Alternative Architecture Links by Ronald J. Riley

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I have been interested in alternative and high efficiency building methods for over two decades. I considered wood, foam, and Ferro-cement domes. I also considered cord-wood, field stone, and log construction. But issues like cost, resale value, and utility ruled those out.

In general a good design will minimize the number of exterior building square feet in proportion to the buildings square footage. A dome is the most efficient structure in this regard but wall curvature dramatically restricts the utility of the structure and also makes it difficult to take advantage of solar gain.

The next most efficient structure is a cube. And it is not an accident that so many houses were basic two story cubes. They are generally ugly buildings, with the exception of those which have very large wrap around porches on at least two sides. They also suffer from the fact that a two story structure creates access problems for very young or old people. Also, having a second story requires load bearing interior walls which restrict floor plans and the second story floor is disproportionately expensive per square foot of living space than a single story structure.

My First House:

I spent seven years remodeling a 1300 sq. ft. house. The house consisted of the original structure which was a basic 24 foot square on crawl space (early 1920's). When indoor plumbing became common an addition of 10 X 24 foot was added for the bathroom and kitchen. In the mid forties a 10 X 24 foot garage was added. At some point a 6 X 24 foot enclosed porch was added to the front, and last a 10 X 34 foot room was added across the back by a minister with eight kids.

We did a total remodel with all walls being gutted, adding new drywall, wiring, plumbing, roof, siding, doors, windows, etc. Even moving some load bearing walls.

Having to work with a conventional house limited my design options. I added 2X4 frame on 24 inch centers with vertical board on board Michigan white cedar siding to the outside of the house and fiberglass insulation for both the outer frame and in the outside interior wall frames. The double frame construction produced a R-35 wall, and R40 ceilings.

My Second House:

Two years after completing that house I purchased a 72 acre farm, which only had thirty acres of tillable land, the balance being streams and wetlands. I sold five acres of the first farm to finance part of the construction of the house. This farm has twenty-five foot elevation differences and many great pond sites. Later I purchased a 79 acre farm to the west of my current location

During the next three years, in the summer months, I built a two lane half mile long road to the back of the farm. During winter months we turned fifteen wooded acres at the back of the farm into a park like setting by culling about two thirds of the trees.

During the fall of the third summer I built a 3000 square foot pole building to house my lab and workshop. The next year I installed the septic system and well and purchased a mobile home to live in while I built the new house. We sold the first house and used the money to start the second house.

I left my job with a subsidiary of Sun Oil in March of 1990. I spent the next two years building a 2700 square foot passive solar house which has net R33 walls and R60 ceilings. We heat the house with propane for about $1.65 per day during the coldest months of the year. This house was designed to be expanded to about 5000 square feet with the addition of a master bedroom on the upper level and a two story solarium.

We have lived in the house since 1992. Since I built this house from scratch I was able to achieve much higher efficiencies. This house was insulated with cellulose (a much better material than fiberglass) and the outer walls were all doubled framed, yielding an eight and a half inch cavity which was insulated using the spray in place process.

Starting in 2002 I will be adding the two upstairs bedrooms (960 sq. ft.) which I had to leave off due to cost considerations when I first built the house.  And also the solarium which will be two stories, 16 ft x 42 ft, and make the house almost totally solar heated.

My Third And Probably Last House:

I am now contemplating building another house. This one will likely be a straw bale house. Preliminary analysis of cost versus size and utility have led me to zero in on one of two designs, either 88 or 96 foot square. One is an 88 foot outside dimension square structure with a 24 foot square inner-structure. The center square would be a two story (27 feet) high solarium, the first story would be straw bale construction with the second story framed. The space around the solarium would be twenty-eight feet free span with 4-12 pitch roof. The alternative design would have a 96 foot outer dimension with a solarium which is 32 foot square on the inside.

A 4-12 pitch roof was selected over a 6-12 pitch for two reasons. First is that the inside height of the solarium would have been excessive with a 6-12 pitch. Second is that quotes on the trusses revealed that 4-12 pitch with the 28 foot clear span was about $0.10 less per square foot of enclosed space than other spans. The 28 foot dimension was desirable to accommodate the garage in the same structure while allowing a four foot wide hall at the back of the garage. Also, since I generally have at least one 1 ton crew cab full length pickup truck I like an extra deep garage.

Savings in wall and foundation costs would be used to finish more square footage. The foundation would be slab with 42 inch footings around the outer perimeter on grade - insulated with four inches of closed cell foam board, two layers of two inch with all seams overlapping. This is inherently less expensive per square foot than a full basement.

The solarium would have a basement for utilities. The only basement would be under the solarium and will house heating, power, solar storage water tanks, etc.  Heat from the solarium would be moved into storage tanks in the basement.  Heat loss from the tanks would rise into the solarium at night.  The house would be heated by circulating hot water through radiators in a forced air system.

This new design should have no heating costs because excess heat, which we now waste by opening windows, would be saved for later use. 

The floor plan would cluster bedrooms on the east side, other living space on the south side, a three car garage on the west side, and craft and workshop space on the north side. The north and west sides will receive natural lighting via the solarium, allowing minimal openings on the cold north side.

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Site Index - Contact Us - Page last revised 11-21-2001

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House of Straw - Straw Bale Construction Comes of Age
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Resource Guide for Straw Bale Construction
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Sourcebook Straw Bale
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Straw Composite Systems
Timber Frame Mag. on Straw Bale

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Page last revised 8-25-99

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Ronald J. Riley
1323 West Cook Road
Grand Blanc, MI 48439

Phone (810) 655-8830
Fax (810) 655-8832

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