Case Studies in Ecodesign: Mountain Oak School

Mtn Oak Before and after

The final project for my Ecosa program this semester was a comprehensive masterplan for Mountain Oak, a Waldorf-based charter school in Prescott. Currently run out of an old two-story motel and a couple of converted houses, the school is in desperate need of more and better space. Our task was to develop a vision plan for Mountain Oak, remaking the existing site into something safer, more spacious and ecologically stunning.

As in every design, we started the process with exhaustive research. In this case, we had to familiarize ourselves with everything from local building codes to native plants, although we spent most of our time researching the Waldorf educational philosophy. Founded by German renaissance man Rudolf Steiner in the 20s, Waldorf education emphasizes whole body learning, creativity and imagination, and a connection to natural cycles. Over the years, architects from Steiner onwards have developed a style for Waldorf schools that includes faceted angles, thick, solid details, and natural materials; one paper we found even specified the ideal classroom shape for each grade.

Classroom Shapes

Once we understood what Waldorf was all about, the principles of ecodesign seemed to fit perfectly into the mix. Far from being hidden, we chose to make the green features of the vision plan highly visible, letting the landscape itself teach students about our connection with the earth.

Another recurring theme of the project was community-building. Through a series of community charettes, we incorporated the school’s stakeholders into the design process and got valuable feedback at each step of the process. For instance, we were told time and time again that the pickup and dropoff was chaotic, so we rearranged the flow of people to streamline the process and foster interaction among parents and teachers.

With all our information at hand, we were finally able to begin designing. After hundreds of feet of trace paper, dozens of iterations on CAD, and many a heated group discussion, we ended up with a 5-phase plan that satisfied the many requirements of the school community, city code, and environmental sterwardship. Here are some of the key aspects:

An undulating ferrocement wall winds its way from corner to corner of the campus, curving in response to the activities it encloses, and accented with railings and gates insipred by Steiner’s designs.

The Plaza is a central gathering area for students covered by a six-post shade structure. When it rains, water drains into the center of the structure and falls to the floor, where covered gutters lead the water to the surrounding planted area.

The Village Center is a Steineresque passive solar building with community space on the ground floor and new classrooms for 7th and 8th grade above.

The current motel building gets a facelift with Green Screen, a modular wire mesh filled with planted evergreen vines.

We presented our vision plan to the community last Thursday, and it received a much better response than we could have anticipated. It remains to be seen how much of the vision plan will get built: like our other clients, the Gutierrez family, Mountain Oak has no budget to speak of. But even if it never makes it past the paper, our design succeeded in inspiring the Mountain Oak community to imagine what could be – as well giving us some much-needed experience in putting our wild green ideas into practice.


Case Studies in Ecological Design: The Gutierrez Residence

Gut PerspectiveI recently wrapped up my first major project at Ecosa: a set of schematic design plans of a house for Tony and Linda Gutierrez, a 50-something couple with a one acre property in nearby Chino Valley. The couple had a straightforward request – a 2,000 square foot mission-style home, traditional in look but as energy-efficient as possible… and at a rock-bottom budget.

As in any ecological design, the Gutierrez residence had to harmonize these competing dictates of style, environmental responsibility, and budget into a coherent whole, creating what Tom Hahn describes as “an elegant set of solutions to a complex set of challenges in an environment.” As we talked with the clients, assessed the site and began analyzing the natural and social variables at play, there indeed seemed to be a complex set of challenges at work.

One of my primary goals was to employ passive solar techniques, which use careful site orientation and placement of windows to heat and cool the house based on the sun’s position in the sky. This meant, among other things, including as many south-facing windows as possible. But the south end of the lot fronted a busy street, and all the appreciable views were to the north and east – exactly where you don’t want windows from a passive solar perspective. So I decided to use south-facing clerstory windows, which let in light but not views, as well as a 16-foot-wide sun room that acts as a solar heater for the house while keeping out unwanted streetlife.

South Elevation

Another design challenge lay in the construction method of the house: when they approached us, Tony and Linda were set on building with adobe. While it’s an excellent material for the Phoenix area, where it rarely drops below freezing, adobe isn’t quite as well-suited to the Chino Valley climate, and the house would need mechanical heating to keep it warm in the winter. Instead, I proposed constructing the house out of plastered strawbale, which would give the same handmade, thick-walled appearance of adobe, but insulate during the winter far more efficiently. At first, Tony and Linda were pretty skeptical of a house made of straw, but after assuaging their fears about fire, rodents, and moisture, they seemed pretty sold on the idea.

The Gutierrez residence proved to be a great introduction to real-world challenges of ecological design. The examples above show how designing sustainably involves a holistic understanding, not only of the environment, but of economics, style, and politics as well. Like so many other aspects of sustainability, this process requires a greater initial investment of time and energy, but produces a regenerative return in the form of enhanced comfort, lower utility bills, and a smaller ecological footprint.

Bioplastics Rundown

Composting BottleOne of the hottest developments in greening our product systems is the growing interest in plastics made from organic matter rather than petroleum. Bioplastic technology for has been around for decades, but the low cost of oil has kept it out of the spotlight until recently. While the bioplastics revolution is well underway in Europe and Japan (France and Italy have banned non-biodegradeable plastic bags), it’s still gaining steam here in the States. Here’s a summary from a talk I gave for my Ecosa program:

Most bioplastics are made from starch – usually corn but also potato, soy and cellulose. Starch plastics are soft, easy to produce and decompose quickly, making them ideal for disposable products like trash bags, utensils and cups. Just don’t use them for coffee: unless they’re combined with other compounds, most starch plastics melt at 120 degrees.

