Sunday, August 24, 2008

The future of housing may lie in the past.

We are frequently confronted with life style decisions that can impact our environment, some more urgent than others. One of the biggest decisions we make with regards to the environment is in our choice of housing. In the United States, the average home emits about four metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent per person per year -- about 17 percent of all U.S. emissions -- according to research by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Conventional building methods often overlook the interrelationships between a building, its components, its surroundings, and its occupants. Conventional buildings consume more of our resources than necessary, negatively impact the environment, and generate a large amount of waste. According to Laurence Doxsey, former Coordinator of the City of Austin Green Builder Program, "a standard wood-framed home consumes over one acre of forest and the waste created during construction averages from 3 to 7 tons." Often, these buildings are costly to operate in terms of energy and water consumption. And they can result in poor indoor air quality, which can lead to health problems.

Green building practices offer an opportunity to create environmentally-sound and resource-efficient buildings by using an integrated approach to design. Green buildings promote resource conservation, including energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation features; consider environmental impacts and waste minimization; create a healthy and comfortable environment; and reduce operation and maintenance costs.

How does alternative housing construction fit into this concept? Alternative housing methods have been available for decades, mostly for financial reasons, I think, but were usually associated with "hippies" or other "eccentrics". Cob, adobe, straw-bale, subterranean, earth-ship, rammed-earth, cordwood, earth bag, salvaged - these are all construction methods that are still being used by people who care about their planet, and can't afford (or don't want) expensive mortgages. Let's look at a few of these alternatives:

Cob -- Building with earth is nothing new to America; the oldest structures on the continent were built with adobe bricks. Cob has been a traditional building process for millennia in Europe, even in rainy and windy climates like the British Isles, where many cob buildings still serve as family homes after hundreds of years. Cob building uses a simple mixture of clay subsoil, aggregate, straw, and water to create solid structural walls, built without shuttering or forms, on a stone platform.

Straw bale -- Straw bale building typically consists of stacking rows of bales on a raised footing or foundation, with a moisture barrier between the bales and their supporting platform. Bale walls can be tied together with pins of bamboo, rebar, or wood (internal to the bales or on their faces), or with surface wire meshes, and then stuccoed or plastered, either with a cement-based mix, lime-based formulation, or earth/clay render. This method generally works best in locations with a hot, dry climate.
Subterranean -- Underground homes, according to Mike Oehler (author of "The $50 & Up Underground House Book"), when properly designed and constructed, provide pleasant surroundings, a better view, and are esthetically pleasing, inside and out. They are weatherproof, soundproof, relatively fireproof, and require less maintenance. Warm in winter, cool in summer, with superior flooring, and the pipes never freeze. They have no foundation, use less building materials, require less labor, and are ecologically sound.

In Cooper Pedy, Australia, the majority of residents live in caverns. Some are left over from opal mines, others are dug out for living spaces. Throughout dry and mountainous northern China, an estimated 40 million people still live in caves or subterranean dwellings.
Earthship -- An earthship refers to a passive solar home made of natural and recycled materials. Designed and marketed by Earthship Biotecture of Taos, NM, the homes are primarily constructed of earth-filled tires, utilizing thermal mass construction to naturally regulate indoor temperature. Earthships are a type of off-grid home, which minimizes their reliance on public utilities and fossil fuels. They are built to utilize the available local resources, especially energy from the sun.

The major structural building component of the Earthship is recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth to form a rammed earth brick encased in steel belted rubber. This brick and the resulting bearing walls it forms is virtually indestructible. Aluminum cans and glass bottles are a great, simple way to build interior, non-structural walls. Aluminum can walls actually make very strong walls. The 'little bricks' create a cement-matrix that is very strong and very easy to build. Bottles can create beautiful colored walls that light shines through.

Recycled/Salvaged -- The local dump is a great place to look for building materials. Dumps/landfills will sometimes have an area set aside for potentially reusable items, and they encourage people to sort through them. The virtue of recycling used building materials lies in diminishing the need for industry to recreate it. All of the energy that is spent in manufacturing and transporting something can be saved. The raw materials that would be drawn from the earth can be saved. The need to cover the item in the local landfill can be saved. The financial savings to the potential home owner can be significant.

