Tiny Places - Mike & Patty's

corner entry to Mike & Patty's, a tiny restaurant in Boston's Bay Village

   Reducing our physical footprint helps reduce our carbon footprint simply because there is less space to condition. But tiny buildings, and especially those that house tiny businesses like Mike & Patty’s, contribute in other ways as well. The math is fairly simple: mega-stores require large numbers of customers to survive, whereas tiny stores require a much smaller number. Why does this matter? Because every additional customer a business needs to survive must come from further away. If a business is small enough, its customers can get to it on foot, whereas if a business is large enough, everyone must drive.

   There is a tipping point when a store gets much bigger than a large Main Street shop where the parking lot pushes it over the edge into complete auto-dependency. A big parking lot acts like a moat, separating the store from even the nearby customers that might walk... ever heard of anyone who lives across the street from a Super WalMart actually walking to the Super WalMart? I didn’t think so. And the hundreds or even thousands of cars in the sea of parking require big roads to get there, ensuring even more that nobody will walk. Where would a Super WalMart be appropriate? Curiously, very large department stores have always existed in very dense urban places. Some of Manhattan’s department stores are 6 or 7 stories tall. The reason large stores are sustainable here is because they have so many potential customers within walking distance or transit distance. Does anybody ever drive their car to Macy’s?

   Seth Harry is a leading New Urbanist architect and retail expert; he has been exploring related ideas for years. He has presented his work on issues of retail scale numerous times, including at the New Urban Council VI in San Diego.

   Places where you have to drive violate the first rule of Accessible Places: that you must be able to gain access to the place by a variety of means of transportation, especially including the self-propelled ones: walking and biking. If it’s not a walkable place, it’s not a sustainable place. But a place with lots of little shops widely distributed throughout neighborhoods is not only an Accessible Place, but also a Serviceable Place.

Mike & Patty's kitchen

   We need more places like Mike & Patty’s, which you can also read about here and here and here, to remind us just how small a business can be and thrive. I stumbled across Mike & Patty’s while shooting Boston’s Bay Village neighborhood for the Catalog of the Most-Loved Places. It’s exceptionally tiny... only nine seats, and two employees, but for most of the time I was shooting around it, there was a line out the door; I had to come back to get the image above while nobody was standing outside. I couldn’t even get inside to get these interior shots until after they closed at the end of lunch because it was always packed. When I finally got in, I discovered that Mike Fitzhenry (the guy in the red cap) happens to be a huge advocate for sustainably- and locally-grown food, which of course is the essence of a Nourishable Place.

dining table & stools in Mike & Patty's

   The building is obviously Lovable; it’s also Durable, as it’s nearly 200 years old already. Mike claims it’s 280 square feet, although that seems to be stretching it a bit, but the space is so simple that you can imagine it being Flexible enough to be just about any kind of business, or with interior shutters or shades, I can even imagine a studio apartment there during the inevitable periods of decline that every neighborhood faces if it lasts long enough. And of course, even with the large glass windows, it’s hard to imagine that this tiny eatery costs much to condition. In other words, its tiny footprint likely makes it quite Frugal. So we have nearly the entire essence of the Original Green bound up in one tiny restaurant.

   It is interesting that the benefits of tiny businesses are two-sided. The neighborhood benefits by having an enticing place to walk to, of course, and by being able to have one more of the basic services of life met within the neighborhood.

people sitting in the bay window at Mike & Patty's eating lunch

   But that is not the whole story. The business benefits greatly on several counts. If you build clientele within the neighborhood, they are often far more loyal than people coming from a distance away. This is due in part to convenience, of course, but can also be due to a sense of neighborhood pride.

   There are physical benefits as well... such as the fact that if you’re small enough, you don’t need to provide any parking because (if the neighborhood streets are walkable) everyone will walk. That’s a big savings for a small business. Also, your signage budget can be very small because customers approaching on foot don’t need a huge sign. Mike and Patty’s sign, as a matter of fact, is nothing more than a menu taped to the inside of the window... probably a dollar or two at most. Contrast this with the $200,000 a Waffle House might have to spend in order to attract customers from the interstate up to a mile away.

   Notice also that Mike & Patty’s landscaping consists of a few potted plants in a window box either side of the door. The street tree is owned and maintained by the city, since it occurs on the sidewalk. Contrast this with landscaping tabs that easily get into the tens of thousands of dollars for larger businesses in a suburban setting. I could go on, but you get the point. Most of these savings contribute to energy sustainability, and they all undoubtedly contribute to economic sustainability of the business.

   One final point... For years, we’ve been told that businesses are getting larger and larger because of the economies of scale. But how do the economies of scale really stack up when we consider the economies of smallness, as noted above? There is a fine-grained nature of economies of scale that rarely gets discussed: the real economies of scale occur at the scale of the crew, not the scale of the building. One of the first questions that should be asked is “what is single-crew capacity of this business?” A single crew can do a certain amount of work in a day, whether they’re working in a big box or a small one. Take hotels, for example. A single housekeeper is the smallest housekeeping crew, and she or he can do roughly 8 rooms per day. So if you build hotels and inns in increments of 8 rooms, you’ll be almost equally efficient from a housekeeping standpoint whether it’s 8 rooms or 80. Mike & Patty’s single crew is two people: Mike and Patty. And they’re clearly having a great time of it.

~ Steve Mouzon

Why This Retail Glut?

Target store at a power center in Huntsville, Alabama

   Is it possible that today’s glut of retail establishments (many of which are now failing) is a result of our failure to build real civic spaces like plazas, squares, greens, and parks, and to build highly walkable streets, avenues, boulevards, and promenades, where people can meet others they know by chance, and can meet others they don’t already know? How could that be? Humans are social; we have a deep-seated need to be around other people for part of the day. Once, you could happen across others walking down the street, or sitting in the square, or having a coffee at the sidewalk cafe, where the purchase of a single espresso bought you a license to your table for an entire afternoon.

   Those things are impossible in virtually every corner of Sprawlopolis today. Because while walkable streets have forever been favorite places where people met, you certainly won't be around anyone else out on the arterial, because pedestrians take their lives in their own hands out there. And the squares and plazas where people once congregated have been replaced with over-engineered intersections and interchanges where the only people you'll see out of their cars are the homeless people looking for charity.

   So the malls have enticed us to come by being poor forgeries of Main Streets where the townspeople once rubbed shoulders... but what choices are there today? And the strip centers are even worse... one-sided malls with no air conditioning, but where else are you going to go? We’ve isolated ourselves in office parks surrounded by huge wastelands of parking, and in stockade-fenced back yards... remember what a stockade is? It’s a makeshift prison. Nothing has changed. So the only shred of community we have left, where we can perchance see people we know and meet those we don’t yet know in a completely unplanned fashion is the shopping center.

   So what happened when we went to the shopping centers in search of community? We found a bit of it, to be sure, but because we were walking right into the maw of the exquisitely good modern retail machine, we also bought stuff... a LOT of stuff... far more than we needed. It’s a lot like the super-sizing phenomenon, where fast food establishments have found ways of feeding us far more than we needed... and our health and fitness has suffered immensely.

   How much stuff have we been sold than what we need? Well, at the end of WWII, the average American house was close to 1,100 square feet, and a family slightly larger than four people lived there. Today, the American house has bloated to more than double that size, while the American household is less than half the size that it was. Yet, with half the people in twice the space, we still have so much excess stuff that won’t fit in the house that we have turned mini-storage into a $20 billion/year industry... larger than the movie industry!!

   What should we do, now that retail is crashing down all around us? As the malls go dark, where will the people go? If we do nothing, we are facing greater isolation and separation, and nothing good comes from that... only the continued unraveling of society, and all its accompanying ills.

   The New Urbanism has been working for thirty years now to re-learn old solutions and find new ones that create great streets and civic spaces. But New Urbanism to date has been confined to a tiny part of the American landscape, which we have otherwise filled with endless waves of sprawl. Although many new sprawl subdivisions are boarded up and rotting in the more remote corners of Sprawlopolis, we can’t abandon it all, because there are simply too many people to fit into the places that currently have great streets and civic places. So we must quickly learn how to fix the messes we’ve made, because you shouldn’t be required to buy something in order to meet a future friend. Bring back the places we can freely assemble!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 04:45 PM


I concur!

Saturday, March 21, 2009 - 05:28 AM


I'm all for urbanism and new urbanism.  The retail glut is hitting us, too.  Our authentic downtowns are experiencing vacancies, too.

This country has ten times the retail square footage as our friends in England have.  That we built all of that sprawl without needing it is the real problem.  As a result of the economic downturn, all of it will suffer.  Hopefully, the walkable neighborhoods will come back first.

Saturday, March 21, 2009 - 09:16 AM


It amuses me that everyone is seeing these strip mall stores to close their doors first, yet we keep on building them.  In every town, their are chains of stores.  I think everyone should notice that the first to close are in the auto-centric areas while the chain stores and restaurants that remain open are in walkable communities or in the downtown areas.

