Celebrating a victory for ethics and eloquence

For politically centrist, ethically minded people, who prefer serious debate to trolling and twitterstorms, these are challenging times. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times (see link below), extremism and outrage is the order of the day. We need antidotes. Here’s one: would you like to see (and hear) an example of principled, eloquent, ideologically balanced political leadership in action? I urge you to watch this 20-min video of the speech delivered by New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, marking the removal of the last of four statues originally erected to honor the leaders of the Confederacy and promote their awful and resoundingly defeated worldview. These monuments to inequality are finally gone. [Commentary continues after video]
New Orleans is one of the cities I have called home. I was partly educated there, I worked as a social worker in its French Quarter, I became a professional musician singing on the city’s stages (and sometimes on its streets). Later, I returned as a consultant to the region’s bi-partisan business leadership, and helped them develop a strategy for vision and action for sustainable development. The implementation of that strategy (2001-2005) was starting to work — until Katrina hit.
Regretfully, I have not been back to the city since (though I have wanted to go). But I have followed the rebuilding process, including its social rebuilding, and I have been deeply moved to watch the courage and bravery of the city’s political leadership in bringing down these monuments to racism, slavery, and the “cult of the lost cause.”
Mayor Landrieu’s speech has rightly been lifted up by Bruni and others as a timely landmark. For me, as someone who has lived in and loved New Orleans, and for a time attempted to serve the city as a “change agent” (I’ve written about this experience in my books), this speech also puts on display an inspiring example of true change leadership in action. Landrieu has held the vision, but he has also led a large, participatory process — city council, judicial system, public hearings, all of it. This success in overcoming one of the most reactionary pockets of resistance to progress in modern America (how does one honestly defend monuments to the champions of slavery?) is an inspiring case study worthy of continuing study, and support.
In these sometimes discouraging times, we need examples like this, to remind us of what true progress looks like. Watch, listen, and rejoice.
Also worth reading: NY Times article about Landrieu’s speech, by Frank Bruni:

Story of a Song: “Goin’ to the Top”

50songs50stories_book_coverFirst in a series of entries that will eventually be gathered into a book with the working title, “50 Songs, 50 Stories”.

This entry tells the story of “Goin’ to the Top” — originally written for Aaron Neville, at the request of a New Orleans’ business leader. But the road to that song went via Sydney, Australia, with many twists and turns along the way …  – Alan

I became a musician in no small part because I was awarded a scholarship to attend Tulane University in New Orleans. The scholarship was not in music — I was a science and math nerd — but I had sung in a couple of bands in high school and performed in the school talent show with an Elton John medley on piano. I grew up singing in my mother’s church choir. I loved music. So one of the first things I did on arrival at Tulane University was to audition for the university’s jazz and pop music ensemble, the “Tulanians.”

This band of a dozen singers and a dozen instrumentalists was (fortunately) far more than a glee club. Under the direction of the late Leland Bennett, who also directed one of New Orleans’ best professional show bands (“Jubilation”), it was an excellent training ground in both musicianship and showmanship. We learned a challenging, ultra-modern repertoire. We learned to sing and dance and hold a large crowd. The Tulanians were serious business, and experience gained there nurtured the careers of numerous future professionals who went on to careers in New York, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

I spent less than two years with the Tulanians, but it was a formative time. I sang a few of the big solo numbers in our shows (if you want to hear a funny story about “Serpentine Fire” sometime, just ask me). Leland invited me to sub for his lead male singer in Jubilation as well, and that first paycheck turned me into a “professional”. The Tulanians went on tour, and sang in Washington, DC and at Disney World, Florida. It was at a Tulanians show that I first debuted as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, with my friend and roommate Mark Beatty. (Mark had composed a lovely little guitar lick, and needed lyrics, so I wrote some words. Our joint composition became my, and our, first publicly performed song, “Dancer.”)

Thanks to Leland Bennet and the Tulanians, and the wonderful culture of New Orleans, I gained the confidence to call myself a musician.

