A Time for Healing

deteriorating houses in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

   The years before the Meltdown were a time for building, but that is clearly over now. We’re now in an era where banks are so traumatized that most of them aren’t lending money for new developments no matter what. Future greenfield developments will be few and far between. The wreckage of the housing bubble is all around us, but not always where we can see it easily, as most of it is located out on the suburban fringe in places nobody visits. Some of it is too far gone, possibly including the houses pictured in this post, which have been sitting half-finished for months unprotected in the weather. But there are countless inhabited subdivisions where the houses are finished and inhabited, and where those inhabitants have seen the value of the biggest investments of their lifetimes shredded by the Great Recession. They can’t afford to walk away; what can be done to help them?

unfinished houses left open to weather in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

Inlet Beach, Florida subdivision lying

in ruins

   I believe that while the previous era was defined in large part by what we built, this new era desperately needs to be defined by what we heal. Simply put, the suburban sprawl we’ve built since World War II is simply too large to discard. And it’s not ours to discard in any case; it belongs to the people that live there.

   Sprawl, in its current form, is unsustainable almost everywhere. I remember when I was a kid, and gasoline just before the first Arab oil embargo would occasionally go as low as $0.199 a gallon during what was quaintly termed “gas wars.” Funny how that phrase has taken on a different meaning in recent years, isn’t it? But in any case, gas recently reached $5.00 per gallon in much of the country. That’s a 25x increase in less than 40 years. So it’s no big stretch to imagine a fourfold increase (less than 1/6 as much as what it’s done in those years) to $20 per gallon. And with billions of people now moving from low-impact agrarian lifestyles into the cities of China, India, and other nations, $20 per gallon gas may be closer than we think.

ruined street in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

entire street of ruined houses

   If you live in sprawl and have to drive everywhere to do anything, what happens when that day arrives? I’d strongly encourage everyone to test their Web of Daily Life... it’s an easy self-diagnosis we should all do, so that we can start preparing now.

   One solution, of course, is to move to a walkable place, which is what I did. But that only works for just so many of us, because we’ll run out of places to live in the walkable places. For most of us, the better solution is to help to heal the places where we live. I believe that the healing of sprawl is going to be the great challenge of this new era.

rotting house in failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

when financing fails, housing fails

   Many of my colleagues are already working on this problem; some of them for years. I have, too. My Sky Method is a proposal for a new development paradigm that can either start with open land, or with an existing subdivision. Because it makes the current landowners partners in the system, there’s no need for a master developer to have to come in and buy up a lot of houses. Rather, everyone benefits as sprawl is turned into compact, mixed-use, walkable places.

   Others are working on the problem, too. For years, it has seemed so vexing as to be possibly insurmountable. I recall Andrés Duany’s keynote at the Congress for the New Urbanism several years ago, which focused on suburban repair. He closed by saying that “New Urbanists have met many challenges over the years, doing many things that were at the first considered either illegal or impossible. But I worry that this problem is too big. I really hope we don’t fail.”

a terrible thing to have as a neighbor - a failed subdivision in Inlet Beach, Florida

nobody wants failed places next door

   The great thing about seemingly impossible things is that if you think about them long enough, you eventually might figure out how to do something about them. That’s what has happened here.

   The first New Urbanist book on the problem was Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. It’s a book of principles and procedures. You really should read it; it was published at the end of 2008. Galina Tachieva’s Sprawl Repair Manual was just published, and is a stunning toolbox of techniques for doing exactly what the book’s name implies. I consider it to be essential to anyone involved in sustainability, urbanism, or architecture today.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: If any of the images above are useful to you, they’re available at high resolution for printing or download on my Zenfolio site. Just click on the image and it’ll take you there.

Legacy Comments:

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 12:39 PM

Baltimore Slumlord Watch

When I see pictures of empty suburban developments, it makes me sad.  With the number of homeless people -- some recently homeless due to the mortgage meltdown -- what sense does it make to have all of these empty homes??? Not that we can talk in Baltimore City -- we're one of the most blighted cities in America.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:08 AM

Steve Mouzon

Actually, in many places, homeless people are colonizing lost subdivisions. But these houses aren't complete enough to provide much more shelter than they would get sleeping on the street, as there's obviously a lot of rain getting in. And because these places are usually far from any other services or any pedestrians, homeless people living here wouldn't have any way to survive because there are no shops nearby selling inexpensive food, nor are there pedestrians from which to beg.

The Coming Golden Age of Great Necessities

anvil at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Many are asking today “is there reason to be optimistic?” My own profession of architecture is lying in smoking ruins, as I wrote recently. And the end is not in sight; we’re likely to endure even further decline until the remaining firms have very few people left within them. The thieves of circumstance, it seems, have stolen our futures. But in the middle of all this gloom, I believe there’s a reasonable chance that we might be on the threshold of a new golden age. Here’s why:

wooden bowl and ladle at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   One would think that we would build the best places and live the best lives when we have the greatest resources, but that assumption is broken on so many examples we can see with our own eyes. Is it possible that when we have it good, we get it wrong, and when we have it bad, we get it right?

