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Sustainability, Part 3

I don’t mean to imply by anything I have written here that I am leading the life of Mr. Sustainable. Lately I find myself living alone in a house with far more floor space than I could justify. I wander from room to room enjoying the views from unnecessarily large windows. I think of a scene, not quite halfway through Dr. Zhivago, where the protagonist returns to Moscow from the Siberian Front to find that the family’s stately townhouse has been taken over by the Commissariat. A dowdy party functionary reprimands him: “Comrade, there was living space for 13 families in this one house.” “Yes,” Zhivago concedes. “This is a better arrangement, comrades. More just.” I would be very unhappy if my house were commandeered for the revolution. It is hard enough living with people you love, much less randomly appointed strangers.

On the green side of the ledger, I commute by foot to my upstairs office and rarely drive as much as 50 miles a week. I nurse along a 16-year-old vehicle and a 17-year-old refrigerator, doubting that the energy savings from more efficient models would offset the energy spent by mining iron, rolling steel, and manufacturing new machines.

I recycle with little confidence that it makes much difference. As my incandescent lights wink out I replace them with the weird curly-cue fluorescents, wondering about the implications of eventually disposing of bulbs each containing a speck of mercury. Is that worse than the mercury in the fish I buy? Life’s complexities are beyond analysis. We do what we can and then sink or swim together.

This house was built, as best as I can tell, over about 75 years, added onto again and again as the need arose. I think maybe it was two houses once, joined together at some point by a makeshift hallway. There are rooms made of adobe, rooms made of concrete block, rooms made of lumber — 2 by 6s in the newer part, 2 by 4’s in the rest. Despite the double-paned windows, the kitchen is cold in the winter. It exudes heat. How much energy/money would it take to make it more robust? How much does that matter in a world where the population increases exponentially — and whoever has the money is building a second home in Santa Fe?

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


An Update on the Davis Mansion

One day last month when the Sustainability Summer School was meeting at the Santa Fe Institute above Hyde Park Road, I hiked up the Ann Nitze trails hoping to get a glimpse of the lower reaches of the Andrew Davis estate. (Please see Picking on the Davises, September 6, 2005, for background information.) There for the last few months an unidentified structure has been projecting a glare visible from miles away. On sunny days, you can see it in the late morning and early afternoon driving north on Camino Cabra or Gonzales Road. It is also visible during that time through the Santa Fe Review’s northern webcam. Early this summer, I sent a couple of emails to Wendy Blackwell at the city Land Use Department inquiring about the legality of this eyesore, but I haven’t received a reply.

The Davis Mansion

The trail I was following veered off in the wrong direction so I couldn’t identify the source of the light. Some scientist friends at the Institute, who are also curious about the phenomenon, theorized that it is caused by the reflection of solar panels. What an irony that would be. You flatten the top of a mountain to build yourself a 26,000-square-foot mansion and then belatedly join the green revolution.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


Sustainability, Part 2

Mark Giorgetti, the contractor for the project described in my last three dispatches, has offered a rebuttal to my rebuttal of his rebuttal: Even with the pulverizing and trucking away of all that bedrock (solid granite, I bet, or Precambrian gneiss and schist), the new house will use less energy than the old one did. Here is the full text of his email and here are the key paragraphs:
	We are re-using the vast majority of the materials of the
	existing residence (rather than tearing it down). . . . We have,
	as discussed in the previous email, replaced the outdated and
	inefficient windows and doors with high performance (and
	sustainably sourced) windows and doors. Furthermore we will be
	insulating the entire building (original and addition) to beyond
	code, and providing energy efficient heat and hot water . . . as
	opposed to allowing an inefficient building to continue to
	operate for decades more. . . .
	My assessment is that the gallons of diesel fuel which were
	consumed in the rock chipping process will negate only a small
	fraction of the overall energy savings which this house will
	provide as a result of being properly remodeled with efficiency
	in mind.

But how do you quantify these things? No doubt the revamped house will be more airtight than the original. But it will also be much bigger. Will extra insulation and high-tech plumbing offset the energy needed to heat all the additional floor space?

