Land coral: Mediterranean stone architecture - Implications for Sustainability

Most ordinary buildings in the world use wooden beams to sustain the roof. Domed roofs, which use only stone, are more expensive and so are usually reserved for large buildings, cathedrals and the like. But wood may be so rare and expensive in some areas that stone domes are the only possible kind of roof. One such area is Apulia, in Southern Italy, where we can still find the kind of ancient Mediterranean building called the "trullo" (pl. "trulli"). The picture (made by the author) shows the central area of Alberobello, the only town in the world showing such a concentration of trulli. It looks like an accretion of limestone, a man-made land coral.

A trullo is something that you can't ignore. The first time you see one, from a distance, it looks slender, elegant, even cute. With its conical roof, its round shape, it reminds you of Tolkien's Middle Earth, it looks like a place where hobbits could live. But, as you get close, you see that the trullo was never meant to be cute - it was never made for hobbits to live in. It is a huge mass of stone: thick walls, heavy roof. A trullo is a functional - even brutal - kind of architecture for an arid place where trees are rare. It uses only stone; no wood whatsoever. And if you have no beams to hold the roof, there are big limits to what you can do on a small budget. A trullo was meant as a place where peasants would live and they couldn't afford the domed architecture of cathedrals. A trullo must be small, otherwise the stone walls holding the dome would have to be truly gigantic. That is also the reason why it is round; to save material.

You can make larger inner spaces by connecting several domes together, but the inside remains cramped. And also dark; the trullo has a door because there must be one, but windows would weaken the structure and so there aren't any or, at best, very small ones. That surely created problems of ventilation. Living in a trullo can't have been exactly the top in terms of comfort, at least the way we intend it today. But the thermal inertia of the thick walls offered to dwellers a degree of thermal comfort, winter and summer, that was impossible to obtain without air-conditioned and central heating. The limited space was not such a terrible limitation since, in a Mediterranean climate, you are supposed to live outside for most of the time and you'll go inside only at night and - in summer - to escape the heat of the day. A trullo is sturdy, cheap, practical and very well suited to hot climates.

So, even with all these limits, the trullo is a fascinating kind of architecture. In Apulia, it blends with the landscape in a way that no modern building can; it is a sort of land coral; an accretion of limestone that seem to have been there from the beginning of time. Those trulli still existing in Southern Italy are very popular. Few people remain who can make new ones, but the old ones are carefully maintained and are prized property; owned by proud residents and often rented to tourists. Today, some trulli are heated by natural gas, but the fascination of living in one remains.

Thick stone walls are a characteristic of traditional Mediterranean architecture and in ancient times there existed many kinds of stone buildings; the Sardinian "nuraghi" are an example. Sometimes, this kind of building goes under the Greek name of "tholos" (pl. "tholoi"). But the peculiarity of the Apulian trulli is that they are still inhabited - whereas all the others are ruins. So, one of the reasons of the fascination with the trullo comes from imagining a kind of life that today we have completely forgotten. It comes with the idea of an intelligent adaptation to what the territory can offer: limited resources, limited energy, limited everything. Sustainability, in short. But the fact that the ancient Apulians were able to adapt in such an intelligent way to their environment doesn't mean that their way of life was sustainable. Trees had not been lacking in the area; it was human activity that had destroyed them. The very name of the main city in the region, "Alberobello," comes from the Latin words "silva arboris belli" which stand for "the forest of the battle". There were forests, there, long ago. Now, they are mostly gone.

Agriculture is far from being a sustainable actvity. It involves deforestation and it slowly destroys the fertile soil. With time, people run out of trees and have to think of how to remove the stones that erosion has uncovered. The result are those stone structures that are so common in areas where the soil has been eroded: stone building and stone walls criss-crossing the land. These structures are typical of arid Mediterranean countries, but you can see them also in South-Western Ireland, where there exists the same problem with erosion. In Apulia, indeed, you have not just stone buildings and stone walls, but also piles of stone, so common that they have a specific name (specchia ). All ways of getting rid of too many stones.

Today, cheap artificial fertilizers (made from fossil fuels) have given new life to the badly overexploited Apulian land. Cheap fossil fuels have made possible to build concrete buildings, to heat them with central heating and to cool them with air conditioning. But the fact that today grain is cultivated in the Trulli valley doesn't mean that erosion is gone. And the fact that you can turn on the air conditioning when it is too hot, doesn't mean that the problem of sustainability is gone.


I wish to thank Costellazione Apulia for giving me the possibility of visiting the land of the trulli in occasion of the meeting "Raccontami una Storia" in Martina Franca, Italy, on March 19th 2010.

Note: this post has been slightly modified after publication (Thanks to Omnologos for pointing out something that needed to be added to the text)

I wonder if there are some historical local circumstances at play there, rather than "sustainability"...what other examples of "Mediterranean stone architecture" are similar to or at least as peculiar as the Trulli? (question)

There are several examples in southern Italy. The Trulli are located in a specific region of Apulia, near Alberobello and Martina Franca. As you move away from that area, you find that stone dwellings change in shape but remain, basically, round huts with stone domes. As you move away from Apulia, they slowly fade out of the landscape. Outside Italy, in other Mediterranean areas, that kind of building goes sometimes under the Greek name of "tholos" (pl. Tholoi, I think). Very similar to the trullo in terms of structure. But the tholos goes back to Mycenean times, they don't make them any more! In Sardinia, stone dwellings are called "nuraghi"; historical buildings. I believe that Apulia is the only place where these buildings are still used as homes.

