Sustainable Architecture: Building a Writer's Cottage

May 15, 2011
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Sustainability. Many of us know what this word means: conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. But do you really know the meaning behind this word? Well I do, and in fact, we don't think of it as a word at all! Sustainability, in our opinion, is a lifestyle. You may choose to be sustainable: to put the world and its fragile being first, before yourself. Have you chosen to live sustainably? Well we have.

From the great support and guidance of our school. We have chosen to live sustainably. Our school itself is a key example of sustainability at it finest. Every building in the middle school has floors made of old, recycled tires, lockers made out of reused milk cartons, solar electricity, and "green air conditioning." In fact, the middle school has been certified gold the Green Building Council for its sustainability. Our school also has compost and worm bins all around campus, in which the vermacast is used to grow plants and trees. A whole new Kindergarten and First-grade area was constructed this past year that is almost completely green and has been certified platinum (the highest certification possible) by the Green Building Council. It consists of not only sustainable buildings and classrooms, but also of other sustainable components; there is windmill that utilizes the wind to create energy and water collecting systems to collect all the rain that runs off the roof in order to use it for water our gardens. This is what we call sustainable schooling!

The effect our carbon-footprints have on the earth is truly amazing. Even some small steps in the direction of sustainability can make a huge and positive impact, and that is just the step we took along with our grandfather, this past year.
Our grandfather, D.C. as we call him, had, back in 2006, assembled a small 4' x 4' tea house he had gotten from Bali. The tea house, being 5 years old this past January, had become worn out and been seldom used throughout the years. My grandparents agreed that it had fulfilled its lifetime here, and that it was time to take it down.
D.C. loves to take on new projects, like building things in his spare time, which mostly involve reused materials that he finds on the side of the road while riding his bike. So, when it was time to take down the old teahouse, a perfect opportunity arouse for a spectacular project. We were very interested in architecture at the time, so he found it would be even better to include us in the project.


For the next few months the three of us invested countless hours in establishing the new writer's cottage. It started with the designs, the plans and the measurements, which were eventually pulled together into an entire architectural layout. For this difficult task, we sought out the assistance of Andrea Kirby, a college student who, at the time, was just completing her doctor's degree in architecture at the University of Hawaii. Of course, the four of us had no extensive experience when it came to building structures like the one we were working on, so we looked for someone who could help us build it. Orion Stanbro, became the builder we needed for the job and was especially helpful with his previous experience of building sustainable homes on the Big Island. With Orion and Andrea's help, we began to construct the writer's cottage.

As I mentioned before, it all started with the architectural plans, which were critical to have when creating something from scratch. Andrea helped us use a program called Sketch Up that allowed us to build a 3-D image of the cottage. By using this we were able to decide how the walls and the roof would fit together, where the windows would go and where the structure would need more support. Then all it took was punching in a few numbers and the image was immediately fit to a scale. Our plan was to make the cottage small, only 9 x 6 x 9 ft. because the space we had in our grandparents' garden was limited and because the cottage was less than 200 square feet and had not electricity or indoor plumbing, it did not require a Honolulu building permit. While creating our layout, we also started to make decisions about the materials we would use. We wanted to make it a sustainable cottage, as in, only materials that had already been used to avoid depletion of natural resources. The easiest reusable materials to find and to work with were types of wood or shingles that were taken from old houses after they had been torn down. These materials were exactly what we needed; now we just needed to find a place to get them.


There was really only one place that had everything we needed: Reuse Hawaii. Located in the downtown area of Kaka'ako, Reuse Hawaii is a non-profit organization that sells all kinds of construction materials from lumber and hardware to doors and furniture. For our project, we got to browse around in their lumberyard, where we found some great pieces of redwood that we decided to use for the walls and floor of the cottage. We also found a door that was the perfect size for the cottage and that matched the windows that our grandpa had previously acquired from trash that would have gone in the landfills. We had been set on using old shingles for the roofing, until Orion found some plastic roofing that was taken from a house that was about to be torn down. This roofing material would also be much easier to install and give the cottage some natural light (since there would be no indoor lighting).



Now it was time to literally put everything together and construct the writer's cottage. At first we worked only on the weekends and then started working on more days of the week during summer break. Although Orion was there to help us construct the house, we (my sister and I) did most of the work, while Orion showed us what to do and how to do it. He started off by teaching us how to build the floor. Basically, he put down two support beams that we would nail the redwood planks to, which would eventually be secured to the same slab of concrete that used to support the teahouse. This was the basic foundation to the cottage, so it had to be strong; the redwood we used was actually tongue-and-groove planks, which means that they fit together in a certain way so that there weren't any spaces between the planks and made the floor hold together better. After these were secured to the support beams, we sawed off any excess wood to create a perfect 6' x 9' floor. We constructed the walls in a similar fashion, however the support beams for the walls were a little more complicated to construct because, according to our plan, they had to incorporate a space for doors and windows. Like the floor, each wall was constructed separately in my grandparents' garage so that they could later be carried into the near-by garden space and constructed there.


Constructing everything took many days, but eventually we were ready to put all of the pieces together. We all helped to carry the walls and the floor up to the site where they were quickly bolted together. Next, my sister and I nailed in the screen windows, while Orion secured the roof supports and the plastic roofing. The door was the last thing to be attached, which included three glass panes with images of the sun, the ocean and the beach, designed by Andrea, my sister and me. We found reused glass the Andrea cut down to fit the spaces in the door, and then used a technique called "sand-blasting" (thanks to the UH art facilities) to create the design.

The great thing about building this cottage was that we were able to use only reusable materials and support a local business, which was Reuse Hawaii. All of the materials that are sold at Reuse Hawaii came from deconstructing old homes or were leftovers from certain construction projects, and of course, all of the materials are obtained by the consent of the owners. In addition, the materials that we didn’t get from Reuse Hawaii were picked up from garage sales or found on the side of the road, where they would have gone to waste and into a landfill. By using reusable materials more trees won't have to be cut down, which will also lower carbon dioxide emissions that are released when a tree is cut down. We feel that building the cottage can also become a good example for further construction methods because it is completely environmentally friendly, but is still capable of providing the quality needed when constructing larger buildings.


Where is it now? Well, unfortunately, we received complaints about the cottage from a few neighbors who lived in Pacific Heights, so it had to be taken down. We thought, for a little while, that all of our hard work had gone to waste, until my grandpa decided to talk with the President of our school, James Scott, about donating it to the school. After a few weeks, the cottage was dissembled and brought to the school, where it was added to the new, platinum certified, K-1 Omidyar buildings as a gardening shed, still with everything the way we designed it. As we mentioned before, our school has many environmentally friendly facilities, especially in the new K-1 buildings, and the cottage was able to fit right in.

After a while we realized that it was almost better to have it at the school because it would get a lot of use from many generations of students who would be exposed to the idea of environmental architecture at a very early age.





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