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Photograph by Rory McNamara

Back to Basics: Joe Kennedy (left) and Steve Beck warm themselves in the glow of an open-air kitchen at the home of eco-dwelling student Leslie Jackson.

Home, Green Home

New College's eco-dwelling program is leading the pack in exploring the green building movement

By Davina Baum

It's a wet and rainy Friday afternoon in West Marin. The wood fire is burning, the large picture window looks out on the dripping foliage, and Benjamin Fahrer has just made me some peppermint tea. I'm sitting in a house that Fahrer built, a collapsible, portable canvas dome with all the comforts of home.

It's warm and bright inside, despite the cloudy skies outside. The cream-colored canvas skin of the dome diffuses a warm light throughout the space, which has a small, fully equipped kitchen, a dining area, a living room, and a bedroom loft. The noise of the rain against the canvas is meditative, reassuring.

The dome is 465 square feet--bigger than many a New York apartment--and it collapses into an 8-by-12-foot box that sits on a trailer. In about 12 hours, Benjamin and his wife could be on the road in their old biodiesel-fueled PG&E truck with their house on their backs--the human equivalent of the humble snail.

Fahrer graduated in December from the New College of California's master's program with a concentration in eco-dwelling. The dome was his thesis project. Unlike most graduate work, Fahrer's thesis won't gather dust in a filing cabinet. Fahrer's thesis serves a practical purpose: shelter. And another one: sustainability.

Here's one more: stewardship of the land we live on.

Green building, natural building, sustainable building--it's known by many names, but it means basically the same thing. Standard construction is wasteful, toxic, and is destroying the resources that we have long relied on. Standard architecture pays little attention to maximizing a structure's potential to employ readily available resources, like the sun, and to build community.

Natural building hearkens back to the earliest architects, who used what materials they had on hand and were careful to replenish what they used. They understood, consciously or not, that taking away from the earth requires something given back. The materials of vernacular architecture--straw bale, rammed earth, cob, adobe--are all strong, long-lasting, and nontoxic; they are good at regulating temperature, and waste very few resources in their creation.

Need heat? Get it from the sun. Climate too hot, water at a premium? Design carefully so as to maximize the cooling properties of materials and the availability of local resources. Build small, build with family, build with very little money.

For thousands of years, people operated under these premises because it was the most logical way to live. There were no highway systems carting truckloads of lumber; there was no advanced manufacturing creating more efficient synthetic materials, no oil available to heat houses, and no water piped for miles from a reservoir.

Current standard construction materials--the wood that's clear-cut, the iron for rebar that's mined, the cement that releases tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in its manufacturing--are avoided as much as possible by green builders, in favor of materials with fewer manufacturing needs.

There is no set material list for a naturally built house, and the demands of the site--its climate and geology--often dictate the materials used. The types of materials run the gamut--earth, concrete, rocks, gravel, glass, bamboo--but share in low toxicity, little reliance on fossil fuels, and low labor and industry costs in their manufacture. Add to that locally produced substances that don't rely on fleets of polluting trucks to get to their location and sustainably farmed wood that doesn't destroy forests.

Steve Beck and Joe Kennedy have spent the better half of their careers thinking about how we live. As faculty in the eco-dwelling concentration at Santa Rosa's New College campus, they lead a cohort of students who are rethinking the standards of design and construction and how they affect the way that we live.

Both come to the program with backgrounds in architecture. Kennedy's education in natural building complements Beck's ecological design expertise. Sitting at a vast table in New College's beautiful building just outside Railroad Square, it's apparent that their personalities, too, are complementary: Beck is soft-spoken, unassuming, a counterpoint to Kennedy's warm intensity.

Kennedy--the author of The Art of Natural Building--came to natural building as a student, with the idea that he "wanted to take the destruction out of architecture." In architecture school in Berkeley and then in Los Angeles, Kennedy found himself attracted to traditions of vernacular architecture--the humble cottages and shacks built in anonymous villages all over the world which "were not deemed very important to study" and indeed, were not considered architecture at all. "We looked at things like the Parthenon, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright . . . but I had this instinctive feeling . . . that there was some other way of building."