I hope this recession teaches the development community a lesson on what type of development is truly sustainable.  Good stuff Steve!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 07:05 PM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I believe that this recession could be the best thing that ever happened in the debate about sprawl, because it shows just how unsustainable it really is.

Monday, January 4, 2010 - 02:46 AM


In addition to the open public spaces like plazas and squares, we have also often lost the neighborhood meetinghouses every town used to have - the lodges, the clubs, the town hall, the (widely attended) churches - and the free, participatory activities and assistance that went with them. 

Even paid entertainment used to be more participatory, like skating rinks, pubs,  theaters, or amusement parks. Now more social interactions between strangers are based on a brief transaction, and the salesperson moves on.

I have several friends who are shopaholics (I don't use that word lightly - they are deep in debt, talk about losing their homes, but cannot leave a place without buying something.) They talk confessionally to sales staff, who then establish an intimate relationship over whatever has just arrived, or congratulate my friends on their taste in their purchase, welcoming them to the club.

The decline of malls proved that they were a poor replacement for public streets. Perhaps the decline of retail will correspond to a rise in cooperative  "maker spaces" , which could become the lodge of the Internet age.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010 - 03:56 PM

Steve Mouzon

Izzy, I know you're right about the first part, and hope you're right about the second part! New Urbanists regularly insist on civic spaces being designed into neighborhoods, even if we don't know exactly what sort of civic building will eventually be there. If you don't reserve civic land at the beginning, it'll usually never happen.

Parks and Sustainable Places

   I promised to write this post quite some time ago for Marilyn Rodgers, who is a vigorous advocate for Johnson Park in Buffalo, New York... and for the countless legion of advocates like her that support parks and other civic space around the world. Parks, it turns out, are a key factor in the building of sustainable places... and not just for the reasons you normally think of. Parks actually support several of the foundations of sustainable places, and could potentially support all of them.


   One of the essentials of Frugality is the preservation of human health. Parks have long been known for their restorative effect upon the human mind and spirit due to the ability to immerse oneself in nature, even if you live in a very urban place nearby. There is a massive body of literature written over the past several centuries that documents this effect that is far beyond the scope of this blog to document.

   Another well-known aspect of parks is their ability to host human physical fitness activities. Walking, running, biking, rollerblading, and skateboarding are naturals in a park, and occur frequently in every good park. Organized sports frequently find their homes in parks, especially if they can be played without heavy equipment in an open field, such as pick-up games of football (European and American), baseball, and softball. Sports that require a setting beyond the field, such as basketball, tennis, and swimming can find their homes here, too. But these things are well-known, and support one aspect of sustainability: the conservation of human wellness that is a part of Frugality. Here are some other ways that parks help to create a sustainable place:


   Accessible Places must be walkable first of all, and then bikeable. But what are you accessing? If you don’t have somewhere to go, then you’re much less likely to open the door. And walkability thrives on numbers. If nobody else is out, then a walk through deserted streets is much less interesting than if you know you’ll see other people along the way. Walking to a shop is good, but we don’t always need to buy something every day. And walking to work is good, but you pass each way only once a day. But a nearby park calls you quietly throughout the day; whenever I’ve lived or worked near a park, I’ve frequently found myself there more than once a day... clearing my mind at work, brown-bagging lunch, relaxing at the end of the day, or running early in the evening. So a park arguably gets more people out onto neighborhood streets throughout the day than almost any other single destination. In other words, it creates more walkers and therefore more interesting streets to walk on than almost any other use.

   Serviceable Places are those where you can get all the daily necessities of life within walking distance. But what are the daily necessities of life? The corner grocery, the coffee shop, the bank, the hardware store and the pharmacy all come to mind... but how about contact with nature? And physical fitness? Most New Urbanists agree that the categories of “Live Work Shop Learn Play” or some similar arrangement constitute categories of daily necessities. And what better place to play than in the park?

   Securable Places are those where you don’t live with undue fear for your life or safety, that of your family, or the safety of your possessions. Poorly-monitored parks over the past forty years have a reputation of insecurity... Central Park in New York in the 1970s was a scary place. But if they are properly monitored, parks can have exactly the opposite effect. A strong community is almost always more secure than a weak one. Strong communities begin with people getting to know each other; you cannot have a strong community made up of total strangers. The design of front porches and sidewalks can play a big role in introducing people, as I detailed here. But this generally happens only two people at a time. Parks perform introductions on a larger scale, because there are more people in a park than on a residential sidewalk.

   Parks play another role in enhancing the security of a place. It is common knowledge that the most secure streets are those with the most pedestrians. So by enticing people to walk to the park, the park enhances the security of every street that leads toward it.

   Parks can support all four foundations of sustainable places if at least a portion of their plantings are edible. Nourishable Places are those where you can look out onto the fields and onto the waters from which much of your food comes. The most obvious way for parks to contribute to being a Nourishing Place is by planting fruit and nut trees instead of just ornamentals. Anyone could eat from the trees, since the park is accessible to all. Grape, scuppernong, or muscadine vines could also be included as part of the landscape, as could other perennials such as berry bushes. Vegetable beds work less well on two counts: They take up space that could otherwise be used for communal activities. Also, because they require regular work during the growing season, the people who do the work rightfully feel like the produce should be theirs, but it’s likely to be picked by anyone who happens to be walking by at the time.

   There is, however, another model: the British countryside is laced with a network of paths through fields and farms. As best as I can tell by simply traveling there (I’ve done no research on this) anyone is invited into the agricultural land so long as they walk there but do no harm. If anyone knows more details of the British system, please post comments here. But in any case, this ought to be conceived as another method for putting people in touch with nature (of the agricultural sort, in this case.) It does not replace a park in the center of a neighborhood; rather, it’s how you immerse yourself in nature at the edge of town.

~ Steve Mouzon

Porches, Walkability, and Sustainability

two women, on on a porch and one leaning against a picket fence, holding a conversation at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama

   I’ve been meaning to post this for some time, and was prodded to do so by a fascinating post on the social dynamic of porches by Patrick Deneen entitled A Republic of Front Porches. Sustainable places must be Accessible by a variety of means, especially by walking. Neighborhoods where people walk to numerous destinations are more likely to be Securable because people tend to know many more of their neighbors, and therefore are more likely to know when a stranger is in the neighborhood. Walkability is essential to a Serviceable place because people won’t walk to those services as often if the pedestrian experience is bad. So walking plays a fundamental role in the sustainability of a place. Porches can play a crucial role in the walkability of residential streets in a neighborhood, and therefore in the overall sustainability of the neighborhood.

   People who lambast New Urbanist porches and fences for being “historical pastiche,” have no understanding of their abilities to encourage people to walk and to bind communities together. I got this shot in mid-2007 at the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama. After the women had finished their conversation, I walked over to the woman on the porch and asked her permission to use the image, and she agreed. I asked her “was that lady a friend of yours?” She said “no, I just met her right then.” So this image is the beginning of a relationship, caught in the act!

   Porches and fences play a pivotal role. A porch can be a finely-honed Social Interaction Device, while a fence can be a precisely-tuned Personal Space Protection Mechanism. How? It’s primarily about geometry, not about style. For years, I measured porches and their relationship to the sidewalk. I looked for signs of life, not just furnishings... things like a coffee mug or newspaper that had been set aside when someone called, or a child’s toy. What I found was that there is a clear distinction between porches people will sit on and ones they won’t, and it’s based on how close the front edge of the porch is to the sidewalk, and how far above the sidewalk it is. Here’s a diagram showing the basic relationship:

porch floor height diagram, measured from back of sidewalk

   As the porch gets closer to the sidewalk, it must get higher above the sidewalk, otherwise people simply will not sit on the porch because the feel too vulnerable. My observations are entirely unscientific (I’m an architect, not a social scientist) but I have observed this relationship in a broad range of neighborhoods, from the most affluent to those that are struggling. So I believe this is a relationship that is somehow hardwired into the human mind... or at least the American mind. It’s certainly wider than any one place. But this doesn’t explain everything... there are ways to modify the height. One is by the use of a frontage fence, hedge, or wall:

diagram illustrating porch height reduction using fence, hedge, or wall behind sidewalk

   This diagram illustrates the fact that if you have a frontage fence (the double-dot line,) then you can reduce the height of the porch by an increasing amount until you get 3 feet away from the sidewalk, at which point the benefit quickly disappears as the fence gets closer to the porch rail. Hedges and walls provide double the benefit because they are solid, allowing people to feel more comfortable sitting on the porch. But that isn’t all. The porch railing also plays a pivotal role:

diagram illustrating porch height reduction using solid railing on porch

   The middle (solid) line shows that the top chart assumes a picket railing. The top (dotted) line indicates that if you have no railing at all, you must raise the porch height. It runs out 5’ from the sidewalk because, even using every trick in the book, there’s no reasonable way of building a porch closer to the sidewalk than this with no railing that is legal... it simply won’t meet code. The bottom (triple-dot) line illustrates the effect of a railing that is 75% solid or more; railings like this make the porch feel much more private.

