Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Autumn Bike Ride

Yesterday, a few days into Autumn, the heat of the summer finally broke. I awoke to a chill in the air and the mid-afternoon temperature peaked in the low 70's. What a great evening for a enjoying the weather on my bike, and so I made good on the promise of a long ride.

Here's a poem that captures some of that spirit by Michael Schein entitled "Autumn."

On the first day of Autumn,

a chrysalis day of slanted light,
I am drawn back to my bike,
the steel Bianchi

I rode one-hunredth of the way

to the moon this year,
then abandoned in August to the spiders.

Oh, what joy,

to be pedaling again

into the headlong rush
of the September breeze,
into bird songs
and swirling sepia leaves,

past sculls cutting the canal,

my purring crank and derailleur

a clockwork of wheels within wheels
shifting light and dark

like this gloaming Equinox.

A bicycle is balance and momentum,

the music of the spheres
distilled in steel or aluminum.
It requires no balance

to ride in an automobile:

one devours terrain
oblivious to its texture,

to pleasure or pain,

lusting only for the destination.

Perched on my saddle,

I am soft and observant

as the day I was born,

calm as in my mother's arms.

"It's as easy as riding a bicycle" we say,
and it is easy, this gentle machine,

the most efficient way to transmit
our small strength into motion.

With ninety-nine more such autumns

and the solar wind pressing me forward,

I believe I could pedal to the moon,
and never miss a single hummingbird.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God on a Bike

A poem by Pat Winslow

God on a bike going twenty miles and hour
over speed ramps, ignoring the pinch-space
cars that would topple him, helmetless
and roaring at road-ragers, mobile phone users,
the guess-where-I'm-going school of motorist.
His long white beard parts in the wind.

God speed, God. He stops at red lights
if he has to, but prefers to sail through.
Lycra shorts in all weathers, hairy legs,
pistoning past churches and bingo halls.
God on a bike is good news. He knows
when to apply severe body torque.

God's a rock hopper, a weekend mud churner,
a star on wheels. He can fix a puncture
in five minutes flat, slalom through gravel,
go twenty-four hours without sleeping.
He's the captain of the Cat and Fiddle,
Box Hill, C2C. He's a mashed gear man.

God cycles forty days and forty nights
alone in the wilderness. He stokes up
on Mars Bars, forks more transport cafe
breakfasts, smokes more fags than I could.
He's a seven-day wonder. The whole world
in a week. That's God the father.

Son Jesus does his own repairs, prefers
Reynolds tubing. He's had the same frame
for thirty odd years. He wears toe clips
that bruise his feet - that's
what comes of wearing sandals.
A chain guard keeps his robes clean.

There's a silver bell he rings each time
he rounds a bend in case of donkeys
or a man carrying a bed. Jesus on a bike
does the shopping. Bread and fish fingers,
a little wine. Abstemious Jesus with hair
in a ponytail under a kitemarked helmet.

There's an orange flag on a stick to warn
drivers to stay clear. Jesus isn't fearful
just careful. He carries batteries and cables,
a cape for bad weather. He's chairman of a club.
Twelve good mates. Though one's a bit suspect.
Drives a car that cost thirty thou. Flash git, Judas.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sustainable Health Care, Part 2 - The Way We Live

This week's newspaper column - second in a two-part series on sustainable health care reform.

The way we lay out our neighborhoods directly impacts how much we, as a society, pay for health care.

Let’s take an imaginary drive through a typical American subdivision. (I say “drive” because walking is usually not an option.)

Scooting down the main drag, we see strip malls and commercial buildings lined up end to end. With rare exception, everyone we encounter along this strip drove there in an automobile.

Huge parking lots in front of each establishment accommodate workers and patrons who park as close to the front door as possible. After all, who would want to walk on hot pavement with the sun beating down when all the trees have been removed?

