Ecological Habitat

Sola Roof Ecological Habitat

“Transition to Sustainable Shelter Systems”

By Richard Nelson

Life Synthesis LLP, UK

22 July 2006

A) General project description summarizing the purpose, objectives of the program.

Sunlight, shining down on the urban environment, falls unused on a vast expanse of opaque roof area, which together with hot roadways and other paved areas creates a dead, grey zone, like a desert, and causes the “Heat Island Effect” of cities. In high density urban communities, including impoverished slums, there is little open public space available to “green” the environment; since the economics of “land value” dictate a utilitarian, commercial or private use of land. Although mature trees in the urban environment can be a great value they are difficult to establish or to closely integrate with existing urban patterns of development. It is common place to first “clear the land” of trees, removing even topsoil, as a first step in the construction process.

Urban planners seek to remedy this situation by imposing “green space” and “green belts” in and around the “man made” urban environment. However, much of the global process of urbanization is not subject to control of planners and is happening rapidly in the poor communities and slums of the developing world. With land at a premium and no economic incentive to provide green space as a relief from the harsh reality of city living, it is certain that millions will suffer from an absence of greenery; and the beauty, harmony and the environmental benefits and resources that nature brings into our lives.

The problem is that the land zoning method of “greening of the urban environment” has been developed in the affluent west and is based on the historical example of ornamental parklands and gardens established by aristocracy. Such green space is valued for beauty and style but has little practical benefit beyond recreation and leisure. It is a sign of prosperity and privilege when such public gardens are “inserted” into the urban environment. The modern urban planning approach is a further expression of a paradigm where nature is to be presented as a formal garden – framed as “a pretty picture” – which remains complementary but external to the built environment. Plants are not understood in functional ecological roles and Cities remain devoid of integrated life support systems - and impose a large “footprint” (the multiplier of the actual area to the life support area) on the rural lands surrounding which must provide the need for imported water, food and agro resources for life support. However, it is now possible to foresee new patterns of human habitat that would make cities themselves “living systems” capable of self reliant provision of food, water and energy from within their boundaries and thereby reduce the burden on the surrounding countryside.

A “closed ecological life support system” (CELSS) for city and village development has the purpose that all communities, both urban and rural, will feed people, collect, purify and conserve water and produce an abundance of renewable energy by means of the powerful Phytomechanisms of plants, including photosynthesis and transpiration. Such important breakthroughs will be obtained through the fusion of ecological systems and “living structures” that envision living plants having a central, functional role in human habitat and result in an Ecological Habitat for Humanity.

Such a solution will not zone plants into gardens or into pockets of “green space” but will fully integrate plants everywhere – making them integral with out built environment. Plants will be extensively used to form the interface between the sky and the habitation, occupying substantially all of the roof areas and sheltering pedestrian ways and public squares. Sola Roof is a new roof concept that provides optimum environment for the growing of the plants, using a transparent enclosure to allow continuous production of crops no matter what the season or extremes of weather. The result will be living cities or villages; where even individual homes would be capable of supporting a family and providing substantially all the vital needs of that family. Thus, if residences, as the building blocks of a community are ecologically life supporting in design, then the community will be naturally sustainable and will provide a true foundation for abundant living, that is healthy and restorative of well being at all levels from local to global. Our personal and collective life styles will then have the power to heal the damage already inflicted on the planetary ecology and will save the next generations from the threat of dangerous climate change (“Climate Crisis”) – if only the transition to sustainable living is sufficiently universal and rapid.

B) Why is Sola Roof an opportunity to establish Ecological Habitats? How would Sola Roof technology be adapted to Human Habitat to establish a new pattern of Ecological life support that is fully integrated with Habitat?

Sola Roof is proposed as an approach to the delivery of such Ecological Habitat for communities, in urban as well as rural village settings. This is a technology that has been known for some years now as the Sola Roof greenhouse technology; which has been applied successfully to sheltered agriculture in Northern and Temperate climates (See attached PDF, “Sola Roof Concepts”).

The present goal, and the purpose of this discussion paper is to pioneer a series of variations of Sola Roof technology on the theme of Ecological Habitat for human habitation – thereby offering owners and developers of building projects the opportunity to select an appropriate level of Sola Roof technology – adapted for the site, climate, culture and budget. Also, different levels of technology can be used in a single project. A completely open, traditional green space would provide no shelter or climate control at all, while a completely “enclosed” and climate controlled system could establish a snow skiing recreational environment in a tropical location or a tropical biotope could be maintained during cold winters in a northern climate. The Sola Roof approach is universally adaptable because it modifies the universal function of the roofs of buildings, which are now a neglected aspect of the built environment and little consideration is given to the development of this resource that is simply awaiting appropriate methods and technology.

