The Autonomous House By Michael Jantzen Is A Thirty-Year-Old Green Wonder


Image credit Michael Jantzen

I have not posted much of the recent work of Michael Jantzen on TreeHugger; he has interesting visions but very little reality, mainly renderings of architectural wonders in open fields. (Jerry covered a recent one here.) But I learn from a reprint of a 1982 Popular Science in Modern Mechanix that thirty years ago he was designing very green, cutting-edge stuff that pushes every button that we talk about today. The Liberated House, or Autonomous Dwelling from 1979 is a wonder.

The goals of the Autonomous Dwelling Unit were not dissimilar from what so many architects are trying to achieve today:

  • First, be a mobile home, light and small enough to be towed long distances over the road, or be carried by helicopter, or even be floated on water.
  • Second, be independent of utility hookups--electricity, gas, water, and sewage--and of fossil fuels.
  • Third, be mass-producible at a cost competitive with luxury travelers of comparable size.

Partner Ted Bakewell III explains the construction:

"Let's look at the external features first," says Bakewell, leading the way through the large muddy field in the center of a Bakewell office park. "The shell, for example." The interlocking, aluminized-steel sections that form the rounded ends of the vehicle are normally used for silo tops. The center section would normally be used to join twin silos. "They're very thin sheets, fabricated with a ridge in each panel, so they easily slide together, interlocking, for a totally watertight seal," Bakewell says.

The exterior has rainwater collection and solar panels.

With the sun shining, it has a peak output of 80 watts, going to 120 at noon when the reflector comes into use. Four 12-volt marine batteries store the electricity. "It works because we have designed our electrical needs with the most energy-efficient appliances available," Bakewell says. "We have a truly microload demand that is matched to this small solar panel."

The funkadelic interior includes a thermal storage system under the bed that gathers heat in the daytime and releases it at night, that I am thinking of knocking off for a LifeEdited. A round wood stove hangs from the ceiling. Transformer furniture abounds:

In the dining area, inventive design abounds. Leaves drop down or snap up to extend the table. Seats drop down to get out of the way. Most of Bakewell's cooking is done on an alcohol stove; he believes in using renewable fuels as much as possible. The refrigerator was designed from scratch. In winter, ducts below bring in cold air, saving electricity. A butterfly valve controls the amount. In summer, a solid-state thermionic device supplies cooling.


The toilet area contains a shower and a Clivus Multrum Bio-Loo, a Swedish waterless toilet that composts human waste odorlessly. The shower resembles a nylon telephone booth. Square hoops support an ingenious curtain arrangement (see photo) sewn together by Jantzen's wife, Ellen. Bakewell economizes on water by using a special nozzle head, developed for distributing chemicals from crop-dusting planes. It is capable of producing a very fine water-conserving mist that is, he says, nonetheless very effective in washing. Or, if he feels like splurging, he can open it up all the way. Bakewell showers with, basically, recycled water from a gray-water (used wash water) tank, to which he adds, as needed, fresh water taken from the vinyl rainwater bladder.

"We pump gray water into a pressure tank," he says. "Then it's forced through a five-micron filter, then a 0.25-micron filter, then an iodinator. Then it goes into a storage tank. Before it's delivered to a faucet or shower, it goes through a carbon polisher-activated charcoal. We take out the bacteria with the filters, and then we kill the viruses with the iodine."


It is a wonderful design, full of ideas that are just being rediscovered today. I so wish Michael Jantzen still built things like this, we have so much to learn from him. More at Modern Mechanix.

While reviewing other older work on Jantzen's site, I found this wonderful summer house from 1976. The exterior is certainly a period piece, but the interior!

Look at that transformer kitchen in the middle of the unit, with the sides that fold up to make a dining area. The bunks, hanging around the side of the unit with seating below, just like a railway car. The whole thing is brilliant.

More Michael Jantzen in TreeHugger:
Transformation House by Michael Jantzen
Wind Shaped Pavillion By Michael Jantzen
Michael Jantzen's Solar Wind Pavilion

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Tags: Architects | Wayback Machine