While corn and potato plastic are by far the most common, there’s also quite a bit of plastic being developed for more demanding applications. Polyactide acid (PLA), made by fermenting sugars and starches, is starting to see use in everything from soda bottles to cell phones, while the bacterial compound Poly-3-Hydoxybutarate (PHB) is being used to make strong plastics that withstand temperatures up to 350 degrees F.

Like anything claiming to be “sustainable” these days, bioplastics come in a few shades of green. Plastics labeled as degradeable undergo a chemical transformation under specific conditions (usually when combined with another chemical), and generally still leave a toxic residue. Biodegradeable plastic products will degrade naturally from microorganisms – although it might take years to do so, and even then there might be components like glues or coatings that never decompBPI Logoose. To ensure that the plastics you buy can be safely returned to the soil, look for products that are compostable. These products are certified by the Biodegradeable Products Institute to decompose at the same rate as paper (less than 18 months) and leave no toxic material.

The idea of using old take-out forks to nourish the carrots in your backyard is pretty irresistable. But before we all jump on the bioplastics bandwagon, it should be noted that even compostable plastics come with a few caveats. While bioplastics themselves may be renewable, they still require a complicated, energy-intensive process to produce – energy that probably isn’t coming from wind farms or solar panels. There’s also the GMO issue: more and more bioplastics are being made from plants that are genetically modified to increase naturally-occuring plastic compounds, a seriously un-green prospect to many. Finally, the lack of composting infrastructure in most of the USA makes the environmental benefits of bioplastic largely irrelevant. Unless care is taken to dispose of bioplastic in a home or commercial compost facility, it could end up in a landfill, where the lack of oxygen will prevent it from breaking down for centuries.

Life in the Eco-Hood

The Ecohood

My home here in Prescott is in a low- to middle-income neighborhood about a mile from downtown.  The historically Mexican area is bordered on three sides by a creek, and this geographic isolation has allowed it to escape the pressures of development that are sweeping through the rest of town. But recently, the neighborhood has begun to see a transformation of a completely different sort: Prescott College students and other green-leaning residents have begun to settle in the area’s small, cheaply built tract homes and retrofit them for a green lifestyle. Started by 30-something permaculture teacher Andy Millison, the movement has taken off so much in the last few years that locals have (somewhat uncreatively) taken to calling the area the “Eco-Hood“.

But London this ain’t – the Eco-Hood has nary a hybrid or solar panel in sight. With a decidedly low-tech, DIY approach, these green homesteaders are instead investing in chickens, rainwater catchment systems, straw-bale insulation, and passive solar-heated greenhouses; some have even gone so far as to abandon their house and live in yurts or sheds in their yard. There’s an almost palpaple competition amongst the eco-hooders to reduce their consumption of energy, imported food, and material possessions.

Even within the sustainability movement, the residents of the Eco-Hood are clearly on the fringe, living a near-ascetic lifestyle in the name of the environment. But as unique as it is, there’s one part of this story I’ve seen before: though Prescott is worlds away from my Brooklyn apartment, the demographic shift underway in the Eco-Hood – young alternative white folks moving in to a low-income minority community – is uneasily familiar. Am I living in the first neighborhood in the country to undergo “greentrification”? It’s too soon to say. The ultimate success or failure of the Eco-Hood will rest on how successful the new residents are in crossing the substantial cultural divide that separates them from their Mexican immigrant neighbors. Sustainability is to a large extent about community, and if the eco-homesteaders are ignoring the issues of 80% of the neighborhood’s residents, they aren’t truly building one.

The Eco-Hood could be the first signs of a potent movement – or it could peter out within the year, remembered only as a naive experiment in the early days of the Green Rennaissance. But either way, the urgent desire of its residents for a healthy, creative, and self-sufficient lifestyle should be an inspiration to us all. For all the fanfare stirred up by the green movement, we still live in a society dominated by consumerism and its rampant excesses. In a vicious circle, our luxuries become necessities as we’re indundated with yet more luxuries to desire. At some point, this cycle has got to be broken. The Eco-Hooders have done it. Can the rest of us?


Imbolc is an ancient Celtic festival celebrating the impending arrival of spring. Held the first week of February, Imbolc honors Brighid, the goddess of poetry, healing, and smithcraft. Traditionally, celebrants light bonfires, perform divination and ritually melt ice to hasten the winter thaw.

Last thursday, my Ecosa classmates and I conducted a modern-day Imbolc in our studio with food, art, music and dance. Our celebration recognized not only the changing of the season, but the reemergence of an eco-centric paradigm, one that accepts nature as our ally. The Ecosa studio space – an old mechanic’s garage off an alley – was transformed into a walkable fabric spiral, with sculpture around the perimeter and a central gathering space of shadow dance, live drumming and projections.

I believe events like Imbolc are a critical to build community and foster a sense of joy in the midst of the daunting tasks we now face. Since the last ice age, humans have enjoyed a favorable planetary climate for settlement and population growth, and it has allowed us to thrive. But over time, we have become frozen in another sense: humans are alienated from natural rhythms, detached from the pattern language of the ecosphere. This alienation has brought us to our present planetary crisis, where we must finally face the hard choice between ecosystemic disaster and a radical restructuring of our society.

In its own small way, Ecosa’s celebration of Imbolc was intended to thaw the paralyzing human-centeredness that pervades our lifestyle. As a collective, we can feel something struggling beneath our dancing feet, a bud stirring to life from the dead sticks over our heads. A new season is upon us; the ice is melting. Let’s usher in the spring.