Twenty years and several careers later, I was invited back to Tulane to give a lecture at a conference on environmental law. My former philosophy professor, Michael Zimmerman, was now a good friend. He in turn had an old friend named Pres Kabacoff, a business leader in New Orleans. Pres, who was a bit left-leaning in his politics, had recruited his old friend (and competitor in the real estate sector) Quentin Dastugue to co-chair a new economic development initiative under the aegis of a regional business group. And that group invited me to give them a presentation.

So I found myself talking to a group of 30 business leaders about what a regional program of sustainability indicators could do for them: how it could help them knit that fractious region together and contribute to a common vision for the ten counties (or “parishes”) around New Orleans. I finished and sat down. Then the chairman said, “That was a very good presentation, Mr. AtKisson, but I am a little disappointed, because we heard that you also sing.”

This remark came as a shock. I had assumed that the last thing that a group of button-down New Orleans business leaders would want from me was a song — but here it was, a put-you-on-the-spot request that could not be refused. So I duly stood back up and delivered an á capella version of my song “The Parachuting Cats.” (You can see a version of this at the end of my TEDx talk on YouTube.) The song brought smiles and warm applause — and it helped me win a large contract for my consulting firm.

About a year into our regional project, Quentin Dastugue — a somewhat larger-than-life business figure also known for his very conservative politics — took me to lunch. This lunch was of the two-martini variety. The second martini made it hard to say no when Quentin presented me with another musical request: he believed that our regional initiative, which was called “Top 10 by 2010,” was in need of a theme song. You, he said, are just the man to write it.

I was hesitant, but Quentin upped the ante. He could probably get Aaron Neville — the undisputed king of New Orleans’ jazz-rock — to sing the song.

How could I not say yes?

A few months later, with the final celebration of our initiative just weeks away, I was still struggling to compose an appropriate theme song. “Top 10 by 2010” was an enormously ambitious initiative. The regional goal was to move up into the top 10 of the Forbes Magazine list of “Best Places to Live and Work in the United States” within ten years. At the time, New Orleans was down around number 200.

On a jet-laggy morning in Sydney, Australia, I woke before sunrise and walked to the Sydney Opera House, seeking inspiration. I thought about my friends and clients back in New Orleans. In our interviews and surveys, we had learned that one of the missing ingredients in the region was not just a clear future vision, but even the capacity to imagine a better future. Many people seemed to lack the willingness to imagine positive change. “Life in our region has always been this way,” they would say. “Why should we believe things will ever change?”

The New Orleans region, in those years before Hurricane Katrina came and destroyed so much of that great city, was already in need of serious encouragement.

I pulled out my notebook, sitting there by the Opera House, looking out over waters half a planet away from New Orleans, and the lyrics to “Goin’ to the Top” — built around the image of flying swiftly up a mountain — flowed easily out of my pen. Later, so did the music: all I had to do was imagine Aaron Neville’s beautiful tenor-falsetto, and all the wonderful nuances he would bring to those words.

But as the time approached for the Big Event — a one-day forum, followed by an evening dance party, celebrating the success of the first stages of Top 10 by 2010 — it became clear that Aaron Neville was not going to be available to sing “Goin’ to the Top.” It became equally clear, from both Pres and Quention, that I was expected to step into that gap, and perform the song myself. So I quickly wrote a chord sheet, and worked quickly with the band that had been hired for the event to teach them the song. Their lead guitarist was watching my fingers like a hawk as I played it on my acoustic guitar; the rhythm section quickly figured out the simple pop-song structure. The performance itself was rough … but it worked.

Then a dozen years passed.

Prior to being recorded in 2013 for my album American Troubadour, “Goin’ to the Top” was only performed that one time, and it was not sung by Aaron Neville, but by me, the “singing sustainability consultant,” stepping back on stage in the Crescent City of New Orleans for the first time since I had left that extraordinary musical training ground, twenty years earlier.

These days, I dedicate “Goin’ to the Top” to the people who have been working, for many years now, to rebuild New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina disaster … and also to the people working for sustainability everywhere who need to hold on to the vision that we will, in fact, “be there.”

