2010_11_SLCdrawingWith U.S. buildings consuming 77 percent of our electricity and creating over half our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, most major architecture firms have adopted the Architecture 2030 challenge to bring their buildings’ carbon footprints to zero by the year 2030.

Yet many experts wonder if we couldn’t be moving faster. Now a building under construction atMaharishi University of Management is about to show that we don’t have to wait until 2030 for zero carbon—anyone can do it right here, right now.

A Building Like No Other

The Sustainable Living Center is a 7,000-square-foot classroom and office building that combines so many features of sustainability and meets so many standards of ecological building that it is being widely heralded by architects and builders around the world.

“This building will be completely off the grid in electricity, heating, cooling, water supply, and waste disposal,” says David Fisher, Ph.D., the intrepid head of the Sustainable Living department at MUM, who, with his wife, Mabel Scaroni-Fisher, spearheaded the building’s development from its inception. Fisher has seen his department grow from six students in 2003 to 80 today, making it one of the largest sustainable living programs in the U.S.

“We wanted to create a building that walked our talk, that demonstrated sustainability and self-sufficiency as a teaching model for our students,” he says. “And for the public too—to show that we can live sustainably.”

When it’s done, the SLC will create more energy than it uses—enough to supply itself and provide power to the university’s nearby library. And it’s doing all this using off-the-shelf technologies that are available to anyone—at a fraction of the cost of other energy-efficient buildings.

As if that weren’t enough to put it on the cutting edge, the building also demonstrates four philosophies of sustainability—something that has never been combined in one building anywhere on the planet.

First of all, it is designed to earn the LEED Platinum certification, the highest award from the internationally known green building certification system. Second, it meets the more rigorous criteria of the Living Building Challenge. When complete, it will be one of the select few buildings in the world to achieve this demanding building standard, which calls for new structures to produce all of their own energy, use only water that falls on-site, rely on sustainably sourced materials that come from within a 250-mile radius, and avoid a “red list” of toxic materials including asbestos, mercury, and PVC.

Third, the building will also demonstrate the 25 nontoxic principles of Building Biology (known in Germany as Bau Biologie).

Finally, it is designed in accord with Maharishi Vastu architecture, a complete system of natural-law-based architecture, which creates wholly nourishing influences on the occupants.

“By having all those certifications, it’s a way of conveying to our students and the world how you can combine the ancient wisdom of Maharishi Vastu architecture with the modern visions of LEED, Living Building Challenge, and Bau Biologie,” says David Fisher.  “It’s a kind of ancient-meets-present and an east-meets-west kind of building.”

Peace and Harmony

The first thing I notice when I enter the building is the trees.  It turns out that even a soft wood has tremendous strength when left intact, and in this building 16 whole aspen trunks support the entire structure like Atlas holding up the heavens. Stripped of their bark and burnished in golden sunlight that floods every corner of this building, they give the feeling of a living forest.

These trees were sustainably harvested near La Crosse, Wisconsin, from a forest managed by the Forest Stewardship Council. The trees meet the Sustainable Building Challenge guidelines to source all materials within a 250-mile radius.

“Aspen trees have no commercial value,” says Dal Loiselle, the affable developer and construction manager for the project. Dal’s been constructing eco buildings since 1989, and like David Fisher and architect Jon Lipman, he’s been researching systems for the project for five years, donating thousands of hours before the project got off the ground.

“They’re softer than softwood trees like pine and fir that we typically use in dimensional lumber,” he continues. “But when you take a whole tree, it has double the strength. ”

The next thing I notice are the compressed earth blocks, stacked like bricks, forming the inner layer of the envelope of the building. It feels calm and peaceful here even with the typical construction sounds of buzzing saws and thwacking hammers. The blocks are made of local earth that was harvested when the neighboring Argiro Center’s parking lot was excavated.

“Soren Pearson, a student in the Sustainable Living program, researched the feasibility of using rammed earth,” says Dal. “We rented a machine and the students themselves produced the 26,000 blocks.” Many other students, including Dal’s own daughter Nelina, helped with the fundraising, the research, and the testing for the building’s systems.

It’s hard to convey the degree of sheer intelligence and hours of research that have gone into this project. Dal points out the double wall that forms the outer envelope of the building. “The outer wall is a 2×8 stud wall with sheathing on both sides, filled with cellulose (recycled newspaper) for insulation. There’s a two-inch gap, and then there’s the layer of earth blocks for thermal mass. The insulating layer keeps heat or cold out and the thermal mass layer stores heat or cool. The gap prevents thermal bridging.”

