Earth Day, Architecture and being “Green”

Yesterday was Earth Day. The one day a year when people all gather round, plant trees, pick up trash that they themselves threw on the ground just the day before and generally get all “green” and junk. Even my son, who is 4, announced to me, when I asked what he did at school, that he saved the world from the litter bugs. I love my boy. He has such a simple and profound way of stating things.

But what I wonder is why is this not a part of our daily routine? I myself try and take a biblical perspective on “saving” the earth. We were put here on earth as stewards, as caretakers. God said for us to “go into the earth and subdue it”. We are meant to be lord and master over all. With this comes great responsibility, with which we have failed miserably in my opinion.

I recently read a tag line for another blog that “sustainability” as a term is dead and now considered redundant in architecture. Meaning that “of course” we’re designing to a higher “green” standard…..But the reality, I think, does not match the sentiment. In generations past there was no choice but to be “green” and “sustainable”. Buildings HAD to last more than a lifetime. Building HAD to be constructed of local materials. Buildings HAD to respond effectively to their surroundings and climate. Buildings HAD to work WITH nature, not against it.

Today, our buildings are disposable. Today, our buildings are lucky to last 50 years. Today our buildings still consume more fossil fuel energy in construction and operation than most any other source. This is a gross failure on our part. If you’re not, at minimum, designing each and every one of your projects in response to site specific conditions, you’ve failed. You’ve failed your client, your project and your community.

Even a strip mall can respond to site specific conditions to take advantage of daylighting, cross breezes, rainwater collection for toilet flushing, etc. These are inexpensive, or even free, ways to allow a building to work with it’s site rather than against it. On top of this we need to add better quality materials and more thoughtful construction detailing. The point is not to make sure water and air stay out, but rather to deal with the certainty that when air and water get in, how do we deal with it.

Buildings used to breathe. Let them breathe again.

Daily Prompt: Idyllic

What does your ideal community look like? How is it organized, and how is community life structured? What values does the community share?

Well, this one is right up my alley. The idea of community, what it takes, how it’s organized and who inhabits it is essentially what I do every day, all day, for the last 10 years and will continue to do until I’m taken from this earth. I might even design communities in heaven. We’ll see. But first, let’s define “community”.

According to my good friend Webster, community is:

  • the people with common interests living in a particular area
  • an interacting population of various kinds of individuals (as species) in a common location
  • a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society
  • a body of persons or nations having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests

Now, what all of these definitions have in common is people being grouped together in common interest. Without people, there is no community, just a collection of well-designed and organized (hopefully) buildings. And on the flip side of this is, without this collection of well-designed and organized buildings the people are just standing around in wide open space wondering what to do.

One of my favorite authors on urbanism is Jane Jacobs. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities she describes small neighborhoods in successful cities like Boston, Chicago and other urban centers as not being planned from the beginning, but as having grown over time in such a way as determined by need. She speaks out against the New Urbanism movement quite passionately. I tend to agree with her.

So, what does my ideal community look like? How is it organized and who lives there? My ideal community is one that already exists in thousands of cities all over the world. Communities where people care enough to invest in their own backyard are the communities that I love. It doesn’t have to be a big community or a dense urban center that never sleeps. No, even a sleepy little town with one blinking light on Main Street can be a vibrant and alive community of people all working together to make life better. This, to me, is ideal.

No Meat March

This post has nothing to do with architecture (I’m sure I’ll sneak it in though) and yes, I feel fine. No, I am not hemorrhaging from the eyes and no, I have not turned into a zombie. Yet.

Today marks the start of No Meat March, a month-long event in support of a vegetarian lifestyle and in protest again the inhumane and cruel treatment of animals that we consume daily. And so, for the entire month of March I, my wife, and children will be giving up meat completely. No chicken, no swine, no Daisy the Cow, no fish. As an added challenge for myself this month I’m also giving up cow’s milk. I don’t drink soy or almond milk, so basically I’m giving up all forms of milk – except cheese, I refuse to live without cheese. I’m not a communist. Cause we all know only communists can live without cheese. :-\

Anyone who knows me will immediately think “pfft, yeah right” because I have a profound obsession with cookies and milk. It borders on obscene. I don’t think it’s any coincidence either that No Meat March happens to fall within Lent, which is of course a time when we deprive ourselves of something to honor the sacrifice Christ made for 40 days in the desert.

So, does any of this have anything to do with architecture? Why, yes, it does. A larger issue that this has me thinking about is how we use our land and resources responsibly as stewards of this planet. Whether you believe in a biblical perspective or not, being at the top of the food chain comes with a certain degree of responsibility towards the environments we all inhabit and looking around I’m sure you can agree we’ve done a pretty piss poor job of that as of late.

But, I think there is genuine hope on the horizon. As more and more people are moving back to their urban city centers, the suburbs (hopefully) are shrinking, and mass transit is on the tip of everyone’s tongue due to the out-of-control rise in fuel costs, people, in the larger cultural sense, are thinking more carefully about how they consume. And by consume, I mean everything – food, clothing, bath products, shoes, cars, bicycles, those air-freshener things you put in your car. Hyper-localism is on the rise with more cities creating open air farmer’s markets and arts markets and providing incentives for local artists, craftsmen and the like to open small pop-up shops in vacant storefronts. And this localism is spreading as people are becoming more conscious of not just what they consume but where it comes from. This leads naturally to a larger awareness of how the things we consume are produced, where they are produced and what that means for our economy, our ecology and our community.

So, as I embark on this somewhat crazy trip into vegetarianism (anyone else feel like there are too many “isms out there?), I ask everyone – do you think about the things you consume? Do you think about the impact certain things may have on your environment and community? And if not, why not? After all, we’re all sharing the same rock. We’re all equal stewards of our home, our planet, and the hope for the future.

What say you?