FUTURIST article reprint


-Self-Sufficient Homes-
Welcome to the self-sufficient home. Its inhabitants make their own energy, produce their own food, and do their part to save the world’s environment.
Get ready to live in a totally self-sufficient home, one that is specially constructed and equipped to generate all its power and raise all your food.
A home that is self-sufficient should not be confused with an “independent home,” which typically refers only to its energy use. Most so-called independent homes are still dependent on food distribution systems to sustain its occupants.
Modern self-sufficient homes–also known as autonomous homes, bioshelters, or independent living systems–use an immense number of appropriate technologies. They generate and store their own power using solar energy, wind generators, photovoltaic panels, and renewable energy. They maximize usable power by using battery electrical storage, direct current controls, high-efficiency lighting, energy-efficient appliances, super-insulation, natural lighting, passive ventilation, thermal mass, heat recovery ventilation, and high efficiency woodstoves. They minimize negative impact on their surroundings because they can be built with green or alternative construction. They employ low-water toilets, wastewater treatment, water reuse, graywater systems, smoke scrubbers, and recycling to reduce pollution and conserve water. And, after ensuring the land stays healthy, they provide the best possible conditions for efficient food production, including intensive organic agriculture, undersoil irrigation, aquaculture, greenhouse food production, and composting. A basic and reliable home control system saves effort, eliminates mistakes, and helps coordinate all the activities and functions.
So why don’t we all live in self-sufficient homes right now? Because there aren’t any. The fact is that a completely self-sufficient home system supporting twenty-first-century lifestyles has yet to be built and tested in its final form. So far, I have built a prototype and a second prototype is in the works. My first prototype Earth Home tested many aspects of the design and showed that the concept could indeed be realized. The second prototype will become the first modern home in history to sustain human occupants indefinitely using concepts, technology, products, diets, and systems from all over the world.
-Complete Self-Sufficient Technologies-
Space program research was probably the first place where complete self-sustaining technology was sought that incorporated both food production and energy-independence in a limited enclosure. NASA’s early Closed Environmental Life Support System looked into intensive plant growing, carbon dioxide enrichment, soap filtering, and extreme water conservation for extended space travel and/or colonization.
The Russians also researched closed systems, and at one time may have been may have been the world leader in this technology. At the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, Yevgeny Shepelev became the first human being to live with biological life support. In 1961, he spent 24 hours in a chamber where chlorella algae regenerated his air and purified his water. Siberia’s Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk further developed algae-based systems with the Bios-3 experiments in the 1970s and 1980s. These experiments enclosed crews of two or three people for six months with about a dozen food crops supplying half the food and providing nearly all the air and water regeneration.
In the United States, John Todd and his group at the New Alchemy Institute did pioneering work with their experimental self-sufficient home, The Ark, in the early 1970s. This group was one of the first to emphasize aquaculture in self-sufficient home designs. Arguably the best known self-sustaining project was the huge Biosphere II structure in Arizona that completely sealed eight people for two years beginning in 1991. It cost millions of dollars to enclose approximately three acres under glass, about half an acre of which was dedicated to food production using 156 edible plant species. This experiment forms the most in-depth documentation on efficient food self-sufficiency in a confined space.
-The Self-Sufficient Home Evolves-
The oil embargo of the mid-1970s prompted many projects dealing with energy efficiency and conservation. My Earth Home system project began in 1975 and attempted to develop the technology to mass-produce food and energy-independent living shelters for any location on the planet while being ecologically compatible with the requirements of each region.
The early Earth Home goal was to be a functional, efficient, ecologically balanced, need-oriented, simple, durable, non-polluting, single-family, universal, minimal existence living system. I emphasized nature as a model, using a complete system approach. As this ultimate self-sufficient home design came into being, I drew inspiration from cultural information from around the world. The plan would implement ideas, materials, foods, and methods that have stood the test of time, as well as newly emerging technologies. At the time, I planned that the technology would first lead to the creation of mass-producible self-sufficient homes, which would then inspire the development of plans, kits, and components for the owner-builder.
Throughout the design process, I considered it important that the home be able to maintain an average twentieth-century lifestyle with all of the accompanying conveniences and comforts. This meant that the home essentially had to become a living, sensing, and reacting mechanism, needing no significant human intervention other than planting, harvesting, food preparation, and maintenance–a kind of automatic mini-farm. This 29-year project culminated in my book Planet Earth Home (Osprey Press, 1995; fifth printing 2004), which documents the entire project and totally encompasses the field of complete self-sufficient home technologies.