Listen to this song on iTunes:


(Also available on Spotify, YouTube and other streaming sites.)


Goin’ to the Top

Words and music © 2001 by Alan AtKisson

The sky is bright
Streaks of light
And we know this isn’t any ordinary night
You know it’s true
‘Cause me and you
And everybody here can see
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got know that we’re goin’
     Nothing can stand in your way
     When you make your own road
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got to feel that it’s comin’
     I believe it’s our time to stand
     In the promised land
Don’t look down
We’re off the ground
And we’re never ever going to stop or turn around
Gaining speed
Guess we’ll need
To get ready for a very fast climb

     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got know that we’re going
     Nothing can stand in your way
     When you make your own road
     Goin’ to the top
     We’ve got to know that we’ll be there
     I believe it’s our time to stand
     In the promised land

We used to think we’d never be here
We used to think we’d couldn’t fly
But now we know that we belong here
And all we had to do was try
Can you see
What I see
We’re coming closer to a new reality
So take my hand
‘Cause when we land
We’ll be standin’ on the top of the world
     Goin’ to the top …

Getting Inspired at Inspiration Day: The Power of “Plus”

photoI work as a consultant. I also make my living, partly, inspiring other people — or trying to. People pay me to write, to speak, even to sing in ways from which they can gain new ideas and/or new energy, so that they can continue with the challenging work of creating a sustainable world.

But as you might know yourself (because maybe your work is similar), we “inspire-ers” also need to be inspired. So how do I inspire myself?

Why, by going to an “Inspiration Day,” of course.

Actually, right now, I should be in Bangkok, running an ISIS Academy Master Class in sustainability and change. We had to reschedule that Class, which had 24 people signed up from all over the Asia-Pacific region, because our training would have been taking place right around the corner from the protests that are clogging up and disrupting that city now. (We have rescheduled for Apr 28-May 2.)

But I’m not in Bangkok, so I have a luxurious amount of unscheduled time on my calendar. Andreas Gyllenhammar, who is Chief Sustainability Officer of the Swedish engineering and architecture giant Sweco, has kindly invited me to join the company’s Inspiration Day. (Sweco, with 9,000 professionals working around the world, brands itself as a purveyor of sustainable engineering and design. My being here is facilitated by the fact that a lot people in that company have read my little book Sustainability is for Everyone.)

So, thanks to Andreas, I now have the pleasure of listening to Colin Harrison, the man who invented the concept of “smart city architecture” for IBM — among a dozen other things. Talk about a sweeping vision of cities and their future! He cites friends of mine such as Sander van der Leuuw, the archaeologist and innovation expert, so I feel right at home intellectually. But I’m also meeting top innovation executives from other Swedish companies that are clients of Sweco, such as Ericsson and Ikea. Future-oriented, big-picture thoughts are flying thick and fast around me.

We’ve already had a stimulating smaller-scale lunch where, under Chatham House Rules (you can cite what you discussed but not who said it), we talked in small groups about where technology is taking us, especially in the context of cities. The conversation has been wide-ranging, from the highly technical (a typical “smart building” with all its various sensors can now easily generate 100 gigabytes of data every day, so what do you do with the data?!) to the very philosophical (how do people feel about Google knowing everything about our home appliance use, too, in the age of state surveillance disclosures by the infamous Edward Snowden?).

But lunch is over — this is live blogging — and now Colin is holding his keynote, to a larger crowd of several hundred. “The ability to manipulate information is a transformational technology,” he notes. It’s not just about marginal improvements in energy efficiency, or finding out which road the least traffic. He cites the Venezuelan economist, Carlotta Perez, who was asked by IBM about where we are, as a planet, in terms of the information revolution. Her answer: just beginning.

“We have built a planetary information platform, Carlotta told us,” says Colin, “but we have only begun to figure out what to do with it.” Colin takes us on a quick trip through time, focused around the number 4:  1954 (commercial computing begins), ’64 (breakthroughs like IBM’s System 360), ’74 (the 4-bit chip from Intel), ’84 (Apple’s Macintosh computer), ’94 (the year of the Internet’s big breakthrough), and ’04 (cloud computing — computing power becomes like “air,” all around us).

