From, or wherever they got it from.

From Inhabit, or wherever they got it from.

Every time I close a realty transaction I send 10% of my commission to a friend’s organization in Haiti*, where a home can be built for about $1000. And I remember the Heineken House.

In a shining example of colonialism gone weird, Mr. Heineken himself was sunning on the Dutch-ruled island of Curacao, lamenting the native habit of discarding his product’s packaging in places that spoiled his view, when he conceived a grand idea: He would make his beer bottles brick-shaped, and the natives could use them to build their homes.

He did in fact return to Holland and commission a brick-shaped bottle that would even interlock when stacked to form a wall.

Although the public was apparently unnerved by a squarish beer bottle, depriving natives of the opportunity to dwell in their own backwash, so to speak, you have to admit it was a clever idea.

It wasn’t Mr. Heineken’s. His wasn’t even the first brewery to make a bottle brick. Bottle walls, as they’re called, go back at least to ancient Rome, where the empties were amphorae. It’s the type of clever idea that rises again and again: After the massive and horrible Haitian earthquake of 2010, I recall seeing a snapshot of wall that amounted to a chicken wire sandwich filled with soda bottles. Add stucco, and you’d never know the difference.

"Earthship bathroom," U.S. --wikimedia pd

“Earthship bathroom,” U.S. –wikimedia pd

What bottle walls may lack in stability, they make up for in so many other ways: The air voids are insulating. They lighten the entire structure. They turn a waste product into a cheap or free “brick” in a world where manufactured building materials are increasingly costly to produce and transport. And they can act as windows, as well as walls.

Functional fixedness, that’s that phenomenon whereby we can only see one use for an object–its same-old, traditional use. Functional fixedness is the opposite of creativity. It thrives on comfort and plenty. But functional fixedness can be broken. In a time of need, any one of us could probably come up with a way to build a $1000 house.

*Co-created by a friend of  mine, Matenwa Community Learning Center has evolved  into a powerful engine for sustainable and respectful development.


Heat being heat. [PD] Wikimedia

Heat being heat. [PD] Wikimedia

Of course it’s not that simple. It’s all about mass. And the mass of one house can be arranged quite differently from the next. It’s particularly the hot mass you need to keep in mind.

The Umpteenth Law of Thermodynamics says every speck of matter  in the universe is trying to arrive at the same uniform temperature. Hot things are forever shedding heat, and cold things are forever absorbing it. We try to arrange our homes in a way that prevents heat from radiating out into the cold air, snow, trees, cars, and the black universe. But heat escapes nonetheless.

And the warmer your house is, the faster heat will pulse outside to achieve harmony with coldness. That’s why it saves energy to turn the thermostat down when you’re sleeping or working: The closer the inside temperature is to the outside temperature, the less ambitious the heat is about cooling off.

The big, fat caveat, especially here in Maine where many old houses still hiss and thump along with steam heat, is that mass messes up the thermodynamics (which weren’t particularly tidy to begin with). Steam has to heat up hundreds of pounds of cold, iron radiator before much heat can pass into the air and the walls and the toilet seat. Same goes for radiant heat in concrete floors: The heating mass takes a long time to cool off; then a long time to heat up.

Even so, turning the thermostat up and down for an old steam system doesn’t make the furnace work any “harder,” or burn more fuel in the long haul. It truly does save energy (money), says the Department of Energy–about 1% savings per degree if you turn down for eight hours a day.

The problem is that you may not love the sluggish changes in temperature that result from a massive heating system: By the time the bathroom gets warm in the morning, it’s time to go to work.

The cool news is that new thermostats are much better at physics than I am. Brainy new appliances can continuously calculate the ideal timing of your furnace’s bursts of effort.