As an architect, Kennedy felt very conflicted about the damage that his chosen profession was doing to the earth. "What I found was, I was increasingly unable to live with myself, especially when I was [ordering lumber] that I knew was coming from old growth forests which I enjoyed backpacking through."

Kennedy turned to earth construction, under the mentorship of Nader Khalili of the CalEarth Institute: "It was a real awakening for me, in that there was this feeling about architecture that I wanted to have. . . . I wanted to design things that were as amazing as trees were, or birds nests or beaver dams." He was struck by the elegance and sustainability of natural architecture. "I thought, 'How could we as human beings do that?' And I found that we have done that, and it's only in the past couple hundred years or so that we've really come away from some sustainable traditions of our own."

Kennedy admits that "having these thoughts as a young architecture student, I felt very alone." But in working with Khalili, Kennedy found a community of like-minded designers, builders, and architects. A relatively recent addition to the New College faculty, he started giving public lectures in natural building on the North Bay campus over a year ago and joined the faculty soon after.

Steve Beck has gathered something of a following in his four years at New College, largely because of his radical ideas on dwelling. He has taught at the North Bay campus since it opened in 1998. His classes formed the backbone of the eco-dwelling program, which has been in place since January 2001.

Beck has developed a hypothetical living space that he calls the microhomestead. The design looks like an animal's paw print: one central, circular structure with round offshoots.

According to Beck, a conventional city townhouse lot is based on a rectangular 200-by-400-foot city block and is 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. "The typical [rectangular] lot is very inefficient in its usage of space," he says. Square buildings are slightly more effective; circular, even more so. "I discovered very recently that a round footprint is actually a more efficient way of creating housing at high density than square is, which completely contradicts all of my training as an architect.

"This is a fairly recent discovery for me. . . It so perfectly illustrates the ways in which preconceptions that we learn from our culture, truths that we assume to be incontrovertible, may turn out to be not true at all when you really look closely."

One of the major precepts that Beck and Kennedy come back to is the way we utilize space. Beck is known for his ideas on tiny dwellings. In fact, for a 15-year period, in Tuolumne County and later in Seattle, he designed, built, and lived in a series of tiny, portable solar houses. "None were more than 120 square feet, some smaller."

Erin Fisher, another recent eco-dwelling graduate, lives in what once must have been a garden shed. It's a total of 6 by 9 feet, in which she's managed to fit a raised-platform bed and a tiny kitchen, including a hot plate, refrigerator, and shelves. She also has a phone, a TV and VCR, and cable Internet access. She's lived here, behind a large group house (where she uses the bathroom and laundry) near downtown Berkeley, for six years.

Fisher's background is in construction. A brief foray into web design (a less wasteful type of construction but with less job security) found her soon laid-off and free to search for her next career move in 2001. The permaculture design course at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center led her to the New College eco-dwelling program.

Since graduating from the program in December, Fisher has started an alternative energy company with two other women called Solar Sisters. It's still at a very early stage: Word of mouth has gotten them some site visits and consultations on installing solar PV systems, windmills, or solar hot-water systems.

Fisher's thesis project, unlike Fahrer's, is not yet built. As a scale model, it's bare bones, lacking the warmth and comfort of Farher's fully built, lived-in home. Fisher's thesis is a modular, portable, solar self-reliant tiny dwelling. The cabin, when built, will be 8 by 12 feet--practically cavernous compared to Fisher's current cabin--with a pitched roof and fully outfitted with a renewable energy system.

Composed of 2-by-8-foot panels held together by spline joints, the model is designed to be broken down into manageable panels--light enough to carry--and transported from site to site. "Kind of like a green RV," says Fisher. "We could drive it around, take it to trade shows or schools."

Fisher aims to use her house, when it's built, as a teaching model for solar self-reliance. Fahrer, on the other hand, is living as a model for solar self-reliance. Both have a strong interest in educating others about natural building, and both have been clearly inspired by Beck and Kennedy.

The skeleton of Fahrer's dome, which came from an Ashland, Ore., company called Pacific Domes, is made from 1-inch aluminum tubing--strong enough to hold a person in the hammock that hangs near the big window. The structure is not, strictly, a "natural" building, since it uses industrial materials. But Fahrer's small, self-built, portable dwelling fits well within the New College ideal of "eco" dwelling.

