The Science of Sustainability

Of Birds, Poets, and Architects

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Architect Nabih Tahan's home in Berkeley was built to Passivhaus
standards. It needs no furnace or air conditioning
and is comfortable year-round.
I missed writing my blog entry two weeks ago because I was at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers writing poetry with about 60 poets from around the country. We created community through expressing artfully what is almost impossible to express any other way.

One of the highlights of the week was going on nature walks a few mornings with David Lucas, a naturalist. (He is the author of Wild Birds of California and revised the classic guidebook Sierra Nevada Natural History.) His insights about birds and other life forms found their way into many a poem written that week. Did you know that some bird species have more that 120 distinct tunes that they learn to sing in a certain order? I didn't. The really hot singers can do a shuffle of songs but not miss one of the 120. Just before dawn, neighboring birds duel with one another with song variations. And their brains are so much smaller than ours!

Imagine memorizing 120 poems and being able to recite them all in a row, and then getting up early the next morning for a poetry slam where you mix and match stanzas; starting, for example, with some Wordsworth, then a little T.S. Eliot, mix in some Emily Dickinson, and end with some "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.

So, What has this to do with green homes? Lucas showed us the force of nature that in all things wants to survive. At Squaw Valley we created poetry that in a short time connected us to one another. That feels to me like surviving in a culture that wants us always competing with each other. Creativity seems as natural as eating, and I think it's how we are going to get out of the present environmental crisis we are in.

This morning I heard about some scientists at MIT who discovered a catalyst that could very well make the conversion of sunlight into hydrogen easy and inexpensive. And a few weeks ago I visited a house in Berkeley built to Passivhaus standards. The standards were developed in Austria but are new to the United States. The architect and occupant of the home I visited in Berkeley, Nabih Tahan, is bringing the concept in this country. A Passivhaus is so well designed that it doesn't need a furnace for heating or an air conditioner for cooling, even in Germany. Because the house is so well sealed, it needs to be ventilated mechanically. That is done through a heat recovery ventilator, a device that pulls up to 80% of the heat from exhaust air and transfers it to the incoming, fresh air. These houses use very little energy.

The poets and the architects are doing it, and the birds are doing it with their tiny birdbrains. We all can learn to adapt creatively to different ways of thinking about our environment, different ways of building buildings, and different ways of living in them.

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Category: Biology, Environment, Partners

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Jim Gunshinan

About the Author ()

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.