restrictions are in place permanently for the moment, and there is little hope for these restrictions to be lifted in the foreseeable future with dam levels at their lowest recorded levels, and rainfall almost non-existent in the catchments due to the continuing drought. People are looking for options.

It’s great that the Lord Mayor has promised the rebate for all who want to install tanks, but at a current average payout of just under $700 per fixture over 10,500 houses, there’s a lot of houses left in Brisbane! Maybe they should have done some better surveys prior to setting a budget or finalising the rebate amount. This leads me back to my previous post on Stormwater Harvesting in New South Wales, when will the government realise that the existing water supply network is not sustainable in its top-down approach, and we need to start thinking about sustainable supply and reuse from a bottom-up perspective.


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Cul-de-Sacs and Turning Heads

Some people love them, others hate them. Personally, I think they are useful to maximise the lot yield of terrain dependant sites, but when used to attempt to create private roads and spaces with no regard to the form of the land, Cul-de-Sacs become pretty tiring. (If you can’t access the NY Times article, there’s a pdf of it here.

Why Some Towns Place Roadblocks on Cul-de-Sacs – New York Times:

Highly popular after World War II, the cul-de-sac is essentially a dead-end residential street, often but not always ending with a large circular patch of pavement allowing vehicles to turn around. The form was initially embraced as something that promoted security, neighbourliness and efficient transportation…

Homeowners found that the cul-de-sac limited traffic, creating a sense of privacy, while encouraging ties among neighbours, who could hardly avoid one another. Developers liked the cul-de-sac because it made it possible to build on land unsuited to a grid street pattern and because home buyers were willing to pay a premium to live on one…

…while people within a cul-de-sac may know one another well, they are less likely to know people who live on other streets. “What was lost is a sense of community,” [Michael Lykoudis, dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame] said.

What I dislike more than Cul-de-Sacs are Turning Heads, a geometric marvel permitting a three-point-turn to be executed at the end of a street. Developers can stick one of these in and save pavement compared to a Cul-de-Sac. But what they save in bitumen, they lose in functionality. A traditional Cul-de-Sac allows vehicles to turn about without stopping or reversing, generally an 8m radius will allow for a passenger vehicle to complete this manoeuvre in one go. For an industrial subdivision, radii up to 12m or more should be considered to facilitate rigid trucks or even semi trailers.

But don’t try to convert a Cul-de-Sac or two into a through road, unless you are prepared for a fight. In one American city (Eagan) all Cul-de-Sacs are sign posted with “Future Through Road”, just so residents can’t complain that they didn’t know!

Setting guidelines on the use and abuse of Cul-de-Sacs is probably an important exercise for local governments. Here in Australia, most councils have fairly well documented Development Control Plans that include such standards as the number of intersections and the distance from all lots in a residential subdivision to the nearest collector road, and the maximum length of a Cul-de-Sac when used. It makes it easier to know what can be done, but it also creates definite loopholes that developers will find ways to exploit.

At some point I’ll post an article on the vertical grading of Cul-de-Sac heads for different conditions – One for the civil engineers and road designers.


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Water – The New Pedestrian Control Device

29-08-06_0749.jpgNewcastle City Council has been busy fixing some of the inner city intersection, to improve pedestrian safety, and in one case to realign a blocked stormwater pipe. The images below are from one of the intersections, you can see the new kerb blister to shelter pedestrians contemplating the crossing, the new stormwater pits, and most obviously, the large puddle on the corner. Check out these three photos taken on my way to work.

It’s a fair embarrassment when the city council, responsible for approving engineering development’s drainage designs, is permitted to leave a design like this in use. I will admit that the options are few, but it is not impossible to fix. A bit of judicious modelling of the kerb profile with some localised raising of the road surface could have prevented this ugly situation.

29-08-06_0750.jpg You can also just see in the first photo a bit of hot mix applied to smooth out the pram ramp, which would actually make the drainage worse. Very little supervision or care has gone into this design and construction, this is a major pedestrian crossing in the middle of town.

