Archive for May, 2007

The Price of Paradise

A couple of years ago I moved to the small town of Avalon on Catalina Island. I discovered that like any place there are advantages and disadvantages to living there. I must admit, Avalon is very appealing in many ways. It’s a small town of about 5,000 people living in a one square mile area. It’s picture perfect with a beautiful harbor to view every day. People greet each other. There is no commute time except for the 5 to 10 minute walk to work. There is hardly any crime and it seemed to me a haven from the “real world”. This “paradise” did not come without a cost and that was the extremely high cost of living with very few jobs that could sustain those costs. But in my conversations with people, they would reply that this was “the price of paradise”. I disagreed and moved back to the mainland to continue my search for paradise. But my experience raised an interesting question: if the world is to become the utopia we all hope for, what will be the costs and will people be willing to “pay” for our paradise?

What if the price of paradise is a world with no private cars. As a major source of pollution, an intense user of resources and a source of economic division (see “Rethinking the Sources of Poverty”) its very likely the world will need to depend on mass public transportation to achieve a sustainable and equitable world without poverty. Will people be willing to give up this symbol of freedom and individuality? I would definitely give up the costs, the frustration of traffic and pollution and crime cars create for a paradise that has affordable, accessible and safe mass transit.

What if we each have to “pitch in” a little more to achieve our paradise? Speaking for myself, I get bored doing the same types of activities and enjoy being both a thinker and a laborer. I look forward to picking grapes of helping on a farm. Now if that were my only job it might get old, but such chores were a community effort as it is in a Kibbutz, I would rather do that than pay taxes or exorbitant food prices to avoid that chore. I’m not sure where people develop these notions of what jobs are important and which are not, but every job fulfills an important place in modern communities. It seems to me that such distinctions are a result of ego and to achieve paradise we each will have to recognize the essential needs of each role, job and task and “pitch in” to achieve equality and sustainability.

What if we each have to tolerate the ridiculous beliefs of others? It seems that our paradise will be defined by peace. But peace does not happen just by itself, it happens through our choices. Peace could be achieved by a benevolent dictator, but I don’t think any of us want to be told how to live. Peace could also be achieved by creating a homogenous population – one religious belief or one race, but I think diversity is a resource and offers strength. And, once again, I get bored being around people just like me, don’t you? Perhaps in paradise we will just have to choose to be tolerant of each other which means we will also have to exercise restraint in the public sphere. I think the great freedom we seek will require great responsibility from each of us (see “Lost in Freedom”).

What if we each have to eat more fruits and vegetables to make our paradise a reality? It may sound silly to contemplate, but our food habits are causing many of our health and ecological problems. For example, beef production is a major source of methane gas and our overfishing is depleting stocks in the oceans. Our agricultural system is overly complex relying on fossil fuels for transport and toxic chemicals to increase yields. And, in general, we overeat because we are depressed and lonely and the excess weight fuels high healthcare costs. Paradise will have none of these problems, but that is because the solution is to buy more locally available organic produce and in general rely less on resource intense meat and fish. In fact, in paradise we might each have to grow a small vegetable garden so as to take on some of the responsibility ourselves.

What if we each have to better educate ourselves and think before we act? We all want to be needed, to be heard by others and contribute to the solutions – the ideal of a direct democracy. But, the founders of America knew that a democracy required a well educated public to make informed choices. It seems to me that in paradise we will each need to be educated. We will each know when to speak up and contribute and when to be quiet and listen. None of us are equal in our gifts, but we each have something special to offer. In our paradise we will all be empowered to achieve our potential (see “Educationally Challenged”).

A key notion of paradise is that it is something different from how we live now. And, in order to achieve this paradise there needs to be change. The distance from where we are now to achieving that paradise is the time it takes us to make those choices. I’m not saying that what I’ve outlined is the price of paradise, but if it were would you pay it?


May 28, 2007 at 6:01 pm Leave a comment

The Home: The Cornerstone of a Sustainable Future

In trying to solve problems, sometimes I find it useful to picture in my head the end result so that I can more clearly define the goals and objectives as well as the practical steps needed to achieve them. In considering the sustainability puzzle I ask myself what are the inevitable components that will make up a sustainable world? Ideally it will be a world without poverty and this implies that no one will lack food, clothing and shelter. Even though its is not distributed equitably, today the world produces enough food and clothing for everyone, so I want to focus on the issue of shelter.

The concept of the sustainability puzzle is simple, but complicated by the number of people involved. Simply put, the challenge is for the Earth’s population to utilize its resources in a way that does not deprive the many future generations of their fair share. In the context of housing, the challenge is framed around resources including materials, construction labor and energy requirements over the lifetime of the house. Now, the nature of this challenge is not a technical one, it is a design challenge of organizing the pieces in a replicable way – an easier challenge than going to Mars and arguably more urgent.