Dal says one of the reasons they used earth blocks is because that’s the way the Native Americans and early pioneers built here—out of earth and out of wood. “Earth also has a nice quality,” he says. “It’s cooling in summer and it grounds you, so you feel good. You feel settled.”

Earth breathes and absorbs moisture. “It’s what you call hydroscopic,” he says. “In summer when it’s humid it will take some of that moisture and absorb it. In the winter when it’s dry it will give that moisture back. So it maintains a relative humidity. Earth does that, and the whole trees will do the same.”

Dal takes me up on the roof where there’s a glorious view of the campus. The roof will serve as an outdoor space for classes and social events. On the southern edge stand 10 solar tube panels lined up in two rows. Water circulates through a manifold and is heated by the solar tubes. Once heated, it’s stored in a 4,800-gallon stainless-steel insulated tank and then circulated under the floor as radiant heat. The building has five kinds of solar power—in the form of passive heat, solar thermal tubes, photovoltaic panels, film, and shingles. The roof’s membrane also reflects the sun to help heat the solar tubes.

“The tank is insulated and large enough so that even if the weather is cloudy and there is no wind for a while, we’ll still have enough hot water to heat the building,” says Dal.

Solar energy is also used to cool the building—as moist air is drawn over a liquid desiccant and the warm, moist air is extracted by heat from the solar tubes and pushed outside, reducing the humidity in the building. Cooling is also achieved through “night flushing” by an air well that draws in cool night air in summer, resetting the earth block walls that radiate the cool during the day.

Covered with a TPO membrane, which is free of toxic PVC, the roof is slightly sloped to catch rainwater in six drains. The rainwater is purified with an ultraviolet filter and stored in a cistern underground.

“It only takes one inch of rainfall to fill our 6,000-gallon cistern,” says Dal.

Below us we can see the area where the peat-moss-based sewage treatment system will be built. “This is a system that prevents nitrogen and other toxic nutrients from entering our waterways and contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” says Dal. “It’s also a way for municipalities to help their overworked waste management systems.”

Dal points out the utility cottage below that contains the equipment to convert wind and solar energy to AC electricity. It was one of the first structures built on the site, and has 12 solar panels of its own, which generate the electricity needed for construction. All construction waste is also being recycled, making the building non-polluting from day one.

Preparing for the Public

“According to Mike Nicklas,” says David Fisher, referring to the architect and green building expert, “ there are now several hundred building professionals who know about this building and are watching and waiting to see how it performs.”

The first thing the visitors will see as they climb off their bus (yes, there’s a tour bus parking plan) is a charming bridge over a waterfall and stream meandering through a garden of edible and native habitat plants that not only look beautiful, but capture storm water and purify it, preventing toxic runoff and flooding of nearby buildings.

The building will feature 12 exhibit bays to explain its unique features. Environmental monitors around the building will record and archive the performance of the building in real time on a website, so anyone anywhere in the world can see  how the building is performing.

With so many sustainable features packed into one building, the project has attracted national media attention. At a press conference that marked the use of solar panels to produce the energy to build the building, Iowa State Representative Curt Hanson said, “Let’s use this as a learning tool and learn from the experiments that are taking place in this building and perhaps get more of us off the power grid, more of us off the foreign oil, more of us energy efficient.

Read more about the team of experts and volunteers that came together to make this building happen: “Sustainable Living Center: It Takes a Team to Go Green.”

For more information, see MUM Sustainable Living Center.

Linda Egenes is a Fairfield-based freelancer who writes about green and healthy living. Visit her blog at

If you would like to be part of this remarkable adventure in sustainability, contact Dal Loiselle at (319) 217-2179.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, November 2010. Reprinted with permission.)


Dirt. Mud. Clay. Cob. Cob building is an ancient way to build with earth, used most famously in England to create picturesque cottages with thatched roofs. There are many advantages to cob building—it can be warm in winter and cool in summer, it’s natural, nontoxic and beautiful, and it costs very little.


Lin Mullenneaux works on the cob house in progress. For more photos and updates, see

Just ask Hap and Lin Mullenneaux, a Fairfield couple in their 50’s who recently sculpted their own cob home with the help of friends and family.

The total cost for their modest 14×18’ two-storey cottage? Just $7000. And half of that was for the green metal roof and sturdy Pella windows.

Labor of Love

It all started in the summer of 2007, when the Mullenneauxs attended a workshop at Cob Cottage Company in Oregon with Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley, who have promoted cob building around the globe through workshops and their book, The Hand-Sculpted House.

