What follows is a brief discussion of some of the more fundamental categories and how they are interconnected:
- Geographic Location
- Construction Methods & Materials
- Building Design
- Roof Design
- Design Categories Summary
One important requirement common to nearly all companion-animal shelters is the need to be located within, or at least very near to, a populated area to more easily facilitate adoptions. With some exceptions such as Pet-Smart in-store adoption centers, the shelter itself most often doubles as the primary adoption location. As a result of this location requirement, shelter organizations have had to contend with higher land values and property taxes, inflexible building codes, expensive construction loans, high rents, and little control over utility options and costs, which translates to considerable monthly overhead being carried by the donating public.
Unlike shelters, the primary purpose of our sanctuary would be to serve as a temporary overflow facility as well as a lifetime-care facility for unwanted, unadoptable cats, including those with special needs such as blindness, FIV, diabetes, old age, arthritis, behavioral problems, etc. Because we do not intend to function as an adoption center, we are not required to locate within a populated area. Instead, we can look for inexpensive land with low property taxes in areas not opposed to alternative construction methods. By developing custom, fully-integrated utility systems to handle energy acquisition, alternate low-impact sewage treatment and water capture, purification, storage and reuse, we can completely eliminate monthly utility overhead and free the facility to exist off-grid if necessary.
This freedom allows us to consider a great many possible locations, provided they meet the following requirements:
- Favorable zoning laws and building codes
- Very low cost per acre and very low property taxes
- South-facing building site (passive solar requirement)
- Long east-west building site (future expansion requirement)
- Water rights and accessible ground water – hopefully
- Zero flood potential
- Surrounding area is considered worthless for common commercial/agricultural purposes
- Far enough from populated areas to avoid the effects of future population expansion
By choosing a location far off-grid, there is one major complication that arises – where to find helpers. Because shelters exist within populated areas, they can operate with the help of local volunteers and paid staff. However, the farther a shelter is located from a populated area, the less practical it becomes for daytime helpers to commute. For many all-volunteer organizations, finding enough reliable, committed volunteers from within a local population is already very difficult. Even if staff positions are offered at a reasonable wage, once unrealistic commutes enter the picture, the odds of finding anyone drops to nearly zero.
This sanctuary concept was initially formed around the freedom of an off-grid existence and it has evolved to include live-in volunteers. Farmers and Ranchers have their bunkhouses and this sanctuary has it’s modest studio apartments. Not restricted to local sources for day helpers, we are now free to invite friends from all over the nation. Some may wish to volunteer for a short time, such as veterinary school interns. Some may choose to stay.
Over time, the more quality, dedicated volunteers we find, the more cats we will be able to help and the more the sanctuary will need to expand to support them. In order to help facilitate this gradual expansion process on a low budget, appropriate, low-cost construction methods and materials need to be considered.
Natural building methods minimize ecological and environmental impact by utilizing abundant, sustainable, indigenous, building materials such as clay, sand, straw, cordwood, rocks and earth. Natural building also tends to rely more on manual labor than technology, which is helpful if you have lots of time and/or many hands, but little money.
For this sanctuary concept, constructing the walls out of natural building materials is definitely worth considering. I tend to favor natural building techniques that utilize the least amount of biodegradable matter, such as rammed earth, earthbag and adobe. These are all worthy design options, separately or in combination, and for a long time they were at the top of my list. That is, until I heard of an obscure little town known as Coober Pedy —
Coober Pedy is the opal mining capital of the world, and is located in perhaps the hottest, most barren part of the South Australian Outback. What makes this town interesting is that the majority of the population live in underground homes carved out of sandstone, and enjoy a constant, year-round, indoor temperature of about 77 degree Fahrenheit. In fact, most of the town itself is underground, including retail shops, churches, hotels, motels, bed & breakfasts and even camping facilities.
With the use of electric-powered, modern mining equipment, excavating an underground home in Coober Pety is much faster, simpler and cheaper than conventional building methods, and of course, these homes don’t require air conditioning. Using the earth as a temperature stabilizer is nothing new. It’s a big part of the reason animals dig dens. The world over, humans have employed various earth-sheltering techniques in construction for millennia. Since a homeowner’s largest energy expense comes from changing the temperature of things, the heating and cooling cost savings alone make some form of earth-sheltering well worth considering.
But what really impressed me the most about Coober Pety is a place called “Faye’s Underground Home.” A woman named Faye Nayler and two lady friends, using only picks and shovels, hand-dug an entire house containing three bedrooms with walk in closets, a kitchen, living room, bar, wine cellar, Billiard room and swimming pool – the very essence of low-tech, low-impact natural building.
Although, the sandstone of Coober Pedy may be strong and stable enough to prevent roof cave-ins, I know nothing about the physical properties of American sandstone deposits in comparison or about applicable safety codes (technical questions). I also personally do not care for the idea of a heavy roof of any kind. But, the notion of carving a home out of the surface of a sandstone hillside is very intriguing, and there could be many suitable, “dirt cheap” locations to choose from within the large Coconino Sandstone formation.
The Coconino spreads across the Colorado Plateau, including northern Arizona, northwest Colorado, Nevada and Utah. It ranges from 40 to 400 feet in thickness and in some areas the sandstone is conveniently exposed or under slight soil cover. There are likely other sandstone formations worth considering as well, perhaps with higher quality stone (technical questions), but I currently know very little about geology.
Ultimately, the specific combination of construction methods and materials selected to create an “annualized geo-solar,” zero-energy sanctuary building will depend heavily on the physical, geological and environmental properties of the chosen building site. And, with the liberal use of labor intensive, inexpensive hand tools as an option, construction cost becomes more a factor of impatience.
