Sunday, October 24, 2010

Towards a Living Building

I had a great opportunity yesterday to visit an interesting project in Portland that is seeking to meet the Living Building Challenge. It's known as the Commons, and it's being designed, built, and financed by the Moon Brothers. These guys are truly pioneers and heroes showing how we can build and live more in harmony with nature.

Exterior step detail
The Commons view from the street
The Commons view from the rear garden

Dustin Moon, the tireless builder and contractor of the home, showed us around. He and his brother,  Garrett, have designed and are financing and building the 2600 square foot home which will house them and their families including occasionally their parents. They've also established a good size shop on site which is covered by a food garden. At this point, they have the foundation, cistern, walls, roof, most windows, stairs, and some mechanical systems in place. They been at it for two years and they're hoping to finish by next summer.
The "expensive box" composting bin for "blackwater" waste

So what is a living building? According to Cascadia Green Building Council, the initiators of the Living Building Challenge, a living building must generate all needed energy on-site, draw all its needed water from the site, and processes all its water and waste on the site. This is an extremely tall order and something that's very exciting in the movement to have our built environment be more harmonious with the natural environment.

The Commons has come a long way since I saw last year on the Portland's Build It Green home tour. At that point they had the foundation, cistern, and shop in place, but had only the beginnings of walls started.

Although the Living Building Challenge has been underway for several years, last month was the first time that any had successfully been completed and certified in the Challenge.

The home incorporates a modern design with steel stud framing and several layers of polyiso foam on the exterior for insulation. They managed to deconstruct and reuse or giveaway most of the very old rundown building that was on the site previously. And they have been able to incorporate many recycled materials in the construction of the new house, including the reused sheet metal which gives the exterior a very distinctive look. They also are incorporating some ingenious and attractive metal features.

I look forward to watching their progress continue and wish them the best of luck in meeting the Living Building Challenge.

For more details and to track their progress, check out their blog and website here at The Commons. I also want to send a shout out to Amber Turner and Green PDX for arranging this and many other great tours locally.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How's Your Food Karma?

As much as we may try to deny it or ignore it, our actions have profound consequences. This is certainly true in the area of our food choices.

I have personally chosen a vegan path. Having said that, I'm not very judgmental. Some of my best friends and most of my relatives are meat eaters. We all need to make our own choices. I do, however, encourage people to look at the full impact of our choices and make decisions in light of that. BTW, “vegan” diet means a plant-based diet focusing on grains, fruits, legumes, and vegetables with no animal products. So in addition to no animal flesh, that means no eggs or dairy as well. And, no, fish are not plants). So my purpose here is to inform rather than judge peoples’ choices in life.

After growing up as a typical omnivore eating my share of meat (and even teasing my then vegetarian sister for her diet), I first came to a vegetarian diet after being captivated by the philosophy of nonviolence so eloquently articulated by Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by that, I was seeking to live a more nonviolent life and promote that in the world, however, I realized that my food choices directly brought violence to other living beings. I saw the hypocrisy in that and I decided to change it. The close second motivation for me was realizing that it was not only better for other living beings, but it was healthier for me to exist on a diet free of meat. I was moving into a new household, and one of my roommates was a vegetarian, so I asked him all the typical questions like "what you eat?” and "what you do for protein?” That was more than 25 years ago and I haven't looked back since.

Some years later I realized (and finally admitted to myself) that the egg and dairy industry also brings its share of death and suffering to other living beings. And I decided to go vegan. Again a close second concern at that point was the negative health impacts of dairy and eggs (see Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine for some good info on plant-based diets here). I had often experienced a lot of sniffling and running nose, and although my intake of eggs was minimal, I had at times been consuming lots of dairy products, and those have more than their fair share of cholesterol. I did find that once I went vegan, my energy got a subtle boost and I found that my nose was much clearer. I continue to be in great health and rarely get even a cold or flu.

Around the time I was going vegan, I also started understanding more deeply the environmental impacts of our food choices, which are huge and which I'll cover more in a future post. Suffice it to say that the closer we are to maintaining a plant-based diet, the better it is not only for our health, but for that of the planet (not to mention the animals are happier too). One great source of info related to environmental and health impacts of our animal-centered diet is John Robbins’ book, Diet for a New America (

If I am to articulate a concise piece of my philosophy, I would say that we and the planet would be better off to let go of our anthropocentric view that whatever is outside of us exists for our pleasure, use, and abuse. The current environmental problems we face are directly related to acting according to this viewpoint. I believe other living beings have a right to exist of their own accord, or more eloquently in Alice Walker’s words, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men." Again, I put this out not as a judgment, but as a perspective that I hope is helpful for those who choose to see it that way.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Lifestyle Choices: Is More Really Better?

This great global recession has given us a chance to reevaluate our priorities. Do we really need the more expensive, brand-new car? Do we really need the home with twice the square footage? Moreover, are these things actually enhancing our lives or detracting from them? Ultimately if we are going to create a sustainable world, we need to let go of blind consumerism and blind materialism. We need to reconnect with the humanness of our culture and ourselves. We need to reconnect with each other, and ourselves, and to do that we may be best off letting go of a little stuff.