What will 2014 be the year of, wonders Colin? In brief, he’s betting that is marks the year that we finally break out of the centralized model of the city that goes back 4,000 years and was especially fixed in place during the 19th century — and that we are unleashing, right now, an ever faster acceleration of innovation. How will that happen? How will we switch from the fossilized, centralized, closed systems that still comprise many of our city-based innovation programs today, to truly distributed, open systems?

Technology is already making it possible. The “Maker Movement” … 3D printers … “You can practically do it [drive technology innovation forward] at home. In ten years’ time, you can certainly do it at home.”

Now the moderator, a Swedish media pro named Lotta Lundgren, is interviewing Andreas Gyllenhammar — in her beautifully lilting and musical Swedish — about the kind of cities and houses we are going to live in, in the future. Andreas is quite convincing when he talks about why we are going to live in smaller, smarter houses.

“I’m a fairly recent homeowner,” he tells us, “which is cause for a fair amount of anxiety, as others here probably also have experienced. You lie awake at night wondering about the health of your house. In the future, you won’t worry about whether there is water damage or mold growing in your walls. There will be a sensor that rings and lets you know whether or not something needs to be attended to … and then someone will come and fix it. We will be able to relax.”

Suddenly, in Lotta’s delightful way of painting up this future, she and Andreas are living together, even married, and she’s saying, “But Andreas, you remember that time you linked all our dimmer switches to the mobile telephone, and it took me 15 minutes just to figure out how to turn on the stereo?”

“Ah yes,” says Andreas, sliding easily into this fantasy moment, “you turned on the water hose instead.” They work it out, live on stage, how such little technical troubles can be negotiated more easily in the future, and they are once again a happy couple. But suddenly, it’s all over. Lotta breaks up with Andreas (on good terms of course) and sends him off the stage, to make way for another.

“That’s how I think our relationships are going to be in the future … a little shorter,” says Lotta, to laughter from the crowd. Then she philosophizes about just the opposite, too: “Maybe in the future, we will be married to our things, and have longer term — more sustainable — relationships with them instead.”

Lotta now gives the stage to a former client of mine (as it turns out), Dennis Pamlin, who is practically the embodiment of that wonderful Swedish word, “eldsjäl”. Direct translation: “fire soul.” Meaning: someone who is truly on fire for a cause, a project, a set of ideas. I worked with Dennis when was on the professional staff of WWF, working on sustainable trade models with China. (I traveled to China once to meet Dennis and then present a report on our sustainable trade proposals for China, and we were supposed to meet the head of Ministry of Commerce together on that trip, but it did not happen. If you want to know why, look up the story in my book The Sustainability Transformation.)

What is Dennis on fire about now? A lot … but especially about “+”. You see, in Sweden, we have a lot of what we call “zero visions.” Traffic deaths should be reduced to zero. Carbon emissions should be reduced to zero. “Where is the energy in that?” he wonders. There’s no vision in zero, so he wants us to think about “+” and puts it on the screen this way:

0  –>  +

Not just reducing problems, even to zero, should be our goal. Creating, giving, making things better should be our goal. Then he gives a ton of examples of how we could do more of this “+” … in contexts where right now we are doing stuff that is actually much worse than zero. One example: Michelin tires for airplanes are being sold as services (kilometers of tire-service) instead of as physical tires. This kind of product-into-service idea, a staple of sustainability thinking, is cited by a large consulting firm, in a flashy report, as being part of the “circular economy.”

“The circular economy became tires on an airplane?” asks Dennis with a very arched eyebrow. “A lot of very strange things must have happened along the way.”

