October’s sustainability meetup led to a conversation that had long been blossoming in the Office of Sustainability. Featuring Donna Kacmar, director of the Materials Research Collaborative and associate professor of architecture at the University of Houston, the meetup delved into sustainable architecture and what truly defines sustainable materials and design. After Kacmar’s lecture, attendees were asked to sketch a design of their ideal sustainable home and discuss their blueprints with us. One of our own team members, Lauren Klich, had much more than a sketch to share. The aspiring tiny-home inhabitant has a unique perspective on sustainable architecture. Her ideas are leading her down a path to a more eco-conscious and affordable lifestyle.
1. So I understand that this was your first meetup. What was one key takeaway that you got from Donna Kacmar’s lecture and the interactions you had with other attendees?
This was indeed my first meetup, and I enjoyed engaging with individuals on campus that consider sustainable architecture as important and interesting as I do. It was really interesting hearing about the UH Materials Research Collaborative and its role in providing sustainable architecture resources to the community. One moment from the meetup that resonated with me was Donna Kacmar’s response and reasoning when asked about her favorite sustainable material: Homasote.
This stuff is made from completely post-consumer recycled paper and emits little to no toxins in the production stage, which means it’s safe for the workers who manufacture it. The company started production of Homasote in the 1950s in efforts to reduce waste and pollution. Using recycled post-consumer paper, the company decreased its emissions 73 percent and energy and water usage by 70 percent!
The functionality of Homasote is pretty outstanding as well. Not only does it look ‘chic’ as Donna noted, but its applications include sound control, roof decking, insulation, industrial packaging, and tackable panels—and it’s recyclable. The best part, in my opinion, is that it produces zero waste in the production stage. Every scrap left over after production is thrown into the next batch. It’s the material that keeps on giving!
Overall, Kacmar’s lecture enlightened me on not only how certain sustainable materials are utilized in construction but also how the entire process of producing and delivering these materials is what really earns them the “sustainable” title.
2. What is the one aspect of sustainable architecture that you most identify with and why?
For me, it’s the convenience of sustainability in general that I can closely relate to, which is kind of funny and almost ironic. When I bike, I do it for convenience. When I eat a vegetarian diet, I do it for convenience. The same goes for living and building sustainably. Think about it: it’s cheaper in the long run, easier to maintain, and much more functional. In the case of long-lasting effects, there’s obviously a lot less damage done and less to clean up in the future. Many people find the word “sustainable” intimidating. I encourage those people to flip the switch and see it as simply “convenient”.
3. If you had no limits, what are some ways that you would like to incorporate sustainable architecture into your life?
If I had no limits, I would love to own a plot of land and build a totally self-sustaining life on top of it. I’m drawn to the idea of reusing abundant materials, like shipping containers, as homes—especially with all of the extra containers in Houston. I would use salvaged materials (such as glass for windows) to make the conversion from container to home. Another addition to my home would be a rain barrel to store and reuse rain water in my daily life. Completing my dream of living off the grid, I would also establish and nurture a garden to grow my own food.
4. In what ways have you incorporated sustainable architecture into your life?
Currently, I’m in the process of converting a standard tool shed into a functional living space. Making small adjustments such as sealing cracks and adding lights have made it more comfortable. There’s also a “sink” (a bucket under a washer/dryer nozzle) that has been installed, and when water’s ready for disposal, it will be used to water plants.
In the near future, a wood-burning stove will be installed for cooking and warmth in the cooler months. The fun part is soon to come with the installation of a projector screen and hammock for maximum lounging experience. It’s going to be the coolest cave ever! Oh, and did I mention it’s only $50 a month to rent? Talk about convenient…
The shed has a small footprint and is fully lit, which will later be powered by solar panels. Insulation traps any warm or cool air, minimizing the need for potentially inefficient measures. Because of long term travel plans and the need for an inexpensive and accommodating home in winter months, the shed is the perfect option. Before my next big trip (Alaska via motorcycle!), I plan to scale down even more than I have already and make further installments for maximum comfort in the cold weather.
The overall vision for the shed is to make it the most accommodating and convenient abode possible while I am home and away, all achievable by incorporating sustainable measures. The shed will allow for a lifestyle that is not only comfortable and affordable but also eliminates non-essential items and reduces my impact on the environment.
-Interviewer: Gabi Contreras