   I think that’s often so, and here’s why: as I wrote over a year ago, when times are tough, we can’t afford to be wasteful. Prosperity and wastefulness often go hand-in-hand, as do want and frugality. Usually, these relationships follow the ups and downs of the economy, but nothing really changes structurally. This time, however, the meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession have been so severe that they likely could have caused serious structural changes on their own. But they’re not alone.

drying frame at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   We have two other massive change agents at work in what Jim Kunstler and others call the Great Convergence. One is Peak Oil, which appears to be happening just as 2.5 billion Chinese and Indian citizens are moving into the city, where many of them will need cars. And that’s not even counting many millions in Brazil, Bangladesh, and other nations who are in the middle of the same migration. The third leg of the Great Convergence is the environment, and the growing realization among the great majority of the population that climate change is real, and that it is changing the world we once knew... and that we must take measures to stave off far great consequences.

   So now, many systems are dying, or being irreparably altered, by all this thunderous change. But most are the very things that had to die in order to usher in the golden age. Follow me on this one, as I attempt to tell four two-century-long stories in a couple minutes each... they’re the stories of how we shop, how we work, what we eat, and where we live. Similar stories could be told about other aspects of our life as well.


earthenware and barrels at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Before the Industrial Revolution, most things were made by local craftspeople and sold by local merchants. The railroads changed all that by making it easier to sell things further away. This allowed more efficient manufacturers to grow to great size and sell at great distance, putting many local craftspeople out of business. Trucks were introduced later and only amplified the effect.

   These early manufacturers, by today’s standards, made fairly simple stuff. A window manufacturer, for example, might use the exact same knives to make the exact same window components as another window manufacturer; they would just do it more efficiently, and therefore win the business. In effect, they were manufacturing commodities.

   Clever manufacturers began to realize that “getting commoditized,” or making something that someone else could duplicate was a death knell for all except the single most efficient company in the market, which would then drive the others out of business. And so the battle cry became “proprietize!” In other words, build a proprietary product that you could patent and that nobody else could make. If you did so, nobody could undercut you; your biggest challenge was to convince customers to buy your stuff.

keg, axe, lantern, and hammer at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Proprietary products, however, had an unintended consequence. Grocery stores that sold only commodities like black beans, rice, milk, tomatoes, bananas, etc., could be very small. There are several groceries within a couple blocks of my office that are less than 3,000 square feet each. But just as soon as groceries had to stock Cap’n Crunch, Count Chocula, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and 60 other proprietary cereals, the stores necessarily ballooned. Today, a 40,000 square foot grocery is considered small in the grocery industry.

   Mega-stores have an unintended consequence as well: they must attract customers from many miles around, rather than just a few blocks, because there aren’t enough customers within just a few blocks to keep them in business unless they’re in a very highly-populated urban setting. So when proprietary products proliferate, the neighborhood store becomes impossible. This condition requires sprawl. Let that sink in a moment: proprietary products can’t survive in neighborhood retail; they can only survive in sprawl, because they can’t get on the very limited shelf-space of the neighborhood stores. When New Urbanist retail expert Seth Harry introduced a similar idea years ago, I resisted it, but Seth was right, for similar reasons as these.

   Today, the likelihood of much higher gas prices due to the convergence of Peak Oil with the industrialization of the world’s most populous countries means that the core driver of big box retail in suburbia may be ending, and in its place, it’s not unreasonable to think we might see a resurgence of local craftspeople and local shops. But without the Great Convergence, local craftspeople and local shops would be nothing but a romantic memory of our culture in most places.


keg and tools at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Work before the Industrial Revolution was almost always done at home or very near home. The idea of having a job and working for wages didn’t even exist in most places beforehand. But with the advent of the factory came the need for many workers. During most of the 19th century, the majority of these workers couldn’t afford to live anywhere other than right around the factory.

   The years surrounding 1900 saw two major changes to this arrangement: the first modern planners realized that if the “dark satanic mills” were separated from the rest of the town, the people would live healthier lives. This new mandated distance from home to work now meant that you could no longer walk to work. The rise of powerful labor unions during the same era produced higher-wage workers with greater means available for the cost of getting around, and the automobile’s advances in the early years of the 20th century sealed the deal: we would henceforth commute to work.

tools at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   But work didn’t sit still. Rather, workplaces began moving around madly, abandoning the central city, especially after World War II, for a raft of reasons. As did the workers, especially beginning in with the civil unrest of the 1960’s. And so work and home grew much further apart. Today, the Compulsory Commuting of many Americans tops two hours per day.

