7+ - How the Simpler Way Works

illustration of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum showing relationships between the classical ideal and architecture of Charleston, the Cotswolds, Nantucket, Santa Fe, New Orleans, and Bermuda

Diagram of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum in six places, diverging at the most vernacular end and converging at the most classical end of the Spectrum

   We discussed the Simpler Way recently in this post; now, let’s take a closer look at how it works. The engine of the Simpler Way is the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum. The most classical building in an American state is often the state’s supreme court building or the state capitol. The most vernacular building in the state is a very simple barn. Everything else is located somewhere in between.

   The classical end of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum is the most refined architecture, and is very broad, spreading across entire continents. Europe, North America, and South America all share Western Classicism as their classical ideal. The most refined architecture of Asia, on the other hand, is a very different thing. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s look at the Classical-Vernacular Spectrums of Europe and the Americas.

   While many cultures of these continents have long shared the same classical ideal for their most refined architecture, the vernacular end of the spectrum is widely varied, as illustrated in the diagram above. The six places shown each once had strong living traditions of place-making and building-making based on regional conditions, climate, and culture.

Regional Conditions

Grand Teton mountains in late afternoon Wyoming light

Grand Tetons

   Regional conditions include things like topography: is it a mountainous region, a coastal plain, or a prairie region? The most sustainable ways of building are different in each. What are the most readily available building materials in the region? This matters more as we try to find closer sources of materials with which to build. And what natural risks does the region face? People living in places frequented by hurricanes need to build in a certain way in order to have a good chance of surviving them, while people living in earthquake zones have different concerns to have the best chances of survival. Some regions face conditions so severe that you can’t build strongly enough to endure them, such as tornadoes or volcanic eruptions. In those places, your only choice is to simply rebuild. But most other conditions are survivable if the architecture is smart enough.

Regional Climate

louvered walls of club villas at Old Fort Bay in the Bahamas

Bahamian cottage

   The region’s climate is the most obvious source of sustainability patterns. Places that are hot and humid need far different architecture from places that are cold and dark, or places that are hot and dry. Some regional green patterns have to do with ways of either welcoming the warmth of the sun in cooler places (or in cooler times of the year in temperate places) or excluding its heat in hotter places (or hotter times of the year in temperate places, of course.) Other regional green patterns deal with moisture: In dry places, they collect water for many uses. In wet places, the bigger concern is getting water of torrential rains away from the building so the building doesn’t deteriorate and so the water doesn’t damage the surrounding landscape. Humidity is another source of green patterns. In dry places, rooms often cluster around enclosed courtyards to protect them against the wind, so that fountains and pools can create a more moist micro-climate than the surrounding bone-dry landscape. The architecture of humid regions finds ways of letting air flow freely through to lessen unhealthy growth of mold and mildew. Daylight is also a concern; places frequented by bright sunshine need shady environments where people can work, while places that are frequently cloudy and dark use many methods of enticing light into the buildings. The wind is another source of green patterns, because a cooling summer breeze is very welcome, whereas a cold winter wind is something to be deflected away. And in some places such as mountainous regions, the wind can be so strong most of the time that homes and workplaces always need to be shielded.

Regional Culture

street in Antigua Guatemala

Antigua Guatemala street

   The human culture of the region can influence places and buildings in a number of ways. Some are as simple as color preferences, which help determine whether buildings are loved or viewed as odd foreign objects. Think of how strange a brightly-colored Guatemala courtyard house would look sitting side-by side on the street with the stone houses of a Cotswold village in England, for example. Other regional cultural influences can have a more basic effect. Regional skill sets are a classic example. Some still remain even today. For example, masonry buildings finished in stucco are still fairly affordable in Miami because that’s the way people build there. Even Habitat for Humanity builds that way, because their volunteers know how. But in the mid-South, stucco on masonry is very expensive because few people know how to do it. Once, nearly all the parts of a building depended on regional skill sets, and that may happen again as the Offshoring Reversal moves forward.

the Classical Convergence and Sustainability

   So the regional conditions, climate, and culture create regional vernacular traditions as varied as the regions, but the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum of each region converges on the classical ideal as we move up the spectrum. What’s useful about that?

open casement windows shaded by tree leaves in San Francisco

   There’s at least one highly useful thing about this, from a green building perspective: Most places in the US didn’t have time to develop a robust Original Green living tradition between the arrival of European settlers and the beginning of the Thermostat Age. Native Americans had strong living traditions in most places, but those were discarded by the European settlers, illustrating why the regional culture is an essential part of the equation above.

red stucco town house in the French Quarter of New Orleans with American flag and skull on second level balcony

   The American places shown in the diagram above are some of the exceptions because they were settled so early. But for the others, how do we go about figuring out what the regional vernacular would have been had it had time to develop?

   This is far more of an art than a science, but one way is to look at some of the best classical work in the region. Because good classical work must be done by a trained and thoughtful hand, there’s a good chance that if we look closely, we can see ways that the building diverges a bit from the classical ideal. Does it have more porches than what might be expected? How do its windows diverge in size, proportion, or count? What materials are used in its construction? Every place that the building diverges from the classical ideal is a potential hint at what the non-existent regional vernacular should possibly look like. And when we get to the vernacular end of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum of the region, we’ll find the greenest architecture of the place.

Two Questions

   Here are two likely questions about this discussion: are we saying that highly classical architecture isn’t so green? And if the Native American architecture was so green, why not look to it for inspiration?

aerial shot of white teepee in the Arkansas River Valley of central Colorado

   The Native American traditions of most regions are so organic that our culture, at least for today, would veto them. How many people do you know who would live in a teepee? Or a lodge built of sticks and branches? Architecture of the desert southwest is an exception, as it borrows much from Native American traditions.

   As for the greenness of highly classical buildings, let’s consider this: clearly, they’re not so attuned to the regional climate, but highly classical buildings are usually built strongest of all, able to withstand the harshest conditions. For example, most of the highly classical buildings of the Gulf Coast were built of stone, and were untouched by Hurricane Katrina, even though lesser buildings all around them were demolished. And architecture at the top of the Spectrum is often the highest expression of the culture of that place, so while they respond less to the regional climate, they come through in spades in response to the regional culture and often the regional conditions.

corner of temple at Paestum in Italy shot in early evening light

   Consider these aspects of responding to regional climate: highly refined public buildings such as cathedrals or courts aren’t places that you live, but rather places where you go for a limited time, then return home. Plus, you don’t get undressed there to bathe, change clothes, or to go to bed. Before the Thermostat Age, people would simply bundle up if they were going there in winter. In a Long Emergency of reduced energy sources, they could potentially do so again. Another type of highly classical building is the mansion of extremely wealthy people. No matter what the cost of energy is, the wealthiest people will always be able to power their homes. But there simply aren’t enough of these mansions in most places to make a blip on the energy consumption of the region, so as long as the people inhabiting them are OK with their utility bills, we don’t need to worry about them, either.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is the last part of #7 in the top 10 things we can do.

