TEDx Talk: Jason McClennan on the Living Building Challenge

Here’s a great, and inspiring, presentation on what we’re hoping to achieve: a house that regenerates its environment and that “lives” in concert with the surrounding ecosystem. 15 minutes well spent.

At last, shovels in the dirt

L to R: Larry Cameron, owner, Ann Arbor Jackson Concrete; Bruce Lobbestael, L & B Excavating; Bob Burnside, owner, Fireside Home Construction

On site meeting a week before the big moment!

L to R: Larry Cameron, owner, Ann Arbor Jackson Concrete; Michael Czarnota, associate, Fireside Home Construction; Bruce Lobbestael, L & B Excavating; Bob Burnside, owner, Fireside Home Construction

Looking over the plans

The big moment is almost here! Bob the builder met this week with the excavator and the foundation folks to look over the plans and determine the best plan of action.

Actual digging commences next week. Is this really real?! We did eat our first orange, so I suppose our patience has indeed paid off.

More news and photos just around the corner!


first orange, about ready for harvest

Patience. Much needed.

Watching the growth of this first orange on our orange tree parallels our Living Building experience.

We’ve spent about two years working on house design. Since this is the third house we’ve built – and we’ve completed remodels on two houses, ranging from minor to huge – we’ve become quite picky about the details. Probably driving the architect a bit batty . . .

But we now have construction documents ready to go. Hooray!

And the right weather for all the high-tech stuff we need to use in order to achieve net-zero energy? Nope, not till spring.

And the real slower-downer here is vetting of materials against the red list. Wow, what a job!

Like our orange, which has been growing larger and orang-er over the past eight months or so, we’ll be working away at this task for some months yet. Thank you, Eric Doyle, for your organization and effort,  leading us on to the end.

Maybe we’ll now see how that orange tastes. Or maybe just another week or two or three . . .


Easy-to-understand descriptions of the Living Building Challenge

I’ve recently come across two excellent descriptions of the Living Building Challenge: one prepared by Skanska describing the Bertschi School in Seattle, and the other, an article in Houzz online magazine. Click on the photo below to see the entire article, or click through the photos and captions for a quick overview.

Read, learn and enjoy!

Water and waste: hoping to implement some excellent ideas and proven methods

Several recent articles have caught my attention – one about groundwater in Michigan and the other on water use in modern Western bathrooms.

There are currently two wells on our Beacon Springs property; both have high levels of arsenic. To use that water, we’ll install a system to lower the amount of arsenic in our water to a safe level. We’ll run the water through a water softener as well, to remove other minerals (adding salt to our drinking water in the process).

If we could avail ourselves of harvested rainwater, we’d of course have a purification system – which, according to our rainwater expert, would provide us purer water than what we’d get out of the ground, even after treatment. And we simply want to flush toilets with this water.

And as for composting toilets, the article recounting the history of modern bathrooms, says so much:

Nobody seriously paused to think about the different functions and their needs; they just took the position that if water comes in and water goes out, it is all pretty much the same and should be in the same room. Nobody thought about how the water from a shower or bathtub (greywater) is different from the water from a toilet (blackwater); it all just went down the same drain which connected to the same sewer pipe that gathered the rainwater from the streets, and carried it away to be dumped in the river or lake.

. . . We take millions of gallons of fresh water and contaminate it with toxic chemicals, human waste, antibiotics and birth control hormones in quantities large enough to change the gender of fish.

We mix up all our bodily functions in a machine designed by engineers on the basis of the plumbing system, not human needs. The result is a toxic output of contaminated water, questionable air quality and incredible waste. We just can’t afford to do it this way any more.

Reduce, reuse, recycle . . . that’s been the mantra for some time now. But it’s hard to go against standard practice, to change ingrained habits. What’s needed is people who will take the time to think through how water and waste are currently handled, and look at viable and proven options that are already available to accomplish what we all say we want.

For ourselves, we’d like to restore our 15 acres of used up, depleted, currently useless former farmland to productive health, and to include ourselves and our home in that ecology. And if our example can benefit the wider community – we’d be delighted.

Beauty and Inspiration

Living Future 2014Two weeks ago, I departed for Portland, Oregon, for the annual UnConference of the International Living Future Institute. The UnConference is a collection of industry leaders who are pushing the most extreme boundaries within the built environment. It is an inspiring place to be.

The focus of this year’s event was beauty and inspiration, both too often ignored in our daily lives. And a quote that caught my attention was was from R. Buckminster Fuller: “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” After having time to reflect on what I learned and how I was inspired at the UnConference, and more specifically about this quote, I feel that Bucky’s statement appropriately applies to Burh Becc at Beacon Springs.

We have been engaged in solving some very difficult design problems for nearly two years now. And just recently, the construction documents were released to the team. In reflecting on the design of the project and the problems that it attempts to solve, the solution is truly beautiful; therefore it is right.

My compliments to the owners, design and construction team!

Growing Oranges

orange_treeTwo years ago, when we were first working on house design, we thought it would be great to have enough light in the new house to grow our own oranges. Not too long before, we’d each begun eating a fresh orange with breakfast, in place of fruit juice.

So we bought an orange tree, put it in a pot, and placed it by a set of west-facing French doors. In the summertime, the tree lives outside those doors, on the patio. It appears to be thriving, growing new shoots often, and blooming several times a year. Little oranges (or “greens” as we call them) form at each blossom. Those grow for a while, then drop off. Clearly the tree is still too young to really produce fruit.

The “green” in the photo is the longest-lasting and by far the largest we’ve had – about an inch and a half in diameter now. We have yet to see if it hangs around long enough to turn orange. In the meantime, we picture our tree in its light-filled spot in our yet-to-be-built living room.

And in the same way, taking our time with the design process has allowed us to imagine ourselves in the new house, carefully “looking at” and thinking through each window, door, wall area, room . . . All good, and we’ve come up with countless tweaks which will enhance the livability of our new home. And yet, we’ve done enough building to know that once we’re living there, we’ll discover so much more. We look forward to the surprise one day of a real orange and of our new home’s personality and beauty.

Richard Graves: Make others fall in love with sustainability.

Richard Graves addresses the unConference closing circle.

Richard Graves addresses the unConference closing circle.

We don’t ask about Return-on-Investment when we fall in love. Work is love made whole. Do work that makes people fall in love with sustainability.

If you want people to build a boat, don’t have them gather wood, rather, teach them to long for the sea.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

The universe will reward you for taking risks on its behalf.

You get about 100 laps around the sun. What are you going to do with your laps?

Partners in sustainable building.

Partners in sustainable building.

Notes from Jason McClennan’s presentation

Jason McLennan addresses Living Future 2014.

Jason McLennan addresses Living Future 2014.

Beauty: It is about soul. Either we give it way too much attention or not enough.

Beauty is not a pursuit; it is rather the result of the decisions we make from a place of sustainability. True beauty is an outward manifestation of Inner meaning.

As architects, in what we do, can we add more meaning to our work? We protect what we fall in love with.

We live in a civilization where we need to defend renewable energy, healthy building, people-centered processes, ecological water flow. Regeneration is not impossible; it is the only creative response to a planet where every living system is in decline.

Life is so startling that there is no time for anything else.