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Today, most architects and designers have had the virtues of three “Rs” – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – drilled into their thinking when they approach their work. Those virtues are the touchstones of “sustainable” design. But, I find it interesting that the most important of these – to “Reduce”  – is often the one least emphasized or focused on when designing. (The easiest way to make a building more environmentally sensitive is to make it smaller,  reducing its need for building materials, reducing its impact on the landscape and reducing its need for energy to heat and cool it.) I guess I should not be surprised at this since we humans have developed into a consumerist society, linking personal value and status with “having more”.  Thinking of a life with fewer electronic devices, fewer cars, and smaller houses is considered sacrilegious by most people – a violation of their right to be prosperous. And, guess what philosophy the Masters of Industry promote? It is no wonder that any movement to “Reduce” is met with derision and eventually squelched (with the exception of reducing corporate taxes,  reducing taxes to the top economic five percent of society, or reducing benefits to the labor work force and the poor).

But, without reducing, nothing we do can be sustainable on this planet. No matter how ecologically friendly I design a new building, it will not be “sustainable” because our population is not sustainable at its present levels. No matter how much I and my family reuse cloth bags to get our groceries, or how painstakingly we avoid waste and recycle what we use, we still are not doing enough to make our society “sustainable”. Unless we somehow wake up and take action on population growth, we cannot hope to leave our children with an environment that will support them. Yet, population reduction is not on the table for international consideration when discussing sustainability. Instead, we talk about new technologies that help us get more out of less, new products that can replace the natural ones that we have depleted, and new ways to manufacture these products that reduce our use of natural resources and energy but still are palatible to the “building industry” as we know it.  All these things are noble endeavors, but we still ignore the 600 pound gorilla in the room – population.

I can understand why population control is so hard for us. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, our population was regulated by Nature – when there was plenty of food and good shelter, there was more reproduction. But, when food became scarce, or something else disrupted life, reproduction dropped off due to internal physiological changes in individuals of the tribe. Of course, modern farming and food storage technologies did away with this natural population regulator, until we have come to our present condition. And, this all seems to have happened relatively recently in Mankind’s history, considering we have been around, in our present evolutionary condition, for tens-of-thousands of years. While living as hunter-gatherers in small groups widely disperses across the landscape, our natural environments could more easily absorb our ecological mistakes. Now, our mistakes are felt worldwide, and they are done in unprecedented scale. We definitely are in uncharted territory. But one thing is certain – we still live by Nature’s rules, and Nature has always found ways to balance things. Unfortunately, since we have ignored the warnings signs that our study and research have discovered, and have decided not to alter our own behavior to bring ourselves into better harmony with the natural world, the methods that Nature chooses to deal with the problem will most certainly be ones harder for us to accept then if we had restrained ourselves. Disease, starvation, and greater conflict are likely what is in store for us. How silly will all our half-measures seem when we are in the midst of such problems.

So, as we pat ourselves on the back for drinking free-trade coffee and buying organic products, for using compact fluorescent lighting and Energy Star rated appliances, and for teaching our children to be less wasteful, why don’t we start looking at the big picture and recognize how humans should be living on this planet – how they have lived on this planet successfully for thousands of years before our modern era? And, as we recite the mantra “Reduce, reuse, and recycle”, let’s remember that to reduce is the greatest of these, and to reduce our own numbers is the kindest and best thing we can do for this world and for ourselves. Our children can have so much more with less (of us).

I am an architect, so I tend to think about the places in which we live and work. I am also a student of building biology (or Bau-biologie, the study of the effects of the built environment on human health, originating in Germany), so I  think about what our buildings do to our health. As a baubiologist, I look at buildings as our “third skin”, with the first skin being the one we are born with, the second being our clothing. Each of our skins are places of interaction with our environments – they both protect us from things that tend to harm us and  provide ways for our bodies to “share” with those environments in order to maintain our health. Biologists and physicians can better point out the many functions of our first skin, so I won’t even try. And, we all know what clothes do for us – they keep us warm (or cool) and dry; they protect us from the sun, rain, snow and wind; they often keep us from getting scratched, burned, or stung; and they can also make us look good. Our buildings do so many of the same things. But, we are presently living in a time where our buildings are no longer being designed like another layer of “clothing”. In an effort to be energy-efficient, and therefore supposedly more environmentally responsible, architects and designers are tending to create structures that are more like spacesuits rather than a comfortable suit of clothes.

Let me explain how I came to this last statement. Let’s take a look at what kind of clothes you feel comfortable wearing. People tend to like natural fabrics – cotton, silk, linen and wool. Even though we have developed many synthetic fabrics, it is the natural ones that we usually prefer to wear because of their ability to move well and “breathe” while giving us the protection we need. Why do you think that plastic clothing never really caught on? Well – I think that the obvious answer is that such clothing will soon make you look like a prune and feel like you are in a sauna. Now, think about how we are  designing energy-efficient homes today. The first thing most designers recommend is a very tight envelope, with high insulation values and vapor barriers that prevent the movement of moisture (in the form of vapor) through the walls. When buildings are built like this, we have found that they are so tight that they require mechanical air exchange devices to keep the indoor air quality reasonably healthy. Now, doesn’t this sound a little like how a spacesuit works? The big difference is that  spacesuits were built to be worn in the hostile environment of space where humans do not naturally  live. Our homes are usually designed to occupy the Earth – the same place that humans have naturally occupied for hundreds of thousands of years. Why must we create structures to live and work in that separate us so completely from our natural environment when we do not seem to need to do so with our clothing, even where we face the most extreme weather conditions? The logic of this is hard for me to understand. Why, when in the not-so-distant past we lived with minimal heat or cooling requirements, do we suddenly need super-insulated houses with industrially- manufactured insulations that require significant energy and resources to make, transport and install. Do we have to create buildings that are designed to consider our natural living environments as hostile?

I really don’t think that it is in our best interest as a species, and members of ecosystems, to relate to our world in this way. Maybe we don’t need to live like the indigenous peoples of the U.S. did four hundred years ago, but perhaps we can learn from them ways to be more intimate with (and, perhaps, appreciative of) our natural surroundings , and still be comfortable. Have we not, perhaps, made our species less physically adapted to our natural environments by creating artificial indoor environments? I have found that my body can adjust to being quite comfortable in cooler or warmer temperatures than what are usually considered to be the “comfort zone”, if necessary, with a corresponding feeling of better health. (That doesn’t mean that I think we should have to freeze or roast ourselves to be healthy, though.) Can it be that what we may need is something “less”, rather than “more”, when it comes to building technology? Or, maybe we architects just have to think differently – more simply and directly as to how much our creations are impacting our species, and in what ways.  The natural building movement (including straw bale, cob, rammed earth, adobe, etc.) has much to offer us in this way, yet it is still being considered a “fringe” thing – not a part of the building “industry” that is the norm in most developed countries. Hopefully, the current economic situation may have a positive influence on the virtues of natural building and its hands-on approach to construction since it can be a low-cost alternative when you can do the work yourself (with a little instruction), or with the help of friends. Architects would do well to become more familiar with natural building techniques and materials, and help them become part of the “green” mainstream where they belong, especially since they are the “greenest” of what is out there. And, humanity may just find that the hope for its future may not lie just in advanced technology, but in the wisdom of its past.

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