Even though the goal was to make this mini-farm completely self-sufficient, 100% self-sufficiency is technically unattainable in the purest terms. Everything will break at some point because sun, water, friction, heat, and other forces are constantly at work. Routine component replacement and maintenance requires some materials that may not be available locally as yet. Also, dietary salt, yeast, and enzymes for alcohol and vinegar production are much easier to purchase than to make or recycle.
The basic design of an Earth Home would remain the same if built in any climatic region, though it would have to be adjusted or modified slightly depending on local conditions. Factors that would affect the fine-tuning of the design include soil conditions, solar/wind ratio for power generation, altitude, tropical/cold climate species potential (trees, oil plants, and other species), rainfall, and average temperature. In a rainforest, for example, an Earth Home would use more photovoltaic panels to generate energy from the sun and rely less on wind generators. In colder locations, generating energy from wind power would be more important. Earth Home construction in the tropics would favor foliage to help keep the sun’s rays off the surface of the home by using wall or roof lattices, while heating the home would be a primary consideration in cold locations, requiring greater insulation systems for the primary heating zone or core rooms.
-Benefits of Self-Sufficiency-

A variety of significant, attractive short-term benefits will drive the development of modern self-sufficient homes. These include security from severe weather, climate changes, and natural disasters; security from infectious diseases and related health problems; a fresh and nutritious diet; a dependable food supply; and security from global unrest.
But the real benefit of Earth Homes will be the long-term sustainability of our planet. It should be no secret that the planet is experiencing unusual weather and climate abnormalities. The 10 hottest years in recorded history have all been in the last 15 years; the 1990s were the hottest decade on record. The Midwestern heat wave of 1995 killed 669 people in Chicago. In 1996, we had a season of record heat spells, and 1997 was the single warmest year on record–until 1998 shattered global temperature records. Record-high temperatures throughout the southern United States during the summer of 1998 forced the shutdown of Walt Disney World’s water parks because of the threat of a viral encephalitis outbreak. The United Nations and insurers blame unusual weather for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damage.
“Many scientists agree that the emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gasses,” writes Jeremy Leggett in his book Global Warming: The Greenpeace Report (Oxford University Press, 1990). “These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting in warming of the earth’s surface.” In 1990, scientists predicted that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not sharply decreased, we might experience a 1°C to 3°C rise in global temperatures. They suggest that we would have to cut in half our use of coal, oil, and gas in order to lower our emissions enough to maintain concentrations of greenhouse gases at current levels.
Proof of warming includes a decrease in the amount of snow that covers the northern hemisphere, a simultaneous decrease in Arctic Sea ice, continued melting of alpine glaciers, and a rise in sea level. Rain has even been reported for the first time in Antarctica and an ice-free patch of ocean about a mile wide has recently opened near the North Pole.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere has been steadily increasing since 1958. Even though the rate of emissions from fossil fuels has been reduced, concentration has risen consistently.
In 1995, the size of the ozone hole over Antarctica doubled to about the size of Europe. For the first time in recorded history, the hole stretched over populated areas, exposing residents in southern Chile and Argentina to very high levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Studies have shown that a 1% decrease in ozone in the stratosphere produces a 2% increase in UV radiation reaching the ground, posing more risks to humans. In the United States, for instance, between a third and a half of all cancers are skin cancers widely blamed on UV exposure. Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, with estimates that two out of three people will get at least one skin cancer in their lifetime.
Add to this scenario the possibility of natural disasters such as volcanic activity, comets, solar winds, sunspot activity, or earthquakes that could drastically affect world security. How long is the stability of the planet going to be immune from these types of significant occurrences? Winter storms and random weather extremes such as record-breaking extreme hot, cold, and winds are signals that we should act on the results of climate change. Through its innovations, the self-sufficient home is one way of helping limit human environmental degradation and increasing resource sustainability.
-Health Benefits of Self-Sufficiency-
An increase in the numbers of modern self-sufficient homes would also offer more security from infectious diseases because of less-frequent air travel and interactions with other people. Many diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, hantavirus, and viral encephalitis have reemerged recently. In the summer of 2000, West Nile fever, a rare and encephalitic virus that is endemic in parts of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, was linked to the deaths of four people in New York state and has been increasing in many other states.
A number of new ailments have also surfaced, such as Reyes syndrome, Lyme disease, Legionnaire’s disease, AIDS, Ebola, swine flu, and SARS. This is primarily due to the quick transportation of infected persons and animals throughout the world, where they may infect others before they are diagnosed as sick.
