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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Green Mansions

This post celebrates the 2008 Green Log Home and Lifestyle Awards, hosted by Green Log Awards, Inc. You can vote on the best sustainable solutions from among a huge number of inspiring nominees!

Pitch-dark was the forest as they ran. Jagged slivers of moonlight seldom knifed through dense boughs to illuminate their steps, and the only sound in their ears was their own ragged breathing, punctuated by the thud of their frantic footfalls on pine needles and fern.

As they tore through the clinging branches, Hansel and Gretel dropped neither pebbles nor crumbs, for they never again wanted to find this place. But as they put the Gingerbread Hut farther and farther behind them, they grew less and less sure of their path ahead.

There was no sign of any thinning, any lightening of this deep forest. The pendulous firs, the muscular oaks were unrelieved by clearing or copse, and the canopy overhead showed no snag in its tight weft.

The first flush of flight expended, their steps grew staggering and then halting, until at last weariness sank to exhaustion and they sought shelter under a spreading hemlock. Its pungent whispering boughs enveloped them in a green dark, and they slept.

Perhaps a whole day passed - perhaps an era, they hardly knew. For when they awoke, day was fading from a twilight sky. The cloak of night and their fear must have conspired to make the forest more impenetrable than it was: now they stood on the fringe of a fern-ringed copse, its slender aspens swaying and bowing with the evening breeze. Through the branches blinked lights of a town, just appearing against the purple hillside beyond.

An involuntary cry of surprise and relief rose in their throats only to be checked by a sound of rustling footsteps. Withdrawing again to the shadows of the hemlock, they watched as a man approached, wearing knee-breeches and a waistcoat.

"Surely he is returning to the town," whispered Hansel. "If we follow him, we will find our way to human habitation!"

But the man's footsteps turned resolutely away from the winking lights. His pace was leisurely, and as he walked he spoke, quietly but with passion:

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

"What can it mean?" whispered Gretel, but Hansel only shook his head. "He's mad."

As though confirming this opinion, the man suddenly burst out,

"Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn!"

After this explosion, he fell silent, and began to pace slowly around the dell, glancing now and then at his pocketwatch. Afraid to risk being seen, Hansel and Gretel remained under the hemlock, waiting for the strange man to move on. Presently footsteps again rustled the leaves carpeting the copse, and the poet looked up sharply from his reverie.

"Mr Thoreau, I presume?" He extended his hand as a sturdy bearded man wearing a straw hat approached from the opposite side of the copse.

"Ah, Mr Wordsworth!" said the newcomer. "I fear you have waited a long time. Come, come, we have a few miles' walk yet to the cabin at Walden Pond."

The two men fell into step as they strolled from the glen into the forest and out of sight.

Rushing from their hiding place, Hansel and Gretel ran pell-mell toward the windows of the distant town, heedlessly tripping over knotted roots. But fast they plummeted in the vale of night, and again the vines of the forest stole the lights from their horizon.

Day followed night, and the vines grew so thickly as to obscure all passage of time. On they ran, and again the forest drew dense and they lost their way.

Still they did not stop until the boughs parted on a small hut, solitary and overgrown. Its candied gables sagged, and tufts of soft green moss sprouted from its gingerbread roof.

Lorenzo Mattotti "Six Scenes from Hansel and Gretel."

"Hansel, stop!" hissed Gretel. "We've come to the witch's hut again! Hide, hide!"

From behind their blind of blackberry bushes, Hansel and Gretel spied movement near the door of the hut. A small girl stood there, experimentally licking the frosted doorjambs.

"Haste! We must warn her!" cried Hansel, but Gretel clutched his arm, whispering, "Watch! Things have changed, we know not how!"

As they waited, voices became audible, and from the side of the house appeared a young couple. Strangely, they were almost identically dressed, in plain blue trousers and simple short-sleeved cotton shirts with pictures and letters worked into their fronts. "What do you think of the design?" the man was saying.