   And this stuff really works. I’m a Town Architect in several new towns and neighborhoods. I was at one of the neighborhoods recently and saw a porch that was much too close to the street for as low as it was built. I told the Town Founder to have the builder remove the rail and replace it with something more solid. Next month when I was back, the rail wasn’t changed out, so we had the same conversation. Another month passed, and still, it hadn’t been changed. The Town Founder promised to have another conversation with the builder, but this time, to do it more forcefully.

   I got a very excited phone call from the builder a couple weeks later. “Steve, you’ll never guess what happened!” was how it started. “So tell me,” I asked. The Town Founder had basically told the builder that he had no choice, and so the guy finally changed the railing out for something really solid... 1x4s spaced only 1/4” apart and chamfered at the edges, if I recall correctly. In any case, he said “the paint wasn’t even dry when a couple came up who had looked at the house before, but turned it down. They said “this looks different this time... it looks more livable, somehow.” So even though they couldn’t explain exactly how it was better than before, this time, they pulled out their checkbook and put down their earnest money to buy the house.

   Here’s why: When you design a porch that is usable as an outdoor room, then it’s a useful part of the living space of the house. And it’s usually some of the least expensive space in the house because you don’t have to heat and cool it, and it doesn’t have walls or windows. But if it’s not useful as living space, then a porch is just very expensive decoration. Also, when someone can imagine themselves sitting on the porch, they can also imagine themselves visiting with their neighbors... but if they can’t, then it’s no different from any other house in a conventional subdivision.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, January 22, 2010 - 01:24 PM


Thanks for this. A French-Canadian playwright, Michel Tremblay, set many of his plays on the verandahs and back porches of his female characters. I long for the verandah of my grandparents' home!

I note how narrow the road is in your photo. I wouldn't mind an occasional car going by, but wouldn't like to sit out on my porch on a busy street.

You seem to have quantified something that I (as an educator and not a social scientist) have observed and called "horizontal privacy" versus "vertical privacy." Here in North America, we have lots of room, geographically speaking, so if we want to be alone or feel some privacy, we simply go somewhere away from others. In places like Japan and the UK, where there isn't a lot of space to spread out into, the cultures have created vertical privacy with class systems, where people of different classes can be in the same room or vicinity but don't "hear" each other. I suppose, then, that it's also about visual privacy versus auditory privacy. 

And, as you eloquently point out, a sense of safety and security is a big part of it, too.

Julie Johnston

Pender Island, BC, Canada

Preservation vs. LEED

night shot of Beacon Hill street in Boston

   There has been a major conflict brewing for quite some time between preservationists and the LEED rating system. LEED is being used as a tool by architects to justify the destruction of historic buildings because they aren't as energy-efficient as the new buildings designed to replace them... so the preservationists may emerge as the most vigorous opponent to LEED and the US Green Building Council that created it.

   How could things have possibly gotten so convoluted? Preservation should be considered the foundation act of sustainability, because if you don't preserve something, it is not sustained. Using the plain-spoken meanings of the words, "preservation" and "sustainability" should be nearly synonymous. Yet the "preservation" camp and the "sustainability" camp are beginning to lob verbal hand grenades at each other. How can this be?

   The main culprits are the architects using LEED rather than the USGBC, it seems... Here's a series of factors that show how each contributes to the problem:

   1. LEED is style-neutral. It mandates neither Modernist-styled architecture nor traditionally-styled architecture. Most people don't realize this because almost all of the LEED buildings published are Modernist ones, but if you get under the hood of the rating system, you'll see that it's so. I designed Katrina Cottage VIII, which would have been either LEED Gold or LEED Platinum according to where it was installed in town, had I gone to the expense of rating it.

   2. LEED credits are entirely additive, which means that you simply get points where you choose, add them up, and that's your rating. This means that each credit is fairly small, since they all add up to 100. So you only get a couple more points for preserving an entire historic building as you do for installing a bike rack.

   3. The architects' incentive is to get the largest fee possible. Because it's almost always more expensive to demolish an historic building and build a new one than it is to restore and re-use the historic building, the architects are financially prejudiced against saving the historic building.

   4. The following fact is swept under the rug by almost everyone, but it's essential to get it on the table if we want to understand the entire dynamic: Modernism is anti-historical and anti-traditional. It's not considered a subject for polite conversation in many circles, but Modernism at its core is about destroying old (and similar) buildings and replacing them with new (and unique) buildings. There are occasionally Modernist architects who are exceptions to this rule, but they are infrequent.

   Here's how it all comes together: The architects have found LEED, because it is style-neutral, and because it is established on today's moral high ground of sustainability, to be the perfect vehicle for achieving their theoretical and financial aims. This is all so wrong... flying the flag of sustainability while destroying things that have been heretofore sustained for a very long time. But what can we do?

   1. The LEED standard needs to be modified to recognize the full sustainability implications of preserving an historic building. It's not just the fact that there's tremendous embodied energy and resources already in place. It's also the fact that an historic building, by its continued existence until today, has proven something that new buildings cannot prove for a very long time, and which most of the new buildings will never last long enough to ever prove: that the building is lovable enough that people have preserved it until now. If a building cannot be loved, it will not last... and what's the carbon footprint of a building worth once its pieces are carted off to the landfill? Nothing at all. A building cannot be sustainable if it is not lovable.

   2. A discipline of high-performance historic buildings needs to be developed very quickly. The current perception is that the "drafty old piles" could never be so efficient as the gleaming new things, so why bother? But that perception can be dispelled if there is a compelling body of evidence to refute it. Preservationists should be at the forefront of this effort. Some would say, and the Original Green seems to agree, that traditional buildings before the Thermostat Age were always green. This is so... but with the caveat that our ancestors had much wider comfort ranges and tolerances. True sustainability cannot be achieved without expanding the comfort range from its ridiculous 2-degree window today, which guarantees that a building must be conditioned all the time. But it's unlikely we can open the window of the comfort range as wide again as it was for all of human history until the Thermostat Age, so that means that the historic buildings must perform at a higher level than they have ever done before, even if they were built before the Thermostat Age. Solving this problem is of utmost importance.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 01:21 PM

Chad Cooper

Great post Steve.  One question: In the hotter climate zones, for Mid & Hise-rise buildings, isn't it more difficult or more restrictive with respect being able to adjust to a broader range of climate comfortability?  In Low Rise and buildngs of lesser stories, one can open a window to take advantage of breezes in order to offset a higher general temperature inside.  Whereas in Mid and High Rise buildings, opening windows is much less likely.  Is this a fctor in your mind?

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 03:07 PM

Steve Mouzon

Good point, Chad... matter of fact, high-rise buildings have lots of sustainability problems. For example, even the most high-tech glass in the world today is not as efficient as a simple 2x4 stud wall with fiberglass batt insulation. But cladding 80-story buildings with heavier materials has its serious problems... including high-rise architects' immense infatuation with glass curtain walls. In an uncertain future, the ability to open windows and to adjust the air and heat flow (in both directions) should be considered an essential requirement of all buildings.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 - 02:19 PM


I agree that the LEED rating system needs to be modified to take into account historic preservation.  One thing that would help would be to have negative numbers included.  I was thinking that achieving a LEED rating for a building was similar to scoring a touchdown in a football game and each of the points earned would be like a play on the field.  If you have to demolish a building to clear the building site and that building could have otherwise been renovated, it should be like taking possession of the ball in the other team's end zone.  The project should start off with some negative number that puts it below the zero base line.  The value of the negative number should be dependant on the size of the building demolished and the quantity of materials salvaged.

Thursday, May 7, 2009 - 02:20 PM

Michael Rouchell

The anonymous comment above was by Michael Rouchell.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 - 08:21 AM

Steve Mouzon

EXCELLENT, Michael!! I've been struggling with how to do that, as I've been working for some time on a counter-proposal to LEED. The negative number approach solves a key aspect of the problem. I'll post this just as soon as I can get the diagrams drawn.

Thanks very much!!

Thursday, May 14, 2009 - 10:00 PM

Michael Rouchell

Steve,  I am not that familiar with how the LEED rating system works, but if the goal is to achieve 100 points and you start off at 0, then the obvious thing would be to provide a baseline of 0 if your building is on a vacant piece of land, -50 if your project requires a demolition, and a 50 if you choose to do a renovation.  This would give the renovation project a clear advantage over the new construction and a substantial head start over the demolition/new construction.  But then these base lines may not be entirely fair either.  A project could be considered a "renovation" even though it proposes to demolish everything, leaving only the exterior walls temporarily shored up until the new construction is built behind the facades.  Thus it wouldn't be fair to provide the same head start as a true renovation that proposes to retain all the interiors.  Similarly, a demolition may be necessary if the existing building's size and construction type is smaller than the proposed building or is an unsuitable construction type.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 07:07 PM

Steve Mouzon

Michael, that's enormously helpful... thanks! And take a look at the recent Down the Unlovable Carbon Stair-Steps blog post, which continues this discussion.