2 - Sharing Wisdom

library at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris

library of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris

   The Sharing of Wisdom and the Involvement of Everyone are so interrelated that we could have lumped them into a single item, but they’re so important that it made more sense to tell two stories rather than one so as to cover them more thoroughly. Here’s how they fit together: The Sharing of Wisdom is essential if we hope to involve everyone in a sustainable future... and if we don’t involve everyone, we likely won’t have a sustainable future. Let’s look first at the most common ways that wisdom is already shared. Next, we’ll think about how we can do it better.

   The three most common current ways of spreading wisdom, from the broadest to the highest, are public education’s way, higher education’s way, and the specialists’ way. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, those weaknesses prevent each of these ways from solving the problems of sustainability on their own. Fortunately, there’s a fourth and far more capable way that has been around since the dawn of time; we simply need to learn how to tap into it.

Public Education’s Way

entablature over front door of public library in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Portsmouth public library

   Public education in most countries spreads wisdom very broadly, but not so high. It begins formally with pre-school, although parents almost always engage in some form of home-based learning before children enter their formal education. Often, it’s as simple as story-telling or reading with their children. Next comes elementary and then middle school. Formal public education in most places ends with the high school diploma.

   Public education after graduation is mostly self-directed. Once, it consisted primarily of visits to the public library or to the bookstore. Today, the Internet has firmly replaced both of these as the primary resource for self-directed learning.

   Public education in developed countries intends to reach all children, so it is very broad, normally having the force of law behind it to ensure that all children attend school. And while you can theoretically learn almost anything on the Internet, the fact is that people who have only a public education most often use their education for basic social and economic competencies. In other words, a public education by itself is much more likely to be used to balance a checkbook or text a message to a friend than to find a cure for cancer... or to find a solution to the mysteries of real sustainability.

Higher Education’s Way

two students walking across quad at University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana

University of Notre Dame

   Higher education begins with undergraduate education. It can continue with graduate degrees, and occasionally culminates in a doctorate degree.

   Higher education (undergraduate in particular) can be characterized as years of listening to lectures, working through innumerable problems appropriate to your field of study, showing your work to your professors, getting graded on your work, and eventually getting a degree for all your efforts. Higher education intends to elevate students to levels of wisdom far above those which they usually obtain from public education. But it’s not very broad. If you doubt that, count the number of people in almost any crowd, then ask how many of them have at least one PhD. Normally, it’s a very small %.

the Specialists’ Way

stainless steel whisks kitchen equipment store in New York City

only the chef knows

   A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know absolutely everything about only one thing. Some disagree, saying that the ultimate specialist is someone who knows absolutely everything about nothing at all. Let’s use the first, less offensive definition, and use it to look at how specialists spread wisdom.

   Specialists handle a great deal of information on their chosen specialty. This information is usually more complex than information shared by the general public. In other words, specialists are less likely to discuss things like dogs, cats, and fish with their fellow-specialists, and are more likely to discuss things like Hexadecacarbonylhexarhodium, the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers, or the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner.

telescope equipment in Hart Observatory, Pasadena, California

   Each of these terms is shared only by the specialists that deal with it, and each term has a long story behind it. Learning everything about the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner  might take years, for example. Because of this, specialists have what amounts to their own private language of technical jargon, each term of which is embedded with lots of meaning that goes unspoken most of the time. These private languages aren’t the result of some nefarious scheme, either; they’re the necessary by-product of specializing in something.

   If you tried to read any of the three terms above out loud, you know that they’re each quite a mouthful. The specialists noticed that, too. So in order to save time, they often use acronyms or codes to shorten them. So Hexadecacarbonylhexarhodium becomes Rh6CO16, Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers becomes RED HORSE, and the Positron Emission Tomography Scanner becomes the PET. Any slight chance that someone outside a particular specialty might understand specialist jargon goes to zero when the jargon turns into acronyms.

   This moves the chances of the specialists’ knowledge spreading outside their specialty from “slim” to “none.” So what are we left with? We have one system (public education) that spreads low-level information like reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, broadly. At the other end, we have a system that spreads extremely high-level information, but only to a tiny group of specialists, and to make matters worse, it protects that information with an indecipherable secret language known only to members of the specialty. In the middle, we have a system that spreads mid-level information to a middling degree.

electrical equipment in Hart Observatory, Pasadena, California

   The problem should be clear when we consider the fact that while many of the best minds around the world have been working for years to try to figure out how to live sustainably today, they haven’t figured it out yet. So it’s reasonable to assume that once they do, it’s likely to be some extremely high-level wisdom. But if we’re going to achieve sustainability, that information needs to spread broadly. Clearly, none of the primary methods we’re currently using are up to the task. We need a system capable of the best of all our systems.

Nature’s Way

winding country road through jungle in Panama

   It turns out that there is such a system. And it has been around for a long time. It’s nature’s way. Consider this: the most complex wisdom humans have ever encountered is the human genetic code. Scientists around the world worked for many years just to document the entire human genome, and they’re just now beginning the long process of unlocking what it all means. In all likelihood, the task of unlocking it will still be going on a century from now.

   But stop and think for a moment about how that genetic material spreads. Take humans, for example. As we know, the process begins when two humans are attracted to each other. They mate. They breed. (Not necessarily in that order.) And the genetic material is passed on.

   But almost none of the people replicating genetic material are human genome scientists. Nearly all of them, in fact, are completely unschooled in genetics, and most have only on-the-job training in the replication of genetic material. How is this possible?

two young women having lunch in Paris at a sidewalk cafe on the Rue des Colonnes

lunch at sidewalk cafe in Paris

   Nature’s way involves a nifty trick: nature takes the wisdom of the genetic code and embeds it in beauty. This lowers the bar immensely, so people only have to consider one another attractive; they don’t even need a passing knowledge of genetics in order to pass on some genes.

   Looking at the young woman in this picture having lunch with a friend on the streets of Paris, one might conclude that she has a good chance of passing on her genetic material if she so chooses because she has enough beauty to attract a choice of mates. But if you told her that, she might respond “Yes, but there’s so much more to me than just my appearance,” and she’d be right. Life is that way, too. There’s so much more to life than just the process of passing it on. Architecture can work in a somewhat similar way. Here’s how:

eave of building in Pienza, Italy

eave in Pienza, Italy

   Someone might work for years to work out the best possible eave for their region. They might do sun angle or wind speed calculations, and take all sorts of other things into consideration. But if they hope to spread the design of that eave by asking people to work out the same calculations (like higher education asks us to work the problems of our field of study) then it’s impossible that the eave would spread. If, however, the designer embeds the wisdom they’ve spent years to discover into beauty so that people love that eave, then it can spread all over the region. It helps if the people have a passing knowledge that the design is good for sun and wind, but all the really have to know is “we love this.”

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #2 in the top 10 things we can do.

3 - the Localized Operations

restaurant worker watering plants outside Schiro's in the Marigny Faubourg in New Orleans

   Sustainability is all but impossible if we have to condition the world, but it becomes easier and easier as we’re able to condition smaller pieces of it. Look carefully at the image below. Can you see the tractor-trailer rig on the bridge in the distance? The cab is barely visible, and the driver is microscopic. But Waffle House has the unenviable task of attracting that driver (and fellow-travelers on the bridge) to come for breakfast. So what do they have to do? Let’s take a look:

Waffle House with enormous pylon sign and interstate bridge in the background

cost of operating at a great distance

   The first thing they are forced to do is to erect the 200 foot tall sign that probably costs $200,000, because travelers at highway speeds will only be on the bridge for a few seconds, and if Waffle House doesn’t entice them to exit by then, they’ve lost their business. Next, because their entire customer base arrives by motor vehicle, they must pave every square yard of their site not occupied by their building for parking to accommodate their customers’ cars (the semis must park on the street.) So is there any shadow of doubt why poor Waffle House has such ugly buildings? Of course not! They’ve completely blown their budget on the sign and the parking lot!