That was a good question. Maybe I should add a note to the paper. Thanks!

I added a note to the text. Thanks again, Omnologos, this point needed to be mentioned in the post

And, as a final-final comment, I can find all-stone dwellings, (tholoi - if you like) in the hills not far from where I live, in Tuscany. They were still in use one century ago, although only as temporary dwellings. They are now mostly in ruin, but some are still standing up; maybe a good refuge for post-peak times :-)

How well do they resist collapse during earthquakes? A stone roof seems like a bad idea in an earthquake risk area.

There are legends in Apulia that say that the trulli could be easily made to collapse, just by pulling out one stone. That was said to be a way to avoid the king's tax collectors, who wouldn't believe that a pile of stones was a dwelling. Then - they say - the trullo could easily be rebuilt as soon as the tax collectors had gone. I think it is a legend, of course, but it may have originated from the fact that trulli would often collapse; possibly because of earthquakes.

Ugo, I posted a link to a rock balancing artist, and I know a thing or three about rocks, I used to climb them a lot, bouldering and rock pile climbing, The loose rock piles from a dump truck being a good use in the city, boulders about the size of gallon jugs or a bit bigger, a mixed size pile, with loose stones supporting the weight of a grown man climbing up them. It takes a lot of balance and caution.

But rock piles have been around for well about as long as man, and knoeing how to stack the building in the first place would lend the credit to that story, a key stone, not easy to move would allow for most of the roof to fall in and you could push or pull a few more if needed.

Once you have the design in your head, getting it back together is not that hard. It takes someone that can see in a certain way, it is like being able to see a 3-D jigsaw and just start pulling and placing things.

I can do that when packing things into a space. My brother and his wife was down for christmas one year and they were packing up ready to go home. Marlene came in and asked James what he was willing to leave behind. I got up and followed them out, the trunk was full and there was stuff left to pack in. But I saw spaces in there, and told them, as I started pulling things out, to go get everything they had to go home and just let me deal with it.

I got everything in and had room to spare, so I pushed the lid down, but not closed. I went inside and asked in a troubled voice, if they had anything left to pack. They said no, and I said well , you'll just have to come out and tell me what you think. They saw the lid, and Marlene was asking James, what do we leave behind. I then Said. Are you sure you don't have anything else? They said No again. Then I slammed the lid down.

The gasp, and jaw dropping was priceless.

There was enough space for a few more clothes and maybe a pillow.

Space is filled with so many holes that most people don't see how to pack into a small house, after they have lived in a big one all their lives. Our house is under 900 Square feet. In my bedroom, there is almost everywall and space used, but still has room in it to live. The vertical walls are just up and down floors. The ceiling is just a floor without anything on it. Hanging pots in a greenhouse, models from fishing line in my bedroom, same concept.

We have so many things we can do with spaces, those stone homes were not the dank caves that we see them as today, I am sure they were full of more life.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, space is needed to be filled with life.
Hugs from Arkansas.

The famous passage from the Odyssey involving a tholos is rather grim--it is where he hangs a bunch of serving women who proved unfaithful (book 23, IIRC).

The trulli remind me of the structures on the Irish island Skellig Michael, though those "beehive huts" are not as pointy and elegant.

Isn't Apulia where the Roman poet Horace is from? Does anyone happen to know whether he mentions these structures in any of his odes?

Yes, I have been to south-western Ireland and I saw those buildings. Very similar to the Mediterranean ones; architecture - apparently - has some basc laws. About Horace, good point, but I don't think he mentions anything like the trulli. As far as I understand, that area was a forest in Roman times. The Romans probably saw the Sardinian Nuraghes, but I don't know if some Roman writer reported that; probably not

A number of us in the US have been moving to green building rooted in traditional evolved forms rather than the technological gizmo green that has predominated.

Some have taken to calling this Original Green in order to give it a brand.

Steve Mouzon gives a good introduction here:


I like that Original Green, or perhaps Heritage Green. It's a good direction. I have maintained for years that our new construction has to work reasonably well as a passive structure first. Then any gee-whiz techno gadgetry can make it better. I like to look at green buildings and ask, if the power is out, how well does this building work for lighting, ventilation, heat and cooling?

We had a talk here a few years back from a nice young architect who was very proud of his 19 story LEED Gold condo tower. I had trouble keeping a straight face. It's a considerable improvement over a non-LEED Gold 19 story condo tower. As a passive structure, not so much.

Thank you, Udo for a very informative post. There's a dry laid stone house in Ireland that was occupied 2500 + years, until the early 19th century. Perfect location, dug into the midrise of a hill looking out over the bay. It took a long time for the comforts of the built environment to surpass the stone house.

