Thursday, October 29, 2009

Recycling the Recycling Business Model

Is recycling just a feel-good exercise in America?

Wild swings over the past few years in the demand for recycled waste material has presented a challenge for communities attempting to promote universal recycling and a rational for communities who are hostile to the very idea of recycling. I hear stories all the time about recycled material "piling up" outside of town because of a weak buyer's market, and I've read about instances where excess recycled stock is periodically hauled off to the landfill. At the same time, manufacturers and contractors use far less recycled material than they could as most stock is too difficult to locate and identify. Who has the time to look for something that may not even be available?

Here's a proposal: Why not set up a national database for recycled materials? The effectiveness of such a structure would hinge upon being comprehensive in nature. This could take the form of a government agency or an industry-funded consortium - take your pick - and it should cover all products, all grades of materials, and all locations withing the US.

A comprehensive database of available material open to all potential buyers will be a big step in closing the environmental loop and making recycling economically feasible in the US.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Fat People Don't Walk

This week's newspaper column:

On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I noticed something on the streets of the city that’s very peculiar in modern-day America – the complete absence of morbid obesity.

A little background: In 1791, President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant, a prominent French architect and city planner – to lay out the new capitol city on the banks of the Potomac River. L’Enfant envisioned the city as a series of parks connected by diagonal avenues on an overlay of a regular rectangular street grid. Each neighborhood would have its own green space and business district; the distance between each would be determined by practical walking distances. Obviously, the ease of traveling great distances quickly by car was not a factor. So Washington, like every city designed before the advent of the automobile, became and fortunately still remains a very walkable city.

Conversely, as new development in the United States has sprawled across the suburban countryside, so have our waistlines. How common is it to see an overly-ample “waddler” dropped off at the front door of Wal-Mart?

One might protest and argue, “But you can’t expect a 300-pound grandma to walk all the way across a hot, tree-less parking lot, can you?” That’s a good point, but this may be a chicken and egg -shaped question. Which came first – the weight gain or the inactivity?

Since moving from Washington, DC to Mississippi, I’ve picked up about 40 or pounds or so. Some of that extra weight is due to age and the classic fat-filled diet of the American South, but I suspect the majority of extra poundage is a direct result of walking less in my daily routine.

While in DC, I walked 6 blocks every morning to the Union Station metro, rode the train for about 15 minutes, and walked another 3 blocks to my workplace downtown. In the evening, I reversed the routine. At lunchtime, there were plenty of restaurants to choose from in the immediate area –all accessible to “foot-traffic,” and on a nice day, I could stroll over to one of many parks in the area to enjoy lunch in an urban green space before walking back to the office.

That routine alone amounted to about two miles of walking every day. Add to that a multiplicity of errands made possible by virtue of a walkable infrastructure, and each day included several built-in cardiovascular workouts.

In today’s world of city planning, walkability seems to be, at best, a faint afterthought and certainly not the first thing most politicians and planners think of when thinking of city infrastructure. Real estate developers claim that being forced to build sidewalks on street-facing building lots is cost prohibitive and nobody likes the idea of higher taxes to see to it that connected sidewalks are the norm.

But with obesity-related health care costs escalating through the roof, isn’t that alone a reason for rethinking our investment – or current lack thereof – in walkable infrastructure?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Metro Rail in Power City

When in DC, the Metro is the way to go. And why not? The Washington DC Metro is safe, clean, and efficient.

Among rapid transit systems in the US, only the New York City subway system has more ridership. With a metropolitan area population of 5.3 million, Washingtonians log a million trips each week day on metro trains, and including bus service, almost 40 percent of commuters access public transportation daily.

The rub on subways has always been 1) safety (or more to the point, perceived safety), and 2) vandalism and graffiti.

Architect Harry Weese's brilliant design transcends those issues. Concrete barrel vaults create a wide-open feel with 360 degree vision - no mysterious corners where who-knows-who can be lurking. Trains flank a central platform so walls are out of spray can range of would-be public artists.