There is also much more glass. In an earlier email we read that there will be “passive solar gain” from the front, north-facing side of the house. What that means is many more square feet of windows in what had been a solid adobe wall. Will the northerly windows, overhung by a portal, really bring in a significant amount of heat during the coldest months of the year when the sun has migrated to the southernmost part of the sky? And how is any energy gain in the winter weighed against the extra heat the new windows will admit during the summer when the sun returns to the north?

Mr. Giorgetti concedes that the answers are unknown:

	Builders (even green builders) are constantly working against
	other constraints (construction budgets, building codes and
	ordinances, client preferences, and other factors) which will
	influence the decision making process and can, at times, cause
	diversion from the ideal. We work within an imperfect set of
	conditions to deliver the best results we can, with
	sustainability always in mind.

Fair enough. For all the suffering it has caused, the new house will probably be an attractive and well-constructed addition to the neighborhood. But should it be welcomed as a contribution to the environment?

It is the old adobe houses that were sustainable — the ones that are being gutted, hyperfenestrated, and expanded all over town. What is happening across the street from me is a single example of a larger trend. In earlier times people made their walls with the same dirt they shoveled from the ground as they dug a new foundation. Lumber was locally grown, cut, and milled. People satisfied themselves with 1,200 or 1,500 square feet of living space. They conserved heat by minimizing the number and size of their windows. If it was too dark they turned on a light. If they wanted a view they walked outside.

We live in more luxurious times. If you can afford to buy a traditional middle-class home in a historic neighborhood and turn it into a show place, that is your prerogative. You can haul off the funky appliances and haul in stainless-steel upgrades with Energy Star labels, shipped perhaps from a factory in China. You can replace linoleum or talavera with marble, granite, quartz, or the latest new synthetic from Dupont. You can take pride in your sense of aesthetics and good taste. But I don’t think you deserve extra points for being green.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


A Rebuttal from the Builder

I received an email today from Mark Giorgetti, the head of Palo Santo Designs, the company that is remodeling my neighbor’s old adobe home. Understandably he objected to my grim view of the project, which has disrupted life on our quiet little street for much of the summer. Mr. Giorgetti’s credentials are impressive (he included a copy of his curriculum vitae) and he has been involved in a number of admirable-sounding endeavors.
	We have constructed numerous sustainable and energy efficient
	homes and remodels throughout Northern New Mexico and Southern
	Colorado [he writes]. These include homes which produce 100% of
	their energy needs with onsite renewable energy and passive solar
	design. Homes built with natural, non-toxic and low embodied
	energy building products such as straw bale and earth, and which
	recycle their waste water. . . . This is not only our expertise
	and successful business model, but also our moral and ethical
	commitment to our environment.

Excavation to enlarge the house across the street, Mr. Giorgetti allows, “has been more energy intensive than is common” because of the need to jackhammer into “unforeseen bedrock,” but he defends the overall integrity of the endeavor:

	This project, in fact, will achieve some very important green
	building improvements, including a super insulated building
	envelope with energy efficient windows and doors, passive solar
	gain (on a North Facing Slope, not easy to achieve) and the
	re-use/recycling of a 60 year old adobe structure (which was
	previously an energy sieve in terms of efficiency).

The result will not be a second home, he writes, but rather the owners’ principal residence. I have corrected my previous post to reflect that.

Energy-saving amenities are always a good thing. But I still think it is quite a stretch to call an enterprise “green” or “sustainable” when it involves hillside excavation and the expenditure of so much energy to convert what had served as a reasonably sized family home into a much larger, more luxurious residence. My gripe is not with Palo Santo itself but with the pennywise, pound-foolish nature of so much of the green building trade.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


Sustainability Summer School

Almost every morning for the last two weeks, I’ve driven up the hill to St. John’s College to sit in on an event, sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute, called Sustainability Summer School. And every morning as I depart, the jackhammering and scraping of rock against steel has continued as the couple from Houston builds a “green” home.