And you’ll notice that all of the parking lots are disconnected. To get from one place to another – even if the destination is next door – people get back in their cars and drive. Don’t bother looking for sidewalks; in strip mall land, walking is so uncool.

Something else is striking about this landscape. Where are the homes? No wonder no one is walking. You can’t get here from there. Let’s turn off on one of the side streets and see if we can find where people live.

Now we’re talking. We were looking for houses and now we have it - blocks and blocks of houses one after another without a grocery store in sight. Don’t bother looking for sidewalks here either. When all services are miles away, where would you walk to anyway?

Now let’s tour a sustainable community. I’m stopping the car; we can walk from here.

Tree-lined streets provide a cool canopy for our leisurely stroll down the sidewalk as we wave to friends and neighbors. Homes are located in close proximity to businesses here, so it’s practical and pleasant to walk to the grocery store rather than – out of necessity - drive.

We can stop in at that little coffee shop around the corner and meet Aunt Bertha. She’s not driving any more since she turned 80, but she gets around just fine. She walks to the bank, she walks to the diner, she even walks to the senior center where she and her friends have a rollicking good time. They all kid Aunt Bertha about being “spry as a kitten” because of her independence and zest for life. Aunt Bertha doesn’t spend much time at the doctor’s office.

Her younger sister, on the other hand, lives in suburbia. She also gave up driving a couple of years ago, but unlike Aunt Bertha, Aunt Bea is housebound. When she needs to go somewhere, someone must drive to her house and act as chauffer. Aunt Bea gets virtually no exercise, and is in considerably worse health than her older sister with the medical records to prove it.

Communities where walking is a normal part of daily life are inherently healthier places to live than those where driving is the only option. Think about that when you choose your next home.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Images: The 1959 Compton Yearbook

Here, a vision of the future of auto-fashion from 50 years ago. So where are our cool futuristic vehicles?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

BeauSoleil: Dress Rehearsal

photos: Philip Gould

Solar Decathlon Update: Ev
ery two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website. And check out a short film about the project.

A couple of images by photographer Philip Gould depict the BeauSoleil home set up in Lafayette and "ready to go."

Th all-solar home is now en route to DC. I'll be stepping up the coverage over the next few weeks as TEAM BeauSoleil puts down roots on the National Mall.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

Frank Lloyd Wright designed several churches over the course of his lifetime. While still in his teens, he supervised the construction of the Lloyd Jones family chapel designed by a Chicago architect of some renown - J. L. Silsbee. Wright would go on to apprentice in Silsbee's office for a year before landing a job with Adler and Sullivan.

Mr. Wright would often tout is credentials for designing churches as 'not belonging to any of them.' When asked about his religion, he explained "I put a capital "N" on Nature and I call that my religion."

Fast forward to the mid 1950's and here you have his Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin - a suburb of Milwaukee.

I stopped by to take some photos on my last trip to Milwaukee. More photos tomorrow. Holds up pretty well, I'd say. What do you think?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Billionaires for WealthCare Take to the Streets

There's a powerful constituency in the US that is "mad as hell" about the possibility of health care reform: Billionaires.

Actually, Billionaires for WealthCare is a bit of performance art that makes a powerful point about who stands to benefit most from keeping the status quo in the American health care (lack of a) system.

In this video, enthusiastic Billionaires for WealthCare join in with anti-reform marchers. Watch a "Kumbaya moment" where tea party protesters discover that "hey, we're for the same thing!"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Popping the Cork on BeauSoleil

Photo: the Daily Advertiser

TEAM BeauSoleil celebrated the competition their Solar Decathlon entry Thursday evening with an exhuberent "Bon Voyage" party.

The all-solar home, designed and constructed by ULL students, will now be on its way to Washington, DC where it will be installed on the National Mall along with 19 other university teams for public display and judging.

Set-up begins October 1st, homes are open to the public starting October 9th, and the event culminates with the awards ceremony on October 16th.