Besides helping to reduce these health-damaging impacts of climate change, Earth Homes themselves would be health-enhancing by helping people improve their diets and lifestyles. Many nutritionists agree that disease and health-related problems can be reduced or deterred if people eat fresh food. Studies have shown that vegetables and fruits start losing vitamins and minerals from the very moment they are picked, even though methods of cooking are used to ensure that they remain nutritious. Many of the foods we purchase today differ significantly in vitamin and mineral value from the same ones a generation or two ago. Part of the reason is that many essential vitamins and minerals no longer make it back into the soil that grows our food.
-Long-Term Global Benefits-
A gradual transition to self-sufficient home technologies will also have significant worldwide, long-term benefits. It will help prevent malnutrition by increasing food production, reduce the energy needs for agriculture and housing, slow the advance of global soil problems, reduce the burden on world water supplies, help slow environmental and climate changes, and even slow or reverse the two-income family trend.
Land and energy use would also be more efficient with self-sufficient homes. The United States uses half of its agriculture energy to produce animals, and spends three to 12 calories in petroleum energy to produce one calorie of food. In addition, almost a quarter of all food produced in the United States is wasted because of harvesting losses, storage losses, processing losses, transportation losses, and kitchen and plate waste. In addition to U.S. agricultural energy outputs, approximately 20% to 30% of all energy is consumed in the home. Adding the energy used for food production, processing, and distribution, this is an enormous amount of resources used in a typical U.S. home. In contrast, the self-sufficient home produces its own energy, freeing families from dependence on outside sources.
Our planet is also drying up and its soil quality deteriorating. Roughly a third of the original topsoil in the United States is now gone, and the world has an estimated 50 to 100 years of soil that is farmable with current, irrigation dependent farming practices. And 80 countries, including China, India, Pakistan, and Mexico, have experienced water shortages severe enough to threaten agriculture. Earth Homes recycle most of their water for further use, resulting in much less drain upon the existing usable water supply.
-Power-Generation in the Home-
In the last decade or so, significant products and development efforts have reached the marketplace that fit well into self-sufficient home development needs. Battery and energy demand research, DC (direct current) circulating pumps, hydrogen production and storage technologies, CHP (combined heat and power) units, and the popular healthy food trend are among many developments that may speed the evolution of modern self-sufficient homes.
Since completely self-sufficient homes must now store electricity in batteries, in batteries, higher power densities and lower cost is very important. The electronics and automotive industry are primarily driving research into small, light, and power-dense batteries. The issues of automotive fuel economy and emissions are also demanding that the load on the alternator be reduced. Many scientists and engineers are looking at conserving power and efficiently managing energy drains.
The average home in the United States contains approximately 60 different electric motors–virtually all of which are inefficient. A large portion of electricity is used in the motors that circulate hot and cold air inside the home to maintain comfortable temperatures. Much research effort on electric motors has resulted in ECM (electronically commutated motor) technology that draws an amazingly small amount of electricity when it needs it. This motor technology has been applied to liquid circulating pumps in the solar heating industry. Laing Thermotech in Denmark and Wilo Stratos have recently introduced continuous duty DC circulating pumps that draw less than 10 watts of electricity.
A home could use hydrogen technologies in a number of places. Gaseous hydrogen is similar to natural gas or propane with less heating value per cubic foot. However, when gaseous hydrogen burns, pure water is the result. This makes it a unique nonpolluting technology that can be generated by electricity and stored for later use. As this generation and storage technology comes of age, hydrogen will be useful as a clean fuel source for cooking, hot water heating, and many other uses.
Hydrogen can also be used for CHP units that are chest-freezer-sized and can be used in residential applications. When electricity is needed, a gaseous fuel is pumped directly into the fuel cell to produce both DC electricity and heat. There are at least five companies in the world developing residential CHP units.
Health-related technologies are also helping to evolve self-sufficient homes. This field of products and services for maintaining one’s health is a significant share of the gross national product in the United States. A substantial portion of the industry is dedicated to promoting the body’s natural ability to maintain health, stamina, and weight, such as through nutritious eating, fresh air, exercise, and adequate vitamin and mineral intake. These qualities are very easy to implement in a self-sufficient home lifestyle, since virtually all foods can be raised on-site–controlling all soil, plant, and animal inputs.
-Toward a Better Future for All-
Human beings are stewards of the earth, and it is our responsibility to give this earth to future generations in the same or better condition than we received it. We also have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Approximately one-half of the world’s 6 billion people have no fresh water to drink, and another one-third have inadequate food or housing.
More than half my life has been dedicated to the cause of modern self-sufficient homes. My wish is that this technology will mature while resources and conditions are favorable to its development–if not for single-family use, then for extended family or village use. This technology may stay on the back burner and simmer in the minds of many creative independent thinkers on the planet, but I believe it will become forefront in time–I hope not too late for the human species.
…Mel Moench