Three Books: Farming, Gardening, Epidemics and the Green Building

March 3, 2010

Yikes!  You are probably wondering what any of these have to do with green buildings!  Not to worry!
One Straw Revolution by Masonobu Fukuoka, Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway and Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell each explore in various contexts, the notion of leveraging existing system elements and assets in order to minimize necessary inputs, maximize desired outputs and control or reduce adverse impacts or, in simple English. . .strategies for creating systems that achieve potentially conflicting goals and are also self-maintaining.  I would say that accomplishing this is certainly an aspiration of the “high performance” or “green” building.

In “One Straw Revolution“, Fukuoka outlines his “do-nothing” approach to farming developed over 30 years of trial and error. Let us be clear!  This phrase should not be taken literally and Fukuoka warns that farming is hard work!  However, in his opinion it should not be unnecessarily so. Therefore, his “do-nothing” approach eschews active soil cultivation, plowing or tilling, use of expensive petrochemical based fertilizers and insecticides, prepared compost, or heavy machinery.  He instead opts for manual laborers, using only traditional Japanese hand tools, straw and cover crops (e.g. white clover) to enrich the soil while also preserving structure, as well as utilizing the crops themselves (rice and winter grains such as barley and rye), to assist in this process.  By following a specific seeding and harvesting schedule, each crop functions to prepare for and nurture the next by controlling the proliferation of weeds, increasing disease resistance, and protecting against insects, birds and other plant predators.  Traditional Japanese rice farming is also water intensive, however Fukuoka’s method allows for a significant reduction in deliberate irrigation or “flooding”.  In addition to achieving yields comparable to both traditional Japanese and chemical agricultural methods, he also manages to improve soil health and structure.  He notes that at best, traditional Japanese methods maintain this balance and chemically treated crops over time ultimately deplete or destroy it.  With the exception of harvesting, Fukuoka advises that one person can readily grow winter grains and two or three people can handle all the work necessary to grow a field of rice.  It is quite interesting to note that many of Fukuoka’s theories and techniques are very similar to those used in permaculture.  As it turns out Furuoka’s experimentations coincide with the development and emergence of permaculture, although Fukuoka is said to have not actually met or had knowledge of this movement until much later.  A major tenet of permaculture is that we should work with nature and not against it and it can be seen that by making strategic use of elements within his farming system, Fukuoka achieves seemingly disparate goals: good yields, productive soil, and reductions in expense and overall effort.

Which brings us to “Gaia’s Garden“, where Hemenway presents an easy to understand introduction to permaculture principles viewed through the lens of the home garden.  Broken into three parts, Hemenway defines the garden as ecosystem, identifies the necessary elements of such a system and finally provides suggestions for assembling all of these components into a garden, regardless of setting, be it suburban, entirely rural or even urban.  In fact, this second edition adds a chapter specifically for urban settings and applications.  However, as a permaculture-oriented text, the key message here is that gardens and other landscaping typically found in residential settings can provide more than a visually pleasing or decorative purpose.  They can  feed us and do other work such as rain and storm water management, provide habitat, reduce heating and cooling loads, and do these things without hogging or wasting resources.  This should serve to remind us that in addition to a building’s “bones” and mechanicals, green or high performance building design will increasingly need to consider a building’s impact on its surrounding environment. Taken a step further, sites as a whole will need to return as much (or more) as they take from the environment and be performative in ways that contribute positively to both the animal and human communities within which they are located.

Finally we arrive at Gladwell’s “Tipping Point“, in which he describes the manner in which ideas, behaviors or trends seem to explode onto the scene and spread like wildfire, or an epidemic.  The underlying theory for “tipping” is grounded in prior studies of adoption and innovation within social networks, by such researchers as Everett Rogers in the early 1960s.  However, Gladwell converts these ideas for popular use, and condenses the theoretical framework down to three simple rules: 1) The Law of the Few, 2) the Stickiness Factor and 3) the Power of Context.  He goes on to explain why these rules are essential to facilitating rapid communication or “diffusion” of information throughout a system or social network, and how we might deliberately leverage them to reach that “tipping point”.  This is yet another example of efficient and effective utilization of resources within a system to get the biggest possible bang for your buck.  For our purposes, this becomes particularly relevant, when we consider that the built environment has significant adverse impacts. It is becoming increasingly critical that we adopt new ideas, technologies and attitudes regarding buildings and how they function, whether it be new construction or retrofits, if we are to avoid environmental difficulties in the future. “Tipping Point” offers an easy to understand basis for crafting strategies, not only to disseminate this urgent message, but how we might get people to act on them more quickly, in order to shift gears in the construction and real estate development industries, before it is too late.

Each of these books is easy to read and understand. They show us what it means to make effective use of or to even regenerate resources, by leveraging existing tools and elements within a system.  They also demonstrate how a holistic approach can help us to simultaneously minimize our efforts while maximizing our yields and achieving seemingly competing objectives. What does all this mean within a building context? That we can reduce resource inputs and harmful impacts while increasing support for the needs and activities of a building’s occupants.

And that’s what farming, gardens and epidemics have to do with green buildings!

— Jill Lanier, GreenHomeNYC volunteer

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