The Original Green By Steve Mouzon: A Must-Read If You Care About Sustainable Design

Steve Mouzon has been a fixture on TreeHugger since I first read his thoughts on the original green, on how people designed before the the Thermostat age, and how buildings kept people warm in an era before oil, or cool before air conditioning was invented. I have come to base much of my thoughts on the sustainability of heritage buildings (I am a volunteer at a heritage preservation org) on what I have learned from Steve, much of which is summarized in the points made above in the illustration; that good buildings (old or new) are lovable, durable, flexible and frugal.

I looked forward to his new book, The Original Green: Unlocking The Mystery of True Sustainability and was not disappointed.

In the current world of green and sustainable design, so much weight is put on technology; the adding of solar power, high tech glass, qualifying for LEED. It is all about ADDING things. The lesson one learns from Mouzon, and from many heritage buildings, walkable communities and dense cities, is how well one can do with less, by taking stuff away, without any diminishment of comfort. Everyone is complaining lately about how much LEED costs and how poorly LEED buildings are performing, but they are complex things that have new and fancy equipment. But Mouzon points out old technologies are easy to maintain and adjust.

He is not, nor am I, saying that there is no place for modern design or technology; only that we should learn from what people have been doing for generations before the thermostat age. I always use Weber Thompson's Terry Thomas Building in Seattle as an example of how to design this way.

It is no different when one comes to urban design; if you build a walkable city then you don't need a car for everyday use. That does a lot more for consumption than moving from an SUV to a Prius. That's why I am so excited about the growth of bike culture, the conversion of Copenhagen and even much of New York to bike cities; the simpler, older technology delivers so much more bang for the bucks. Mouzon is part of a larger movement that includes everyone from Prince Charles to Jim Kunstler to Andres Duany , who think that if we are going to survive climate change and tough oil, we are going to have to party like it's 1899.

The Original Green pulls all this together. Mouzon rejects much of the conventional thinking about design and architecture, and certainly just about everything the mechanical engineers have to offer. He has little time for the profession as it currently operates, noting:

If you want to be significant in architectural circles today, you must out-weird Frank Gehry. As a result, today's architecture is on a terminal death-spiral towards the wall of Terminal Weirdness, where things simply cannot get any stranger. But what does this have to do with sustainability?

There is a lot to cover in this book, it is a shopping list of ideas. But there are some that just pop out, as they contradict so much of what is the accepted green mantra.

In Part One, What's the Problem? Mouzon lists global warming, population, the failure of architectural education, but also the fallacy of efficiency, TreeHugger has for years looked at every new fuel efficient car and fancy better insulation or window, but efficiency is not enough; he writes that "efficiency is fine if you want to ease your conscience, but if our behaviour doesn't change then our machines can't save us."

He illustrates it with an example of how he moved from a place where he and his wife had two cars and drove everywhere; by moving to a walkable city they are driving one-eighth as much. No car is going to get that efficient.

In Part Two, Mouzon lists the top ten better ways of being green. They include the source of our stuff (use local materials) and my particular favourite, the Expanded Comfort Range.

In 1963 Victor Olgyay did this drawing, showing a "comfort zone" (the guy with the pipe in the middle of the gray kidney shaped area) where depending on the mix of temperature, humidity and air movement, we would be comfortable. Then the engineers came in and said no, the temperature and humidity shall be what we tell them, a two degree spread at that red intersection. Mouzon writes:

Ask any mechanical engineer to describe the impact of a 30 degree comfort range versus a 2 degree comfort range. She will tell you that the 2 degree comfort range requires the conditioning equipment of run basically all the time, because outdoor temperatures are almost never going to be within that range. And if the equipment is going to be running all the time, why even bother having operable windows?

So because we are too lazy to put on a sweater or take off a jacket, we have let the thermostat and the mechanical engineer behind it change the way we make buildings.

The key to sustainability, according to Mouzon, is the Original Green,

"The sustainability that all our ancestors knew by heart, the traditional ways of building...
Once revered as the best carriers of information across the generations, traditions have more recently been reviled, especially over the past century or so, as impediments to progress, especially in architecture and the arts.

This isn't just about being cute. It is about learning how people did things before thermostats and air conditioning, with windows, awnings, porches, regional differences in design, building to last, building for flexibility, doing the simple instead of the complicated and please, no gizmo green.

If you are not an architect or a city planner, there is is still much you can do;
Choose it for longer than you'll use it;
Live where you can walk to the grocery;
Live where you can make a living;
Choose smaller stuff with double duty.

And more, which I will cover in subsequent posts, they are worth excerpting.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it brings together so many ideas and knits them into a coherent whole. If we are going to build a sustainable society it will not be with hydrogen cars or photovoltaic roofs, but through simple, sensible measures like designing our cities and towns so that we don't need cars and our homes so they don't need air conditioning. It is an important book, that talks about how we should design, but also how we should live. More at the Original Green.

The one thing I do not understand about the book is how a writer and designer with such respect for tradition, experience and collective knowledge could put out a book that ignores every tradition in printing and book design. Sometimes pictures bleed off the page; sometimes they sit in the margin like the page above. Traditionally nobody ever did this, for a reason; look at the eighth line from the bottom, that reads

discussion. Buy compact

Eric Gill wrote about how justifying text made it harder to read because your eyes had to change speed as they followed the text and the spacing kept changing; in this book you need brakes and turbo mode. And if on the internet the pixels are essentially free, on the page they are not. Is a picture of a CFL necessary? Like a building, a book should be frugal and lovable. This edition is neither; I look forward to a slim, hardcover edition to put on the shelf with the classics, like Eric Gill's Essay on Typography.

More Mouzon in TreeHugger:

The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall
Steve Mouzon on The Top Ten for 2010
Steve Mouzon on Learning from Old Buildings

Steve Mouzon on Learning from Old Buildings from Lloyd Alter on Vimeo.

Steve Mouzon on Learning from Old Buildings
LEED Home Award Winners are Walkscore FAIL
The Greenest Brick is the One That's Already in the Wall
Let's Return to the Original Green: Moving From a Consuming Economy to a Conserving Economy

Good Front Porches are Science as Well As Art
Does A Recession Make You Buy Better or Cheaper?
The Green house of the Future in the Wall Street Journal

Tags: Book Reviews | Green Building


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