Lafayette's Daily Advertiser posted this photo essay and write-up.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The New Social Entrepreneurs: Neighborhood Business-Owners

double-click for higher resolution image

Neighborhood businesses are the heart and soul of livable communities.

Larry Thomas, a second-generation independent pharmacist in Laurel, Mississippi, epitomizes the ethic that fosters cultural enrichment.

Although big box corporate pharmacies have muscled themselves into the mainstream lately with shelves stocked supermarket-style full of merchandise, owner-operated shops like Thomas Pharmacy offer to their community something that the Walgreens of the world cannot - the owner. Walk in the store and you'll more often than not find Larry Thomas himself behind the pharmacy counter dispensing prescriptions (and community wisdom) to some of the same people and their descendants that his father first served over a half century ago.

The Thomas Pharmacies of the world have an investment in their respective communities that goes far beyond economics. There is a recognizable face associated with transactions - on both sides of the pharmacy counter.

With a neighborhood business, a trip to the pharmacy is not just about getting a prescription filled. Locally owned businesses serve as community meeting places where you can actually have a real, nuanced conversation with your neighbors. It's a place where information critical to the enrichment of "community" is passed directly from people to people with a patina of humanity that cannot be found in a strip-mall world.

The new Thomas Pharmacy, scheduled open in early 2010, will offer a children's play area for waiting families and a pizza/sandwich restaurant in addition to Larry's own personally compounded hair and beauty care products.

Local owner-operators like Larry Thomas, with the mindset of "social entrepreneur," contribute far more to the community than tax dollars.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

J.C. Killingsworth Freedom Corner Event Today

If you're on this part of the globe - Hattiesburg, MS to be exact - come on out at 1pm today to the Unveiling Ceremony of the site for Freedom Corner, a newly organized civil rights memorial dedicated to the memory of "Hattiesburg's Martin Luther King" J.C. Killingsworth.

The event will take place at the intersection of Martin Luther King Avenue and Ashford (newly renamed J.C. Killingsworth) Drive.

And stay tuned for the design unveiling in early October by your favorite Architect.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Health Care, Not Sick Care

Best-selling author and physician Dr. Andrew Weil spends an hour with Diane Rehm explaining how the American health care system could be more appropriately tagged "sickness care," and he offers suggestions on how the system can be changed to promote a holistic approach to health and healing at considerably less cost.

His new book - Why Our Health Matters: A Vision of Medicine That Can Transform Our Future - Dr. Weil makes the case for a greater awareness of wellness in the way we approach health care.

Click on Dr. Weil's website for a more comprehensive look at holistic medicine and wellness through the mind/body/spirit connection.

And Michael Pollan recently penned an insightful op-ed piece - Big Food vs. Big Insurance - about how the way we grow and eat food in the US impacts health care costs.

An Excerpt:

"According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.

We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sustainable Health Care, Part 1 - The Way We Eat

This week's newspaper column - first in a two-part series on sustainable health care reform.

The national debate on health care reform is raging. On the left, the buzz is about universal coverage and pubic options; on the right - tort reform and the free market. Everyone is concerned about the increasingly high price tag.

You may be asking, “What does sustainability have to do with health care?”

Surprisingly, sustainable practices – or more to the point, the lack of sustainable practices - have a great deal to do with how much Americans pay for health care. Regardless of where you fall in the political spectrum, or whether you are fully insured or not at all, unsustainable practices jack up the price you pay.

Consider the issue of what we eat and how we grow our food.

Perhaps the most costly contributor to what we pay for health care is America’s obesity epidemic. Americans are getting fatter and fatter each passing year. Diabetes, heart disease, respiratory ailments and other expensive-to-treat maladies are exacerbated and sometimes completely brought on by obesity.

Juvenile diabetes is on the rise as kids take in almost a third of their calories from sugary soft drinks. The sweetener of choice – high fructose corn syrup – is cheap because government subsidies over the past half century have encouraged farmers to abandon sustainable practices of rotating crops and livestock and move to single-crop farming. That strategy has been good for production yields, but bad for the diversity of local farming and the availability of locally grown produce.

