Movie: Documentaries are one of the most mixed bags as you'll find this days in terms of entertainment. The most successful of them tend to be political hack pieces selling an agenda to the clueless but there are a world of entertaining and informative titles available too. One such title that caught my eye recently was Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home; a show that combined the best parts of Trading Spaces, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and the multitude of lesser known how-to titles flooding the market these days. The show was a documentary by genius designer Ted Owens on how to make a house using materials commonly not employed in home building but also having the goal of reducing the waste most homes incorporate not only in their construction but also in their day to day operation.
Okay, the basic premise of the DVD was the building of a straw bale home. This kind of home tends to be cheaper but also more environmentally sound than the typical homes you'll see being built like crazy all over the country. Unlike most shows, this DVD went into great detail, including an audio commentary track full of construction tips to supplement the nearly three home main feature; providing enough tips and methods that most capable do it yourselfers would probably be on solid ground using it as their primary resource. The general idea was to build a home using techniques that have been around for a long time (many were used long before the advent of building codes) but also use modern technology to provide for the conveniences most Americans have become accustomed to.
The house itself was built in New Mexico in an environment that sees a lot of extremes throughout the year. Sure, it'd be easier to build such a house in an area where such extremes don't exist but I always got the impression that this was part of the show; to prove it could be done safely, cheaply, and up to modern day building codes that are meant to insure our safety. Using natural materials as much as possible, Ted and his crew used straw bales as the insulating material for the home, combined them with adobe thermal mass walls (that keep temperature fluxuations to a minimum and require substantially less heating and cooling during the year, as well as numerous techniques that reduced the need for expensive fixtures so many homes these days include.
The energy efficiencies obtained by such methods didn't require major sacrifices in terms of quality of life either. Essentially, the 800+ square foot house and workshop were well planned to the point that the tours of the finished project managed to show a comfortable place to live and work with a price tag under $90,000. A series of photovoltaic cells on the roof of the house provided most of the electricity needed, the rainwater cisterns and well provided the water needs, and the waste was so minimal as to be an incentive to build such a structure all by itself. There was no sacrifice in terms of beauty either as the house looked as much a product of a skilled designer as anything I've seen built costing in the mid six figure range.
I know a lot of people might ask "why build such a house?" Having just paid my own electricity and water bills for the month, I can tell you that the appeal of not shelling out additional thousands of dollars a year would be a nice feeling but there is a growing understanding that modern construction techniques are very detrimental to the environment as well. Those hidden costs are borne by all of us and a quick look at the materials most home builders use will tell you how many deadly toxins are pumped into the environment in one way or another. These are solid reasons why the construction of hybrid homes makes a lot of sense for people but they are just the ones that stand out. I'm acquainted with some people who've built their own homes, acting as general contractors and farming out the parts of construction they weren't able to handle. The sense of pride and satisfaction alone is a good enough reason for people to participate in such a project but unlike what you've probably thought; building a home isn't impossible (keep in mind that for most of the existence of the human race, we didn't specialize our skills so much and generally built our own homes throughout history).
The beauty of this type of home is that you can make numerous mistakes and still have the home come out looking great. The principles of construction with a green touch are also pretty established (and getting better each year) so depending on what you're looking for, this DVD will provide an excellent starting point for you to build a house (even as a second home for those of you with a small plot of land). As a guy without any building experience, by the end of the show I was left with the feeling that while I may not be able to tackle the project by myself, I could certainly oversee the design, planning, and assist in the building of such a house, even adding in ideas of my own to suit my needs. The benefit of such a DVD over a book is that you get to see the team building each step of the project and mention the troubles they encountered as well as how they overcame the problems, making this one well worth the asking price online. Repeated mention was also made of the fact that you could expand the design to make a bigger house or add other features to suit your needs so it wasn't fixed on one limited home. In that sense, I liked the show even more and thought of it as a quantum leap above the multitude of home repair, home building videos I've watched over the years (and I read a number of books on the subject too since at one point, I had the dream of building my own home). For the level of quality the DVD offered up, I suggest it as Highly Recommended, noting that the Building With Awareness website has a lot of information to help people decide if this method might work for them and about the construction basics incorporated into this style of home. To give you an idea of what they said about it, here's a bit from their website:
"This DVD is the most detailed and comprehensive video ever made on the design and construction of a sustainable straw bale home. This beautifully photographed how-to DVD will show you how to build straw bale walls for insulation and adobe walls for interior thermal mass (which greatly increases the efficiency of a straw bale home), earth plasters for a beautiful finish, 100% electrical generation by sunlight, and passive solar heating and cooling. This video could save you thousands of dollars in design and construction costs. Beautiful aesthetics and energy-efficiency can both come from the same materials. It is how the structure is designed as a whole that makes the difference. Follow the design and construction of one house - from start to finish - and see how aesthetics, comfort, and energy efficiency can all come from the same materials and design parameters. This video is packed with green design and construction techniques from professionals working on the cutting edge of home building and design in this field. Although the video emphasizes the idea of building small, the concepts can be scaled to any size structure. Whether you are a novice builder or a professional, you will learn about rubble-trench foundations, post-and-beam framing for straw bale walls, step-by-step straw bale building techniques, adobe wall construction, roof framing, roof insulation, acid-stained concrete floors, rainwater cisterns, gray water plumbing, photovoltaic electrical systems, wiring for straw bale and adobe construction, radiant floor heat, window placement and installation, green materials, earth plaster techniques, and much more. This video is our own production." Picture: Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home was presented in the same 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in by director Ted Owens. The colors looked crisp and clear, the fleshtones were accurate, and the construction techniques were laid out in an easy to follow method that enhanced the ability of the viewer to comprehend them. I saw no major flaws in the visual presentation of the material although there were a few moments of shimmer in a few scenes and some rainbows that got in the way but none of them lasted that long and it came across as something cleaner looking than the equivalent shows on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) I've watched for years.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo that was also well narrated. The vocals for the sessions were all easily understood and recorded in such a way that you won't have to guess as to what was said by the cast. There was some minor use of pleasant music but it never got in the way of the information intensive material provided on either the main audio track or the corresponding audio commentary.
Extras: The primary extra for the DVD was the audio commentary. It was another slice of information on how the home was built as it was being built by the crew. I would strongly suggest anyone considering building such a house listen to this track a few times along with all those participating on the project so that nothing is missed but the funny thing is that aside from a handful of steps, this type of construction is far more forgiving in most ways than the kind of cookie cutter home you'll notice for sale in those newly minted subdivisions where you have your home jammed onto a small lot with your neighbors so close to you that you'll feel claustrophobic. There was also a 16 minute long slide show that emphasized many of the steps and tricks the crew figured out as they proceeded with the project (keep in mind that there is no "one way" to build such a house and you'll probably be able to surpass the original design given advances made since this one was released). There was also an eight page book that provided some specifications to the house and its varied components along with a link to the website where you'll find even more resources available to carry out such a project.
Final Thoughts: Building With Awareness: The Construction of a Hybrid Home shows the intended audience that there is a different way to build a livable home that isn't so dependant on the wasteful construction techniques we seem to have accepted as a necessity to build a house. It also shows a way people can leave a much smaller footprint on the environment and still live a quality based life. I'll admit that when I first considered the idea of such a house, I thought to tell the producers to go hug a tree but in general terms, this was a solid little project that I think many people would do well to consider (if not for their primary residence, then their vacation home or as a starter home). Most of the credit for making this work better than the many similar project DVDs on the market could be traced back to Ted Owens' easy mannerisms and ability to convey the finer points so check out their website and get the DVD for some entertaining ideas on home building.