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An energy-efficient home in Colorado built by Rodwin Architecture (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

An energy-efficient home in Colorado built by Rodwin Architecture (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

I was asked to contribute to an anthology, entitled Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World. I was asked one question: “In a time of environmental crisis how can we live right now?”

I answered it from the perspective of Green Building. 

Perhaps I am naïve, because I LOVE the challenge. “The situation is dire and we don’t know how to solve it! We’re almost out of time. The fate of the whole world is at stake!” Perfect. That’s what makes a heroic story. That’s a challenge worth devoting my life to.

I am an architect and have spent most of my adult life learning how to creatively solve problems. Creating a physical environment that supports life instead of destroying it – what tougher and more important problem could I choose to tackle? This is exciting work.

A few big facts:

1) In America, buildings consume roughly 65 percent of our electricity and 30 percent of our raw materials; and they generate 30 percent of our waste and greenhouse gases. They are the largest single sector impact on our natural environment.

2) The average American spends roughly 90 percent of their time indoors. The buildings we create are one of the largest environmental shapers of the human experience, in terms of both physical and psychological health.

In 1990, my fourth year of architecture school at Cornell, I became part of a remarkable group called EcoVillage of Ithaca (NY), a sprouting “intentional community” (a kind of residential development that is designed to promote interaction and cooperation between neighbors). Two amazing women founded the group, one the visionary, one the pragmatic problem solver. Together they created a dynamic and successful process that later gave birth to a large and vibrant sustainable community. They showed me how both of those roles are needed in order to create a powerful and new solution towards housing ourselves.

After graduation, I moved to Colorado and lived at the Nyland Cohousing community in Lafayette for four years. Nyland has 42 town homes grouped on eight acres of their 42 acre rural development. The rest of the land was left undeveloped. The houses themselves are small and energy-efficient, passive-solar duplexes and triplexes, with traditional front porches that facilitate impromptu socializing. A large Common (club) House sits in the center, and community members have the option of eating home-cooked group meals there a few times a week, and can use its library, fitness & rec area, guest rooms, teen and kid’s play rooms, and laundry room. Cars are kept to the perimeter of the property, and herds of kids safely run amok on the pedestrian pathways that tie the neighborhood together. There is a passive solar greenhouse, a well-equipped shop, organic gardens, play structures and fields. It’s colorful, rural and a bit funky.

Midtown Cohousing Project (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

Midtown Cohousing Project (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

The landscape is Xeric (native plants for low water consumption) and employs Permaculture techniques. It is self-managed and maintained by the residents, and all decisions are made by consensus. Despite the utopian sounding program, it is organized on a conventional condominium/HOA model and largely functions like an old-fashion neighborhood. People have mortgages, regular families and normal jobs. It was a great place to live.

At the same time, I was beginning my architectural career and in the process of co-founding another co-housing group, one that deliberately was located in town. Nomad Cohousing, where I have now lived for ten years, is a block away from a neighborhood market, cleaners, coffee shop and bus stop. Our little 11-unit town home project was built as in-fill in an existing neighborhood. We are all clustered around a small courtyard and share our Common House with the live theater next door. In the morning I walk out to the lush courtyard with my breakfast and sit with my neighbors chatting about our lives and current events. I have a little private back yard and my best friend lives 30 feet away. My total utility bill is about $50 a month and our HOA fees are equally small because we maintain it ourselves. It works and I love it.

Now don’t get me wrong. It took a hell of a lot of work to create this. Thousands of hours of organizational and design meetings; compromise, patience, perseverance, tolerance, surrender, humility, and compassion in learning how to be flexible and how to live with other people. Visioning a goal for how we would like to live. Being creative in solving hundreds of small questions like, “Can we just have one lawnmower for 11 households? How would we do that?”

I guess that’s my take on the whole question. How do I choose to live? I choose to say, “Yes, it is harder. It does take more effort. You do have to be extra creative, committed and intelligent about how you live your life.”  If you want to take on the challenge, you’re going to have to work for it. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes for a good life. If it was easy, I wouldn’t be forced to grow.

My clients come to me specifically because my firm is known for green design. We will do anything – houses, schools, churches, offices, restaurants. Whatever. I don’t believe there is a bad project. I would design a Walmart if they asked me. Why? Because I can make it as good as it can be. And the worse it is to begin with, the more opportunity there is to make it wonderful.

Ironically, Walmart – often cited as the epitome of environmentally evil business – is currently embarking on one of the largest and most complete green building ventures in the world. The only entity going bigger is China.

