Twenty-Eight Years Later

Mooresville, Alabama post office, an historic wood-frame structure

   One of the great architectural mysteries of our time was the identity of the Transmission Device of Living Traditions. What was it? Where could it be found? Did it still even exist? I was optimistic, so I believed it would, and hoped that it would be rediscovered in my lifetime. I assumed that when it was rediscovered, it would be something really mystical, like the connection of the original Americans to the land. But we had no idea where to look. The questions that led to what I believe was its rediscovery were first asked twenty-eight years ago today, and the story goes like this...

   The day after Thanksgiving 1980, my wife, my sister, her boyfriend at the time, and I had a problem. We’d eaten too much turkey the day before, and desperately needed to find a place to walk. The city where I grew up was built almost entirely after WWII, and was therefore highly unwalkable. So we drove about 20 miles to Mooresville, Alabama.

   Mooresville is a little planters’ hamlet of only nine square blocks (3x3) that was built beginning in 1818 a stone’s throw from the shores of the Tennessee River. People farmed the land around them, eating from its bounty and shipping the rest downstream to market. They met their daily needs on the little town square, the shops of which had all the basic necessities, from the post office to the cobbler’s shop to a tavern and inn, amongst other shops.

   The citizens of Mooresville lived sustainably there for probably forty years before an architect ever set foot in town. Yet, twenty-eight years ago today, as an architecture student halfway through school, I had to admit that the town these simple farmers and tradespeople built was a better place than any place designed by architects since World War II. How was this possible? Our professors told us that we were going to be the greatest generation of architects ever because we had computers, the people that built our designs had power tools, and the owners could get mortgages. In short, we were going to be better architects because we had better tools.

   But if that was true, then why were the best in my profession incapable of doing as well as people with no computers, no power tools, no mortgages, and not even any flush toilets? In 1980, there was no New Urbanism; Seaside was still only a design, not a place. And in fairness, Mooresville isn’t a nationally-significant great place, either. It’s not on par with Charleston or even Beaufort. Nobody outside of  north Alabama has likely heard of it. But still, it was better than every place we had built since World War II. Place; not building. Architects had designed plenty of better buildings since World War II, but not a better place.

    Walking around town that day, photographing everything, I was unable to answer the question of how they did it. But here’s an even bigger question that immediately cropped up: You can imagine how, once people learn to do something, they can keep on doing it. But how do you take a wisdom so great that its results could not at the time be replicated by the best architects, and then transmit that wisdom down to the next generation? This is the Transmission Device.

   I puzzled over this for years. In the early years, I didn’t know what I was looking for, as I said earlier. I didn’t know where to find it, or if it even existed anymore. The search back then was something akin to walking around in the dark hoping you’ll bump into a clue.

   It was over twenty years later when, I believe, the Transmission Device was rediscovered. Late one night, after the celebratory dinner at the end of the Lost Rabbit charrette in Jackson, Mississippi, the design team was standing around in the parlor of our B&B, which was the Millsaps-Buie House on State Street. Milton Grenfell, one of the architects, said the fateful words while describing why eaves in this part of the world were designed the way they were. He prefaced the answer with “We do this because...”

   Could it really be that simple? “We do this because...” Looking back, it almost had to be an oral tradition because the residents of the old towns didn’t draw. And if you go back far enough in European history, they didn’t even read and write, yet people travel halfway around the world every year to visit medieval towns, the town-building wisdom of which was passed down using the Transmission Device.

   We now believe that “We do this because...” is the Transmission Device. If you put every pattern in a language of architecture in these terms, then people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. And you turn warm fuzzies about the places and buildings people love into heated advocacy. And you turn the wisdom of great place-making back to the people again. Most great places are not built because some architectural historian says “in 1845, window patterns were such and such because of these glass-making techniques...” Nobody cares about stuff like that. But if people understand why they love what they love, then you can build a real Living Tradition on that.

   I believe that the Transmission Device was rediscovered in the summer of 2004. It would be another year before the first tool was developed to implement it. I finished A Living Tradition [Gulf Coast Architecture] on the day after Thanksgiving 2005, precisely a quarter-century to the day after first asking the questions about Living Traditions and the Transmission Device. That first book was self-published and printed in-house, so it was very expensive, and very few people have ever seen it. But one year later, I finished A Living Tradition [Architecture of the Bahamas], which uses the same model, but expanded the patterns. It’s on Amazon, if anyone is interested. Click on the image for the link.

