FIRST EARTH | Uncompromising Ecological Architecture

Andy Thomson

Well, the city as an architectural thing that we all inhabit -- I mean, people talk about ecological footprint in the city. You know, "Cities are very efficient, because you can get all these people in..." But the footprint is expanding well beyond the city, everybody knows, the food is coming from far outside the city. The city itself is terribly inefficient, spatially.

Most of the buildings are empty, something like 70% of the time. When you take away 9-to-5, I'm in an office building, all the other time, nobody's there. Often, the lights are on and it's heated, it's air-conditioned, whatever. But nobody's there. Take away the weekends, nobody's there. Take away all the time people are taking away sick, or on holiday, nobody's there. So, most of the time, nobody's in these buildings that are downtown. And when they are, they're at home, or they're at the office, but they're never in two places at once. So you need to have more happening where people are using the space 100% of the time, for it to be efficient.

The way the buildings are constructed, they use a phenomenal amount of energy for heating and cooling; predominantly for cooling, because there's so much heat gain, with all the glass. That's absolutely unsustainable, even with all the most elaborately thought out cooling strategies imagined, it's just not going to work well in the future.

I think Buckminster Fuller summed it up pretty well with the idea of energy slaves. Energy has become so cheap, and it does a lot of work for us. And if you were to convert the relationship between the amount of energy that each of us use in the city, and in this way of living; if you were to compare that energy to the amount of human energy it would have taken in the form of slaves working for us, each one of us would have at our disposal something like 400 slaves.

Now this was 1960-some-odd, when Fuller first calculated this. I would guess it's probably double or triple that by now. My guess is I've probably got 1000 energy slaves working for me, doing all this kind of work for me. That's absolutely not sustainable.

And a lot of these slaves, you can draw a direct little thread all the way to China, to some 50 people that are producing the garbage that I'm buying, the second set of sockets that I bought from Wal-Mart, all that kind of stuff. It's a phenomenal amount of energy, and people that we can just leverage, because we're rich.

We're very selfish, we've become very selfish. And so, we don't share. We don't share space, we don't share stuff, we don't share tools, we don't share food, we don't share anything. And we don't want to. There's a certain pride in it, having everything to myself. And I think it's a warped kind of pride. I have my own space, my car is paid for. I've got my shit together. I don't care if you do or not. But everybody is in this game where they need to look after themselves and their own immediate family, and to hell with anything else.

And what you have is all these people that are islands, working as islands, in a pretty disconnected way. They don't need to share resources -- yet. That'll have to happen again, in the future. Because there won't be enough to go around. This is a ridiculously wealthy culture. And so for us to even have this mentality, it's like a cancer. And that'll get broken down and chipped apart as we realize we don't have as many resources as we tend to think we do. We need to share more and not have so much duplication of effort.

There's a guy named Torvald Faegre who wrote a book on tents. And he had something very interesting to say about the yurt, or Mongolian gurt, felted yurt. And his description, basically, was, "This thing has endured just as long as the pyramids." It's a form that keeps appearing, and reappearing, and reappearing, it's like perrenial architecture. So, what's greater, the pyramids, or the yurt?

It's a form of human habitation that is fully involved in the ecological process. You have goats that you're herding, that you take your fur from, and you make felt, and you felt the yurt. And then once the yurt felt gets a little bit worn, it becomes the carpet, the flooring. And then it's trampled right back into the earth, and turns into grass, and then the goats eat the grass. So you have this complete cycle, this complete process.

The pyramids are this monumental thing, built for who-knows-what reason. And, sure, it's one form of great architecture, but yurts are still active, it's still an active life process.

I think great architecture is something that connects our scale with the scale of everything smaller than us, to everything that's much bigger than us. You've got bugs and bacteria and all kinds of little tiny things, and then you've got planets and galaxies. We're of a certain size, and we have a certain kind of physiology, in the way that we take in food and excrete waste. How can we be in something that can speak to that, and help connect us to the larger world and the smaller world? And I think when you have something like a yurt, you have an organic process, it's all part of what you do, you have a whole cosmology that's embedded in that.

And we've become so disconnected, because the infrastructure that ties into architecture now is of a scale that's way bigger than anything we can see. It goes on and on, you've got pipes and gas lines and electricity plants and everything -- nobody can comprehend that thing. And so our placelessness is a product of being disconnected from knowing what's actually going on.

So great architecture, in my opinion, is something that actually connects you as a human being -- on a spiritual level, on whatever level you care to examine at, physiological, microscopic -- to the world, and to what's larger than the world.

It's very hard to imagine what a long-term future is going to be like, for architecture, what the long term holds. We can look to 2000 years ago, but the game is completely different. All the rules have changed, the resources are different. It's impossible to know how we're going to be living on this planet -- if at all! -- in 100 years, 200 years, 300 years.

Where I'm coming from is living in tents, living very minimally in tents and sleeping bags, with camping gear, full time, for a year, two years at a time. And that's what informs what went into this (mini-HOME) project. This thing is designed kind of like training wheels for a new way of living. It's to basically wean people out of condominiums and big houses and city-scale infrastructure, to get down to a level of tent, where I can basically survive by my wits, grow and collect what I need to, to eat, and move as I need to. And I think that is probably going to be the short-to-medium term solution that a lot of us are probably going to find ourselves in.

You look at what happens in regions that are in crisis right now. You have refugee camps. That's how people are living, unfortunately en masse. And I think, for us to be smart about is, we need to form collective groups, know how to build tents, how to have portable shelter, how to be able to move around. I mean, I'm not doom and gloomy here, but we need to think beyond this, the city as a form of dwelling.

Well, I think you've got to take it down to this very basic level. It you imagine yourself, you've got an acre. And you've got a tent and a sleeping bag, and some stuff for cooking, what do you need to live? What stuff do you put in you, what comes out of you, and how do you deal with it? That's it, you have to reduce it to a pretty basic formula, instead of saying, "Oh, I need 2 kiloWatts of electricity to run my plasma screen TV, and this and that and the other. Forget all that -- what do you really need?

So you need energy for your food, your water, you need water to water your plants that you're going to grow to eat... Once you start connecting those dots, then you start to figure out what's your basic system. And then you can say, "Well, how can I be smart about this, so I'm not going to be shitting in this area here that's going to be going to my water that's goes into my garden?" So you build a little composting toilet, or bucket, for dealing with that. So, the infrastructure becomes something that you are related to, and that you know what the consequences of it are, and how to deal with it, on a very local level.

So, composting toilets, rainwater collection, greywater recycling... How are you going to cook? Do you need cooking fuel? Is it going to be propane? What kind of fuel is going to be available? Is it going to be wood? Are you going to hack down your forest so you can have cooking fuel? So these are all things that you have to think through. And be pretty nimble and flexible about it, because it's very difficult to say, "There's one way that it'll work for everyone, for all time." It's always going to change.