Homewise. And smart, too.
There is a fun new book out by Lloyd Kahn called Home Work (ISBN 0-936070-33-1) that I place almost in a league with Spectacular Vernacular and, the greatest in the genre, Rudolfsky's classic Architecture Without Architects. All three of these volumes tell the story through photography of the work of individuals, cultures and communes that have, sometimes over centuries, sometimes over the course of a decade, created beautiful and interesting places to live and labor. I admire anyone who builds their dream home with old windshields, or digs their own cave, or insulates their vagabond wagon with Alpaca wool. I love looking at this stuff.
I was pleased and entertained as I turned studiously from page to page to discover that I know a few of the people, some of them quite well, who are featured in Kahn's book. Some of them are very practical indeed and have drawn upon the technologies of many cultures and places to solve local building problems. I have the highest respect, for example, for the work of Athena and Bill Steen in Mexico and southern Arizona. Much of what they have done fills an immediate need and simultaneously represents a high aesthetic achievement. But there are others who have done nothing more than build something cool in the backwoods, had an epiphany, founded a not-for-profit and set out to bring the planet back in tune with the music of the spheres. This sort of thing makes me suspicious, particularly when the vision is extended to "sustainability" in affordable housing, which is often the point.
Alternative lifestyles can be accommodated with alternative building materials, like the old tires and bottles in a Taos Earthship. But in my experience the people in need of affordable housing aren't much interested in the alternative lifestyle. They probably would have no problem with alternative materials, including tires or mud, if the materials could be shown to perform on a par with wood-framed stucco with fiberglass insulation and came at no additional cost.
Anyone who has read this column knows that I promote earth in any of its forms (cast, rammed, compressed, coursed, puddled, whatever) because of its simplicity and near-universal availability. I have spent decades documenting, assessing, restoring, repairing and building with earth, and publishing the lessons learned by others as well as myself. And I have had my own little epiphany: In this country I cannot build with earth inexpensively enough to solve the problem of affordable housing. I can do it in Nigeria, but I cannot do it here.
I have also had a lifetime's experience in the not-for-profit world. I have worked for them, I have helped create them, and I have served on their boards. There are a few non-profits that I really admire. Most of them I wouldn't touch with a stick because, though founded in a fervent desire to do the right thing, they are usually astonishingly devoid of common sense and spend neither time nor money well. I have seen building projects stumble and permanently fall because of someone .s stubborn insistence that all water shed from a building site be captured and recycled. I have watched as permits expired and committed land was lost while arguments about the most "sustainable" building method were researched, reviewed, argued and tabled. I have seen model homes built with subsidies that hid their true cost and could not be replicated on the open market. And, I have seen housing providers who simply weren't. You can .t fill the need by building one house a year. In all these instances, someone forgot that what they are about is getting people into homes.
I want, as everyone wants, to see affordable housing in mixed-income, mixed-use settings; for it to be comfortable; for it to gain in value for its owners; for it to be pleasing to the eye. But most of all I want it to fill the need, to get folks shelter they can afford. If I have to modify my requirements for green building (or abandon the notion altogether) to get someone into a house, that is what I will do. And, just coincidentally, Mike Loftin and I agree on that point.
Mike is the executive director of Homewise, the not-for-profit I admire most in the world. Under his inspired and effective direction they fulfill their mandate of getting people into homes as inexpensively and practically as possible and with the efficiency of a well-oiled corporate machine. Last year Homewise put 187 families into homes in which they could build equity and advance themselves into the middle class. The organization packages mortgages, operates a loan fund, teaches homeownership classes, and streamlines closings. They take their clients from first enquiry through closing in a timely and businesslike manner. They do their job so well that the loan default ratio is almost non-existent. Among other things, that helps Homewise make a profit (yes, not-for-profits can do that, the Mayo Clinic being a prime example) and reinvest it to provide services for even more people.
Homewise also strives to be green by harvesting water where it makes sense, encouraging xeriscaping, and using energy efficient windows and appliances as they have in their new project, Evergreen, off Airport Road. Mike has also really tried to make the numbers work with adobe and compressed earth block, and he and I together have become convinced that, in this economy at least, it is not likely to happen. But our discussions have been enlightening to me, and in my most officious and overbearing tone, I want to point out what I have learned: it .s easy to be green on a trust fund, and its all right to be green if you want to be. But if all you want for your family is a roof, then that is what you should have without fearing the wrath of the green angels being visited upon you. At least not until they can provide the service competitively.
I am disappointed that with all my equipment and skills I can't seem to make earth work in affordable settings in the United States. I would value nothing more than to have someone come forward with a plan and approach to mud building that makes financial sense and can work on a large scale. I have frequently said in this space that I believe in green building and I want to see a lot more of it. But it has to work at scale; it has to be practical; it has to be built and presented honestly and without hidden costs; and it has to be desirable to the end user, not just the promoter.
Mike Loftin is a housing impresario and Homewise sings with efficiency and accomplishment. If only I could figure out how to honestly slip adobe into the mix I might be able to write a book to compete with Lloyd Kahn. I would call it Home Wise.