Design for Life: It All Connects

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I went on a green home tour recently, and all the homes had little tags to label their assets: “no-VOC paint,”  “energy-efficient appliance,” “double-pane windows,” “recycled-content material.” The message was clear: If you want to create a green home, replace offensive materials and appliances with new products that are deemed green; a green home is a static kit of parts.

I saw nothing that showed how all these parts interact–how the whole home functions as a system. Nothing told me about the process by which the owners and designers made the myriad decisions that go into such a project. Was there a passive solar heating scheme? Was the floor material selected for its thermal mass properties? Does the wall color support a natural lighting strategy? Do the double-glazed windows have different treatments in different orientations to respond to the distinct qualities of various exterior microclimates? Does the building envelope inhibit passage of heat and air without encouraging moisture to collect in the building cavities? Does the landscaping design aid natural cooling?

In short, nothing indicated how these homes relate to the natural systems around them. Nothing provided a sense of context for all the decisions that had to be made. Nothing helped visitors understand that a home is only truly green if all the parts function well as a whole, responding to the site and climate, using resources with care, and increasing vitality within and around the house.

Don’t get me wrong. Green home tours play an important and exciting role. For many people who are new to green living, they provide an important first exposure to materials and basic concepts. Even for the seasoned visitor, these tours can provide new information and inspiration. Through the years, I’ve been delighted to watch the number of green home tours–and the number of homes on each tour–grow. There’s nothing like visiting several eco-homes and talking with their owners, architects and
builders, but I think we also should pause to consider the unintended messages sometimes conveyed at such events.

When we think of a green home as a collection of green parts, we miss some wonderful synergetic opportunities and we run the risk of failing. A few examples: the house that’s full of green materials yet traps moisture and grows mold, making its occupants chronically ill and plummeting in assessed value; the straw bale home that uses more wood and loses more heat through its roof than a well-built stick-frame house; the off-the-electrical-grid house whose owners commute into town daily, using more energy than they’ve conserved at home; the green mansion that consumes several times more resources than a smaller, supposedly non-green house.

Lend me a lens

You’ve probably heard one of Albert Einstein’s famous lines repeated often in recent years: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” That’s the heart of what I’m trying to say. The problems that green building should address won’t be solved by applying the same kinds of linear/logical, reductionist, mechanistic thinking that created them in the first place. We’re not likely to turn around global warming, air and water pollution, resource depletion, and species extinction by changing a few behaviors–or a few building materials–without changing our basic approach to dwelling. In terms of green building, excessive consumption of energy and other resources isn’t the problem; it’s a symptom of a deeper problem.

We’ve lost touch with the complex, even luscious, ways in which everything is interconnected. Life is not a kit of parts. If you try to make a living organism by assembling a bunch of pieces, you’ll be lucky to create something as functional as Frankenstein’s monster.

Of course, a house isn’t a living organism in the normal sense, but it resides within a complex, vital web of plants, animals, soil, sun, air and moisture. It responds to, consumes from and contributes to all of these systems. The success with which it participates in its ecosystem also has a profound effect on us–on our health, our happiness, our pocketbooks and our sense of being part of the marvelous natural world.

We can learn a lot from the field of systems thinking, which views reality in terms of connectedness, relationships and context. As Fritjof Capra states in The Web of Life (Anchor Books, 1996): “…systems thinking concentrates not on basic building blocks, but on basic principles of organization. Systems thinking is ‘contextual,’ which is the opposite of analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of a larger whole.”

In other words, systems thinking is ecological thinking. And that’s exactly the kind of thinking we must use if we’re going to create truly ecologically appropriate dwellings.

Another way of seeing

Imagine walking into a demonstration eco-home. As you approach, you feel a sense of delight and anticipation. As you enter, your body relaxes. Every sense is gently stimulated. Something deep inside says, “Ah, I’ve come home at last, and I didn’t even know I was gone.” You wonder why this place feels so different from anything you’ve experienced in a building before. Just then, someone greets you and explains the basic principles that guided the creation of this living environment: sunshine, moonlight, natural cycles, fresh air, contact with the earth, biodiversity, flowing water and vitality for all.

Your guide takes you to the central space, where you can learn about the process that went into creating this home. By grasping how the owners and their designer explored their own tastes and values, the site and climate, the community, and their budget, you begin to understand how you could undertake a similar adventure. You learn the importance of devising a strategy to guide your decisions–especially a scheme for staying warm in winter and cool in summer by working with sun, shade and breezes.

In each part of the home, indoors or out, you find diagrams that explain how the materials and systems were chosen to function well together. You also learn how the house changes with the seasons, relaxing the boundaries between indoors and out in good weather so that the dwellers can enjoy sunshine, greenery and birdsong while carrying out their daily activities.
Most of all, you learn that your body knows when it’s in an environment that’s good for it. You’ve adapted to so many austere environments over the years that you’ve forgotten how good you can feel. Now that your body is reminding you how it feels to be truly alive, you want to hurry back and start massaging your own home into greater aliveness. And you know where to start: with the nature of life itself.

Now, tell me, how do you put tags on all of that?

Carol Venolia is a eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She is the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), and she codirects the EcoDwelling program at New College of California.

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