Spreading Sustainability

two women having lunch at sidewalk cafe at Rue des Colonnes in Paris

   Millions of the best minds are working around the world today trying to figure out how we can live sustainably. Many of them have been working on this dilemma for years, yet almost every metric of sustainability continues to grow worse. So we’re still going backwards. But I’m an optimist, so I believe we will eventually figure it out. Once we have, then how do we spread the great wisdom of sustainability that took so many years and so many great minds to assemble? There are several candidates:

   Architects must be heavily involved, because sustainability is inextricably intertwined with the places we work, live, and shop. So how does architecture spread ideas? Unfortunately, and far too often, it does not. This is because architecture has been saddled with a huge weight for nearly a hundred years: the necessity of uniqueness. By this standard, if you hope to be significant, you must be unique. Uniqueness dies a sudden death when someone copies your work, so significant architects are highly motivated to design by a code that is not easily cracked. And the copiers condemn themselves to non-uniqueness, which equates to insignificance.

   “But wait,” you might ask. “What’s wrong with uniqueness?” “Doesn’t that standard encourage creativity?” “And creativity is good, right?” “Doesn’t sustainability require creative solutions?” It seems at first glance like the necessity of uniqueness might actually be a requirement for sustainability, but quite the opposite is true.

   Think about this for a moment: if millions of the best minds around the world work for years to figure out the mysteries of true sustainability, how ridiculous would it be to expect each significant architect to reformulate sustainability in the image of their own personal style? Asking a single person to reformulate years of work by millions of the best minds goes beyond the absurd... to the globally treasonous! We must be allowed to share wisdom!!!

   So if architecture’s current methods don’t work, what are the alternatives? Our system of higher education has continued to develop for centuries, and is very good. You come to class for years, work through countless problems and show your work, and you eventually get a degree or two... or three. But this system is not nearly broad enough. Just compare the proportion of PhDs to the population at large, and you’ll find that this system can only affect a small proportion of the population. Sustainability must be something that we all do, not something that only a few people do.

   Nature has a better way of spreading great wisdom. The most complicated wisdom yet discovered by humanity is the human genome, which took legions of scientists many years to decode. Yet human genes are spread by billions of people with no genetic education and nothing but on-the-job training. How can this be?

   Nature’s way of spreading human genes begins with attraction of one person to another. If they’re attracted enough to each other, they mate, they breed (not necessarily in that order) and they pass down their genetic material. What is the secret?

   Look at the young woman in the image above, having lunch on the streets of Paris. Judging by appearances, one would have to say that she is quite likely to spread her genes because she is attractive. But she likely would tell you immediately that “there’s much more to me than just my appearance.” And she would be correct. Nature, you see, embeds wisdom (the genetic code) in beauty. People don’t have to know anything about the genetic code in order to spread it... they simply have to be attracted to a person with whom they want to spread it... and the code they are spreading is so much greater than the attraction that led them to that person to begin with.

eave in the Tuscan town of Pienza

   Architecture once did something very similar. Someone might work for years to figure out the best possible eave for a region of the world, for example. They might do countless calculations of sun angles, storm winds, etc., and might do numerous experiments. But if they can then embed that wisdom in beauty by designing the eave in such a manner that the people of the region consider it to be beautiful, then nobody else needs to do the calculations, or the experiments, or show their work; they simply need to love the pattern. This embedding of wisdom within beauty is the beginning of a living tradition because it creates something that all the people can embrace.

   Sustainability must engage the townspeople, not just the experts because there is only so much that the experts can do. Sustainability cannot be something that “they” do for us. Rather, sustainability must be characterized as “this is something I will do.” So sustainability actually requires living traditions. As a matter of fact, sustainability has never occurred without living traditions. Because only a living tradition has the power to spread wisdom so broadly using a vehicle so efficient as love. If it cannot be loved, it will not last. And if it will not last, it is not sustainable.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009 - 07:44 PM

Andrew Watt

I saw a house in Montague, MA this weekend that perfectly illustrated the problem you speak of here, contrasted with Gizmo Green.  It was a lovely-shaped New England saltbox... but it was turned the wrong way, so it didn't receive the sun on its windows.  In addition, a series of bizarre dormers had been added,  in order to accommodate ELEVEN solar panels which were tacked onto the roof.

Dumb. And expensive

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - 09:20 AM

Steve Mouzon

Amazing, isn't it, Andrew? You touch on two points here that we all need to be hammering home: sustainability begins with common sense, and it saves you money. Who shouldn't want both of those?

Saturday, April 25, 2009 - 11:03 AM


It'd very heartening to hear someone cite the human genome in the context of architecture. But that code isn't "open source" ,(yet) and can only be replicated by making a (cooperative) life-or-death decision to procreate with one particular individual or not. Since biotechies have already made replacement human bladders for those who have lost their original by culturing the client's bladder cells and then casting them onto a synthetic bladdereshaped scaffold, why not do this with trees. That is, grow a house (cultured tree cells cast into the shape of a room) that will grow into a dwelling. Green, Ruby Rod? Super green.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 07:11 PM

Steve Mouzon

Zephyr, I'm confident we'll eventually be able to do things like that, and that could be really cool stuff, although it'll likely be horribly expensive at first, like anything new. Meanwhile, living traditions have spread wisdom sustainably for several millennia... so until the high-tech solutions arrive, I'm all for doing what is proven today.

Friday, July 17, 2009 - 08:22 PM

Fredo Valladares

If we could (or actually would) take the time to analize how other cultures and previous generations have lived and built as a result of their living experience, we would learn tthrough their traditional patterns that a lot has already been invented, tested, experienced, and it is only a matter of applying common sense to the concept of design.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 - 10:36 AM

Steve Mouzon

Fredo, you're precisely right, IMO. Matter of fact, you've just laid out the entire premise of the Original Green in one sentence... thanks!

Diagramming the Original Green

Original Green diagram of characteristics of sustainable places (nourishable, accessible, serviceable, and securable) and buildings (lovable, durable, flexible, and frugal)

   The diagram above is today’s Original Green report card. Organic and bio-intensive farming advocates such as J.I. & Robert Rodale, John Jeavons, Michael Ableman and many others have done almost everything that they can do to foster the creation of a Nourishing Place, but there is much work left to do. Serenbe - A Nourishing Place highlights recent progress towards creating a moral imperative to make new places Nourishing Places. This foundation will not be rebuilt, however, until developers regularly say “it is in my best interest, including my financial best interest, to include enough agriculture in my plan that my development becomes a Nourishing Place.”

   The New Urbanism has clearly shown us how, through thirty years of work, we can build places where you have a choice of ways to get around in your neighborhood, especially including self-propelled means (walking and biking.) New Urbanists have become so influential in this regard that they are literally rewriting the transportation standards. One notable example is the joint CNU/ITE manual.

   The New Urbanism has also done much to create Serviceable Places by showing how to build neighborhoods with a diversity of uses so that you can get the basic services of life within walking distance. But until we’ve figured out how those people who are serving you those services can afford to live there, too, this foundation won’t be completely rebuilt. The New Urban Guild’s Katrina Cottage initiative has contributed to this effort; Katrina Cottage Housing is another view of this movement. Bruce Tolar’s Cottage Court in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, is the first built collection of Katrina Cottages.

   The discussion about Secure Places is a difficult one to have because so much emotion is bound up in this idea. But it’s an essential conversation to have because hundreds of American cities were almost emptied out in the 1960s and 1970s because they got this one foundation wrong. The New Urbanism’s efforts to design identifiable neighborhoods goes all the way back to Christopher Alexander’s work in the 1970s, but much work remains to be done in order to rebuild this foundation.

   The New Urbanism’s Form-Based Codes began the modern-day effort to recover the ability to build lovable buildings, beginning with DPZ’s code for Seaside, Florida, introduced in 1980. The SmartCode is the foremost form-based code. There have been several major subsequent contributors to the effort to build lovable buildings through the medium of living traditions, most notably (in the US) the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art and Restore Media, which hosts the Traditional Building Exhibition & Conference. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and INTBAU have been stalwarts of this effort in Europe. INTBAU USA is the US chapter.

   One would think that building durably would be as simple as going back to the old ways of building which have produced buildings that have lasted for centuries. But it’s not quite so simple as that. Today, we don’t have the same materials available as we did a century ago. Pine, for example, was once a tightly-grained rot-resistant wood. Today, it’s genetically-engineered mush. So while there are great resources showing how we once built for the ages (such as the Classicist Bookshop) we have work to do in order to figure out how to build durably again with the materials we can get today.