The basic Sola Roof designs proposed in this paper are capable of enabling a transition to sustainable living – since the fundamental technology would be reliable, affordable and universally available in the “market place” from suppliers or as DIY kits based on Open Source know how. However, technology is not a silver bullet that guarantees success in building communities; the real success will come gradually as pioneering, experimental living and learning experiences are obtained – and these stories must be shared across a global network so as to inspire others in a chain reaction to thus accelerate the process of transition in lifestyle. Authentic change and transformation will arise from the grass roots level and become viral memes spreading a new collective consciousness of ecological architecture that will underlie the deep social and individual transformation needed to effect our survival and bring about universal prosperity for all.

Sola Roof Technology is universally adaptable

The universality of Sola Roof as a technical solution is the key to developing a global-to-local collaboration. The examples provided by the pioneering individuals and groups anywhere will immediately inspire others to act on the powerful incentive to build a sustainable future for our children. Climate Change challenges all peoples to find a secure and sustainable prosperity and this goal is big enough to inspire global unison and cooperation. The universality of the Sola Roof solution enables it to bridge (in fact to remove) the large gaps between rich and poor, which current trends continue to widen. Sola Roof is no ordinary solution – it is a “convergent technology” that can succeed at a grass roots level and through a bottom up collaboration.

Applying the Sola Roof technology it is possible to create climate conditions within the closed environment systems that are quite the opposite of the local climate. The purpose is that, even in extreme climates, we can establish controlled environment living, working and recreational spaces where we maintain comfortable, productive and healthy conditions without causing high energy consumption and without incurring high capital or environmental cost. The Sola Roof solutions would provide an affordable, accessible (Open Source) and adaptable technology to reach these goals and make it possible for our urban and rural community development to do more with less; to contract the impact of human habitat on the planetary ecology to the actual footprint of our built environment; to zero our production of wastes and emissions; and to sequester more CO 2? than our human activities are generating. In all climates there can be a combination of the open atmosphere Sola Roof Garden and the closed atmosphere, fully controlled environments provided by the Sola Roof technology.

1) Open Atmosphere Sola Roof Garden:

In some cases, where the need for climate modification is slight, there is only a minimum level of Sola Roof technology necessary – this is known as the Sola Roof Garden and is used where enclosure of the plant growing environment is not required. The Sola Roof Garden requires at a minimum:

  1. The shelter of a plant leaf canopy suspended overhead as the primary system;
  2. A leaf canopy together with a single transparent awning beneath for shelter from rain and wind as required by the use of the space so sheltered.

These systems are “open” and do not seek to completely control the environment of the sheltered space or the growing environment of the plants, which are exposed to the weather of the locality without any modification. However, the root zone of the plants is provided with full hydroponics for watering and provision of natural bio-nutrients for maximum growing results and water conservation.

2) Closed Atmosphere Sola Roof

The severity of some climates would dictate that most of the roof level plant leaf canopy must be enclosed within a controlled environment growing space with a transparent Sola Roof to provide the low energy, closed atmosphere growing space, which will generally extend over all the roof areas of buildings and may sometimes continue to extend over courtyards, public squares and pedestrian avenues and streets. There may also be open squares and Sola Roof Garden spaces mixed in so that the sense of enclosure is broken at intervals that give an appropriate degree of access to open sky and conventional green space.

The completely closed atmosphere growing spaces are optimized to use an enriched CO 2? atmosphere that enhances the rate of plant photosynthesis. While all the controlled environment spaces are closed atmosphere, not all would be CO 2? enriched environments. But, within the Sola Roof building envelope we do have “cavity spaces” where high CO 2? concentration is maintained for the maximum plant photosynthesis, obtained by the mass culture of algae.

There are two degrees of Sola Roof implementation:

  1. An envelope having two transparent layers and one roof cavity space that is simple and low cost.
  2. A triple layer system that is used in the most severe climates and/or to achieve the highest degree of benefits and control over the enclosed plant growing space and the living, working or recreational space beneath the roof level.

The second degree is generally applied to the highest sunlight regions where the Sola Roof is utilizing systems to both control the temperature and humidity of the sheltered environment and also to convert sunlight to Bio Fuel? through growing plant and algae biomass and utilizing the waste thermal energy for distributed electrical power generation.

C) An action plan for development and organization of a collaborative group for project implementation including participants.

The objective of this proposal is to organise support for the development and demonstration of the use of the Sola Roof Garden in a low cost residential community in two distinct African locations that would clearly show the advantages of building on the Ecological Habitat paradigm:

  1. The Gambia – a tropical climate, Ecotourism development.
  2. South Africa – a temperate climate, Eco Village development.