Dennis’s tour through the present and future of sustainable cities is a breathless, challenging, sacred-cow-killing, visionary exercise … so many ways we’re doing it wrong, so many ways we need to do it right, smarter, more positively …

… and I think I’ll leave this article at this point. Dennis, by the way, has just now won the “Hugo Prize” for his many years of work, inspiring people to do more, to dream bigger. So I’ll leave you with Dennis’s favorite mathematical symbol … which I will take a away as a symbol of inspiration itself:  +

A Week in Super-Fast Green-Growth South Korea

My first visit to South Korea introduced me to a remarkable country. Everyone I met, from the taxi driver to government officials, was unfailingly kind and courteous. I came away very impressed, on many levels. But the trip certainly started out in an interesting way …

South Korea is in a hurry. I felt this first-hand. It started with a car accident.

When riding in a taxi in a new country, especially when I notice that the drivers of vehicles on the superhighways seem a little on the cavalier side, I have often found it a good policy to sit in the back, put on my seatbelt (like a good Swede), and get my computer out. Best not to look at the actual driving.

For that reason, I really don’t know why my taxi ended up plowed into the side wall of the tunnel after smashing into the car ahead of us and sending another car into a spin. I was shaken up, but fine. I was still holding my computer, and I calmly saved my work, closed it, and got out of the smoke-filled car. The driver, whose air bag had deployed and saved his face, was saying something to me in Korean. I assumed it to be “Are you okay? Get out of the car!” and so I did that.

I sat up on the wall inside this tunnel and marveled at how most cars, in such a situation, just try to figure out how to get by and keep going — even though there was a car in the middle of the middle lane, facing the opposite direction, which seemed to me a clear signal that something was amiss.

There are many additional colorful details to this story, such as the ride in the tow truck or the sign language conversation with Korean police. But given that I was unhurt, and unable to tell anyone anything about what had actually happened, someone simply called a new taxi for me and I continued on to my meeting at South Korea’s Government Complex.

Since I had left early — to allow for trouble, which I certainly did experience — I ended up arriving exactly on time.

After the day of meetings (which were pleasant and productive), I was in no mood to take another taxi, so I rode the excellent subway system, two hours, changing four times, to get from south Seoul to Incheon. What landscape I saw was essentially the same everywhere: urban Asia. Small manufacturing operations. Shopping opportunities. Dense dwellings. The occasional hilly area (this is Korea after all), and some lovely parkland (Koreans appear to greatly appreciate parks).

The trains in Korea run so smoothly that most people who are standing do not even bother to hold on to anything. They just stand there. Many of the passengers were engrossed with their smart phones. Whenever I could sit, I pulled out my laptop and worked.

Back in Incheon, I got off the train a few stations early in order to walk home to the Sheraton Incheon hotel and get some exercise. The station guard who helped me get oriented was amazed that I was going to walk. The distance seemed to him improbably far. I knew it to be about 25 minutes, through another pleasant park, in the cool evening.

Incheon is a huge metroplex, very diverse and spread out, southwest of Seoul. Part of the city is old and historic, the site of Western culture’s main interface with the Korean culture in centuries past. Part is brand, spanking new, and has been built on land reclaimed from the sea in just the last few years.

In these newer parts of Incheon, one almost feels a sense of vertigo at the pace of growth. In just a few short years, tidal flats and low waters have been turned into “Tomorrow City” (the name of just one of the many futuristic building complexes) and many other tomorrow-ish things. The designers of these new parts have certainly been informed by “green”/sustainable ideas. My hotel is the only LEED-certified hotel in Korea. Across the street is “Central Park,” whose name, strategic location, and size are a clear reference to Manhattan’s Central Park. Incheon’s ambitions are similarly New York-ish: Korea’s tallest skyscraper was just finishing construction next to the hotel. And some of the nearby buildings look like support structures to the inter-planetary transportation device that is featured in the Jodie Foster movie about humanity’s first communication with people on other planets (“Contact”).

For this reason, the enormous Christian Bible exhibition (see photo), which occupied a huge portion of Central Park, and which had been partially destroyed by a typhoon and left in shambles for months, seemed all the more surreal. From my hotel window on the 14th floor, I looked out over Moses parting the red sea, a life-size replica of Jonah and the whale, a full-size (and that means enormous) model of Noah’s Ark, and dozens more. Everything was in bright colors. Everything was frayed; some things (such as a huge temple made entirely of porcelain plates) were partially, even dangerously, collapsed. A literal “stairway to heaven” invited one to climb up a winding road into the air, with no guardrails and certainly no certainty that one would return: in fact, if one did try to climb it, one would certainly end up falling to one’s heavenly doom (or perhaps, for the non-believers, doom of a more fiery kind).

