Changing Directions

kids playing street hockey in Key West

   Today, it seems as if every company in the USA is in the process of proving how their products are green. I observed a similar phenomenon traveling in Europe nearly a decade ago. Nobody wants to be left out of the green stampede...why would you want to be the last company in the country that can’t say “our product is green?” In the building industry, there is green timber, green steel, green concrete blocks, etc... even green foam. Each claims their product is the most sustainable way to build.

Asphalt Green building in New York City

  It likely will not be long until someone claims that asphalt is green... oh, wait, it appears that they already have! No PhotoShop here!

   All humor aside, there is a fundamental problem with this situation: what is a company to do? Is it not natural to tout the sustainable aspects of one’s product? And is it not proper to hope that the newfound concern with sustainability might spur companies to actually make their products more sustainable?

   These are reasonable things to hope for, but the fundamental problem is this: how do you discern fact from fiction when everyone is beginning with their product and ending with sustainability? A classic example is the Congress for the New Urbanism: the New Urbanism has arguably been accomplishing more to change people’s lives in order that they live more sustainably than any other group dealing with the built environment over the past twenty-five years. While other groups have been doing good work getting people to change their light bulbs, the New Urbanism has been enticing people to actually move to places where you can walk to work, to shop, to school, or to play. I personally moved to Miami Beach, which is a highly compact, mixed-use, and walkable place, which is exactly the sort of place the New Urbanism promotes, in 2003. I went from driving 35,000 miles per year in my car (and 15,000+ more miles in Wanda’s car) to driving only 8,000 miles per year in our single car (we got rid of the other one, because the battery would run down in the months we weren’t driving the second one.) So our net reduction in driving is about 84%. If we were trying to get the same carbon reduction by driving a more efficient car as we do instead by driving 1/6 as much, we’d have to have a car that’s 6 times as efficient in order to stay in the auto-dominated place we were. In other words, we’d have to have a car that got 150-180 miles per gallon to have the same effect.

Cameo nightclub in Miami Beach

   Auto efficiency advocates are doing a good thing, but in their wildest dreams, they only can hope to get a 7.5% fuel efficiency increase in the American fleet. Meanwhile, our moving to a place that embodies New Urbanist principles resulted in the equivalent of a six-fold, or 600% increase. That’s eighty times as much as the wildest dreams of the fuel efficiency advocates. Let that sink in... eighty times as much. Clearly, nothing can even come close to reducing as much of the carbon footprint of the places that we build as building based on New Urbanist principles. Nothing else comes close.

   New Urbanist planners and architects have been advocating these principles since 1980, with a few predecessors such as Christopher Alexander beginning even before that. Yet with a track record this long and this strong, the New Urbanism finds itself in exactly the same situation as every other entity out there right now: they’re having to make the case that “hey, we’re green, too!”... starting with what they do (urbanism) and ending at sustainability.

   The Original Green changes the entire direction of the argument: it begins with sustainability and ends with principles and products, rather than the other way around. And by “sustainable,” we mean “can you keep it going for a very long time?” This is plain-spoken, plain English sustainability, not marketing fluff.

people walking down Meridian Avenue in Miami Beach

   But what does it mean? First, it is clear that we must build sustainable places before we can even think about building sustainable buildings. What makes a place sustainable? First, you must be able to eat and drink there: it must be Nourishable. Next, you must be able to get around in a number of ways, including by human-powered ways such as walking and biking, because we don’t know what the future of mechanical transport will be. In other words, the place must be Accessible. Next, in an Accessible place, we must be able to access the daily necessities and services of life, so the place must be Serviceable. Finally, few people will live in a place very long if they are constantly in fear for their life or safety, or that of their children, so the place must be Securable.

   Once the place is sustainable, then we have a meaningful conversation about sustainable buildings. Clearly, if a building cannot be loved, it won’t last, so the first foundation is to be Lovable. Once it is Lovable, then it makes sense to talk about buildings that are Durable enough to last for a very long time. If they are Lovable and Durable, then their interiors must be Flexible enough to accommodate many uses over the centuries. Finally, if buildings are Lovable, Durable, and Flexible, then it is meaningful to discuss how Frugal they are.