   What does this have to do with sustainability? Plenty! I’ll write more about this link in a later post, but the short answer is that we’re nowhere near knowing how to live sustainably today, even though millions of people around the world are working on the problem, and more will soon join them. Once we discover how, then we need a robust Transmission Device to transmit all that wisdom to the culture at large. Because if we don’t, then the actions of the specialists just aren’t enough to make a difference. So if the wisdom of how to live sustainably can be bound up in things that people love, and if they know why they love them, then we have a serious chance…

~Steve Mouzon

Green Sheds

front elevation of Green Shed

   Most solar things today are ugly. This is because most solar equipment is conceived solely as an act of engineering rather than an act of design. Back in the 1970s, during the first green revolution of our lifetimes, millions of “engineering-only” solar collectors were installed in roofs all over America. You’ve seen them, if you’re old enough to remember... big black boxes supported at funny angles having nothing to do with the house design by metal struts. They resembled nothing, really, that we had ever seen before. But if you squinted hard, you might imagine that they looked like giant car radiators supported by something that looked like the underside of the folding bleachers in the high school gym.

   But what would such a contraption be doing on someone’s roof? Not to worry; they didn’t last long. By the time the 1980s rolled around, people were saying “get that hideous thing off my roof; I don’t care if it is saving me money. I will not tolerate it any longer!” And so they were taken off by the millions, and either carted off to the landfill, or maybe their copper was salvaged in some cases.

   We stand the risk of killing this second green revolution if we don’t start looking at solar equipment as an act of design, not just an act of engineering. Today’s green revolution seems strong, but the one in the 1970s seemed strong, too. But the bottom line is: If It Can’t Be Loved, It Won’t Last. The Green Shed pictured above is my first attempt to show that solar in particular and green in general can be beautiful. Surely there are other architects who can do a much more beautiful job, but hopefully this makes the point.

   So what is a Green Shed? A Green Shed is something that you build somewhere in your yard that does several things: It houses your recycling bins and your trash can. It is your potting shed. It contains your toolshed. And it houses your solar equipment and maybe your collectors.

side elevation of Green Shed

   Today, photovoltaic cells are not yet economically feasible in many places where electricity is still relatively inexpensive, but they are clearly on the near-term horizon. So the wisest thing to do is to go ahead and provide a place for the equipment because even if you don’t install photovoltaics today, you are likely to do so at some point in the not-too-distant future. So be prepared.

   Hot water solar collectors, on the other hand, will save you money today, so there’s no good reason not to use them. Except that they’re ugly.

   This Green Shed attempts to solve that problem by making the hot water collectors become the entire South-facing roof. Don’t worry about getting the exact angle right, because the sun moves all through the day. Rather, get the architecture right for your region, and the angle likely won’t be so far off that the efficiency is hurt that badly.

   But why the entire roof? Because even when solar collectors lay flat on the roof, they still are ugly if they form an unsightly blotch on the roof’s surface. But if they occupy the entire roof, then they are simply the roof’s surface. It’s a completely different perception. But how does it work? See the dashed line just below the solar collectors on the drawing above? That’s the actual roof surface where the waterproofing is, because a little water might drip between the collectors. The space between the roof and the collectors is ventilation space.

   And here’s how the plan works: There are two lockable rooms on either end of the Solar Shed. Whichever of the two is closest to the house should be the solar equipment room. The other one should be for your more expensive garden tools. Tools and materials that aren’t worth so much should be hung on the exterior walls where they are more convenient to use. The space between the two lockable rooms forms your potting shed and your recyclable and trash storage below the potting bench.

floor plan of Green Shed

   The purpose of this website is primarily to promote the ideas of the Original Green, but if you’d like a set of working drawings of this Green Shed so that you can build it in your yard, they are available from Mouzon Design for $90. It has several cool ideas that we haven’t talked about in this article. Call 786-276-6000.

~ Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 08:40 PM

Greg Richard

Re-entered... originally posted November 29, 2008


Here are 2 ideas for the next generation of photovoltaics:

Make them look like 5V crimp metal sheets or make them look like Ludowici tiles.

Both ideas leverage the idea of disguising one glossy surface as another more traditional one.

I'm sure that if you got an engineer and a designer collaborating many more offshoots would come from this basic concept.

Friday, July 17, 2009 - 09:31 AM


Another idea on P.V. collectors is flexible mattes that lay flat on the roof between the standing seams of a metal roof, thus eliminating almost all of the framing that is needed for glass panels. Calvin college has a good example of this on their Vincent & Helen Bunker Interpretive Center.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 - 10:35 AM

Steve Mouzon

I'm really intrigued to see what becomes of the flexible collectors you describe. I seem to recall reading that they're not so efficient, but you're right... they allow them to almost disappear, which is great!

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