The Original Green


Review by Robert Steuteville

New Urban News

The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability
By Stephen A. Mouzon
The Guild Foundation Press, 280 pp., paperback $29.95

When we think of sustainable buildings, we mostly think of energy efficiency, recycled materials, solar panels — the kind of things promoted by green building certification programs. According to architect Stephen Mouzon, author of The Original Green, these typical “green building” characteristics only scratch the surface of what is required.

To be truly sustainable, buildings must not only be frugal in their resource and energy requirements, but also lovable, durable, and flexible. The places where these buildings are located must have a local food supply, be accessible through multiple means of transportation (especially walking), include a variety of services nearby, and have the capacity to be secured during difficult times.

In other words, buildings must have many characteristics of traditional places, which, after all, had to be sustainable to survive. The Original Greenimparts several brickloads of much-needed wisdom and common sense. Both experts and the general public would be wise to pay attention to Mouzon’s ideas on sustainability, which he defines broadly as “keeping things going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.”

Architecture, says Mouzon, is more important to sustainability than many experts realize. Buildings are directly responsible for 41 percent of the energy we use, he notes, and are indirectly responsible for much more. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of energy use, and the placement of buildings has a significant impact on how far we drive and how goods are shipped. If a building requires a new parking lot or a road to be built, it uses still more energy and generates more pollution. Buildings have to be filled up — which means purchases of furniture, appliances, décor, toys, electronic devices, and more. When you add it all up, it is clear that buildings account for well over 50 percent of the problem — or solution — depending on how you look at it.

Yet the author doubts that the current mainstream approach to architecture is up to the task of achieving sustainability. He is critical of what he calls “Gizmo Green,” the belief that technology will save us. Technology has achieved wonderful things, he acknowledges, but it has also gotten us into a long-term sustainability jam and is unlikely to get us out. “Gizmo Green, unfortunately, constitutes a huge percentage of today’s sustainability discussion,” Mouzon says. “Buy compact fluorescent light bulbs. Buy a Prius. Buy some bamboo … and everything will be okay. The solution to everything is to go shopping.”

Architecture, Mouzon notes, is hampered by the cultural worship of individual genius. About a century ago, architects decided that if you were to do something significant, it had to be unique. This worked for a while. Modernist architecture was both unique — and, whether one liked it or not — followed clearly understood principles until about the late 1950s. By then, Mouzon explains, architects ran out of sensible ideas that were also unique.

The next generation faced a conundrum: “whether to hold on to the necessity of uniqueness even as unique but sensible Modernist architecture was getting harder to find, or instead do things that didn’t make sense,” he explains. He goes on to describe the 1960s and 1970s architects as the “Lost Generation,” observing, “Architecture during this era was not all bad, to be sure, but it included some of the most soulless, sterile [buildings] the world has ever seen. Brutalism, their signature style, even sounds like a condition to avoid.”

After 1980, a schism occurred.  Some architects decided to give up the goal of uniqueness in favor of making sense — they became the new urbanists and traditional architects of today, he says. Other architects fully embraced weirdness — they became the “starchitects” of today.

The Wall of Terminal Weirdness

“Today, if you want to be significant in architectural circles, you have to out-weird Frank Gehry. To be significant ten years from now, you’ll have to out-weird the person that out-weirded Frank Gehry. As a result, today’s architecture is in a death spiral towards the Wall of Terminal Weirdness, where things simply cannot get any stranger.”

This approach is a distraction that undermines sustainability, he argues. Ultimately, sustainability will fail unless everybody is involved — therefore architecture must veer from a pursuit of ever more esoteric theory and return to the solid ground of tradition, he believes.

While in architecture school, where Mouzon was told by professors that his generation, aided by computers, would be the greatest designers in history, he experienced an epiphany. He had grown up in a suburb and was home for Thanksgiving. While looking for a place to walk off the big meal, he and family members drove to nearby Mooresville, Alabama, a town dating from the first half of the 19th Century. He recalls his shock at realizing that this tiny town, built without the help of any architects at all, struck him as better than any collection of buildings designed by modern professionals.

How could uneducated people attain such high placemaking skills? Mooresville, he ultimately decided, was created through what he calls a Living Tradition, the collective wisdom of countless generations — greater than what any single architect could hope to achieve.

Mouzon advocates a number of sensible approaches to reducing the environmental impact of buildings. One is to place buildings within the zones of the rural-to-urban Transect. This standard new urbanist approach allows a variety of habitats that are organized mostly into walkable cities, towns, and villages that make transportation more efficient and sustainable.

Mouzon is a big fan of relying less on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Buildings should make maximum use of natural ventilation and people should get used to greater changes in temperature — the way our ancestors did. Buildings can help in this regard — and vernacular architecture offers a rich vein of solutions. Vernacular is the greenest form of architecture, he says, because it was developed over centuries in response to local climates.

Mouzon also advocates designing neighborhoods, houses, and parts of houses for maximum usefulness. When a neighborhood can be designed with a coffee shop and restaurant, why do we need three places in each house for eating meals? Smaller houses mean a smaller ecological footprint and less cost. They also mean less debt and a potential for higher quality, which, in turn, allows a house to last longer.

Buildings must be lovable to survive, he emphasizes. Nature’s way is to take wisdom and embed it in beauty. The genetic code is wrapped in beauty, he says; that is what allows traits to be passed along from generation to generation. Architecture can work in a similar way, according to Mouzon. If somebody designs the perfect eave for a region, that design may be ignored unless people love it. If the design is beautiful as well as functional, it will be passed along and become part of the vernacular.

How to restore Living Traditions? Mouzon recommends that we study vernacular architecture and classical traditions closely. For every detail, we must be able to finish the following sentence: “We do this because … . ” Builders and craftspeople will defend the tradition once they understand the reasons behind it, he says. The Original Green bottom line: New ideas must be easily replicable and beautiful to survive.