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A primer on building responsibly in the post-carbon era: How do we design and build a wholly new paradigm which enhances, rather than depletes, the web of life?

[Editor's note: We have invited Robert Riversong, a Vermont builder (see full bio below), to write a 10-part series of articles taking design and construction to what he sees as radical or "root" concerns--from philosophy to principles of hygro-thermal engineering (full list of articles below). Enjoy--and please share your thoughts. – Tristan Roberts]

1. Context – land, community & ecology

This is the first of a series of radical (as in, going to the root) reflections on the science, the philosophy and the ethics of building shelters in a post-modern pre-apocalyptic world. These will challenge the reader but also, hopefully, enlighten and enliven the dialogue about building responsibly in a post-carbon era.

In an NPR On Point conversation on religion and spirituality for the 21st century, the guest – minister and author Richard Watts – spoke of the importance of putting text in context, lest we fall into some kind of fundamentalism. In fact, he described how Christian fundamentalism is not a radical return to original teachings but a relatively modern invention (1910–1915) and a reaction against liberal scientific modernism. By limiting its focus to textual "truth", it ignores the context - both ancient scriptural and current cultural.

The "green" building movement (I have to use quotes) is also largely a reaction to the increasingly inescapable and pressing postmodern demands of resource and fossil fuel depletion coupled with consequent and expansive environmental destruction. It is rapidly generating a "scripture" of orthodox materials and methods and a few accepted "catechisms" (such as LEED and NAHBGreen) with a primary focus on saving energy and, perhaps, slowing inexorable climate change--at best, doing less harm. "Green" is hoped to become the new fundamentalism of the building trades--but is it missing the broader cultural and environmental context? Or, as the old adage went, are we missing the forest for the trees?


In the late 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales invented the term "environ" from the old French for "to encircle or surround." And from his and John Milton's later poetic use of this verb, we now have a conception of an environment as a place--distinct from ourselves--that surrounds us. For most of the human journey on earth, we lived immersed in a natural or created world of which we were an integral partner. We lived within (not upon) the land, amidst (not in) community, and reciprocally dependent upon an ecology which we knew viscerally as the Web-of-Life (not the out-of-doors).

For all the manifold gifts that the objective scientific paradigm (some would call it our modern religion) has granted us, it leaves us often bereft of the intimacy with our environs that gave both soul to religion and meaning to life. That deep immersion in life also made work into craft and brought heart into both work and play--and it imbued our actions with responsibility for the "next seven generations."

Thankfully, the most comprehensive models of sustainability (a far better term than "green"), which grew from the seed of Earth Day 1970, are built upon the tri-fold foundation of ecology, economy and equity (to which we might add a fourth: ethics). And the more comprehensive perspectives on sustainable shelter place housing within the context of land and community, reweaving a holistic fabric of life.

Further Questions

Are concentrated urban or cookie-cutter suburban or scattered 10-acre rural developments sustainable? Is cluster development with conserved common land or village development more appropriate? Is private ownership of the earth ethical, equitable and sustainable or must the land, as well as the waters and the air, become – once again – a commons for us to steward and protect for the next seven generations? Is it truly economic to consider land and housing as profit-making investments rather than as the basis of human need for sustenance and as the literal ground of essential enterprise?

How does our placement of shelter on the land impact the vitality of that land? How does that placement relate to the locations of work, shopping and recreation--does it require excessive use of vehicular transport or does it encourage conviviality? Do the materials and methods we use in home-building foster local community-based and cooperative enterprise or require centralized, hierarchical, large-scale resource exploitation systems?

Are we designing and building to meet essential human needs or merely desires, fashions and an insatiable appetite for status? What is the cost--ecological, cultural, and personal--of creating magnificent and "efficient" homes that isolate us from our neighbors, our environment, our work and play, and our quest for authentic meaning?

Kahlil Gibran, from his poetic treatise on Houses, Work and Love:

And tell me...what is it you guard with fastened doors?

Have you peace...Have you remembrances...Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?

Tell me, have you these in your houses? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master?

Tombs or Temples?

