by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & G & lt;/span & REEN BUILDING Spokane architect Kelly Lerner can run from her Mennonite roots, but she can't stop trying to save the world. & r & Kelly Lerner grew up among a peaceable religious people, oriented toward making the world a better place, yet who argued heatedly -- to the point of schism and neighbor shunning neighbor -- about the weirdest things.
& r & If it's cool with God that you buy a tractor, can you drive it on the road or only in the field? Or, if God lets you buy a car, will He let you have chrome?
After spending her childhood with the fractious Anabaptist sects in the Midwest, Lerner came of age on the Oregon Coast -- the pretty postcard of beaches, mountains and mist-shrouded forests -- only to see first-hand the scalping of the Coast Range in one of the biggest, most egregious clear-cuttings of public forests in history.
& r & Her experiences led Lerner into a career as an architect interested in the sort of housing that helps the Earth rather than hurts it -- a career path that has taken Lerner to Mongolia, Manchuria and, lately, Spokane, where she practices and preaches the gospel of sustainability.
& r & Her professional efforts were honored last year at the United Nations World Habitat Day celebration in Jakarta, where Lerner was awarded one of the two World Habitat Awards handed out by the international Building and Social Habitat Foundation each year. For the past several years, Lerner has spearheaded a project that has constructed some 600 straw-bale houses and several schools in the provinces of northeastern China.
& r & She came to Spokane to get away from craziness and crowds, but right here, with almost no fanfare, the youngest daughter of Indiana Mennonites is still out to save the world.
& r & Goshen. She grew up in the Land of Goshen, tucked -- like Moses in his basket -- tight into the bosom of a family of handyman Mennonites in the heartland of Indiana.
& r & The biblical Goshen is the fertile land where Joseph's people settled when they came to join him working for the man-god Pharaoh. Goshen, Ind., is much the same: a fertile and faraway refuge for Anabaptists fleeing persecution in Europe. Anabaptists believe in adult instead of infant baptism -- that grownups can make the informed choice about what church they join. Hardly seems like a cause for persecution, but mainline Protestants in the 18th century badgered and butchered Anabaptists -- Amish, Hutterites, Mennonites, Brethren -- until most of them fled to America.
& r & Once here they continued to micromanage the Word of God, getting into deep snits with each other over modern conveniences.
Each congregation, Lerner says, gets to choose how much of "The World" is allowed into their lives. For example, there are Black Bumper Mennonites, who believe, Lerner says, that "you could have a car ... but you couldn't have chrome. Chrome was way too flashy."
& r & Lerner's parents were among the more liberal.
"I like to say we were only 20 or 30 years behind the times instead of 200 like the Amish," she says.
& r & Only 16 miles from South Bend, Goshen was a world away from mainstream America. "Goshen was a Mennonite town ... I went to a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college," Lerner says.
& r & Mennonites stress education, but not so their kids can make more money or land better jobs. "The idea was to use it for the betterment of the world," Lerner says. "Unlike other denominations, Mennonites were more interested in action than in proselytizing."
& r & The Mennonite Central Committee is a big-time player in the field of international aid, and it's not uncommon for recent college grads to take off on aid missions.
Lerner took off... but not on a mission. "I escaped Goshen," she says.
The Decimation of the Coast Range
So she grew up in this culture that highlighted a good education in order to serve people in need. Lerner graduated from Goshen College in 1985 with an interdisciplinary degree in sociology, Spanish and women's studies. She immediately put this to use by traveling to Oregon as a potter's apprentice.
& r & She was exhibiting her wares in a student pottery show her senior year when she sold an enormous quantity of potpourri pots, raising $4,000 (still believed to be the one-day record for a student art show, professor emeritus of art Marvin Bartel told the campus newspaper recently) and used the money to leave Indiana for a potter's life.
& r & "I really liked it," she says. Lerner once told her college newspaper that pottery "kept me sane." But after three years in the trade, "there was something about making really nice things for really rich people that didn't fit the world-saving thing."
& r & She had bought a house -- a rambling old cabin with a variety of add-ons -- in Lincoln City, Ore., "past the Otis Caf & eacute;, at the north end of Devil's Lake where it had a half duck's-eye view of the lake," Lerner says.
& r & The cabin itself was in need of repair, and every owner seems to have added on one room or another with varying degrees of skill. Lerner, remembering a childhood spent shadowing her handyman dad with her toy hammer, began to tackle repairs herself.