I rode the metro almost every day when I lived in DC. In fact, the metro was so convenient, I found myself having to crank my car and let it idle from time to time to keep the battery fresh.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Capitol Oasis

One of my favorite places in Washington DC is this little rest stop on the grounds of the US Capitol. When I lived in Capitol Hill in the late 80's and early 90's, I spent a good bit of time in this little house. The thick masonry walls and surrounding mature tree canopy resulted in a microclimate that was 10-20 degrees cooler than the harsh Washington summer temperature outside. (Washington is very much a southern city. The traditional August congressional recess came about as a response to the repressive late summer weather.)

This little enclosure, by design, muffles the sounds of the city and exists as a great place to get away from it all in the middle of it all. The cool stone built-in seating is perfect for relaxing, resting tired feet, or spending a little time in deep meditation. And the architectural detailing is nothing short of delicious. Notice the custom-formed brickwork. It's unfortunate that craftsmanship of this quality is so rare today.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Solar Decathlon: Variety is the Spice of Sustainable Life

One interesting aspect of the Solar Decathlon was the diversity of solutions given the same design parameters - a testament to the infinite opportunities on the horizon for the future of sustainable living.

Here, a few of the 20 Solar Decathlon entrants. In order: Team Spain, Rice University, Penn State, University of Kentucky, and Team California (Santa Clara University, California College of the Arts).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Do We Become What We Watch on TV?

I must lead a very sheltered life.

While in Washington, I've been staying with my good friend Dusty. (We've know each other since we were 5 years old.)

I love the sights and sounds of the city. Washington DC is a familiar urban space - I lived here for 8 years in the late 80's and early 90's - and even thought it's been raining constantly up until today, this trip has been uplifting for the mind and soul.

But one aspect of this trip has been a bit jarring: cable TV. Dusty, like most Americans, has the latest in television hardware in almost every room along with the requisite 100+ channels.

Admittedly, I don't watch much television. In fact, when the country went digital, Vickie and I opted not to get a conversion box, so technically we're TV free, although we do occasionally access certain programs on the Internet. (Our favorites are the new series Glee, the Office, and Vickie's favorite from Germany - Lindenstrasse.)

Normally the sounds around our home and my office range from quiet (which I love) to classical music to NPR news and talk programming. I hear statistics about how the "average American" watches 6 -8 hours of TV a day (which seems impossible as most people spend a good bit of time at their job or sleeping). Over the past few days, I've been getting a big dose of average America with Dusty's roommate's television-watching habits. As Dusty puts it, Joe has the TV on all the time.

Since I had access to a TV, I decided to flip around and see what I've been missing. I was surprised, shocked actually, to find such a high level of violence and negativity, not just on one channel, but on almost every channel. This morning, for instance, rapid-fire gunshots, tires screeching, screams, yelling, and glass shattering were the predominant (loud) sounds emanating from the wide-screen.

Am I the only one who finds this abrasive? It hit me right in the solar plexus in a constant barrage of energetic stabbing. I asked him if he found this kind of programming harsh. Desensitized to it all, he was bewildered by my question.

Is this what most people in America take in every day?

A friend of a friend from Germany made the comment once that he didn't understand why we Americans banned beautiful naked bodies from TV but murders and mayhem were the norm. "Shouldn't it be the opposite?" he inquired.

No wonder we're such a violent society.

I must lead a very sheltered life. Thank God.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Solar Decathlon: The Final Tally

Well, the judging is over and the results are in. Team Germany took first place. Illinois came in second, and Team California placed third.

Unfortunately, TEAM BeauSoleil fell a bit short in their effort to take home the trophy.

Unpacking the numbers in the final scoring, low scores in two of the ten categories - Net Metering and Hot Water - turned out to be fatal for ULL in the overall standings.

Otherwise, TEAM BeauSoleil posted very respectable numbers across the board including winning the Market Viability category.