It is worth considering whether we have entombed ourselves within elaborate boxes that separate us from the life-giving environs--both social and natural. By creating ever-larger and more sophisticated containers for shelter, work, electronic entertainment and diversion, do we rob ourselves of the diurnal interplay with sun and wind and rain and dirt and other creatures that has literally shaped us into what we are? We are not only spirit embodied in earth elements, but we now know that DNA expression--evolution – is triggered by what environs us.

Does the 80%–90% of our lives spent in artificial "climate-controlled" indoor environments displace us from the source of our being, our spirit and our meaning? What is the correlation between the quest for control of our indoor climate and the out-of-control outdoor climate which threatens to destroy our species?

How can we create essential shelter without abstracting ourselves from the environs that has guided our evolution since the beginning of time and, by so doing, accelerate the destruction of the earth of which we are made and which nourished and sustained us for millennia?

If the house is indeed the "temple of the soul" as Anthony Lawlor has said, how do we make shelter building a holy undertaking? How do we manifest the sacred in material form? How do we design and build a wholly new paradigm which enhances, rather than depletes, the Web-of-Life? This should be our quest.

The full 10-part series of Robert's reflections will be as follows. Tune in next week for more:

1.    Context – land, community & ecology
2.    Design – elegant simplicity, the Golden Mean
3.    Materials – the Macrobiotics of building: natural, healthy and durable
4.    Methods – criteria for appropriate technology
5.    Foundations – it all starts here: how do we begin?
6.    Envelope – shelter from the storm, our third skin
7.    HVAC – maintaining comfort, health and homeostasis
8.    Energy & Exergy – sources and sinks
9.    Hygro-Thermal – the alchemy of mass & energy flow
10.    Capping it All Off – hat &  boots and a good sturdy coat

copyleft by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes

Robert Riversong has been a pioneer in super-insulated and passive solar construction, an instructor in building science and hygro-thermal engineering, a philosopher, wilderness guide and rites-of-passage facilitator. He can be reached at HouseWright (at) Ponds-Edge (dot) net. Some of his work can be seen at (an article on his modified Larsen Truss system), (more on the Larsen Truss), (a case study of a Vermont home), and Transition Vermont (photos).

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1 Love where this is going. Ca posted by Frank Cetera on 04/28/2011 at 09:52 am

Love where this is going. Can't wait to share it with others in the "green" building movement in my community.

2 Robert, I am delighted to see posted by Devon Dougall on 04/30/2011 at 01:28 pm

Robert, I am delighted to see what you are doing with building in Vermont; you, along with Dan Phillips of Phoenix Commotion, are very inspiring. I am one of thousands of long-time Vermonters who wants to build for a home to live in, surrounded by community in the true sense, but damn, the price of land is always the catch! Truly affordable housing, truly alive community seems still so out of touch that it is sometimes disheartening. For those of us older folks who don't wish to do the commune thing, there has got to be a way to sanely purchase parcels of land on which to build (truly) affordable housing. Just wish I knew where to start - rambling, I know, but point is I look forward to the rest of your guest blogs and maybe I'll get more ideas as you go. Keep up the good work!

3 Thanks for taking the time to posted by Devon Dougall on 05/03/2011 at 03:11 pm

Thanks for taking the time to reply; all are good and well-meaning entities. My sticking points are: these all consider "affordable" to be something in the $100,000.+ range, and also most are excessive in size to this Small House activist. In my eyes, we have a ways yet to go towards the goal of elegant and affordable housing. Meanwhile, I'll continue to learn what I can, and thanks again for the info!

4 Devon, I sympathize with your posted by Robert Riversong on 05/03/2011 at 09:44 am


I sympathize with your frustration over the obstacles to land access presented by the speculative market and the commodification of land. One way to reduce access cost is to join with a group of like-minded people and make a collective purchase, though make sure the agreement is very well articulated.

Rather than re-invent the wheel, there are several community land trusts in Vermont, including the Central VT CLT, the Rockingham Area CLT and the Champlain Housing Trust which used to be the Burlington CLT but shifted its focus entirely to affordable housing. Unfortunately, the CLT model which began as an American land reform movement has shifted into a housing movement. But there is still the opportunity for stewardship and community in some.

The Boomer's version of the 60's commune is now the Co-Housing movement, and there are a number of examples in Vermont, such as the Cobb Hill farm/home/ecology development started by the late Donella Meadows Others are listed at

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