When I began to study engineering and then architecture, I was obsessed with the question of why our built environment looked the way it did? I grew up on the west coast and wondered why (short of a few more trees and the rain) strips malls in L.A. looked identical to strip malls in Seattle. Why did our major cities seem to be designed for maximum energy consumption and social isolation. Urban centers setup for long commutes to clusters of tightly packed towers (vacated except for working hours) configured for maximum heat loss/gain with barren canyon-like street scapes. Why did our homes, isolated in suburbia and locking us into an automobile lifestyle, seem like some sad, cookie cutter imitation of architectural styles of the wealthy pulled unconsciously from our collective memory?
Eventually I would make peace with these observations as I began to understand that our built environment was a reflection of our collective consciousness. By that I mean a blending of attitudes, desires, aspirations, beliefs, fears, and ideals that collectively shape and inform our building codes, zoning laws, politics, tax codes, lending practices, building development economics, architectural fashions and fads, and ultimately the shape and fabric of our built environment. This would explain the difference in scale and livability of a European city built mostly by skilled hand labor, under aristocratic rule, before the age of the automobile … and by contrast, the typical American city built in the context free-wheeling, winner take-all capitalism. It’s inhuman scale ordained by mammoth steel and glass structures erected by cranes set into rectangular city blocks dominated by automobiles.
A large part of the collective dynamic that shaped our environment is embedded in our culture of the individual. A culture enshrined in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” So our built environment from the beginning would always be shaped by the opposing forces of our individual “pursuit of happiness” no matter what the environmental or social cost and the countervailing forces of our communal needs for health and well-being. Today we find ourselves in the cross-hairs of those opposing forces, and a growing chorus of environmental and resource issues have begun to present themselves as the canaries in the coal mine of our communal well-being.
Environmentally, global warming has reached a tipping point of no return and we can now only mitigate the long-term effects, not reverse them. With 120 million housing units in the U.S. contributing 21% of our greenhouse gas emissions our “individual pursuit of happiness” has to be trumped by the needs of “our communal health and well-being”.
Peak oil is emerging as our first global resource crisis, as the price of oil nears $140 per barrel and homeowners in the Northeast are faced with heating oil costs that exceed their monthly mortgage. Our pursuit of suburban happiness will soon be trumped by $10 per gallon gas as we search for new dwelling patterns to replace the great sprawl of suburbia.
As a growing 6.7 billion world population and global resource depletion begins to take its toll, water and energy shortages in North America will be the next crisis to impact 100 million American homeowners that rely heavily on natural gas for heating, cooking, and hot water, and coal for electricity.
Our housing stock is especially vulnerable to these shocks to our energy supplies because our building codes and energy standards were conceived in the context of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. For the most part, we have built thinly insulated and poorly constructed homes believing that cheap energy was an infinite commodity that could be exploited for generations to come.
That environmental and resource “chain letter” is about to emplode and it will fall to the current generation to lead the painful transition to a post fossil fuel world.
I’m an architect and engineer by training and practiced architecture in California during the early energy crisis days of the 1970’s. In the early 1980’s I made a career change and spent over two decades leading turnarounds and start-ups in the manufacturing sector. Burned-out and discouraged by the outsourcing and downsizing of corporate America, I returned to architecture and began writing a handbook on sustainable home design. In the process of writing that “handbook” I began to question the direction of the “green building movement” and determined that there was a vast difference between what we accepted as “green” and what was truly sustainable and with that realization began to write this blog. (see “The Difference between Green and Sustainable“)
I would eventually conclude that the imminent peaking and global decline in production of oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium would render much of what we do in “green building” as nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
As I continued to research and write about the subject of sustainability and housing, a new book, Chill in the Living Room (July 2008 release), would be born. This book explores the historical forces, policies, economic theory, and technical advances that gave form to our residential built environment. It describes the fragile, uncertain, and dependent systems that homeowners innocently rely on for electricity, natural gas, and water. In the end, it gives homeowners practical real-world strategies for converting their homes into some semblance of energy efficiency in preparation for a painful post peak transition to a more resilient and sustainable future.
I continue to research and write and currently live with my wife Debi, my dog Buddy, and two horses at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
May we all find the way forward to a more resilient future.
John Van Doren
June 19, 2008
“Future generations are always free to make themselves miserable or content with whatever we give them. We do not owe the future their happiness, but we do owe them an intact resource base.”
Dr. Herman Daly
”We don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery