Monthly Archives: February 2009

A Home Hummer Hybrid

I didn’t drag myself to the International Builder’s Show (IBS) this year. It was held in Las Vegas, which is a city I’ve managed to avoid so far. I’ve passed through its airport, but haven’t walked its legendary neon-lit streets. I couldn’t imagine breaking that good record by going to an annual event I also try to avoid. Hype, pretense and an unfettered pandering to fantasy are hallmarks of both Las Vegas and the Builders Show. I imagine it played out as just another lavish show in a city known for disconnection from reality and the playing-out of juvenile narcissism. So there’s symmetry in having the Builder’s show in Las Vegas, and if it stays there, it’s unlikely I’ll ever feel obligated to attend again.

One of the really fun (or funny) events at IBS is the annual unveiling of what has come to be called “The New American Home.” The basic idea is to build an actual home somewhere near the convention hall that puts on display architecture, design and technology meant to represent some kind of ideal about the state of the American home. It’s always something of a joke, though, because what actually happens is that all the manufacturers and suppliers who get involved attempt to show off their stuff at a scale in proportion to their investment, so the home always balloons in size, and becomes silly in its complexity as it is forced to take on every feature, amenity and gadget that could possibly be deployed in a single dwelling.

The New American Home

As reported in the recent edition of Popular Mechanics, this year was no different. After reading about this year’s show house, I’m glad I didn’t see this one in person. I might have left my lunch on one of its oh-so-green floors. It is one thing to build the usual big, stupid mansion for the benefit of hundreds of participating companies to display their wares, because visitors at least get it: it’s not a house; it’s a whole bunch of product showrooms in disguise. It’s quite another thing to try to call this conspicuous sales event a green and sustainable home. That’s no longer funny. The 2009 “New American Home” is almost 9,000 square feet. No amount of green materials or ingenious energy efficient features can overcome this gaudy fact.

This one actually fails to be credible demonstration of renewable energy supply offsetting the home’s demand, as pointed out by Popular Mechanics:

The bulk of an estimated $2500 annual total utility cost would come from the natural gas used to heat and cool the house, heat the water and fire up those fireplaces. In its defense, the house cools itself using 39 percent as much fuel as a comparably sized structure, but using a rough Las Vegas average of $7 per million btuin natural gas (the national average is $4.90), we estimate that this house consumes close to 300 million Btu in gas per year. At 293 kwh-per-million Btu, that’s getting up past 85,000 kwh per year—three times the average American home’s 27,022 annual kwh. Put simply, this house is bloated.

So you can’t, as they say, put lipstick on this pig. LED lights, photovoltaic panels, recycled flooring can’t justify the puffed-up extravagance of its raw size. As this home’s energy conservation measures and renewable energy technologies try to chase down its gargantuan energy requirements, it conjures the image of a dog in the futile chase of his own tail. So, the 2009 New American Home is the equivalent of making a Hummer into a hybrid; it wouldn’t be a bad thing to do, but that wouldn’t make it an ecological solution to be touted as the way forward.

The truly New American Home of the future will be much smaller. It will be energy efficient because of its size and sustainable because of its built-in capacity to adapt to constantly changing needs and technologies. As a country, we need to learn how to live differently and build differently. It certainly would have been much more instructive if the National Association of Homebuilders, which directs the building of this model home, would show some courage in this regard, but I don’t expect it. That would be too much like leading, and that hasn’t been an area in which the NAHB has been inclined.

The only good thing about this latest version of the New American Home is the advertised promise that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.

Obama’s Housing Plan

In anticipation of Obama’s “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan,” announced yesterday, I was planning to write a post with the title “Life isn’t Fair,” because I was quite sure the plan would be designed to rescue the worst cases, whether or not the buyers had been responsible in their judgment and motives. Such a plan, while being prudent economically, was certainly going to be criticized by those who were responsibly making their payments, despite the decreased values. I assumed the inequities would be enormous and the outcry loud.

I’m happy to report I was wrong. The plan is equally weighted to assist those who are currently resolutely struggling with their payments and the devaluation, as well as those who are at risk of foreclosure because they are no longer able to keep up the payments. A succinct summary of the plan is in this New York Times graphic. The plan is targeting as many as 9 million households at a proposed cost of about $775 billion. It’s not perfect, but it’s fairer, more aggressive, and more far-reaching than had been predicted—and for that, Obama and his team are to be praised. They will also be criticized, because the plan isn’t perfect; it can’t rescue everyone. In his remarks, Obama tried to portray some realism along with the expected picture of optimism.

“This plan will not save every home, but it will give millions of families resigned to financial ruin a chance to rebuild. It will prevent the worst consequences of this crisis from wreaking even greater havoc on the economy. And by bringing down the foreclosure rate, it will help to shore up housing prices for everyone.”

