Eco Building Design Ideas

circular economy construction recycling opportunity

The Solar Decathalon

Solar decathalons are popping up everywhere these days. They are a great source of design ideas, pitting university design teams against each other. The granddaddy of Solar Decathalons is the Dept of Energy one held in Washington DC every year.


Appalachian State Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011


Canada Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Florida International Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Illinois Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Maryland Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

New Zealand Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Ohio State Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011


Parsons NS Stevens Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Purdue Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

SCI-Arc/Caltech Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Belgium Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

China Virtual Tour – Solar Decathlon 2011

Algae Skin Buildings

BIQ Building, Hamburg Germany

An algae-covered/powered building called the BIQ is said to be the first with bio-adaptive façade of microalgae. It was designed for display at the International Building Exhibition (IBE) held in Hamburg, Germany on March 23, 2013. The heat recovery system plus solar panels on the roof make it completely energy independent.

The algae are continuously supplied with liquid nutrients and carbon dioxide via a separate water circuit running through the façade. With the aid of sunlight, the algae can photosynthesise and multiply in a regular cycle until they can be harvested. They are then batch separated and transferred as a thick pulp to the technical room of the BIQ. There they are fermented in an external biogas plant, so that they can be used again to generate biogas.

Figure 1: BIQ Algae Bioreactor System (Source: Splitterwerk)  


Figure 2a-d: BIQ building from different angles and phases of construction (Source:  Spitterwerk)


Figure 3: BIQ building algae louvers designed by Colt (Source:  Spitterwerk)


It was designed by Spitterwerk Architects in collaboration with:

“We have put a lot of work into meeting the technical challenges and we now have a commercial-scale, effective solution that uses live algae as a smart material to deliver renewable energy. You can’t get greener than that.” said Simon O’Hea, Director at Colt.

BIQ is being described by the IBE as the first building in the world to have a bioreactor façade. Microalgae are cultivated in the glass elements that make up its “bio skin.” The algae are then used to produce energy, and can also control light and provide shade.

Process Zero Building, California, HOK and Vanderweil Architects

Lead architect / project manager Sean Quinn and his design team at HOK and Vanderweil have evolved an innovative zero energy retrofit design for an old government building. The project is called Process-Zero Retrofit and  is a collaboration between Hok and Vanderweil and the General Services Administration (GSA), a branch of the federal government of the United States which owns and manages 362 million square feet of office space. The GSA is required to retrofit or replace hundreds of buildings like the one in L.A. in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020.

Quinn and his team aim to create a zero energy building with an algae bioreactor core at the heart of the design. The objective is simple to state:  Update a typical, energy-intensive 1960s eight-story federal building in downtown L.A. to a net-zero energy. The team is taking a standard. conventional glass-and-concrete office block of the Mad Men era is transformed into a living, breathing “bioreactor” powered by tubes of energy-generating algae, which feed on pollution from cars traveling on the nearby Santa Ana Freeway.

Quinn transferred the mechanics of vertical and horizontal algae tube technology from  research labs to the side of a building, adding a full-scale closed system of holding tanks and filtration ponds to complete the bioenergy network. Inside the glass tubes, the plants swim in a slurry of recycled wastewater and consume carbon dioxide siphoned from an air-intake pipe at the freeway. In principle, photosynthesis would be assured, oxygen pumped out to the street as a byproduct, and oil pressed out of the algae and processed to provide some of the building’s power.

Figure 4: Algae bioreactor design (Source: Process-Zero)


Figure 5a-b: Different views of the design (Source: Process-Zero)

Figure 6a- h Different aspects of the building design (Source: Process-Zero)

Mitchell Joachim and Growing your own Home

As we attempt to lower our carbon footprint, the built environment offers substantial possibilities of saving. Perhaps the ultimate in environmental integration are the ideas of Mitchell Joachim of Terraform One. Mitchell proposes that our habitat design techniques are outdated and that it is far more environmentally sound to grow our homes by taking advantage of nature’s natural building & construction processes. He calls this concept the Fab Tree Hab. The basic technique used to shape branches is called “Pleaching” and the Fab Tree Hab technology proposes grafting prefabricated Computer Numeric Controlled (CNC) reusable scaffolds into  living structures, enabling dwellings to be fully integrated into an ecological community. Joachim enumerates the benefits of such a design:

