7 Closed loops in ecological architecture and everyday life

Rene Valner

Photo by: Andy Arthur (2005)

My story: I have been educated in computer sciences, natural sciences and architecture. I have been close to nature since early childhood, spending most of my time outdoors, hiking, exploring and traveling

What I have been learned? In computed sciences I learned that seemingly complicated systems are made of simple, modular components. As well as one physical structure is able to perform many different tasks, and what surprised me most: all those tasks can happen at the same time.

What surprised me in nature sciences was that in a way it’s very similar system to ones we were dealing in computer sciences, made on many small units with separate tasks, probably just more complicated and duplicated. The biggest difference from my previous knowledge was that in nature there is no waste, every end is beginning for something new.

Studying architecture taught me how to create and design systems on my own and the importance of using closed loops, where the end of one cycle is input for next.

First time I recognized the importance of closed loops was when we made company which was dealing with all kind of ecological building materials: straw bales, clay- and lime plasters, rammed earth and so on. I was amazed about how little we know about industrial ‘take, make, dispose’ materials, and how easy is to replace those unknown origin and content materials with ‘alternative’ building materials and technologies which are borrowed from nature and given back to later.

Link: Wikipedia Circular economy

Looking for and recognizing closed loops in houses we find at least three of them. First the materials and physical body of building. Second the use of water, growing food and utilizing human waste. Third energy production and use.

In the current chapter you will learn to recognize and design closed loops in your household.

Estonian traditional farm building is a good example of sustainable design. All materials: mostly wood, but also stone, reed, straw, clay and earth mixtures were used to create a building which housed most of activities from family needs to production on necessary food, tools and other vital goods. Estonian traditional farmhouse was longhouse oriented from south-east to north-west according to sun movement and prevailing winds. South- east end of the longhouse was concentrated around massive wood burning stove – which was used for cooking and heating in long and cold winters, but was as well used for drying crops after short and often rainy summer. Middle part of longhouse included two multifunctional rooms. Heated one next to sleeping chambers was used for eating, making necessary woodwork, tools, producing wool and linen canvases, but also accommodate pups of livestock during harsh winter months. Next room towards north-west was also multifunctional but unheated. It had two large doors for good cross ventilation and during crop season it was used to dry the crops and separate seeds from crops. Apart from crop collecting season it was used as storage to store tools and provide shelter for materials and food supplies. Last section of longhouse often included separate rooms for livestock. Link to Estonian Open Air Museum


First loop: use of sustainable, reusable and recyclable materials combined with flexible, modular design of houses which allows easy modifications.

If we look for sustainable materials it makes sense to use traditional vernacular architecture as a source. Technologies and materials used for centuries are harvested locally, need minimum energy to process, are reusable and recyclable. The way materials are used bears strong cultural identity and local knowledge. Quite often in Estonian vernacular architecture you can find houses where logs used for construction are second- or even thirdhand.

Most of the natural materials: stone, earth, clay, lime, sand, wood, straw, reed, natural paints and oils – used in traditional architecture are healthy to humans and pose no risk to environment, if they find their way back to nature.

Modularity of buildings

Despite of modern inventions our basic needs for living remain quite the same. We need healthy, comfortable and efficient shelter from elements, some privacy, some space for socializing, space for living and working. To become more house specific we need comfortable space to sleep, eat and work. In modern way of living we often think of these functions as of separate rooms, but thinking further we seldom do those activities at the same time. Even if we look at the family not just individuals, the pattern of life gets synchronized We need few rooms and the rooms does not have to be too specific, which makes the whole house and possible future uses more flexible.

Second loop: water harvesting and use, humanure, food production.

Harvesting water and storing it for use seems the most logical thing to do, but is often looked from wrong perspective and treated as problem. Actually it’s a gift from nature. All the houses have roofs, so it’s easy and free to collect water and use it for our and nature’s good. Depending on regulations and quality of collected water it can be used for drinking or for washing. Doing so we can make choice to use nature friendly detergents so that water can still be used for watering plants. Combining water harvesting with humanure concept which eliminates flushing toilets and human waste is separated into solid and liquid, which both make efficient fertilizers. Adding our own vegetable garden to the cycle closes the loop. No waste. Free sunshine and water, fertilizers, food.

It it comes to closed loop food production it leads to another important ingredient: workforce. Taking care and sharing the food is best if it’s made together with friends and family. As a basic thing we all share: good food, it’s the best community building tool. Being self sufficient community with shared values makes us less vulnerable to global trends.

Link: Wikipedia Rainwater harvesting

Link: Humanure handbook


Third loop: energy

If we look at the way energy use has changed during last few hundred years we recognize that like many other things, it has moved from local sources to global ones. Instead of using local wood, human-, horse-, wind- and waterpower, we use nowadays either oil, gas of nuclear power. We are more mobile and use more energy than ever. We moved from renewable sources to sources which will come to end and made us hyper dependent of cheap energy. Good news is that as we are getting smarter, we are also getting more and more efficient, as well we can more easily predict and monitor our energy use. Furthermore it has become feasible to produce energy locally.


First rule to close energy loop is to use as little as possible. In my architecture practice we try to minimize the need for cooling and heating to minimum, designing houses which take advantage of local climate and use passive cooling in summer and passive heating in winter. Next step is optimize building volume, calculate energy needs and find solutions to produce energy locally. The outcome of closing energy loop are houses which produce more energy than they consume.


Link: Building massing and orientation

Link: Passive solar building design

Link: Passive cooling

Link: Solar Energy production calculator

Link: Energy-plus house


Tasks for individual work:

  1. Design a house for your family or friends with closed loops for building materials, food and energy.
  2. Explain how the loops are designed and working.
  3. Is there any other types of closed loops in your house you could point out?
  4. Could any of the loops be used in your home?


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Earth textbook by Rene Valner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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