   Buildings have been reused for purposes other than those for which they were designed for many centuries. For nearly all of human history, repurposing a building was a relatively simple affair because the ingredients were: people, their furnishings, and their stuff. Recently, we’ve added machines, pipes, and wires. So we have some things to learn about how to incorporate these new arrivals into buildings in such a way that changes in the building’s program do not present a good excuse to tear the building down and start over. Donovan Rypkema of PlaceEconomics is one of many preservationists with a wealth of reasons why a building should be reused, and techniques for doing so.

   Frugality is best achieved using passive means first, because passive means don’t rely on technology or man-made energy inputs. Living traditions are perfectly suited for delivering passive frugality because passive measures are easily understood and easily replicated. Once passive means have accomplished all they can, then active means should be used to bridge the gap to our comfort range. This is where Gizmo Green is highly useful, because if you’re going to use equipment, by all means, use the most efficient equipment available.

   Scroll back up for a moment and look at the diagram... and notice how small a part of true sustainability Gizmo Green occupies. It is important, but it is a small piece of the whole picture. Yet this is where almost every sustainability discussion occurs today. The Original Green idea was created precisely to solve this problem by broadening the view of what sustainability really is. You can advance this cause by spreading this word to everyone you know. Ask them to subscribe to this blog by clicking the RSS button near the top of this page in the sidebar; your friends can be assured of a regular and provocative discussion they won’t yet find elsewhere... for now. If they’re on facebook, ask them to join the Original Green cause. If they’re on LinkedIn, ask them to join the Original Green group. And please feel free to join the discussion on any of these posts... just click "Add a comment" below. Because ideas always advance more quickly in a discussion.

~ Steve Mouzon

Sustainability and the Meltdown

gauges on industrial control panel

   Gizmo Green is the proposition that sustainability can be achieved with nothing more than better equipment and better materials. This is an illusion under any circumstances (see Problem 4 - The Gizmo Green Focus.) But the Gizmo Green has an additional problem today: the Meltdown.

   Think about it for a minute... what do we know about better equipment and better materials? They almost always cost more money. If they were less expensive, then the inferior stuff wouldn’t even exist because nobody would buy it. So Gizmo Green’s bread-and-butter of better equipment and better materials costs more money.

   The Gizmo Green is now smashing into the Meltdown as people make hard choices about what they’re going to spend on a new or renovated building, and it’s indicative of the ways that most Americans look at sustainability. I believe that when times are hard, people choose better, more durable stuff because they can’t afford to be replacing them all the time (see The Unburdening of America.) But because, by most accounts (this story is one of many,) people are shedding Gizmo Green measures from building budgets, it’s apparent that these things are perceived as “feel-good” sustainability measures rather than measures with benefits that will pay you back.

   This perception may not always be correct, because some Gizmo Green measures have fairly short payback periods. But people act on their perceptions... and clearly, many people who are building now see Gizmo Green as something they would feel good about, but which they cannot afford if they’re building right now. In other words, they see Gizmo Green as an unnecessary luxury right now.

   Gizmo Green is a part of the true sustainability of the Original Green, but it’s only a very small part. Many Original Green measures are accomplished by rearranging stuff that you’re going to build already, and other measures actually save you money. You can rearrange windows to enhance cross-ventilation in a room, for example. Or you can build a series of outdoor rooms around a home or other building. Properly designed (I’ll blog on this later,) outdoor rooms actually become part of the living space of the home that is usable much of the year. Great outdoor rooms can be built for $20 to $25 per square foot. When they reduce the amount of conditioned space needed in the house, you’re saving tens of thousands or more from the very beginning because even if you can only use outdoor rooms 1/2 to 2/3 of the time, that space costs only 1/4 to 1/8 the cost of interior space, so outdoor rooms are a far better deal than indoor rooms.

   And that’s only the beginning. Every square foot you don’t have to condition because it’s outdoors rather than indoors saves on utilities every month. And there’s a more subtle but even bigger saving, too... if the space is well-designed enough that it entices you outdoors often, then you become acclimated to the local environment and you need less full-body conditioning once you return indoors. If you haven’t lived in a home or worked in an office with great outdoor rooms, you likely don’t believe this because you’ve never experienced it. But trust me on this one... I live in Miami Beach, and we have a delightful side garden in which we spend a lot of time. Walk by my condo, and you’ll often see the windows open because we simply don’t run the A/C all that much. We’ve become acclimated. The savings that occur when we condition ourselves first and condition our buildings second actually account for the highest savings of all, because they allow us to turn the equipment off for a lot more of the day.

~ Steve Mouzon

Problem 1 - The Two and One-Half Billion People

   This post concludes the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   I promised that this first chapter would be the bad news of the book, but the discussion on the conserving economy swerved firmly into good news instead. But let’s close this chapter with a sobering discussion of the most massive piece of bad news that’s out there: it’s a problem of immensely large numbers.

   Until now, the world’s biggest ecological disaster was the American middle-class lifestyle. Sprawl, super-sizing, and slurping of the lion’s share of the world’s resources has had a huge impact, but that’s about to change... because today, there are 2-1/2 billion people living in China and India, who have until now lived within agrarian societies, consuming very few resources per person.

   But now, their countries are industrializing, and the 2-1/2 billion are moving off the land and into the cities, just as millions of Americans did during the Great Decline. And as the 2-1/2 billion move into the cities, they come face-to-face with images of something they may never have seen before: the American middle-class lifestyle. And they want it. And who are we to tell them they can’t have it? How could we even attempt to do that?

   The problem is obvious: the environmental problems we have now get multiplied by seven in just a few years because there will be seven times as many people trying to live the American middle-class lifestyle. Imagine in seven to ten years when a billion cars that don’t even exist today get on the roads in China and India. What will that do to the price of gas? What will that do to air quality? What will that do to the global climate?

   So the world’s biggest ecological disaster is no longer the American middle-class lifestyle, but rather the export of the image of the American middle-class lifestyle. We haven’t even begun to understand the impacts of multiplying our problems by seven. Is there any question as to whether it’s time to find better ways of solving these problems than what we’re currently doing?

~ Steve Mouzon

The Birds-Eye Slum-View Problem

roofless shanty in Rose Town, Kingston, Jamaica

   There’s a fascinating story in today’s Boston Globe entitled Learning from Slums. I spent most of my career working in places nowhere near anything that could be characterized as a “slum.” I have vague recollections as a very young child of a shanty-town derisively knows as “Boogertown” in my hometown. I think it was bulldozed when I was not much more than three years old. And in the process, they bulldozed hundreds of blocks of great old homes simply because they were old. It was progress... or so they said. This article highlights a proposition unthinkable just a generation ago: was “slum-clearing” a bad idea?

road through weeds of no-man's-land that was bulldozed through Rose Town by the government years ago

   Several years ago, Prince Charles visited Rose Town while on a trip to Jamaica. Rose Town is adjacent to Trench Town, made famous when Bob Marley lived there years ago; his onetime home is now an unofficial shrine. Rose Town, however, had been torn apart in the 1960’s by political violence: partisans of one party lived in one end of the neighborhood, and partisans of the other party lived in the other, and the middle of the neighborhood was bulldozed 30 years ago because of the fierce warfare. The image to the right is what remains today of what had once been a neighborhood street. The houses are distant memories, and the land has almost been reclaimed by nature. Even the asphalt of the streets is far gone; it’s hard to imagine the place as it was before it descended into the darkness of violence so many years ago.

   Today, Rose Town residents live in severe conditions. Very few of them have toilets. Electricity is procured by throwing hooks up over power lines and stringing the attached wires into your shanty. Nowhere in the United States does poverty even approach to that of Rose Town. Upon seeing the broken neighborhood, Prince Charles made an impassioned personal plea to Andrés Duany to help design the knitting-together of Rose Town once again. I was one of the consultants to DPZ on the project, which was sponsored by the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.

stages of growth of the "wet appliance" to a full masonry house

   Architecture can’t solve all problems; our final presentation was preceded closely by a major gun battle on the street outside the church where we were presenting... it was serious enough that a couple tanks were called out. But I like to believe that the preceding week had contributed at least in some way to the beginning of a years-long process of healing the neighborhood.

   Many things were proposed, of course... and no single charrette participant can keep track of them all. In my case, one of the ideas I worked on was something I called the “Wet Appliance.” Many Rose Town residents slept on the ground, with no roof overhead at all. The Wet Appliance was a combination bathroom/kitchen cabinet built out of concrete that could be craned onto each site. The idea was for the residents to add to it over time, first as tent-like structures of canvas and found objects, then later as metal walls, and then concrete block.

terra cotta sculptures at Rose Town neighborhood library in Kingston, JamaicaRose Town potter working on a large pot

   Last fall, the Prince’s Foundation held another charrette in Rose Town that I was privileged to attend. I was immediately struck with the progress in the neighborhood, even though none of the major buildings of the DPZ plan had been built yet. Nonetheless, many of the Prince’s Foundation’s efforts were already proving fruitful.

proverb painted on a wall in Rose Town, Kingston, Jamaica

   One thing I noticed was the terra-cotta sculptures that were cropping up everywhere. The Foundation had trained a group of men on the north side of the neighborhood, who had then started a pottery in an abandoned house just north of the No Man’s Land. They didn’t yet have customers for their work, so much of it became civic art instead. But I started to wonder “What if someone in the south side opens a shop to sell things made by the potters on the north side? And then what if a craft is developed on the south side, and the vendors are in the north? Is it possible that this inter-dependency might help knit strings of neighborliness across the divide again?” I don’t know, but we can hope.

