: The Human Age

House Plants? How Pass?


House Plants? How Pass?

Home, for the Inuit, had an elemental simplicity. They used bone knives to carve bricks from quarries of hardened snow. A short, low tunnel led to the front door, trapping heat in and fierce cold and critters out. Mortar wasnt needed, because the snow bricks were shaved to fit, and at night the dome ossified into a glistening ice fort, with the human warmth inside melting the ice just enough to seal the seams. The idea behind such homes was refuge from elements and predators, based on a watchful understanding of both. The igloo was really an extension of the selfshoulder blades of snow and backbone of ice, beneath which a family slept, swathed in thick animal fur, beside one or two small blubber lamps. All the building materials lay at hand, perpetually recycled, costing nothing but effort.

Picture most of our houses and apartment buildings todayfull of sharp angles, lit by bulbs and colors one doesnt find in nature, built from plywood, linoleum, iron, cement, and glass. Despite their style, efficiency, and maybe good location, they dont always offer us a sense of sanctuary, rest, or well-being. And theyre not particularly healthy. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study found levels of twelve volatile compounds two to five times higher indoorsno matter if the home was rural or urbandue to the products we use and poor ventilation. Because we cant escape our ancient hunger to live close to nature, we instinctively encircle the house with lawns and gardens, install picture windows, adopt pets and Boston ferns, and scent everything that touches our lives.

No wonder theres an impassioned push worldwide to build green homes with verdant walls and roofs, inspired by Patrick Blanc, equally green workplaces that breathe and clean themselves like street cats, and well-tilled farms on rooftops and in ziggurats. It doesnt make sense to shut out nature in the old way. Our fundamental archetype of a foursquare, armorlike building perched on a scrap of earth is evolving from a static and ultimately disposable dwelling into one that, like a tree, mingles holistically with the world around it, not just absorbing a staggering amount of nutrients but producing even more than it consumes.

An alternative is the culture of sustainability and cradle to cradle design redefining the world of goods and architecture and city planning. According to the principle of cradle to cradle (a term coined by the Swiss architect Walter R. Stahel in the 1970s), everything we makeapartment buildings, bridges, toys, clothesshould be designed with reclamation and rebirth in mind. Instead of tossing the outmoded ephemera of civilization onto rubbish heaps, and then extracting and grinding down more resources to replace them, why not fabricate objects that will naturally biodegrade or can be recycled by industry as technical nutrients? Durables such as televisions, cars, computers, refrigerators, heaters, and carpets could be leased and traded in when worn out or untrendy, allowing manufacturers to recycle them and harvest the raw materials.

In 1999 the architect William McDonough accepted the challenge of redesigning Ford Motor Companys eighty-five-year-old River Rouge factory, a project that required redesigning the ten-acre roof of its 1.1-million-square-foot truck assembly plant. He began by endowing the roof with its own weather systemacres of sedum, a low-growing succulent that blooms dusty-pink or linen-white in the fall and the rest of the year displays large rain-swollen leaves. Then he knitted the factory and plants into the landscape with a system of wet meadow gardens, porous paving, hedgerows and bio-swales that attenuates, cleanses, and conveys storm water across the site.

Inspired by such models, and hoping to rank high on the prestigious LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, architects are vying to create equally well-behaved buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work. Theyre striving for regenerative buildings that purify their wastewater, create more energy than they use, and compost and recycle to such an extent that industry blends seamlessly with nature. In essence, Andres Edwards writes in The Sustainability Revolution, a world of abundance, rather than limits, pollution, and waste. This revolution stems from an ethos thats reverberating around the world in developed and developing countries alike; as Edwards reminds us, Brazil, Canada, China, Guatemala, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, and Netherlands Antilles have LEED-registered projects, demonstrating that the standard can adapt to different cultures and bioregions.

We arent adhering any longer to the myth that food must be grown far away and transported on trucks. We can easily envisage restaurant rooftop farms, urban beekeeping and midtown chicken coops. We cant grow everything around the cornernot grains, or soy, or corn, to be surebut we can grow most of our vegetables and fruits. Local farms feed the food chain, save fuel, and guarantee a fresher and more nutritious diet. And theyre cropping up on every continent, including the last place one might guess.

In Antarctica, where the average coastal temperature is -70F with inland dips to -180F, the American research base, McMurdo Station, is a town of naked machines and heavily insulated people. There darkness saturates winter, inking out the sky for six months, during which occasional green auroras shoot up like magnetic demons tails, and indoors the auroras are falling white showers of man-made fluorescence. There are two primary smells (sweat and diesel fuel) and two primary colors (black and white). Fresh produce arrives by air from Los Angeles and costs $80,000 to $100,000 per week in the summer. During the winter, deliveries may be months apart.

