Cleveland State University Library, 1969

On June 22, 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The cause was extreme pollution, some toxic layer catching fire on the river’s surface. Amid the civil rights movement and environmental awakening, the tragedy escalated from a local event to an international symbol of industrial pollution. A significant detail of the fire was a tragically laughable photograph published the next day in newspapers, depicting the river in a raging wall of fire where a fireboat was hosing down the flames with the very water being pumped out the river. The dramatic image demonstrated yet again how helplessly dependent humankind was on nature, even on its own destruction and rescue.

This was the cultural and political environment the beat-generation architect Michael E Reynolds developed his Earthship houses in New Mexico, which inspired our project Earth Fold in New York.

Reynolds was developing his first off-the-grid prototypes in a time when rivers were burning out of pollution, using recycled materials, trash, soda cans and bottles in his whimsical structures. His houses were pioneers of sustainable American architecture, coining terms such as “off-the-grid”, gray water, solar & wind harvesting, all of which are buzz words of our present. We must applaud Reynolds for that. His buildings created a custom formula for New Mexico’s climate balancing thermal mass, heat retention, solar orientation, rainwater harvesting and earth-sheltering, many of which can be applied to different climates with proper calibration.

Pioneering has consequences however, always violent protest from the status quo followed by artificial kudos when inventions hit mainstream which Reynolds got a taste of. There was more sad news unfortunately, his architectural license was revoked due to leaking roofs and moldy interiors, a reminder that fundamental defects can sink any visionary project.

Yet, there was another problem with Reynold’s houses. Although they were geared with revolutionary sustainable practices, they lacked a cohesive architectural language and architectonic logic. They were haphazardly put together.

Being amid a radical sustainability revolution where green architecture is on the brink of mainstream practice, our aim is to develop an architectural language that genuinely reflects sustainability in architectural form and tectonics. To anchor sustainability as an architectural style, we need our buildings to not only perform but look sustainable.

Our project Earth Fold is an attempt in this endeavor, one of many, situated in the Hudson Valley in NY, designed for a private client who cares to invest in our planet.

Earth Fold is a single-family house with a rentable master suite and an independent guest studio, 2800 sf in total, situated on a sloping site. The main house is at the bottom with 3 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms, an open living area with a large dining table and an open kitchen. All functions are earth-sheltered under the gentle slope of the site, enveloped with an ash concrete shell facing south-west for views and thermal retention.

Ash concrete, also known as ashcrete is a prominent alternative for conventional concrete which has extremely high CO2 emissions. It is produced with fly ash, burnt waste materials from industrial plants, which otherwise would become polluted landfills. So far, the structural bearing level is up to 3000 psi, still under conventional concrete, but further research is underway to increase it.

The house is gas-free and engineered to be fully solar powered with a low-voltage electrical system. For emergencies there is a gas-powered generator, yet super-insulated windows and walls aim to put the generator to perpetual rest.

The house’s geometry is a composition of folding triangles, interacting with the slope of the landscape, creating planes of green roofs, platforms, and decks where the distinction between architecture and land dissolves and the built form disappears. Another feature of the project is pockets of paved patios, which are natural byproducts of building under a sloped landscape. All bedrooms open out to the southern views through these patios, creating pockets of private space.

The structure is a heavy fly ash concrete basin at the bottom and lighter precast panels on top tilted into position after the hardening of the slab.

A variety of ecological insulating and waterproofing materials have been used on the outside skin, where the interiors are mostly raw, simple finishes of bamboo panels and plaster walls. Inside out, Earth Fold is not only green, but it also looks green.

When Le Corbusier proclaimed “the house is a machine to live in” he did not really mean the house is reinvented as a machine. The house has always been a machine with interacting parts of a whole. What he meant was the promotion of a “machine aesthetic” projecting the current zeitgeist of his era supplemented by the technological advancements of 20th century.

We follow him and many others, recognizing architecture is primarily an aesthetic art form supported by technical prowess. Reynold’s Earthships had technical prowess, however grass roots they may be, yet they lacked an aesthetic wholeness, an iconography delivering a coherent architectural message.

In our case, that message is Earth Fold.

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