Monday, March 29, 2010

A Change of Seasons

This week's newspaper column. Read it in the Hatteisburg American.

When it comes to understanding sustainability, Nature is our greatest teacher. And one of Nature’s fundamental lessons is that the cold dark gloom of winter is always followed by the bursting exuberance of spring.

Many times we look at the winter in the world around us and see only desolation. How often do we see a rundown neighborhood and count it out, or experience an economic downturn and pronounce it permanent?

Just as in Nature, the world we create is in a state of constant change. Here’s the difference: Nature always honors the natural cycles and creates systems that self-perpetuate; sometimes we humans do not.

But Nature has vision along with a fail-safe solution for dealing with death and blight. It’s called “spring.”

Spring is fresh. It is a time for new beginnings and new growth. With help from the birds and the winds, Nature relentlessly spreads the seeds of the next generation. A good number of those seeds find fertile ground and, under the nourishing warmth of the sun, grow heartily.

Spring is bold. It does not flinch at the deadness of winter. Spring is not deterred by the brown surface patina visible to the naked eye. In fact, the robustness of spring benefits from the nutrients of last season’s fallen remains. What Nature knows is that great potential lies underneath, and the fulfillment of that hidden potential lies just a season away. What we call “dead” could in fact be the genesis of a new beginning.

Spring fosters a collective forward momentum. In Nature, growth fosters growth. The sprouts of new life collectively create a synergy that attracts the pollinating forces necessary for the expansion of an even more robust life.

Spring is optimistic. Even after the harshest winter, spring arrives with great enthusiasm and confident of ultimate success. Spring acknowledges obstacles, but is not discouraged. Witness the shoots of green winding up through cracks in the sidewalk, or fast-growing vines taking over a brick wall, or trees growing through fences. In spring, growth inevitably softens the hard edges of winter.

Spring is diverse. Variety is everywhere. Nature understands that diversity is necessary for natural sustainability. Look at unattended patches of earth. Never does one see a single species growing in one place. Natural, healthy growth comes in as a chorus of sizes, shapes, and colors influenced by the local climate and soils. (Ironically, large pristine grass lawns are among the least diverse patches of spring; that’s why they take so much maintenance.)

So if you look around and see patches of winter in the world, now is not the time to write an obituary. On the contrary, it is the time to ferociously plant seeds. And with Nature as our guide, the beginning of the harvest can’t be far away.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bagua Mandala

Feng Shui - the ancient Chinese art of placement - has come into some popularity as of late. Go to any bookstore and you'll find a dozen or more titles on the subject.

But what exactly is feng shui?

In essence, feng shui is a method of understanding how natural earth energies affect the way we build and experience our world. Different schools of feng shui draw on various references such as local geographic characteristics, compass directions, and constellation configurations. A "bagua, or ba gua" is a compass image displaying the qualities associated with each direction.

Admittedly, I am no great expert on the origins and nuances of feng shui, but since I discovered this art a couple of decades ago, I've increasingly found that the basic laws of feng shui align with my own intuition about placement.

This bagua mandala is a visual tool I created as a personal design resource based as much on my intuition, personal experience, and observation as with any particular school of feng shui.

If you find this image helpful, please feel free to copy and reproduce if for your own personal use.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Commerce Station: A Sustainable Office Park

Image: James Ray Polk, Architect

Too often, office parks are characterized by an ocean of parking, many times without a tree in sight. Not only does that offer up a brutal visual environment for users and passers-by, it's also not very kind to natural earth systems.

In this scheme, the building footprints have been scaled down (allowing for a wide variety of tenant spaces) with natural indigenous landscaping interspersed throughout the site. The green buffers offers a softer, more pleasant work environment while simultaneously creating a more temperate micro-climate, mitigating stormwater run-off, and controlling erosion.

Some people are eager to promote the myth that green design is not business-friendly. Here, the developer - Hub Development LLC of Hattiesburg, Mississippi - frees up capital by building the structure along with adjacent infrastructure when a lease or sale agreement is made with a tenant rather than constructing the entire project at once and servicing the note until spaces are full, or just as bad, putting committed tenants in limbo until a certain percentage of the project is leased. It also allows for maximum flexibility and responsiveness as each space can be custom designed to meet the particular tenant's needs. That gives Hub Development an advantage over their competitors in today's tight commercial leasing environment.

The building on the corner is currently under construction and will be fully complete and ready for its new occupant - ironically, the James Insurance Agency - in a few weeks; stay tuned for photos of the finished building!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Sustainable Life of Leonardo da Vinci

Today's newspaper column: (Read it in the Hattiesburg American.)

You’ve heard of Leonardo da Vinci; he’s the guy who created the world’s most famous painting: the Mona Lisa.