After their trip to Oregon, Hap and Lin traveled to England, where they met the young British cob builders, Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce.  Adam, who grew up in Iowa City, met Katy while studying documentary filmmaking in London.  They also learned cob building in Oregon and have gone on to win awards for their work in England.

Back home in Iowa last fall, Hap and Lin purchased a $700 camper on eBay, parked it on their land near Fairfield’s Abundance Eco Village, and moved in. They planted trees, built a hoop greenhouse that serves as an open-air garden in summer, constructed the three-sided rustic wood shed that serves as their outdoor kitchen, shower and workshop.

When spring came they started constructing the cob cottage, with the help of over 50 volunteers.

I was one of those volunteers, helping Lin mix the cob on tarps, using buckets of clay substrata dug from their own land, buckets of sand, water and straw. We mashed it with our feet, formed it into lumps with our hands, and tossed it fire-bucket-brigade style to Hap, who slapped it on the wall to meld with other cobs into a solid earthen mass.

An Experiment in Sustainability

A few months later, on a cold November day, I visit Hap and Lin in their completed cottage. They’ve covered the cob walls with a water-resistant render made of cow dung, earth, and straw and white-washed that with lime. It’s a fairytale place, with a limestone foundation, a green metal roof to catch rainwater, and a periwinkle blue door. It sits comfortably on the land, like it grew there.

Winds are gusting up to 35 mph, but the 18” earthen walls keep the cottage snug and warm, even without the wood stove going, their only source of heat.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the finished interior, and I feel like I’m being hugged by nature. Plaster walls—made by Lin from a mixture of kaolin clay, sand, straw, wheat paste and cattail fiber—are smooth and curvy, like sculpted stone. Sturdy benches carved out of cob, beams of round pine logs that Hap cleared as deadwood from the local forest, and a winding slate staircase to the sleeping loft add rustic charm. Coat hooks are made of tree branches.

Hap has built a kitchen counter out of old planks, stained golden with the dark brown grain making an intricate pattern. A friend gave him some walnut boards that had been sitting outside for seven years and Hap made them into shelves that hold Mason jars of beans and grains. Cast iron pans and bunches of dried garlic and fennel from Lin’s garden hang from the rafters.

Lin offers me a seat on one of the sculpted cob benches, shaped like a couch and covered with sheepskins. Hap sits in his rocking chair next to the built-in walnut book shelves and computer shelf. A wire to power the computer is the only electricity in the home, and eventually that will be powered by solar panels.

“Do you want to see the cowboy bathtub we’re looking for?” he asks. It’s a small galvanized tin tub with curved sides like an upside down cowboy hat. It will fit in the sleeping loft, and an Amish pump will supply water — heated on their wood stove — through a copper pipe.

“This is an experiment in sustainability,” says Hap.

Hap and Lin hope to inspire and teach others to build their own homes with natural materials. Hap is the treasurer of the Sustainable Living Coalition, which is creating a campus adjacent to the Mullenneaux homestead and Abundance Eco Village. It will include a center for sustainable living and courses on permaculture and natural building. Already, some of the volunteers on the Mullenneaux house are starting their own cob building projects in Fairfield.

Built by Nature

Hap notes that their home’s interior, with its rounded niches and undulating walls, is a result of the flowing nature of cob building.

“It’s a comforting space,” says Lin, who feels that what’s missing in modern architecture is the curved line—the feminine element, the comfort of the mother.

“When you use uniform materials, straight boards and sheet rock, the result is something straight and rigid,” says Hap. “With cob building, it’s easier to be round than straight, and you naturally create more curved, gentle shapes. Every cob home is unique. You’re never going to feel that oppressive uniformity in a cob home”.

Hap has also thought a lot about the difference between natural building and green building.

“’Green’ is a term that is getting over-used and abused these days.” he says.  “I’d define ‘natural’ building as using unprocessed materials as much as possible.”

He lists what he feels to be natural, unprocessed materials: round wood, clay soil, stone, sand, straw. “When you use materials in the form that nature made them, you have to work cooperatively with nature. They start to shape the creation—they design the home.”

“It’s like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle,” adds Lin. “You can’t decide it all ahead of time.”

“You find the stone and see where it belongs,” says Hap. “For the builder, it’s a 180º change. Instead of a fixed design, your evolving design takes shape based on the materials at hand—the round trees you cut down for your beams, the old boards your friend gives you for your kitchen shelves, or a limestone outcropping that becomes your foundation.”

