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Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

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Mouzon Green Home Design Featured in WSJ

Contrasts “Original Green” vs. “Gadget Green”

Even before green building gathered momentum, Miami architect Steve Mouzon was determined to change the focus of the discussion. Green shouldn’t be just about the individual house in the here and now, he argued; it has to be about the broader community over time. Design and construction should build on lessons from the past and lay the groundwork for a sustainable future.

That perspective led him to an award-winning book, A Living Tradition: Architecture of the Bahamas, and to the continuing refinement of the idea of “Original Green.” “Original Green,” as opposed to “Gadget Green,” focuses on vernacular practices honed over time to shape highly efficient and much loved structures that adapt and endure over generations.

Must green living fully rely on technological invention?

Must green living fully rely on technological invention?

This past January in Miami, a design group founded by Mouzon, the New Urban Guild, convened in Miami to talk about producing a series of ideas for dwellings for a new era in America. The discussion was about efficiencies of space and about Original Green-style sustainability. Now, one of the first products of that 2008 discussion, a Mouzon design for a neighborhood-friendly green home, was among four ideas featured in a special section of the April 27, 2009, Wall Street Journal.

Mouzon’s concept shares at least one approach with the work of the other four architects. Its scale is relatively small, especially compared with McMansion-style mega-houses. Everybody, it seems, is coming to understand that reducing volume is one sure route to greater energy efficiency. Mouzon’s design fits easily on a standard 50 X 100 urban lot. Its 1,200-square-feet of air-conditioned space utilizes less than half the site. The highly detailed outside rooms encourage living a great part of the time in the outdoors, even in the sub-tropical climate of the South Atlantic coast, where Mouzon chose to locate his theoretical lot. (Original Green, Mouzon will point out, is not a one-size-fits-all approach; designs have to be customized to regional climate to take advantage of time-honored vernacular for conserving energy and achieving creature comfort.)

While Mouzon doesn’t shy away from the latest advancements in solar and wind technologies, he avoids expensive, high-maintenance gadgetry in order to focus on much older – even ancient techniques – to achieve sustainability: Shading eaves, sleeping porches,  cross ventilation, and “sails” to direct cooling breezes in the gardens. In this design, homeowners can live 100 percent off the energy grid. Enough food can be grown in the gardens or harvested from the chicken coop or tilapia pool to sustain a small family. Yet nothing about the house prevents it from nesting comfortably in a neighborhood.

You can read more about the design for the WSJ story on Mouzon’s website here

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