I have been drawing buildings, sailboats and apartments for longer than I have been a gardener, and most likely was building as a kid, and it just stuck with me. I used to design rooms, the smallest rooms I could make them and think about living in them for years at a time, without even going outside. Things I'd do as I lay in bed at night being awake, while others slept. I have for as long as I can remember gotten by on about 4 to 6 hours sleep a night. When I got away from home, I'd stay up longer hours, up to 120 hours at a time. But I use that time doing a lot of thinking and drawing, and figuring out things that we should have been doing but no one seem to be doing them. I have written more stories where all the problems were fixed by the main character through his actions than I can remember.

It always frustrated me that I could see the solutions, and when I would tell others about my ideas, It'd go in one ear and out the other. Or if I was telling my mom or dad they'd agree, but they had their own sets of things they worried about and solved, but didn't much try to help beyond encouragement. I have to fight a Lazy Gene I have in me somewhere. I am not a couch potato, but I had 50,000 other projects and most of my ideas are in my head and on paper.

Houses have been built wrong for decades, if not centuries. But centuries ago they did not have the full understanding that we do now, though Roman Baths for instance, were marvels in engineering in how they moved heat from a fire pit to the rest of the bathhouse. I saw a program once where they built one like the Romans did, and it worked so well they were amazed, even though they thought it'd work, there were not living examples of them in the world, and no drawings either.

After all we are still debating how the pyramids were built, and StoneHenge and other stone structures are marvels from an age where the only things they had to work with was muscle and brains, and we scratch our heads and go on never thinking that someday we might just ahve to relearn what they knew.

The Coral Castle in Florida is one example of a modern person being able to build like they did, and he did not leave notes, just taking the ideas he had with him to the grave, with a big note on the grave stone "I told you I knew how, idiots" ( not really there, but you get the point, of his frustration)

I have been an advocate of earth shelter passive designs for a long time, Though I have had a lot of Architecture courses and stuff, I loved gardening so much that Landscaping seemed the course choice for me. Then I got frustrated with them and their green lawns, and pulling up of edible weeds and other issues of Glorious Human controled landscaping that I just drfited off that path too. There is that lazy Gene showing up again. After 225 hours of College Credit, none of it worth much outside of the knowledge that I learned, most people just smile at me and point out that I can't put down anything beyond highSchool Grad, on the resume and they look at you like you are dumb for being sick of college pushing the idea of a career over knowledge. I guess I got involved with it all when they were pushing careers instead of practical knowledge.

That just made me sad and mad all over again, that it was a big business not a place to learn about the world and know how to deal with life after going there for 4 years. The crank out the paper pushers.

So You see the cookie cutter homes in every house farm in the nation, likely at my post about the census numbers says, 60 million houses that are just the same old same old, and none of them able to handle the power being out for more than a few hours. If it is out for 3 weeks, you have to move, you can't stay there.

In My BioWebScape design project, all my homes are passive solar in nature, or tiny home and can deal with no power, no outside grid, can live on their own without having to hook into a windmill, or solar array, you can mostly live in them if you built them on an island alone. But I am still working out the kinks and water systems. The problem is can I build them totally from scratch with only hand tools out in the boondocks?

Yes and no, if they are a tiny home design I need modern materials, but some of the earth shelter ones, I just need locally handy materials.

But then I have to think about food sources, and other needs like water and community and can this be scaled to anywhere and everywhere as my Motto says is my goal. Still working out the details and learning as much as I can. What I did best in college, learning everything about everything, There is my Ego Gene coming out.

I once asked the Question, Could I know as much as God does, What would I have to understand, what changes in my mind and body would have to happen for that to take place, At the time it was a Science fiction story starter question. But I kinda still think about life that way. Being a Christian I have to watch out and not get a big head thinking I am something special,( Ego Gene, and Know that I have the Lazy Gene too, so I can't be trully God like if I were lazy). Unless like someone pointed out a while ago when the topic of God making earth in 6 days, why did God need to rest? That Lazy Gene? LOL. The Christian Bible does have that rule, You shall have no other gods before me, Rule #1, There is that Ego Gene. Gee maybe I am more like God than I thought at first. After all don't it also say they were made in his image.....

So here we are thinking up new terms for ideas that I have had all these years, going on 47 alive , maybe over 40 of them as a builder and 36 of them as a gardener, I know I was making food as a 3 year old, so a chef for 44 years. Ouch.

Anyway, Green ( the new term for back to the old ways, Per-fire( caves ) or Pre-iron Stone temples. Eden Green. The new movement, get back to the forest garden of Eden, where food was everywhere ripe for the picking and no one had to have been kicked out of Daddy's garden, but Maysue wanted to try the Plums and FrankieJoe just said you look cool in red, I'll try some too. Whoosh and off the races went.

I'll stick with BioWebScape designs for now, that way I don't have to coin another phrase. BY the Way, BioWebScape is mine, though it is a creative Commons kinda term. The designs and work is for free to anyone that wants help from me.

We should have done this long time ago, but then things have a way of falling into place when they need to be, so Think about it this way, it is now! The internet connects us and we should Whoosh On to the races.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world,
Hugs to All and Peace be with you.

Interesting link, thanks. As an area I'd like to do buisness in, it has some nice pointers to look for.