Main Street shop in Nantucket

benefits of operating close at hand

   Contrast that with this shop on Nantucket. The man in this picture (who happens to be renowned New Urbanist Mike Watkins) arrived on foot to this storefront, and is standing less than ten feet from the sign, which was probably procured for something much closer to $200 than $200,000. Because this store doesn’t have to operate at a wide extent to attract customers, they’re able to spend their money on other things... like being able to afford high rent in a nice building on Nantucket. Which place would you rather be?

   This issue, however, goes far beyond desirable places. Everywhere we look, there are problems that can easily be solved if we’re able to do it small, but that become very difficult if we have to do the same thing larger. Consider this extreme example: What if we were able to create clothing that made people comfortable in all but the most ridiculous environments? So if the Boise office is 35°F, no problem... I’m toasty in my enviro-suit. Or if it’s 98°F in Orlando, no problem again... I’m completely cool. Conditioning the person rather than the entire building means the cost should be much less. The example is extreme, but it illustrates the point that as the area we have to condition gets smaller, less energy is required.

Katrina Cottage VIII bed alcove

   We operated on this basis for almost all of history. Three Dog Night was a ‘60’s rock band, but long before that, it was a strategy for staying warm... and alive. A one-dog night was pretty cold, where you let one dog into your bed to sleep on your feet and keep them warm. A two-dog night was colder, and a three-dog night was the coldest night. The canopy bed (like the alcove bed in Katrina Cottage VIII) worked in a similar way... close the curtains, and your body heat (and that of your bed-mate) would keep you toasty even when it was absolutely frigid throughout the rest of the house.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #3 in the top 10 items we can do.

Legacy Comments:

Friday, January 15, 2010 - 10:50 AM

Robert Sharp


   Excellent post.  I think that the key for people to live comfortably and abundantly while using less energy resources is to embrace the concept of point sources of heat so that a range of temperatures within a living space are provided.  I know that in the winter I am far more comfortable with a minimally heated house (say about 50 degrees) as long as I have a place that I can go and stand to thaw out, such as a wood stove or fireplace that produces "excess" heat.  Best of all is a window seat or sunroom that faces south so that on clear sunny days in the winter you can experience that burst of solar heat.  Other examples from history are the heaters that people used to place under dining tables or the bed warmers that preheated frigid beds in cold climates.

   At the other end of the seasonal spectrum is the shady courtyard with a bubbling fountain and cooling breezes and a glass of iced tea.

Friday, January 15, 2010 - 11:54 AM

Rick Duke

   Waffle House was founded in Atlanta and has a strong GA  Tech connection-note the white and gold color scheme.  Your image is very consistent with what they have represented to the public for years.

   They are making a significant departure by locating in Technology Square on the Tech campus in Midtown Atlanta.  Tech Square has a nice mix of office and retail with residential surrounding.  Take the Guided Tour when CNU 18 comes to town in May and ask for hash browns scattered, smothered and covered.

Monday, January 18, 2010 - 01:31 PM


   Rather than compare the two entirely different environments, even with your valid and logically arguable points, I would like to see the Waffle House modified in a greener way.

   What about tearing out a portion of the asphalt and planting it with grass, trees and a water feature for outdoor dining or sitting?

   How about adding a residential area adjacent to the Waffle House to bring in some mixed use development?

   Perhaps the addition of another floor above the Waffle House would bring in other uses?

   I think the problem with sprawl is that is lacks imagination and merely uses zoning laws to erect monotony.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 - 03:02 PM


A community with vision doesn't let the Waffle House have its corporate way with them. Our city permitted a Waffle House, but required a landscaped site, brick facade and 6 ft high sign based on a planning and design review process. Character comes from community values, not typically corporate values.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 - 02:36 PM

Placemaking Institute

For some reason this post reminds me of when Carter was ridiculed for wearing a sweater and telling us to do so rather than turning up the heat...as well as Reagan's first official act as president, which was to tear off the solar panels Carter installed on the White House roof.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 - 06:41 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Robert! Rick, I'll make sure and check it out... I've heard of Tech Square, but have never been. Andy, I agree with everything except the idea of tearing out asphalt to plant with grass and trees... in a suburban setting, Waffle House needs every square yard of asphalt for its customers to park. Why not build in a place where people can walk there instead, like your other points suggest? MHCityPlanner, that's exactly right... all of the chains will eventually do what you request if you stick to your guns.

4 - the Expanded Comfort Range

people sitting at a sidewalk cafe outside the Palais Royale in Paris

Is anyone here suffering?

   The human comfort range has shrunk to its smallest size in human history over the past half-century. Our ancestors had a comfort range of probably 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Near 90 degrees, they might cool themselves with a hand-held fan. Near 60 degrees, they would put on an extra layer of clothes. Today, however, there are Thermostat Wars all over the US over 2 degrees. Don’t laugh... you likely have participated in some of them at some point yourself. And Jimmy Carter lost his re-election campaign in part because he famously asked Americans to wear sweaters and cut the thermostat down in winter to help with the energy crisis of that day. The sweater therefore became the only article of clothing to ever play a role in ending an American presidency.

sweater laying across the back of a chair

   Ask any mechanical engineer to describe the impact of a 30 degree comfort range versus a 2 degree comfort range. She will tell you that a 2 degree comfort range requires the conditioning equipment to run basically all the time, because outdoor temperatures are almost never within that 2 degree range. And if the equipment is going to be running almost all the time, why even have windows that are operable? So they seal up the buildings where you can’t ever open a window to catch a breeze.

   A 30 degree range, on the other hand, means that there are several months per year when the air outside is within the comfort range at least part of the day. So if the building is designed cleverly enough, it can condition itself for most of the year in many places, requiring mechanical conditioning only in more extreme weather.

wall-mounted thermostat

   How do we expand the human comfort range again, getting it back close to where it has been for almost all of recorded human history? Carter’s approach of telling us what we ought to do is no more likely to work now than it did then, as discussed earlier in the Fate of Ought-To. People rarely do what they ought to do, and resent being told what they ought to do. But they often do what they want to do. So what’s the most effective way of assuring that people want to expand their comfort range?

   The best known way is to entice them to go outdoors. As people spend more time outdoors, they become more acclimated to the local environment and need less full-body conditioning when they return indoors.

   My own experience provides a good example. I moved to Miami in the fall of 2003. My home on Miami Beach is just a few blocks from my office, so I walk. Within a ten minute walk of my office, I can get to dozens of restaurants, several grocery stores, a hardware store, a drug store, my bank, my doctor, my accountant, and lots more. And it isn’t like walking alongside the highway, either... they are highly interesting walks through beautiful places.

