Deep Green Building


by Carol Venolia


Carol directs the EcoDwelling program at
New College, teaches in Living Environments
for GGSFS and
is author of 'Natural Remodeling
for the Not-So-Green House
'

The phenomenal spread of green-building programs in recent years is a testimonial to the hard work of many pioneers. Their success is bringing green building into the mainstream—a phenomenon hardly imaginable twenty years ago. But with popularity often comes oversimplification. As the green-building wave swells, it’s time to take a deeper look at what we’re really all about.

In common parlance, “green building” is understood as encompassing energy-efficiency, the use of resource-efficient building materials, sensitive site design, and good indoor air quality. But, in truth, these are not the end goals; they are the tools, the means to achieving our true goal: restoring the vibrancy of life on earth.

Building materials and energy consumption are not the cause of the pollution, resource-depletion, and global climate change that threaten our biosphere. Without people to misuse them, the coal, oil, forests, soil, rocks, water, and air just hang out doing their natural-cycle things, which generally involves supporting a rich web of life. Rather, the problem is the way we think, which governs the way we behave. Materials and energy-consuming toys are the tools we use to wreak havoc or to restore the self-sustaining juiciness of life.

This is not just another guilt-trip designed to make us feel bad about why our collective room is a mess. My intention is to shine a spotlight on the true point of power, the real fulcrum for lifting the planet: our worldview. The worldview of most folks raised in Western/industrial civilization is based on the subliminal message that humans are separate from and superior to the rest of life, and that natural resources are there to be used as we please. Submessages tell us that reality can be divided into categories, and that we can take actions without incurring reactions.

BUILDINGS ATE MY BRAIN

How does this relate to buildings? Buildings help shape our worldview. When we spend most of our lives in climate-controlled enclosures, with little contact with other life forms and little participation in the important feedback loops of natural processes, we can come to believe that we really are separate from the rest of nature. Most people in this country seem to think that nature is somewhere far from cities and towns. All that tells us is that we’re not designing our settlements very well. In fact, the laws of nature work just the same indoors and out, in town and in the countryside—as well as in our veins, our tissues, and our biological rhythms. But our homes and workplaces generally give us the message that heat, light, coolness, and fresh air—to say nothing of livelihood and social contact—come from flicking a switch or pressing a button. Thus divorced from reality, we’re likely to think nothing of the consequences (often seemingly distant) of that switch-flicking.

In other words, a family can live in a house built of sustainably forested wood on a flyash-concrete foundation, heated by an efficient furnace, with good insulation, double-pane windows, and bamboo floors, but if the house looks and feels like most houses built in the last half-century, their worldview will remain largely unchallenged. This leads to the very real possibility of saying, “Hey, I insulated my house; I paid my dues; now I can drive my SUV all over town without guilt.”

What we need is to understand the big picture and how things interact, not to take isolated “green” actions without grasping their context. As visionary architect Paolo Soleri once said, “There’s no point in walking in the right direction on a ship that’s headed in the wrong direction.”

If our homes don’t help us understand how the sun warms the air and our bodies, and how that warmth is stored by earth and water; if they don’t allow our complex internal processes to be synchronized by the sun’s cycles; if they don’t nurture plants and critters that do their part of the web-of-life dance while providing us with the rich natural texture of sights, smells, and sounds that our Paleolithic bodies call home, then we’re just adrift in space, not even knowing what we’re missing.

The real revolution happens when we re-embrace life, and our buildings can help us do that. We can participate in this revolution by massaging our existing homes into a more gracious relationship with the world around them. Instead of seeing our homes as objects that should meet checklists of criteria in order to be green or healthy, we need to look at them as dynamic modifiers of our environment—and to measure their success by the vitality in and around them.

WHAT HAPPENED TO US?

Early humans learned to create dwellings that made the best use of heat and light from the sun, cooling from shade and breezes, and the tempering influence of earth, stone, and water to provide human comfort. Such homes intrinsically maintained the health-supporting links between their human dwellers and the natural cycles and resources they depended on.

We are best adapted to such sensorily rich surroundings. Our senses evolved over millennia to recognize every change around us as meaningful to our survival, nourishment, and pleasure. Our eyes work best with variety in lighting level and color. Our ears need to hear a rich texture of sound. Our skin needs to feel air motion and changes in temperature. We function and feel best when we receive gentle, varying, meaningful sensory stimulation.

Instead, the modern world feeds us a weird combination of monotony and overstimulation. In terms of sensory nourishment, we are starving on junk food.

WHAT CAN WE DO NOW?

When remodeling our homes, the opportunities are tremendous. We can help turn our unsustainable behavior around by holding humans as the central touchstone when designing or remodeling buildings—not humans as self-serving thrill-seekers, but humans as the agents of world-healing change.

Most homes in this country today were not designed for optimal interaction with their site, climate, and other resources. But they can be tweaked and nudged into a respectful dance with life. The process itself is healing.

As with anything related to real life, there are no blanket solutions. The best strategies emerge when we pay attention to the rich jambalaya of our inner yearnings, our bodily wisdom, the way the sun kisses our place on earth, the flow of the breezes and rain, the qualities of the earth beneath our feet, and the pulsing of the web of life.

We can begin by asking ourselves some basic questions:

• What is the most nurturing place I’ve ever been? What are its qualities?
Can I have any of those qualities in my home?

• What’s the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning, and how does it make me feel?

• How much of my daily activity is lit and warmed by the sun? If the amount is low, how can I let more sunshine in?

• How much of my day is spent outdoors? Do I have places at home where I can eat, sleep, work, and relax outdoors? Do I know how to alter outdoor spaces to make them comfortable for people in various seasons?

• Is the space around my home abuzz with critters doing their rounds of feeding, pollinating, soil-building?

• Do I see water outside my window?

The best way to get the inputs that our body-mind craves is to increase our exposure to the constantly varying light of the sun and moon, darkness of night, movement of air, life of plants, sounds of birds. The most invigorating spaces may well be the most energy- and material-efficient: heated and lit by the sun, cooled by natural air motion, opened to the outdoors in salubrious weather, or modified as little as necessary in inclement weather to provide us with warmth, dryness, and a bit of stillness while keeping us stimulated by meaningful change. The best way to conserve energy is to do it in a way that enhances human energy.

Our own bodies, emotions, and intuitions are our most powerful touchstone. No checklist, no goals, no concepts will ever be more useful than trusting our own perceptions. And little could be farther from our training! But once we feel in our bodies that we are nature, we can begin to look outward. We see that our buildings separate us from our beloved world. We long to transform our built surroundings from stiff barriers into flexible mediators between our life and the rest of nature.

Our initial actions can be as simple as moving the furniture closer to the windows or planting a window box—or as complex as reshaping our homes in response to sun, wind, and water. In a way, it doesn’t matter if we do these things as acts of sensual indulgence, planetary preservation, or both; the results will be happier, healthier humans who are viscerally aware of the interdependence of all life.

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