We’ve written here before how words like “green” and “sustainable” have become hollowed of meaning and turned into marketing devices for the construction industry. When the project across the street is finished there will be one less affordable house on Santa Fe’s Eastside. Neighbors in the surrounding homes will have been robbed of months of summer relaxation, the usually quiet days blanked out by industrial noise. And the builder, Palo Santo Designs LLC, will persist in advertising the project’s greenness because it is installing thermal-paned windows and other filigrees. Maybe there will be solar heating or a recirculating hot water line.  None of that will come close to offsetting the impact of such wasteful, energy-intensive construction.

How refreshing it has been to leave behind this horror show and sit inside St. John’s Great Hall listening to people who genuinely care about the effects that the accelerating development of the earth is having on its inhabitants. The students, from India, China, Chile, Colombia, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Peru, and the United States, are an impressive bunch —  idealistic yet pragmatic, fiercely intelligent. They have degrees in economics, geography, engineering, geology, ecology, philosophy, biology, physics, forestry, anthropology, sociology, and political science. Some of them believe that nuclear energy is anathema, others that it is a necessary part of the energy mix. I listen as they discuss the complexities and ambiguities of carbon trading, climate change modeling, social tipping points, centralized versus decentralized energy, the global tragedy of the commons, technology as a solution or as part of the problem. Arching over this all is the question of just what we mean by sustainability. Sustainable at what level and sustainable for whom?

At the end of the day, my head buzzing with ideas, I come back home and the green builder is still jackhammering into the hillside.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


Santa Fe Restyle

This afternoon while the construction crew was off for the weekend, I walked through the ruins of my neighbor Eduardo’s old house. He lived across the street from me, one of three brothers who grew up on this end of the block. For 17 years when I went down to my mailbox, I’d see him working in his yard. He told me stories about the old neighborhood — gathering firewood in the Arroyo Chamiso, swimming in the river, or ice skating on the frozen reservoir on the hill behind his house, the one where the fashion designer Tom Ford is still building his mansion. When Eduardo died about a year ago, the last of the brothers to survive, the neighborhood was diminished. His house was sold to a couple from Houston, and a few months ago the parade of backhoes and construction trucks began.

The digging has been relentless: eight-hour shifts of jackhammering, the mechanical scooping and dumping of tons of rock to be hauled away. The work had been going on for so many weeks that I imagined they were excavating a swimming pool, a wine cellar, some vast underground chambers. But no. All of this commotion was just to make room for a foundation so the back of the house could be expanded into the hillside. I wondered if the contractor (“Your Green Building Experts”)  knew that they would be chipping inch by inch, dollar by dollar, through solid bedrock.

Eduardo, a very shy man, had never invited me into his house. Now with the doors and windows removed and the walls stripped bare, I took a walk inside. It had been a charming, modest home, built of real adobe made on site — you can see the rocks in a few spots where the outer walls have been exposed. If the new addition to the house is also adobe, the bricks will be carted in readymade from a factory. All that earth hauled away so that different earth can be hauled in. Nobody used to build houses this way. What Eduardo had owned and lovingly cared for was true Santa Fe style before it became commoditized.

Every morning after it rained, he would be outside with a shovel scooping his driveway back onto the hill. Now his son, another good neighbor whose house is behind his father’s, has taken over the task. After last week’s downpour, I was getting ready to drive downtown when I saw him out in the street combating the erosion. The new owners, a husband and wife, had come by to check on things, and the man had picked up a shovel to help fill a deep rivulet. “Nice rain,” I called out as I backed my car onto the street. The woman grimaced.

