Case Studies in Ecological Design: The Japanese Home

On Sunday, I analyzed Edo-era Japanese culture through a sustainability lens. Today, I use the Japanese house as an example of the more enlightened approach to nature embodied in Japanese values. With local materials and a keen spiritual eye, Japanese carpenters (there was no equivalent of the modern architect) created spaces that were comfortable, elegant, and connected to their surroundings in a way contemporary dwellings have only begun hint at.

Like most preindustrial structures, the Japanese home was intimately connected with its location: timber construction made use of Japan’s most abundant renewable resource, while wide overhangs and open walls were a response to the climate of heavy summer rains and mild winters. The traditional layout of buildings on a site maximized solar access, with the main building on the north side of the lot, covered walkways on the east and west sides, and a garden in the center.

Rather than our familiar inside/outside split, Japanese homes employed a continuum of spaces that brought the outside world in. The most private room, the hibachi, was the smallest and had the most constant temperature. The zashiki, meanwhile, was used as a reception area, and had sliding panels that opened up to the garden in nice weather. The zashiki, in turn, was surrounded by the engawa, a wide verandah that ran the perimeter of the garden.

A 21st-century American walking into an Edo-period home might wonder when its residents were going to move in – there was next to nothing in them. Tatami mats served as floor, bed and chair, and furniture was limited to a low table for eating and the occasional storage chest. As for the kitchen? Pretty much just a below-floor sink.


Still, there’s something strangely cofortable in the lack of couches. Maybe it’s just me, but these homes seem to have inner harmony and elegance that make them seem cozy despite their near-ascetic aesthetic. In the absence of flashy man-made objects, a funny thing happens: the more subtle beauty of nature begins to shine through. With their unadorned wood columns, grid of tatami mats, and sliding paper walls, traditional Japanese homes reacted to their environment with an awe and humility that’s sorely lacking in even the greenest architecture today. Maybe I should start checking freecycle for tatami mats…


This is the first of a two-part series on the ecological awareness of Japanese culture. Today’s post explains how Edo-era Japanese society as a whole reflected the values of sustainability, while part two will take a closer look at the environmental connections in houses of the period.

Very few societies have been able to acheive a high level of cultural and economic activity while maintaining the health of their surroundings. Easter Island is often mentioned as a microcosm of the human tendency to misappropriate valuable resources, though it’s far from the only example. Jared Diamond’s recent Collapse enumerates many more cases of societies suddenly toppling, and posits five factors that contribute the pheonomenon: environmental destruction, changing climate, changing trade patterns, conflict with neighbors, and societal responses to the other four. Any two of these factors are enough to lead to collapse; ominously, he finds all five present in today’s society.

MonekAre we, then, destined for failure? Are civilization and sustainability diametrically opposed? The case of Edo-era Japan provides a convincing argument that the answer is no. From the 1600s until they opened trade barriers in 1867, the Japanese maintained a stable population of 30 million almost entirely within their own borders – an area about the size of California. During that time, the arts and culture flourished, class and regional conflict were rare, and many of the forests that had been cleared in earlier areas were protected for restoration.

Shinto ideals of harmony with nature, as well as the minimalist outlook of Zen Buddhism, meant that having a small footprint was engrained in the culture. The result was a thriving economy of reuse, in which everything from candle wax to bamboo umbrella ribs was collected, remanufactured and resold by specialists. Rice straw, today considered a waste product, was employed in the creation of a variety of crafts, as well being used as fuel; farmers cleverly eliminated the need for both imported fertilizer and expensive, disease-harboring sewage systems by using human waste to fertilize crops.

According to most accounts, Edo-era Japanese were reasonably happy and well-provided for, but by American standards, the culture was hardly a utopia. A strong central government enforced a caste-like division of social classes, making upward mobility impossible. In a telling reversal of western values, the merchant class was considered lowest in the food chain, with craftsmen, farmers and samurai occupying the higher rungs. Most commoners had very few possessions, and even the rich lived modestly compared to their aristocratic contemporaries in Europe.

Edo Japan acheived remarkable success in creating a sustainable culture, and our own society could learn a great deal from its focus to reuse and material reduction. Still, the past can only teach us so much about our own situation – sustainable solutions, after all, must always arise from from their immediate context. If anything, Japan’s ecological society serves as a testament to what’s possible: in this time of great uncertainty over humanity’s fate, it’s good to know that somewhere, during a certain time, we rose to the challenge of limited resources to create a true partnership with the land.

