Yesterday, in my Ecological Design Thinking class, I showed a couple of images of the iconic Sand Palace, the reinforced concrete house that is still standing in Mexico Beach, FL after Hurricane Michael slammed ashore with 155-mph winds that flattened the rest of town.
I asked my students to consider what questions this raises about building in a place like that, the lengths this owner and his engineer went to, etc. One student from Florida said it showed foresight and was a smart way to build in this day and age. Why not exceed current code by twice the wind load? Instead of Florida’s 2002 code requiring a house in that place to withstand 120-mph winds, this one is designed for 240-250 mph.
Something about it bothers me, though. What does it mean that this one resilient house survives and everything else around it is destroyed? What is the point of this lone house in a place where nothing else is working? In a place absent of connection and reciprocity? Continue reading
It is easy for me to slip into despair when I read about the latest environmental protections that are being removed by EPA usurper-in-chief, Scott Pruitt. These are so egregious as to be almost laughable, like a plot outline for an overly absurd dystopian novel. One of the latest is that mining companies no longer need to set aside money to cover potential damages from their activities. They will not be held to account for toxic tailings, sludge pond overflows, and other messes.
I confess I did not have the heart (or stomach) to delve further into the topic, to determine what, if any, contingencies were substituted for the simple effect of holding corporate polluters responsible for their actions.
We are so much better than this. We have these regulations in place for good reasons, often made necessary by historical disasters that resulted in loss of property, livelihood, or even life.
There is a long and growing list of these now-shredded protection regulations. Disbanding a panel that helped cities respond to climate threats. Giving away millions of acres of protected federal lands—stolen during the genocide against the people who were here before white Europeans came. Allowing fracking companies to dump spoils into the Gulf of Mexico. (Articles are here, here, and here.) Maybe Pruitt and his cronies are brainstorming new names for the EPA. Environmental Polluters Association. Economic Pirates, All.
Here’s a thought: maybe this is a necessary unravelling that will lead us to another way of being. Continue reading
I’ve written before about the play between mythos and logos, particularly the impoverishment of our lives from the elevation of logos—reason, facts—over its partner mythos—meaning, context. Logos alone sends us looking for truth in news items, not in fairy tales. At least until recently. The very crisis of the so-called “fact-free” world we woke up to post-election points to the inadequacy of logos alone to make sense of the world. And we’ve gone so long without mythos; it’s hard to visualize its relevance anymore. Or what it even looks like in the physical world.
In the first century BCE, back when mythos and logos still enjoyed equal billing, a Roman architect and engineer called Vitruvius wrote an architectural treatise called The Ten Books on Architecture. It’s actually an interesting read. The most quoted principles from it are the triumvirate: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, or “firmness, commodity, and delight.” Vitruvius argued that architecture must be structurally sound, functional, and beautiful—all three. It must serve its purpose economically and spiritually. Though human cultures and their architectural styles have taken many different forms over the centuries, these underlying principles have generally held. When logos was promoted over mythos, the unraveling began. Continue reading
I made these sketches for my longtime collaborator and friend, Polly Bart. After a couple of decades as a green builder, she is building a house for herself using all natural and salvaged materials, including trees harvested from her land, strawbale walls, a green roof, and—possibly best of all—a thatched roof over the main living room’s steeply pitched log structure. Last month, the master thatcher came from Ireland to put up the roof. The photos of it are stunning. (Scroll down this post for a slideshow of six images, or follow this link for more.)
This morning, I awoke from a dream of her roof, thinking about the differences between a roof like this and conventional construction. Modern construction technology favors industrial materials put up in layers, each with its specialized purpose: structure, enclosure, water shedding, waterproofing, insulation, and to bridge and/or seal thermal movement of the different materials. Thatch, by itself, takes care of all of those purposes save the structure. Great skill and long training are required to do it correctly. Continue reading
The vibration of energy, of waves, color and sound is the secret signature of all things. Both science and spirituality say this. Artists, musicians and poets have understood it for millennia. I’ve been working with a friend to produce a set of meditation cards based on the chakra system. It has heightened my awareness of color in so many ways, from simple mood shifts to the resonance in my body of a particular color. How much do we really see of the colors we encounter as we move through our day?