The architectural challenge is to design a home that achieves at least the following objectives:

LEED Platinum Efficiency: This is the highest efficiency rating thus far established by the US Green Building Council and is primarily conquered in the design phase. While terms such as LEED are known by “green conscious” builders in the United States, the objectives and methodology should be integrated into the design for those who do not even know the term. Let’s just say that this is a minimal efficiency standard that should be achieved in a sustainable design.

Owner Built: Benjamin Franklin offered us advice that endures time. “A penny saved is a penny earned.” And so too building one’s own house makes the home as a foundation of sustainability more affordable and therefore in the reach of more people. To achieve this goal the design implication is that the house must be easy to assemble and here lies an opportunity for innovation. Just as IKEA simplified the furniture assembly process through a few innovative gadgets, so too should a house be designed so that it becomes more of an assembly process rather than a construction process. The building material is also an important factor. I’m a big fan of strawbale construction and one reason is that as a material it aesthetically forgiving and the large building blocks make the building process more intuitive.

Modular Design: Part and parcel to the principal of designing a house that can be owner built is also one that can be built in pieces and contains components that can be added. This makes the construction process more affordable as it can be accomplished on a “pay as you go” basis. For example, the house I plan to build is purposely designed in a “U” shape so that one half can be built first to provide the essential core of the home, a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, and more living area can be added at a later date as money permits.

Sustainable Materials: The LEED rating system takes the type of material into account, but on a global scale, we need to get away from many of the energy intense materials that we currently are accustomed to. While strawbale may not be the panacea for all locations, it is a sustainable material in that it is an agricultural byproduct that can be supplied locally and is therefore very affordable. Furthermore, it has a high insular value that reduces energy inputs. While cob construction is an alternative, the shear weight of the material would seem to become a barrier to many.

Open Source Design Concept: The designs should be open and available to everyone for free if we truly want everyone to reduce energy use and achieve a minimal standard of living. While this flies against the current practice of architects creating unique designs individualized for the homebuilder, this is a cost that can’t be afforded by most.

House in a Box: If there are a few core designs, component kits could be sold to further lower costs and make the building process that much easier. These vital components include pipes, floor radiant heating tubing, nails, water barrier paper, electrical wires, switches and plugs, solar panels, faucets and even toilets and sinks. But don’t be deceived by the word “kit”, in all likelihood these would be delivered to the home assembly site on a pallet!

A sustainable design will definitely require a great deal of “out of the box” thinking to achieve these goals and possibly more. A truly integrated design will also take into account the surrounding landscape and could include an edible garden to further empower the homeowners and lessen the overall burden on transported goods. While there are definitely other pieces that make up the sustainability puzzle, I believe the long-term sustainability begins with a well-designed and practical house. I hope that architects will take on this challenge that could truly form the basis of our sustainable future.

May 21, 2007 at 8:56 pm 2 comments

Part of the Problem or the Solution?

A question I constantly ask myself is whether my actions are part of the solution or part of the problem. It’s a simple question that I’ve only recently started asking myself. I do tend towards being “hokie,” but speaking for myself, I want to leave this world knowing that my presence “helped”. I believe most of us don’t want to add to the problems of the world and so I thought I would share this “lens on life” that helps me make choices and decisions in my daily life.

Some may fairly argue that I am being judgmental and I don’t disagree. But, first and foremost I apply this “matrix” to myself. Yes, I also apply this to others as well. Maybe it’s a result of my autistic mind to systematize everything, but it seems to me that anyone and everyone makes judgments about others – it is a sorting process that is integral to our survival instincts. I guess rather than deny this politically incorrect judgment of others that we each carry on in our heads, I am challenging the foundations of what those judgments are based on. Are they for the right reasons or the wrong ones? I’ve made a conscious decision that “contributing to the solutions of the world” falls into the category of the “right reasons”, but that is a judgment you need to make for yourself. ;-)

This raises the next point: What are the problems and what are the solutions? At first glance the answers to these provocative questions would seem highly subjective. I think as long as you only focus on the personal details of our daily lives, my reply is yes… you get highly subjective answers. However, if we constantly relate these questions to the “big picture” issues such as pollution, crime, world peace, happiness and health – issues that affect us all – we will find common truths and common solutions.

Now this “matrix” does not only apply to external actions, but more importantly to internal thoughts. Are my personal thoughts and choices helping me or hurting me? Are they part of the solution to the problems and issues I face with myself, or are they contributing to the problems that have haunted me throughout my life. While I am still challenged in many ways by myself, I’ve found that asking myself whether a particular choice or point of view is helping or hurting me has contributed to me becoming my own best friend. While I don’t know if this particular “lens” can be a panacea for everyone, it does make sense: you’re stuck with yourself for an eternity – might as well make peace with yourself and learn to like who you are.

Speaking from personal experience I think the tendency of most of us is to assume that “I am not the problem.” But, like most assumptions, the truth of the matter only reveals itself when that assumption is tested or challenged. Someone far greater than me once said “A un-contemplated life is one not worth living.” So I challenge you to think of your actions, behaviors and thoughts in terms of this single question: Am I part of the solution or part of the problem?

May 7, 2007 at 6:31 pm Leave a comment

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