Congratulations TEAM BeauSoleil for a monumental effort creating an affordable, livable, off-the-grid home. Your work has helped to created a powerful forward momentum for the future of sustainable housing.

Click on the official Solar Decathlon site for comprehensive statistics and competition photos.

BeauSoleil onTop in Market Viability

Friday, October 16, 2009

Solar Decathlon: And the Winner is....

Following up on their win in the last Solar Decathlon two years ago, TEAM Germany takes first place in the overall competition.

With a facade clad in photovoltaic panels plus rooftop solar panels, this prototype boasts an astounding 18Kw of energy generation at peak capacity.

I ran into their lead consulting carpenter Achmed who gave me a run-down on the winning technology. Achmed volunteered that his wardrobe was typical of German carpenters, albeit with a decidedly more formal hat.

East Wing Side Trip

Ducking out of the rain for coffee with friends and former Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture apprenti Ebbie and Niloufar, I came upon a new (for me) installation in the corridor between the East and West Wings of the National Gallery.

The flashing lights in the tunnel create continuous movement; no less than hypnotic.

Astounding art piece.

More Solar Decathlon later on today.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Rainy Rainy Day

It was a very drizzly day out on the National Mall., but the competition continued. Solar Decathlon

Still, Gretchen Lacombe Vanicor, TEAM BeauSoleil project manager, keeps her enthusiasm as she presents unique features to soaked visitors.

Tomorrow, the awards ceremony and a concert on the BeauSoleil deck by none other than Beausoleil - the band, not the house.

BeauSoleil wins Market Viability Award

photos: TEAM BeauSoleil

BeauSoleil wins Market Viability Award - a testament to TEAM BeauSoleil's focus on creating an all-solar home that is a realistic, affordable option for everyday living.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Solar Decathlon: BeauSoleil Opens to the Public

photos: TEAM BeauSoleil

I'm leaving for DC in about an hour to join TEAM BeauSoleil and tour all 20 homes. Tomorrow through this weekend, look for tons of Johnny-on-the-Spot photos.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Solar Decathlon - View All 20 Entries

This week, it's all Solar Decathlon.

Click on this link to view all 20 all-solar homes in the competition, and consider voting for BeauSoleil Home. I did!

Friday, October 9, 2009

BeauSoleil: Room With a View

Photo: TEAM BeauSoleil

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.

The photo - a shot from inside the BeauSoleil all-solar home.

When I lived in Washington, I had a running ritual. My house was in Capitol Hill, a half mile from the Capitol. I ran down Capitol Hill, then along the mall up to and around the Washington Monument (I would touch it every time), back down the mall, up Capitol Hill - and believe me, it is a hill! - then back home.

Five miles exactly.

For several years, I ran the mall 4-6 times a week. That was a few years and a few pounds ago.

Still, this photo brings back memories.

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

Self Portrait: John Lennon

Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one.

All you need is love.

If everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there'd be peace.

I don't believe in killing whatever the reason!

Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.

Love is the flower you've got to let grow.

Yeah we all shine on, like the moon, and the stars, and the sun.

All we are saying is give peace a chance.

You're just left with yourself all the time, whatever you do anyway. You've got to get down to your own God in your own temple. It's all down to you, mate.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

BeauSoleil: All-solar Home Erected on the Mall in DC

If you're in the neighborhood, drop by and take a tour of ULL's entry in the Solar Decathlon on the Mall in Washington.

Your best bet for transportation is the DC Metro. (Good luck parking, if you're auto-determined.) Get off at the Smithsonian exit, and you'll be right in the thick of things.

Next week, I'll be in DC posting on the Solar Decathlon every day, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Morphosis Float House in New Orleans

Image: Morphosis

Architect Thom Mayne, founder and design director for Morphosis, is introducing a new concept for building below sea level in places like New Orleans - the float house.

Well, not quite so new. Houseboats have been around for quite a while, and several prototypes have appeared in the Netherlands lately, but it is the first permitted floating house in the United States.

And, in case of flood - it floats!