Different colors and sounds vibrate at different wavelengths. Being a part of this system, our body acts as a prism, connecting to the White Light of All Consciousness, and refracting it into the individual colors of the spectrum. When you delighted by a rainbow or the dancing colors of a crystal hanging in a sunny window, your body is recognizing its kindred. When I pay attention to the color red or violet or green, I feel an immediate pull of connection. Continue reading
“Logic only gives man what he needs… Magic gives him what he wants.” ~ Tom Robbins
When you steep a while in the world of Story, everything starts to seem a little less “real.” The line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Even when I work with clients, their businesses and buildings can feel a bit staged, like a game we are all playing. I am aware that few—if any—of them see it that way, so I’m careful about what I say. The truth is, though, that I’ve always had a rather loose hold on reality, feeling more at home in a world of fantasy and imagination than in the hyper-competitive, fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world out there.
This may account for my proficiency at writing proposals and designing buildings. I can cast forward and imagine the shining whole, complete and beautiful. It’s the in-between stages that are more of a slog, with their constraints of budgets and code officials and physics. Slogging is what I was taught—what we were all taught—about turning ideas into reality. In recent years, I’ve been encountering and learning about other ways to do it, ways that reach me on an intuitive level but that mostly elude me on a practical level. These are ancient ways of relating to the world and tapping our human faculties that we moderns can learn even today. Continue reading
“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne
It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.
What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading
I’ve committed to exploring and living in this threshold between stories, this liminal time of both/and, not because I believe it’s Right and anyone who doesn’t get it or come along with me, or who cannot relate to this perspective, is Wrong. Or that this is The Answer, or The Solution to all our problems. I just love the people I’m meeting, who challenge and inspire me. I enjoy being with them. They are good company.
About fifteen years ago, my partner and I had a thriving green architecture firm. Hip deep in LEED consulting, small design projects, sustainability initiatives, lecturing and teaching, we were helping to put Baltimore on the map of community sustainability and eco-mindedness. I had always been a very focused architect, completely dedicated to my profession and craft. So much so, looking back, that I was oblivious to the real reasons we do this work. I thought it was to be the best, to make beautiful (if not perfect), technically excellent buildings. To dive in deep, control all the variables and requirements, and create an innovative project that not only solved all of the client’s problems, but also a few more we threw in just to keep it interesting. Continue reading
I am not by nature a patient person. Back when I was working with organizations to design and launch sustainability initiatives, we had a metaphor that I liked very much. I borrowed it from one of the early thought leaders of green architecture, William McDonough. He was fond of pointing out that a fundamental problem with sustainable design as defined and implemented is that so much of it was about “being less bad.” He would say, if you’re driving to Canada at 70 miles an hour and you realize you really need to be going to Mexico, you won’t get there by driving to Canada more slowly. You have to turn the car around.
I’m all about turning the car around. Why use all this energy when technology and craft exist to cut our energy use in buildings by 70% right now, today? Yet, clients seemed always to be dragging their feet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. One day, when I was voicing my frustration with how long all this change stuff was taking, my colleague accused me of wanting to bail out of the car altogether, while it’s still going 50 mph. And he was right! Continue reading
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” ~ Charles Dickens
This opening to A Tale of Two Cities is a perfect encapsulation of how reality feels to me these days, and I am aware that many of us are living with the strangeness of both/and. I’ve had several conversations lately to puzzle over the apparent stalling of green building in my area, even while trend graphs put out by the U.S. Green Building Council look rosy as ever. I wouldn’t go so far as to lament that it was a fad that’s now fizzling, but I am curious about what feels like a slowdown, if not a general lack of interest, as compared with most of the 2000’s. Here’s a story that is not atypical. Continue reading