   Three things are poised to change this as well: First, the Great Convergence will quickly render many of those commutes unaffordable. Next, the character of work has changed dramatically as most of our factory work has gone off-shore, and there are few factories left. But when the Great Convergence brings jobs back onshore as we become unable to afford to ship stuff all around the world to build a shirt or a shovel, don’t expect it to come back in giant factories. Rather, look for smaller workshops that fit much better into the fabric of a town. Finally, we’ve built some really massive pipes for the internet over the past twenty years. These will allow work to be done from home in quantities we haven’t seen in 200 years. Again, working from home or near home would be only a romantic memory if not for the Great Convergence.


carrots at Pike Place Market, Seattle

   Once, most food came from very close around, even in major cities. Look at old maps of London, Rome, or Paris, and you’ll see gardens and orchards built tight around the city. Most food was still raised close to home until the advent of refrigerated transport around the end of World War II. Enterprising industrialists realized this meant that the dynamics of industrialization could apply to food as well, and modern agribusiness was born.

   Government cooperated heartily. Earl Butz, head of the Department of Agriculture in the mid-1970’s, harangued farmers with “Get big or get out!” The family farm shortly was swept into history, replaced by farms of a thousand acres or more in many places.

Pike Place Market vegetable & fruit display, Seattle, Washington

   Originally, agribusiness was a mostly a regionalized operation, with fields, processing plants, and customers all located within a few hundred miles of each other in most cases. But the epic battles between migrant farm worker unions and agribusiness a few decades ago prompted a massive move to “export the guilt” to other countries, where entire families can work for a few cents a day in some places in Central and South America and most in the US don’t worry about it one bit. The primary plant agriculture left in the US is grains (corn, wheat, oats, etc.) and soybeans because these can be tended and harvested industrially with huge equipment, rather than hand-tended by an army of agricultural workers, like most vegetables require.

   But this “food that needs passports” had some unintended consequences as well. Sitting in a refrigerated truck for three weeks before getting to market was more than most fruits and vegetables could take, so we had to genetically engineer them to be able to endure the trip. The price we pay in taste and nutrition is substantial. If you doubt that, slice open a locally-raised heirloom tomato and one from the supermarket and see for yourself.

   Today, the Great Convergence is poised to make the entire industrial food chain unworkable, because it depends so heavily on oil. Couple that with the growing local food movement, and it’s entirely possible to imagine much of America living on food raised nearby... a completely unthinkable thing before the Great Convergence.


fireplace at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   The history of the American home is bloated in recent years. We’ve doubled the average size of home since World War II, during which time the average household size has nearly been cut in half. But we have so much excess stuff that won’t fit in houses twice as large inhabited by half as many people that we’ve made the mini-storage industry a $17 billion/year business!

   Not only have our homes grown twice as large, but they’re also much more poorly constructed than they once were. This is because we’ve discarded the Classical-Vernacular Spectrum as humanity’s longest-running cost control device and insisted on building in certain styles, even if we have to do it with vinyl and duct tape!

strainer & pan at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Couple this with the fact that because we moved so much, most homebuyers’ sentiments went something like this: “I’ll only be living here 8 years or less; why should I care if the roof doesn’t last more than 15 years?” By taking this attitude, we’ve condemned each American generation to bear the burden of building their own homes. Doubt that? Talk to your friends. If you talk to 100 friends, unless they’re all very young, you’ll likely find more than 100 new homes built or bought between them. This great burden of insubstantial housing doubtless helped bring on the Meltdown.

   We cannot afford this insanity any longer. We need to build for centuries, not just for a decade or so. We need to be able to hand things down through generations, not just use things up. We also need to be allowed to build very small at the beginning, and grow our buildings over time. Much of the charm of traditional buildings comes from their incremental growth over generations, and the history it embodies. But our ancestors didn’t do this for charm; they did it out of necessity, as home mortgages didn’t exist at the time, so you built what you could afford, and added on later as you needed.

   Fortunately, I firmly believe that if we’re wise, we’ll see the Great Convergence as the motivation we need to build substantially again. Like the ways we shop, work, and eat, this paradigm shift in the ways we build our buildings could not have occurred without the Great Convergence.

The Golden Age

balances at George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation

   Massive systems were set up to run the world as we know it: FHA, VA, volume builders, Euclidean zoning, agribusiness and the industrial food chain, payroll deductions, the health care system, and all the other structures of the modern workplace, for example. All of these things produce, as their natural end results, strip centers, shopping malls, sprawl, placeless workplaces, ever--increasing consumption of processed food leading to our ever-increasing obesity and ill health, and bloated houses in suburbia that fall apart more quickly all the time.

   All of these systems are fueled in varying degrees by things put in jeopardy by the Great Convergence. All of these systems had to fail or become irrelevant before we could reach the threshold of an age when people live more simply, sustainably, and happily with the resources available to them, surrounded with great necessities that make us great, rather than being surrounded with the recent overabundance of things that have made us fat and not so smart. I really hope we have the wisdom to land gently and safely into that golden age, rather than crashing into some unimaginable dark age. It’s up to us... what will we choose?