There will still be a lot of pain, and we can assume there will be a great deal of inequity and chaos in the attempts to focus the assistance toward those who truly deserve it and who are also in a reasonably stable financial situation. The details are complex but the rules are intended to provide unambiguous guidelines for implementation. As it still depends on individuals and banks to do the right thing, there will no doubt be far too many who will attempt to abuse the plan for self-interest, whether personal and institutional.

So, my original thesis is still relevant. If you expect that this plan will actually separate the greedy from the responsible, it will be a disappointment. I think we can’t hope for that; more realistically, we can hope it will do far more good than harm and will therefore provide a needed palliative to our very drastic financial situation.

If you were lucky, you learned while young that life isn’t fair. The difference between the fortunate and the unfortunate doesn’t parallel with the deserving and undeserving. There are those who achieve desired goals because of hard work and perseverance or natural capability, but there are also those who get there because of unfair privilege, unfair tactics or luck. It’s an immutable fact mankind has lived with through all recorded history and before. If you can’t achieve some detached objectivity about this, you could spend your life paralyzed by anger, resentment and cynicism. On the other hand, if we don’t always fight back against injustice and unfairness, we become enablers. It’s a fine line.

The banks and bankers, who are getting bailed out of the holes they dug for themselves, and for all of us, simply do not deserve the charity they are receiving. If you think about this long enough, it will drive you crazy. But here we are, with a housing plan that now depends on these same institutions to stem their own greed and reach out to millions of desperate people. We now hope they will act in accordance with a vision that is nearly the opposite of the way they acted when they let loose these “financial instruments” in the first place. Will the foxes really shore up the henhouse?

There are lots of potential problems with Obama’s plan. It will be easy to poke holes in it. In the end, though, this plan would be wildly successful if all the players can summon some human compassion and put the greater interest of the country ahead of their own. But that won’t happen often enough, and the oversight won’t prevent abuses. Be prepared to find fault, but place the blame where it belongs. Obama and his team have done a good job, whatever the plan’s problems; it is now time for all citizens of this country–corporate and private–to buck up and do the right thing.

Platinum Unity

We received some good news this week. Here’s the lead from a press release we’re sending out today:

Bensonwood’s Unity House Achieves LEED Platinum Status

Unity, ME – Unity House, the second home designed and constructed by Bensonwood Homes as part of the groundbreaking Open Prototype Initiative (OPI), has achieved LEED Platinum designation, the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating for environmentally sustainable construction.

It is exciting news, and also a reminder to me that there are several facets of Unity that help to define the path of hope in these hard times.

First, unity is a noun:

1. the state of being one; oneness.
2. a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.
7. (in literature and art) a relation of all the parts or elements of a work constituting a harmonious whole and producing a single general effect. Unabridged

You can’t fake unity. You have it, or you don’t. I’m proud to say we have it. Nothing lasts very long without unity at its core. At all scales, unity is the soul of human organization and its source of sustainability. Unity is such critical lifeblood to organized behavior, that if it can’t be engendered, it will be enforced. For our governing bodies at all levels, most of us believe the most benign and powerful kind of unity is in our democracy rather than in the subjugation associated with autocracies. On the other hand, most corporations have opted for some form of command-and-control instead.

Unity is important, but it matters how it happens.

Second, Unity is a place. It’s a small town; rather Unity is the name for lots of small towns. There is a Unity in Illinois, New Hampshire, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin. Is it coincidence that most of the Unity communities have a population of fewer than two thousand and only one exceeds twenty thousand? Is small better…more unified? I don’t know, but it is well understood in democracy that unity needs local expression as well as national expression. That’s how we the people get involved.

I’ve been to three of the Unity towns and live close to one of them, Unity, New Hampshire. Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton declared peace—and unity—here.

Still, I have a special place in my heart for Unity, Maine.

Unity, ME
Location: (44.619003, -69.336696)
Population (2000): 486 (319 housing units)
Area: 1.818322 sq mi (land), 0.000000 sq mi (water)
Zip code(s): 04988

Unity (perhaps all of them) is a remote and quaint little place. You don’t go through Unity because it’s not on the way to somewhere else. Getting to Unity must be your purpose, the destination. It’s so appropriate, because unity is like that.

Third, Unity is a college in Unity, Maine. The college is uniquely focused around environmental learning, particularly sustainability and conservation biology. Not coincidentally, its curriculum unifies the left and right, hunters and vegetarians, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, dirt bikers and bicyclists. Sustainability, after all, can’t possibly succeed as narrow ideology or divisive agenda. What they understand at Unity College is that—beginning with the education of the next generation—the pursuit of sustainability is either inclusive or failed.

As in politics, we can choose unity and do our best to control our destiny, or conditions will eventually enforce our collective behaviors to align for better or worse.

Finally, Unity is a house on the Unity campus. Unity House was built as part of the commitment by Unity College to invest in the future they are trying to educate toward. It is my good fortune to be friends with the President of the college, Mitch Thomashow, and his wife Cindy. This project was the realization of personal philosophy and vision. They were eager to build a carbon neutral, LEED platinum home, and even more eager to live in one.