Perhaps the time has come for natural building techniques to become the "norm" rather than the exception. Kelly Hart, who runs the websites Green Home Building and Dream Green Homes wrote an article "Building With Nature" which eloquently addresses the need to return to nature as our guide in construction. In it, Mr. Hart states:
"Building with nature means being aware of how much embodied energy exists
in the materials that we use, so that we don't unnecessarily squander fossil
fuels and contribute to global warming. It means building compactly so as to
not waste materials and energy. It means using materials that are
biodegradable or recyclable. It means designing our homes in ways that use
the sun and the earth to heat and cool them. It means utilizing forms of
renewable energy wherever possible. It means incorporating greenhouses and
naturally cooled pantries in our homes to help feed us."
Until next time...become the change you imagine.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Liveable Streets

From Paris Plage to New York's Summer Streets, and Bogota's Ciclovia to Portland's Sunday Parkways, cities around the world are embracing the concept of liveable streets. Special days are set aside and miles of city streets, become car-free zones. Sidewalk cafes, special events, booths and stalls of amazing variety create a festival atmosphere as cyclists and pedestrians roam freely, and safely through the streets.

Donald Appleyard was a Professor of Urban Design at the University of California, Berkeley. He had a strong interest in environmental perception and community based planning. He studied the social and psychological effects of traffic and neighborhood layout, devised sensitive tools for the analysis of peoples’ environmental perceptions, and took issue with the power conflicts inherent in mainstream urban planning processes. Over the years, his interests became focused on the livability of cities and neighborhoods, particularly upon streets. His book Livable Streets was published in 1981.

In the late 1960s Appleyard conducted a renowned study on livable streets, comparing three residential streets in San Francisco which on the surface did not differ on much else but their levels of traffic. The 2,000 vehicles per day street was considered Light Street, 8,000 traveled on Medium Street and 16,000 vehicles passing down Heavy Street. His research showed that residents of Light Street had three more friends and twice as many acquaintances as the people on Heavy Street.

Further, as traffic volume increases, the space people considered to be their territory shrank. Appleyard suggested that these results were related, indicating that residents on Heavy Street had less friends and acquaintances precisely because there was less home territory (exchange space) in which to interact socially.

Light Street was a closely knit community. Front steps were used for sitting and chatting, sidewalks for children to play and for adults to stand and pass the time of day, especially around the corner store, and the roadway for children and teenagers to play more active games like football. Moreover, the street was seen as a whole and no part was out of bounds.

Heavy Street, on the other hand, had little or no sidewalk activity and was used solely as a corridor between the sanctuary of individual homes and the outside world. Residents kept very much to themselves, and there was virtually no feeling of community. The difference in the perceptions and experience of children and the elderly across the two streets was especially striking.

Project for Public Spaces is undertaking a major initiative called “Streets as Places.” This initiative seeks to engage citizens, policymakers and the transportation industry at-large to reshape the planning and design of transportation networks and streets to promote and support economic vitality, civic engagement, human health, and environmental sustainability, while simultaneously meeting peoples’ mobility needs.

Bicycles are commonly used by people seeking to improve their fitness and cardiovascular health. In this regard, bicycling is especially helpful for those with arthritis of the lower limbs and who are unable to pursue sports such as running that involve more impact to joints such as the knees. Furthermore, since cycling can be used as a form of transportation, there can be less demand for self-discipline to maintain the exercise because of the practical purpose of the activity.

Walkers have less incidence of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other killer diseases. They live longer and get mental health and spiritual benefits. Research shows adults who are physically active in their 50s and early 60s are about 35 percent less likely to die in the next eight years than those who are sedentary. For those who have a high heart risk because of diabetes, high blood pressure or smoking, the reduction is 45 percent.

Gerontologist Thomas Glass thinks we should also be cognizant of the importance of being sociable. "As a society, we should be finding more ways for people, especially older people, to stay involved and active. At any age, we need to begin to think beyond the boundaries of the Stairmaster.

"Physical fitness is important, but social engagement is turning out to be just as critical to longevity. What I tell people is, 'Find something you really like doing that involves other people, whether it's playing cards or walking in the mall.' Social engagement adds a sense of purpose to people's lives. It also seems to add years to those lives."

Perhaps by creating more liveable streets, we will not only improve the health of our planet by reducing emissions from motor vehicles, but we can also improve the health of planetary citizens everywhere.

Until next time, become the change you imagine.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Flight of the Monarchs

Monarchs are known for their extraordinary annual migration. In North America they make massive southward migrations starting in August until the first frost. A northward migration takes place in the spring. Female monarchs lay eggs for the next generation during these migrations.

By the end of October, the monarch population of the Rocky Mountains migrates to the sanctuaries of the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. The western monarchs overwinter in various sites in central coastal and southern California. (Most notably in Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.)

What is even more remarkable is that the ones that return to the places where Monarchs hibernate have never been there before. They are the great-great-great-grandchildren of those that performed the journey from southeast Canada and the United States to central Mexico.

