Friday, November 15, 2013

Updating the Integral Urban House: Chapter 1

The Integral Urban House, published in 1979, is one of the truly seminal books in urban homesteading.  The book records the experiments of the house's residents as they remodeled the house and site to minimize waste generation and resource consumption while maximizing on-site production of food and energy.  The book gives an outline for a very methodical and calculated optimization of those goals, and lays out expectations for limits on the degree of self reliance one can expect from a city lot.  Although it was published almost 35 years ago, The Integral Urban House is still one of the most comprehensive and detailed guides for becoming as self-reliant as one's circumstances allow.  The methods developed by the authors are quite keen on conserving space, but the main concepts are applicable regardless of one's available geological surface area.  However, although the philosophies and motivations have stood strong since the book's original publishing, one big catch is that, since 35 years ago, the technology and resources available to aspiring homesteaders (urban or otherwise), have changed dramatically.

The book's original cover.  A reprint in the 1990s had a green-colored version

We thought, therefore, that it would be a worthwhile endeavor, although immense, to work our way through the book and rehash the authors' research with insights from the modern era.  We also wanted to add perspective from a colder climate since the book (and even many modern urban homesteading books) are somewhat centric to areas with mild winters.  (The Integral Urban House was in Berkeley, CA).

The real meat of the book starts in part two, with chapter four covering energy conservation.  The first three chapters mainly describe the motivation and approach, which don't need much updating.  In the interest of completeness, we'll cover those as well, but with a more descriptive take.  On the docket for today: Chapter 1: Beginnings.

The chapter starts by pointing out that the book is more about the ideas of transitioning from linear to cyclic systems than the authors implementation of the ideas on their specific space in Berkeley.  The authors mention several other similar projects throughout the country, including the Ouroboros house in Minnesota, the East Eleventh Street Project in New York (mentioned here), the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Washington, DC, and (not mentioned but pertinent) the New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts.

From there, the authors get into the motivation for the book from the (now standard) angles of 'peak oil is coming' (the book was published in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo), 'what would you do if society implodes?,' and 'modern technology has flooded our bodies with carcinogenic chemicals while allowing us to eat unhealthy food and be lazy.'  Those angles are nowadays a dead horse still being beaten, but they were quite fresh in the late 1970s.  Regardless of one's position on the availability and consequences of fossil fuels, the point was (is) that the 'urban lifestyle' as typically manifested, was (is) shortsighted, polluted, and unsustainable.  Since the authors also feel that few urbanites could, should, or have a desire to 'de-urbanize,' it might be tempting to interpret the theme of the book to be something like 'how to make the best of a bad situation.'  But it's not really that.  Other huge driving forces for the authors were the psychological and economic liberation that accompany self reliance, especially if the self reliance comes in a setting with limited natural resources.  As architects, engineers, and scientists, the authors also embraced the challenge of developing a house that was both a 'habitat and life-support system.'  The authors further acknowledged that the urban environment provided a high concentration of like-minded folks to help their community-scale projects, such as waste recycling, gain momentum.  And above all, the authors wanted to provide a model that others could work from in their own houses and communities.

The authors recognized that their ultimate goals for the house would require lifestyle and behavior changes, and identified nine factors that they observed to influence their ability to make such a change:

  1. Cultural/personal taboos, e.g., working with human wastes
  2. Urgency of making the change, e.g., reducing water consumption during a drought
  3. Sustained awareness, e.g., frequently seeing dead plants during a drought
  4. Family/community support, e.g., having a community recycling infrastructure when starting to recycle
  5. Stress induced by not making the change, e.g., overflowing garbage cans because recyclables not sorted
  6. Information availability on options for change
  7. Immediacy of rewards for making the change
  8. Self image
  9. Concrete models available
Clearly, the internet has changed the game for many of these factors since abundant information and models around the world are now available with the click of a few buttons.  The internet can also provide a sort of community support and make the end result of both making and not making a change more visualizable, which can in turn influence one's self image, one's opinion of the rewards, and the stress one experiences from not making the change.

The authors also adopted a process for taking a desired change from conception to practice, which included perception of a problem, articulating the solution, visualizing different approaches to solving the problem, selecting and affirming the best approach, and finally implementing the change.  The internet has also changed that:

Differences between the approach to solving a homesteading-related problem as practiced at the Integral Urban House in 1979, and what  (some) modern homesteaders do in 2013.
Have you read the Integral Urban House?  What did you think of their approach?  Do you know of other 'integral' houses?  Let us know in the comments section below!


  1. I love the 1979 vs 2013 flow chart. There are many times that I seriously question whether I would be doing what I'm doing if I had to rely on the Dewy decimal system for my information.
    On the other hand, tech brings its own set of problems: namely the fragmentation of our time, as folks in 1979 never had to worry about their smartphone interrupting them with email notifications every time they were out working in the garden.

    1. One trick with the smartphone is to choose a carrier with sketchy coverage where you live, then turn the ringer down low enough that you can't hear it if you're not holding still. Distraction solved!