But did you know that Leonardo embraced what we now consider a green lifestyle? And are you aware that, over five centuries ago, he articulated a way of holistic thinking that matches up perfectly with the principles of sustainability?

Born into the Dark Ages, Leonardo (1452 – 1519) ushered in an age of open-minded thinking that changed the course of history. In the thousand years before Leonardo (with notable exceptions of the windmill and the gothic cathedral) not much happened that was new and innovative. The groupthink of the day was “everything worthwhile had already been thought of or invented; only fools waste time and effort in the pursuit of new ideas.” Leonardo rejected that stagnant way of thinking.

In his day, Leonardo was famous for his amazing strength and dexterity. So extraordinary was his grace and poise, that people would peer out their windows just to watch him walk down the street. Leonardo consciously cultivated total body fitness centered on aerobic conditioning and daily stretching exercises (twenty-first century translation: yoga) along with diet – Leonardo was a strict vegetarian. He ate a high-fiber diet consisting of fresh vegetables, legumes, olive oil, and plenty of water. And lest you think a vegetarian diet results in frailty or weakness, Leonardo was legendary for being able to bend horseshoes with his bare hands and for stopping horses in full gallop by catching hold of their reins.

Leonardo was guided by an insatiable curiosity. Never satisfied with the status quo, he always pushed forward seeking a greater and truer understanding of the issue at hand. Leonardo was an advocate of lifelong learning, asking confounding questions and seeking answers up until the day he died. And learning through demonstration was Leonardo’s highest truth. He didn’t take the word of “experts” as sacrosanct. In Leonardo’s world, personal experience, testing, and a willingness to learn from mistakes trumped established authority.

Leonardo practiced the art of refinement of the senses. To understand something fully, he encouraged others to pay special attention to seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, and tasting to heighten the experience, and thus lead to a greater understanding of how things are and how things work.

Rather than looking at dichotomies (it’s either this or that) Leonardo embraced ambiguity and uncertainty, and he recognized and appreciated the interconnectedness of all things. In the world of sustainability, we call this “systems thinking.”

And finally, Leonardo sought in all things to achieve a balance of art and science, a synthesis of imagination and logic, in an act of whole-brain thinking that allowed him to navigate past prejudices and biases that all too often stand in the way of seeing the world as it is, not just as one wants it to be.

We can’t all be Leonardos, but with a little help from the original “Renaissance Man” we can begin to see the forest AND the trees.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Preaching to the Choir

This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg American.

Last Monday night, maestro Gregory Fuller – armed with baton and resolute determination - purposed a confident downbeat unleashing a powerful torrent of cultural sustainability. The music: An American Requiem. The venue: Carnegie Hall.

Straight-away in the second balcony sat the composer, Edwin Penhorwood, listening as selections of his seventeen-movement opus were performed on stage for the very first time by three hundred talented individuals working together as a whole to produce a singular work of art. The piece was commissioned by the School of Music at the University of Southern Mississippi as a memorial to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Most of the works for chorus and orchestra performed in the United States today have European origins. And why not? Bach, Mozart, Beethoven – all musical geniuses – along with fellow over-the-ponders gave us a rich tradition of music from which to draw. And in fact, preceding An American Requiem, conductor John Flanery led chorus and orchestra masterfully in Mozart’s Coronation Mass in C Major – how can you not like that?

But unique is the occasion when a contemporary work matches up with the musical standards that endure time. This was just such an occasion. Ed Penhorwood hit this one out of the park.

What’s so culturally significant about an original, contemporary piece of music?

Although we all seem to be on friendlier terms with the older classics, the cultural reflections embodied in those melodies are borrowed from another time and another place. Familiar and inviting as the classics may be, music written a few centuries ago and an ocean away serves as a time capsule of cultures past, like watching a good black-and-white movie, while contemporary compositions – at their best - tell us something about our common experiences as articulated by the sensitivities of the artist-composer.

And what is our “culture” if not the collection of common experiences unique to our time and place on this earth?

Between chorus, orchestra and soloists, the three hundred or so of us on stage made an agreement. We agreed that regardless of each other’s level of talent (some singers were masterful soloists in their own right; others, like me, have been told they have “a decidedly choral voice”), we would work together in a singular effort for the good of the whole. No one piped up out of turn to draw attention away from the flow of the music. Everyone, whether soprano or baritone or violin or trombone, sang and played as directed to the best of their abilities to create a cohesive sound that, with great composing, moves and enriches the soul.

For those who did not make the Carnegie Hall concert, fear not. The Meistersingers will join the Hattiesburg Choral union and the USM Symphony to perform An American Requiem in its entirety in Hattiesburg on April 8th. Mark the date, get your tickets, and prepare to hear the resonant sound of your own culture.