Monday, August 25, 2008

The High Cost of Sprawl

I'm just finishing a book by James Howard Kunstler entitled The Geography of Nowhere. Amazingly, Kunstler, in this 1993 classic, clairvoyantly outlines the consequences that are playing out now from the strip and sprawl mentality of land development this county has employed since the proliferation of the automobile.

Kunstler's tome is by no means the only book outlining the dangers of sprawl, but it's a very good read, and it was out well before this issue was center stage. If you haven't read it, I suggest do.

You can order a copy here:

Is this a call to get rid of cars? Not at all. The automobile, allowing individual freedom of movement, is a large part of the American Dream. It's just that we've abandoned all other forms of getting from here to there except for the car. In the process, the way suburban development has been planned (or more appropriately, not planned) has manifested a built environment that is more expensive to maintain, more time-consuming to utilize, and devistating to civic culture.

Today in the United States, the cost of owning and operating an automobile has become the starting price for full citizenship. But that's just where the sprawl tax begins.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Solar Decathlon

Every couple of years, the Department of Energy hosts a "Solar Decathlon." Based on submitted concept proposals, twenty college teams are chosen to compete to see who can design, build, and operate the best all-solar powered home.

The arena: the Capitol mall in Washington, DC.

Ten areas of judging - architecture, engineering, market viability, communications, comfort, appliances, hot water, lighting, energy balance, and transportation - make up this decathlon, and a first, second, and third place is awarded.

Although most of the teams are from American universities, an entry from Germany -Technische Universit├Ąt Darmstadt - was last year's winner.

Second and third went to the University of Maryland and Santa Clara University respectively.

You can visit the next solar decathlon in the fall of 2009 (dates yet to be announced) on the mall in Washington. For photos of the most recent solar decathlon, go to:

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Solar Power Plants

Solar power plants are starting to pop up in some of the strangest places. This plant located in Germany, a country not known for an overabundance of sunny weather, produces 12 megawatts of electricity - enough to power about 12000 homes.

Germany has in place a healthy program subsidizing the production of solar power in a proactive effort to encourage new household and commercial investment in solar. So does Spain. As a result, those two countries are where most of the new power plants are being constructed and hundreds of thousands of new "green collar" jobs have been created in the process.

Several large-scale solar power plants are in the planning or construction stages in Florida and in the American southwest, mostly in Arizona, California, and Nevada. But there's a catch; the utility companies and project investors are in a "wait and see" mode until Congress decides how it is going to approach energy policy. The current meager incentives are set to expire this year. Not reauthorizing incentives at current levels will doom most of these projects.

Energy legislation was tabled as Congress went into August recess, thus insuring further paralysis for major advancements in solar energy in the United States.

The legislation has been held up by those who insist that we need to open up natural preserves and beach-front property for oil and gas drilling. Those same forces secured billions of dollars in subsidies for oil and gas companies in recent years as a concession for the very limited tax credits for developing and installing alternative energies.

Meanwhile, over dependence on fossil-based fuels at the exclusion of everything else brought us to where we are now. John McCain went down to Louisiana recently to campaign for an American petro-future but they called the trip off at the last minute when a barge spilled oil in the Mississippi the night before the photo opportunity was scheduled. Talk about bad timing (or good timing depending on where you stand).

Arguing for more drilling as an energy policy is like a drug addict insisting that all of his problems would be solved if he just had better access to good heroin.

Call or write your Congressman and Senators and let them know you would like to see more alternative energy tax credits for individuals and businesses. And more funding for research and development of alternative energies would be money well spent.

Here's a list of the largest solar power plants in the world currently in operation.


A New York Times story today breaks news of two new solar power plants planned for California producing a total of 800 megawatts - enough electricity to power almost a million homes.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Solar Powered Bike Trail

Madison, Wisconsin has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing new ideas.

Recently, I noticed that solar powered night lights have been installed along some of the bike trails flanking University Avenue. This is a double-green solution in that solar power is used to light an environmentally-friendly mode of transportation - biking and walking.

I suspect these fixtures are a little more expensive than conventional fixtures accounting for the panels, batteries, and possibly some specialized low-voltage lamps. Purveyors of fossil-fuel-based energies always like to point out that solar power is more expensive, and in terms of "installation costs" they're usually right.

But here's the powerful part of the equation: the cost of the energy source (that would be the sun) is zero from here on out. No monthly electric bills. No unanticipated market-based price hikes. Expect some maintenance costs on the hardware over the life of the system, but the energy used is free - forever. When you think "life-cycle costs," solar energy is, even today, a great value.

