June 23 2010 12:00 AM

Bronze-age Korean architecture hits Ingham County


Twenty-six people formed a U on Friday around Korean architect and philosopher Jai Soon Ko in room 201 of the Michigan State University International Center. Air and heat vents dotted the ceiling, while covering the cement floor was a plain blue carpet — not exactly Ko’s style.

In Korea, he is the leading instructor of traditional mud house architecture and proponent of “Ondol” heating systems, a roughly 5,000-year-old method that is making its way into modern society.

Ko traveled to Ingham County and will be here for two weeks to share his teachings with Americans. Sang Won Lee, an Okemos resident who is finishing a 200 square-foot traditional Korean mud house with an Ondol system, invited Ko here. Ko serves as the principal supervisor on Lee’s home.

“This system is about going back to nature,” Ko said through a translator. “This way is best for human beings. Today we are surrounded by chemicals.”

Ondol dates back to the Bronze Age. It is essentially a floor above a fireplace. A fire on the outside of the home directs heat beneath the floor to a chimney on the other side. Charcoal, glass bottles and soil collect and retain the heat as it moves from one side of the mud house to the other. Stone slabs on the floor distribute the heat up. Any type of recycled glass bottle works well in the floors.

“Even whiskey,” joked the affable Ko.

Energy and materials efficiency is the key to Ondol. It is common for three to five logs to heat a 300-square-foot mud house for 24 hours, he said. The houses (traditionally) are made entirely of mud, stone and wood. Modern variations include clay and charcoal.

Ko said the spiritual and mental benefits of living in a home using Ondol are unmatched. Frank Lloyd Wright retrofitted the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1923 with an Ondol system, and described it as the “indescribable comfort of being warmed from below.” Wright pioneered an Ondol method in the West known as radiant heat: plastic or metal pipes installed below floorboards that conduct hot water.

Ko founded the School of Mud House in Wonju City, South Korea, in 2004. The project for each class is to build a new mud house using Ondol. So far, 30 houses with Ondol and a 1,800 square-foot schoolhouse have been built.

He said that about 90 percent of Korean homes are heated with some variation of Ondol. The Korea Times reported in 2008 that more than half of the newly built homes in Western Europe used a form of Ondol, mostly using radiant heat rather than firewood. The Korean Agency for Technology and Standards estimated in 2008 that the Ondol market was growing by 20 percent each year in the U.S.

Fred McLaughlin, who teaches alternative methods and materials construction at Lansing Community College, attended Ko’s lecture Friday. He is in the process of building a home in South Lansing near the intersection of Holmes Road and Cedar Street made entirely of straw bales and clay.

The biggest hurdle building with straw or mud is familiarity with the technique. Materials most readily available to a region should be used.

“There’s tons of straw in the U.S.,” McLaughlin said.

The subject turns to building codes, which McLaughlin admits can get confusing even for a professor. Statewide residential building codes handle these methods, but it is left to inspectors who are learning as they go, too.

“It’s a challenge to meet (the code) sometimes, but it’s not like you’re being flogged. I mean, you want to heat your house,” he said. “But officials around here have been very helpful – sometimes I think I lean on them too much.”

At Sang Won Lee’s project, the skeleton of the mud house is complete, but materials and empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans dot the worksite. Ko estimates the house will be complete in a few weeks. The Ondol floor needs to be filled with bottles and charcoal, the flagstone floor and a cedar roof need to be installed.

The Lees (they own Twichell’s cleaners in East Lansing) have invested about $30,000 since the beginning of May into their mud house, which will be used for resting, music, reading and teaching. Costs to build in South Korea are roughly the same, said Ko.

Ko and I discuss the importance of his first mud house in America as two hired hands mix plaster and move bricks in the 85 degree heat.

“This is very important to me,” said Ko, standing on a scaffold in a straw hat, sunglasses and towel around his neck. “It is good for the human body. This is a good chance for me to spread Ondol around the world.”