The low cost residential community in South Africa and the Ecotourism development in The Gambia are to be implemented immediately and both approaches will apply both locations in later phases of project development. The twining of the projects will serve to enhance the rapid demonstration and diffusion of the new technology.

The program coordination will be provided by Life Synthesis, which will engage the necessary expertise to implement these projects. The projects are intended to establish momentum for “transitional shelter” projects to become widely applied and universally accessible. The transition that we are enabling is from a non-sustainable lifestyle of dependency on aid and scarcity of resources to an Eco Living? lifestyle, which is inclusive of several solutions for sustainable living. In combination these solutions result in a holistic synthesis of knowledge that is expressed in the form of technology, which healthy and restorative of the balance and harmony between the natural ecology and the man made human habitat.

The further goal is see that the Sola Roof & Sola Roof Garden methods of construction are able to find an appropriate use in the developing world where the effects of Global Warming are bound to increase an already fast expanding use of electrical power for cooling of buildings. The projects that are planned will demonstrate a much higher efficiency in cooling buildings by the using the shading of plant leaf canopies. Such shade has the advantage of the transpiration cooling mechanism of plants to reduce the solar overheating of roofs by an order of magnitude and while the water working principles of Sola Roof design can minimise the consumption of water for plant growth while maximizing the collection, conservation and reuse of water. Where the Sola Roof processes are applied, they will produce sufficient pure water for the inhabitants of such communities.

Many plant products, including food, feed and fibre can be produced continuously within the Ecological Habitat system and so this paradigm will powerfully serve the UN goal to increase food security in communities and to establish the systems for “Cities feeding people”. Food quality is also assured and spoilage, waste and food miles are greatly reduced. Employment in the community is created and money circulates within the community economy.

D) A short summary of the project (the summary should not exceed 100 – 150 words and should be suitable for use in a public database):

The Sola Roof Garden is accessible and affordable to even the poorest communities and slums because there is no prerequisite for land, since plants are grown overhead, at the level of a roof superstructure. This ecological technology will enhance the value of space (including new roof terrace space made useable) and can be implemented over highly dense and chaotic neighbourhoods where it will inspire and demonstrate social unison. A light weight superstructure would be used to support an extensive plant canopy layer above the existing structures, which then will have sheltered, shaded roofs which can be developed as living space or for private gardens. The superstructure will also bridge over groups of homes and entire neighbourhoods so that cool, shaded yards are created between homes and, in the same way that mature trees can provide pleasant comfortable streets, the leaf canopy shading will change the atmosphere of communities from being hot and oppressive to being vital and attractive communities.

'''D) A summary of the project taking into consideration the following criteria: a) Project aim taking into consideration the sustainability and efficiency of the project.'''

Further to the shading and cooling function, the leaf canopy support structure would be designed to collect rain water while sheltering the spaces below from wet weather. This is accomplished using thin translucent or transparent film canopies for rain water collection. The plants used to grow the leaf shade canopy are naturally spreading vine plants, while other plants may also be grown using light weight hydroponics growing systems. Such systems use the very least water to grow valuable food crops and the water consumed is used by the plant to cool the environment. There is no other system of cooling that is so effective and efficient in use of water and there is the advantage of harvesting food, feed, fibre and plant biomass that can be converted by anaerobic digestion into Bio Methane. A desirable amount of natural daylight will be allowed through the leaf canopy so that a minimum of artificial light will be needed.

The structural technology to build a light superstructure which is capable of supporting a spreading leaf canopy over large areas of urban roof is readily available and can be deployed at a low cost. This capital expenditure is easily recovered in the various benefits to be obtained from growing the plants, collecting rain water and with the benefit of cooling the sheltered human habitat and creating superior common spaces, pedestrian spaces and usable roof tops for private living and gardening space. Tracts of low cost and “affordable housing” projects would be a good place to establish “retrofit” demonstration projects. Or new housing projects can be built from the start as Ecological Habitat by cooperative communities that are more easily established as self funded, sustainable resource production projects.

b) Innovative aspects of the project taking into account the technological standards and the circumstances in this region.

The implementation of the Sola Roof Garden technology in South Africa is well within reach of the local community. An Eco Village constructed by and for the indignant peoples of the ecologically sensitive region (The Waterberg Mountains, the largest privately owned Biosphere) is a “natural” fit with the Ecotourism industry which is flourishing in the area. In deed, with such a beautiful Eco Village the local people will have an affordable economic development opportunity: to offer tourist accommodation within the Eco Village. Such tourism would offer a richer “in country” experience as compared to a hotel experience, as below:

  • 11 kilometers from the Tropic of Capricorn -2.5 hours drive North of Johannesburg.
  • One of the oldest mountain ranges in the world - historically inhabited by the San people who were Shamanic healers renowned for their rock paintings
  • An African game area of outstanding beauty with a bio-diversity of topography, eco-systems and wilderness
  • Malaria-free, unpolluted air and temperate climate.