  • Composed of 100% living nutrients
  • Make effective contributions to the ecosystem
  • Accountable removal of  human impact
  • Involve arboreal farming & production
  • Subsume technology within terrestrial environs
  • Circulate water & metabolic flows symbiotically
  • Consider the life cycle, from use to disposal


The Fab Tree Hab attempts to reintroduce symbiosis back into habitat design. The Fab Tree Hab design looks at the inherent inefficiency of modern building design. Trees are felled, processed and the resultant buildig materials are used for construction. By using the growing tree itself, vast amounts of energy are saved.

The concept Fab Tree Hab is initially exploring is a single three bedroom family home. There is a bathroom, and an open living, dining and kitchen area placed on the sun-facing façade in accordance with passive solar principles.

  • Tree trunks form the load-bearing structure
  • A weave of pleached branch ‘studs’ support a thermal clay and straw-based infill. Pleaching is a method of weaving together tree branches to form living archways, lattices, or screens
  • The trunks of inosculate, or self-grafting, trees, such as Elm, Live Oak, and Dogwood, are the load-bearing structure, and the branches form a continuous lattice frame for the walls and roof
  • On the exterior is a dense, weaved protective layer of vines, interspersed with soil pockets and growing plants
  • On the interior, a cob (clay and straw composite) insulates and blocks moisture, and a final layer of smooth clay is applied like a plaster to provide comfort and aesthetics

Life sustaining flows

  • Water circulates from the roof-top collector, through human consumption, and ultimately exiting via transpiration
  • A gray water stream irrigates the gardens, and a filtration stream enters a Living Machine, where it is purified by bacteria, fish, and plants who eat the organic wastes
  • Cleaned water enters the pond, where it may infiltrate the soil or evaporate to the atmosphere
  • Water consumed by the vegetation eventually returns to the water cycle through transpiration, simultaneously cooling the home
  • Solar radiation drives heating and ventilation.  In the winter, sunlight shines through the large sun-facing windows, heating the open floor-space and thermal mass.  The reverse is true in the summer, as the crown of the structure shades itself from extreme temperatures, instead using the sun’s energy for photosynthesis.
  • Two levels of operable windows set up a buoyancy-driven ventilative flow, drawing in cool air at floor level
  • An active solar hot water system heats the home through an array of radiant floor pipes
  • Technology inspired by nature also explicitly engages it to provide water and warmth to the habitat
  • The Hull section illustrates design for water flows: a roof-top trough harvests water for human use; the plumbing system is positioned to provide for gravity-induced flow and gray-water reuse; a composting system treats human waste and will later return nutrients to the eco-system.


  • The home is designed to be nearly entirely edible so as to provide food to some organism at each stage of its life
  • While inhabited, the home’s gardens and exterior walls produce food for people and animals
  • The seasonal cycles help the tree structure provide for itself through composting of fallen leaves in autumn
  • Bioplastic windows flex with the home as it grows
  • Windows and walls would both degrade and return to the earth upon life’s end
  • Seedlings started in such a nutrient rich bed may provide the affordable building blocks for a new home typology, firmly rooted to place.
  • Realization of living structures introduces forest renewal to an urban setting
  • Building of these homes occurs throughout a longer time period, yet the benefits are enjoyed as long as the trees live, after which another wave of renewal begins
  • Exterior of the home embraces growth in its gardens and with bioplastic windows that are envisioned to accept change in physical size over the home’s lifetime