Fahrer lives here with his wife, Gabriel Tiradani, who finished the New College core curriculum with an emphasis in environmental art. She's now working with painter Adam Wolpert at OAEC.

There's no electricity yet; they've made do with candlelight, which Fahrer says gives "a nice feeling at night." A hand-cranked blender does wonders in the kitchen. They don't see much need for television, but they do run a laptop computer on a battery so that they can watch DVDs. "We're homesteading," says Tiradani. "You make certain sacrifices." When they have the time, they're going to set up a 75-watt PV array and two deep-cycle batteries.

A composting toilet sits outside. They plan to make a bathroom, with a tub fed by a hot-water pipe system to be heated by either the wood stove or the sun.

The kitchen facilities, in addition to the blender, include a double sink, antique cabinets that came from Tiradani's family, a full-size gas stove, and a small fridge. Tiradani shared in the design process of the entire place; the kitchen was her main concern. "We sculpted it around who we are and what we like to do in the kitchen, how we move."

The only setbacks appear to be a few leaks in the canvas and some mildew, which Pacific Domes has promised to fix. "It's frustrating," says Fahrer.

But Fahrer clearly loves his project--his home--and Tiradani says "the reward is that you know you're responsible for what you've created. You make mistakes, and you live with them and learn from them."

They had a lot of help from New College's eco-dwelling program. "The program evokes a sense of community," says Fahrer. "Because I was actually building it, it really was inspiring for some of the other students. They say that in the natural building world it takes a community to build a house."

Erin Fisher talks a lot about community, too, about opening up a conversation, for example, with her neighbors. "Some of them might know about permaculture, most of them probably don't."

Fisher says that she loves living on a tiny footprint, but she is looking to move to a bigger place. "I want more space."

Contradictory only on the surface, Fisher explains. "I think we do need space. I think the mistake that we make in this country is creating the space so that we always have it but only using it once in a while. One of the benefits of having tiny portable houses is that you could have a cabin for every one of your friends when they were there. But then you could put it away in the closet when they're not there."

It's a variation on Beck's microhomestead idea, which Fisher calls "brilliant."

"Not only in terms of minimizing our footprint," she adds, "but also in terms of building community. If people don't have fences around their yards, they're actually going to be interacting with their neighbors. And that's what building community's about. . . . One of the ways is to really live by example and live transparently. Welcome strangers into your yard and tell them what you're up to."

Bruce Hammond may not be so concerned about space, but he would agree with Fisher's comments on transparency. President and CEO of Hammond Fine Homes and active in the sustainability community, Hammond has built a $2.75 million, 3,900-square-foot spec home--with a granny unit--on 10.5 acres in the foothills of Sonoma Mountain.

"Steve Beck would come to this site," says Hammond, "look around, and say, 'I can fit 25 dwellings here.'" But Hammond has built the structure almost entirely with green building materials and believes that anyone with the financial resources to buy the house would also have the resources to spread the word about green building.

Built with a high-performance, green-building integrated design--meaning that the layout was carefully managed to maximize the lighting and temperature-regulation powers of the outside world rather than relying entirely on electricity or gas--the house is a paragon of conscientious design. It's stunning.

The front door opens into an open-plan living/dining room with a grand fireplace. Salvaged old growth redwood beams frame the high ceiling, and light streams in from skylights and two sets of French doors opening to the backyard. The lumber that went into the built-in cabinetry--cherry, redwood, maple--is all certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which guarantees that the timber originated from a forest managed according to certain international standards of sustainability.

The deck is made of recycled plastic and sawdust, the gutters are copper, and the roof, sidings, and trim are all cement fiber. All the materials, in fact, are the best available and, for the most part, are durable, sustainably farmed, and nontoxic.

The site was carefully planned. The house sits low in the hills, and runoff water is diverted around the house into vernal pools. A deep, gravity-pressured, solar-powered well provides water. As we're standing outside, talking about native tree plantings and passive solar design, a stag conveniently saunters by. The setting is incredible, with views down the hillside that stretch for miles.

"This building," says Hammond, "is a complete expression of the mainstreaming of green." He says that green building is a market transformation: As more people find out about it, their natural inclination
is to support it.

