The future of sustainable residential design requires a paradigm shift from ‘greenwashing’ to fusing function, aesthetics, and sound regenerative ecological principles that nurture the environment and the human spirit. Harvest Home, a 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, showcased an affordable zero-energy house that harvests sun, water and wind to promote experiential healing for a military veteran battling physical and emotional trauma. Each landscape element interacts with the architecture to foster reconnection to family, community, and Earth.
The landscape design for Harvest Home was the culmination of a master's thesis project which became a critical piece of a three-university entry in the US Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. Ours was one of 20 collegiate teams competing to design and build zero-energy homes that are attractive and affordable.
Through a holistic and ecologically focused design approach, we had two major goals for this demonstration landscape: 1) to showcase the synergy between landscape and architecture in energy efficient design, and; 2) to advocate that the future of sustainable residential landscape design lies in the fusion of function, aesthetics, and regenerative ecological principles to nurture the environment, the human spirit, and the well-being of future generations.
Our vision was to design an innovative house of the future that harvests natural resources – sun, wind and water – to power the home and to create a comfortable and healing environment for its intended resident, a military veteran battling some combination of physical and emotional trauma. Each element of the design concept, ‘Healing through Harvest,’ reflects a deep commitment to reaping and replenishing nature’s gifts with restoration of the body and spirit at the forefront. Re-establishing connections is a unifying theme – connections to the healing power of family, community, and earth.
Numerous competition artificialities, such as temporary/modular installation, unsurveyed topography, containerized plants, a limited water supply, and prescriptive site constraints affected design development. Our 60-foot by 78-foot ‘lot’ sat on the asphalt tarmac of a former military air station in a strict east-west/north-south orientation. An invisible 52° angle, projected upward along the east and west lot lines (the Solar Envelope), dictated all house and landscape dimensions.
Proportion and visual connections blur indoor-outdoor boundaries. Capitalizing on the mild Southern California climate, the landscape plan doubled usable living space of the 900-square foot home through a flowing composition of accessible ramps, decks, and plans that provide a variety of opportunities for inward reflection or interaction with the larger landscape and community. Local crushed stone and a simple plant palette drawn from the native California Coastal Scrub-Shrub community envelop the site, providing a sense of place by honoring the rugged, understated beauty of the Sierra foothills beyond the competition site. Drought-tolerant, low-maintenance species allow the veteran to focus the outdoor experience on healing. Giant Wild Rye, with upright blades of soothing blue-green tones, unify the composition and complement the tan wash of the native autumn landscape. Drifts of White Sage and Cleveland Sage create tranquil moments of color and scent and become beacons for visiting butterflies, bumblebees and hummingbirds. Architectural Century Plants punctuate the softer sea of forbs and grasses near to the entries to the home.
Harvested water trickling to the ‘Tree of Life’ further promotes meditation and rejuvenation while symbolizing the establishment of strong roots in a nurturing environment. A rill flanked by herbs, greens, and flowers, directs the gentle flow down the center of a custom, live-edge pine slab dining table along the water's life-sustaining journey to a Coast Live Oak anchoring a glade (“lawn”) of native strawberries, sedges and rush. Rustling grasses and sugar cane around the central Harvest Table Deck impart a sense of enclosure while mimicking water's the soothing qualities.
'Pop-up' food gardens encourage connection to the earth and community through sharing freshly harvested food. A bounty of edible and companion plants is the literal embodiment of ‘Healing through Harvest.’ Immersing the veteran in hands-on activity with nature is a powerful adjuvant that engages all five senses in promoting physical and emotional well-being. With sustainability in mind, the edibles grow in recycled, fabric-lined milk crates filled with compost, garden soil, and coconut fiber. Portable systems like this demonstrate the feasibility of bringing affordable and accessible gardens to small urban lots, rooftops, and other places where growing food might otherwise be impossible.
Other sustainable design elements include a rainwater cistern to collect 100 percent of the roof runoff and greywater tanks that divert water for landscape irrigation, responsibly directed solar LED lighting, a beehive, a compost bin, and a clothesline to save energy when drying laundry. Tiles made from recycled tires cover the Harvest Table Deck; all other decks and landings are made of reclaimed wood.
The interplay of simple lines, humbly elegant materials, and sound ecology create a landscape that is deceptively complex in its sustainable and therapeutic function. The home was donated to Wounded Warrior Homes, a non-profit organization in San Diego that provides transitional housing and other support to veterans recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.