Crop rotation has been used for millennia as a sustainable practice to self-fertilize and to keep pests away naturally. Without that cultivated diversity, farmers now use more fertilizer and more insecticide to produce the food we eat. Thankfully, farmers cannot spray with DDT any more - a chemical proven to have extreme adverse side effects – but the jury is still out on the long-term effects of currently-used chemicals when it comes to contracting various types of cancer.

When you think about sustainability, think “natural. One of the keys to good health is eating a diverse selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. Processed foods contain extra chemicals for the sake of shelf life and preservation of natural coloration, but some of the nutritional value in processed foods is lost in the process of, well, being processed.

At some point, we began using hydrogenated oils to extend expiration dates of various packaged foods – good news for retailers, but turns out too much hydrogenated oil in the diet leads to heart disease and resulting high-cost treatments.

It’s simple: Americans are eating too many empty calories from processed sugars and fats and we’re paying a high price to treat the consequences. If we do not change the way we eat, Americans will continue to pay “too much” for health care no matter how we change system.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Obama's Health Care Plan

Many people from across the political spectrum are asking "What's in Obama's health care plan?"

Certain factions (seemingly motivated by fear of change or a visceral hatred for President Obama) have mis-characterized the Administration's health care plan so loudly that honest information-seekers are genuinely confused.

You can read the full plan at; here are the bullet highlights.

If You Have Health Insurance

  • Ends discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions.
  • Limits premium discrimination based on gender and age.
  • Prevents insurance companies from dropping coverage when people are sick and need it most.
  • Caps out-of pocket expenses so people don’t go broke when they get sick.
  • Eliminates extra charges for preventive care like mammograms, flu shots and diabetes tests to improve health and save money.
  • Protects Medicare for seniors.
  • Eliminates the "donut-hole" gap in coverage for prescription drugs.

If You Don't Have Insurance

  • Creates a new insurance marketplace – the Exchange – that allows people without insurance and small businesses to compare plans and buy insurance at competitive prices.
  • Provides new tax credits to help people buy insurance.
  • Provides small businesses tax credits and affordable options for covering employees.
  • Offers a public health insurance option to provide the uninsured and those who can’t find affordable coverage with a real choice.
  • Immediately offers new, low-cost coverage through a national "high risk" pool to protect people with preexisting conditions from financial ruin until the new Exchange is created.

For All Americans

  • Won’t add a dime to the deficit and is paid for upfront.
  • Requires additional cuts if savings are not realized.
  • Implements a number of delivery system reforms that begin to rein in health care costs and align incentives for hospitals, physicians, and others to improve quality.
  • Creates an independent commission of doctors and medical experts to identify waste, fraud and abuse in the health care system.
  • Orders immediate medical malpractice reform projects that could help doctors focus on putting their patients first, not on practicing defensive medicine.
  • Requires large employers to cover their employees and individuals who can afford it to buy insurance so everyone shares in the responsibility of reform.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

LEED Rating System: Panacea or Smoke Screen?

New LEED Silver university dormitories

Over the past few years, the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system by the USGBC (US Green Building Council) has become the most recognized public symbol of green building in the US.

Since its inception in 1993, the USGBC has contributed monumentally to public awareness of green building issues, and the LEED rating system is a good-faith attempt to certify the level of sustainability in a building, but LEED - as is - has some fatal flaws. Did you know that a building can be awarded a LEED Silver Certification while using more energy than the average building or without addressing any of the local climatic conditions? A building in Alaska would not be disqualified for being a carbon copy of a building in Florida - as long as the credits add up.