The thing they have in common is their architect. No, not me. A staggeringly inspiring fellow named William McDonough (co-author of the revolutionary book on responsible consumerism called Cradle to Cradle). He is the former Dean of the Architecture School of the University of Virginia and is one of the main reasons I do what I do. In 1993 he gave a speech to the American Institute of Architects here in Colorado. It was the first time I had ever heard anyone speak publicly about the moral imperative of sustainable design. Like the other 400 people in the audience, I leapt out of my chair (I think I actually stood on it) and gave him a 5-minute standing ovation at the conclusion. I got the gospel.

McDonough has few built projects to his name, and he is rarely even the designer of the buildings he works on. He landed clients like Ford, Walmart and China not because of a pretty portfolio, but because he was able to convince them that they could go green or they could go the way of the dinosaur. Did they change their ways out of the goodness of their hearts? Mmmmmm….who knows. But we can pretty much bank on the fact that survival is what inspired them to immediate action. What action? China hired McDonough to design a dozen completely sustainable, new prototype cities. They are currently under construction. Ford and Walmart are both undertaking worldwide green building initiatives of a colossal scale.

What did McDonough say that caused this quantum shift?  Foremost, he showed them that green was good for the bottom line. How’s that? Doesn’t being green and responsible cost more? No, only in the short term. What does that mean? Well, if you spend a bit more up front on a more energy-efficient mechanical system, you will make that money back in energy savings each year. If you specify the more expensive non-toxic paints, natural ventilation and good solar day-lighting in your office, governmental and private industry studies have all demonstrated that you will have fewer sick days, less staff turn-over, higher sales and significantly better worker productivity.

And there are those indirect things that have a less obvious relationship; as an example, nuclear power seemed pretty cheap at first, but after spending hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer funded Superfund cleanup and long-term containment sites, it doesn’t look quite so clever from a business perspective anymore. Even the utility companies all now say that the most cost-efficient way to make more energy is to help their consumers conserve. Funny, that one.

Whether we’re looking at pollution, global warming, deforestation, water contamination, mining and timber harvesting impacts or general resource depletion, I see a growing consumer awareness that how we personally chose to live has a public and global impact. Business is coming to understand that environmental sustainability is good for business. This gives me hope.

Tara Performing Arts High School (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

Tara Performing Arts High School (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

When I see people doing such amazing things, I feel pretty darn small and my efforts virtually insignificant. But then I remember the starfish story. You’ve probably heard it.

A man is walking along a beach after a big storm. There are tens of thousands of starfish washed up and dying on the beach. In the distance, a small boy is picking them up and throwing them one by one back into the ocean. The man walks up to him and says,“What are you doing?” “Saving them,” replies the boy. “You’re crazy. There are thousands and thousands of them. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The boy was quiet for a moment, then looked down, picked one up and threw it in. “Made a difference to that one,” he said.

My clients are unusually well-educated about the environment and do not yet represent the majority, but they are gaining ground. They want healthy, energy-efficient, durable, non-toxic buildings. They want to feel good about their choices. Sustainable design is sweeping the nation as a building trend. It is already well-established in the mainstream and is picking up speed. You know those magazines in the supermarket that advertise “101 best selling home plans?” This is the Walmart of house design. We are currently writing a book at the request of the largest of those publishers called The Green Home Guide, where we will teach the home builder how to create a green home. This company has sold nearly 4 million home plans. If even a tiny fraction of their clients buy this book, it will have a massive effect.

One of my favorite quotes is from Winston Churchill. He said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing…after they have tried everything else.” We have tried everything else. Now we are doing the right thing.

I am a bit of an optimist. I believe that America, and the world, has the energy, ability and creativity to get ourselves out of the mess we have created. It may be the 11th hour, but that’s what makes it exciting. It asks us to be heroic. When I figure out how to get solar panels into a school for the same price as a conventional boiler, I feel a sense of accomplishment. When I suggest bamboo flooring and strawbale walls to a client, I know I have saved part of a forest that day. When I show a developer how to make money and conserve land at the same time with a community-fostering Cohousing site plan, I have enrolled someone in a better possibility. This is what inspires me.

I believe we create this better possible future by learning from our past and bringing back those elements that worked well, but I also I believe we will also invent new ways of living to solve the problems that remain. McDonough has an innovative two-track approach to this issue that I agree with. He separates the built world into two groups: biological nutrients (natural things) and technical nutrients (man-made things).