I had only meant to be friendly. There is much to learn when one moves to Santa Fe: how rain is not something to complain about, and a driveway on a hill might always be a work in progress.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


Live at Paolo Soleri: Stewart Udall’s Life

On Sunday morning as Tom Udall welcomed the people who had come to commemorate his father’s extraordinary life, the Senator explained why the event was taking place at the Paolo Soleri amphitheater at the Santa Fe Indian School. It was Stewart Udall who, as Secretary of Interior, contacted Mr. Soleri more than 40 years ago and asked him to work with students from the Institute of American Indian Arts to design and build the theater with its unique Flintstone-like style. Later when the elder Mr. Udall needed to raise money to defend the claims of Navajo uranium miners, he persuaded Pete Seeger and Edward Abbey to perform there. When his wife, Lee, died nine years ago, it seemed only fitting that the services take place, on Mother’s Day, at the Paolo Soleri. Now on Father’s Day it was Stewart’s turn.
Senator Tom Udall at the Paolo Soleri, June 20, 2010

Senator Tom Udall at the Paolo Soleri, June 20, 2010

“The Paolo Soleri is a very special place for us,” the Senator said. “It is specifically where dad asked that we do the celebration.”

Joshua Madalena, governor of Jemez Pueblo, gave a blessing, and one by one, friends, dignitaries, and family members took the stage. There were folk songs — “He was a Friend of Mine,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “This Land Is Your Land” — and readings from the grandchildren.

And throughout this all, there was not a mention of the fact that the unique amphitheater we were all sitting in is about to be destroyed.

At one point the Senator asked governors from the various tribes — who as members of the All Indian Pueblo Council have approved the demolition — to stand and take a bow. “Thank you,” Mr. Udall said, “for running a good school and focusing on education.” Tacit approval perhaps of Superintendent Everett Chavez’s repeated declarations that the theater must be removed because it has become inconsistent with the school’s “progressive” educational mission.

It was a morning of surreal ironies. We were reminded during the speeches that it was Stewart Udall who was so crucial to the passage of not just the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act but also the National Historic Preservation Act, which, properly applied, might have saved all those buildings on the old campus as well as the Paolo Soleri. It’s too late now.

Calabaza Consultants, the Native-owned PR firm recently hired by the school to more efficiently deliver its obfuscations, has announced that two previously scheduled concerts (Lyle Lovett and Modest Mouse) will be allowed to continue before the Paolo Soleri is closed. In return the promoter, Jamie Lenfesty of Fan Man Productions, who stood to lose money if the shows were cancelled, grudgingly agreed to give up the fight. Not much more than a week ago, Mr. Lenfesty called on members of the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee to help save the theater. “There will never be another Paolo Soleri,” he told them. “There is a spirit and a soul. Every musician I have had the pleasure of presenting there has left Paolo moved by its power.”

Now, in the press release announcing his dispensation, he recognized the “unfortunate reality” that the Paolo Soleri is on school property and agreed with the Pueblo Council that it “would be better suited to a different location where the activities of concert goers would not be deemed a threat to education and student life.”

In the end, it all came down to the bottom line.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


Frances Abeyta’s Fire

Roundhouse wall art

As I sat this afternoon in a meeting at the Roundhouse listening to Frances Abeyta’s tearful plea to the state’s experts on historical preservation, I wished it were 2008 when the old Santa Fe Indian School was still standing. The web page Ms. Abeyta started has brought the imminent destruction of the Paolo Soleri amphitheater to the world’s attention. Now the young woman, who grew up at the school, was asking the Cultural Properties Review Committee for help. If only she, or someone with her spirit, had learned two years ago of the secret plans that crushed the old John Gaw Meem buildings. Today’s hearing might have been about trying to save not just the Paolo Soleri but the whole campus. Its destruction, she said, has been heartbreaking.

As it turned out the committee didn’t need much persuading. “We’ve really worked hard with the American Indian community over the last couple of years in preserving what they thought were important cultural properties,” said Tim Maxwell, a prominent archaeologist. “I would like to receive the favor in return of their listening to us.” A resolution drafted on the spot by archaeologist Phil Shelley and passed unanimously called on the All Indian Pueblo Council to work with the New Mexico Historic Preservation Office, the city of Santa Fe, and the rest of the interested universe to find an alternative to demolition. Failing that, the committee asked that details of the unique structure be thoroughly documented before it is pulverized.

