They don't build them like they used to: Steve Mouzon's Original Green
Posted June 16, 2010
Steve Mouzon’s new book, Original Green, should be read by everyone interested in crafting a more sustainable built environment. It is a book of philosophy as much as architecture or planning, and it eloquently posits and expounds the proposition that environmentally responsible building and placemaking has more to learn from traditional culture and practices than from 21st-century ‘gizmo green’ technology. Subtitled Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, the book is published by The New Urban Guild Foundation, which Steve founded.
I have come to know and like Steve very much over the past year, so I’ll confess to the potential for bias. At the same time, though, Steve and I definitely do not agree on every detail (more about that later) and, even if we did, it wouldn’t be the reason I recommend the book. I recommend it because it is thoughtful, provocative, well written and, like the places Steve admires, beautiful, and because it has something important to say.
In fact, the first thing you notice about Original Green is its beauty, its fantastic design: the cover is compelling; the typeface and layout are inviting to the eye and mind; the paper is substantial; there is a beautiful, crisp, color-balanced image on almost every page, most of them apparently taken by Steve himself. I know him to be a superb photographer, so frankly I might even buy the book just for that reason. This is a work that you want to pick up and read, or at least browse. (There are no photo captions, references, or credits, though, and I wish there were. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would appreciate knowing exactly what I am seeing, which is sometimes but not always apparent from the text.)
There is a central premise to Steve’s ‘original green’ philosophy, which is that the way we humans learned for centuries to build things in response to natural climatic and cultural needs had inherent, if sometimes accidental, sustainability – and literal sustainability, too, since places were built to last and did. All that changed, however, with what Steve calls ‘the Thermostat Age,’ when we began to build without the same responsiveness to natural systems (and, because of transience, without the same regard for culture, though Steve spends less time on that aspect).
Because the book is based on a strong premise to which it remains true throughout, it is in a sense like another important recent book on the built environment, David Owen’s Green Metropolis. I suspect that comparison isn’t an entirely comfortable one for Steve, since Owen worships at the altar of dense city living and Steve is every bit as devout in his faith in the new urbanist ‘Transect,’ which (greatly simplified) holds that building and living most anywhere is environmentally sound if the design is well-suited to the place. But both are wary of the benefits of added-on green technology (which neither entirely eschews, by the way), and both make tremendously important points that are not always obvious to 21st-century readers and practitioners of placemaking. (Steve, by the way, is the one of the two who actually lives in a city.)
‘Original green’ means common-sense things like building with high ceilings, cross-ventilation and shading in warm climates, and building with steep roofs and southern exposure in cool ones. It means using original forms of transportation, such as walking and bicycling, whenever possible, and designing and inhabiting communities that facilitate such self-propulsion. It means growing food nearby, and ‘living local’ as much as possible. It means accepting a wider ‘comfort range’ of temperature; our ancestors, Steve points out, were adaptable and reasonably comfortable within a range of 30 degrees or so Fahrenheit; today people fight over two degrees’ difference in ‘thermostat wars.’ Original green places and buildings have intinsically smaller environmental footprints than conventional buildings and places, especially when lifecycle effects are included, and in many cases even if the conventional ones have the benefit of green technology.
All this is expanded in four parts of ten relatively brief chapters each. Although this is an important book, it is not a long one, and I like that. I did find myself occasionally distracted by Steve’s organizational compulsions, with six realms of green, eight foundations of sustainable places and buildings, ten things you can do, and so on, in addition to the four parts and ten chapters in each part. But, within each, I love his writing style, which is simple, direct and consciously ‘plain spoken,’ to use Steve’s own phrase. His writing actually reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh in some ways, and Steve’s facility with language is one of the book’s strong assets.