Rethinking budget

  • Life-cycle costing methods include energy cost savings and accounting for reduction or elimination of externality costs
  • However, current designs still places too much value on benefits received today as opposed to tomorrow or hundred years from now
  • By thinking longterm and real cradle-to-grave costs,  a true representation of sustainable value can be achieved by explicitly recognizing the adaptive, renewal, cooperative, evolutionary, and longevity characteristics of the home
  • At the first stage of maturity, when the habitat is readied for human presence, cost outlays are similar in nature to traditional construction yet much less in magnitude based on their local, natural, and edible qualities.
  • Clay, gravel, and straw can be obtained locally for certainly no more than the cost of concrete
  • Plants and vegetation, many of which can be started from seedlings when the structure is originally planted, will come at a nominal cost
  • Installation of heating, lighting, plumbing, electrical, and communication systems will be no more than that for a typical home, and should be less due to the systems integrated design of natural ventilation, gravity water flow, daylighting and passive solar
  • Realization of a living home is affordable


Elevation View (Source: Terraform One)



Communities of grown homes  (Source: Terraform One)



 Living wall section skin – bioclimatic envelope construction (Source: Terraform One)


 Plans Revealing Nutrient Flows: 1. Circulation + Entry  2. Gravity Plumbing  3. Composting  4. Aqueous Garden (Source: Terraform One)


Some consider Earthships to be the most versatile and economical building design in the world. Earthship buildings have been developed over 40 years by  Earthship Biotecture.








Passive Homes – Beyond LEED and Energystar

The world must reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by up to eighty to ninety percent over the next few decades.1   The greatest generators of CO2 are not automobiles and airplanes but buildings. As a result, the building sector is examining ways to build structures that use significantly less energy than even the top-rated “green” buildings of today. Passivhaus technology originated in Germany in 1991 and may be the only solution capable of meeting these significant reductions.  Unlike conventional “green building” standards such as LEED and Energy Star,3 Passive House designs aggressively reduce overall requirements for heating and cooling through built-in energy conservation measures. Passivhaus makes use of ultra-thick insulation and highly-insulating doors and windows to create a nearly airtight building envelope. When combined with a simple heat-exchanging air system, it allows very little heat or cold to flow across its boundary, while maintaining fresh and even-temperature indoor air quality. A Passive Home can be heated almost entirely by sunlight coming through the windows, heat from appliances, and heat from occupants’ bodies. In fact, the term “passive” came from energy sources that are already available from existing sources naturally found in our living environment which negates the need for central heating/cooling system.

The energy savings delivered by Passive House structures are sufficient to balance out the additional costs. Figure 1 (reading right to left)

  1. As the cost of Passive House upgrades goes up,
  2. The heating energy needed goes down
  3. At a certain point, central heating and cooling systems can be eliminated (at about 15kWh/m2 as in the Figure)
Figure 1: Passive House Cost Considerations

Figure 1: Passive House Cost Considerations

1 Martin Parry, Jean Palutikof, Clair Hanson & Jason Lowe, “Squaring up to Realty,” Nature Publishing Group, May 29, 2008.


 Unusual Repurposing

David Hertz, FAIA, LEED AP  is well-known as an innovative architect, designer, inventor and educator in the field of environmental design. Hertz’s architectural practice focuses primarily on custom residential projects with specialized experience in climate responsive, environmentally-sustainable homes.

An example of his passion to repurpose used material is his invention of Syndecrete, an eco-friendly concrete alternative material made up natural minerals and recycled materials having half the weight and twice the compressive strength as normal concrete.  Unfortunately, it’s high cost limits its applications to use in the high end market. Another example is repurposing the used 747 airplanes.

Take a tour through his own home, which is full of innovative eco-design ideas.


Geodesic Dome Homes

Dennis Odin Johnson and his wife, Tessa Hill are owners of Natural Spaces Domes, a  US company that specializes in residential geodesic Dome structures.  Dome Homes are cleaner and healthier for the environment and humans alike. The dome shape uses 60% less structural material than a box home, giving you the most amount of space for the least amount of material. Geodesic Domes, originated and popularized by Buckminister Fuller is a structure with inherent strength. Every vertex of the dome supports the load equally.  Natural Spaces Domes designs use the Super-Lok© patented connector system and Super-Wal double strut framework that enable their structures to withstand extreme winds and earthquakes. Take a virtual tour of Bear Creek Dome, Dennis and Tessa’s home to get inspiration for your own eco-design.