We still do a little rough stone work in the parts of the mountians settled by Scots Irish farmers-an occasional retaining wall, or an ornamental pool, or even a small outbuilding laid up from rough stone gathered in the fields is a common sight, but there are no stone roofs or domes anywhere around here to my knowledge.

The work is slow and hard but it's a lot of fun, and when you build from rough field stone you know you are building for your grandchildren and thier grandchildren.

Nobody does it anymore except for esthetic purposes as it is simply too labor intensive;it's a lot cheaper to buy materials for an outbuilding unless you are simply unable to find any paying work.

Three of us spent a week laying up about four hundred square feet of retaining wall recently at my brothers house, including the time needed to gather the stone and clean up the job site;this may not be typical but it is indicative.That wall would cost at least two grand if it had been done by the hour.

I've been experimenting with laying up walls using an excavator with a thumb.

It can go pretty quickly.

"That wall would cost at least two grand if it had been done by the hour."
I don't think so. Most houses here in Reno have decorative stone walls for landscaping. Some are hundreds of feet long. All layed up by hispanics at relatively low cost, who also provided labor for building most of the houses they surround. That is pretty common in many western states, and reflected in a song Tom Russell wrote about the proposal from some border states to build a wall at the border to stop illegal immigration - with a chorus that goes "...if we send all the Mexicans back to Mexico whos goin' to build the wall?" Tongue in cheek, but all too true.

farmermac: "That wall would cost at least two grand if it had been done by the hour."

"I don't think so. Most houses here in Reno ..."

Well maybe your illegals are working for less than $5/hour. Mexicans here in St. Louis quoted my folks $6000 for a four foot high 60 foot long imitation stone wall with a drainage pipe. These guys speak little or no english and are only making $10/hour, except the Mexican foreman who speaks very good english makes maybe $15/hour. Two college bound guys (english speaking US citizens) tried to get the job but were underbid by the Mexicans by 20% or more.

As the economy continues decline due to lower energy production, perhaps wages will fall for certain types of work, or maybe more bartering will ensue. Thus the US born citizens in this job area someday may have a chance at more work.

A friend named Roc, (real name Steve) is a Stone Mason. I met him when the owner of the pool Hall I play at introduced me, later I found out they were dating. He is built like a stone mason. Then again so am I, but injuries to my back and the damage of the those blood clots in 2005, limit me doing the rock work I have done in the past. Though his work is far better than mine ever was.

He has the knack of seeing a pile of stones and then fitting the jigsaw together into a work of art. I have seen his handiwork, pictures on his cellphone.

The talents are not lost. But the skill set is limited to some areas.

Then there is that guy Bill Dan, a new form of rock works.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, hugs all.

I'll stick with Menards metal a pinch a tarp works.

Thanks Ugo,

It has trully been a long time since I learned of those types of building designs.

I was ranging for a place to put a thought I have been having recently about houses and home designs, and the numbers of homes just being wasted in the Western world due to all the housing boom.

In the times of the Trulli they only built a house when they needed on, they did not have a lot of houses stand empty, unless a war or illness had killed the people off. But today you have swarms of empty houses, and it is such a waste and all, even though it is part of the modern day life cycle at least in the US.

There are a lot of methods of fighting erosion known today, and even were known long ago, I wonder why no one has gone about utililizing them.

Swales have been around a lot longer than most people think, call it a forgotten erosion control method. But even in a low rainfall of the Med. Regions you can use them to build up the land, and the water table.

Here in Central Arkansas, in my yard there is a pale redish clay and rocky soil, All the organic topsoil was likely hauled off when the house was built almost 50 years ago, but I have been slowly building it back up in areas. It is the rocks that I have all over the place, shale that can't be built with because they break to easily.

I imported about 500 to 1,000 pounds of rocks to build a rock wall with back the first few years we were here, and it has since gone to scattering about the yard. It was stones from the Ozark foothills which is basically anything north of us. You see a lot of stone facade buildings and even some stone huts and small houses in the woods up north.

Windows are a problem because the wood will rot long before the stone goes away.

When You were talking about how the trulli are dark, I thought, put in glass blocks, Mica, or quartz stones in a pattern and you might not get to see outside, but light will come in, if you plan them correctly you have lighted rooms without windows that open.

In today's materials, we have glass blocks and It would be neat to build a trullo with glass blocks or Mica or quartz to see what sort of cool affect you'd get out of it.

The thickness of stone or adobe or dirt construction gives you a stable inside climate temperature range year around. It is one of the reasons I push earth shelters in my own designs and as just a good form of reduced energy needs. Even in places where trees are all over the landscape, using less of them is a good sustainable practice.

I'd think that in the future you could use recycled concrete for building a stone hut/house amoung other things.

On the reason I was looking for a place to ask my question, I was wondering how we can use all the homes we have already built, but that are not occupied. My question is, How many are there? The Dot Gov site I have found thus far only has data from 2000, so out of date. but at the time single detached houses were almost 70 million in the USA. Just think, 70 Million times 5 is 350 million. WE have plenty of space, for more people, just a disconnect to reality and needs.