   Because I walked everywhere, cranking the car only a couple times per week, I quickly became so acclimated to the local environment during that first fall and winter, which is almost always mild in Miami. As springtime turned into summer, I noticed something strange: so long as I was in the shade and could feel a breeze, I was never uncomfortable. That is still true today, almost seven years after moving here: I have never been uncomfortable in Miami so long as there’s a breeze in the shade. And this is a place where the basketball team is named “the Heat.”

view through an archway into a courtyard at Cambridge University in England

   The difference between running the mechanical conditioning equipment all the time and cutting it off several months of the year is so big that it dwarfs any equipment efficiency increases we could hope for in the near future. So which is better: spending lots of money for slightly more efficient equipment that will have a small positive effect on energy use, or spending to create great outdoor public and private realms that will have a large positive effect on energy use, with the added bonus that people get great pleasure out of them?

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #4 in the top 10 items we can do.

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 - 10:41 AM

Jeff B.

   I met a young businessman at a development site on the Gulf Coast a couple of years ago during the summer.  He got out of his big Lincoln SUV and left it running while we talked in the sun near a large field that was the subject of our conversation.  Within about two minutes he suggested we get into the SUV because he had started sweating profusely.  When I suggested we move instead about 10 feet into the shade of a large oak tree, he was genuinely shocked.  And even more shocked when he realized it was perfectly comfortable in the shade on a 90-degree day.  

   Sometimes I think technology is just making Americans stupid and weak.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 - 06:43 AM

Steve Mouzon

Exactly, Jeff! Being from the Deep South originally, I've had similar experiences. Amazing how much people sweat when they spend all their time indoors in air conditioning! And your comment about technology is spot-on: it makes life easier, but doesn't necessarily make us better. Often, as you note, it's quite the opposite.

5 - the Source of Stuff

cranes at Port of Miami, photographed from across the water of Biscayne Bay

   This one seems so elementary that you might think it’s an item we don’t even need to talk about. The further something has to travel while it’s being made and sold, the more energy it usually consumes. And common sense tells us that we should be saving energy, not using more energy to make the same stuff. So the most sustainable source of stuff should therefore be nearby, right?

   Our recent track record, however, says that we have other priorities. Try this test: Turn your head and look around the room. Most of the things you’re looking at have traveled thousands of miles to get to you, from the places where the resources were extracted from the earth to the places where the parts were made to the factory where the whole thing was assembled to the warehouse where it was stored to the shop where you bought it. Common sense tells us that being green is a pipe dream if nearly everything we touch has thousands of Embodied Miles. Some complex things like cars may actually have more Embodied Miles than it takes to go all the way around the world.

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   I read recently, for example, about a particular make and model of car that happened to be from Japan. Or at least the corporate offices were located in Japan. The resources were extracted in mines around the world. Many of the parts were made in Japan, but then the parts were shipped to a factory in the United States for assembly. Finally, some of those cars were shipped back to Japan and other Asian nations to be sold.

   In recent years, Everyday Low Prices have been the most important things in commerce. We’ve voted with our wallets, and Everyday Low Prices are more important to us than the countless small hometown businesses we’ve lost because they weren’t quite so cheap. Everyday Low Prices are more important to us than the millions of jobs that got offshored because we wouldn’t work for so much less. Nobody wants to waste money when they’re buying toilet paper, even if we’re wasting towns and wasting our fellow-citizens’ jobs to do it. But because we don’t want to waste money, this may just be one of the only items in this chapter that takes care of itself. Here’s why: As fuel costs rise, as they must certainly do as tens of millions more cars get on the road every year in China and India alone, and as oil supplies dwindle, it’s obvious that the cost of shipping stuff around the world to get to us simply can’t be sustained.

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   What does a sustainable future look like? Sustainable things are things which we can keep going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future. There are many things we don’t know about an uncertain future, especially including what the cost of transportation will be, so the only certain sources of stuff in an uncertain future will be those that are nearby. And it’s not just the cost of transportation. The world has painfully seen recently how wars can start over resources like oil.

   One thing we must do if we want to keep things going in a healthy way is to quit throwing so much stuff away. The Story of Stuff tells an incisive tale of the consequences of our consuming ways in recent decades. The Story of Stuff deals mainly with consumer goods, but we throw other things away, too... like buildings. Including factories... remember the term “Rust Belt”?

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   But that’s not all... if we want to keep things going in a healthy way, then our sources needs to be close enough that we can keep an eye on them. Making things in distant lands means that we can’t see the horrible conditions people (including children) must endure in the sweatshops, but that’s only the beginning. Making things overseas also means that we can’t see how bad the environment is being trashed to make our stuff until the effects go global.

   How close is close enough? That depends mainly on two things: the weight of the item versus its value and the complexity of the item that’s being made. The heavier stuff is, the closer the source should be to where it’s used because heavier stuff requires more energy to ship than lighter stuff. Long before the gasoline engine, people shipped spices from one continent to another because the spices were so light enough and valuable enough that a chain of camels could deliver a lot of value on each trip to the traders that owned them. Bricks, on the other hand, were often made from clay dug up in the back yard. That may be a bit extreme today, but you get the picture.

equipment at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama

   The complexity of the item matters because its possible to have a cabinet shop on every corner of a town center, but it’s not possible to do the same with a car factory because while the cost of setting up and equipping a simple cabinet shop might be less than the cost of a car, the cost of a car factory is hundreds of millions of dollars. The more complex things must be made more centrally and shipped further in order to eventually pay back their investment... just not as far as we’ve been shipping them in recent years.

   It’s not yet apparent how far is too far, but the best rule is: the closer the better. The best policy would be to live within the same region as most of our sources of stuff. Kind of like living within our means.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #5 in the top 10 items we can do.

China Car Sales Overtake US

oil well near Tuscaloosa, Alabama

   The BBC and other sources are reporting this morning that car sales in China surpassed the US for the first time in 2009. But it’s not simply the fact that they did so, but how they did so: China’s car sales surged a staggering 53% over the previous year, to 13.6 million vehicles. And common sense tells us that there’s no end in sight. Here’s why: As discussed last year in the 2-1/2 Billion People post, the American middle-class suburban lifestyle is now no longer the world’s biggest ecological problem. Now, the biggest problem is the export of the enticing image of that lifestyle to 2-1/2 billion people in China and India who have previously lived very low-impact agrarian lifestyles. And now, they want the things they see us having.

traffic jam in sprawling outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama

   Nearly two years ago, USA Today reported on the export of American suburbia to China. And today’s reports are only the tip of the iceberg. Think about it for a minute: There’s basically one car per person in the US, counting the people who don’t drive, because many of us have more than one car. It’s that way because it’s what you need to live in suburbia. It’s not possible to live the American middle-class suburban lifestyle without a car, because you have to drive everywhere in suburbia. So if China and India adopt our lifestyle then it’s reasonable to assume that they’ll need a lot of cars, too.

