Op-Ed

Indigenous Cradle to Cradle

Thank you for your recent review of Cradle to Cradle certification (see

EBN

Vol. 16, No. 2), and the more general look at nascent attempts to understand and assess the thousands of materials we put in our buildings. As usual, the article was thorough, clear, and complete, and I salute both

EBN and all those about whom you wrote.

I was stunned, however, to see the authors and several sources discuss the lack of Platinum products, and for William McDonough to say, “Platinum is going to be pretty hard to get . . . existing products were never designed to be that way.” If Michael Braungart and William McDonough are betting men, I’ll wager right now—slapping a $100 bill on the table—that many, many examples of entire buildings, much less individual materials, exist all around us right now. To note just three examples: Taos Pueblo of New Mexico with adobe and timber, the Roman Pantheon and its innumerable siblings surviving to this day with pozzolanic Roman concrete, and the medieval German timber, straw, and clay homes with lime plaster.

Homo sapiens has been an intelligent, adaptive, and creative species building permanent structures for several thousand years, and it shows. To be sure, much of what was built then and is built now were and are unsightly, unsafe, and unsanitary “mud huts,” but I doubt that the cheap tract housing going up every day in the U.S.—“to code,” even—will perform or weather the decades much better, particularly as the oil and gas they require become neither cheap nor readily available.

More generally, I was struck that neither the article’s authors nor their subjects seemed to question the wisdom of endlessly inventing new chemical substances. According to the Worldwatch Institute, our modern bodies contain measurable quantities of hundreds of substances that didn’t even exist on earth a hundred years ago. With profound appreciation and respect to all those who are attempting to do so, I would further wager that not a single person on earth right now fully understands the effects of even one of those substances in our bodies, or in the biosphere—much less how they affect us interactively.

I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that we can meet all the housing and other shelter needs of a still-growing humanity with adobe bricks, straw bales, logs, twigs, and leaves. We can, however, take a few more cues from nature in more cleverly using the materials all around us without much or any modification, and further learn a great deal from our ancestors, almost all of whom built “Platinum” prior to the Industrial Revolution. As Frank Lloyd Wright wrote: “The true basis for the most serious study of the art of architecture lies with those indigenous more humble buildings everywhere, that are to architecture what folklore is to literature, or folksong to music, and with which academic architects are seldom concerned.“ Dr. Braungart, Mr. McDonough, if you’re reading this: my bet is on the table, and I’m not hard to find.

Bruce King, P.E., Director

Ecological Building Network

San Rafael, California

Published April 5, 2007 Permalink

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