I think I’ve worked it out! It’s actually a moat, to prevent pedestrians short cutting across the road!

For reference, this photo was taken up to an hour after a moderate brief shower.

29-08-06_0751.jpgThe decision to extend the kerb out as a blister across a fairly flat intersection should have raised some concerns in design, but the real issue comes when it was built that the construction supervisor allowed it to be deemed complete.

Retrofits on pavements and kerbing do have the possibility of not working out properly if the design phase is neglected. I’d encourage anyone involved in this type of work, either from a council, design or construction perspective to keep this one in the back of their mind for next time.

I get to walk past it every day. Do you have any photos of similar screw ups?


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Solar Powered Biofuel Service Station

One of the awesome things about watching growth in sustainability, is seeing mainstream, traditional industries such as gas stations make inroads to sustainable outcomes.  In Australia BP recently incorporated solar panels to several of their stations in Sydney, with a graphic display of energy savings and even carbon offsets they were acheiving.  This story from Oregan takes the concept one step further and shows that big companies see value in investment in these technologies, whether from an attempt to improve public perception, or perhaps from a cost benefit, environmental analysis perspective.  Either way, this article over at treehugger outlines some of the “innovative”, (I use that term loosely, as this really is inovative for a traditional industry!).

Treehugger: First Solar Powered Biofuel Station Opens

The biofuels are only part of the story behind this unique business, however. From first glance at the SeQuential retail site one can see that this is no ordinary pit stop.
The site considers the role of the automobile while integrating the belief that commerce and the natural environment can co-exist. Renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable design elements are themes throughout the site.
Approaching the site, the dominant features are the 244 solar panels that cover the fueling islands and the 4800 plants installed in five inches of soil on the roof of the convenience store. The 33kW solar array will provide 30% to 50% of the electrical power that the station will require annually.
The “living roof” will help to control rainwater runoff on the site and will help cool the convenience store during the summer. Other eco-friendly design elements include stormwater detention “bioswales” where plants will filter pollutants from rainwater that rinses the roadways and parking areas and will clean the water before it leaves the site. SeQuential also has made a significant effort to source building materials that are made in the Pacific Northwest region.

The combination of biofuels with other sustainable construction, energy supply and landscaping is impressive. I’ve got a real interest in green roofs, and it’s nice to see what I’d consider to be an obvious implementation of the technology.
This should be a model for many more to come.  Check out Sequential biofuels here.

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Subtropical Cities Conference 2006

One fo the unique things about Australia is it’s diverse climate, and it’s neat to see Brisbane hosting the Subtropical Cities Conference for this year  – H.T. to Brisburbology.

Centre for Subtropical Design – Conference

Subtropical Cities 2006 conference aims to raise the level of public debate about achieving ecologically sustainable urbanism in subtropical settlements through attention to climate responsive design.

Looks like some interesting speakers with experience in countries such as Mexico, Thailand, South Africa, Brazil, and of course Australia.  It would be nice to see some of the papers that would be presented at a conference like this that has a particularly sustainable flavour to it.
Living in Newcastle, I find it encouraging that many leading practicioners in sustainability are able to influence government policy on simple issues like passive solar design within subdivision layouts, and the location of trees in relation to predominant wind patterns and overall housing design for comfort and performance.
I’d love to get invited to “liveblog” one of these events some day…

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Freeways for Sydney?

The Sydney Morning Herald recently ran this story about the US transportation and planning expert Wendell Cox who is arguing for more freeways in Sydney to allow for greater home ownership.  (H.T. Planetizen).

Back to the ‘burbs – the case for the car – National –

…if inadequate public transport is not the reason, why does Sydney have such transport problems? Cox says the city needs more freeways. Of 30 urban areas in the developed world with a population of more than 3 million, “Sydney ranks 29th for lane kilometres of freeway per square kilometre. Only London has fewer. Sydney is also relatively poorly served by arterial roads.”

You can read my comments on this issue, as someone who occasionally has to navigate the back streets of Sydney to get anywhere, at Planetizen, check out the other comments about Cox’s credibility too.

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