The reason I used 5, is the ability to put 5 people in a 3 bedroom house, or for that matter more, but five works out thusly. Mom and Dad. Boy child and Girl child, and one more child, the gender gets to go in either room as needed. So after 5 people you have to juggle things depending on genders and numbers.

You could put 5 people in this 3 bedroom under 900 square foot house, and in days gone by, likely you would of had more than that in here. Just think of families in Hong Kong how many would be living in here.

The old adage waste not want not, is something my family has lived by, so it is really ingrianed in my thinking.

Thanks again for the post,
BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, Hugs from Arkansas.

Even in places where trees are all over the landscape, using less of them is a good sustainable practice

I strongly disagree.

Trees are almost perfect solar-powered carbon sequestration engines. Wood is a structure of captured atmospheric carbon. A great sustainable practice is using the maximum amount of wood in ways- such as construction- where it endures and is not burned or left to rot on the surface.

Provided the logged area is replanted, the more wood we build with the better.

Actually, the opposite is true, counter-intuitive as this may seem.

Leaving trees in the forest and letting them decay has a smaller total CO2 footprint than logging them and putting them in houses...

There was an exchange about this here at TOD a week or two ago with references, I believe, but I couldn't track it down. Maybe someone else remembers better than I do where it was?

(Or was it a discussion over at realclimate??)

It is the Provided part of your post that I was thinking about when I said what I said.

A mature Oak that produces Acorns is better in the forest, as a food crop than in your walls as stored carbon.

We have built with loads of wood, just look at all the shack-mansions we have about the world, but the carbon is being wasted by the system because we are not a green friendly building species.

Forest ecosystems are as varied as grass land ecosystems, there is none but the tree farm that is cookie cutter the same. In the Wild, forests are varied and can support a lot more habitat than cutting them down and starting over again. Mankind has proven to not get the sustainable part of the whole issue. So until they do understand a lot better than they do at present, I'll still think that they should build with as much non-wood materials.

In 20 years or 50 we can go back to building more with trees, but just planting the whole world in trees will not solve the CO2 issue, there was a lot more stored in those bits of oily fossils than we think.

Bamboo is loads better in some repects as a building material than wood. Likely a full mix of approachs will be best in the long run. A lot of mixing and matching to get the best overall mesh for total comfort.

Less, not totally none of them. I have had a borer issue with a pine in my back yard for years, while the tree up front just 75 feet away is healthy and free of them as can be. If I cut down the infested tree in the back, do I risk making my bigger one up front the new home of the bugs? In my opinion yes, But in about 5 years the point will be mote, I'll have to cut it down or move a shed roofline. You'll be happy to know I am going to be cutting down a willow oak in the winter, it is in the way of my garden and the tree is ill. I'd like to use the wood in the garden though, it might be a tough sell to my dad, he hates bugs. I have yet to wean him off spraying everything. I figure the ants have finally grown immune to the ant killer around here, and have grown into a super ant.

Got any good use for pine needles? let me know.

The best way is to bury it at sea, and you get the max use of the carbon without risk of your house farm burning in a fire. Or in area lakes, the old wood will sell big in 50 years.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, a bit of everything I imagine.
Hugs to all.

In today's materials, we have glass blocks and It would be neat to build a trullo with glass blocks or Mica or quartz to see what sort of cool affect you'd get out of it.

Or bottles as is sometimes done with earth building. Years ago the head of Heineken beer... "Alfred Heineken noticed that the native islanders (Curacao, W.I.) suffered from a chronic housing shortage and a swelling tide of empty beer bottles. Returning and refilling the bottles, the usual practice in 1960, was not economical because Curacao was too far from the bottling plants back in Holland and Heineken had noticed the surplus of beer bottles when he visited the island as part of a world tour of his company’s distribution outlets. Suddenly, he realized that the beer bottle problem and the housing shortage were each other’s solution and decided to design a beer bottle that could be re-used as a housing brick." Unfortunately this did not go down well with the Board & marketing types and it was discontinued. The bottle was square with dimples to make it bond better with cement or earth.
Will we be ready for ideas like this again before fuel is too scarce to make recyclable glass bottles?

Even in a wet climate wood could be in short supply or too expensive for the peasants of the day and many cottages or farmhouses were built of earth or cob (a mix of soil, straw and water). Walls built several feet thick leaving just doors, windows and roof beams of wood and an overhanging thatch roof. The roof being the key as the walls had to be protected from water. Many a picture postcard cottage in the UK or Ireland was built of these simple components.

In Wales and the UK the thatch was often replaced by slate (stone) roofs in the 19th Century.

In the Trulli I expect the stone roofs are a type of corbelling similar to that found in the Gallarus Gallery on W. Ireland or neolithic tombs. What is surprising is that in a wet climate they keep the water out.

Is it not about time that we rediscovered these simple materials and techniques for use on a large scale, and dumped the energy hungry brick and concrete block or tainted plaster board (dry wall).

I was in Alberobello a couple of years ago and was able to go into a trullo that was being used by a family. Inside it was surprisingly comfortable. However, it is my understanding that a combination of curiosity and considerable wealth in some nearby countries has driven the price of a trullo up close to the stratosphere.