Examples from the developing world
During the few years I spent living and working in Armenia, I had a chance to look back at our American materialism with fresh eyes. Like so many other "underdeveloped" countries, Armenia has been quite non-materialistic. It has an ancient history and rich culture. In years since their independence from the Soviet Union in 91, they’ve seen over-night economic collapse, vanishing of life-long pensions, war, economic blockade, and a slow re-emergence of a new economy. In the midst of this, Armenia has a very human centered culture which values human interaction as among the most important things in life. It's common for neighbors to show up with only a knock on the door that becomes a spontaneous gathering and meal that may go on for hours. People plan and schedule very little ahead of time. Armenians are very involved in each other's lives—okay, maybe a little too much sometimes. And, by the way, due to this and other factors, juvenile delinquency is pretty much unheard of, there's almost no drug abuse (with the obvious exception of nicotine), and relatively little alcohol abuse. It's an extremely safe place to be for kids as parents watch out for each other’s children. Outside the capital city poverty is rampant. Subsistence agriculture is the norm with people barely growing enough food to eat and trade for other food to eek out an existence. However, even with such dire poverty, chances are, if you find yourself in an Armenian village, you'll be invited in for coffee that often turns to an impromptu meal. The family may barely have enough to keep themselves alive but they're anxious to share whatever they have while connecting in conversation with a new friend.

In the few short years I was there, I watched the country take a much more materialistic turn. As the economy grew—albeit slowly—those with money started buying the things that demonstrated their status. The number of Mercedes and BMWs increased. The number of $400 cell phones increased. More expensive buildings were built in every corner of the city. Billboards started lining the streets and highways. Although the human-centered feeling of the culture didn't seem to diminish in a major way, this nouveau riche style materialism seemed to be threatening it.

Our lives are not enriched by possessions; in fact they are often depleted by them. I've seen the masses of people living in the streets of New Delhi, beyond poor. But most people I saw living in these conditions appeared genuinely much happier and more fulfilled than most of the people in the US, which by comparison are blessed with so much wealth.

I'm certainly not advocating we give up homes to live on the streets, and it's not that I'm completely anti-materialistic—I certainly enjoy some material pleasures myself—but it behooves us to really take a clear, good look at what aspects of our lives bring us pleasure, what aspects of our lives help enrich us, and what things in our lives might we be better off without—or with smaller or less elaborate or expensive versions of.

What stuff really serves us?
In practical terms, do we need a brand-new car, or are we better off, in fact, with one that's a few years old thus giving us lower insurance rates and lower monthly payments, or better yet giving us the ability to buy in cash thereby freeing ourselves from another monthly payment and interest payments? Are we better off with a 4000 square foot home, or might we be even happier in a home half the size? This is especially important when we consider that not only will our mortgage payment be dramatically less, but the cost of heating and cooling it and filling it with stuff also becomes dramatically less (not to mention keeping it all clean)? In terms of homes, Sarah Susanka has done a great job of articulating this in The Not So Big House books helping us focus on quality in smaller homes that create a more enjoyable experience.

Let us take as one of the silver linings of this global recession that we can recognize not only that we can get by with less stuff, but that we can even live richer lives with less stuff in the way. Let’s look instead to the quality of our lives, the quality of our interactions, the connections we have with others, and even the quality—rather than quantity—of the things we do choose to have in our lives.

Friday, October 1, 2010

We Need a Revolution in How We Build

"Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants."—Thomas Jefferson

Those who know me know the irony of including a quote that suggests violence as I am a steadfast advocate of nonviolence. Of course, I’m not talking about a political revolution and certainly not anything remotely violent—on the contrary, I’m speaking of more of a green velvet revolution.

However, we need something of historic proportions and we need it soon. The unfortunate condition of our planet and the swiftness of the dramatic climatic shift taking place leads us to the necessity of a radical change in how we integrate with the natural environment.

The built environment is responsible for about 40 percent of worldwide energy consumption, and accounts for 38.9% (2006 figure) in the US. As a result, the built environment currently contributes more to carbon emissions than even the transportation sector—in fact, according to Architecture 2030, buildings account for 46.9% of CO2 emissions in the US. Our built environment, is therefore a critical area in dire need of radical change. In short, we need a revolution in how we build and we need it now.

We need to rethink our relationship to buildings and transportation and how where we live relates to the places with which we connect—where we work, shop, recreate, and socialize. We need to re-think cities, and suburbs and transportation systems, and our homes and offices shopping centers. At the very least, we need to be employing the best available approaches for new construction and renovations that use dramatically less energy and therefore contribute dramatically less to the overall pollution and climate change cycle we are in.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy waste from buildings
can be curbed by 75% across the globe. A recent McKinsey Report (Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy, 2009) identifies energy efficiency—especially within the building sector—as having the ability to cost-effectively bring dramatic reductions in energy use (and CO2 emissions), but only if it is made a priority: “Energy efficiency offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. economy—but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it.”

“We already have the technology today to cut the horrendous waste of CO2 and expensive energy in buildings. Many of the investments to save energy in buildings are not only cost-effective; they are even more profitable than many pension schemes that you and I so willingly invest in,” according to IEA policy analyst, Jens Laustsen.

…And it needs to happen with good design, and in a financial context that supports it and with a consumer interest that demands it.

There are approaches currently being used in Europe and recently launched in the U.S. that create buildings that use 70-90% less energy than typical new buildings. There are over fifteen thousand such buildings in Europe and there have been discussions within European countries and the European Union as a whole to make that standard the minimum code standard for all new construction there.

While I am a big fan of LEED, Energy Star, and other efforts to green the current building industry and I see their evolution and widening acceptance as critical to the overall transformation of our building industry in the US, we also need to be dramatically increasing the efficiency of new and existing buildings—far beyond what those standards currently require. Although our U.S. building industry has been moving toward more green approaches, the casual stroll must change to a sprint and the bar must be raised dramatically higher, as the higher bar is within our reach if we just put our intention there rather than at our knees as is currently the case.

Look for more on this topic as I believe it is one that warrants significant focus.