Sustainable dwellings: Living in sync with the forces of nature

You thought your house was hot this summer — and now you’re bracing for another frigid winter? Consider the poor termite’s plight: On the tropical savannas of Africa and Australia, temperatures outside their earthen mounds soar to 115 degrees Fahrenheit by day, then drop near freezing at night.

Turns out we humans could take a cue from these humble critters, whose highly functional dwellings maintain an interior temperature around 80 degrees to protect termite eggs and young.

“Sustainable Shelter,” a new exhibit premiering at The North Carolina Arboretum, shows how they do it. Fluted channels within the mound ventilate the subterranean nest, helping maintain livable temperatures and regulating humidity. The complex internal architecture involves a central chimney connected to an array of thin-walled tunnels near the surface that resemble the veins in your arm. The handiwork of millions of termites, the mound regulates conditions in both the brood chambers and the fungus gardens termites cultivate to help digest their food.

Such ingenious design features, the exhibit suggests, offer potential blueprints for more livable human buildings. Highlighting both preindustrial human dwellings and animals’ nests, “Sustainable Shelter” invites visitors to discover the amazing diversity of structures created as adaptations to widely varying environments worldwide.

Graphic displays, three-dimensional models and an interactive computer game explore how we can make use of such natural systems as convection and the global carbon and water cycles. Visitors are invited to test ways to make their own homes more sustainable; small-scale models show how American homes have changed over time and what that means for the future — comparing, for example, the carbon footprints of building with wood and with concrete, including both materials’ manufacture and decay processes.

The North Carolina Arboretum is the traveling exhibit’s first stop. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, it was developed by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research and Bell Museum of Natural History. Related displays created by arboretum staff and local partners complement the traveling show: “Home Green Home” showcases various natural human and animal shelters alongside displays of modern building materials. Here, visitors can view examples of xeric landscaping — landscaping that uses very little water — plus numerous green-building products, courtesy of Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty.

“This product is astronomically amazing,” Curator John Andrew exclaims, indicating a hemp wall in one display. “It’s fire-, rot- and insect-resistant,” he says, “and it can last 600 years!” It’s made from a type of hemp that lacks the active ingredient in marijuana, he adds, so it’s poised to become a green-building staple.

There’s also an example of wattle-and-daub construction, a building method used by the Cherokee that goes back at least 600 years in Western North Carolina, notes Andrew. “They even made flashing to keep the bottom of the wall from rotting,” he points out, going on to describe the gutter system they devised to deal with the region’s substantial rainfall.

Meanwhile, a “Sustainable Schools Series” developed by the local Reading Riding Retrofit program continues with three evening events in October and November (see box, “Wanna Go?”). Arboretum educators will lead activities such as a short hike to investigate animal homes or having participants use logs, tree bark and other natural materials to build their own structures. The series is “just a good fit with the ‘Sustainable Shelter’ exhibit,” says Regional Planner Linda Giltz of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, where the cooperative effort is based. “We’re hoping folks will take home ideas.”

Former Asheville City Council member Robin Cape, the program’s executive director, was instrumental in getting an Environmental Protection Agency grant to support the local programs. “We submitted it three minutes before the deadline,” she reveals. “They loved the name Reading Riding Retrofit — they’re the new ‘three R’s.’” Riding, Cape explains, refers to transportation, which has a huge carbon footprint, “So this is also about getting to school in a healthy way. We want to grow this network at the state level.”

Send your local environmental news and tips to, or call 251-1333, ext. 153.

Wanna go?
blockquote>“Sustainable Shelter” will be on display in The North Carolina Arboretum’s Baker Exhibit Center 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Jan. 2. Admission: $3 adults, $2 students 18 and under, plus parking fee ($8 per vehicle).

Thursday-evening educational programs are free (the $8 parking fee will be waived for participants) and open to the public from 5 to 7 p.m. on the following dates: “Energy Explorations” (Oct. 27), “What a Waste!” (Nov. 3) and “Food for Thought” (Nov. 17). For more info, go to



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