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Is there a reason to be optimistic?” I obviously took that question in a somewhat different direction, looking at the sustainability implications, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller  @modenus  Modenus Community

Paul Anater  @paul_anater  Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg  @dogwalkblog  DogWalkBlog.com

Becky Shankle  @ecomod  Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson  @bobborson  Life of an Architect

Bonnie Harris  @waxgirl333  Wax Marketing

Nick Lovelady  @cupboards  Cupboards Kitchen and Bath

Tamara Dalton  @tammyjdalton  Tamara Dalton Studios

Sean Lintow, Sr.  @SLSconstruction  SLS-Construction.com

Cindy FrewenWuellner @Urbanverse Urbanverse's Posterous

Madame Sunday  @ModernSauce  Modern Sauce

Saxon Henry  @saxonhenry  Roaming by Design

Brian Meeks  @ExtremelyAvg  Extremely Average

Denese Bottrell  @Denese_Bottrell  Thoughtful Content

Chamois Green  @chamwashere  Cham Was Here

Betsy De Maio  @egrgirl  Egrgirl's Blog

Steve Kleber  @stevekleber  Marketing Home Products

Allison Bailes III @EnergyVanguard Energy Vanguard Blog

Ami  @beackami  Multifarious Miscellany

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:37 AM

Cindy Frewen Wuellner

   Steve: you made a book here, I think, the outlines of a very good long read. I hope you will write the full blown version. Those are the key points, at least from a built environment story - how we use cities. You’re right, the shape of these buildings are dependent on sprawl; part and parcel. so without cars, they dont work.

   I hope that you are right, a golden age ahead. That is optimism indeed. I really think that suburbs were going to implode regardless of the convergence - which is undeniably sending them off the deep end. Our growth slowed too much. What I wonder is what will we do with them now? They are part of our legacy, what boomers left for the next gens to fix. A sustainable makeover or dismantling?

   Such an important post, thanks for thinking it through.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:47 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much, Cindy! As for the suburbs, check out the Sprawl Repair Manual by my good friend Galina Tachieva. It's really a landmark book. As for this post, I hadn't thought of making it into a book, but there's really so much potential content lurking in each section that it really could become one... thanks for the idea!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 11:49 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... if you're trying to comment, please copy the comment before clicking Add Comment, and if it doesn't post, please email it to me at steve@mouzon.com and I'll put it up. iWeb is having issues today; Apple is having a product keynote address in less than two hours; I hope this is a harbinger of a new version of iWeb with the features I've been asking them for. iWeb is excellent, but could get better.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 - 04:27 PM

Allison A. Bailes III, PhD

   Wonderful post, Steve! You've eloquently described the structural changes in how we live, eat, work, and shop that were brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Now that we're going through the Great Recession and the Great Convergence, those changes are being undone. The structure is changing again, which I mentioned in my LetsBlogOff post, and we have a great opportunity before us.

   Although the pessimists and Luddites among us might see a future that looks preindustrial, I don't believe it's possible for the post-peak oil world to unwind symmetrically. You've pointed out one factor that will make a huge difference, and that's the "really massive pipes for the internet" available to us. Yes, this "series of tubes" that I'm using now has tremendous power to ease our transition into a better future (and I'm not just talking about videos of laughing babies, piles of puppies, and naughty teen threesomes).

   And I'm with you in the optimism department. Anyone who's aware of what's really going on now and the huge changes that are coming has to make a choice - Work for positive change or run and hide. I choose the former and, like you, hope that we can avoid a dark age.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:45 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Allison! And I agree... I don't see us going back to exactly like we were in 1750. What future conditions hold isn't clear right now, but it's almost certain it won't be an exact repeat of the past.

Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 07:38 PM

Hal O'Brien

   I know it's the conventional wisdom of Kunstler, et al., that Peak Oil will result in two things: 1) phenomenally high prices for oil, 2) a corresponding collapse of the global economy.

   The problem is, supply and demand strongly implies you can get one or the other, but not both.  Consider that in 2009 we saw a 5% slackening of demand for oil, but a 50% drop in price.  Oil is very demand sensitive -- which is why OPEC keeps the taps open.  If merely reducing supply could significantly raise the price of oil, OPEC would have done it long ago.

   Kunstler has said we're sleepwalking into the future.  If so, OPEC is sleepwalking right alongside us.  Or, to put it another way, Kunstler and the Peak Oilers keep acting like the 1973 embargo was the defining event, and supply could go away at any time; OPEC keeps acting like the oil glut of the 1980s was the defining event, and demand could go away at any time.

   All that said {ahem}... I very much liked the insight about brand-items causing the physical growth of grocery shops, compared to raw commodities.  Makes me wonder if there isn't already a "no-brand" niche out there that could be served by smaller shops.  {pause}  Which, arguably, Trader Joe's is already doing.

Sunday, October 31, 2010 - 07:50 PM

Hal O'Brien

   Ms Bailes: "Although the pessimists and Luddites among us might see a future that looks preindustrial..."