He proposes that it makes sense to keep those two things separate. That means that biological products like wood and paper stay in that group and should be recycled into other products of that type. Wood into other wood products for example, and similarly, man-made things like steel, glass, concrete and plastic should be recycled into more steel, glass, etc. In his definition, it is critical that recycling not mean “downgrading.” If trees become toilet paper and that becomes mixed landfill, it is done. It has to stay in the cycle and preferably at a similar level to the original product.

President Bush invited McDonough to the White House to advise his administration. Why? Perhaps because McDonough advocates the eventual elimination of all environmental regulations…okay, that’s a head-scratcher. See, he says that given a true free-market economy (one in which oil is not subsidized as it is now), that simple, green, non-toxic and local will beat the pants off of well…Walmart-type stuff. And that philosophy trickles down to every aspect of the physical environment. If unsubsidized gasoline is $7 a gallon, people will be more likely to design homes that are sized appropriately for their real needs. They will be passively heated and cooled and tuned to their climate and site. They will be built to last, be flexible and be recyclable. They will be located close to necessary services and community. They will be designed, built and disposed of with care.

Each project I do deserves this attention and passion. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. And I’m not the only architect that thinks so. When I graduated from school I knew I had a choice; the green architecture movement at that time represented only 1 percent of the profession. I knew I could feel self-righteous and rant and rebel against the profession from the outside, or I could become part of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and help change it from within. I chose the latter and in doing so joined a small wave of designers committed to re-discover a balance and symbiotic relationship between the man-made and the natural environment. Our goal was not just to be less bad, it was to find a way to make buildings good, regenerative.

We are still a long way from that goal, but are racing faster than anyone could have imagined in the right direction. About a decade ago, the AIA changed its charter to include ecological sustainability as one of its principal tenets. There is not an AIA design award in the country that now fails to make it a priority. The AIA and virtually every other allied professional group (including builders, developers, planners, landscape architects, engineers and interior designers) are waging an enormous education campaign to help research and promote sustainability. And it has had an effect. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) has exploded onto the national scene with a green certification program called LEED (Leadership in Environment and Energy). It has proven wildly popular and the number of projects using it has been increasing exponentially every year since its inception.

Edge House, a LEED Platinum project (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

Edge House, a LEED Platinum project (Source: Rodwin Architecture)

What is a green building? Does it really make a difference?

A typical American home creates about 50,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, which directly contributes to global warming. Additionally, carbon dioxide as a unit measure has a general correlation to a host of other environmental impacts including pollution, resource consumption and environmental degradation. What if you could make a house or commercial building that is carbon neutral? What if you could make one that is net-zero for energy use, putting as much back into the system as it takes out? Well, then you would have one of the key elements of a truly sustainable world.

Is it possible?

We’re doing it right now.

Source: Rodwin Architecture

Source: Rodwin Architecture

As I write this, I have builders on site right now finishing a LEED Gold, Net Zero, Carbon Neutral home. But would an average American really want that? Doesn’t it mean that we would have to live in teepees or caves in the desert made of recycled tires? Not any more. This house is beautiful, modern, full-sized and mainstream. It has geothermal heat and cooling, super-insulated windows, walls and roof, Greywater recycling, native landscaping, natural day-lighting, non-toxic finishes, sustainably harvested lumber, and a host of recycled components.

Like many others building all over the country right now, we know how to make houses that are almost indistinguishable from their conventional counterparts (okay, so we have solar panels on the roof, but if the building is designed well, they can be either attractively integrated or invisible). Banks like loaning on energy-efficient buildings. Realtors like selling sunny, well-insulated houses with small utility bills. Businesses like the higher retail sales and greater employee production that green buildings support, which leads to higher tax revenues which help create things like healthy schools. Administrators like telling parents that their kids’ schools have great indoor air quality (which also leads to lower absenteeism and therefore higher test scores). And parents like telling their neighbors about how their bamboo flooring saved a grove of trees that their better educated and healthier kids will now have the pleasure of playing in.

Sustainable design is spreading everywhere and picking up speed. For a long time, we were pushing a boulder up a hill, but now we have passed the tipping point…it is unstoppable.

This has been a good challenge. And there’s so much more to do.

For related articles on green building, check out my website, Rodwin Architecture.

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3 Responses

  1. Ginger says:

    Wow. Fabulous article. I learned so much and feel positively inspired.

  2. Linda says:

    This is a great read. Seems like more people are interested in sustainable design. Read this article awhile back: http://inhabitat.com/inhabitat-interview-green-ar… and it has only become more of a focal point since…Hoping by the time I buy a house the price to incorporate sustainable design will be much more cost effective.

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