Otherwise Incheon, or the part of it where I was living, was full of coffee shops and quick-marts, branded restaurants and high-rise luxury apartments. The roads appeared to be 12 lanes across, but there were never more than two lanes of traffic: Incheon is planning, Incheon is built, for future growth.

How much of that growth is green? S. Korea is, after all, the leading country in the world in terms of “Green Growth,” the policy of directing public investment into low-carbon technologies. Incheon city officials promised to send me some of the technical specs on what is happening there, which I look forward to reviewing, with keen interest. Meanwhile, I found this fascinating article in the journal “Environment” which details a recent set of scientific debates and political conflicts between conflicting “green” goals in the Incheon area. An enormous tidal energy plant, for example, would be “low-carbon,” but would come at the cost of the tidal flats that serve as rich breeding grounds for marine biodiversity.

It is impossible to assess, from a first visit, what is actually happening in Incheon. How “green” is the growth? There are signs of green-ness (e.g. the LEED certification on the Sheraton hotel) visible to the trained eye, but otherwise one would have to look at actual data to know how to evaluate it. Fortunately, South Korea has an entire Global Green Growth Institute whose purpose, in part, is to study these things (http://www.gggi.org/About/About_01.php). And you can read more about the national Green Growth strategy of South Korea here:  http://www.greengrowth.go.kr/english/en_main/index.do

What I do know, about Incheon (my home for a week) and about S. Korea in general, is that the level of ambition — for growth, for green-ness, and also for being a promoter of Green Growth on the international stage — is impressive. The scale of what is happening there is enormous. And it is happening with extreme rapidity.

Whatever is happening in Incheon, it is very definitely the future of this part of the world, growing before our eyes. And that’s something that every serious student of sustainability should study and reflect on.


Note: If you want to learn more of the basics of Incheon’s green city program, focused on the Songdo International City region where I was staying, here is Warren Karlenzig’s good blog post about a visit there in 2009. To see how the city describes itself, visit:  http://english.visitincheon.org/

Eco-House, Normal House

AtKisson House from the front - workers install the final piece, grating to a French balcony

A Little Weblog Essay about Our New House, and its Various Environmental and Sustainable Features and Benefits

This week my family moves into a new house that we have just finished building — or rather, that the builders have just finished building, financed by the proceeds on the sale of our previous apartment (we sold it a year and a half ago, just before the financial crisis, and have been renting a little place since then).  We have the additional help of a loan from our local bank, to whom we will be paying interest for years and years to come.  But at the moment, looking at the now-complete physical realization of a dream, this financial commitment seems more than worth it.

The house is our design (drawn by my wife, Kristina AtKisson), from floor to roof, and we’ve tried think “eco” and “sustainable” every step of the way.  At the same time, we wanted to build a “normal” house.  This has always been our ambition:  to demonstrate how normal it is to be sustainable.

So, from the outside, there is nothing about this house that says “green.”  You can’t tell by looking at it.

What’s so green and sustainable about this house?  Here comes the virtual tour …

A Good Piece of Land

We start with the lot itself. We chose a southwest-facing slope, which means we will get the benefit sunlight for much of the year.  This will bring needed heat and light in spring and fall, reducing our energy costs.  (Nobody in Sweden gets much sun in the winter.)  You can bet we’ll be growing some vegetables, probably in terraced plots.  And right behind our house, on the top of the hill, is preserved natural land.  Our backyard is berries, trees, a small pond, and the little forts built by day-care and school kids who come there to play.

Efficiency in Overall Form

Then there is the shape of the house:  cubic, with a peaked roof, which is close to spherical as you can get (a sphere being the best shape from an energy-and-thermodynamics perspective).