The float house is affordable ($150,000) and sustainable; it operates off the grid. Mayne worked with Brad Pitt to make this idea a reality.

Check out the Float House page on Morphosis' website.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Freedom Corner: a Guided Tour

James Ray Polk, Architect --- double-click for higher resolution

Foot-Soldier's Fountain greets the new visitor at the corner of Martin Luther King Drive and J.C. Killingsworth Avenue as a tribute to the "foot-soldiers" of the civil rights movement. The leaders and organizers may have more familiar names, but daily small acts of faith, support, and personal sacrifice by millions of people gave the movement its momentum.

Enter the memorial and look to your right. You'll see a procession of 12 kiosks - or "Pillars" - each representing an individual pillar of strength in the struggle for civil rights in Hattiesburg. Mounted on each kiosk is an interpretive painting of each pillar, and viewers may access oral histories of each individual. As you walk along, you'll notice that the path is uphill, a metaphor for the struggle.

Then there's the Brick Wall. In one of our programming sessions, an eloquent elderly woman who lived through the civil rights era said "No matter what we did, they just kept putting up brick walls. Every time we'd get past one, they'd put up another. That brick wall just kept getting higher and higher." Notice the brick wall as it grows higher and higher along the procession of pillars until, after the 12th pillar, the wall turns and opens - roughly, with bricks falling away - blown open by a mighty wind as a portal to "the other side."

And on the other side, a joyous explosion of sights and sounds. In an open-air room, designed with sound-bouncing concave concrete walls for acoustic exuberance, the sound of celebratory freedom songs fill the space along with a circular mural of larger than life-size "pillars of the movement."

In the center of the room, you'll find a reflective sphere. As you are feasting on the jubilant sounds of gospel choirs, you'll find yourself gazing into that sphere, and you'll see the leaders of the civil rights movement reflected side by side in the background. But in the foreground, undeniably - it's you.

I'm calling this space "Reflections of Freedom."

To find out more about Freedom Corner, go to the new official website: We'll soon have instructions on how you can make a tax-deductible donation to this project. Yes, you can be a part of manifesting J. C. Killingsworth Freedom Corner.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Freedom Corner: America's Newest Civil Rights Memorial

Double-click on image for higher resolution

Fresh off the drawing board, here it is - the design for J.C. Killingsworth Freedom Corner, a memorial to honor civil rights activists who led the non-violent (at least on their end) struggle in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Hattiesburg was "ground zero" for much of the persecution of African-Americans in the 1960's. Clyde Kennard, who tried to register at the University of Southern Mississippi (then Mississippi Southern College) five years before James Meredith broke the color barrier at Ole Miss, was framed by the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission and sent to Parchman Penetentiary where the contracted cancer. Left untreated, Kennard died weeks after being released.

Vernon Dahmer, another Hattiesburg civil rights leader, was killed in 1966 when his house was firebombed by the KKK.

The memorial's namesake - Rev. J.C. Killingsworth - has often been referred to as Hattiesburg's Martin Luther King, as he organized and led marches of silent protest throughout the 1960's. Appropriately, Freedom Corner is located at the intersection of Martin Luther King Avenue and the newly renamed J.C. Killingsworth Drive.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gandhi

One hundred and forty years ago today, a man was born who would go on to liberate his country from British occupation through non-violent civil disobedience and a philosophy that valued truth and love over cynicism and force.

The philosophy Gandhi articulated (and lived) inspired Martin Luther King a half century later in the struggle for African-American civil rights in the US.

Gandhi's wisdom about the long-standing power of peace and love and the contrasting short shelf life of hate and violence is particularly important in planning and living in a sustainable world.

A few inspirational quotes:

And eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

There is more to life than increasing its speed.

Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.

Freedom is not worth having if it does not included the freedom to make mistakes.

I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.

Where there is love, there is life.

A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.

To conceal ignorance is to increase it. An honest confession of it, however, gives ground for the hope that it will diminish some day or the other.

There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.