The additional Ecotourism site in The Gambia is a truly tropical climate and the specific project is an excellent demonstration of Ecotourism developments. Again, it is our local partners’ long experience in this locality and their existing foundation (itself partnering with a local village in this development program) that will make all the difference in terms of ability handle the implementation phase.

c) Cost/benefit – description of economic and social aspects.

Our team has in depth experience with low cost construction methods for rammed earth block wall and thin shell concrete floor systems, for which the primary cost is local labor. These methods use on-site aggregates and buildings that are constructed within the superstructure of a Sola Roof Garden and therefore have protection from the wind, sun and rain. The structures are comfortable in both the hot and cold seasons due to the natural solar heating and cooling processes that are integrated with the Sola Roof Garden. Lower cost utilities include the supply of alternative energy and also the production, purification and recycling of water resources so that the cost of water is greatly reduced and clean water is available to all members of the community.

The industrial components that are brought into the site (possibly from abroad) will be kept very simple and replacement parts will be easily available as commodity material that is available at a low cost. Therefore both the capital and the energy cost for maintaining a comfortable, controlled environment are very low as compared to typical non-insulated construction and mechanical heating and air conditioning systems. The cost of construction of the homes and buildings under the Sola Roof Garden are reduced because they are within the climate controlled habitat. Therefore community spaces and cooperative business facilities will be provided at an affordable cost to the community such as shops, restaurant and entertainment space for both residents and guests (Ecotourism). Courtyard spaces and pedestrian walkways will be attractive opportunities for commercial space within the residential community. There would also be a Unity Centre where the community can develop ITC skills and enterprise that are based on sustainable living and livelihoods.

Sola Roof Garden is capable of generating an ongoing income from the sale of fresh food, and other bio resources, water and energy – generating income that is so significant that it is able to pay off the cost of an Eco Village such as we propose within a few years of operation. Therefore the community is not burdened with a long term debt and the sustainable growth and prosperity of the community is assured. Surplus community income can go into educational and skills/business developments that will further enrich the members of the community and promote economic self reliance.

d) Replication potential of the project. Possible effects on the market:

Sola Roof is an Open Source project founded by inventor Richard Nelson and has a current active participation of over 500 people around the globe. Sola Roof is a simple technology that is available as DIY know how from our Wiki Website ( and through our discussion forum at Yahoo Groups ( which is also networked with many other sustainable development groups and initiatives. We will support the sharing of best practices through a global/local internet community that will provide many forms of support and all the “How To” information and encouragement that our pioneers and then mainstream users will need.

One of our collaborators is the Dream Farm II project which, under the direction of Dr Mae-Wan Ho is centered in the UK and intends to establish a network of educational centres in both the developed and developing worlds. We also would link with One Village? Foundation who have key management people (Jeff Budderer, Joy Tang) in the USA and a network of field operatives in Africa. We network with Global Villages and would participate in creating a GEN – Africa with the full support of Global Eco Village Network. We also have collaborative support from Dr. George Chan who is a member of the ZERI network which has years of experience in technology diffusion.

At this time there are several businesses, organizations (Charities, Foundations, NG Os?) and Universities that are aligned in our Sola Roof network in support of the commercial supply of the necessary materials, components and systems that would be used to complete the implementation of an Ecological Habitat for Humanity. These components have been designed for DIY and grass roots production that is ideal for small enterprise development. The technology is simple and can be manufactured in any locality with minimum industrial infrastructure. In deed, local “cottage industry” manufacture can result in significant job creation as this pattern of sustainable development is replicated in a region.

E) Supporting materials: publications, newspaper articles, photographs, videotapes, DV Ds?, brochures, website, etc.


Information about Sola Roof: Sola Roof Concepts.PDF (a slide presentation) Information about Life Synthesis: Life Synthesis.ppt (a slide presentation)

Proposed development partners:

1. South Africa: Khutso Foundation – Amanda St. George – Amanda at

2. The Gambia: Gamspirit Limited – Maurice Phillips – Maurice at

3. UK: Dartington Hall Trust - Julie Richardson - landscope at

4. USA: One Village? Foundation – Jeff Buderer - jeff at

The lead site for the purpose of our application to Energy Globe is the South Africa site, however, the cross cultural exchange of results in pioneering the new Eco Living? lifestyle in several cultural and climate context will provide a greater depth of knowledge and more rapid progress towards the sustainable living solutions that we all need and desire to share.