   Changing directions to begin with sustainability and end with the things that support sustainability produces some expected results, but it also produces some surprises. Stay with us as we discover some of each... and by all means, please join in the discussion.

~ Steve Mouzon

First Time Around

Mouzon Residence, Gurley, AL - begun 1985

   Many forget that the current environmental reawakening doesn’t mark the first time that this has happened. Others are simply too young to remember. I am not. At 48, I was a teen through most of the 1970s, and clearly recall the heady days typified by the first Earth Day at which point we thought we might actually change the world. I entered college in 1978, believing that my chosen major of architecture allowed as much opportunity as any to help build a better place.

2nd year restaurant design on the cliffs above the English Channel

   From the beginning, I was looking to environmental issues to help form the architecture in a polemical way. The model in this image was from the first project of my second year. The site was a cliff at the edge of the English Channel. I did my homework and found that the wind speeds there were consistently high enough to generate electricity. So I designed the building as a massive half-funnel, scooping air in at the left of the image, then narrowing down to where the turbines were, just off the image to the right. So the building wasn’t just designed to generate electricity from the wind, but to also look like it was using the wind.

   I continued this sort of experimentation through school. Later influences were the discovery of Christopher Alexander and Pattern Language over Christmas break in 1980 and the discovery of DPZ and the Seaside design shortly thereafter. My more technical explorations focused on passive techniques such as earth-sheltering... most of my third-year designs burrowed into the earth.
   I recall an article in Mother Earth News near the beginning of fourth year entitled “Taking a Solid Stand on Solar Battlements,” or something of the sort, in which the author described building his own house. He spent an additional $500,000, if memory serves correctly, to do all of the green things he did. In the early 1980s, that was an immense sum of money. The article was a huge jolt to me, because it was clear that most people could not spend that kind of money even if they wanted to. I spent the evening skewering all of his active solar equipment in my mind, only to realize that the single biggest ticket item was the additional structure required to support my beloved earth-sheltering.

   It wasn’t long until I was asking myself “why can’t we get the advantage of the mass of the earth without actually spending the money to bury the building?” This train of thought led to something I called “cool tubes” which would bring air into the building pre-conditioned by the mass of the earth.

   I graduated in 1983, full of hope. Wanda and I debated for the rest of the year where we should live. We ended up choosing to build in the country so that we could create a self-sufficient homestead. Current wisdom had it that a family of four could feed themselves year-round in a temperate climate on one acre, so we bought a one-acre lot in February 1984 and began building the house in the photo at the top of this post. Working primarily at night and on weekends, it took a year to design and two years to build.

   The house was super-insulated, and had every passive system I could think of, including the Cool Tubes that I had postulated in college. For the first two years after we moved in on April 22, 1987, it had no active heating or cooling system at all except for the two massive Russian fireplaces. A bitter freeze, by North Alabama standards, finally convinced us that we needed a mechanical conditioning system. So I retrofitted the cool tubes (which never worked properly because I under-sized them) to be a ground water loop, and built my own geothermal heating and cooling system. I bought the actual heat pumps, of course, but built the rest from scratch.

   Conditions at work were changing, too. At first, clients would merely look askew at me for talking about sustainable design. Increasingly, however, I wasn't just getting a deaf ear, but outright hostility. Things like "Oh, you're for solar power? I ripped the solar panels off my roof last year because they were so hideous. I don't want any tree-hugger designing my buildings!" And so I eventually gave up, because it was obviously counter-productive to me keeping my job, or getting another one anywhere in town. For most of the next two decades, I did "normal" architecture because nothing sustainable would be tolerated.

   What caused this state of affairs? Some say “that can’t possibly happen today; too many people believe that going green is the right thing to do.” But that’s precisely what people believed in the 1970s, too, and look what happened. It could happen again. Do we have another generation to waste before we begin building in a truly sustainable fashion? If not, then we clearly must build in a way that is lovable. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

~ Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013