Habitat on the Cheap and Smart at Denver Sustainability Park

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Doug Eichelberger and George Nez stand before their demonstration habitat made of salvaged materials

On the southeast corner of the Denver Sustainability Park, George Nez and Doug Eichelberger stand before an unusual-looking structure they have designed and built. Its features: it costs nearly nothing to assemble other than sweat; it looks distinctive; it can be erected anywhere in the world; it is structurally strong, and it helps clean the land of trash.

The building is made primarily from materials that can be found in trash heaps worldwide – plastic bottles and scrap pieces of rock and broken concrete. Instead of being used to build house on the cheap, these are materials that sadly end up in the waste stream. But here this bunch of scrap is a worthy building material that can be used to provide shelter for people who have none. Haiti immediately comes to mind.

When asked what name should be given to the structure with its distinctive hyperbolic paraboloid roof designed by Nez, he dismisses the suggestion he and Eichelberger name it after themselves.  Nez, many years ago, the director of planning for Denver, and then an international habitat pioneer developing emergency housing for people suffering from disasters like earthquakes and floods, has little interest in applying his name.

“Call it an organic structure made with salvage materials,” he answers tersely.

The demonstration building – erected in a skeletal form so observers can understand the structure – will be on display in the sustainability park. While it has required a considerable amount of time for assembly, it cost little – a primary goal the men have in their quest to design habitats for people who need them the most.

Doug Eichelberger treats the window

As Eichelberger points out, “The philosophy behind this project is to help the poorest or the poor in our world. It is presented as a ‘win-win’, clean up the environment and create housing. It is labor intensive, but technically very simple.” Eichelberger, an architect and sculptor, built his first version of a trash barn in 1995 on his ranch in Larkspur, CO.

The walls on this structure have been assembled using two systems: bales of scrap plastic which were donated by Alpine Recycling – each bale weighing 900 pounds – then set in place with a forklift. A second method, one more fitting for people without construction equipment, involved hand filling the wire structure, or gabion, with plastic, rock, or broken concrete. When the wall sections of bales were in place, a coat of stucco was applied. The stucco stabilized the wall structure before the roof was set. “The stucco is the armor that holds everything together, says Nez.

George Nez stands next to the demonstration habitat at Denver Sustainability Park

The hyperbolic paraboloid roof was built on the ground and covered with mesh before being coated with latex-modified lightweight concrete. It was then hoisted into place using a small crane. In a developing country, the men say such a roof would be hoisted by hand in a ‘barn raising’ fashion.

“I’ve seen great video of 20-plus people lifting and pushing a roof like this into place. Everyone is yelling at the same time, with a big cheer at the end when the roof is in place,” says Eichelberger. “Everything we’ve done to date has been done as it would in the field, except the roof. George is 90, I’m 55, and our friends are the same vintage.  We just can’t muscle it into place, so we used the crane.”

Nez’s roof structures have already been used successfully in countries like Rwanda, Sudan, and Romania. Of note, the structure features ventilation and an elevated ceiling space with a second floor deck that can be used for sleeping or storing goods.

Two things ring out loud and clear about this habitat demonstration from the two men: its remarkably low cost and its positive environmental impact, salvaging materials that are being fed to the waste stream. “That waste all over the world completely chokes the land,” says Nez.

This building with no name truly is a “win-win” solution.


Photos: Meyers


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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

Glenn Meyers has 449 posts and counting. See all posts by Glenn Meyers