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The Original Green

Traditions of placemaking and building can help us relearn sustainable ways of life.
By Stephen A. Mouzon

Steve Mouzon is presenting the New Urban Guild Original Green workshop on Thursday, September 18, 2008, during the Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference at Chicago's Navy Pier. For more information, go to

In this Thermostat Age, much of the focus on sustainability is on narrowly defined technological issues and "gizmo" solutions – the notion that we can simply invent more efficient mechanisms to overcome the sustainability "problem" and throw in some bamboo to boot. But Gizmo Green is only a small part of real sustainability. We must focus on building sustainable places, rather than buildings, because it does not matter what the carbon footprint of an individual building is if you have to drive in order to live or work in it. To this end, we can learn much from studying our traditions of placemaking.

The four foundations of sustainable places are feedability, accessibility, serviceability and defensibility. Only after the place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings. The first of the four foundations of sustainable buildings is lovability, because it does not matter how efficiently the building performs if it cannot be loved. Only after the building is lovable can it go on to be sustainable by being durable, flexible and frugal.

Sustainable Places
Feedability: Feedable places grow a significant portion of their food within a few miles of where it is eaten and could grow more in a long emergency. Today, the ingredients of an average meal in the U.S. travel over 1,300 miles to get to your table. Very few places in the U.S. or European Union are feedable, but as the industrialization of China and India continue, resulting in over a billion new cars competing for gas over the next several years, the cost of food transportation will become much more significant.

Feedability happens very infrequently today because of the shallow inflections in real estate value. We can travel for miles in a short period of time, so we tend to value farmland similarly to developable land in town. This means the farmland is easily gobbled up for new development. Much work remains to figure out an economically sustainable way to be able to look out from your town onto the fields and waters from which much of your food is sourced.

Accessibility: Accessible places are those where you have a choice of how to get around. If you can choose to drive, walk, bike or take the train, then you can do what makes the most sense. If you can only drive, then you have no choice, nor do any of the other people clogging the highway ahead of you. And that choice must prefer self-propelled methods above those that are driven by engines, because transportation choice isn't just about using less fuel, but must include the option of using no fuel at all, especially within your neighborhood. Walking and biking have the added benefit that they actually make you healthier. The New Urbanism now has a full toolbox for creating accessible places.

Serviceability: Serviceable places are those that provide the basic services of life within walking distance, so that driving is a choice, not a necessary act of survival. Serviceable places also have places for the people that serve you to live, like firefighters, police and teachers. These should be either somewhere in the neighborhood or in nearby neighborhoods so that their daily commute can be a walk or a bike ride if they choose, rather than the 50-mile drive they currently have to endure in many increasingly unaffordable places across the country.

This Next-Generation Housing in these Next-Generation Neighborhoods answers the question, "where will your kids be able to afford a home when they get out of college?" With the exception of figuring out how to provide homes that the people who are serving you can afford, the New Urbanism now has a number of techniques for creating serviceable places... and we're working on affordability.

Defensibility: Defensible places are those in which you can live safely without undue fear of being killed by humans or wild animals and where your home is safe from those that would pillage it. Defensible places once built walls to assist in repelling armed attackers. These walls also caused a sharp inflection in property values, because a home just inside the wall was clearly of much greater value than a home just outside. This helped preserve farmland outside the gates and make the place feedable.

Today, the problem is more complex because those most likely to do you physical harm or to steal your belongings are not armed bands from a nearby town, but rather individuals or small teams of criminals that operate largely out of sight rather than storming the gates. But it is no less important to figure this out, because how can a place be considered sustainable if people abandon it because of fear?

Gated subdivisions are the current popular solution, but they fail miserably to create a community on too many counts to discuss here. There are other ideas, but much work remains to be done in order to learn how to build defensible places that are great places to live, work, shop, play and visit.

Sustainable Buildings
Lovability: Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with lovability. If a building cannot be loved, then it is likely to be demolished and carted off to the landfill in only a generation or two. All of the embodied energy of its materials is lost (if the materials are not recycled.) Worse, all of the future energy savings are lost too. Buildings continue to be demolished for no other reason except that they cannot be loved. Even a landmark so revered by the architectural profession as the Boston City Hall is now in danger of just such a fate because it is famously unlovable. If it can't be loved, it won't last, and is by definition unsustainable.

Many ask how it is possible to know what others love, and especially what future generations might love. If architecture is nothing more than fashion, then their fears are well founded. But architecture can and must do better than that, because that which is the most intensely of our time today is also the most quickly out-of-date tomorrow. If we focus on what it means to be human rather than just what is popular in this moment, then it is clear that some things have resonated with humans throughout the ages.

These include shapes that reflect the basic arrangement of the human body, which has a head, a body and feet, or a cap, a shaft and a base. The human body also is arranged horizontally, with equal external members on either side that can either be arranged in a very relaxed manner, like someone reclining in a hammock, or very formally, like a soldier standing at attention. Humans also resonate both with proportions found in the human body, and with a set of mathematical proportions that are both rational (1:1, 4:3, 3:2, etc.) and irrational (the square root of 2, the Golden Mean etc.). Humans also resonate with natural laws, such as the law of gravity. In other words, they don't just expect for things to stand up, but also to look like they are capable of standing up.

So while it is not possible to guess what architectural fashions might be like in 20 or 30 human generations (or even next year, for that matter), it most certainly is possible to stack the deck in our favor by building things that reflect timeless aspects of our humanity. Doing so extends the efficiency of what we build today into the distant future.