   In any case, I had, in the interim, written A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas]. Because the architecture of Jamaica and the Bahamas is similar, I was tasked with writing the architectural code. It quickly became very clear to me very that anybody that must throw hooks across powerlines to get electricity won’t be able to afford a $50 book. So I started to look for other ways of writing the instructions for how to build new homes and shops inRose Town, and how to renovate the ones that were already there.

   I noticed that the town was filled with sayings, or proverbs, that were instructions on how to live. These were written on street walls with great care, often accompanied with carefully-executed artwork. Most of the proverbs were far more painstakingly drawn than anything we might characterize as “graffiti.” I began to wonder “what if I do a code that is a series of very simple proverbs: instructions for how to build and how to live in that which you have built?” So I did a proverb code, which was originally conceived as a ten-page handout.

   But somewhere towards the end of the charrette it occurred to me: “Why don’t you do what the people do: write the proverbs on the wall?” And so, on the last day of the charrette, one of the charrette team members spent most of her day painting the first parable proverbs on the wall of the new community library (that had recently been an abandoned house) where we where holding the charrette. After several revisions by the neighborhood elders to get the language consistent with the local vernacular, it read: “Plant your yard with things you can eat, for why should your yard lay fallow while you spend more of your money at the grocery store?”

young children making a song out of an architecture code   The final presentation was held in the community library... the room was packed, and it went off exceptionally well. People stayed and talked long into the evening after the presentation ended. I was standing to the side, listening to pieces of several conversations when a local architect stepped up to me in an animated fashion and said “Steve, you must come now! You must hear this!”

   “Hear what?” I asked. “What is happening?” As we stepped through the door into the night air, I could hear them... the voices of children singing. This group of little children were taking these simple words on a wall that were never meant to have rhythm or rhyme, and they were turning them into a song! We can’t do this. We can only set the stage for this. But in doing so, I have greater hope than ever that we’re getting closer to knowing how to help start a new living tradition.

   The point of this story is to make the point that Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow makes in the Boston Globe article, except from a different angle: ground level. Rebecca has selected a telling shot of Dharavi: a bird’s-eye view contrasting the shanty roofs with the modern city rising in the background beyond. A bird’s-eye view is all that most people get of an “informal place.” But a bird’s-eye view isn’t a view that’s limited to just Americans. A Kingston taxi driver dropped one of our design team members off the first morning of the charrette with the nervous admonition that “I haven’t been in this place in over thirty years.”

the potters' house in Rose Town, Kingston, Jamaica

   The bird’s-eye view doesn’t reveal the potters’ house... or the No Man’s Land beyond it. A bird’s-eye view gives no hope of understanding when Rebecca describes the shantytowns’ ecological friendliness, their “humming economic activity,” or their compactness, mix of uses, and pedestrian friendliness. Those can only be understood on the ground, and at the human level.

   It is essential to understand that many great cities began as shantytowns. Look at early engravings of Washington, DC. It was populated with shacks and shanties, and the goats roamed the streets!

   The important thing, then, is that every place that people build, no matter how humble in its current state, has the chance to improve itself and to grow into something better. I can say with great certainty that the residents of Rose Town are hoping for a better Rose Town tomorrow, just as you hope for your neighborhood to be better. And the one thing that better tomorrow definitely does not include is a bulldozer drawing a bead on your front door. That which should be cleared is not the neighborhood, but rather the impediments that prevent the neighbors from improving their homes.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, March 2, 2009 - 11:48 AM

Chad Cooper


This posting is both thought-provoking and inspiring... thanks for sharing.



Monday, March 2, 2009 - 02:31 PM

Mike Watkins


Very well said.  Having worked with you on both of the charrettes that you mentioned, I know you will appreciate this update.  While in Jamaica last week, I stopped by to see Mr. Gibbs at the Library and visit the house that the newly trained locals were to rebuild.  You wouldn't recognize it!  Mr. Black, Ann Hodges and that local crew did an amazing job.  I will e-mail the photos to you.  Perhaps you know how to post them as commentary?


Monday, March 2, 2009 - 08:08 PM

Steve Mouzon

Mike, I'll change the blog so that anyone can post... so you can post them directly.

Serenbe - a Nourishing Place

view of Broadway in the Cotswolds from high land

   Today’s New York Times contains an excellent article detailing the Georgia town of Serenbe. This town is the precursor to a new wave of New Urbanism based on a very old idea: if you want to be able to live sustainably in a place, then you need to be able to eat food from that place. This is the essence of the newfound principle of “food security.” Put another way, you need to be able to look out onto the fields and onto the waters from which most of your food comes... just like our forbearers did. The very first principle of the Original Green is that a sustainable place must be a nourishing place, because if you can’t eat there, you can’t live there.

   Marie and Steve Nygren set out to achieve a sustainable, nourishing place in 1991... almost a generation ago. At the time, the thought of building such a place was dismissed by almost everyone. Marie and Steve were exceptionally rare pioneers... and they persisted and built the town.

   The problem, of course, is that only a tiny fraction of the world is built by high visionaries such as Marie and Steve. The missing link is something I’ve referred to for years as the “Moral Imperative for Nourishing Places.” Put another way, “How can we tell the story in such a way that an enlightened developer will say ‘It’s in my best interest (including my financial best interest) to build a nourishing place’?” For years, we were not able to put the story together.

   There were pieces, to be sure. We have for many years understood the value of a long view... Zimmerman/Volk Associates, the pioneers of forward-looking market studies focused on the New Urbanism, have spoken eloquently, compellingly, and precisely for years about exactly how much more land is worth when you build compactly and preserve open land around the hamlets, villages, and towns. Jackie Benson of MilesBrand, among others, has backed that idea up with specific methodologies. The value of the long view is tightly embedded with the valuing of adjacency to nature, which has been understood as an attribute for centuries.

   Local food has more recently become a concern after nearly a century of neglect, pioneered by people such as Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. Today, there are many organizations that champion local food, such as LocalHarvest. Barbara Kingsolver’s account of her family’s attempt to eat locally for a year as chronicled in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has achieved almost a cult following.

   Other factors helped, too. Land trust tax credits provided incentives for rural landowners to leave their land undeveloped in perpetuity. Similarly, the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) mechanism provided incentives (where they were enacted) for developers to gain density in TNDs and TODs in exchange for purchasing development rights on adjacent farmland, which would forever be left undeveloped.

   Nonetheless, these tools alone were not enough to tip the balance. The Seaside Pienza Institute held a pivotal meeting in Pienza, Italia in 2003 that examined urbanism and the agricultural edge. The Institute is fond of addressing problems for which there are not yet solutions, and this was one of the most pressing ones of our age. The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment hosted the Institute a year later; once you get beyond the paparazzi, you’ll find that Prince Charles has for twenty-five years been a strong activist for more sustainable places. Still, the “Moral Imperative” question remained unanswered.

   The tipping point came less than a year ago. I was working as a consultant to DPZ on a charrette for Sean Hodgins, the highly enlightened town founder of Southlands near Vancouver. Sean brought in a number of notable consultants, including farmer and author Michael Ableman. We were finally able, due to the design team Sean and Andrés assembled, to put together the long sought Moral Imperative! Granted, Sean really wanted to do the right thing from the very beginning, but I don’t know if I’d put him in the same “true believer” category as Marie and Steve. His family’s background was in more conventional development, although Sean is clearly a “kinder, gentler” version of the breed. Yet, he was able to say at the end of the charrette that “It is clearly in my best interest to build a nourishing place.”

   News of this breakthrough spread quickly in the DPZ corner of the New Urbanist world. Two highly notable projects were quickly redesigned based on the things that we had learned, and the story we now could tell. DPZ’s Schooner Bay is now under construction. It has always been conceived as including a working harbour so that it’s a true fishing village, but it will now also include a ring of land around the village will be preserved in perpetuity for farmland that will more than feed the town.

   DPZ’s Sky in the Florida panhandle quickly revised its plan to do the same. Conceived from the beginning as a place where buildings would either be off the grid or would sell power back to the grid, the idea of being a nourishing place was a perfect fit.