   Only because of widespread ignorance of history. Consider this description from 1919: "The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth ... he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural resources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world."

   That's a world notably pre-petroleum, but post-industry. (The writer is Keynes, by the way.) My point is, industrial society existed from the 1830s or so until the gusher at Spindletop in 1901 with no oil at all.  Even after Spindletop, oil didn't become a major force in society until the widespread adoption of the automobile, which didn't take place for decades. Oil could disappear tomorrow, and industrialism would still be with us -- didactic nostalgic moralists to the contrary.

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks for the really insightful comments, Hal! And please visit often! A few thoughts in response:

   A. Until now, the oil supply side has had the ability to respond to the demand side by ratcheting supply up or down, according to what's going on. Kunstler and the Peak Oilers are saying that once Peak Oil conditions are firmly in control, there won't be the ability to open the taps further. In other words, their predictions are based on future conditions we haven't seen heretofore. Will the economy be slammed so badly that demand drops enough to actually bring prices back down? Who knows? But we shall see...

   B. I personally don't believe that there's any way we'll ever go back to some idyllic past. Somewhat akin to the core idea of the Heaths' Curse of Knowledge, we can't just forget what we already know. Some might say "but wait, what about the Dark Ages?" During the medieval era (which wasn't necessarily all so dark) knowledge was kept by the select few, and passed on through the torturous means of writing everything by hand on paper, making knowledge much more tenuous. Today, an average eighth grader arguably knows more facts about the physical world than almost anyone in medieval times. So knowledge is much more firmly embedded. So even if there is the failure of major systems, I believe knowledge will survive much more intact. So the question we should be asking ourselves today isn't "will we go back?" but "what works best?" That question has always been at the core of the Original Green, and the answers it generates are framed by "We do this because..."

Thursday, December 30, 2010 - 12:39 PM


What you are trying to say is we went from a wealth of poverty to the poverty of wealth. BTW your anvil (18th century is my guess) is a poor example to show as its working edges are all smashed over or chipped out. Show one with sharp clean working edges. We have forgotten so much.

Richard O. Byrne www.richardobyrne.com

What Should Students Do Now?

volcanic foothills on the Big Island of Hawaii

   The profession of architecture lies today in smoking ruins. Most students don’t have a snowball’s chance of getting a job in this environment. What should they do?

   Many architecture firms have closed their doors entirely, and many more have been reduced to little more than the partners. And there is no end in sight for anyone taking a realistic view of the carnage. Simply put, 2006 isn’t coming back. We’re in the middle of a major structural shift, and it isn’t immediately clear where things will stabilize.

steam rising from burning shore where lava meets the sea on the Big Island of Hawaii

   Fortunately for students and recent graduates, this is the one time in their careers that they can withstand such a jolting upheaval, for reasons I described here. Simply put, this is the one time in your career that you can afford to do something else for a living while building your ideas away from work. Because the meltdown is sweeping away many of the architects of older generations, it is clearing the way for students and recent graduates to become the leaders of the profession much sooner than they would have ever dreamed... if they do certain things.

   The first necessary thing, if you haven’t started already, is to begin building your networks. If necessary, build them in advance of knowing exactly what you’re going to do with them. For example, I have a network of over a thousand people on LinkedIn, and I haven’t decided yet how best to use it... but it’s there, waiting for me once I figure it out.

lone tree standing at the border between two lava flows on the Big Island of Hawaii

   I’ve built a network of over 3,000 people on Facebook, mostly centered on those who have an interest in the Original Green... pointing out the fact that once you do know how you’re hoping to use the network, it’s much easier to grow because you stand for something. There’s an Original Green cause on Facebook that has over 11,000 members from all over the world. Somewhat over a thousand people currently follow me on Twitter. Some of my Useful Stuff blog posts have had upwards of 3,000 readers. And several hundred people regularly read this blog, and not all at once, either. There are new readers all the time for blog posts over a year old. I’m even building a network of sorts around the images on my Zenfolio site. The point is that you shouldn’t build just one network, but several... because you’ll find significantly different circles of people in each.

orchard and farmland on North Shore of Big Island of Hawaii

   Networks are of very little use, however, unless you have something useful with which to feed them, because without something useful nudging them in a particular direction, you’re left with nothing but conversational static about completely random and likely non-useful stuff.

   You can feed your networks in the beginning with little snippets of useful information, even if they’re gleaned from other sources. But sooner or later, you’re going to need at least one big idea. Why? There’s an external reason and an internal reason: From the outside, it’s the big ideas that attract like-minded people to you. Those who want to know about the Creative Class seek out Richard Florida. Those who want to know about sticky ideas seek out Chip & Dan Heath. Those who want to know what’s wrong with suburban sprawl and how to fix it seek out Andrés Duany and Galina Tahchieva.