As costs for solar panels and equipment comes down, petroleum and gas prices keep going up making solar more attractive as time goes by.

Do you have any examples of every-day applications for solar energy?

Here Comes the Sun

This week on the New American Village blog:

Solar Energy.

Let the sun shine in.

Wright Wrap-Up

As much as I'd like to continue this series on the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, it's time to turn the page and start another chapter.

I'll wrap it up with a very cool "Taliesin Timeline" designed by former Taliesin apprentice Val M. Cox. This piece was conceived by Susan Lockhart, a senior apprentice who grew up in a Wright designed usonian house, spent a considerable portion of her adult life at Taliesin, and contributed mightily over many decades to the cause of organic architecture, and Gerald Morosco, apprentice, former CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, and a wonderful architect in his own right practicing in Pittsburgh, PA.

The credit page reads:

For the first time in the community's history, a presentation to acknowledge all who have lived and/or worked at Taliesin. As a result, information included in this installation now stands as a permanent record of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, available for access and enrichment for generations to come.

This timeline documents the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright and Taliesin Architects by year and the individuals involved in various aspects of work and life at Taliesin over the past eight decades. A wealth of creative talent passed through this organic Mecca including Fay Jones, John Lautner, Kevin Lynch, and Paolo Soleri sending organic ripples throughout the world. If you look closely enough, you might even find the writer of this blog.

Click on the links below to view the timeline decade by decade. Explore the richness of this country's organic architecture (modern-day translation: "green architecture") with this extraordinary Taliesin Timeline.










Entire Timeline:

Friday, August 8, 2008

More RiverView Terrace

OK. Can't help it. A couple more images of Frank Lloyd Wright's Riverview Terrace. Beautiful organic architecture.

Broadacre City Gas Station

Prompted by a PrairieMod post, I was inspired to dig up some photos I took on a trip to see Frank Lloyd Wright's only gas station back in 2001.

The R.W. Lindholm Service Station, now 50 years old, is straight out of the Broadacre City plan - a concept for decentralization of the American built landscape that Wright promoted in the 1930's as the automobile allowed a new great freedom of transportation. A huge model was constructed (in transportable sections) by apprentices at Taliesin West and Wright took it around the country as he lectured on the future of a more organically built America.

My college buddy Neal, then living near Minneapolis, rode shotgun as we drove north (and drove and drove) to Cloquet, Minnesota, a little town just sound of Duluth. When we arrived at the site, we met a young couple who had also made this building the destination of a long driving trip, and I noticed they had a copy of W. A. Storrer's catalog of Frank Lloyd Wright's built works in hand. I held my well-worn copy up as we approached them and we "clinked" them together as if we were making a toast. Thank you Mr. Storrer.

The PrarieMod post (where you can find a link to an interview with the apprentice who supervised the construction):

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Romeo and Juliet Windmill, Act 3

A couple of fascinating video clips:

Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer, a long-time senior apprentice (he was at Taliesin long before Wright died) tells the history of Romeo and Juliet Windmill.

A short documentary of erecting the rebuilt tower.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2

...a couple of additional pictures of Romeo and Juliet.

This early Frank Lloyd Wright work almost didn't get built. Wright's aunts lobbied for it as his uncles incessantly threw out reasons why this particular design should not be erected.

The aunts stuck to their guns. In his autobiography, Wright recalls a letter written to him by the aunts relating the uncles' fears of the tower's inherent instability which would surely,they thought, soon lead to its demise.

Wright wrote back assuring them of the structure's integrity and instructed them to tell the uncles to "use more nails." He ended the letter by insisting that of course they would build it, and he would come (from to Chicago) to see it.

They did, and the young Frank Lloyd Wright did too - with cape, hat, and cane.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Romeo and Juliet Windmill

Romeo and Juliet Windmill sits atop a hill behind Hillside Home School, now the part of the Taliesin estate.

In the 1890's, when a young Frank Lloyd Wright was in the early years of his practice, his aunts had him design a windmill for pumping water to their progressive boarding school.

Wright's uncles argued that the aunts should order a prefabricated metal windmill from Sears Roebuck, but the aunts insisted that their creative nephew could build them something beautiful as well as functional.

So Wright designed Romeo and Juliet - two forms, the masculine and taller diamond plan element and the more demure, rounded shape (octagonal, actually) caressing each other. The two forms together provided resulted in a much stronger structure than either of the forms individually could.

That's organic architecture.

The uncles, until their deaths, would rush out on their porches when a thunderstorm came across the valley fully expecting the tower to crash down on itself. But it never did. It lasted almost a century until it was fully renovated in the 1990's.

The uncle's obviously did not understand the power of natural geometries.