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green@work : Magazine : Back Issue : Jul/Aug 2001 : Read On 2

How Do We Live?

A diverse array of authors respond to this query in the new Sustainable Architecture White Papers.

by Janet Wiens


Paul Hawken, certainly among the most elegant of writers, provides the preface for a book of essays on environmental design. In it he states, “Sustainable architecture is foremost about reimagining the relationship between human beings and living systems. The most powerful expression of this relationship is our built environment.” And then he asks, “How do we build now that there are six billion of us? How do we design structures that can be reincorporated into the earth harmlessly and endlessly? [The emphasis is mine.] How do we metabolize energy and water so that the sky and land improve rather than erode? In other words, given how many we are and how much we have come to expect, how do we live?”

Fifty-five authors responded to Hawken’s query in a series of white papers collected and published by the Earth Pledge Foundation, New York, NY. White papers, we are told, began in 18th-century England to provide a forum for important social and political issues. Clearly, from the caliber of contributors and the extensive range of their concerns, these essays are worthy of their moniker. Submissions range from the expected to the profound. Old, but mostly worthy, green building strategies are paired with conceptual ideas that are startlingly new. The “woe is us” plaintive cry uttered by some is adequately countered by creative, paradigm-shifting ideas for ways out of the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into.

One of the advantages of a collection of essays is the ability to quickly move on from one style or subject to another. Below are excerpts from essays I found particularly provocative. Feel free to exercise your own judgment as well.

• “Sustainable architecture basically comes down to three purposes—first, to advance the purely selfish motive of survival by a cooperation with nature; second, to build shelter in concert with ecological principles as part of this objective; and third, to address the deeper philosophical conflicts surrounding the issue of whether we really deserve the luxury of this existence, given our appalling track record of environmental abuse.”
James Wines, president and founder of SITE

• “In June 1996, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) moved into a new 20,000-square-foot space in Washington, DC, that is one of the most environmentally friendly offices in the United States. This office represents the culmination of a 10-year greening process of all four of the organization’s offices nationwide. This newest addition also shows how much has changed since our greening effort began in 1987 when we began working with Croxton Collaborative on our New York offices. Over 90 percent of the environmental materials used in the Washington office were not available when we starting designing our New York headquarters.”
Robert Watson and Adam Cox, senior analysts, NRDC

• “Opportunities to bring back our forests lurk in every median strip, right-of-way, street end, hill, slope, backyard, rooftop and parking lot. What if every street had a tree-lined creek that would divert storm water and clean out roadway pollutants and car exhaust? What if every schoolyard had a bosque of trees to filter out air
pollution and provide a shady place for playing tag? What if every block had a park with a pond to retain the neighborhood’s storm water and double as a swimming hole? What if all our waterfront parks included wooded streams inviting to salmon? What if all these interventions were coordinated with protecting and enhancing existing natural areas for greater habitat connectivity and recreational opportunities? In the end, Seattle would become a diverse forest habitat that would give back to us for eons.”
Nathaniel Cormier, associate, Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects

• “House reclamation is a great business for so many reasons it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s good for the environment: trees saved, landfills left unfilled, tons of synthetic building materials not produced. It is redeeming socially: short of single- and double-wide trailers, which are poor long-term investments, reclaimed houses are the only thing that can compete with modular housing in terms of affordability. And unlike modular homes, which cast a pall of blandness on the land, old homes have soul and character and are a link to a community’s past. House reclamation is so wonderful financially I hesitate to talk of it lest I create competition.”
—G.T. Overholt, vice president, Sustainable Living, Inc.

• “The postwar suburb is a model of social and economic segregation. Zoning laws are the primary culprit—they mandate large-lot subdivisions and separate low-income “pod” developments while prohibiting accessory housing (such as apartments above stores or garages) and mixing land uses and lot sizes in one area. By physically segregating uses, these ordinances increase land and development costs while virtually mandating the use of an automobile for every errand. Moreover, such enforced homogeneity of building types cannot respond to changes in one’s own family, such as children growing up and parents growing old.”
John A. Clark and David Tice, The John A. Clark Co.; Neal I. Payton, Torti Gallas & Partners • CHK

• “Straw-bale construction has been around for centuries. In Europe, one can find houses built out of straw that are over 200 years old. In the United States, the idea of building straw houses started in the late 1800s in the Nebraska Sandhills area, a region with no trees to use for lumber. Besides being a waste product—it’s what’s left after grain is harvested—straw is a renewable resource, grown annually. It’s also extremely energy efficient. Testing indicates that a two-foot-thick bale has an insulation rating (R-value) that beats a standard wood frame wall insulated with R-19 batts by a factor of nearly three.”
—Laurie Stone, staff writer/project developer, Solar Energy International

• “Incorporating green technologies into affordable housing requires a paradigm shift in the way we measure affordability; it must come to mean more than a subsidized purchase price. It must also mean that low-income residents benefit from reduced operating costs and improved health, and that the homes in which they live properly account for long-term environmental consequences. Clearly, developing green affordable housing is a challenge. But with careful attention to the education of all participants—in terms of both cost and realistic benefits—and with innovative financing, one can bring energy savings and environmentally sensitive techniques to distressed communities.”

Patty Noonan, director of sustainable development initiatives, New York City Housing Partnership and Jon Vogel, project manager, Jonathon Rose & Companies

• “In order to design sustainable buildings in today’s marketplace, we must make a quantum leap in our ability to evaluate products. We must be able to evaluate materials and building processes in their capacity to work together as successfully as past indigenous builders did with nature. This is not a simple process, nor is it intuitive. The human system has become so complex that there are hundreds and even thousands of processes embedded in every product. This surfeit of upstream ingredients and processes leaves little capacity for nature to make up for our lack of knowledge of the ecological conditions within which these products are placed. Thus, a new understanding of the design and specification process is required.”
Pliny Fisk III, co-director, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems

• “Generally architects deal with only the wealthier 10 percent of the population. Consequently, we are isolated from the larger community. If an architect wants to be involved in challenging the status quo, then he or she must participate in the civic lives of their community. The world will not beat a path to our doors. But we do have the ability to affect what is happening in our own backyards. When architects are attentive to the social and physical needs of their own communities, the larger world engages. So it starts with being attentive to what’s around you and then making a commitment. After all, the role of any artist is to help people see things both as they truly are and how they can be.”
Samuel Mockbee, J. Streeter Wiatt Distinguished Professor of Architecture, Auburn University

• “If we can begin to shift our conceptions of the purpose and process of development to one that heals human and natural communities, uses nature as a mentor and addresses occupants’ physiological and psychological needs, then we will be on our way to integrating ecology and real estate. We will also have begun to answer Henry David Thoreau’s plaintive question, ‘What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?’”

—William D. Browning, senior research associate, Green Development Services, Rocky Mountain Institute

 


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