& r & She discovered two things: The place had been owned by a different sort of potter -- "All the outlets in the attic and the skylights upstairs? It was the local pot-grower's house," Lerner says; and, as she belly-crawled under her house to check on the foundation, wiring and plumbing, "If I had been a guy I probably would have gone into construction.
"It's not glamorous, but there is something profoundly satisfying from remodeling a house," she says.
& r & With construction jobs for women sparse in the late 1980s she enrolled in the architectural program at the University of Oregon. The program was noted in architecture circles for stressing practicality over the esoteric, insisting that a structure take advantage of its site to minimize mechanical environmental controls.
& r & "This was my introduction to green building, although it wasn't called that at the time," Lerner says.
& r & And there was another factor in the greening of Kelly Lerner. The Willamette National Forest -- which she would cross every day on her way to school -- was target of one of the most vicious clear-cuttings ever. "Every time I'd go to the coast or go hiking in the mountains, I'd see clear cuts," Lerner says. "I became a lot more aware of resources ... that there's got to be a better way to build houses and use a lot less wood."
& r & She began to explore alternate building materials: adobe, rammed earth, recycled tires. Straw bales -- clean-smelling and tactile -- captured her interest.
& r & "They are like big, fuzzy Lego blocks," she says. "But they are a lot more fun."
During her senior year at Oregon, Lerner made what she calls "a straw bale pilgrimage," visiting pioneers of the current straw bale movement, and then conducted seminars on straw building in Eugene.
& r & She moved to the San Francisco area to work with Bob Theis, who was among the first licensed architects to champion straw bale construction and who has greatly expanded the "vernacular" with his designs for houses, churches and meeting places.
"I took every opportunity I could to learn," Lerner says.
Champion Moms in the Land of Khan
Cut to Mongolia, soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
& r & "After the fall of Communism, the whole country pancaked because the Soviet Union underwrote 75 percent of Mongolia's GNP," says Scott Christiansen, who was director of a Seventh Day Adventist aid organization that rushed to Mongolia in the early 1990s. "When we got there children were living in steam pipes and sewers and the police were under instruction to beat them if they came out."
& r & Mongols were among the world's oldest nomadic cultures, living a sustainable cyclical life herding sheep, horses and camels. The vast herds provided great free quantities of dung to burn as fuel and wool to construct the traditional ger -- what we call a yurt but shouldn't, Christiansen says.
& r & "The ger (gare) is a brilliant solution adapted to a nomadic life. It's made of wool, very little wood, it's light, portable and burns dung," he says. "If you are not a nomad, it's a money pit ... if you don't have the dung, you're screwed. And you have to buy wool because it degrades every year."
Mongols became settled -- there were Soviet decrees against herding, Mongol history was not taught, the name of Ghengis Khan could not be spoken, traditions were discouraged.
& r & "Gers became poverty traps," Christiansen says, and the promise of vouchers lured Mongols to their nation's single city, Ulan Bator, known as the world's coldest capital city for its seven months of winter. In Ulan Bator people lived in the ubiquitous uninsulated Soviet apartment blocks where centralized power plants provided heat and light.
"The idea was to pump out a lot of coal and do battle with the cold," says Bob Theis, the California architect who was Lerner's mentor.
& r & In Ulan Bator, a woman who bore a child was hailed as a Hero of the State. A woman who had three children was Champion Mother. Under the Soviets, families qualified for larger apartments and increased vouchers for clothing, bread and meat with each new child. If there was a man around, the family got even more vouchers -- especially for vodka.
& r & "It's a twisted enough culture that this was a huge deal," Christiansen says. "If you were passed out in the gutter drunk in Ulan Bator, people would gather around and admire you. Because if you had that many vouchers to get that drunk it meant you were really lucky."
But when the Soviet Union collapsed, Mongolia stumbled hard. There were no real jobs, no ability to manufacture anything in an economy based on state-supported imports. Suddenly the state couldn't even afford the coal and oil for heat, much less the vouchers that paid for everything else.
& r & "Children had been an asset in that system. When the Soviets collapsed, children became a liability. Overnight, 50,000 fathers disappeared. Overnight, 50,000 mothers were left without any economic viability," Christiansen says.
& r & And the children were turned out. Many began living in Mad Max-style clans underground -- taking shelter on maintenance platforms in the sewer and steam pipe networks. And the police were under orders to keep them out of sight.