   How many? Let’s take a really conservative approach for a moment and assume that they’re a lot smarter than us, and figure out how to achieve our lifestyle with 60% fewer cars. In other words, 4 cars per 10 people rather than our 10 cars for 10 people. Even then, they’ll need a billion cars that don’t even exist today for those 2-1/2 billion people. How long will that take? If sales keep increasing at the rate they did from 2008 to 2009, then the billion new cars will be on the road by 2018.

antique gas pump at historic gas station in Florala, Alabama

   This is a problem for so many mammoth reasons that it’s hard to know where to start, so let’s start with the simplest and least debatable one: the demand side of the Law of Supply & Demand. If you take the US’s roughly 300 million cars and add the billion cars to it, you’re quadrupling the number of cars competing for gas. The Law of Supply & Demand says that as demand goes up, prices go up, assuming that supply is stable. How much? That’s hard to say, but this much is certain: if the demand quadruples with a steady supply, the price doesn’t just quadruple; it has the potential of going much higher because it turns into a bidding war when it’s the economic survival question of: “How am I going to be able to get to work?”

oil well near Tuscaloosa, Alabama

   The other side of the Supply & Demand equation isn’t looking so good, either. Peak Oil is an idea that was first proposed in 1956 by M. King Hubbert, a Shell geoscientist. In a nutshell, Peal Oil is the point in time when the world reaches its maximum oil production and begins to decline. Peak Oil in the United States occurred in 1970. Today, the US produces roughly half the oil that it did then. Peak Oil has been hotly-debated in recent times, but now, the reality is beginning to set in: the most optimistic estimates are that worldwide Peak Oil will occur around 2020. Many believe that Peak Oil is occurring right now.

   What happens when you combine a quadrupling of demand with a dwindling supply? Things could get downright scary, as Jim Kunstler described in The Long Emergency. Jim’s a friend of mine, and I respect him highly. His books from several years ago read like history now, because he successfully predicted so many things, from details of the Meltdown to smaller stuff like the Somali pirates. But I’m an optimist, and I believe that we can come out OK... if we get our house in order now.

   What will it take to do that? Immediately stop building additional suburbia... well, OK, the Meltdown took care of that. But as population grows, we’ll eventually have to build at a larger scale again, and we need to make sure that the places we build and re-build are those that don’t require a car for basic economic survival: places that are accessible by a range of transportation choices, especially including the self-propelled choices of walking and biking. And we need to build and re-build places that are serviceable, where people can get the basic services of life within walking distance, and where making a living where you’re living is a choice for a lot more of us than it is today. In short, we need to be building and re-building Original Green places again.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, January 11, 2010 - 10:48 AM

richard whitcomb

Steve - great blog and nice site!

I am a firm believer that market forces shape everything we do far more than ideas.  For example, the average consumer will not choose to live in an ecologically sound manner, but will do so if it saves a bit of money.

I just finished reading the $20/gallon gas book by Christopher Steiner and really enjoyed the analysis of market forces and how our world might respond as a result.

It would be fantastic to have the coming oil crisis be the impetus for us to start living green, smart, traditionally, walkably (I just made that word up), and better.


6 - the Many Uses

exterior view of Katrina Cottage VIII in Silver Springs, Maryland

[All images in this post are from Katrina Cottage VIII]

   If we hope to stem the tide of consumption, then we need to learn how to design and build things that have many uses again. In other words, double- or triple-duty is just the starting point. Today, we’ve not only lost this ability, but now, we have extras of everything instead.

   It begins at the scale of the neighborhood. Because there’s no neighborhood coffee shop within walking distance, some homes now have a “cafe” in the kitchen, with a cute little awning over the espresso machine. Because there’s no neighborhood cinema, people feel that they need a home theatre. Because there are no parks within a couple blocks, people need big back yards for the kids.

carving into the walls of Katrina Cottage VIII for shelving

wall of shelving

   But it’s not all the neighborhood’s fault. Secondary bedrooms in many homes sold just before the Meltdown had better-appointed third and fourth bedrooms than master suites a generation before. If we were to believe the floor plans, then it was the birthright of every American child to have a walk-in closet and compartmentalized private bath by the time they moved out of the nursery.

   All these things would be fine if we had unlimited money to buy stuff with and unlimited energy to run that stuff with. But that’s not the case, either on a global scale or on a personal scale, as we have all discovered to varying degrees of pain since the beginning of the Meltdown in October 2008.

   Double-duty (or more) is not a new idea. Ask your grandparents. The “waste not, want not” ethic was central to nearly every culture around the world less than a century ago. Read Benjamin Franklin and it’s clear that America was founded by people who valued frugality instead of celebrating consumption.

kitchen and keeping room of Katrina Cottage VIII

KC VIII kitchen & bed alcove

   I’ve had a recent close encounter with the need for extreme double-duty. I met with Andrés Duany on the Saturday after Hurricane Katrina and we laid out the foundation principles of what would soon come to be known as the Katrina Cottages. The idea was to help people gain a foothold on their property again by building tiny cottages that were appropriate to the architectural needs of the region, excellent in design, and deliverable by all major construction methods: site-built, panelized, modular, and manufactured.

   I put out a call to the New Urban Guild for Katrina Cottage designs. Andrés, his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and the Congress for the New Urbanism orchestrated the largest planning event in human history (the Mississippi Renewal Forum) on the Gulf Coast just six weeks after the hurricane, with nearly 200 planners, architects, and other professionals participating.

   But even before that event, nearly two dozen Katrina Cottages had been designed by Erika Albright, Bill Allison, Bill Dennis, Victor Deupi, Frank Greene, Gary Justiss, Alex Latham, Matt Lister, Tom Low, Eric Moser, Dan Osborne, Julie Sanford, Laura Welsh, and myself. All work was done for free, of course. During the Forum, several more Katrina Cottages were designed, including the little yellow one by Marianne Cusato that has since received a great deal of press. Since the Forum, still others have been designed by an expanding circle of architects and designers.

kitchen and shelving wall of Katrina Cottage VIII

kitchen & shelf-wall

   One of the biggest lessons we learned is that you can’t just shrink a house and expect people to like it. If you take away size, you’ve gotta give something else in return. Ask someone to move into a cottage half the size of their current house, and they’ll likely turn you down. But if the cottage lives twice as big as its footage, then that’s a different story.

   This is an idea I call the Smaller & Smarter Cottage, and it has other benefits, too. In order to be Smaller & Smarter, the cottage has to be able to store a lot more stuff per foot than the bigger house, but the entire floor plan can’t be just one big closet; everything has to be rethought. We even carve into the walls themselves, leaving no cubic inch unused. Why shouldn’t interior walls be used for shelving, rather than just wasted? The side-benefit to this is the fact that the storage methods (such as shelving walls) that are visible can be quite attractive, and contribute mightily to the cottage’s charm.

   There was another problem, too: the first generation of Katrina Cottages didn’t expand very well. This is because in a tiny cottage, the exterior walls quickly get taken up with things that are difficult to move, like kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, and closets. So we developed a new type of Katrina Cottage: the Kernel Cottage. Kernel Cottage I is the plan on the left below. To the right, you can see one of the many ways it can expand.

Katrina Kernel Cottage floor plans showing Kernel Cottage by itself, and with additions

Kernel Cottage before & after expansion

   The second generation of Katrina are called “kernel cottages” because, like a seed, they are designed to grow easily in many directions. People can buy a smaller cottage today than they’ll need in the future if the path to expansion is obvious. Before home mortgages, everyone built this way. Thomas Jefferson lived in one of the little garden pavilions on the back side of Monticello for several years while he was building the main house. If Jefferson could do it, why can’t we?

