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Glossary for Built Environment

This glossary covers: Water, Energy & Housing


The use of living material such as bacteria or plants to process pollutants in water. Common uses include processing sewage through a microbial filter, capturing harmful chemicals or silt from surface runoff, and using plant roots to clean water.
The used water from your kitchen sink (containing bits of decomposing food) and toilet (containing urine and feces). Handling blackwater is different than greywater because of increased concerns about ensuring that pathogens from these areas do not create illness if allowed into waterways or onto food growing in the garden.
constructed wetlands
Natural wetlands act as a biofilter, removing sediments and pollutants such as heavy metals, feces, greywater, etc. from the water. They are also a habitat for native and migratory wildlife, they can absorb stormwater, and can reclaim (clean) land after mining, refineries or replace areas lost to human development or other disturbances. Constructed wetlands can be designed to emulate these features.
drip irrigation
Applies water slowly at the plant root zone where it is needed, reducing runoff and evaporation. Typically more than 90% efficient at allowing plants to use the water applied (unlike other forms of irrigation, such as sprinklers that are only 65-75% efficient). There are many places on line that show you how to convert a sprinkler system to drip irrigation. Benefits include:

• Prevents disease by minimizing water contact with the leaves, stems, and fruit of plants.
• Allows the rows between plants to remain dry, improving access and reducing weed growth.
• Saves time, money, and water because the system is so efficient.
• Decreases labor.
• Increases effectiveness on uneven ground.
• Reduces leaching of water and nutrients below the root zone.
ferrocement tank
Thin concrete panels using chicken wire as reinforcement, used in many applications such as roofs, walls, water, tanks or even ship hulls.
The process of separating suspended solid matter from a liquid, by causing the latter to pass through the pores of some substance, called a filter. The filter may be paper, cloth, cotton-wool, asbestos, slag- or glass-wool, unglazed earthenware, sand, or other porous material.
first flush
The result of diverting the initial rain catchment by diverting debris, animal dung, and typical toxins from your roof so they wash away, keeping your main rain tank's water cleaner. Proper design requires no power and is low maintenance. The design calls for temporarily diverting water from the gutter to a tank just large enough to accept a sufficient flush of the roof before turning water back to, typically, the main storage tank. A first flush is a low-cost, low-tech way to improve water quality significantly. This allows using rain water for watering plants and with a simple filter have water for drinking, cooking & bathing.
flood irrigation
Flood irrigation is an irrigation technique in which a field is essentially flooded with water which is allowed to soak into the soil to irrigate the plants. One form of flood irrigation is basin irrigation, in which water floods a basin surrounded by berms, usually made from earth. This technique can be useful for crops which need to remain submerged, like rice, and for soil which absorbs slowly. In furrow irrigation, the water runs down furrows between rows of crops, reaching the roots as it is absorbed. Surge irrigation involves the use of pulses of water which spurt, soak in, and spurt again. (Wikipedia) Flood irrigation and furrow irrigation do not work well in sand unless the areas being flooded are lined with impermeable materials such as plastic or gley or permeable materials such as organic matter (e.g., palm leaves). The type of lining used will depend on whether you are trying to just slow the water or trying to hold it and carry it somewhere.
The used water from your shower, washing machine and bathroom sink. This water can be filtered through rocks and sand to remove impurities and diverted into food growing systems such as food forests.
hydraulic ram / hydram / ram pump
A type of water pump that uses the energy from a repeated "knocking" (from the sudden interruption of water flow) to pump water to a reservoir at a higher level. The hydraulic ram is low flow and commonly used in remote areas with no easy access to electricity.
Harnesses the energy of moving or falling water. The term refers to a number of systems in which the water drives a turbine or waterwheel placed in streams or waterfalls.
rainwater catchment
A system designed to capture rain water and keep it on the property where it falls so it can be used there.
separation toilet
A toilet which separates urine from feces, and sends them to different places. These are not recommended because urine tends to collect around the separator element which then starts to smell like ammonia.
soaker hose
Delivers water right to your plants' roots while keeping the leaves dry. Sprinklers can waste water due to evaporation and runoff, hand watering is time consuming and drip irrigation systems are often expensive. Switching to soaker hoses means you'll waste less water, lower your water bill and won't have to haul your hose around the garden.