& r & This was the Mongolia Christiansen encountered. One of the world's most fabled cultures was torn and floundering and its people were in danger of freezing to death.
& r & With so many urgent problems, Christiansen had a brainstorm and pushed housing up the list. He had read a granola-cruncher's guide to straw bale housing years earlier when he was working on the Navajo Nation, and dredged up some contacts. Soon he was in touch with Theis, who came to Mongolia as a sort of architectural anthropologist.
& r & "My most pressing concern was whether it was culturally important for these first straw bale buildings to be round, as the ger are, or whether a square building would be culturally acceptable," Theis says.
& r & Sounds esoteric, but Christiansen was determined to find a way to build super-insulated houses with local materials, and it needed to be accepted by the people. "We needed to know what defined 'house' for a Mongolian so we would not make the tragic development mistakes we make all the time," Christiansen says.
& r & "Bob went around and talked to all kinds of people and he came back and said Mongolians don't care if a house is round or square, or what color it is," Christiansen says. "Only one thing defines house for them: that it be warm."
& r & He says Mongols were typically burning 15 tons of coal per family per ger. Once the economy collapsed, many faced the stark choice between eating or heating.
& r & Theis recommended Lerner for the job of bringing this new style of housing to a country in chaos. Both he and Christiansen say Lerner did a phenomenal job.
& r & "She didn't stand back. She jumped right in and formed friendships with everybody, and she was right in the middle of solving all these cultural disconnect problems," Christiansen says.
& r & Weird issues kept arising. There was no history of construction trades in the country. "Builders" in the country had been taught by the Soviets and taught poorly, Christiansen says. Primarily, they knew how to build concrete forms, but no carpentry, Theis says.
& r & "This project was more complex than I realized, and it could have fallen apart if it weren't for Kelly. She became a jack of all trades," Christiansen says.
& r & Though Lerner worked heroically for several years, the project faltered due to the lack of construction skills and a fatal mistake. Christiansen says he went wrong when he pitched the straw bale houses as super cheap to heat. They soon became stigmatized as houses for poor people, and the project languished.
& r &
The Dragon and the Straw Bale
As Mongolia stabilized, a new crisis emerged next door in the northeastern provinces of China. Noted for its heavy industry -- coal and steel -- the Manchurian provinces had become a blighted Rust Belt in the new China.
& r & Many people there are counted as "environmental refugees" fleeing heavy pollution or desertification in the region. Again, an urgent need arose for houses people could afford to heat. People were burning 10 to 15 tons of coal per house per year. And all the smoke was creating acid rain and breathing problems.
This time, Christiansen went in with a wicked game plan.
& r & "The houses in China were packaged as 'earthquake-resistive construction,'" Theis says. "They were built that way and then people said 'Oh look, we're saving a lot on coal.'"
& r & In fact the first straw bale building was a school, replacing one that had been damaged in an earthquake. The new village school -- with its flexible straw bale walls -- has since survived several temblors, including one stronger than the quake that took down the original school.
& r & Also, Lerner says, hard-learned lessons from Mongolia were put into practice. The houses were built with techniques familiar to local builders, straw bale techniques were taught at seminars, the exteriors were bricked to look like other houses in the villages, and there was a "bells and whistles" model aimed at the upper middle class.
& r & All told, the project has constructed more than 600 straw bale houses as well as several schools. What's more, Christiansen says, "Additional houses are being built outside the project by people who perceive the value of straw bale and are putting their own money at risk -- and that was the whole point of the project in the first place."
& r & Again, he credits Lerner's force of personality for making the project a success.
Lerner is now busy pitching the benefits of straw bale to Spokane. She has several projects going around town, including an apartment building expansion that is believed to be the first commercial permit for straw bale.
& r & "I have to give a lot of credit to the city building department -- I thought this one might be a little over the top for them, but they didn't blink an eye," Lerner says, walking around the apartment building where two stories are being added, framed by straw bales and encased in earth plasters.
& r & "This is the guerilla warfare, happening right in your back yard," she says with a laugh.
"I'll never be on the cover of Architectural Record, put out by the AIA," Lerner says. "When I look at it I always think, 'Where are those houses? And who lives in them?'"
& r & After a short pause, she brightens. "I have been on the cover of Mother Earth News. Several times."
Lerner's buildings are easy on the eyes, easy on the planet. Mother would be proud.