Another is that Steve's tone is personal, writing in the first person and from the heart. One of the things that drew me to Steve’s work is his unapologetic belief that buildings and places must be lovable if they are to be sustainable, because things that are not loved are not cared for and preserved. I noticed this on Steve’s Original Green blog quite a while back and linked it on my own blog, because it makes so much sense, the sometimes elusiveness of beauty and love notwithstanding. Steve invites some debate, I’m sure, with his suggestion that beauty and lovability can be regarded as science, not just art. But he backs it up with evidence, and readers can decide for themselves.
Writing in the first person and from the heart is not always an asset (though in this case it is much more an asset than not). The reader should be prepared for an adult dose of earnestness, and some readers may take an ‘I live this way instead of the way you do because it is right' message (intentional or not) from Steve's self-referential examples and unmitigated praise for new urbanism. But, heaven knows, the environmental movement of which NRDC and I are part is not exactly known for humility, and this particular pot isn’t dumb enough to dwell on calling a kettle black for high earnestness. By the way, just because the book is earnest doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining and sometimes even amusing; you’ll see what I mean if you read it.
In fact, as I suggested earlier, I don’t think it is essential that a reader agree with a work as long as one is affected by it or, even better, learns something. I certainly don’t agree with all of Owen’s book, for example, and I don’t agree with all of Original Green, either, though I probably agree with close to 90 percent of it. I like being pushed to consider things that I don’t necessarily agree with.
Like many new urbanists, Steve is definitely harder on modernist architecture than I am (witness my fondness for Dublin’s new stadium), and he takes a bit of a shot at environmentalists for espousing wilderness instead of embracing reasonable human impacts on all parts of the landscape, which I definitely disagree with for many of our remaining wild places. (I consider wilderness, where it exists, to be a great treasure, frequently best managed in accordance with the federal Wilderness Act of 1964: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”)
Steve may not know this or remember it if anyone told him, but my first acquaintance with him was not that enjoyable. Quite some time ago, I saw an email that he had authored and that I probably was not supposed to see in which Steve, in rather scathing and direct language, quite thoroughly trashed a piece of work that I had spent years on and believed in to the core of my being. (I still do, but this isn’t the place to discuss the details.) I don’t think he knew me from Adam at the time so it probably wasn’t personal. But from that moment on I had a red flag handy for this Mouzon guy, and warned several of my colleagues, too.
Much later, however, I noticed a really nice piece of writing from him, then another one; I noticed his involvement in some projects I love (e.g., here); we connected though mutual interests and friends on Facebook, and I came to really admire his work, and his original green philosophy.
I also eventually discovered that Steve is a really nice guy. Knowing what I know of his work now, I have confidence that our areas of professional disagreement are few and our commonality as advocates and as people far greater. Besides, he earns extra points for obviously adoring his very photogenic dogs, who appear both on his blog and in the book.
To whet your appetite, here are some of my favorite quotes from Original Green:
- ‘Why are we even discussing the carbon footprint of a building if it is built somewhere that requires you to drive everywhere?’
- ‘The more efficient a machine or fixture is, the less incentive there is to use it less.’
- ‘Sustainable things are things we can keep going in a healthy way long into an uncertain future.’
- ‘In most cases, the image goo is cheap plastic, foam or other stuff that is all too often a sad and hideous fake of the material it is intended to represent.’
- ‘The heavier stuff is, the closer the source should be to where it’s used because heavier stuff requires more energy to ship than lighter stuff.’
- ‘It’s likely that no architect set foot in Mooresville for several decades after its founding, yet those farmers and tradespeople, without computers, power tools or mortgages had built a better place than any architect had built from the end of World War II until that day.’
- ‘If a building cannot be loved, it will not last. Any serious conversation about sustainable buildings must begin with the issue of Lovability.’
As luck would have it, Steve and I presented at the AIA convention last week in the same room. His session immediately followed mine, so we crossed paths and had a chance to say hello. We talked about the book, and how much I like it. If you are interested enough in our cause to be reading this blog, I suspect you will, too.
All images courtesy of and (c) Steve Mouzon, www.originalgreen.org.
Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For more posts, see his blog's home page.
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