Unity House Interior

Unity Exterior, Night

Mitch is an internationally known environmentalist and educator who has authored two important books: Ecological Idenity and Bringing the Biosphere Home. Cindy is a dynamic teacher and activist with irresistible charm. One of the major themes of their work has been about building new connections and repairing the broken links between ourselves and in the world around us…in a word, unity.

Mitch and Cindy are now writing a blog about life in Unity House. It’s obvious from their posts that they are enjoying the experience and that it has become a laboratory for them about not only living with renewed awareness of the qualities of their new home, but also reflecting on their own needs, desires and habits. It is one thing to build a carbon neutral house, it’s quite another to live a carbon neutral life.

What the Thomashows already knew has prepared them for a deep understanding of this new experience: the solutions to our issues–local and global, personal and ecological–have much to do with finding the best path to Unity.

Is durability important?

A reader of this blog, Scott, brought a significant objection in comment to my last post, Paedomorphic Lessons. It’s worthy of further discussion, so I will respond more and encourage you to do the same. Here’s what he had to say, in full:

I struggle with the idea that “sustainability means durability”.

I appreciate the idea you are trying to convey, but is it true? What is the reason to advocate design life for a building that is “hundreds” of years? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t build high quality long lasting buildings, but why is this a “new house rule”?

You’ve likely run across McDonoughs cherry tree analogy ( the idea that nature often creates more than she needs, and often designs things that are NOT durable on purpose).

In Japan, where houses can be purchased more like autos, families often renovate by “starting over” … and I’ve been on more than a few renovations where the owner would have been better served by NOT working with what they had!

Lets also ask if we believe that a sustainable car is a “durable” car, or if a sustainable telephone is a durable telephone?

It seems to me that industry and technology legitimately challenge the idea that a sustainable thing must also be a durable thing.

My short paragraph explanation of the points wasn’t enough in this case, and I therefore agree that it does leave the argument unconvincing. It might have been better stated more completely: “In modern homebuilding, sustainability means durability.”

I too have been on renovation projects in which the existing building wasn’t worth improving, but those situations represent the problem, not the solution. These buildings weren’t worth saving because they were so poorly designed and built. Razing them is expedient, but it’s also ecologically harmful. It’s filling up the landfills and not realizing the potential of the energy expended to build them in the first place. As for the trend in Japan to tear down and start new, I can’t account for that. It makes no sense, especially in a country that so reveres its tradition of craftsmanship and building quality. Some of the oldest wooden buildings on the earth are in Japan.

McDonough’s cherry tree analogy points to the natural abundance of nature. If we could imitate the way in which nature restores itself in an endless cycle of renewal, there would be no shortages and no waste and we’d live in a much better world. While I’m a fan of McDonough’s philosophy, I’m not a fan of his apparent inability to see that there remains a distance between the ideal offered in the lessons from the natural world and the current state of our processes, habits and cultural expectations. Talking about it doesn’t get us there, and all of the attempts (including McDonough’s) to achieve real “cradle to cradle” constructions have fallen short. It’s an excellent goal and the right path, but we can’t base any assumptions on having achieved, in our human-directed manifestations, the miracle we take for granted in a simple tree.

But to take the cherry tree analogy more literally, in construction, the closer you get to nature, the more durability gets decoupled from sustainability. A cloth tent need not be terribly durable to be sustainable, for instance. Cabins made of logs and boards would need to be more durable because of the resource use, but 40 or 50 years might be a sufficient goal for a simple building made of locally available, natural materials.

The durability calculation changes, however, as the construction becomes more robust, thereby using more materials and consuming larger amounts of energy in its creation. The more we expect from a construction, the more it takes to create it, and the longer it needs to last to justify its proportionate consumption of material and energy inputs.

If we built a bridge over a river and it was made with only a couple of logs and some planks, we would be well aware that it would serve some limited pedestrian and light-load purposes only. We’d also know it wouldn’t last very long and could be replaced quite easily. This is the bridge version of using a tent for a home, which many people do throughout the world. But if we built a bridge for four lanes of heavy vehicular traffic, it would likely consume very large quantities of concrete and steel, and it would require a complex construction process to put it all in place. To be sustainable, this bridge would need to last a very long time. This is a bridge version of the contemporary American home.

As we are now trying to make homes better in many respects, they also must last even longer. Hurricane and earthquake resistant homes have more structure and better foundations. High performance homes have thicker walls and roofs, with more insulation. The imperative for improving building performance comes with an imperative to equally improve building durability to amortize its increased embodied energy. As in my example of a bridge, the sustainability/durability ratio is related to our expectations. The average American home (not to mention the better ones we should be building) is expected to be a thermal cocoon, a theater, a restaurant, a lounge, an internet café and a spa. It’s a lot different than a tent and not even close to being like a naturally eco-friendly cherry tree.

These are reasons why the life expectancy of the modern house, and the components used in its construction, can and should be measured in centuries.