by Ann M. Colford

Sustainability is the latest buzzword in design and construction. But most people who really begin to look at design issues related to sustainability soon realize that far more than shelter is at stake. If one creates a sustainable system for shelter, then those same principles may be applied to any other human-designed system. This holistic view of sustainability informs the ideas of Dan Chiras from Evergreen, Colorado, who built his own "green" home and then wrote The Natural House: A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy-Efficient, Environmental Homes, which was published in 2000 by Chelsea Green Publishing. His latest book, The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling, came out last year, and he has two new titles on the way. Chiras is in Spokane and Sandpoint this week for a series of presentations and workshops on sustainable design.

"We're looking at a system for organizing our thinking of sustainability," he says. "It's principle-based development, a model of how we can reform our systems. The ideas can apply to architecture, agricultural, energy, industry, waste management, and water systems."

In order for a system to be truly sustainable, Chiras says, the basic principles of sustainability must be designed into the system. "The idea is to get to the root causes of the environmental problems we face," he says. "So much of what we've been doing in the environmental movement has been treating the symptoms rather than the causes."

Chiras will visit the area thanks to a joint effort of the Northwest EcoBuilders Guild and the Public Forum on Sustainability, based in Sandpoint. He'll speak to students and interested professionals at WSU Spokane this evening as part of the Sustainable Design and Construction seminar series. On Friday in Sandpoint, he'll present a luncheon talk and slide show geared to builders, developers, and commercial real estate professionals. Then he spends the weekend in Sandpoint as the featured presenter at a workshop that will explore a systems approach to sustainability in agriculture, energy, and shelter.

Although he has now published dozens of articles and books on sustainable design and construction, Chiras didn't set out to become a guru of green homes.

"I'm a reproductive physiologist by training," he says. "I taught general biology and ecology, and in those classes I compared human systems and natural systems." What he found were human systems that used up resources, as opposed to natural systems where waste was fed back into the system. From this starting point in the biological sciences, Chiras came to understand the basic principles of sustainability. When the opportunity arose to build his own home, he sought to apply those principles to creating a sustainable shelter. He read and researched exhaustively but still faced surprises in construction.

"Building a house is overwhelming," he reports. "And most of us are never educated about the process. We don't know what goes into a house. When I wrote the book, I wanted to help get people up on that learning curve."

While some of the construction techniques that Chiras talks about - straw bale, rammed earth, cob, adobe - may seem edgy and innovative, he says they're not untested technology. "A lot of these techniques have been around for thousands of years. Now we have to get building officials to recognize them." He also encourages owners, builders, and architects to consider combining techniques to take advantage of their unique qualities: "Each one has its own characteristics and functions, so a mix - say, straw bale for the exterior with interior walls made of rammed earth - provides advantages of durability and efficiency."

Above all, says Chiras, home should be a place that soothes the soul. "It's important to have a house that nourishes us," he says, adding that many conventional construction materials contain toxic substances like formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds. "A healthy house is important, but so is a visually-appealing house. A natural house has a lot of curves, and a lot of people find the curves comforting. A natural house is a refuge from the right angle. And there's a solidity to straw bale and rammed earth. The homes are quieter and more insulated, and the walls can be wonderfully sensuous, especially if finished with earth plaster."

The Public Forum on Sustainability began in the fall, according to organizer Becky Kemery, and the group has sponsored an evening lecture on aspects of sustainability once a month. This is the group's first weekend workshop.

"Our programs focus on two basic questions," Kemery explains. "What do you mean by sustainable? And how can you tell if a system is sustainable? In the end, it all comes down to design. The idea is not applying Band-Aids to old ways of thinking, but rethinking from the start and asking what a sustainable system would look like."

Following this weekend's workshop, the evening lecture series continues with a forum on homesteading on April 17 and a look at genetically-modified organisms on May 20. Call: 358-7963.

Publication date: 04/03/03

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