Clearly, this is no banana belt, says Robert Taylor, the good-humored technician who, along with many volunteers, has overseen McMurdos 649-square-foot greenhouse. And there is no history of oxen tied to wooden plows turning over rich black soil. Actually, on this side of the continent, there is no soil at all, only weathered volcanic rock and, of course, ice. There is nothing in the way of organic matter to speak of, and no recognizable terrestrial plants. And yet, life blooms under thousands of watts of artificial light.

Its hardly roomy, especially compared to gardens in his hometown of Missoula, Montana. But by using hydroponic techniques hes been able to harvest about 3,600 pounds of spinach, Swiss chard, cucumbers, herbs, tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables each yearpure manna to the green-starved residents.

Not enough to register on the worlds export market, but nothing to sneer at if you are one of the approximately 200 people who choose to winter here, Taylor says via e-mail.

Lettuces grow like champs, he notes. There are nearly 900 lettuce heads growing at any time on tiered growing systems. Likewise, basil and parsley are herbs that need very little in the way of input. Thats just as well, because he has to pollinate them all by hand, since insects, the natural pollinators, are forbidden, lest they devastate the small greenhouse Eden.

Its strange that a horticulturist would come all the way to Antarctica to grow vegetables, but as far as challenges and thrills, what better place to confront the beauty of plants than in an environment so devoid of them? Each tomato, each cucumber becomes a jewel, precious.

As if it were a laid-back bar in Key West, two hammocks and a cozy old armchair float in a humid corner, for those who wish to commune with arugula. Many do. At McMurdo, not only vegetation but humidity, scent, and natural colors are rare. On the other hand, howling isolation and intense relationships are the norm. Many people thrive on the parabolic sunlight and unusually intimate community. But those beset by polar T3, overwintering syndrome, can find their thyroid levels askew and metabolism rocky, with sleeplessness, irritation, and depression constant bedfellows. In an all-white kingdom of ice and snow, where the only low-hanging fruit are the stars, ones sanity can tremble on a stem slender as a marigolds.

Fortunately, purple-and-yellow pansies and orange marigolds (both edible) grow in the greenhouse, where the rainbow stalks of Swiss chard create a small psychedelic forest, and scarlet cherry tomatoes dangle from string supports like floppy marionettes. Cilantro, basil, chives, rosemary, and thyme scent the air. The sensory repast as well as the food nourishes greenhouse visitors, and the plants lap up the CO2 exhaled by the humans. Unlike typical greenhouses in winter, this one has no sunlight streaming through cathedral-like walls of glass. McMurdos urban farm at the bottom of the world is completely sealed and insulated, and, in a stark village where windows are precious, Im told it also offers a leafy idyll for a dinner date. Even in this extreme outpost of a city, the benefits of greening ease the way.

There will soon come a time when farming neednt have a country flavor, and referring to the north forty means crops forty floors up. PlantLab in the Netherlands grows forty different crops indoors, using hydroponics and high-tech sensors, without pesticides, and even without windows. Plants dont need the whole spectrum of light; instead each crop is raised with the precise amount of blue or red light it craves. As the water evaporates, its recycled, so only a pittance extra is needed. In these specially controlled environments, the crop yield is three times higher than outdoors, and the process would do equally well in the Sahara or Siberia once LED lights become a bit cheaper.

All of our buildings need to earn their keep. Were probably in the last era of deadbeat buildings. In the United States alone, buildings use 40 percent of the countrys raw materials, burn 65 percent of the total electricity, and drain 12 percent of drinkable water, while piling up 136 million tons a year of demolition and construction wastes.

SUPPOSE THE GOAL is buildings that are inherently living organisms. Just how alive could a home or office become? In addition to living walls and planted roofs, its skin could mimic plant metabolism and animal musculature. Biomimicry is an old idea but a dynamic and lucrative new direction in architecture and engineering that mines the genius of nature to find sustainable solutions to knotty human problems.

Picture: Houses painted with lotusin, a self-cleaning paint inspired by the water-shedding veneer of leaves. Products colored without pigments, echoing the way light dances across peacock and blue-jay feathers. New lenses and fiber optics that mimic the almost distortion-free lenses coating the body of a brittle sea star, or the flexible optics atop a sea sponges tentacles. Electronic devices inspired by mussel tissue, which automatically dissolve when you discard them. A building whose outer skin resembles the porelike stomata of leaves and provides all the energy it needs. Ships hulls engineered like whale skin to glide through the water while burning less fuel, and airplane wings that save fuel by mimicking ripple-edged whale fins.