   Interestingly, one of the things people enjoy most about the character of pre-mortgage houses is the story they tell in the incremental way they have grown from one generation to the next. But it wasn’t designed that way from the beginning, as we might suppose today. Rather, it’s the character that emerged from many hands working over time.

curtained bed alcove of Katrina Cottage VII

   Beyond the obvious savings in building materials, there’s a huge, three-pronged sustainability bonus that comes from building much smaller to begin with, then adding on later: First, because the square footage is a lot less, it costs much less to condition. Second, because rooms in tiny cottages are likely to have windows on both sides, they cross-ventilate wonderfully in summer, and also daylight beautifully. This saves even more in conditioning expense. Finally, if the designer really does their job and the cottage lives much larger than its footage, people might just discover that they don’t need to add such a big addition when it comes time to expand.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #6 in the top 10 items we can do.

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 - 01:52 PM


Hi Katrina/Kernel Cottage designers; 

     I have a nice design of a house i want to build in southern california.  It is made with structural insulated panels which are put together in a couple of days.  I have some images on the internet that were posted to show my design.  I am a retired man with modern CAD training.  I use SolidWorks in all of my design.  It works well because once a wall has been designed, it can be used for another home just with a click of a mouse.  I do have all of the modern CAD programs on my computer; but I like SolidWorks best because it fits well with my mechanical ability.  Let me know if we can communicate to come up with disaster housing even for California should the "big one" hit the area.  I could volunteer my services.


George J. Birds Jr.

601 Canyon Dr. PO Box 427

Lebec, CA 93243

(661) 248-5152


LEED for Homes Awards - or - How To Shoot Yourself in the Foot

LEED for Homes award-winning house is ugly rancher with fake shutters, bad windows, and completely suburban sprawl detailing

   Residential Architect just did an article on the LEED for Homes Awards, <note from August 2, 2011 - the article doesn't seem to exist any longer on the Residential Architect site, for some reason - if someone finds a link, let me know and I'll paste it in> and I’ve gotta confess that when I first saw some of these, I checked the calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. The very first Original Green blog post detailed how we lost the first green revolution thirty years ago. If these awards are any indication, we’re in danger of losing this one, too. The Engineering vs. Design post further describes the danger. Simply put, people will only tolerate sustainability for so long if its artifacts aren’t lovable. How many people would look at the house above and say “I love this”?

   But it isn’t just the thoroughly regrettable design of this house that’s problematic. It also apparently is located somewhere in sprawl for two reasons: the lot appears large, and the front-loaded double garage make it obvious that it’s located in an auto-dominated place. If you have to drive everywhere, then the carbon footprint of the building is meaningless. This is a classic example of one of the problems of the Carbon Focus: looking at the carbon footprint of the building, rather than the carbon footprint of the inhabitation of the building. Most of these award-winners have these problems... and others, too. Let’s have a look:

LEED for Homes award-winner: Rosedale Hills

   I’ll begin and end with two that have the most promise, with the others in between. This project, Rosewood Hills, appears to be making some attempts to be walkable... at least there’s a sidewalk. And the houses make some attempt to be lovable. And it not only has retail shops and parks in the neighborhood, according to the website, but is an infill project located within walking distance of a number of nearby services and attractions.

   This should all be applauded... kudos to LEED for selecting this one. But it’s not without problems, judging from the photos. The porches are far too narrow to be useful, and the lower level porch is too low, especially without a frontage fence. This isn’t about aesthetics; it’s about what works. We now know how to design porches and fences so people will sit on the porches and visit with their neighbors walking by. The porches shown here, because they ignore these things, have become expensive decoration rather than very useful outdoor living rooms. And it’s not just the fact that sittable porches are an important part of the social glue that transforms co-inhabitants of a place into neighbors... there’s also a huge underlying benefit of outdoor rooms and gardens that most people don’t realize: when you spend enough time outdoors, you get more acclimated to the local environment and need less full-body conditioning when you return indoors... so the heat pump doesn’t have to run as much. (See Item 3 on Garden Rooms.)

   Also, what in the world is it doing with dark asphalt roofs? The project is located in Columbia, South Carolina, where it’s hot much of the year. Reflective metal roofs reflect a high percentage of the sun’s heat away from the house, so they’re a great passive cooling device. Also, they last far longer than asphalt shingles which, by the way, are made from fossil fuels and are not recycled.

LEED for Homes award-winning Snout House - can it possibly get any uglier?

   This one is simply trying to jam too much ugliness onto the face of the building. They bulldoze buildings in a couple decades for being less ugly than this. How unsustainable is it to continue building things that are so quickly discarded? This is called a “snout house” because the protruding garage pointing squarely at the street often resembles a pig’s snout. Snout houses are almost always built in unwalkable (and therefore unsustainable) places.

LEED for Homes award-winning snout house with a big budget and senseless garage doors

   This one appears to have the biggest budget of all the houses in the story... and technically, it’s not a snout house because the porch sticks out further than the double garage. But look at that street frontage: totally blank! Not one window. Eyes on the street, particularly at street level, are one of the most important factors in making a neighborhood safe. Unsafe places are unsustainable places, because people won’t stay.

   One other thing... see the metal fence? In real life, you have to get your car into the garage, so over half of the fence couldn’t be there if this wasn’t a model home used for sales. And over half of the landscaping wouldn’t be there, either... it would be replaced with a double-wide driveway. Sidewalks crossed frequently by double-wide driveways are unsafe and unpleasant places to walk, so it’s a fairly sure bet that houses like this are built in unwalkable (and therefore unsustainable) places.

LEED for Homes award-winning house with huge windows opening onto snowy winter scene

   Nice photo... the fading sunset behind huge expanses of windows glowing out onto the snowy evening. What’s wrong with this picture? The smartest windows I’m aware of are from a company called Serious Materials. They’re several times more efficient than most windows: their best window has an R-value of 11. But the thinnest batt of fiberglass wall insulation you can buy is R-11, so by the time you add the sheathing and wall finishes, that means that the cheapest wall it’s legal to build is a better insulator than the very best window. So large expanses of glass are almost always a bad idea, except in the most unique climates. So how did this house win an award? It likely had to do some other very clever things to make up for the heat loss. Clever is good. But why not get the common-sense stuff right to begin with, so you’re not forced to be so clever?

   Part of the cleverness in this case can be seen tacked on the roof: two huge L-shaped banks of photovoltaic solar collectors with what appears to be a smaller hot-water collector high in the middle. And I’ve gotta hand it to them for at least making the collectors parallel with the roof so they don’t stand out so much. But it’s not good enough because they’re still ugly blotches on the roof. Solar collectors were torn off by the millions in the decade after the end of the last Green Revolution when people said “I don’t care if that hideous thing is saving me money; get it off my roof!” Collectors should either be incorporated into the roof design, or the building should be designed in such a way that they disappear entirely.