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.

Flex and Illuminate

At the NYU gym a year or so I go, I had one of those adrenaline-induced flashes of insight: why aren’t we using exercise equipment to generate electricity? Inhabitat reports that inventor Lucien Gambarota has done the obvious, hooking up step, cycling and cross-training machines to lighting circuits for Hong Kong-based California Fitness. Maybe I won’t be getting rich off the idea anymore, but at least somebody out there’s doing it.

According to the article, each exerciser generates enough energy to power one 50 watt incandescent, or about 3 CFLs. That’s not a lot – unless we all start getting really ripped, we won’t be powering our cities with stairmaster anytime soon. Still, Gambarota’s innovation makes it possible for fitness centers themselves to become carbon neutral, and maybe add a little bit to the grid.

Powering Down

While I’m on a techno-skeptic riff, I thought I’d follow up Monday’s thinkpiece with a post on some current developments and practical actions for making computers a little more sustainable.

Computers are the enablers of the information age – the vast majority of our workforce now uses one daily. While they save millions of person-hours every day by speeding up tedious tasks, they’re also one of our largest consumers of energy. Server farms, in particular, are huge energy hogs: in 2005, the massive banks of servers needed to keep sites Google and Yahoo running consumed 5,000 megawatts of electricity in the US, most of it lost as waste heat.

Energy isn’t the only environmental issue with computer use. For one thing, the manufacturing process of a PC is resource intensive and involves an array of toxic substances; Phoenix-based ecological architect Tom Hahn estimates that the production of one laptop uses 40,000 pounds of raw materials. Finally, the disposal of “e-waste” presents a few problems. If they don’t end up in a landfill, computers disposed of in the States are often taken apart by hand in Africa, where the toxins inside make workers ill and pollute water sources.

As with most other elements of our society, computers don’t have to be nearly as wasteful and dangerous as they are today. Last Saturday, John Brandon at Extreme Tech explained how to build an energy- and resource-efficient PC from the ground up using widely available components, most of which are better performing to boot. Yesterday, Worldchanging’s Jeremy Faludi interviewed Scott Phipps at VIA, a Taiwanese chip manufacturer with the goal of “carbon-free computing”. With chips that use 1/6 the power of a Pentium and a commitment to reforestation and renewable energy investments to offset projected CO2 use, VIA is thinking creatively about how to deal with the substantial envrionmental issues posed by our most useful machines.

Fortunately, though, you probably don’t need to start from scratch to make a serious dent in your own computer’s impact. First off, get rid of your screensaver and set your desktop to go right into sleep mode. Make sure to turn off your peripherals when you’re done (printer, monitor, etc) – if left on, they’ll draw power even when not in use. A program at Harvard institutionalizing these simple actions is estimated to save the campus $45,000 per year, cutting emissions by 50,000 pounds.

Perhaps the simplest solution of all: use your computer less. Think carefully about the time you spend “plugged in,” whether at work or at home, and try to make the most of it. If you can, participate in Shutdown Day on March 24th: so far, 26,000 people have pledged to make their day computer free.

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.

The Zero-Energy Chinese Cancer Factory

Looks like Ed Mazria has one more case study for Architecture 2030 (see post below):
Sustainable Design Update reports that uber-architects Skidmore, Owings and Merril have designed a skyscraper in the booming Chinese city of Guangdong that produces all of its electricity on-site. The building uses site orientation, hi-tech window glazing, air circulation strategies, and heat-absorbing materials to reduce energy consumption by 60% over a conventional building of the same size, and the reduced energy needs are met by PV panels and large- and small-scale wind turbines. Sounds pretty sustainable, right?

Except for one thing. The building is the new headquaters for the Guangdong Tobacco Company – an arm of China National Tobacco Company, the largest cigarette manufacturer in the world. In a country where smoking is a part of the national culture, the government-owned CNTC provides Beijing with billions of dollars in taxes every year, while feeding the addictions of more Chinese than the entire US Population.

The Guangdong Tobacco building provides a fine example of the inscrutable ethical knots found at the intersection of capitalism, globalization and sustainablility. To be sure, we should be doing all we can to reduce our global carbon footprint, especially in emerging superpowers like China. But is it ethical to build a green skyscraper, even a zero-energy one, if the building’s client is cutting short the lives of hundreds of millions of people? And what if the profits from that client are helping finance education, infrastructure improvements, and renewable energy? Tricky times, indeed.