But who will buy this house? Let's talk stereotypes: someone who might drive the SUV down to Whole Foods to buy organic; someone who may own a vineyard that's doused in pesticides every year; someone who could insist on limestone from Mexico and Italian granite for the kitchen counters. Someone with $2.75 million.

The lifestyle that allows someone to buy a house of such size is not entirely conducive to the other holistic aspects of green building, such as reducing our impact on the earth's resources and encouraging community. Hammond says that "the reality is that if someone hears the story of what's embedded here, just that gets them thinking about ways to live."

While green building seeks to repair some of the damage done to the earth, or at least mitigate it, the movement itself will not change the very nature of our consumer culture. Progressive movements combined, however, may raise awareness.

Steve Beck and Joe Kennedy try to focus on societal change in relation to green building. "I'm really interested in the inner-outer relationship," says Beck. I think it's all too easy to pay attention to the physical-external conditions. It seems that the split between the two is pretty characteristic of our culture."

Kennedy, too, is interested in the sustainability movement. "Eco-villages," he says, "where building, waste treatment, water collection, food production, and making a living are all looked at as a whole is something that [can help us] live much more efficiently and elegantly, and have more time for those things that matter to us."

Both of them accept that there might be "shades of green," as Hammond puts it. Beck notes that it is very hard--almost impossible--to build without any industrial materials at all. Kennedy points out that he's interested in how the "everyday person" can incorporate green building into his or her life. "It may be choosing to repaint their house with a less toxic paint. It might be adding a sun room to their existing house so they can have more passive solar design or putting in a solar panel."

Kennedy has few airy notions about the reach of green building. "We're not going to abandon all these suburban developments and build beautiful little eco-villages out somewhere else. That would be an untenable situation. So we have to work with our imperfect world and work to improve it."

Beck agrees. "The cost of energy, heating, and cooling will have an enormous impact on how attractive large houses are perceived to be," he says.

While the benefits of green building might be easy to establish, the city and county bureaucracies that govern zoning and building are not so quick to change. In areas where land is affordable, zoning usually prohibits high density--preventing a group of people, for example, from buying a piece of land together and building some very small houses. Alternative waste treatment is not allowed in Sonoma County, according to Kennedy. "In some places in the country, you're not allowed to collect rainwater off the roof. It's political."

Beck points out that building and zoning codes are implemented, in theory, for the public good, "to protect tenants from substandard housing developed and owned by landlords. A small space poorly designed and shoddily constructed can become very unpleasant for someone who's renting it. An even smaller space lovingly designed and built by the owner-occupant can be joyous and liberating.

"My greatest optimism is that what we're doing can and eventually will in itself help to change codes by showing alternatives that work much more effectively than what we have now."

The alternatives are getting attention. Bruce Hammond notes that the National Association of Homebuilders is pushing the idea of green building. In November 2001, San Francisco voters approved a bond measure that gives the city $100 million in revenue bonds for installing renewable-energy systems in public buildings.

The city of Santa Rosa--in partnership with PG&E and the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce--has agreed to promote green building consulting services to educate people and entice builders to use green building techniques. And New College has received a planning grant to convert its Santa Rosa campus into a model of sustainability, embodying the very values that it teaches others.

The path is clear to Kennedy and Beck--and, indeed, to Hammond, Fisher, and Fahrer, too. "We have a pattern," says Kennedy, "that could be win-win. Provide affordable housing, save the environment, allow for more people to be homeowners, create healing environments for people that they love to live in."

It's a pattern that's becoming increasingly respected, as word about the green building movement spreads. The movement has been compared to the organic movement, 10 or 15 years ago.

And, naturally, green building faces similar obstacles. But as the New College model shows, communities make things happen. With Fahrer in his dome out in West Marin; Fisher, growing community in Berkeley; Hammond, catering to the high end; and Beck and Kennedy, learning and teaching, the movement is building.

Information on the New College eco-dwelling concentration is available at www.newcollege.edu/northbay/mambaconc.html. Sonoma State's Environmental Tech Center offers educational resources (www.sonoma.edu/ensp/etc/). For more information about green building, solar self-reliance, and energy efficiency, Real Goods in Hopland (www.realgoods.com) and the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (www.oaec.org) are excellent resources.

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From the March 13-19, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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