   The internal reason for a big idea is that everyone needs a taxonomy of their work. “Taxonomy” is a fancy word for putting things in order. Your big idea informs your taxonomy. Lots of things fall in place when you have a big idea with which to organize them.

streams coursing through pastures near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Does the idea need to be your own? Let’s think about that a moment. It is completely fine to be a student of other people’s ideas, contributing none of your own, and simply using their ideas to organize what you do. Nothing wrong with that. Matter of fact, that’s what most people do.

   Some people, however, aren’t satisfied with just hearing about the truth; they want to observe it. Working directly with empirical observations of the way things are, unfiltered by numerous commentators over the years, can be a bit scary because you don’t have the confirmation of all those other wise people who have thought about these things. But if you’re curious enough, then this may often be the path you find yourself on. This is where the thought leaders emerge.

   Where do big ideas come from? Start by looking for “insight holes.” These are places in an existing schema where things don’t quite line up... places where your professors’ theories get a bit frayed around the edges. These are places in dire need of an insight... and that insight just might be yours if you’re looking for it. But if you’re not looking, there’s very little chance the insight will be yours. Nothing fuels insight so much as expectation.

streambeds cutting through rain forests near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Interestingly, you never know whether your insights will support the existing schema or break it. That’s part of the fun of discovery. At the very least, your insights will help explain those troubling little things nibbling around the edges of your mind about how things work. Or they may explain how things work in an entirely different way.

   Please note that this can be slow work. The day after Thanksgiving 1980, I visited the tiny hamlet of Mooresville, Alabama and encountered a great mystery which I described in Twenty-Eight Years Later. A brilliant person might have figured it out in short order, but I did the next best thing: I adopted the mystery. I took it home with me, fed it, and took care of it for years.

trees scattering across pastures from a streambed near the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Late on the evening of July 21, 2004, over 23-1/2 years after first encountering the mystery, the Transmission Device of Living Traditions was rediscovered. The dominoes began to fall very quickly after that evening, and just over a year later, on the day after Thanksgiving 2005, precisely a quarter-century to the day after encountering the mystery at Mooresville, I finished a book (A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture]) which thoroughly incorporates the discovery, providing a roadmap for making the discovery work. Soon after, A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas] built another roadmap for another place on the same framework.

waterfall plunging thousands of feet into a gorge on the North Shore of the Big Island of Hawaii

   Since that time, insight has fallen quickly upon insight, culminating in the ideas of the Original Green. I never would have been able to tell the Original Green story today without adopting that mystery nearly thirty years ago.

   There’s another important thing to note here: Adopting the mystery helped me all through the years, because when you adopt a mystery, you’re continuously looking at everything with expectancy, not knowing which tree, which rock, or which street corner the answer might be hiding behind. But in the early years, outward progress was exceptionally slow because I had no network. I was on an architectural island in a small town where my colleagues were far more interested in architecture as an income-producing medium than an idea-producing medium.

floor of deep gorge near North Shore of Big Island of Hawaii

   Twenty years after the mystery at Mooresville, I began to actively engage with New Urbanists, first at the Seaside Institute, then at the Congress for the New Urbanism and elsewhere. Friends and colleagues sharpen each other’s ideas like they could each never do alone. It was less than five years from the time I started building my New Urbanist network until that July night when the Transmission Device was rediscovered.

   So start building your networks now. Had I started building mine in 1980, who knows how soon the Original Green story could have been told, and how much good it could have done in the meantime?

   One caveat: both the network-building and the idea-building are slow tasks. Don’t get discouraged. You will get very few follows in the beginning. And the beginnings of idea-building are where you make the slowest progress. Critical mass is more likely to occur in a several months or a few years than in a few days or weeks. But if you don’t get started, you’ll never get there at all. So get going now! And by all means, let’s discuss this... please add a comment and let’s talk about it.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Note: See Social Media and Living Traditions and  The Importance of Blogging for ideas that dovetail closely with these.

Legacy Comments:

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 10:38 AM

John Anderson


In addition to the activities you listed, I recommend that newly minted architecture grads figure out a way to build something (or renovate something).  FourGrads+family&friends LLC might be the only outfit building small well-designed rental and work space during these tough times.  Take this time to learn the business side of the built environment.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 10:59 AM

Steve Mouzon

Excellent point, John! Plus, this dovetails with my long-held belief that every architect should have worked at least a year or two in construction. And not just for a contractor, but in the field actually putting stuff together.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:23 PM

Denese Bottrell

You've touched on so many important points here.  I know you're speaking to architecture students, but all professions at all levels could benefit from adopting a student mentality. Being open to learning new "ways," being patient with the process and comfortable showing vulnerability will be what drives success going forward. Your story is realistic, showing us we can't wait to figure it out before we start trying...Whether our efforts evolve into a big “business” idea isn't necessarily important. If the practice helps us become closer to who we are and find a community that connects.... then it’s worth all the late nights & weekends spent blogging & tweeting.

Monday, October 18, 2010 - 04:30 PM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks, Denese! And yes, you're exactly right... these are things we all could and should be doing, IMO. It's just that students are in the best position to do so because they haven't gotten sucked into the machine yet, and burdened down with all the obligations that come with pre-meltdown success.