"A bit old-fashioned, yes, and it needs a lot of work," replied his wife. "But it's amazing! The building materials are all completely sustainable and recyclable! And here we are in the middle of this lush forest - what more could we ask for?"

We have made a complete revolution since the days when the forest was a place of dread, inhabited by witches, wolves, and Baba Yagas. Today's complaint is more likely living too close to the next-door neighbors than eking out a rural subsistence in impoverished isolation. For more and more, the fantasy of an ideal home is not a mansion reigning supreme over manicured garden and landscape, but a dwelling in harmony with its natural surroundings.

With increasing awareness of the deep footprint our lives and homes leave on the Earth, architectural design and building techniques are enjoying a green renaissance. Like all renaissances, it has begun organically and spontaneously, with individual efforts and inspirations.

Low-impact woodland home. Photo: Simon Dale (http://www.simondale.net/house)

In west Wales, photographer Simon Dale and his family live in a low-impact woodland home they built themselves, from "imagination, optimism and rubbish." Dug into a hillside, their earth-sheltered dwelling is insulated by the turf which shapes its softly domed roof and overhangs its wide arched windows. Straw bales provide additional insulation and structure. Over the living area, sloping rafters incline toward a round skylight illuminating the house with natural light.

Photo: Simon Dale (http://www.simondale.net/house)

The unfolding of this home, as described by Simon Dale and his wife Jasmine Saville on their webpage, is a story of serendipity and individuality. The floor is made from discarded pine pallets; the windows are misfits donated by a factory which would have landfilled them. Turning to advantage the house's earth-sheltered situation, cool air from belowground chills the refrigerator via the foundation.

A reward for the thought devoted to material and situation was ease of actual construction, which required no tools other than "chainsaw, hammer and 1 inch chisel." The original low-impact dwelling project has now expanded to include plans of an eco-village site in Pembrokeshire.

Eco-village site. http://www.lammas.org.uk/lowimpact/gallery.htm

Although now living primarily in Mexico, Kelly and Rosana Hart built their own sustainable home in Colorado using earthbags, misprinted rice bags refilled with insulating volcanic soil. The earthbags serve as bricks, which are then stuccoed over with papercrete. A local dump offering a special section for reclaimable materials furnished the Harts with fixtures such as their kitchen sink.

Photo: Hartworks. http://www.which-hobbit.com/sustainable_architecture.htm

Enjoying a sunny climate, the Harts' house uses passive solar heating and solar electricity from panels. Solar power even fuels their modified Rhoades car, also self-built and dubbed "the Sunmobile." A planned upgrade from the Sunmobile to "the SunVee" would triple the Sunmobile's 1 horsepower motor and add a full chassis and suspension.

Sunmobile. Photo: Hartworks. http://www.sunvee.com

The concept of passive solar heating has made its way into mainstream architecture, notably with the Passivhaus ("passive house") building code. First constructed in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1990, Passivhaus buildings must conform to much stricter energy specifications than those outlined in standard building codes. For example, the maximum annual energy consumption allowed for heating is 15 kWh/m2, while for total annual energy consumption (including heat, hot water, and electricity), an upper limit of 120 kWh/m2 is imposed. This represents a 75-95% reduction compared with energy usage in new structures complying with current US building codes.

In addition to using passive solar heating, Passivhaus buildings are so well insulated and employ such efficient heat recovery ventilators that no central heating is necessary. A supplement to the solar heat can come from recovered waste heat, generated by lighting and electrical appliances.

Particularly in Germany where the movement started, Passivhaus building has advanced to the point of cost-competitiveness with ordinary construction. A still more efficient cousin, zero-energy building, is now up and coming. Though multiple different standards are in currency for its definition (e.g. net-zero energy costs versus net-zero consumption), several successful buildings have achieved various forms of the zero-energy requirement. Using technologies such as solar panels integrated in siding or roof-shingles, zero-energy buildings can sell energy back to the grid, or function completely independently. In Denver, Colorado, a house built by Habitat for Humanity has demonstrated net zero energy consumption for more than a year. Several businesses, including Integrated Design Associates in San Jose, California, and the China National Tobacco Corporation in Guangzhou, China, are moving to zero-energy office buildings.