I’m afraid when it comes to architectural beauty, I lack that creative spark. My engineering mind tends to think in modular and linear terms for the sake of simplicity and repeatability (to aid in construction and future expansion). As a result, the outward appearance of my current design is long, straight and down-to-business. However, all of the interior living spaces have been left open to the architecturally artistic conceptualizations of others, provided of course they are functional and non-extravagant.
In keeping with longstanding passive solar requirements, the long axis of the building needs to be oriented East-to-West to allow for maximum southern exposure to solar energy in winter (good for roof-mounted solar cells), and there should be a slight overhang on the south end of the roof to block the direct rays of the summer sun (calculated according to latitude). Also, following an important zero-energy design principle, the North, East and West outer walls should act as thermal barriers and not contain any windows, and the roof must not contain any skylights or other angled glass.
However, the South outer wall could be nothing but windows (probably 76 inches tall). A hallway will run the entire length of the South side of the building to act as a thermal buffer zone between the outer windows and the inner living-spaces. It should be wide enough (maybe nine feet) to easily accommodate plants (barrels or very large pots, built-in flowerbeds or hanging pots), furniture (benches, etc.) and large, rolling carts. All living spaces will share the same width (somewhere around 24 feet) but they can be as long as needed to suit each rooms purpose. The length of the building is an expandable parameter (according to future need), and is only limited by available land space to the East and West. Once that is used up, another building can be started to the North or South, and so on.
Aside from the roof, which will be discussed separately, all the above building requirements can easily be met using natural building methods at ground level. Some form of earth-sheltering would further enhance the thermal properties of the outer wall’s, but the most attractive option for me is cutting into a sandstone hillside and using the hillside itself as the foundation and the North, East and West outer walls.
The interior walls could be constructed conventionally or out of a variety of non-flammable indigenous materials. Natural walls should be made thick to increase sound absorption (to help minimize colony stress) and thermal stability. Of course, there’s also the issue of earthquake resistance (technical question).
However, what if instead all the interior structures were sculpted right out of the sandstone during the initial site excavation? Working on the building site could become like working on a gigantic statue. Instead of just constructing a building, we would be creating a work of art. The end results could be spectacular, with very visually-appealing, natural living spaces. I personally don’t have the imagination for this, but there are a lot of people out there to whom GOD has given this gift. I would love to see how these people might sculpt the following areas:
Designed For People Only:
- Studio Apartments (with sink, microwave and small fridge/freezer unit of some kind)
- Combination Storage/Walk-in Closet Rooms
- Bathrooms (with wheelchair accessible amenities)
- Large Kitchen
- Utility and Storage Rooms
- Library (possibly)
Designed For Cats:
- Veterinary Examination Room
- Veterinary Isolation Rooms
- Veterinary Surgery
- Living Rooms (quiet rooms for visiting with the cats)
- Playrooms (noisy rooms containing playground equipment and interesting cat spaces)
- Common Areas (no south wall separating it from the hall)
- Hall Areas
My current concept for the roof is multi-functional. Not only will it provide shelter from the elements and serve as a platform for the photovoltaic electrical system, but it will also support internal convective airflow.
During hot periods, the warm air, which accumulates at the highest point in each room, is provided a path of escape. The airflow rate is controlled by vents. As solar radiation heats the surface of the roof, the draft through the roof should continuously transfer the thermal energy away, thus preventing it from infiltrating the interior – that’s the theory anyway. This air might even be hot enough to dry clothes.
This method assumes a continuous source of cool incoming air, such as through subterranean cool tubs and/or from a solar-powered absorption-chiller. If left open during cold periods, this system could suck all the heat out of the building. But if air flow were forcibly reversed, the sun’s warming effect on the roof could be used as an alternate heat source.
The custom ceiling joists could be handmade on location – welded out of scrap rebar and angle iron perhaps (technical questions). The underside of the top layer of the roof should be covered with a reflective material to act as a radiant barrier. Both sides of the middle layer could be covered with multi-layered aluminized mylar/Dacron insulation (M.L.I.). The topside of the ceiling layer could also be covered with MLI – for cold nights or perhaps that’s overkill (technical questions). Airflow through the long, thin ceiling vents could be controlled by sliding a slotted metal plate. The internal South vent need only be an insulated flap that closes to minimize undesirable heat loss, such as at night.
The above-mentioned fundamental design categories (Geographic Location, Construction Methods & Materials, Building Design, Roof Design) are just some of the many categories that exist for this project. There is also passive/active heating/cooling and forced/convective airflow design/manipulation/tunnels/duct-work, electrical power generation/storage/distribution/safety, water collection/purification/distribution/heating, grey-water reuse, waste processing, lighting and computer control/networking.
Most of these categories are heavily interconnected and often cross over into each other, such as designing a roof for convective cooling – this has been done deliberately wherever possible for the sake of synergy. As a result, a change in design consideration within one category can cause a cascade of changes in many of them. This is no problem when it’s all in your head, but for construction to ever be seriously considered, a mountain of questions will need to be answered and a large-hill of decisions will need to be made before costs can be added up. Hopefully in the end, a very unique, inexpensive, highly functional, nearly self-sustaining, expandable sanctuary design will emerge.
There is still so much more to this sanctuary. There is the veterinary surgery/office design/layout, kitchen layout/storage/equipment/refrigeration, surface textures/coatings/reflectivity, handicap accessability, cat-safe food-bearing plant selections/pollination/humidity/harvesting/processing, soil preparation through aerobic composting and vermiculture, self-watering wick-pot/barrel design and possibly the designing of a multi-functional solar collector and solar glass furnace. This does not include the cat-specific systems discussed below.