Problem is, LEED is a checklist, and a clever designer can find enough check marks to gain a certification without really making a fundamental change in the way buildings are designed. (A contractor representative of a local LEED Silver project recently came by my sustainability class and presented the building. The visit got them a point on the checklist necessary to make Silver. Great! But does it make the building any greener? Turns out, the building in question looks conspicuously just like the last conventional energy-hog-of-a-building designed by that architect.)

LEED is a rating system, and no substitute for a thorough understanding of the "principles" of Sustainability. LEED should reflect sustainability, not the other way around.

Here's a good article from New York Times about LEED rating shortfalls.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Transformative Ideas of Van Jones

Image: YouTube still

Want to know the real reason Van Jones was targeted by the noise machine?

Watch this speech he delivered in Philadelphia a couple of years ago explaining the philosophy of lifting people out of poverty by matching up America's fastest growing economic sector - the green economy - with those who need jobs most.

Powerful ideas draw powerful enemies. Pick it up at the 22:40 mark if you want to skip over a rather lengthy intro.

UPDATE: Arianna Huffington's take - Thank You, Glenn Beck.

BeauSoleil: Put a Lid On It !

Solar Decathlon Update: Every two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website. And check out a short film about the project.

Report from the field:

Why do we as designers like the challenge of a competition like the Solar Decathlon? Why do we work and think so hard about very specific problems? Is it because the solutions we develop give us gratification/ satisfaction? Are we not challenged enough in a typical design project whether hypothetical or real? Is it the desire to triumph over others working on similar design problems/solutions?

It seems to me that it is the fear of the unknown, the possibility of failure and the risk in general, that is the allure also. I've often compared the struggle of the Decathlon with the Moon Launch and the assault on Normandy in WWII. Obviously, there is really no comparison with the scale of the projects or the sacrifices made - but for those who have competed in the Decathlon there is some truth the rings true.

So why do we drive ourselves to such extreme for 10 days on the mall in DC? It is not really about those ten days... but it is... but is also really about a personal challenge for each of the TEAM members. Can I handle it? The Decathlon is really a vehicle for testing ourselves and our ideas while producing something of lasting significance.

W. Geoff Gjertson, AIA
Assoc. Professor of Architecture
UL Lafayette
TEAM BeauSoleil Faculty Advisor

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Obama Administration Cans Van Jones

Late-breaking news:

In a sad and tragic turn of events, the Obama administration just threw Van Jones, and with him the heart and soul of the green movement, under the bus after refusing to defend Jones from viscous partisan attacks. Around midnight last night, Jones submitted his resignation along with this statement.

In the early days of the administration, advocates for greening the American economy (including this one) were ecstatic over the appointment of Van Jones to the new position of "Green Jobs Czar." Finally, after years of rudderless inattention, we had the hope and promise of proactive efforts to promote green jobs in all sectors of the economy. At long last, all Americans stood to benefit from brainpower inside the federal government dedicated to expanding the green economy.

Jones' crime - wearing his heart on his sleeve. Jones lives and breathes the ethic of empowering ALL of our citizens through education, training, and the creation of green jobs with special emphasis on those who do not have the means to lobby Washington for just that. Equipped with a Yale law degree, Jones could have chosen a path in corporate America or on Wall Street with the accompanying personal enrichment. He didn't. Instead he has devoted his professional life to lifting the disenfranchised out of poverty by equipping eager-to-learn individuals with skills that (ironically considering right-wing cries of "Marxist!") allow them to compete in our capitalist economy.

Over the past several months, I have attempted in vain to find out what green jobs initiatives were in the works. In the age of the Internet, that should not have been a very hard task. Seems, in retrospect, that Van Jones has been kept under wraps by this administration, and never had the respect or solid backing of the president.

Jones' ideas on greening the American economy are not only defendable, they are a moral imperative. Why not, instead of sacrificing the good, demand that opponents defend their positions, which have turned out to be disastrous.

It's hard to imagine how Jones' resignation will do anything but enable and empower those who are hell-bent on killing the green movement. (The Luddites have already started celebrating and now they're looking for more scalps.)

