5 Book Recommendations: As Oprah would say, Ah-ha!

January 27, 2010

As part of the GreenHomeNYC Career Transitions group, I have been asked to share my thoughts and recommendations for 5 books on sustainability. I’m also supposed to come up with a theme, like 5 books about suburban homes and how they achieve or fail sustainability, or 5 books on air sealing and high performance structures. But as I was putting together my list, I kept veering away from my self-picked themes. Then I realized that my 5 books might topically be different but they all gave me a simple ah-ha moment. Sometimes it’s not about technical knowledge or high level theorizing but about imagination and curiosity. Before I get all Oprah on you, let’s get to my list.


1. Cradle to Cradle

by William McDonough and Michael Braungart

Why choose between two evils when you can find an altogether better solution? McDonough and Braungart argue that our current way of designing and manufacturing products came out of the Industrial Revolution and reflected the needs of the day. Today, our needs have changed and we can recognize the unintended consequences of choices made. This manifesto calls for ecologically intelligent design. It reminds me of the latest term I’ve heard buzzing around GreenHomeNYC: biomimicry.

How this relates to buildings: see biomimicry.


2. The Not-So-Big House

by Sarah Susanka

The No-So-Big House is sort of like W. H. Whyte’s  The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces for suburban homes. She emphasizes textured space like reading nooks over great rooms. Susanka also claims to be putting to words and design the characteristics that people feel make a single family building, a home. While there aren’t many McMansions in NYC (except for Bayside apparently), throughout the city there are new condos with the same floor plan: open kitchen looking into large room into which one crams a dining room and living room. While this is meant to make the condo feel bigger and more spacious, and probably saves a few resources in terms of demising walls and bringing light into the space, I gotta say that it is borrrring. So, thanks, Susanka for making nooks defensible, at least in the suburbs.

How this relates to buildings: Duh.


3. The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan

You haven’t read this yet? Feel like you’ve read it because everyone was talking about it and now you don’t want to? Stop being contrary and buckle down. No need to buzz through it though, take your time and noodle on your own food choices. Free range, organic, local, monoculture, what has a real standard and which do you think is most relevant?  All of these choices are about to be amplified in local politics by Christine Quinn who is starting to talk about her food policy focus for the next four years.

How this relates to buildings: analogies can be made to LEED and other green building standards, plus the new grocery store zoning in NYC.


4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

by Barbara Kingsolver

Whether you’re an advocate of community and victory gardens where you hoe the rows yourself or a devotee of grocery stores that bring washed produce to you, this book is relevant. It made me at once grateful for the fact that I am not responsible for growing/canning/butchering my own food and sad about the skill and knowledge of basic food production that I have lost. My parents grew up on farms and I’m lucky to get carrots to grow in a 3 x 4 foot plot. People, doesn’t this make you nervous??

How this relates to buildings: We need space for victory gardens: roofs, small lots, wherever.



5. The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living

by Josh Dorfman

My sister got this book and loved it. While lazy is the last thing you could describe her as, she appreciated the way the book broke down simple changes that she could make. It didn’t hurt that the book didn’t make her feel guilty either.

How this relates to buildings: Even awesome people can get stuck when it comes to going green and a little information, presented simply, can give them the tools and inspiration to make that change. Your carpenter has never used foam to seal the drywall before installing baseboard – talk with him about how this simple change can make a big difference.  


So, there you have it. Five easy reads that can give you something else to talk about with your family over the holidays other than whose turn it is to refill the cookie plate.