Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Bruce King's Green Story

For as long as I can remember I've had this edgy, powerful dislike of waste, and so as a little boy was the butt of many jokes in my family for pulling things out of the trash because “they were still useful.” As it turned out, I also had an aptitude for science and math, and so like Dilbert was probably fated to be an engineer. I found that in engineering, as in math, the equation must always balance — nothing is thrown away. This is no trivial abstraction, as it turns out that Nature also works that way. My odd childhood obsession was thus vindicated and articulated by biology and ecology. Nothing is thrown away because there is no “away.”

A quarter of a century ago I started my business as a structural engineer, and found myself part of an industry that is not merely wasteful, but often seems to systematically destroy as much as possible. Energy, water, and materials are routinely squandered in construction. Less obvious, but far more widespread and destructive, is the waste of knowledge and common sense; we’ve learned a lot about how to build well, but don’t. Even less obvious are the effects in faraway places that our industry has: the open pit copper mines in New Guinea that displace entire cultures, the clearcut arboreal forests of Siberia that strip away species diversity, the horrible cancers that afflict workers in PVC plants around the world. We even throw ourselves away! As an engineer, I began to wonder how to bring my training and experience to the dawning “green” movement to improve on the way we build.

My big chance came in the early 1990’s when asked to engineer the Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, California. That project was hugely successful for a number of reasons: a talented and mutually-respectful team, an ever-evolving and joyful sense of the design, careful and lovely use of reclaimed land and water, and novel (at the time) use of materials such as straw bales, sustainably-harvested lumber, recycled tile, fly ash concrete, and all sorts of “old junk” turned to good use. Most exciting was the complete energy-independence of the building, which passively keeps itself cool in summer and warm in winter, while providing more power than it needs with solar cells and wind turbines.

I remember one particular and signature moment during that project. It was a broiling hot summer day during the framing phase. We had just completed a long session working through many details for the complex, curving structure, and we were all pretty used up. The contractor—an “old boy” from the area and by no means a “greenie”—walked up beside me, put his huge arm around my shoulder, and blurted out “Wow! I had forgotten that building is fun! ”

This engineer had found his niche.We always built “green” before the Industrial Revolution in that we only used local materials, water and energy. But with the subsequent rush of fossil fuel energy we've become giddy and hurried. Climate change and peak oil will soon change the way we build, whether we like it or not, and we will once again have to rely on our smarts, local resources, and our collective experience to build well. And so to me green building means making every effort now to smooth the transition to the world our children will inherit. It’s the least we can do.

Also, green building is fun.

--Bruce King, P.E. is a structural engineer and founder of the Ecological Building Network in San Rafael, Calif.

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