FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Joseph Kennedy

About 5 years ago now, a group of us came together. And this was at the time when Kosovo was in the news, and there was a lot of people who had been displaced because of war, and there was a sense that we, as natural builders, wanted to respond to problem areas in the world. And a group of us came together, and we talked about it, and realized that we wanted to form some sort of response. And so that was the birthing of Builders Without Borders, the organization, to really help to address some of these ideas.

It's been a small organization, we've had several projects, mostly in Northern Mexico, as well as my work in South Africa, the recent project in Dennelton, it was partially a Builders Without Borders project. The main philosophy behind Builders Without Borders is that we're never going to solve the housing problem or the dwelling problem through simply going and building houses. We realized that we didn't want to become sort of an ecological Habitat for Humanity, where we just build things for people. We realized the main way we can really make a difference is through teacher training.

So our main resource that has been generated out of that has been this book, Building Without Borders, which is about sustainable construction in those places that need it most. So, in this book, I attempted to distill the best lessons learned from people who have been engaged in this work for quite a long time, people like Kelly Lerner, and Bill and Athena Steen, who've really been in the trenches, and have learned how to do this.

The challenge we find is that what you need is a really deep connection with your local community. And coming from outside, that takes time. So that the people who have had the most success are those that have an ongoing relationship with a group of people or community or place. So there's a sense of trust there, there's a sense that you're in partnership.

If you're going in as a bunch of people who are wanting to help, or do good, or something, it just becomes a continuation of that same paradigm. But once you realize that if you're traveling to a place, you are getting as much, if not more, out of that experience that the people that you are working with, then it becomes more of a two-way street, and there's a sense of partnership for a mutual goal.

And that becomes a different thing. And I think it increases the possibility of success, because there's less of an imposition of an idea that's coming from outside, but more of a, Hey, let's figure this out together. And so that's been really influencing the work. It's pretty unique in development work. And many of us do not have, necessarily, backgrounds in development work. But we have been on the ground, we have been learning, we have been trying to take these lessons learned, to make what we do, really something that can survive on its own.

And ideally, be replicated within the local cultures, create situations that can improve things, really, not just push another problem down the pipeline, which is so often the case with most development work, is that the so-called solution just creates a new problem. We're trying to avoid that as best we can. And to really create something that can help people bring themselves up to another level or prosperity and health and community wellness. So that's what's inspiring me in this work.

One of the things that we're finding is that, you know, there's nobody's home in these so-called institutions that are to serve these things. I mean, we've witnessed the incompetence in the post-Katrina situation. I mean, that's just the state of it. And so, those of us who have a certain sense of greater understanding of how the global systems work are now attempting to come up with some ideas that we can bring into these places that really need those ideas. And there are people who are doing that.

As far as responding to post-Peak Oil, I'm starting to have a different take on things. And that is, I don't really see we're going to solve this problem by creating ecological communities outside of our existing cities and communities. What I'd rather see, is sort of a retro-fitting, if you will, of our existing places, so that they will function better. There's no real benefit in tearing down a non-ecological house, and then rebuilding an ecological house in to replace it. In a sense, so much embodies energy has gone into the original building, it's better, in many cases, to improve, and add to. So what I'm seeing is much more ecological renovation of existing cities, existing buildings, in a way that will allow us to gradually become more local.

My thing lately is just to look at, Okay, if there are no cars, or fewer cars, what does that allow? And one is, let's plant up our parking lots, for one. I consciously live in downtown, so I don't have to get into my car as much. And so I walk everywhere. So I'm seeing, starting in downtowns and invigorating downtowns, allowing them to be as self-sustaining as possible, is going to be key. So downtown Santa Rosa, I'm looking at places where the land is under-utilized in some way. Or, where can we tuck in affordable housing projects in existing little scraps of land that may not otherwise be attractive to a conventional builder? How can we be creative with our existing places that we have? How can we bring these public places into our existing neighbourhoods to help invigorate them, and have people recognize the village in our own midst. And instead of creating it physically, recognizing it, and strengthening it, as it is now.

So we can apply all of our ideas, though, or natural building, and ecological design, permaculture, etc., to our existing landscapes in a way of renovating our existing places. Certainly, there will be opportunities and the desire for people to create communities that are self-sufficient, in perhaps more rural areas, or just outside of cities, so I'm seeing that there's going to be a combination of things. But I think, personally, that the lion's share of the effort, should go towards improving our existing communities, where there has already been such a huge investment of infrastructure.

The biggest challenge, frankly, and I'm sure you're getting this from other people, are going to be the suburbs. What do we do about those? They're inherently just wrong-headed -- but, yet, exist. Do we take them apart? Do we re-work them? If I were a student now, and wanting to take on a really challenging project, as a thesis of some kind, that's what I would focus on, is How do we make a sustainable suburban landscape, or take what we have now as a suburban landscape, and turn it into something else, without necessarily just wiping it off the map.

That, to me, is going to be one of the biggest design challenges of the 21st century, especially as Peak Oil makes those communities incredibly undesirable, because of the cost of heating them, the cost of driving to them, they are going to be the white elephants of the future -- yet, exist. Valuable materials and such are in them. How do we take that embodies energy and do some sort of creative work with it, to make it available to people in a new way.

Finding ways in which people who live in these communities can actually come together more, do larger scale projects, like taking down their fences between their yards, closing off streets, reclaiming asphalt, perhaps creating pedestrian networks through backyards. I think there's a lot of creative possibilities that have yet to be explored. And at the same time, creating real centres to these places, which are somewhat, now, anonymous, and they don't have any places. So, some concentrated development in certain areas where aspects of these places would have some town centres to them.