It would make sense, in the U.S. and elsewhere, to explore entirely different types of construction. We also need to downsize our housing, though until energy prices really start rising I'm not sure that would sell to most Americans. The other problems here in the U.S. include all kinds of restrictions on construction, etc., which discourage innovative housing. A colleague of mine, for example, wanted to build a yurt but was told by the city he lived in that that was impossible.

Someone suggested that in the U.S. you could put five people in a house, but reality is that we only have about half that many in each house, despite larger house sizes. It is part of our cultural need to consume as much as possible.

It was me, the 5 people in a 3 bedroom house. The problem is that the with Gov't comes restrictions, with restrictions comes failure to fix problems with simple solutions.

More Earth Friendly housing is possible, if you own your own land, and get to say what you build on it. Something that happened in ages past, at least before someone came along and said they owned the land and you had to move.

I would love to have the ability to building anything I wanted to in an Eco-Village set up. Buy up a big hunk of land, An Old farm that had to be put on the auction block for example. Then turn it into a living breathing food forest with eco-village at it's center, or blended into the whole mass.

Where we could try as many different house designs as we can think of to fit in with the climate and areas available materials. It would take a lot of hard work and be a multi-year project. But if One owner or a group had the funds, a good Teaching site could be built.

Dream big, and dream often, never give up the ideas of getting the world together as one happy family, after all, no matter what anyone says, we are all in this together, and we might as well start learning to live together.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world.


The thought was we have a load of single person houses just like we have a load of single person cars going zip zip around. The problem is ME wants to Do My thing, not anyone elses. No one is nice to others as much any more.

I was at a big Box store, today, we were giving a ride to someone, and I was helping them buy things that their food stamps would not buy. I returned the cart to the cart stable and there was a cart handler there, so I put the cart at the end of his line, and he thanked me, I was taken aback for a second. I figured it was the right thing to do. He told me that I was the first person he'd ever seen do that. No one is being polite anymore, it seems. He was a teenager/early 20's I told him I was just taught to be nice and polite, and his generation had to hold onto those ideals, and make their own.

After all it won't be me being polite in 50 years, it'll be him.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, polite and kind to all.

And if in the US it is so difficult to build innovative houses, you can imagine how it is in Europe, and in Italy in particular....

I'll have to take your word on that Ugo. Thanks for the key post. Italy is way on top of my must visit list, but...that long trip to Europe always seems to slide behind a simpler trip on our Pacific side when I am self indulgent enough to fly off somewhere.

One thing about housing innovation, fire codes are there for a reason. This of course would not be an issue with a home that hearkened back toward the trullo but fabric yurts in close proximity to one another would make quite the conflagration.

Cities burnt down pretty often in the 'good old days.' Of course Port-au-Prince points up the importance of building seismic considerations into codes as well.

Are you advocating a return to the stone age?

There are more primitive structures in France (bories) and Sardinia (nuraghe):

However natural they may be, I don’t see us unlearning everything we know about modern construction.

If you want something sustainable, build with concrete. Down on the Gulf Coast we are building Habitat for Humanity houses with six inch reinforced concrete walls. These houses are super insulated and require practically no exterior maintenance.

My house is aerated autoclaved concrete with twelve inch thick walls. Energy efficient, extremely low maintenance. Should last about 1000 years with a new aluminum roof every 150 years or so.

"If you want something sustainable, build with concrete."

You are kidding, I hope. Most concrete manufacture involves large emissions of CO2.

So does burning down and rebuilding wood and straw cities. Lots of trade offs.

I enjoyed this post but I fail to see how it is relevant today. Do you really think that building stone roofs are a likely or even desirable approach?
As an aside I thought the statement about agriculture not sustainable seems off the mark -- so much depends on how you do it.

What am I missing?

I don't understand this romantic enthusiasm (almost religion for some people) for traditional building methods.

Traditional architecture is sustainable only if paired with traditional lifestyle. Who on earth wants to have the same room temperatures which was the standard about a century ago?

Promoting such things is especially strange on a site like TOD focusing on energy problems. Todays technology allows us to build houses using almost no energy at all for heating / cooling while providing the same comfort we are used to. (real zero energy consumption is also possible, but not yet affordable).

Today's technology allows us to do a lot of things, but if we lose energy supplies, I am afraid we also lose much of today's technology. Technology usually needs both oil and electricity for its production and transport.

With less oil supplies, people are going to need different places to live than they do today, because many jobs will cease to exist, and because commuting will be very limited. Hopefully, we can continue to use homes that are already built, but if not, it seems like there is a good chance we will have to build new homes out of more traditional materials.

Also, homes don't last forever. For example, here in the South of the US, without chemicals to treat for termites, I expect within 50 years most homes will be quite termite-eaten. We will need to think of Plan B.

Didn't you read the article the traditional houses of the bygone eras, were comfortable more than you think. Some plces maybe not so much, but there are a lot of buildings methods for having a stable and comfortable temperature, without to much discomfort.

Somewhere along the way people got this notion that those old houses were terrible places to live in, just barely above a stone cave floor and huddled chilly in the winter and baking hot in the summer. If that were the case they were not building them like they should and died off due to no common sense.

