Alex Wilson Creates a More Resilient Homestead

©. Alex Wilson

A lot of people are talking about resilient designing these days. Alex Wilson of the Resilient Design Institute defines it:

Resilience is the capacity to adapt to changing conditions and to maintain or regain functionality and vitality in the face of stress or disturbance. It is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption.

He has completed building his own home according to resilient design principles:

Our highly insulated, solar-powered house is operating on a net-zero-energy basis, and one of our inverters allows us to draw daytime power from the solar array during power outages. We have enough excess solar power to charge our Chevy Volt for our around-town driving. We have developed a spring so will have access to water should we lose power for an extended period of time. We have a half-acre garden, a half-acre of fruit and nut trees, and chickens planned for the spring—all of which will help us become far more food self-sufficient.

Writing in Mother Earth News, Alex goes into much greater detail about his attempt to build a “more resilient homestead.” He and Jerelyn bought a farm a few miles out of town, and Alex describes how he renovated a 200 year old farm house as a model of resilient design.

The key point, (and the reason we are so fond of Passive House design in TreeHugger) is design for Passive Survivability- what happens when the power goes out.

Passive survivability is defined by the Resilient Design Institute as “ensuring that livable conditions will be maintained in a building in the event of an extended power outage or interruption of heating fuel.” It’s achieved via superb energy design; Here, Alex has super-insulated the building, used passive solar design to get solar gain through south-facing windows (with careful overhang design to protect from overheating), thermal mass to store soars heat, and design for natural ventilation.

Alex Wilson's House

© Alex Wilson/ Horrors, he has a heat pump!

But he also has a mini-split heat pump to keep the house warm and when needed occasionally, provide a bit of air conditioning. And for emergencies, there’s a little wood-burning stove.

Interestingly, Alex does not have a battery system, but has a rooftop full of grid-connected solar panels. He does have an inverter that he can plug into during the daytime and hopes to use his electric car for backup power. He has also designed a resilient water system with a hand pump on his well and a spring that runs most of the time.

Then there is food; this is a big worry among the resilience crowd.

Most Americans are dependent on food that’s shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles from where it’s grown to where it’s consumed. This food-supply system has a lot of vulnerabilities. A diesel-fuel shortage or extended trucking strike could interrupt food transportation. An extended drought could have a major impact on food availability and cost. And during natural disasters, grocery stores are often stripped bare from panic-buying.

Finally, Alex talks about community resilience, and how his house can act as a hub for the 30 homes in his neighbourhood who are less resilient. Alex concludes:

To me, the best thing about our emphasis on resilience is that it also helps the environment. We operate our house on a net-zero-energy basis, and by growing our own food organically, we’re improving the soil and sequestering carbon. All this makes us feel great. We’re able to practice what we’ve long been preaching.
Installing cork

© Alex Wilson

There are so many admirable things going on here, from the way Alex built his house out of healthy materials, using cork for insulation above grade and foamed glass below.

But questions arise when you start to ask, does this scale? How many people actually can practice what Alex is preaching? Who among us has the skills to do this? What is really going to happen when Alex opens the doors of his house as a community hub in a time of crisis?

Exactly five years ago, Alex wrote a series on BuildingGreen, Making the case for resilient design where he first laid out the basic principles and noted:

It turns out that many of the strategies needed to achieve resilience--such as really well-insulated homes that will keep their occupants safe if the power goes out or interruptions in heating fuel occur--are exactly the same strategies we have been promoting for years in the green building movement.

This still holds true; At the time I summarized the lessons he was teaching in How to build a resilient design: Make it smaller, higher, stronger and warmer.

But as Alex notes in his resilient design strategies, we have to achieve resilience at the community scale, and on the regional and ecosystem scale. None of us can do this alone.