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A CONVERSATION WITH LEE PORTER BUTLER
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TO CONCRETIZE THE DREAM
A CONVERSATION WITH LEE PORTER BUTLER
designer of the Ekose'a Gravity geo-Thermal Envelope Home
by Arjuna Da Silva New Florida Magazine April 1989

Familiar stories from the sixties and seventies: creative, educated people go off to dabble in dreams of fame and fortune or freedom from desire. Some reach pinnacles, others turn back too soon to achieve, and some spend long, cold nights of the soul on the heights. These days Florida draws figures of genius and influence from all walks and weathers to her comfortable shores. Such a figure is Lee Porter Butler, a self-styled, self-taught and onthe job trained maverick architect whose designs have been acclaimed in professional journals, local newspapers around the world Co-Evolution Quarterly and The San francisco Bay Guardian.
Lee starteed in Tennessee where he first made a name for himselfin architecture by designing his family home in 1970. A seies of environmentally sound design discoveries followed, notably "the gravity geo-thermal envelope". In 1975 he transplanted himself and his visions to the rich, innovative soil of California, where from his offices in San Francisco he was commissioned to design and manage projects across the country. As Lee tells it, success in California became a game, and it was easy to let its accoutrements-glamour, possessions, prestige- obscure the original inspiration with which he arrived.
God is good. Timne passes. People grow.
Lee came to Florida in 1985 with a bubbling crucible of ideas and a committment to work with environmentally and spiritually aware people. he feels strongly that the gravity geo-thermal Envelope designs combined with solar electric systems, organic waste recycling, efficient food production, and the Danish principle of cohousing (clustering individual homes around a common house with shared facilities) is the best possible answer to our modern human needs.
Lee talked with me about his ideas for "futuristic community". A passionate speaker, he makes the most complex processes seem simple. He spoke often of his desire to "get to work" with people of like mind, heart, and spirit- to create "built environments designed to produce food instead of pollution"
As we tune into the conversation, Lee has just described the "moment of truth" in his early career. It is the winter of 1972-73, in a small town not far from Memphis. The Butler family is living in the first lee Porter Butler experimental home. It is an exceptional house: well planned, spacious, beautiful, energy efficient, maximizing the benefits of natural materials and sunlight with a mastery of spatial design. One day, during an unexpected ice storm, Lee stands on the second story balcony of the two story greenhouse and opens the doors to go in. Whoosh-a swell of warm air greets him, revealing to him the essence of the geothermal heating- the earth providing sufficient warmth for indoor comfort a concept Lee says the early persians and some Native American tribes also knew and utilized.

LEE PORTER BUTLER: It turned out we didn't need much energy to heat all the rooms that faced into the greenhouse...I think our whole winter's heating bill came to something like sixty dollars for ten thousand square feet! The greenhouse created the geo-thermal because it had three thousand feet of exposed earth floor. The solar component came in through the greenhouse roof and even on overcast days- like the day when the ice storm hit- it was enough to keep the greenhouse quite warm on the upper level.
AdS: What other energy conservation design elements were used?
LPB: I had a complete closed-loop waste recycling system...and I didn't have to run furnaces for heating and airconditioning to keep it comfortable ninety five percent of the time.
AdS: You said that when you discovered the geothermal effect in your home you became enthralled with the possibilities it presented and spent all your energy- and money- funding a "think team" to help create an even more comprehensive design. And then finally, when you were at the end of your funds, the flash of insight came and you saw the envelope.
LPB: Yes, that's right.
AdS: And what the envelope is is really a double-walled or skinned double floored double roofed structure with a "gravity convection loop?" (Lee nods) Can you explain the convection loop?
LPB: Very simply, cold air falls, displacing lighter warmer air near the earth, which then rises up until its cold enough to fall again...
AdS: I get the picture. Since then, your design has become even more comprehensive. Your recent prospectus talks about lighting with crystals. What's that all about?
LPB: Solar tracking crystal reflectors can concentrate very bright light beams deep into the interior of structures where smaller crystals diffuse a part of this beam to light a specific work space. This eliminates entirely electrical day lighting. A single highly efficient source of electrical light will be used for night time lighting. Such a system can be shown to reduce enrgy requirements for lighting by as much as 96%.
AdS: I've been looking over thes design descriptions and I'm wondering about two things: first how expensive is all this extra construction and second I'm thinking about all the houses we already have that are totally inefficient and polluting.
LPB: Well, every house in the world could be retrofitted with an envelope and most people would have to look very closely to know it was there. The envelope can be adapted to any design , material or site. Its beauty is that a home can maintain any desired temperature, interior relative humidity or oxygen content, in any climate without using either fossil fuels or mechanical systems, and without creating drafts or cold spots. Its quiet, ecological and healthy.
Building a single unit envelope might be slightly more costly initially, though in the long run huge energy savings would balance that out, and building a cluster of units-- a development as they are called- would not be more costly than the contemporary way at all.
AdS: Aren't these designs a little utopian?
LPB: These are lots of technologies available today that contribute to the success of the designs. Look, here's an example: when plants are grown in the south facing portion of the envelope- which is the greenhouse- the envelope becomes a natural electro-static filtering system, removing all dust, pollen and other forms of pollution from the air.
AdS: Where was the first envelope home built and how many are there now?
LPB: The complete envelope was built in Lake Tahoe in 1977. It was a gravity geothermal, like my first home, but it had a complete envelope completely encircling all the walls on the north and south and the ceilings and under the floor- an earth-tempered air envelope on the east and west walls, because just having them on the north, south, on top and underneath, was enough to keep that house comfortable enough to keep that house comfortable even at eight thousand feet with snow on the ground all winter.
It's really impossible for me to accurately say how many homes there are. I can tell you that we sold about fifty thousand books Ekose'a Homes. We sold ten thousand sets of plans and I've traveled around the United States to do commissions, and just to visit cities, I've found hundreds-literally- of envelope houses that were built from nothing but the book. I know a lot of people built the house from the book, because I told it all in the book. You don't have to order the plans unless you want a blown up detailed version of every one house that we provided custom services on, the same carpentry crew would end up in the next two years doing about twenty more just like it.
Posted on: Jul. 5, 2007 3:24am,UTC
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