LEED for Homes award-winning Modernist house turns its back on the street

   Modernism has a terrible track record for lovability. If you doubt this, drive around any American town and find out what fraction of 1% of the houses are Modernist. But this one is fairly benign... style is not the main problem here. Rather, it’s the fact that this house nearly turns its back on the street. Only one tiny window really faces the street... the one beside the garage door. The rest are nearly hidden behind a tall concrete wall protecting the entry court from the sidewalk... and from any chance of getting acquainted with the would-be neighbors. Clearly, this house contributes nothing to the walkability of the subdivision. If other houses follow suit, it’s highly unlikely to become a sustainable place.

LEED for Homes award-winner: a condo infill project in California

   Here’s the last one, which is promising on several counts. It’s a 42-unit apartment building with lots of PV solar panels on the roof. It’s located in California, so the architecture seems to fit the regional character fairly well, from what we can tell in this photo. And the creation of the courtyard in the middle is promising; it could end up being one of those outdoor rooms mentioned earlier that entices people outdoors so they become more acclimated to the local environment.

   High-density housing can contribute to making a sustainable place... when it’s connected. But as you can see here, this appears to be plopped in the middle of a parking lot. It’s obviously not attached to a Main Street. That means everyone has to drive to get anywhere... and surely we’ve learned by now that a place can’t be sustainable if it makes you drive everywhere... or have we?

   Here’s the bottom line: an award program should award projects that are exemplary on many counts, and that get the basics right. The LEED rating system is made up of prerequisite requirements and credits. If you don’t get the prerequisites right, then your project is out... you have no shot at getting any credits. The same standard should be applied to an awards program for green houses: get the basics right first. And the basics include building in a sustainable place, which is a place that is nourishable, accessible, serviceable, and securable. The basics also include building in a way that is lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal. And the frugality should begin with the natural things, then using mechanical things to bridge the gap. If the basics (prerequisites) aren’t right, then things like the number of PV solar panels on the roof don’t matter nearly so much.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, January 8, 2010 - 02:45 PM

Green Curmudgeon

Great analysis of the LEED Homes awards.  I learned about them at Greenbuild last year and apparently there are no public criteria for winners, nor is there a call for entries.  My understanding is that providers submit projects to USGBC and the staff picks the winners, probably based on their point score or rating level.  It would be appropriate to have a judging panel and a guide for how projects would be judged, as well as either an open call for entries or else automatic entry of any certified project.  We can hope that this might some day come to pass

Friday, January 8, 2010 - 03:46 PM


   This points to two distinct problems that need to be addressed.

   1. LEED is being used to legitimize sprawl.

   2. The juries are stacked in favor of modernist design.

   The system is being used by those wishing to maintain the status quo of unsustainable urban patterns. The availability of tax credits, rebates, and other financial incentives will lead to tax dollars artificially inflating the market. Since the infrastructure and urban pattern of these developments is subsidized by tax revenue there is a double dip leaving somebody holding the bag. Most likely it will be borne by these same homeowners at some inconvenient time in the future. While I understand that it's better to move people towards the green light gradually, there still should be some warning label on these houses from LEED describing how the underlying urban pattern may be hazardous to their health.

   As per the design winners, I can imagine that there are competing goals for the jury. Rewarding those in the production housing industry to keep them enthusiastic, while also showcasing innovative design solutions. Hence, normative conventional suburban development winners with a few refugees from Taliesin West sneaking in. It would be far better to take the case of Original Green and Solutions Rooted in Tradition to the public at large then to curry favor with those prejudiced with a negative bias towards traditional and classical architecture.

Monday, January 11, 2010 - 05:12 PM

Ted Bardacke

The Chula Vista Multifamily project is less than 1/2 mile from a stop on the San Yisidro-Downtown San Diego streetcar line and is less than 800 feet away from two grocery stores. Most families have one car or less (with parking ratios on the project designed to accommodate just that) and is the second project in a significant transit oriented densification of a suburban location. The characterization that it is car-dependent is simply incorrect.

Monday, January 11, 2010 - 11:10 PM

Steve Mouzon

Ted, thanks for the comment. As noted, I felt the Chula Vista project was one of the two most promising ones. But as for the walkability, Google Earth shows that 1501 Broadway, Chula Vista, CA 91911 is sitting in the middle of a long stretch of a five-lane arterial, with sidewalks, where they exist, running between the arterial and front-facing parking lots. Many stretches of sidewalk are so eaten up with curb cuts that it's almost hard to call it a sidewalk. Bottom line, the Google Earth photo shows a place that's far more hostile to walk than a power center parking lot, where at least your life isn't in danger every moment. Even then, everyone knows that people won't even walk across the power center parking lot... they drive from the front of the Old Navy to the front of the Barnes & Noble, even if it's only 400 feet. How much less are they like to walk in an environment this hostile? So even though Walkscore shows lots of services within a half-mile, the likelihood of people walking in an environment so bad just isn't there... at least not today. In the real world, we can hope for a better tomorrow, but an awards program should be held to a higher standard so the winners are compelling. In other words, we need to be showing the most ideal conditions we can find today in an awards program, don't we?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 - 09:38 PM

John Thomas


   This has driven me crazy for years. 90% of the LEED residences I see fawned over in blogs are nothing more than green-washed ads for car-dependent housing tracts. There's usually also some idiotic copy in there about affordable housing about two sentences above where they disclose the $35/sq ft price. 

   The other major issue that most of the 1500 - 2000 square foot houses usually use invasive landscape plants and suck incredible amounts of water.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 - 09:41 PM

John Thomas

P.S. You even pictured the house in Eugene that I had in mind! It's the poster child for everything that's wrong with the LEED nonsense.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - 09:43 PM

David Brussat

You are a stern taskmaster, Steve. When I scrolled down your post prior to reading it I was pleasantly surprised - not by the beauty of the houses but by their relative lack of unabashed, breast-beating ugliness. I had expected that LEED home awards would go to the houses that had the sharpest crags jutting out at the most ridiculous angles, the places that most appeared to be designed to fall down. These houses at least made a minimal attempt to look like houses, vaguely traditional if not in the vicinity of lovable. Perhaps I am not paying enough attention to the latest green developments, but if this set of houses is at the top of the green game, then the game isn't as big a loser as I had figured. Good. Now if only LEED would pay more attention to the original green! - the way houses were built before our plug-in, switch-on style of life made houses the energy hogs they are. Gizmo green is not the way to go. Original green is.

Sunday, March 7, 2010 - 09:45 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks for the comments, John & David! There has been discussion within the USGBC for quite some time about this issue. The response I often get is "but how do you measure lovability?" That's one I can't answer yet with anything more satisfying than the infamous Supreme Court comment about pornography: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." But we've gotta get better than that. I'm working on the beginnings of a system that, once it's a bit further along, I'll post news of here. But I'm not at all satisfied with it yet... it's just a start.

7 - the Simpler Way

front porch of one of the outbuildings at Rosemont plantation in southern Mississippi

   Humanity has, for almost all of recorded history, had an excellent way to build simply and control costs, but we discarded this method in most places roughly a century ago. Today, we seem bent on getting the look we want, even if it means we have to build with plastic wrap and duct tape. What was that simpler way, and why does it matter to sustainability?