Sunlight Streaming Through the Windows

On sun-facing side, there are lots of highly-efficient triple-glazed doors and windows to let in that sunlight when it’s around, and hold in the heat when it’s not.  Those windows are also “bio-clean” glass, which means we’re using a tiny bit of bio-mimicry in that product, as the structure of the glass will naturally shed a lot of the dirt that would otherwise accumulate.

Good Wood

The house is made of wood, and the wood itself comes — to the highest degree we could specify — from Swedish forests managed under Forestry Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards.  Most of the framing etc. is FSC certified; other bits, like the floor, are from vendors who use FSC lumber, but have not bothered to get formal certification (which costs them money).  About three-quarters of Sweden’s commercial forests are managed in this way.

The ComfortZone heat exchanger, next to the downstairs shower

Heat from … Heat

To heat the water for showers, laundry, and the heating pipes that run through the cement under the wood floors, we have a heat exchanger that pulls the warmth out of the air and wastewater and re-circulates that warmth into the house (and adds new heat as necessary from electricity). When we showed the specs on this unit to our builder, he was amazed:  it has the same efficiency as a groundwater-based heat exchange system, which extracts heat from deep wells.  We’ll occasionally add more heat to the air with an efficient, enclosed, wood-burning fireplace as well (also eco-labeled); and that heat will also get re-circulated through this system.

Not “Passive,” but “Active” — with Almost the Same Efficiency

We decided not to go for the increasingly popular “passive house” design, which means your home heating needs (though not your hot water) are covered by body heat and waste heat from the lights and machines in your house.  For one thing, we don’t have so many lights or machines on usually; and the ones we have are highly efficient.  We didn’t want to be dependent on these secondary heat sources.

But we do aim to achieve the same energy consumption levels of a passive house, by keeping the thermostats lower and generally thinking a lot about energy consumption.  And our walls are extra thick, extra tight, and extra insulated.  (Source of the insulation material:  recycled glass.)  The walls are not quite as thick as for a passive house, but that was a trade-off we made in order to increase the light coming in through the windows.  (I confess:  quite a number of decisions were made with aesthetics and comfort in mind first, and environmental performance second.)

Somewhere, a Windmill is Making our Electrons … but Someday the Sun Will Too

As our source of electricity, we purchase certified wind energy off the grid.  We do this through a major supplier, rather than smaller, alternative wind cooperative (there are a number of these in Sweden), in order to add our voice to the “normal” market demand signal:  “Make more renewable energy, please!”

But we’re thinking ahead, and we had the builders prepare the house for future installation of solar photovoltaic panels.  The hookups are all ready; we just decided to build the house first, and take our time with studying the solar energy options and watching how the technology develops.  (I’ve heard some really exciting things about new solar cells.)

Eco-labeled kitchen, and eco-labeled fireplace

A Green Kitchen

Actually, it’s white, and stainless steel … but all the cabinets, counter, the faucet etc. are officially eco-labeled (“environmentally marked” as we say in Swedish).  So are the windows and the front door and anything else that we could find with an eco-labeled option available.

And All the Best, Efficient, Ultra-Normal Equipment

We installed the usual (for our part of the world) washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher and stove — and they all have the highest energy ratings available on the Swedish market.  The fridge has a futuristic looking “Save Energy” reminder built right into the door. The dryer we’ll use only when line-drying doesn’t work, and the dishwasher … well, I’m the lazy one in the family who wanted a dishwasher in the first place, and produced research data showing that the total energy consumption and environmental impact per dish was lower than with hand-washing.

Don’t Forget the Sweaters and Socks and …

Really, we like wearing sweaters inside in the winter.  It’s cozy.  It’s good for you.  And T-shirt-temperatures inside a house just feel weird when there is eighty centimeters of snow outside your window. There are lots of other little tricks to reducing energy demand, and we try to use all of them, like not draining all the bath water out right away, but waiting until it gives off all its heat first.  (The heat exchanger grabs even more heat from the room-temperature water before it departs the premises, re-circulating even more heat back into the house.)

So, What’s *Not* So Eco About this House?

