The greenest house in the world?

Students at Ariel University marshal all sorts of techniques to build an environmentally sound abode

The Ariel University green house (Photo credit: Courtesy)
The Ariel University green house (Photo credit: Courtesy)

As part of a project to design a structure that could be used as emergency housing in areas where natural disasters occur, students at Ariel University have stumbled onto what may be the most ecologically sound house in the world.

It’s a house that takes into account nearly all principles of environmentally friendly construction to produce a home that manufactures its own power, cleans and reuses its own wastewater, and doesn’t require air conditioning or electricity or gas for heating and cooking — using nothing more than water for “fuel.”

How green is this house? It’s so green, said master architect Matityahu Avshalomov, that it manages to stay cool even when the weather outside is hazy, hot, and humid, using basic environmental construction techniques.

“In most houses, the windows are placed at face level, at one meter eighty (six feet) off the ground,” Avshalomov told The Times of Israel. “In hot weather, that practically guarantees that the house will be hot, too,” as the hot air has nowhere to go but down as it piles into the house through the window.

The green house designed by Ariel students in his architecture and design class, however, is different. “Our windows are higher up, and a system of opening on the floor pulls the cooler air from under the house inside.”

Cool air tends to sink while hot air rises — so as more cool air moves in from the bottom of the house, it pushes the hot air further up, out the window. “This way, you get a natural circulation system that keeps the house pleasant, even on the hottest days,” Avshalomov said.

The circulation system is just one aspect of the green house built as part of a term project by Avshalamov’s students. Avshalamov himself is an architect of note, having designed, among other things, the “Yellow” convenience stores at Paz gas stations around the country. Currently, Avshalamov is leading a NIS 70 million project to modernize and update the Tiberias marketplace, making it more user-friendly, tourist-friendly, and planet-friendly. Among other things, Avshalamov is overseeing the removal of the asbestos roof from the covered portion of the marketplace, replacing it with environmentally friendly materials.

Students in his course were instructed to build a 25-square meter structure that could be used as a temporary living structure for victims of disasters. The structure had to be easy to build and to transport, so that it could easily be moved into the field. The structure that the students came up with meets all the criteria — and was built using nearly all recycled materials, Avshalamov said. “This is not just on paper, but an actual working model that students built, and there is no reason these techniques could not be used to build an 80- or 100-square meter house.”

Besides the circulation system, the green house is electrically self-sufficient, generating its own power using a photovoltaic electricity system on its roof. But it is also heat and energy self-sufficient, using a system to generate hydrogen gas, which can be used for heating and cooking. Once, hydrogen was seen as a contender to replace gas and even oil, but the explosion of the Hindenburg back in the 1930s dampened the popular sentiment for hydrogen power. Today’s hydrogen systems, said Avshalamov, are much safer and more efficient, enabling generation of more than enough energy for heating and cooking the green house. All the hydrogen system needs is water; even saline water will do, he added.

In addition to heating and electricity, the house also recycles nearly all the water used by residents. “We have a gray water recycling system built into the house that further ensures a comfortable environment,” said Avshalamov. “The water flows up on top of the house, keeping the roof and the ceiling cool, and then the water flows into planters on the side of the house, where herbs and other plants are grown. Thus the residents have a supply of fresh herbs and even vegetables, without having to impact on local water supplies.”

The green house has other environmental tricks to make life comfortable for its residents. A side of the house facing the sun has windows that are recessed (to allow in light, but less heat) and that are framed by bales of cotton cloth, which provide insulation. And there is the issue of positioning the house, with each side of the house specially designed for the environmental impact of the conditions of north, south, east and west.

“These are things that are well known in construction, and have been on the books for decades,” said Avshalamov. “But for whatever reason — probably the hubris of humanity in recent decades, with the thought that they could control everything — many of these techniques have been forgotten, or ignored. But in these days of dwindling resources and global warming, we ought to begin considering using these techniques on a wider basis.”

Avshalamov said that the house turned out to be much more of a success than either he or his students envisioned, and that they now have a plan they can offer contractors, whom they will try and interest in using the green house system.

“We are also looking at international competitions at which we can display the house and spread the word about what we have done,” Avshalamov added. “We think there will be a lot of people in Israel, and abroad, who will be very interested in what we have done.”

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