Friday, November 20, 2015

Sustainability in My Neck of the Woods

Having grown up in Lancaster County, green and sustainable principals have always been a part of our consciousness.  It does not escape my predilection for irony that these fundamental ideas are historically more prominent in the rural areas than in more developed parts of the City.

One can drive a car or ride a bike down the lanes that divide one farm from another and see the originators of sustainability and conservation.  I have been aware of harnessing the wind to create power my entire life, for instance.  It is not a new technology by any means, nor has the technology been improved significantly in the last 40 years aside from enhancements to battery storage.  The rotational moment is still the means to produce electricity.  Amish and Mennonite farms in the area have powered their electric fences with wind mills or water mills for centuries.  Now we see wind farms out our windows on the PA Turnpike.  I always wonder why some of the giant turbines are never rotating – you never see that happen on a farm.

High Tech wind power on the landscape.
Composting has also made it to the mainstream in urban and suburban centers.  From the zero-waste hotel I stayed in during a visit to Boulder, CO (good luck finding a non-recyclable or compostable trash - trash can), to the little compost mixer in my neighbors back yard, more is being done with our waste to keep it out of landfills.  As a 16 year old working on a produce farm just a few miles from here, however, I was all too aware of compost.  I dreaded the times when I would have to accompany my boss, Farmer Jim, out to the "pit" - a foul smelling and fly infested hole in the ground that I would have to "feed" with the rotting remains of cantaloupes, pumpkins or peaches.

Farmers allow unsold produce to compost in fallow fields.  This is the field I worked as a kid.
And it is funny more me to think that a trademark feature of a modern home is a laundry room on the second floor.  On those bike rides through the farmland, almost all the homes I saw had a very specialized technology to that not only delivered the laundry to the second floor of the homeowner's house, but also harnessed solar and wind power to complete the drying process at the same time.  It's called a clothesline on a pulley.

Solar and Wind dry these bloomers.
Because of our unique heritage here, Lancastrians have been exposed to sustainable ideas since the first settlers utilized them out of necessity.  The expansion and reliance upon the mechanical revolution may have clouded this vision to modern inhabitants, but because of the traditions and perhaps the frugality of our neighbors (all ancestors of the first settlers in the 1700's), we can take some pride in their continued vigilance and excellent stewardship of our natural resources.


  1. As an architect in Charlottesville, VA, I'm surrounded by 250-old architecture, yet bombarded constantly by "green products", LEED mandates, "sustainability" and clients with tight check books. I've practiced for 30 years here and while the "buzz words" change (with the exception of valid new technology) it's the same old story -- just marketed differently.
    GOOD ARCHITECTS HAVE ALWAYS DESIGNED WITH SPACE, LIGHT AND ENERGY-EFFICIENCY IN MIND, using long-lasting materials that are environmental appropriate, maintenance-free, readily available, and easy to properly install.
    HOW MANY ARCHITECTS ENJOY SEEING PREVIOUS DESIGNS DEMOLISHED? How many relish seeing buildings bull-dozed for a larger structure (read that "more financially efficient use of the site), for more appropriate use (read that "inflexible initial design") or because the original was so poorly built it's decaying and cannot be rejuvenated?
    I live with Thomas Jefferson's shadow over everything -- historic buildings, basic conceptual images -- even political debates (where he's often "quoted" by both sides). Mr. Jefferson was one of the greatest architects of the United States. His own home, Monticello, was designed to overlook his favorite achievement - the University of Virginia. But being up on that little mountain top, he had constraints. His home has a large footprint -- most of which has a concealed storm water-collection system -- because it's hard to dig a well on the top of a mountain. His home has built-in folding decorative panels at window jambs -- closable because the state-of-the art single-pane windows WERE COLD and those "insulating panels" helped retain warmth. His home is brick -- sturdy and maintenance-free -- from clay dug from pockets at the foot of the mountain, fired into bricks, carted uphill, and laid in place -- BECAUSE IT WAS CONVENIENT, INEXPENSIVE, READILY AVAILABLE, AND "SUSTAINABLE" (..although I doubt he ever used that term!). In secondary designs (after the first were damaged by fire from kitchens below), he designed ledgers strips on the wood floor joists, then lined with brick SO AS TO PROVIDE ADDITIONAL PROTECTIVE TIME TO THE JOISTS so the fire below might possibly be put out before the collapse of the structure. SUSTAINABLE? No, simply practical.
    For our Bicentennial in 1976, architects in the nation were polled about architecture in this country. Mr. Jefferson's pride and joy, the concept of the Grounds of the University of Virginia, was deemed THE MOST SIGNIFICANT WORK OF ARCHITECTURE EVER DONE IN THIS COUNTRY. But "sustainable"? "Green"? or "LEED-certifiable"? NO -- it was for the simple concept of mixing students and teachers, with classrooms and a library in their midst, and a view of the mountains of Virginia to remind all of their role in the natural environment.
    In recent years, one's heard much of "U'Va's student life on Fraternity Row". All of which is centered around an informal open recreation arena, surrounded by grass slopes of "casual seating" for viewing the recessed play. That sunken "informal arena" is not there for the frats through some grand design.... It is there because it had a "pocket" of Virginia red clay -- dug, shaped, and fired ON LOCATION, then carried up the hill to be laid as maintenance-free, sustainable, "green" and perhaps even "LEED-certifiable" (...if you must..) brick walls of the Rotunda (the Library), of the student/teacher housing and classrooms, and even serpentine garden walls of brick, all as the Grounds of the University of Virginia.
    Mr. Jefferson, as an architect, was practical, efficient, long-sighted -- simply smart! THAT IS A PINNACLE FOR WHICH ALL ARCHITECTS SHOULD STRIVE -- not "sustainable", not "green", not "LEED-certified" -- just smart.

  2. I toured Monticello a few years back and would definitely like to spend some time at UVA. I agree Ron, "sustainability" was a matter of practicality then. Living among the Amish and Mennonite communities here, there is still an air of practical sustainability in the present day. If you don't count kerosene powered ice boxes, anyway.