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solar still
A simple way of distilling water using the heat of the sun to drive evaporation from humid soil, and ambient air. Distillation replicates the way nature makes rain. The sun's energy heats water to the point of evaporation. As the water evaporates, water vapor rises, condensing on the glass surface for collection. This process removes impurities, such as salts and heavy metals, and eliminates microbiological organisms. The end result is water cleaner than the purest rainwater. Wikipedia
subirrigation, seepage irrigation
Is a method of irrigation where water is delivered to the plant root zone from below the soil surface and absorbed upwards. The excess may be collected for reuse. Subirrigation is used in growing field crops such as tomatoes, peppers, and sugar cane in areas with high water tables such as Florida and in commercial greenhouse operations. Advantages are water and nutrient conservation, and labor-saving. The outfitting cost is relatively high. Three basic types of subirrigation system are in general use for potted plants in greenhouses: ebb-and-flow (bench-mounted enclosures holding pots are filled and then drained); trough (water is flowed through bench-mounted, slightly sloping enclosures containing pots); and flooded floor (special sloped concrete flooring is flooded and drained). In Capillary-mat, the simplest form of sub-irrigation, a porous mat is in contact with the bottom of the container allowing water to move from the mat to the growing medium. The mat is placed on a plastic sheet to retain water and is usually covered with a perforated plastic sheet to slow the growth of algae. Water is usually delivered to the mat by a drip tube, but sprinklers or even hand watering can be used. Because a mat can be difficult to rewet when dry, it is kept partially moist all the time. Capillary mat systems are most often used for small containers and crops that need to be kept uniformly moist. (Wikipedia)

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biodigester (methane), anaerobic digester
Anaerobic digestion is a collection of processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. The process is used for industrial or domestic purposes to manage waste and/or to produce fuels. As part of an integrated waste management system, anaerobic digestion reduces the emission of landfill gas into the atmosphere. Widely used as a source of renewable energy, the process produces a biogas, consisting of methane, carbon dioxide and traces of other ‘contaminant’ gases. This biogas can be used directly as fuel, in combined heat and power gas engines or upgraded to natural gas-quality biomethane. The nutrient-rich digestate also produced can be used as fertilizer. This system is used in the United Kingdom (2011), Germany and Denmark. (Wikipedia)
cob oven, cob building, cobb
Is a building material consisting of clay, sand, straw, water and earth. Cob is fireproof, resistant to seismic activity, and inexpensive. (Wikipedia) Go to this link to see examples of cob houses:

Some helpful cob building books: [Please note that we will get a commission if you use these links.]
The generation of electricity and other energy jointly, especially the utilization of the steam left over from heat generation to produce electricity. For instance, some solar heaters get hot enough to produce steam, which can be used to drive a turbine that produces electricity.
electricity-free refrigeration
This is done with a zeer pot which works because of evaporative cooling (reduction in temperature resulting from the evaporation of a liquid, which removes heat from the surface where evaporation takes place. This process is employed in industrial and domestic cooling systems, and is also the physical basis of sweating).

Embodied energy

Human powered system (bike powered electric, walking powered electric, etc) Kinetic and heat based electricity production is becoming more common. Devices producing electricity generated from car movement, walking areas in airports, body heat (flashlights), and even your coffee cup now exist. The low tech version would be well pumps run by see saws or a blender run with a bicycle.
fuel cells
Create electric energy by creating a chemical reaction between a fuel (usually hydrogen) with oxygen. The output is water, and a small amount of other chemicals. It is a “clean” fuel.
Collecting heat from the earth. Some places in the earth (where there is volcanic activity, hot springs, etc) produce heat that can be used to generate electricity. Hot springs have been used for bathing and heating for millenia in China, Egypt, Rome and elsewhere. A low tech passive use of the earth to regulate temperature is also called geothermal heating/cooling. At six feet below and lower, the earth tends to stay at a constant temperature anywhere from 55º to 68ºF depending on location. A building can be maintained at a constant temperature through the use of pipes that pull cool air into the home from the earth. Today’s systems can be expensive to install (especially on an already existing house), but once in place there is a 30-70% reduction in utility bills for heating or cooling and no pollution or burning of fossil fuels. Often, the installation pays for itself within 3-5 years.
Jean Pain style compost electricity
Jean Pain developed a system of capturing heat and methane gas from his large compost piles to heat water and produce electricity for his home. He has made this system publicly available.
masonry heater or stove, ceramic stove or tile stove
Device for warming an interior space through radiant heating, by capturing the heat from periodic burning of fuel (usually wood), and then radiating the heat at a fairly constant temperature for a long period. This technology has been used in cold climates for centuries for heating. The kang bed-stove is used in China for cooking during the day and then residual heat is directed to heat bed platforms. In Germany and other parts of Europe they have the Kachel oven. Russia, Finland, Sweden - there is even evidence that cave-dwellers from the Neolithic period - have used such systems to keep themselves warm. (Wikipedia)
minihydropower, small hydropower
Energy from water sources such as the ocean, rivers and waterfalls which ranges in size from a small system to electrify a single home to a few hundred kilowatts for selling into the National Grid.
net-zero-energy home
An arrangement of components designed to supply usable electric power for a variety of purposes, using the Sun (or, less commonly, other light sources) as the power source. (Wikipedia)
rocket stove
an extremely efficient stove using small diameter wood sticks called which has a short burn time but is very intense and reaches high temperatures without a lot of smoke. If one coppices new growth trees the use of wood is renewable.
rocket mass heater
A space heating system developed from the rocket stove and the masonry heater.
solar oven, solar cooker
Uses the energy of direct sun rays (which is the heat from the sun) to heat, cook or pasteurize food or drink. Because they use no fuel and cost nothing to operate, many nonprofit organizations are promoting their use worldwide in order to help reduce fuel costs (for low-income people) and air pollution, and to slow down the deforesation and desertification caused by gathering firewood for cooking. (Wikipedia)
straw box oven, hay box or fireless cooker
The forerunner of the crockpot, and a very old fuel saving technology, which consists of an insulated box that you put a hot pot of food into, and leave it all day (or all night) to finish cooking.
straw box oven, hay box or fireless cooker
A shaft with a fan of blades mounted on it, called the “rotor” because it rotates. The rotor is mounted inside a sealed casing that has a ring of nozzles mounted on it. The activating fluid is blown through these nozzles under high pressure causing the rotor to spin very, very rapidly. This is measured in revolutions per minute (rpm).