   The simpler way is something known in some architectural circles as the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum. The most classical building in a state or province might be the state capitol or the state supreme court building. The most vernacular building is a very simple barn. Everything else is somewhere in between these two ends of the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum.

the Image Problem

buildings along the town square of Portofino in Italy

corner of Portofino square

   Most of us living today have spent our entire lives in the era of “ticky-tacky houses,” so it’s hard to even imagine how the simpler way worked. Let’s first consider how today’s method works: Developments most likely begin in the offices of the marketing strategist, who comes up with an image of the place. Maybe they call it Fox Run, and infuse the marketing package with naturalistic pictures. But of course, what Fox Run really means is “the place where the foxes will never run again.” Or maybe it’s a more refined image, like Georgian Estates, with pictures of fine brick buildings from the days of King George III. The specific image is unimportant... the point is that a place today starts with an image. Here’s why that’s a problem:

the Image Paradox

   As the quality of the marketing strategist’s work gets better and better, the chances of the developer being able to execute the image gets worse and worse. Here’s why: If the image in the marketing package is vague (think the architectural equivalent of comfort food instead of fine French cuisine,) then it’s easier to build in a way that occasionally comes close to fulfilling the marketer’s promise. But if the image is powerful, then it evokes strong connections with images of ideal places in our minds. Because the image in our mind is strong, we know without doubt when the developer has failed to build to the image.

hilltop view of Portofino harbor

Portofino's harbor

   Portofino, shown here, has been used as a development image countless times, yet there is still only one Portofino. The better the image created by the marketing consultant, the more miserable the failure of the developer when the place doesn’t measure up.

   And it isn’t just that they fail, it’s how they fail that is so regrettable. Because the development image rarely squares up with the best and most sustainable ways of building in a place, the developer is reduced to using the region’s normal construction methods to build the building shell, then slathering architectural “image goo” all over it. In most cases, the image goo is cheap plastic, foam, or other stuff that is all too often a sad and hideous fake of the material it is intended to represent. Buildings made in this way are far too easy to discard at some point in the not-too-distant future. Clearly, throwaway buildings are unsustainable.

the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum

Illustration of the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum, with barn at Organic end, Nashville Parthenon at Refined end, and brick house at the Median setting, in the middle

   The Classical/Vernacular Spectrum works in an entirely different way. First, it is based upon the best ways of building in a particular region. This makes image goo unnecessary because you don’t have to fake anything. Next, it is infinitely adjustable based on the needs of each building. Need something more affordable? Fine... just dial it down the Spectrum a bit. Need something more refined? Just dial it up. And it’s highly explainable to everyone from homeowners to builders to framers to masons, so that everyone understands why we build this way in this place. It’s not just about something as fleeting as architectural fashion; rather, it’s much more durable, and is characterized simply as “this is how we build here.” It’s not a style; it’s what works best, for this people and for this place.

Sustainability Versus Construction Cost

wood-frame house on farm outside Cassett, South Carolina

   Sustainability is about much more than Gizmo Green, but unless you’re building in a place where natural methods can do the whole job of conditioning a building, then more efficient machines are essential. And better machines are almost always more expensive machines. Within a fixed construction budget, something’s gotta give. In tough economic times such as the ones during which this book is being written, people usually choose the long, slow bleeding of monthly utility bills over up-front costs for energy equipment that would dramatically reduce or even eliminate the utility bills.

streetscape along High Street in Bourton-On-The-Water in England

   In order to buy the energy equipment, we must find savings elsewhere in the budget in most cases. The Classical/ Vernacular Spectrum is the most powerful cost-control device in the history of human construction. As a matter of fact, it has created more affordable housing than any other method ever devised. It’s high time to employ it once again... and put away the architectural image goo once and for all.

   ~Steve Mouzon


   This post is part of the serialization of the second chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability]. The chapter is entitled “What Can We Do?” It describes principles upon which real sustainability can be based. This post is #7 in the top 10 items we can do.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 - 05:36 PM


Interesting comparison. The city of Portofino, and the entire Ligurian region of Italy, has it's own goo. Due to the issues of hauling cut stone through the rocky terrain they instead used trompe l'oeil painting to mimic stone detailing. It's a different class of goo, though, since its high quality really is good at fooling the eye.

Thursday, January 7, 2010 - 11:11 AM

Steve Mouzon

Ken, I'd distinguish the Ligurian ornamentation from the image goo I'm referring to here in this way: The Ligurian ornamentation is an elaboration (to varying degrees) of the plaster that naturally goes on a masonry wall except, as you've noted, if it's fine masonry that can be exposed. Architectural image goo, on the other hand, is a whole system of applied foam and plastic stuff that, more often than not, has nothing to do with what it means to build well in a particular region. The better thing to do is to figure out how to build in a place, then figure out how to make that way of building more or less elaborate according to the needs of the job... or at least that's the proposition of the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum.

Saturday, January 9, 2010 - 11:01 AM

Rod Stevens

I worked on a large project inspired by Portofino, and about ten years ago another giant project in New Jersey took down an insurance company.  From a purely financial point of view, the world would be better if we blew up the original!  People might then quit copying it and simply do what works in their own back yards!

Friday, January 22, 2010 - 09:16 AM

Steve Mouzon

Interesting perspective, Rod... I'd never thought of it that way! But you're correct that the failed attempts to replicate Portofino have undoubtedly created tremendous sums of financial disaster throughout the western world. But it seems like that's our fault, not Portofino's fault. A world without highly compelling places like Portofino would surely be more impoverished.

Friday, February 12, 2010 - 09:04 AM


   Steve, I agree that this architectural “image goo” is a problem, but it seems that there is an underlying issue that is not being discussed.  The question we need to ask is “why do people build with architectural goo?”  I think you answer that partly in talking about marketing strategies, but even the slickest marketing strategies will fail if they are not based on what ‘the people’ want.  As an American culture we not only want our own little Portofino, we want more, bigger and faster (which is ironic because houses in Portofino are probably fairly modest in size).  This consumptive desire is in my mind the thing that allows those marketing strategies to work.  And it makes sense that to put the ‘more and bigger’ into a new house and still pay the same, you have to use cheaper materials – the “goo” that you speak of.

   I for one, long for people to build on the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum.  Your description of that spectrum (your terminology?) really conveys the core issues:  “The better thing to do is to figure out how to build in a place, then figure out how to make that way of building more or less elaborate according to the needs of the job…”  I think the question for our society and us as those who desire to change it is, “How can we change the underlying consumptive drive?”  I don’t know, and I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - 05:48 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Matt, thanks so much for the thoughtful comments! I'm wondering if the problem doesn't result from a subtle misunderstanding? Here's what I mean: "The people" aren't the ones building with architectural image goo, for the most part. It's the developers and their builders. Why? We all know that Portofino and other similarly great places turn up again and again in focus groups hosted by development companies. So it's natural for them to say "we've gotta build Portofino."

   But what if that's not what the people are really saying? What if it's not Portofino itself, or the Cinque Terre themselves, that people are actually wanting? What if the thing they really want, but can't adequately describe, is the mysterious sense of harmony and appropriateness to its region and its context that these places all embody so deeply? This sense, I believe, is the real key... and is something we need to understand far better than we do now. My upcoming Original Green book deals with it to the limits of my understanding of it, but this warrants far more study and comprehension.

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