   I work most closely as a consultant with DPZ, but suspect that a similar thing is happening elsewhere within the New Urbanism. Interestingly, I designed a collection of hamlets and villages known as the Waters near Montgomery, Alabama, when I was with PlaceMakers several years ago. In that case, the developer was highly respectful of the beautiful site and wanted to preserve as much of it as possible, so I was able to design it as compact hamlets with 1/4 to 1/2 mile of open land in between so that it had the feel of hamlets in the English countryside. I always conceived of those open fields being farmland someday... that could happen soon. DPZ’s Hampstead has similar aspirations, and their Mount Laurel town near Birmingham had the foresight to include an organic farm nearly a decade ago. Dover-Kohl’s Hudson, also near Montgomery, reportedly accomplishes similar things.

   And those are simply the ones I’m most familiar with by association or by proximity... the New Urbanism likely is now seething with nourishing places I don’t know about because the ideal has been so closely nourished for so long amongst the New Urbanists. Check them out…

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 09:05 PM

Howard Kelly

   I was very encouraged to see that there was a quite large range of housing prices at The Waters, including townhomes and cottages below $200,000, all the way up to $800K and more.

   A lot us at Notre Dame have been talking about affordability more and more - it seems to us that many New Urbanist developments are still catering to the bloated 2,000+ square foot mentality.  It will always be impossible to cater to lower incomes if the houses we design are consistently larger.  Even the rowhouses at Hampstead are 1900 square feet for a two bedroom.

   Couldn't we be incorporating significantly smaller homes, perhaps as "townhouse flats" of 500-800 square feet?  Rather than placing these size apartments above a garage in the mews, couldn't we bring them out as part of the fabric?  

   Of course this is an idealistic student speaking, and the designer doesn't necessary control so much of the design, but is there any more the design can do to increase the variety of housing sizes/costs?

Sunday, March 1, 2009 - 09:19 PM

Steve Mouzon

Howard, you're EXACTLY right... we need to be looking for the widest possible range of values. Leaders of the New Urbanism have always sought for this; it's just really hard for the Town Founders when it turns into a bidding war.

   The range at the Waters is actually 10:1: $160,000 to $1,600,000. But the new king of the spread will be Schooner Bay, where the spread will be upwards of 50:1. You'll have teachers and construction workers living in the same village with extremely wealthy people, and everyone in between.

   Incidentally, check back shortly... the New Urban Guild's SmartDwelling Project proposes to redefine the American home to half its current size... by enticing people because it's cooler and better. There are a lot of major players on board who believe we have a chance of succeeding. Stay tuned...

   One more thing... the biggest cost control device in history is one that we hardly ever use anymore: the Classical/Vernacular Spectrum. And a true vernacular architecture is the most affordable of all because everyone understands how to do it.

Monday, March 2, 2009 - 05:02 AM

Victor Dover

Steve, the reports are correct-- Hudson does have a crucial local-food-production component. A site plan and various images are here.

Monday, March 2, 2009 - 11:29 AM

Steve Mouzon

Julie Sanford just reminded me that Sky was in fact not redesigned following Southlands. Rather, it had been designed from the beginning as a series of agricultural hamlets. The only change that took place at Sky after Southlands was changing the proportion of horse pasture land to garden land so that Sky could be a 100% Nourishing Place, rather than just partially so.

   So Sky is the place that Andrés Duany considers DPZ's first Nourishing Place. Southland's distinction was in being the first previously conventional developer that had put together the Moral Imperative. Julie, on the other hand, has never been a conventional developer, but rather an architect, planner, and huge sustainability advocate within the New Urbanism. She is one of those rare town founders who was always going to do the right thing. It is essential to have town founders like Julie that can propose the first model projects for a great idea, like Seaside was. But it's also essential to have town founders like Sean that are able to connect dots like he did with the Moral Imperative so that the ideas of the model projects can spread broadly.

   I hope this clarifies the chronology...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 01:14 PM

Chad Emerson


   Hampstead Farms is breaking ground as we type.  We are aiming for an opening this spring in time to plant crops for a summer harvest.

   Though the soil in this area is not good (cotton stripped the land and sent much of the good soil into the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1900s time frame), the Central Alabama River Region does have a year round growing season.  

   Granted, we're not growing tomatoes in January, but the climate does allow sustenance to be grown and harvested throughout the entire year.

   That is hugely important.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 05:33 PM

Steve Mouzon

Victor and Chad, that's great to hear! Please keep us updated as Hudson and Hampstead progress. I'll do the same with progress at the Waters.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 - 09:44 PM


   Having lived in a master planded TND that includes multi-family, single-family and commercial, I would like to comment on Steve's comment regarding the Schooner Bay development:

   "You'll have teachers and construction workers living in the same village with extremely wealthy people, and everyone in between."

   As grand and noble an idea this is, when the rubber meets the road, the reality is less utopian.  WIth multiple HOA's serving each sub communities interests as it relates to shared elements (pools, parks, trails, etc), compounded by different levels of architectual and landscape requirements, a 'farmer's dilemma' is apt to occur (eg my interests vs common interests).  Friction over basic covenants such as no service vehicles parked in driveways overnight can lead to deep rifts within the community.

   TND's should tred carefully when planning mixed socioeconomic housing; the same plans, covenants, and standards that are the cornerstone of their success can also be their undoing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009 - 10:16 AM

Steve Mouzon

Excellent points, Jack... I'll discuss them with the Schooner Bay Town Founder. Can you elaborate on the "farmer's dilemma?" I haven't heard that term before.

Thanks! ~Steve

Sunday, June 7, 2009 - 08:18 PM

Adam Sheridan

This thread is a little stale but (if anyone is still watching) I am looking for input from those who are working through the agriculture-to-improved land ratio. What is a good source of theoretical data and what has been learned from practical application?  I see number ranging from Jamie Correa's "5 acres for every 4 people" (theoretical, encompassing holistic sustainability) to Elliot Coleman's "5 acres can feed 100" (practical experience relating to purely vegetables).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009 - 11:05 PM

Steve Mouzon

Adam, I was working on DPZ's Southlands charrette last summer; one of the other consultants was Michael Ableman. In that climate (Vancouver) he was confident he could feed at least 20 people year-round per agricultural acre using bio-intensive methods, and that's from all the food groups, not just vegetables. So if the residential density is 10 units/acre x 2.5 people/unit = 25 people/acre, then each person consumes .04 acres for their neighborhood and .05 acres for their food.

   Put another way, if the industrial food system requires 1 acre to feed one person (see today's SmartDwelling I - The Kitchen Garden post)... and that's being generous, because in most parts of the country, it's more like 2 acres or more per person... then for each acre of farmland you switch from industrial methods (tractor-driver-man-hour-efficient but extremely acre-inefficient) to bio-intensive methods, you get 11 people plus all their agriculture (.04 + .05 = .09 x 11 = .99, or essentially 1) Bottom line, you can inhabit agricultural land at high density and not lose the agriculture because it gets so much more efficient.

Problem 2 - The Supply-Side Focus

chart of vehicle miles traveled per year in the US

  This post is part of the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   Massive efforts currently exist to redesign the things we buy to be more efficient: better light bulbs, better cars, better heating and cooling equipment, and cleaner sources of electricity, for example. And by all means, we should be doing these things. But these are all things that the manufacturers must do. In other words, they’re supply-side: they’re accomplished by those who supply us with the things that we use (and consume.)

   Now, try this exercise: (1) Select any product type you like. (2) Use any common measure of sustainability, whether carbon footprint, miles traveled, net energy, etc. (3) Take the best assumptions of competent advocates for increases in efficiency or effectiveness of the product type. (4) Compare the likely increases in efficiency to the best projections of increases in demand. In most cases, you’ll find that the demand will rise faster than the projected improvements in the product. So while the products are getting better, we’re still using more energy and other resources in order to use those products. So we’re going further in the hole all the time.

   Take cars, for example. The chart above shows the miles traveled on US streets and highways beginning in 1960. If you project the trend of the past half-century (business as usual) it follows the red line. How much can the supply side help? For the first time in 32 years, Congress increased the mandatory US fleet efficiency from 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon... to be effective in 2020. Better efficiency clearly helps, but by how much? Driving a car that is 10% more efficient uses the same amount of gas as driving 10% less. The yellow line on the graph shows the effect of the increased efficiency. The dilemma is obvious: even though the increased efficiency makes a big impact, the line is still rising, which means we’ll still be burning more gas. And this chart shows the efficiency increasing at the same rate to 2030, even though the law only requires it until 2020.

   And the problem is, we don’t need to level off where we are now; we need to go much lower. In order to reach a level that most scientists would consider sustainable, we need to follow something close to the green line, and any knowledgeable engineer in the automotive industry will tell you that the green line simply isn’t happening. That line represents the equivalent of reducing US driving to a trillion miles a year by 2030 (approximately the level in 1968) while the actual distance traveled in 2030 will actually be closer to 6 trillion miles (which happens to be almost the same distance that light can travel in one year.) To burn gas equal to the green line while driving as much as we’ll likely be driving, the average fuel efficiency in 2030 would have to be around 150 miles per gallon. Does anyone believe there’s any chance whatsoever of this happening?