   Your point about comfort showing vulnerability is particularly valuable, IMO. In the old Fort Business model, everything coming from Public Relations was supposed to indicate that the company had it all figured out. Now, however, the admission that we don't have it all figured out is an open invitation to collaboration with others. Someone recently said "all of us are smarter than any of us," which makes that collaboration especially valuable.

Friday, October 22, 2010 - 02:20 AM

Brent Baldwin

Great advice! If where we are headed is fewer clients that can support the old model of architecture as high design for the discriminating, then the solution may be to open it up to the masses. Just as everyone I know goes to the dentist, maybe through blogs like this and a collaborative environment, one day we'll hire architects and designers for all sorts of problems, big and small.

Friday, October 29, 2010 - 10:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

Exactly... we need to be open to all sorts of new possibilities, because the old systems clearly aren't working anymore... at least not for most of us. FWIW, I'm working on a post right now entitled A Time for Healing... it proposes some ideas for the current realities.

Thursday, November 11, 2010 - 02:33 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve, You are so right, in areas where much has been developed, like architectur, important ideas take a couple of decades of simmering to become fully realized. Sometimes we hit on a fantastic idea immediately, early in life, but those tend to be in areas with little completed - as Bill Gates, the Beatles, and now Zuckerberg found. they were creating transformational new domains. In architecture and cities, we are building on thousands of years of civilization. and the technology is complex. In school and the first five years of practice, we just see all the parts, another five or ten to orchestrate it in design or management. Most architects best work begins after 40. People have to love it or try something else. beautiful thoughts, Cindy @urbanverse

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:37 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, Cindy! BTW, have you read Gladwell's Outliers? He makes the case that even with Gates, the Beatles, and others, their "overnight successes" were at least 10,000 hours in the making. So there's no doubt we've gotta build up to greatness. I'm just thinking that by harvesting the wisdom of many, networks can help make the path a little more direct... maybe?

Thursday, December 23, 2010 - 09:38 AM

Steve Mouzon

One more thing... for anyone interested in the Mooresville story, here's a more recent blog post that tells it in more detail.

The Importance of Blogging

two men debating in the shadow of a stone statue beside a long allee in a park in Madrid, Spain

   Blogging just might help bring us back from our current highly unsustainable condition. How? Let’s look at how we got there: The history of industrialization is one of increasing scales. As the individual became a smaller and smaller cog in an increasingly massive machine, it became easier and easier to think that nothing any one of us could do would make a difference.

clock with red glowing numerals and hands against early evening sky atop an office tower in Madrid, Spain

   Real change, if it can’t come from us, must therefore come from the machine. Want more efficiency? That’s the job of the machine’s genius-filled engineering department somewhere around the world. Here’s the first problem: efficiency increases “they” can deliver to us can’t keep up with our increase in consumption. This is partly due to skyrocketing population, but it’s compounded by the massive inefficiencies of sprawl.

   Here’s another problem: expectation of top-down sustainability solutions from the political arena are sure to be met with failure. Why? Because politics are increasingly crisis-driven, and poll after poll shows that while most people consider sustainability to be an important thing to aspire to, it ranks pretty far down the crisis pecking order. For much of America’s history, politics were driven more by ideals than crisis, but while ideals may carry the day in economically prosperous times, the Meltdown and its aftermath have swung the needle decidedly in the other direction for the foreseeable future.

nighttime protest just outside Plaza Real in Madrid, Spain

   Industry and government have collaborated in another way to make sustainability all but impossible: the very definition of our economy is based on ever-increasing consumption. A consuming economy is considered sick if it isn’t consuming more than during the previous quarter. What we need is a conserving economy, where things are valued by how long they last. A conserving economy values the act of passing something down. A consuming economy values the act of using something up.

   Compound all that with the machine’s effect on us: all that technology has made us fat, as we drive our cars instead of walk, and consume ever-increasing amounts of “food-like substances.” It has made us lazy, because pressing the Easy Button is so... well... easy. It has made us intolerant; we can only tolerate a couple degrees of temperature difference, for example, and therefore the equipment is always on. And it has made us passive, expecting our vast assortment of gizmos to do almost everything for us. It’s important to note that none of the effects above, in my opinion, were part of some nefarious conspiracy to ruin the earth. Rather, each step was the logical and (or so it seemed at the time) sensible response to current conditions of industrialization. So I find it much more useful to look for solutions than bad guys.

market just outside Plaza Real in Madrid, Spain

   What does all this have to do with blogging? Plenty. Because both government and industry are so heavily invested in ever-increasing consumption and therefore can’t provide true sustainability, that means that it’s up to us.  What can we do about it? We’ve started already: we’re turning to ourselves. We’re setting the stage for grassroots solutions to come from the blogosphere.