“Or the window you find behind your friend’s barn,” says Lin, gesturing above Hap’s head, where purple and blue-tinted clouds float in a rectangular window frame, making me think of Georgia O’Keefe’s spectacular painting, “Sky Above the Clouds.”

“The house comes into being as a co-creation with nature,” says Hap. “It’s much more of an artistic process.”

Hap and Lin say they had two goals when they started: to build a sustainable home that allowed them to spend most of their time outdoors, and to avoid going to the bank for a mortgage. And they were able to achieve both.

“I get it,” I say as I say good-bye. “This is like playing house, like not having to be a being a grown-up.”

Hap and Lin laugh and say in unison, “That’s it exactly.”

To see Hap and Lin’s Cob House Journal, go to

(I originally wrote this article for Radish Magazine, January 2009. Reprinted with permission. For more photos and updates, see


Intelligent DesignIt started in 2004 when a few people in Fairfield, Iowa, were looking for a sponsor for an environmental conference.

“We decided to form our own nonprofit and called it the Sustainable Living Coalition,” says Diana Krystofiak, a founding board member of the SLC. “The goal was to combine people from different sectors to create a more sustainable Fairfield, which could then become a model for other communities.”

From the start, a driving force behind the SLC’s vision and educational initiatives was Lonnie Gamble, who with permaculture expert Grover Stock, began teaching a 10-week permaculture course called Big Green Summer. Hundreds of interns trained with Gamble and Stock and lived in Gamble’s home. But Gamble and his wife, Valerie, couldn’t donate their time, money and home to educate interns indefinitely. A campus was needed

Fast forward to the fall of 2009. The newly inaugurated SLC campus standson the north edge of Fairfield.

“We bought the land in 2006 with a grant from Iowa’s Great Places,” says Briggs Shore, the SLC’s administrative coordinator.

The purpose of the campus, she explains, is to become a working permaculture farm and educational center with classes and internships.

“Permaculture is a way to take the principles of intelligent design, found in nature, and apply it to absolutely everything in your life — how you get your food, water, shelter, heat (and) power, and (how you) dispose of waste,” says Shore.

“We want this to be a model, to establish best practices for natural building and rural farming that people can take back to their own communities,” says Frank Cicela. At age 40, Cicela brings a wealth of experience to the SLC, having established a similar nonprofit called Sustainable Indiana, and shows remarkable dedication by taking an unpaid leave from his job at Clipper Wind Power in Cedar Rapids to spend every other week working for the SLC.

Shore points to the 1,200-square-foot straw-bale, post-and-beam barn that is the main classroom and administrative space for the campus (pictured). The building is functional but awaiting funds for plastering the outer walls, covering the gravel floor with flagstone and completing a five-room dormitory loft. It was erected in just four months with the help of an Amish construction crew for the foundation and dozens of volunteers, who worked innumerable hours.

“We’re completely off the grid, and we provide our own power and water,” says Shore. She points to the rain catchment system, 10 photovoltaic solar panels and one-kilowatt wind turbine that supply electricity and high-speed Internet. “We’re high-tech while being sustainable, rustic while still being modern.”

The SLC benefits from its collaboration with other groups. For one thing, the campus adjoins and makes use of two other sustainable sites for its workshops: the Abundance Eco Village and the Mullenneaux extended-family acreage, which includes three sustainable cob, straw and clay homes. Other collaborators include Grinnell College and Maharishi University of Management.

Future projects include building four-season dormitory space to house 50 interns, a hospitality center, an Elder hostel, underground cisterns to store drinking water from the rain catchment system, wetland waste management system, permaculture food forest, edible landscaping, and seed money to extend educational offerings.

But ambitious as these plans are, Gamble sees a more visionary goal. “The SLC is a way to foster ecological micro-enterprises,” he says. As an example, the SLC bought equipment and loaned it to help a local baker get started, and launched the Edible Cityscapes Project.

Another project in the works: a micro-enterprise center to help fund sustainable businesses. And the SLC is providing land and sponsorship to a John Jevons mini-farm center, one of three in the U.S. to be established this spring.

For more information about the SLC, contact Briggs Shore at

or visit

(I originally wrote this article for Radish Magazine, January 2010, pg 14. Reprinted with permission.)

As Green As It Gets
November 21, 2010

The Iowa Source cover story on MUM’s SLC written by Linda Egenes

Building the Future: MUM’s Sustainable Living Center
New Zero-carbon Classroom Showcases Green Living

Sustainable Living Center: It Takes a Team to Go Green