Durability: Our ancestors once built for the ages. Their buildings were durable enough to last for centuries, and because they were lovable, they often did. Can we conceive of buildings that last for a millennium again? Durability is essential to sustainability. This should be considered so self-evident that it needs no explanation. Inexplicably, most so-called "sustainable" buildings today are still built of materials and in configurations that make it unlikely that they will even last a century. It cannot be sustained if it is not durable.

Flexibility: Within a durable shell, a building must be extremely flexible if it is to last for centuries. We cannot even conceive of how many uses a building might be put to in 30 or 40 generations, which is how long buildings may last if they are both lovable and durable. So the interiors must be able to be recycled again and again for future uses that do not even exist today.

How is it possible to prepare for things that we cannot anticipate? Here is what we believe that we know: The durable shells of flexible buildings should allow for attachment of interior improvements. Because our history over the past two centuries has been one of increasing the number of pipes rather than decreasing them, flexible buildings should have a strategy for channeling pipes through all their rooms. Because our energy outlook over the next thousand years is most uncertain, buildings designed to be naturally frugal will also be more flexible.

Frugality: Frugal buildings can be considered frugal in eight aspects: The first three are their frugality with the energy to construct and operate buildings, and the energy of transportation associated with the occupation of the buildings. Next are frugality of materials to construct, the recycling of the materials of construction and operation, and our stewardship of the water and the air that surrounds the buildings. Finally, frugality extends both to how we conserve the nature around us, and also how we conserve our own wellness. Specifics of these eight aspects of frugality are as follows:

Traditional materials generally contain much less embodied energy per pound than highly-processed materials. So while Gizmo Green makes some contributions to reducing energy required to construct buildings by calling for materials that are extracted regionally, living traditions have done the same for millennia out of necessity, and they also prefer materials that have been processed less, embodying less energy.

Energy required to operate buildings is the measuring-stick of Gizmo Green. Here, proponents of Gizmo Green have made large contributions. But buildings that condition space first by passive means are more certain to work for the life of the building because passive means are not dependent upon any particular mechanical technology. The New Urbanism has been developing methods for producing places where people can walk to work and school, and places to shop and play for decades. Transportation energy is an essential component of any serious conversation on true sustainability.

Gizmo Green is rightly concerned with building from rapidly renewable materials or recycled materials. Living traditions did this for millennia; a tradition that lived long enough to be passed down for generations obviously could not be concerned with materials that ran out in short order. The difference is that living traditions more easily use low-tech materials because they have no predisposition to the aesthetics of high technology. Methods of recycling today have been almost completely defined by the proponents of Gizmo Green, and they have done an excellent job of creating a recycling infrastructure in most places where none existed a few decades ago. The Gizmo Green is also concerned with our stewardship of the water and air around us, and rightfully so.

However, there are two downsides. When mechanical systems, which are the heart of Gizmo Green, fail or are somehow compromised, then the entire building is likely to perform very poorly if at all until the parts arrive and the technician is able to install them. We have all likely experienced a mechanically-conditioned building rendered uninhabitable when its systems fail. The second downside is that the Gizmo Green's near-religious regard for water in its current form does not allow urbanism. The greatest cities on earth are almost all built along a manmade hard edge of a river, a lake or an ocean. This allows humans to enjoy close contact with the water, making the city a more enticing place for people to live compactly, and leaving more of nature untouched.

The next aspect of frugality is our stewardship of that which remains natural around us. The Gizmo Green is again rightfully concerned with this issue, and addresses it in a number of ways, such as avoiding light pollution, recycling rather than consuming new construction materials, encouraging brownfield redevelopment, encouraging renewable energy, etc. The New Urbanism protects the environment by enticing people to pollute less by driving less. Living traditions have always been based on making do with the materials and craft sets that are available regionally, and doing things in the least invasive way.

The final aspect of frugality is that of conserving our own wellness of body, wellness of mind and possibly even wellness of spirit. Gizmo Green addresses primarily chemical aspects of wellness of body, such as the use of low-VOC building materials and proper ventilation to remove indoor pollutants. The New Urbanism addresses wellness of body by encouraging walking, and also wellness of mind by allowing for the creation of community again. Living traditions fulfill a broad range of wellness roles too comprehensive to list here that can best be characterized as engaging each person in the process of achieving a sustainable way of life.

Frugality, as the last foundation of sustainable buildings, is considered the entirety of sustainability by many. This is unfortunate. Not only is frugality only one of eight foundations of sustainable places and sustainable buildings, it is only partially addressed by the Gizmo Green, as illustrated above.

Deep Green Buildings
Once a place achieves Original Green status, it can then go on to be Deep Green by generating power (especially electricity) onsite to fuel the recent inventions such as computers and refrigerators that can easily be a part of a sustainable future. While some of the old solutions are better than some of the new, a living tradition is still all about finding the best ways to do something, whether old or new. And so, when advances such as refrigeration and computers are found, a living tradition will find ways of providing for them, even if the cost of piped-in energy skyrockets.

Fostering Life
The Original Green is antithetical to architectural fashion because we have no way to guess what fashions might be like in a few years, let alone several centuries into the future. Living traditions survive because they resonate with regular people, and they replicate naturally, like other living things. These living ideas conserve resources because they do not rebuild just for novelty.

But resources are not all that is conserved by living traditions. When a tradition lives across several generations, it develops a level of sophistication that is impossible with new inventions. Supporting a living tradition is an act of fostering life. It is far more efficient to plant an idea that can spread rather than to have to sell the idea again and again. The conclusion of the matter is this: that which can reproduce and live sustainably is green; that which is incapable of doing so is not green. This is the standard of life. Life is that process which creates all things green.  



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