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Housing, Built Environment

chickee, chikee, chiki, chickee huts, stilt houses, or platform dwellings
The word for "house" in the languages of the Seminols and Miccosukees, is a shelter supported by posts, with a raised floor, a thatched roof and open sides. Historically, they were made with palmetto thatch over a bald cypress log frame. Each chickee had only one purpose (cooking or sleeping or eating) and they were organized within a camp-type community. Recently, these are most often used in backcountry areas of the Everglades or anywhere mangroves or large bodies of water prevent camping on dry land. Generally the house stands several feet above water. (Wikipedia)
Composting toilet
Dry plumbing fixtures that contain and treat human waste via microbiological processes. These are recommended because they do not have any odor and, if set up properly, they are safe methods of returning nitrogen and humanure to the land.
cordwood building, masonry, stackwall or stackwood
Is a term used for a natural building method in which "cordwood" or short pieces of debarked tree are laid up crosswise with masonry or cob mixtures to build a wall. (The common materials of masonry construction are brick, stone, marble, granite, travertine, limestone, cast stone, concrete block, glass block, stucco, and tile bound together by mortar.)
earthbag construction

Earthbag construction is an inexpensive building method using mostly local soil to create structures which are both strong and can be quickly built. (Wikipedia)
earth plaster
A blend of clay, fine aggregate, and fiber. (Aggregate can be rock, sand, natural fiber, etc.) Other common additives include pigments, lime, casein, manure, etc. Earthen plaster is usually applied to masonry, cob or straw bale interiors or exteriors as a wall finish. It provides protection to the structural and insulating building components as well as texture and color.
grade beam
A beam that rests on the ground.
life cycle assessment (LCA)
Assesses the environmental performance of a product or building over its life cycle. This includes raw material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, use, recycling and disposal. Green Seal is a well known non-profit organization that utilizes life-cycle analysis to evaluate and certify products and services that have a lesser impact on the environment and human health.
living roof, green roof
Are roofing systems that allow plants to thrive on the surface of a rooftop, without access to groundwater, creating an ecosystem that relies on rainwater alone. Plants used are generally rock garden plants that thrive in your particular climate, and specifically often include succulents, like sedum plants. The two main benefits of planting your roof are absorption of rainwater (especially useful in urban and suburban areas) and a net cooling of the roof surface (to help keep your building cool in summer). Living roofs can also work in any climate, especially where a cooling roof will help keep you nice and cool in Summer.
Capable of supporting a weight or strain from parts of a structure above and to resist side pressure from wind and, in some cases, from stored material or objects within the building; as a load-bearing wall. Removing or altering a load bearing wall could damage or destroy the integrity of the wall causing a collapse.
mechanical cooling and heating system
A system which manages power to accomplish a task that involves forces and movement such as plumbing, heating and A/C, electrical, and all the blowers, compressors, water chillers, boilers, pumps, and generators that are part of them.
In a subtropical climate like Central FL, orient your house toward North and South, and place plants and trees on the west and east to avoid the heat of the sun. Put a shade house on the shade side of the house to hold cooler air. In a tropical climate build high ceilings and orient your house with regard to the wind - if you want to create a breeze through the house. You can also cause an airflow to move through the house by letting air in low and exit high. As the air temperature increases and rises and exits the building new air will be sucked in and if that can come in low from a shaded area you are in effect cooling the house.
passive solar energy
Solar energy which uses thermal mass to cool and heat, rather than forced air.
quincha mejorada [Spanish]
Quincha is Spanish for wall or roof, etc., made of rushes and mud. Traditionally, a quincha house would have a round pole set directly in the ground, infilled with smaller wooden poles and interwoven to form a matrix, which is then plastered with one or more layers of earth, resulting in a flexible structure with an inherent earthquake resistance. It has been used in parts of Peru for many centuries. Mejorada is Spanish for “enhanced”. Currently, there are natural builders using what they call “quincha mejorada”, enhanced quincha-style building, using a timber and lattice frame design with an earth infill.
