Green, Sustainable, or Vernacular?

A supporter of a social and political movement that espouses global environmental protection, bioregionalism, social responsibility, and nonviolence

tr.v. sus·tained, sus·tain·ing, sus·tains adj. sustainable
1 To keep in existence; maintain
2 To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for

adj. Of or being an indigenous building style using local materials and traditional methods of construction and ornament, especially as distinguished from academic or historical architectural styles

Have you ever bought organic lettuce or fruit juice or bananas that claim a level of purity and implied righteousness, only to have to throw away the plastic in which the product was wrapped for its transcontinental trip? Though such products may be better for us than their conventional alternatives, the energy used for producing and transporting these to our tables exceeds substantially the energy with which they supply us.

People now talk of environmental footprints (see with very few of us consuming anywhere near what our one Earth can support on an ongoing basis. That our organic, "green," and "sustainable" products still require more inputs than our "share" of the planet’s productive capacity means we have much more work to do. Consider the idea of transgenerational energy, a concept where our work becomes energy stored for future generations. Examples are buildings designed to be useful for hundreds of years and built accordingly, or fields where the fertility is increased after each crop is harvested. We are convinced that it is possible not only to not draw down our planetary capital, but to actually increase it to the benefit of all.

The issue before many of us in the Canaan community now, however, is the use of materials for construction. In the years we have been (re-)building the old farmhouse into a structure that will also serve as a common house, we have increasingly found that as with food, building materials are called "green" or even advertised as "sustainably made." Most of these products, though they may be less toxic or may be made of more recycled materials than the usual, still have a substantial footprint when manufacture, delivery, and installation are considered. The problem is that a modern house built efficiently "to code" depends on technologies that are toxic (glues, wood preservatives, insulation), that require much energy for manufacture and transport, and require high levels of energy inputs to function. All of these raise their environmental footprint far beyond what the planet can sustain.

In fact, as the building of the farmhouse has progressed we have had to notice how many "systems" in a house are built to either supply other systems or solve the problems caused by other systems. For example, gutters have to be installed because roof systems shed too much water where it is not desired. Houses are built tight to reduce heat loss in the winter, but then need to have automated ventilation systems to circulate air. Bathrooms use a system to heat water, then another to get rid of the steam. The heating system that produces heat with one fuel uses another fuel (electricity) to run its motors and controls. Dryers produce much heat, which is most often vented to the outside, even in winter.

It is possible that we need to begin considering industrially manufactured "green" materials as an oxymoron. We might instead begin to resuscitate the concept of "vernacular." If we are ever to return to an environmental footprint where we do not consume more of the Earth than is replenished naturally, we must begin with construction that is of local materials, is made for local conditions, and does not create layers of systems to solve problems posed by other systems.

One example of this is our wood-chip-and-clay wall system, which seems to be a very good insulator and yet allows water vapor to pass through. Rather than purchase insulation, the farmhouse is kept warm through having wood chips glued together with a clay slip inside the plastered walls. Wood chips and clay are both very local resources. The house stays quite warm in the winter once heated, and the house is quite cool this late hot muggy spring as the clay draws out the interior moisture.

Most areas of the world once had a vernacular architecture. Can we begin by returning there and then using current technologies and understandings to improve and evolve the vernacular further? Can we formulate new vernacular construction systems right for where we each live? The tendency in this country has been to find building structures that work from California to Minnesota to Virginia. Just as most fast food restaurants in a chain look identical, so do many of our houses. If we used local materials this would not be the case, and the houses, we feel, would more readily be transformed into homes—for there are subtle but important differences between a house and someone’s home—and they could, in fact, have a much reduced environmental impact. We know and have experienced that building codes love uniformity and discourage what they do not know, but we feel it is worth pushing, as with any environmental change, for the wisdom of Earth-friendly to be understood.

We often semi-joke about our farmhouse being built for a 700-year lifespan. Perhaps if we take this time challenge, we might use slightly more energy in construction than our footprints would dictate, with the idea that the additional embedded energy in the building will substantially reduce the footprints of generations to come. This thinking has spread to our farming as well. As we plan our gardens and fields, can we engineer them to increase the energy outputs of which they are capable, rather than view them as dirt that needs constant human-made energy inputs to ensure productivity?

It does look as though we are entering the period of decline in cheap energy. Our challenge is perhaps not to use as little of it as possible, but rather to redirect what remains to create systems that gather, store, and multiply the available energy, a task best done at the local level.

Jens Braun

Jens Braun is a member of Old Chatham (N.Y.) Meeting. He currently spends his time farming and slow-building his family's house in the Quaker Intentional Village in Canaan, N.Y.