FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Stuart Cowan

From a sustainability perspective, I think the simplest test is to live within our ecological footprint. So if we think about the amount of land it takes to provide for our food, building materials, basic commodities, it's about 4 acres available, it's about 20 acres being used, in the U.S.! So, we're at FIVE Planet Earths right now, in the U.S.

It's not possible to maintain the kind of natural capital that we need, and continue living at high levels of sprawl, high levels of energy consumption. So how do we make density attractive? That's sort of the basic corollary of saying, You need to live within the footprint. The solution is not, Sprawl out into rural areas. We need to cities work.

Living in the [San Francisco] Bay Area for a long time, and then living in Portland, I was really attracted to what Paolo Soleri calls the Density Effect, that there is this intensity of human interaction, communication, creativity that can occur only at a certain density -- not at a certain number of people, a certain density. And his model was the Italian hill town. Hill towns are incredibly livable, and incredibly dense. They're approaching Manhattan-level density, some of them. And yet, they're completely walkable, they're filled with public gathering spaces.

So how do we have that density effect in a place like Portland? And it's all around creating new ways for people to interact. And gradually doing infill, actually increasing the density, is something desperately needed, in a place like Portland. We're not as dense as we should be. We're chipping away at the farmland around the city, when we could be going higher. But we're doing a lot to make the city more livable, and the density is slowly starting to happen on its own, as well.

Earth is the building material of choice for one-third of the planet. It's alive, it purifies toxins, it is of the place, it has incredibly low embodied energy, it's probably the best building material, from the sustainability perspective. It's something that children can do. But it passes the acid test, if you do lifecycle analysis on earth materials. If you just look at all of the energy, water, materials impacts over the entire lifecycle, earth wins, hands down.

There are challenges to building higher with earth, although we know there are traditional earth villages that are going up 7, 8, 9 storeys. But it would be wonderful to think about the engineering innovations required to go up 3, 4, 5 storeys. It's very important that those of us in the sustainability movement can recognize the trade-offs, that we do need a certain level of density to make it through this transtition.

And that means cities need to thrive, and we don't need to go up 100 storeys, but if we could go up even 3 storeys, or 4 storeys! A lot of studies now are showing that's about the critical point, where, if you have people, say, sharing 3 to 4 storey attached townhouses, that's a density that will let you hit the ecological footprint.

If we can keep the local materials, the skills, the traditions, and perhaps add a little bit of modern engineering, we'll have fertile ground. And people like Joe Kennedy have been exploring this, creating 21st century villages that draw on the best of traditional building materials and skills, but updating them in certain ways for life and health safety.

I really do see two worlds. Architects are simply unaware of earth, in all of its forms and variations. They're not specifying it, they're not encouraging their clients to build with it. And then there's this whole world of renegade builders, or people that are really fundamentally activists, are working from the heart, and want to change the world, are deciding, I've got to learn enough about building so I can do an earth building. I don't need to be a builder my whole life, but I need to do this building, because there's no other way to get it done. And it makes a statement, it's green, it's sustainable.

Well, it's true that it's still very hard for someone to build their own house in an urban setting. It's hard in a rural setting, in terms of the physical labour, and just being able to master all the tasks involved. But in an urban setting, the degree of complexity around codes and permits and so forth makes it very daunting.

That's a function of the inherent danger of building. The most ancient laws relate to the liability of builders. If you go back to ancient Babylonian codes, you'll find some grievous penalties if the building falls down on someone's head! It's serious, it is a life and death profession, to be an architect, to be a builder, contractor. And in the industrialized nations, anything that smacks of liability tends to have layers and layers of bureaucracy and complexity and rules and regulations. And some of that is to the good, and some of it is unnecessary.

For someone that wants to build, I would suggest looking at [Christopher Alexander's book] A Pattern Language, which provides 200-odd patterns, it's just a wonderful source of material. And to work with friends, to work with people that have experience in the process. And to follow a simple process of unfolding, where you're trying to unfold the structure that's in your heart, within that piece of land.

And to start by staking in out, in the broad scale, start by thinking about the massing, is it 1 storey, 2, 3, what's the footprint? What's the place on the site that is already damaged, that by building on, I can repair it? That's a wonderful pattern called Site Repair, and City Repair is a similar idea, often you need to go to the most damaged part of the city, and by rebuilding there, you actually do the most healing.

So people often make the mistake of wanting to build in the pristine part of the land, and then look back at what may actually be damaged. Or miss an opportunity to create health and wholeness, by actively working with a damaged part of the land. So it's important to have no preconceptions about footprint, where should the building be placed. To actually walk, and walk, and walk, and look for the structure of wholeness on the land, and realize that, where the building plus the land together creates the most wholeness, is the place to build. And that often means you're looking back at something extraordinary, or helping to create something extraordinary, by the building's relationship back to the earth.

And once you have that footprint and that sense of massing, how tall it is, how many storeys, then it's finer and finer articulation, actually mocking it up, leaving decisions like windows a little bit later, perhaps, so you can actually frame it up first, no need to know exactly where the windows are yet. And then you can literally look at the micro scale, where's the perfect place to put a window?

There's a wonderful pattern around a Zen View, where there's a tiny window that you place right there, that has an exquisite view, that brings the whole room, or the whole house, to life. And if you try to do that on CAD [ Computer Aided Design], ahead of time, you'll never find it. So, all during the building, it's deferring decisions as long as possible, starting with the things that are most fundamental, that have to be determined first, and not overdesigning before you see how, as you're framing out the building, and starting to create spaces, how then the windows need to be placed, and the interior furniture and cabinetry, and so forth. That's a starting point.