rammed earth building
Uses a mixture of clay and sand tamped into formwork (aka a monolithic wall system). The compression of the tamping mimics natural geologic forces that form sedimentary rock, so rammed earth construction resembles hand-formed sedimentary stone. Rammed earth is denser than adobe or cob, so is stronger and has higher thermal mass per volume of material. Tamping is traditionally done by hand, though modern rammed earth often uses pneumatic machines. It takes surprisingly little effort to hand tamp! Because the stickiness of the clay platelets is achieved through force, the mixture is not wet, as cob or adobe are; the mixture is more damp and crumbly.
rubble trench footer
Is simply a continuous trench footer around the structural perimeter, dug as deeply as the ground freezing point in winter. The trench is lined with filter fabric and filled with stone. A structural (usually concrete) grade beam (a beam that rests on the ground) is poured on top of the stone-filled trench, and distributes the structural loads of the building across the surface area of the trench below. This type of foundation uniquely provides both structural bearing as well as water drainage in a single foundation system. Drainage is important with most foundation systems, since water is the single largest culprit for foundation failure. Liquid water can erode the ground bearing around a foundation footer, and frozen water expands when it freezes, which causes the ground around your foundation to also expand and contract with freeze-thaw seasonal cycles. When installed correctly, a rubble trench results in a resource-efficient, high-performing, eco-friendly, and low-cost foundation footer.
shade house
In warm zones like Florida, a shade house is positioned on the shade side of the house, so that cold air can drop into the house.
straw bale building
super-adobe building
Super-Adobe is a form of earthbag construction that was developed by Iranian architect Nader Khalili. The technique uses layered long fabric tubes or bags filled with adobe. The resulting beehive shaped structures employ arches, domes, and vaults to create single and double-curved shells that are strong and aesthetically pleasing. Earth bag shelters have been used for decades. Some projects have been done using bags as low-tech foundations for straw-bale construction. They can be covering them in a waterproof membrane to keep the straw dry. The Super-Adobe method has been put to use in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Belize, Costa Rica, Chile, Iran, India, Siberia, Mali, and Thailand, as well as in the U.S.
Thatching is the craft of building a roof with dry vegetation such as straw, water reeds, rushes, or heather, layering the vegetation so as to shed water away from the inner roof. It’s a very old roofing method used in both tropical and temperate climates. Thatch is still employed by builders in developing countries, usually with low-cost, local vegetation. In some developed countries, it is now the choice of affluent people who desire a rustic look for their home, would like a more ecologically friendly roof, or who have purchased an originally thatched abode.
thermal chimney, solar chimney
A thermal chimney has the purpose of improving air circulation in a building which prevents the air quality from becoming stale and acts to cool the building. The reason this works is that hot air rises, cold air sinks. A chimney sticks up above the roof and is heated by the sun, which causes the air in that chimney to rise and exhaust from the structure. This creates a flow of air and a natural loop occurs as cooler air is drawn into the building (usually through a cool underground duct) to replace the exhausted hot air. A chimney can be constructed as a long piece of metal, too. Using a fan in the highest window or exhaust vent with open windows on the cool side of the house can also create a solar chimney effect.
thermal mass
a solid that absorbs heat from the sun during the day and slowly radiates the heat at night. It may take the form of a thick wall or floor slab, made of either stone, concrete, clay, adobe, brick, rammed earth, or even a volume of water. A thermal mass offers a much more energy efficient alternative to using a standard, forced-air heating system. However, this process is only effective for cooling if the building includes a ventilation system used to carry away the heat from the thermal mass. A great ventilation system to use is a thermal chimney, aka solar chimney. Wwattle and daub
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