This is a sad day for America, and a telling move from an administration that - until now - this green Architect has doggedly defended in the face of lies and slander by those who despise progressive values.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Katrina Cottages

Images: Mississippi Development Authority

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of designers descended on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Chief among them were purveyors of the New Urbanism movement. The Katrina Cottage design was born out of those efforts.

New Urbanists lean heavily on borrowing historical examples of "traditional neighborhoods" in creating master plan layouts and in establishing the stylistic appearance of buildings and spaces.

(Before firing off hate mail to the author, please be aware that, admittedly, this is somewhat of a broad and over-simplistic explanation of New Urbanism. Somewhat. There are variations on the theme, but the "looking back" quality seems to be a common tenant. You can learn more about New Urbanism from pioneer Andres Duany and associates in the very informative book Suburban Nation.)

My critique of New Urbanism is that it tends to be forced, overly regimented, lacking in unpredictable creativity, and unnecessarily nostalgic - all qualities, when overly weighted - result in sacrificing environmental compatibility for the sake of "what it looks like." Having said that, I think the New Urbanists are spot on in their analysis of what's wrong with America's suburbs.

Take for example this proposed layout (above) included in Mississippi's grant application - Mississippi calls them Mississippi Cottages, not Katrina Cottages - for alternative hurricane relief housing. The explanation claims that this plan is based on a "Roman Camp" model. Just between you and me, I think it more closely resembles the layout of a stockade or a modern-day penitentiary.

Where's the life? Where are the unexpected delightful spaces. And what happened to Nature? (Here's a clue: think about bulldozers lined up blade to blade scraping Mother Nature's silt-soft skin.)

Earlier in the year, a coast developer who was considering buying out a few hundred of the excess cottages hired me to design a layout for said cottages a few miles north of the gulf. The density requirement was a challenge on this project, but here's the organic solution I came up with.

Notice the variety of spaces (carved out of the natural landforms) and the periodic relief between units and shared vistas into natural wetlands.

Quite a contrast. Same Katrina Cottages but with a very different feel. A more natural feel. What a difference it makes to the senses (and the human spirit) when sensitive coexistence with the natural environment trumps "historical" remedies.

Update: Since this post, a couple of people have mentioned that the site plan of the New Urbanist-generated Katrina Cottage layout looked curiously like 1) a concentration camp or 2) the hull of a slave ship. You be the judge.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

GreenMobile: Eco Prefab

Image by Michael Berk (double click image for higher resolution)

In response to the Katrina toxic trailer debacle, the federal government appropriated $400 million for alternative temporary housing.

Mississippi's Katrina Cottage concept got the lion's share of the money, but a respectable thin sliver - almost $6 million - went to fund the production of a lesser known concept - Michael Berk's GreenMobile.

The GreenMobile, pronounced like the oil company, not the auto-, is a factory-produced, transportable, expandable, affordable green home that can serve as a "port after the storm" or as permanent domicile. This prototype ties into existing infrastructure or can be equipped to go it alone as self-sustaining living quarters.

Though Katrina Cottages are in abundance - the State of Mississippi is now selling off the excess units - I have to say I'm having some trouble finding a constructed GreenMobile anywhere in Mississippi. (Can somebody help me out here?)

I asked Michael Berk recently about the status of the funded GreenMobile and he said he didn't know. Seems that after consulting early on, he's out of the loop on any resulting construction. Sounding like someone talking about an estranged former lover, Berk commented about the design : "It's changed." I could hear him shaking his head over the phone.

Nevertheless, the final proposal for funding that I saw two years ago was far deeper shade of green than anything else out there. The wording in the appropriation announcement contained the disclaimer "up to" before funding amounts. It would be a shame if this progressive prototype died a premature death with money on the table.

Check out Professor/Architect Michael Berk's website for more images of the GreenMobile.