Ideas which started as experiments by outsiders to the establishment are slowly gaining wider acceptance and broader support. An especially beautiful story of such acceptance is that of the recycled rock garden in Chandigarh, India. It began in 1957 as a secret garden, when roads inspector Nek Chand bicycled after work to an overgrown empty lot at the outskirts of the city. Bringing with him rocks and discarded broken pots and dishes, he began to build concrete figures and tile them with mosaics made from the rubbish. Working at night and in fear of discovery, he filled courtyard after courtyard with sculptures of people, horses, and birds.

Years passed, and the garden grew to cover twelve acres with hundreds of statues crafted from junk: old tires, broken glass bangles. In 1969, Chand revealed his project to M.N. Sharma, the city's chief architect. Although the secret garden was illegally constructed on public land, Sharma was so impressed with what he saw that instead of disciplining Chand, he arranged a salary for him to work full-time on the garden, along with fifty assistants. The garden, which Chand continues to embellish and expand, now comprises forty acres open to the public.

"Art is the setting-into-work of truth," said the philosopher Martin Heidegger, and indeed Nek Chand's dream garden is a vivid reminder to look again at objects we might have deemed useless trash, to think again about how something new and beautiful can be created. From the Harts' kitchen sink or Simon Dale's windows, this truth is making its way into the minds of designers fashioning carpet from old soda bottles, or countertops from recycled paper. Inspiration and innovation are pointing the way forward to invention; the renaissance has begun.

For a beautiful series of photo-essays on the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, see this post on Mosaic Art Source Blog, and the three immediately preceding posts. For a discussion on cost-effectiveness of solar panels, read this post from Chemistry for a Sustainable World.

Green Log Home and Lifestyle Awards

Note: The title of this post is from the 1904 novel "Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest," by W.H. Hudson, an English-Argentinian author and naturalist.

Please share your comments! I welcome thoughts, questions, further information, and civil debate.


  1. I want to clarify a couple of things about your post regarding the earthbag house that my wife and I built in Colorado. We used new, but misprinted, polypropylene rice bags that were mostly filled with scoria, a type of light-weight volcanic stone, which is insulating. Then we plastered it mostly with papercrete, which is made from recycled junk paper and a bit of Portland cement. Some of the interior was given a final coat of lime and sand plaster.

    You can read more about this unique home at http://earthbagbuilding.com/projects/hart.htm
    and find out more about all different kinds of sustainable and natural building at www.greenhomebuilding.com.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment, Kelly. It's good to have the clarifications about the construction of your earthbag house, as well as the helpful links with further information.

  3. Thank you for another great posting. I want to offer a quote from
    "Cradle to Cradle" (McDonough and Braungart, p.16) which is so
    poignant: "Consider this: all the ants on the planet, taken together,
    have a biomass greater than that of humans. Ants have been incredibly
    industrious for millions of years. Yet their productiveness nourishes
    plants, animals, and soil. Human industry has been in full swing for
    little over a century, yet it has brought about a decline in almost
    every ecosystem on the planet. Nature doesn't have a design problem.
    People do."

  4. Marbar, thank you for the great comment and quote from "Cradle to Cradle"! This perfectly highlights what is possible in terms of design and efficiency - the ants are actually doing better even than our zero-energy buildings - and if ants can do it, why not we? I think now is the time for us humans to start enjoying the challenge and viewing it as chance for new innovation, rather than any kind of regression from technological advances so far achieved.

  5. It is refreshing to see that a few still share the struggle, not relegated to the amorphous glob of sheep known as the masses. Good-O!


  6. Thanks for your encouraging words, Jonesy! I hope you'll visit and share your thoughts again. Best, Rachel