What happened in the early massive cities of the Industrial Revolution, where people were packed into cities, is they lost the traditional building forms and changed their way of living and were paying the price for it left and right.

That is not what most of us are talking about.

Down south where I live the normal old house circa 1850's to 1890's had 12 foot ceilings and tall windows, loads of shade trees and were comfortable without AC even in the Hot south. But if you build a low ceiling box house, and loose power, you cook, or freeze.

The Houses were are promotng have earth mass to keep the temps a stable 65 yo 75 all year around, some times you might spike up/down if it is extreme, but generally the places are comfortable more so than most modern houses in the house farms.

Sustainable means to me, that If the power goes out for a year, can I live just fine where I am, and not have to move. Can I eat off my land, and stored foods, and grow more without a trip to a store, or mall? And can I not have to worry that the AC is powerless and have to sweat it out everytime it gets above 80, or shiver if it gets below 50 outsdie.

That is what I mean by a better housed and fed world.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, at 75 Degrees, Hugs

A couple of years ago I visited Skara Brae, which is the remains of a Neolithic village about 5000 years old. The houses were build of drystone walls with whalebone and turf roofs. The houses were constructed partially underground.

At the site, there is a roofed reconstruction of one of the houses and I was very struck by the fact that despite the cold damp wind outside, it was very snug indeed inside. I would be quite happy to live in such a structure, if I had to.

Traditional methods -- like big masses for big heat capacity -- helps to keep the indoor temperature near the yearly mean temperature of the area, that is somewhat about 50F (10C) in the continental climate I am living. Thanks, not for me. Maybe it is good to spend a few hours in a wine cellar in a hot summer day, but not living there for the whole year.

It would be stupid to throw away what todays technology offers:

- CAD to optimize orientation and house design to maximize solar gain in the winter and minimize the overheat in the summer. Even a few inches change in the length of the roof overhang results in very big differences in the energy balance. The same it true for the sizing of the windows. If playing with computer simulations at this area, you will notice, that it is so sensible for the parameters, that traditional methods -- like planting trees for summer shading -- cannot be precise enough.

- Modern insulation materials to make your walls around 0.1W/m2K (that needs over 10inches of insulation)

- Triple glazed windows with positive energy balance even in the winters

- Heat recovery ventilation (to reduce the energy loss by ventilation and produce good quality air constantly)

- And of course it is good to put in some heat capacity, but it has noticeable affect only with the low heat fluxes gained with good insulation

Once built, such a house needs no more technology nor bigger amount of energy (the HRV needs usually less than 50W) to operate.

At least in the area I am living, traditional architecture was sustainable with the following lifestyle:

- 3 generations of the family spent the day in a single room heated int the winters, the rest of the house was jut not freezing. Even there, the temperature was not much above 60F (15C)

- Even this very limited living standard was maintained by using much more energy than e.g. a Passive House needs. (At least it was sustainable, burning wood they have produced in the neighborhood.)

- Thick solid walls are enough only against short hot periods. (I am just living in a bad insulated house with 20 inches thick solid brick walls. It can delay hot weather with a week or two, but then it becomes constantly hot inside for a similar period.)

The Houses were are promotng have earth mass to keep the temps a stable 65 yo 75 all year around, some times you might spike up/down if it is extreme, but generally the places are comfortable more so than most modern houses in the house farms.

There's a lot of misinformation about thermal mass. If you mean earth-sheltered houses, then yes at 6' down the temperature equals the annual average temperature for that location. Around 56-60 deg f here in PA; but too cold in Alaska, too hot in Miami. If you mean thick solid walls, then the maximum lag in temperature is around 6-8 hours. That works great in a climate like New Mexico, so that the daily swing of temperature from too hot in the day to too cool at night is partially evened out. Adobe works great there. In Alaska or North Dakota when the days are way too cold already, thermal mass is of no use, except allied with a lot of insulation and correctly applied passive solar techniques, if there is plenty of sun in swing heating seasons.
Insulation in general is the answer if we are talking about saving energy on heating. Gail A is partially right that such better construction is much facilitated with petrochemical products, but there are more primitive solutions like straw bales, wool, animal hair and the like.
A consideration of the climate zone is crucial. Hopefullly this will lead us back to more truly regional solutions without having to worship at the altar of fake primitivism and the imitation of pre-industrial aesthetics

That is a nice anaysis. I continue to follow the low-hanging fruit and wonder what it will take to make people incorporate:
1. daylighting.
2. simpler rooflines so solar addition is possible when it becomes irresistably cheap.
3. design of rooflines and site so heat tape is unnecessary.

etc. As you say, regional things. Put another way, when will aesthetics/fashions accept some functional input? When, not if. It's a social question, a push against money (there is always an economic case for anything, in some situation, and we must be allowed to pursue dollars no matter what. ie there will always be some situation where heat tape is necessary for the highest and best use of the property) and "taste", as an inviolable right. I am frustrated that policy has to skirt these issues without any discussion. At some point there has to be a questioning of these things, an accomodation of them, or even leveraging of them, in a way that will affect people. I think it would be a good time to be an architect, if you like absorbing information and solving problems, and if you can wait for things to happen. Might take a lifetime but something new will come.