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is a milkweed butterfly and is perhaps the best known of all butterflies. Since the 19th century, it is also found in New Zealand, and has been known in Australia since 1871. Its wings feature an easily recognizable orange and black pattern, with a wingspan of about 4 inches. Female monarchs have darker veins on their wings, and the males have a spot in the center of each hind wing from which pheromones are released. Males are also slightly larger.

Monarch butterflies are one of the few insects capable of making transatlantic crossings. They are becoming more common in Bermuda due to increased usage of milkweed as an ornamental plant in flower gardens and remain year round due to the island's mild climate.

Monarch larvae appear to feed exclusively on milkweeds in the genus Asclepias. Milkweeds are perennial plants, growing each spring from rootstock and seeds rather than seeds alone. There are approximately 110 species in North America known for their milky sap or latex contained in the leaves. Most species of milkweed are poisonous to vertebrate herbivores if due to the alkaloids contained in the leaves and stems.

When Monarch larvae ingest milkweed, they also ingest the plants' toxins, called cardiac glycosides. This causes the larvae and adults to be toxic to many potential predators. Vertebrate predators may avoid Monarchs because they learn that the larvae and adults taste bad and/or make them vomit. There is considerable variation in the amount of toxins in different species of plants. Some northern species of milkweed contain almost no toxins while others seem to contain so much of the toxins that they are lethal even to monarch caterpillars.

Habitat destruction throughout North America is resulting in the loss of milkweed and the reduction of overwintering habitat. One way you can help is by planting a butterfly garden.
Planting a butterfly garden will enable you to watch not only monarchs but also many other butterfly species right in your backyard.

The Butterfly Website has a nice page devoted to butterfly gardens, and organic gardening. Needless to say, the use of pesticides on your plants is not conducive to a healthy butterfly population, so read up on organic gardening techniques. Enjoy the beauty of flowers and create a healthy habitat for insect and bird species in your own backyard!

Until next time, become the change you imagine.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

To mulch, or not to mulch?

Landscaping, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To some, the perfect landscape is very manicured, geometric, and symmetrical. To others, a natural, untamed environment is preferable. Some gardeners prefer to use an arsenal of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers along with a rigid trimming and pruning schedule to achieve their results. Organic gardeners prefer non-toxic tools and natural methods to achieve theirs.

A hotly debated topic seems to concern mulching. While mulching can control moisture-loss in the soil and deter weed growth, it also prevents soil-boring bees from creating nests. With bee populations in crisis, is it wise to limit their nesting opportunities?

Bright green bees, small black bees, striped and fuzzy bees. These busy little creatures are responsible for pollinating a large variety of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. They are an important and vital part of our ecosystem.

Once favored as THE mulch of choice, cypress mulch use is now being discouraged. Because cypress is grown primarily in wetlands areas, opponents of cypress mulch say cutting the trees contributes to the destruction of habitat and the erosion of wetlands, an important line of defense against hurricanes. Huge information campaigns by organizations across the Gulf Coast, like the Save Our Cypress Coalition are trying to inform the public of this destruction. Thanks to dedicated individuals like Houston's Moira Glace, who handed out brochures in the 100-degree Texas heat, their message is getting out.

Eco-friendly gardeners can also rejoice that they won't be losing anything by boycotting cypress mulch: It doesn't work as effectively as once believed. Scientists at the University of Florida have shown that there are equally effective sustainable alternatives that don't deplete our natural wetlands and don't deprive our gardens of the benefits of mulching.

Dan Favre, campaign manager of the nonprofit Gulf Restoration Network recommends that gardeners instead use pine straw, pine bark nuggets, eucalyptus mulch or melaleuca mulch. Melaleuca is an invasive species being removed from the Everglades. He adds that the simplest and most sustainable method is to create a mulch pile from leaves and lawn clippings. "It's free, and it does great things to the soil quality in your yard," he said.

The work of GRN has brought some results. After sending a delegation to New Orleans to speak with scientists and visit the wetlands, Wal-Mart announced in August 2007 that, effective earlier this year, it would stop selling cypress mulch harvested in Louisiana. Favre said his organization will continue to talk with Lowe's and Home Depot.

Gardeners: Do some homework. Find mulch from sustainable sources and create some bee-friendly areas in your landscape. Xeriscape whenever possible. Xeriscaping uses native plant and flower species that tend to be drought-tolerant and pest-resistent. Native flower species are actually preferred by bees over exotic, non-native species.
Until next time...become the change you imagine.