'Where the Intentional and the Practical Meet'

May 28, 2009 by Tim


Tim finds balance in the crane pose

Tim Tewsley and his classmates have just completed the initial stage of creating conceptual designs of sustainable cabins for the Yasodhara Heights project.  He reflects on the process:  Just like in the YDC, the real question is “What is sustainability to you? …how does this translate into real life?'”


We need a design for cabins at the ashram. Simple really. They need to be yea big and have a certain esthetic. Easy. Hang on – they need to have the potential to be off-grid, and they need to be attractive so people want to live in them.

photos of the site with conceptual plan

photos of the site with conceptual plan

Oh, and they have to be as ‘sustainable’ as possible.

In September, I began a 9-month course called the “National Sustainable Building Advisor Course.” For our class project, we’ve volunteered to work designing a small building project for the Ashram. Dubbed “Yasodhara Heights,” the area in question is part of the Ashram’s lands located above Riondel Road and will eventually be home to between nine and twelve cabins.

Topographical map of the Yasodhara Heights site

Topographical map of the Yasodhara Heights site

I am new to the sustainable building world – I started out studying linguistics and spent four years as an English teacher. Taking a year out to do the YDC and be at the Ashram, I found myself doing repairs and maintenance and thinking about how the form of what we build helps to define our opportunities to create or reduce consumption. This eventually led me to start the building course I find myself in now, facing some difficult questions.

During my YDC, we were frequently asked to define what certain words mean to us. What is love? What is a friend? What is awareness?

During my sustainable building course, we reflected endlessly on the word sustainability. What is it? Just like in the YDC, the real question is What is sustainability to you? While there is a fairly common definition in existence (about preserving the ability of future generations to get what they need), how does this translate into real life? Does it mean reducing our carbon emissions? Zero waste? How can a project incorporating so many materials and so much work be truly sustainable?

In defining and exploring this ideal over nine months, we came to a set of design priorities that we feel can maximize the sustainability of the project. Things like natural building materials, composting toilets and geothermal heating.

There is a point, however, at which the ideals in focus must be weighed against other ones. There is also the wonderful messiness of life in general. As one of my dearest teachers says “this is where the rubber hits the road,” where the intentional and the practical meet. The implications for my personal life are rich.

Factors that can force changes to the ‘perfect’ conceptual design include: cost, building occupant priorities, availability of materials and expertise, and other factors such as the type of ground we build on (which renders certain techniques difficult to use). The truth is, a design isn’t perfect unless it works reasonably well in reality.

It’s often been said that design is a process of compromise. We’re at the stage where we have to find the compromise between different but equally important ideals. I look forward to it. This is where the real learning begins.


Below are conceptual designs by Tim’s class – click to see a larger image.


Conceptual Plans (only!) - Yasodhara Heights

Plan 1Plan 4

Plan 2

No Comments »

  1. What a wonderful project. I look forward to seeing how the cabins evolve in context and the reflections they generate.

    Comment by Lesley — May 29, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  2. What a fantastic project!
    The images inspired curiosity: Does the green roof mean that there could be a “living roof”? Will the buildings be oriented to take advantage of “passive solar” energy? The exterior walls look very thick.. will they be straw-bale? This is so exciting.
    A friend who built a dwelling of natural materials in Crawford Bay took a long-term view: Eventually the building will be re-absorbed into the Earth, so better to use materials which will nourish!

    Comment by Ben Johnson — May 29, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  3. As a founding member of Creekside Commons, a cohousing development, we went through many of the same design challenges. The toughest one was wanting to be as green as possible but needing to end up with homes that were in a price range that we could sell, hopefully to some families with children. It was a wake up to understand how much going green in construction costs.

    After 2 years of living here (and selling all 36 units after construction, some to families), there are things I wish we could have done but on the whole, we’ve got functional, fairly green and beautiful homes. All the best in this remarkable project.

    Comment by Sharon Haave — June 4, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  4. Hi Tim,

    I offer the idea of sustainable from the perspective of people love living and being in the internal space and love looking at the space from the outside. There was some great design work down in the 1970’s about the patterns of living space which helped people feel connected to their homes. e.g. putting windows on two sides of a room in the corner made people feel better than one window in the middle of the room. Here is a link to more information about ‘Pattern Languages’


    Comment by Brad Johnston — June 5, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

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