Nice pictures from the latest solar decathlon - I think the box shaped envelope is a bit claustrophobic maybe, after 4 contests. But I don't know much about the rules.

Hadn't heard there was much permafrost down North Dakota ways, most of our state in underlain by it. North Dakota and Alaska really don't lump together too well ?- ) Well I guess both states have a little oil, but we have a whole lot more natural gas and coal and North Dakota probably grows a whole lot more food than we do.

Good points on the thermal mass issue though.

How big are these trulli? On Google Maps they look like they're about two meters in diameter. That would make for very small rooms.

They are bigger than that. Those I saw in Alberobello are at least 4-5 meters in diameter, inside. A single round room can host a couple of beds and space for working, cooking, etc. There are also smaller trulli, even very small; I think used for livestock, or perhaps dogs.

The key to sustainable house building is to use the materials that are locally available and to build to the local climate.

Stone is a wonderful building material, but it needs to be sourced very close to the building to keep the energy needed to transport it to a minimum. The human labour content is always high.

Dry stone walling for boundary walls is a traditional skill still practised in the UK with several different regional styles, depending on the stone available and the climate. I have done some walling myself.

In parts of northern England, the hillsides seem to be covered with thousands of miles of stone walls, making tiny fields that are far too small. The reason is simply the the stones were in the fields already, some left over by retreating glaciers at the end of the ice age, and they have simply been piled up into walls over the millennia to clear as much of the ground as possible for farming.

slate makes a good long lasting roofing material. but it is expensive. The wood supporting beam can last for hundreds of years if kept dry. What other stone has been used for roofs?

Thanks for this post, Ugo.

Now I know what the word “trullo”. In colloquial Spanish trullo means ‘jail’; of course we are Latins.

There are many complete stone structures in Spain, being the oldest one the so called Naveta des Tudons in Minorca ( 125-700 BC) . Most of the walls separating the individual fields where animals were grazing in ancient Spain were also made with stones.

Then, the Roman invasion brought here a lot of construction fully made on stones. Interestingly enough, in my parent’s village, an ancient Roman settlement of the era of August (Christ contemporary), there were magnificent stone buildings. We have been taught that these big buildings needed a lot of slave force to carve rocks shape blocks and pile them properly.

In 1963, before the small village was flooded by a dam, the 2,000 inhabitants of that time used to live still in a sort of preindustrial era, without a single ICE machine and only using draft animals. A 20 percent of the houses were made with stone (in some cases with the stone slabs of the remains of the Roman original village) and an 80 percent were made with a mix of rough stones and adobe.

When I started to be concerned about energy embedded in things, I made an interesting comparison:

My daughter, living in Madrid, a highly qualified professional, owns a small apartment of about 55 square meters. She pays some 30 percent of her salary to cover a 20 years loan monthly settlements. That is, her home, represents some 6 full years of her highly qualified effort to pay for her “trullo”. If we look from a three dimensional perspective, she is paying in fact for a housing that is composed as follows:

Half a feet width walls, of course with plaster and painting, in four sides, that are also paid by her neighbors. The ceiling and floor also shared with the upper and lower neighbors in the block.

When I asked the old people of the village how long did it take to them to build a individual stone home (the type of the luxury ones of the minority; full stoned, with two feet width walls) they said that they were made with the collaboration of several people in their free time (never on Sundays), after the work in the fields. I asked them for more precision, and they concluded that a house of some 80 square meters (about 750 square feet), plus a corral of the same (at least) extension and a storehouse for hay, straw or cereals with a similar space, could represent the equivalent effort of two full time men in one year.

That is, between three and nine times less than my highly qualified daughter is paying for a housing that was made to last decades, not centuries like the ones of the village. This is important, because the village houses were inherited by probably 20 generations, with minimum repairs, with almost no maintenance, (just the traditional liem painting for summer and to eliminate parasites) and were perfectly recyclable (even we may think that the reuse of the stone slabs of Roman housing will be a scandal in year 2010, in the 15th. to 18th. century they were not so much conscious about antiquities and its preservation, but proved that materials for housing and the goods and tools and everything else inside these housing was 100 percent recyclable. In 1963, the year of the flooding of the village by a dam, there was no a garbage collection system. But the village seemed quite clean, as far as I can remember.

Who is really working like a slave for a place where to live? Where are we? Quo Vadis?

Many interesting comments, thanks everybody. One point I'd like to make is that, no, my post is not a proposal for going back to stone age. It is just a reflection on sustainability and on how difficult it is to attain it. Those people who invented the "trulli" probably were a few steps closer to it than we are now; with our houses that cannot survive for more than a few hours without elecricity and costing us an unbelievable amount of money. The trulli were cheap, reasonably comfortable, and even romantic. But even the trulli seem to me to be an adaptation to a degrading agricultural condition. It is just very difficult for humans to attain that degree of balance with nature that so many of us advocate but that remains elusive. Perhaps we'll never learn, as Pedro says, "Quo vadis?"

I converted my family home to a net-zero solar powered home that uses no oil or gas...I made some videos to show people how to wean your family off of oil...I attached one here...