Well, building a house is hardly an energy efficient, environmentally friendly affair. Trees get cut down.  Rock gets blown up and rubble gets moved around with heavy machinery. Delivery trucks come, garbage trucks go, and workers come and go in their large, petroleum-driven vehicles.

And there’s plenty of stuff in our house that is not exactly on the approved list among hard-core greens.  Take the aluminum roof:  it’s durable, it looks great, but we don’t know where the aluminum came from — and we do know that wherever it came from, it had a huge environmental impact.  (Industry people tell us the aluminum in the roof is from recycled sources, but we haven’t verified that yet.)  Some folks would also scoff at the foam in the rear support wall, a petroleum product; bit it also happens to be a great insulator, and it’s keeping that carbon dioxide bound up for as long as the house stands.

Neighbors to us who built even greener used organic insulation; but we chose the ordinary mineral variety, scared off by one friend’s bad experience with rotting insulation, and pleased to learn that the source of the insulation fibers was recycled glass.  “Organic” doesn’t always mean “sustainable.”

Of course the cement for the foundation has its big carbon emissions price.  But really, the biggest climate criminal in our house-building story is not the house.

It’s the car.

I’ve written about our car before:  an 85% ethanol-driven Ford Flexifuel.  We made so many extra trips in that car during the building process — because we lived farther away from school temporarily, and because we had so many extra errands to run — that I suspect a serious analysis would show our increased car use to be one of the largest sources of increased carbon emissions, even compared to other parts of the building process.  After we have moved in, and the house shifts into “use” phase (see below), the car is sure to be our biggest source of environmental impact, because the impact of the house itself — driven on renewable energy — will be pretty close to zero.

That’s why my wife wants to just get rid of the car.  Again, I’m the resistant one, arguing (okay, I’m stretching it) that we at least need to able to respond to emergencies, get to the fairly-distant hospital quickly, etc.  Maybe I just like knowing that I can go grocery shopping at 8:30 at night, when the buses are few and far between.

But we’re seriously looking at abandoning the car once we move back into our neighborhood and settle back into our regular routines of bus, bike, and walking transport.  Or (this is more realistic, given my confessed laziness), getting a plug-in electric hybrid once they come on the market.  In any case, we want our car-related carbon emissions, already reduced thanks to our Swedish-Brazilian ethanol, to go down drastically.

Because It’s the Use Phase that Really Counts

In life cycle analysis of consumer products, it’s very often the use phase — the many years of actual living in a house, wearing a garment, driving a car — that has by far the largest environmental impact.  We’re going to estimate our climate impact for the actual building process, and take steps to “neutralize” it as best we can.  But we’ll focus mostly on living in ways that reduce our climatic and environmental impact in the long run — not just with regard to the house, but also with what we buy, and what daily choices we make.

The distance to my office, for example, is going to be dramatically reduced … to about 15 meters.  We’ve built a small free-standing cottage in back of the lot, by the forest, that I’ll use as my main office and studio.  Wind energy will drive my computers and internet link (though not the internet itself, of course), and I’ll be running more and more of my trainings and meetings via the web, from there.

In Conclusion …

We’re not trying to be eco-saints; we’re trying to be eco-normal, in a suburban Swedish context.  The whole point of building this house was to be able to live closer to the natural world (I love having a forest right out the back door), and closer to our sustainability values.  It was a big investment, but we also think the overall running costs in financial terms will be the same, or lower, compared to where we were living before.

And of course, the quality of life will be higher.  Our daughters are excited to have their own rooms for the first time.  And I’m looking forward to waking up every day in my wife’s truly lovely architectural design, looking out at a giant old oak and a mature (tasty) apple tree, in a community of good friends and neighbors.

Both Kristina and I are well aware, maybe even achingly aware, that what is super-efficient “eco-normal” for us — a small-to-medium sized house by modern Swedish standards, in a normal Stockholm suburban area — is still super-luxury compared to most of the world.  So this house, the dream that took over two years to convert into a reality, will be our “home base” for our continued work to try to help make that world greener, fairer … and hopefully, more sustainable.