   Millions of people now get more of their information from blogs than from network news. Sometimes, the bloggers are trusted sources of original insights and opinions. Other times, the bloggers serve as curators of information from other sources, selecting the most useful stuff for their readers. Most blog posts are some combination of the two. This phenomenon is encouraging in at least two very important ways:

open-air bookstore on side street in Madrid, Spain

   The mere act of seeking out blogs to read rather than sitting on the couch and soaking up the network news is the first step to recovery from our century-long passivity. It means we have to think, rather than just absorb. And thinking, more often than not, leads to action of some sort. The act of blogging has a similar, but even more pronounced effect. If you don’t blog already, you should consider it. The mere act of harvesting the warm fuzzy thoughts in your brain and converting them into a coherent written form is enormously useful, in my experience.

two men walking through plaza in Madrid, Spain

   This is also good news because our hope of a sustainable society rests squarely on our own behavior. If our behavior doesn’t change, our machines can’t save us. We need a giant swap-fest of behavior-changing ideas, and blogs are the near-perfect vehicle for this task. We need millions of minds thinking, testing, and sharing green ideas that will spread. Please join the discussion!

   I blogged recently about related ideas in Social Media and Living Traditions. Please check it out and let’s discuss those aspects as well.

   ~Steve Mouzon

This post is part of the new Twitter phenomenon: #Letsblogoff. The home page lists each week’s “idea worth blogging about.” This week, it’s “Are blogs as important as bloggers think they are?” I obviously took that question in a somewhat different direction, looking at the sustainability implications, as I usually do. Here are some of the other participating blogs in today’s #Letsblogoff:

Veronika Miller @modenus Modenus Community

Paul Anater @paul_anater Kitchen and Residential Design

Rufus Dogg @dogwalkblog DogWalkBlog

Becky Shankle @ecomod Eco-Modernism

Bob Borson @bobborson Life of an Architect

Sean Lintow, Sr. @SLSconstruction SLS-Construction.com

Saxon Henry @saxonhenry Roaming by Design

Betsy De Maio @egrgirl Egrgirl's Blog

I’m @stevemouzon, FWIW.

Legacy Comments:

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 11:10 AM

Saxon Henry

I totally agree that real change comes from us and that nothing's going to be altered unless we make it a part of our behavior and patterns. Great post! I'm so glad we're all coming up with our own unique ways of saying what these subjects mean to us...shows how we're all individuals with great takes on life.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 12:27 PM

Hazel Borys

Well said, Steve! The "giant swap-fest of behaviour-changing ideas" is akin to the therapist's couch, on which behaviours can start to be recognized, analyzed and modified. So perhaps this process is part of the move away from the codependence on the Nanny State, and a sort of coming of age of the community. Keep bringing it on!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 02:38 PM


As a new blogger myself, thanks for the encouragement and validation that I'm doing my little part for us all. :)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 06:52 PM

Hollie Holcombe

This is a great post. Thanks Steve! Your view is uplifting and I hope more people start to think the way you do about blogging and social media.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010 - 08:32 PM

cindy frewen wuellner

Steve, beautiful words and images. that's exactly why we need to write blogs. Are you familiar with McLuhan's Tetrad? For every tool we make, we also lose something. As you said, gizmos made us and our cities fat. Do you suppose that we are finally ready to reverse that? that the tools now are so compliant , and our environmental mistakes so critical, that we will put people and planet first again? Perhaps with these megaphones, and with better data, we can regain some balance. 

thanks for sharing your brilliant ideas, 

cindy @urbanverse

Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 10:00 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks, everyone! Cindy, I'm not familiar with the Tetrad, but will look into it. As for what's next, it's entirely possible that we'll be stupid until we get into situations where we have no choices... but I hope not. That's why it's so important that these conversations happen now, to help us with a soft landing rather than a crash.

Friday, October 15, 2010 - 07:22 PM

Jeff Dungan

   Steve I very much appreciate your thoughts and ideas and great efforts you put towards all things thoughtful and beautiful.  I have learned a lot from you over the years- and when I am trying out a new detail like say a "jack-arch" or some such traditional construction where I am not bending the hell out of it and actually want to get it correct- I have reached for your books on more than one occasion.

   I have recently begun a blog after thinking and pondering on it for maybe a year, and it has been a wonderful outlet for me- almost a therapy of words and pictures- so thanks for your insights into the collective efforts to make the world better in our own small but significant ways.

   Mostly I just admire how your brain works and your faithful passion and it has always seemed to me like some kind of courageousness.  So you also, keep up the good work... 

Very sincerely, 

Jeff Dungan

Saturday, October 16, 2010 - 08:22 AM

Steve Mouzon

Thanks so much, Jeff! If anyone doesn't know Jeff's work, you really should. He and his partner, Louis Nequette, do some of the most evocatively beautiful work you've ever seen. Check them out at www.dungan-nequette.com And the blog that Jeff has just started is the most beautiful blog I've ever seen... and that's just the superficial look and feel. Just wait until you get to the content!

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