   And that’s only part of the problem. It’s scary enough just looking at projections for the United States, but when you consider that there are over two billion people in China and India that are now moving from highly sustainable agrarian cultures to an industrial economy much like ours in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s obvious that our supply-side focus cannot be a winning strategy. Everything only gets worse when we depend mainly upon a supply-side strategy. To be clear, we must supply better stuff, but that alone won’t do the job... it doesn’t even come close.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:05 PM

Bill Buchanan

Re-entered... originally posted January 27, 2009


I disagree with you a bit on this one.

1) Under this structure the focus should be miles traveled, not miles driven. Preventing architects from flying to attend distant conferences or view foreign cities should be as high a priority as preventing others from driving to the beach, the mountains, or a concert.

2) That was just a wry way of introducing this point: I think it is misguided to make reducing freedom a goal. Rather focus on the problem - carbon - while also seeking to increase the ability of all to experience the world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 10:12 PM

Steve Mouzon

Re-entered... originally posted January 30, 2009


   You bring up some interesting points... but before responding to them, I should say that the point of this post is to show that if we focus only on things that others supply to us, then things are going to get worse, not better. We've got to also focus on our own actions if we want things to get better.

   With that said, you're exactly right that the worst thing we could do right now is to make "sustainability" synonymous with "reducing freedom." If we do that, then the majority of people will resist to the bitter end... which is that point in time when seriously bad stuff starts to happen and the reduction of freedom is something that we don't have a choice about.

   Think about it this way: ask 20 friends how many miles they drive each year. Then, ask them each to tell you, out of all those miles, how many they drive because they want to, and how many they drive because they have to. I suspect that most people will tell you they drive a lot more miles because they have to rather than because they want to.

   Doing something because we have to reduces our freedom, because we don't have a choice. Doing something because we want to is one good definition of freedom. Living in a place where you can get to all the daily necessities of life by walking, biking, or driving gives you much more freedom than living in a place where your only choice is driving. Does this make sense?

   Let's please continue this conversation, because this is an extremely important issue.

   Thanks! ~Steve

Problem 3 - The Carbon Focus

aerial shot of Dallas office building

   This post is part of the serialization of the first chapter of the Original Green [Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability].

   The speed of life today tempts us at every turn to simplify things to a single variable. Who can blame us, with the exploding information bandwidths of our digital age? So complex issues get crunched into bumper stickers and sound bites.

Global climate change is only the latest victim of over-simplification, having been reduced to the single issue of carbon emissions. And let’s be clear: carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are important, because the great majority of scientists now agree that carbon dioxide levels are an indicator of global climate change. The problem isn’t that carbon dioxide levels are unimportant, but rather that they are not a silver bullet. Why not? The focus on carbon has several fallacies:

the Carbon Fallacy of Extravagance

   Focusing on carbon dioxide alone lets us do all sorts of ridiculous things so long as the buildings can somehow be termed “carbon neutral.” But does that mean it’s really sustainable? Google “carbon-neutral McMansion” and you’ll come back with more than 5,000 hits, for example. Real sustainability means keeping things going in a healthy fashion for a very long time. The meltdown is a bitter reminder that keeping things going takes a lot more than just avoiding utility bills.

the Carbon Fallacy of Place

   The carbon focus also lets us design modest buildings located in auto-dominated places. While the buildings themselves might be carbon-neutral, the lifestyle is far from it because if you have to drive everywhere, then you’re still responsible for putting lots of carbon in the atmosphere. Look at the building in the image above. How silly is it to trumpet buildings located in auto-dominated places like this as carbon-neutral? Yet this is being done all over the country and abroad. Ignoring the context of the building while claiming carbon neutrality simply does not pass the smell test, nor does it meet the standard of common sense. We risk forfeiting the credibility of green standards by ignoring the Carbon Fallacy of Place.

the Carbon Fallacy of the Unlovable

Boston City Hall - high on the list of unlovable buildings

   The issue of lovable buildings will be dealt with at length later, but it must be mentioned here, too, because the carbon footprint of a building is meaningless once its parts are carted off to the landfill because it could not be loved. Many architects are under the delusion that they know what people should want, and that it’s the responsibility of the public to learn how to properly appreciate their designs. But the citizens almost always beg to differ, and buildings are frequently demolished for no other real reason than the fact that they cannot be loved. A low carbon footprint is unlikely to ever save an unlovable building. Even buildings as highly-revered by architects as Boston City Hall (shown here) is in danger of demolition because it is utterly unlovable.

the Carbon Fallacy of Offsets

   The principle of carbon offsets sounds reasonable at first glance: Do all that you can, then pay someone else to do something good to offset the carbon you are emitting. But dig just a bit below the surface, and there are many problems.

One problem is the location of the offsetting activity. Someone rarely buys an offset they can see. In most cases, the offsetting activities are located offshore, often in developing countries on a different continent. As a result, the likelihood of the person or company buying the offsets ever seeing the offsetting activity is vanishingly small. So is the offsetting activity actually taking place?

   “But wait,” you ask, “If someone is spending thousands or even millions of dollars buying carbon offsets, don’t they have a strong financial interest in making sure that the offsets are actually happening? Why should carbon offsets be any less interesting than anything else upon which you spend thousands or millions of dollars?”

   Here’s why: When you invest a large amount of money in something, you expect your investment to appreciate in value. When you spend a lot of money on a product, you expect it to operate as advertised. When you spend a lot of money on a service, you expect to be well-served. But what are you really buying when you purchase carbon offsets? To be blunt, you are paying someone to export your guilt. And so once the carbon offset has been purchased, you’ve received what you paid for: a conscience that doesn’t bother you. As a matter of fact, digging too deeply into the carbon offset after you’ve purchased it actually undermines the purchase. Why? Because if you find out that the purveyor of the offset actually did exactly what they said they did, then the only thing you accomplished is to spend a lot of time and money to verify what you thought you already knew.

   But if you find out that the purveyor of the offset was less than credible and the offset didn’t actually happen as advertised, then you’ve just spent a lot of money to destroy the value of the clean conscience you thought you had purchased. Clearly, then, purchasers of carbon offsets have far less incentive to verify the quality of the offsets than they do to verify the quality of the investments, goods, and services that they purchase.

   For a completely incisive parody of the concept of offsetting to carbon neutrality, check out the CheatNeutral site. The premise of the website is that “When you cheat on your partner you add to the heartbreak, pain and jealousy in the atmosphere. Cheatneutral offsets your cheating by funding someone else to be faithful and NOT cheat. This neutralizes the pain and unhappy emotion and leaves you with a clear conscience.” From that point, the website offers two avenues: “Are you a cheater? Cheatneutral can help you offset your indiscretions.” Or, “Loyal and faithful? Become an offset project and get paid for not cheating.” If this sounds ludicrous, check out the website. Its corollary to carbon offsets is stunning; you may be asking yourself which is most ludicrous, the cheating credits or the carbon credits, before you finish surfing.

   The bottom line is that the carbon focus is a guaranteed loser, if you insist on focusing primarily on carbon. The future cannot be won by carbon alone. It’s only a part of the equation, and a fairly small one at that. It’s an essential part, of course, but a small essential part. That’s the problem with the dilemma of sustainability ... there are many essential parts, and ignoring the others in favor of a single part will guarantee our failure. And we cannot afford to fail.

~ Steve Mouzon

Useful Stuff

workshop full of tools

   I’ve started a blog called Useful Stuff. I reserve the Original Green blog for subjects related to sustainable places and sustainable buildings. Useful Stuff, on the other hand, is wider, ranging, and will cover a broad spectrum of issues over time.

   I should warn you that it began as a completely personal blog. I hardly ever do anything the ordinary way, which means that I'm always trying to figure new stuff out. Often, I can't remember 6 months or a year later exactly how I figured something out previously. So I'm doing this blog primarily as my own personal repository of snippets of methods and techniques for getting stuff done... "blogging as memory." But I've had people tell me that they find value in stuff I develop, so feel free to use anything here that you find useful.

   Most of the first posts deal with recent experiences with iWeb, which is the software used to create the Original Green website. I know nothing about HTML, nor do I want to take the time to learn, with so many other important things to do. But iWeb let me get this site up in about a week, complete with a blog and podcast, which I’d never dreamed of doing before... so it’s really cool in its ability to make web publishers out of non-programmers, even though it has certain limitations. But to paraphrase the old Mac tag line from 1984, it’s “web publishing for the rest of us.”

   Oh... and one other item... I got offlist feedback from someone who said the “mail-and-share” links above were drifting on some browsers, making it impossible to add a comment. So I’ve moved them to where they are now above the blog post so that the Add a Comment button below is usable... so please comment profusely!

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 - 10:58 PM


   Hey I've just come across this blog. I just thought I would say "Howdi!"

Looks fantastic. I'll be adding this to my bookmark tool bar to frequent.



Wednesday, April 29, 2009 - 12:17 PM

Steve Mouzon

Yo, Adrian, that's great... thanks very much!

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