Like the City Council resolution passed Wednesday night, this is mostly a symbolic act. But maybe the tide is turning. Finally after all these weeks, the spark Ms. Abeyta lit seems on the verge of going national. Just this afternoon Paolo Soleri himself (through his Cosanti Foundation) promised to do what he could to preserve his creation, including raising money to keep it alive.

The antagonists in this story, school superintendent Everett Chavez and the Pueblo Council, are accustomed to ruling in darkness, deciding for themselves what is best for their people and tolerating no dissent. Maybe that won’t be so easy this time.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


The City Council Bows In

Though Mayor David Coss tried to talk them out of it, a majority of the City Councilors voted tonight to approve Patti Bushee’s resolution calling for the preservation of the Paolo Soleri. (Here is a glitchy video of the short debate.)

Generally these symbolic gestures have no teeth, but another of the resolution’s sponsors, Councilor Matthew Ortiz, added amendments that may give the city some leverage over the Indian School. Last year the Council passed an ordinance requiring other government entities — county, state, or federal — that are served by the city water system to abide by its zoning and land development laws. The ordinance, still untested, was inspired in part by the County’s insistence that its new courthouse was exempt from review by the Historic Board. But the larger point was to remind these occupying powers that they are part of our town and that their actions affect us all.

Speaking in support of the Paolo Soleri resolution, Councilor Rosemary Romero put it like this: “I don’t think this is adversarial. I think this is accountable. This is saying to the All Indian Pueblo Council, ‘You are part of our community.'” Whether they want to be or not.

Councilor Ortiz also referred to some deal struck by a former City Manager, Jim Romero, that evidently promised the school — nobody can find a copy of the letter — 43 acre-feet of city water for future expansion. Mr. Ortiz called for the agreement, which he finds of questionable legality, to be declared null and void. If the Indian School seeks approval for a commercial project, it would, like any other developer, have to acquire its own water rights and transfer them to the City

For Mayor Coss this all seemed so unfriendly. Wasn’t it enough that the school superintendent, Everett Chavez had “reached out” to him that very day? “Reaching out” meant agreeing to do lunch a few hours before the resolution was scheduled for a vote and then trying to forestall it. The superintendent (who has been governor of Santo Domingo Pueblo and who donated $1,000 to the Coss campaign) apparently reminded the Mayor that a city sewer line runs across school property and that the easement expired in 2003. Mr. Coss was impressed: “Telling them, ‘You can’t hook up to our sewer’ may be a hard statement to make when our sewer is on their land,” he argued.

In the end only Councilor Miguel Chavez sympathized, casting the sole vote against the resolution.

George Johnson
The Santa Fe Review


Senator Udall Bows Out

Much has been written here about the failure of the BIA to add legal safeguards before turning over the historic Santa Fe Indian School campus to the All Indian Pueblo Council. But the lack of those covenants doesn’t get the Council off the hook.

The new school was built with Federal tax dollars, so before ground was broken, an environmental impact statement was required. Prepared by a contractor called Marron and Associates in 2002, the report flatly stated that “no buildings will be razed.” (It would be interesting to know whether that included the Paolo Soleri.) The report, which is referenced in a letter from the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division to Robert B. Montoya and Bruce Harrill of the BIA, went on to specify the following:

	All vacated buildings will be maintained to the extent they
	have been maintained in the past. A study will be made as to
	the best use of the existing buildings. This study will be
	coordinated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the new
	Mexico Historic Preservation office.

Which, of course, didn’t happen. Without any consultation the old campus was destroyed. The new school, in other words, was built in violation of the very conditions under which it was approved. So many illegalities with no one being held to stand account.

Yesterday, in an interview with KSFR’s Dan Gerrity, Senator Udall made clear that he has no intention of intervening in these matters. In fact, the Senator’s response was so lackluster that the station is unsure whether it will even be broadcast. Bill Dupuy, the news director, has given me permission to post the recording. You can listen to it here.

George Johnson

The Santa Fe Review