The result is organic, self-assembling, nonpolluting solutions that nature has already mastered and we can copy. This frame of mind requires a major flip in our way of thinking and our sense of how we exist in nature. For the longest time, heat, beat, and treat was the industrial motto. Weve built cities and fueled empires by raiding the Earths resources, chopping them up, heating them, breaking them down with toxic chemicals, and fastening them together. Biomimicry asks: Okay, thats how humans make thingsand it doesnt work. How does life make things?

Organisms have figured out ways to do the miraculous things they do, the biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus says, without jeopardizing the future of their resources and offspring.

Inspired by Benyus and others, cities are blooming with architecture that functions like (and sometimes resembles) growing organisms. Imagine transparent skyscrapers that save energy as their facades expand and contract like an elaborate array of muscles. In a working prototype designed by the New York firm Decker Yeadon, swirling silver ribbons in the glass facade are really a three-layered muscle: a rubbery polymer sheathing a flexible polymer core, with a silver coating that skittles an electrical charge across the surface. If its too cold, the ribbon-muscles fire and contract to slender squiggles, exposing lots of window to the sun. In hot weather, the ribbons expand like a patchwork of shot silk to create a flat parasol of shade. Many small segments self-regulate in this way, fiddling with their own thermostat to stay in homeostasis. Much as we do. Too warm? Shed the sweater and move out of the direct sun. As a design, muscular walls are more flexible and stronger than solar panels.

Or picture the high-rise office and shopping complex Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, which was inspired by a throng of gigantic termite towers. Topped by turrets and pinnacles, a city of vaulted termite mounds can rise thirty feet from the parched earth like otherworldly castles, while millions of laborers and soldiers toil inside, presided over by king and queen, with offspring raised communally. Its an agricultural society, whose favorite crop is a fungus that will only grow at 87F. Yet outside the thick mud walls, temperatures can plunge to near freezing at night and soar to broiling by day. Winds snort and snap one moment and tap like weary ghosts the next. Our windmills and wind turbines require a steady flow of wind, and theyre stymied by turbulence. Termite engineers harness chaotic winds far more skillfully by using their mounds as inside-out lungs.

Deep inside each mountainous city, termites capture and trim even the most sputtering, heat-whipped, muddled winds to the precise vibration needed to ventilate the colony and keep their crops flourishing. As they open and close a filigree of low doors, the mound inhales a rush of air into a maze of chambers and passageways, and shoots it up to the buttresses and tiptop chimneys. They keep tweaking their design by opening and closing doors, digging new doors, sealing old ones, adding wet mud in spots for quicker cooling. Each termite is like one neuron in a collective brain. It doesnt need to be smart, and none can see the whole picture, but together they create coherent action and a kind of intelligence. Constant gardeners, they fine-tune the breeze and provide a steady temperature, which keeps the tiny, blind population cozy.

We have this in common: they are great openers of doors, as we are, though their doors are physical and many of ours are symbolic. Some of their blade-shaped compass mounds are oriented toward the sun at a time-tested angle to avoid the roasting noonday sun, yet usher in evenings faint rays. My house was designed on the same principle by its first ownervaulted south-facing windows in the living room let in more winter sun and provide summer shade.

Singing can draw oxygen through even injured lungs, and the mud colony fills with a vibrato, reassuring its lodgers that all is well. On some level unknown to us, an out-of-tune mound must not sound right to the termites, who are driven to build the most exquisite lungs possible because their lives depend on it. Does this mean they have an aesthetics thats shared by the whole colony? Whos to say. It could be that, to them, out-of-tune air stings like a million arrows.

Inspired by mud casts of the mounds baroque nooks and crannies, the African architect Mick Pearce designed the Eastgate Centre. Fans on the first floor spirit air through ducts into the central spine of the building, and stale air seeps through exhaust vents on each floor, exiting at last from high chimneys. A river of fresh air automatically replaces it. Using only 10 percent as much energy as nearby buildings, the eco-friendly Centre has saved the owners $3.5 million in climate control, which theyve passed on to their tenants by lowering the rent. Ten years later, Pearce built the even more efficient ten-story Council House 2 building in Melbourne, Australia. This time, recycled wooden shutters, covering one whole side of the building, open like petals at night to expel the warm air from offices and shops. This works well in Africa, but in colder climes excess warmth cant be wasted. And so, in some countries, furnaces now have two legs.


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