Our Place in Time: Considerations for Green Development

Our Place in Time: Considerations for Green Development


Sometimes it is hard to tell that you are in Sarasota. It would be difficult to count how many miles of our civic rights-of-way eerily resemble those in Jacksonville, Atlanta, Indianapolis or Los Angeles. While travelling our public thoroughfares, it is all too common to see the same signs, color themes and products competing for attention, repeated over and over. The cadence and melody may vary but the refrain does not: a Bed Bath and Beyond begets a Taco Bell signals a Jiffy Lube ahead.

Bob Evans holds fast to its familiar red barn shape, Sonic Drive-in makes a home for the automobile by recalling the nostalgia of 1950’s drive-up diners, and Rooms to Go declares its contemporary flair with its glass-walled frontage. Strip malls compete with indoor malls compete with outdoor malls in seeking that perfect blend of shops gathered around the same few corporate anchor stores, and the business model of real estate development rewards the perpetuation of this economic dependency. One franchise would not be enough to create our extensive anonymous sub-urban environment, but the collective actions of hundreds of national companies serving tens of thousands of customers does.

Observe our local penchant in Sarasota for Mediterranean Revival housing. Within the walled and gated confines of our newer residential developments, we are still no closer to Sarasota. Characterized by concrete or ceramic tile roofs, stucco wall finishes, arches, and various other complementary motifs, one is struck by with the realization that our homes greatly resemble consumer products. Neighborhoods upon acres upon regions spring up in this facsimile of a collective tropical lifestyle. While the popularity of this style could be its justification, the observation can also be made that other architectural expressions are also easily acquired and favored. One may look at the relative economic success of Wellington or Seaside or Celebration to conclude that aesthetic favor is in fact malleable, often determined by the concentrated efforts of a few marketing specialists backed by investment capital.

These observations lead one to ask whether more suitable methods of design, planning and construction are available. Beyond the observations of physical environments described here, it may also be stated that all of these human environments manifest the energetic one that has supported them and made them possible; fossil fuels and petroleum have provided the impetus to realize the world we have created. This essay engages a question that, while moot now, will become increasingly valid: can we imagine a Sarasota weaned of fossil fuels entirely, and what would it look like?

Remembering our Place in the World

To engage this question, we are obliged to consider what we already have, and may hopefully continue to have and enjoy. Summers in Sarasota witness billowing lavender cumulus clouds vaulting into the stratosphere to catch the last rays of the receding sun. The clouds crackle and glow rhythmically, colorfully and silently expressing their internal electromagnetic charge. An insistent breeze ushers them offshore to meet with the sun beyond the horizon. Between breezes, a lilting sultry air permeates the lungs and clings to the skin, compelling us toward the enlightened habit of siesta.

The most salutary and hospitable climate graces our shores on either side of winter. Migratory birds and pelagic fish arrive and depart with the sublime climatic rhythm. We throw our windows and doors wide and declare our appreciation with feeling so at home in such an ideal accommodation. Like birds and fish we too live outside to share in the cosmic display of generosity.

Winter taunts and defies our insistence that we live in the tropics. Succeeding waves of low pressure cold push overhead and recede again, alternating between gray precipitate and crisp blue winter chill. Our mangos and coconut palms and citrus, to survive the coldest nights, demand our intervention. Neighborhood associations that would never abide by the display of laundry look askance as landscaping beds and buffer strips are cloaked in last years’ linens.

Everywhere here, all year long, a timid, contingent sandy ground holds us barely aloft. Ambulatory muscle groups specifically evolved to climb and descend and winnow go unused. No topographic feature interrupts the visual and sensory field comprised of the immediate and tangible here of trees and buildings and the cosmic and conceptual there of the sky and cosmos. Our sky, the sun, the clouds and the night sky tint and expand the space of our daily lives in Sarasota.

These qualities and phenomena offer unique opportunities and inspiration from which we may shape our built environment in a more fulfilling manner. Why should such a unique play of humans on earth not be more, if not omnipresently, celebrated and expressed? What sound reason supports the fact that many of our built environments seek to mitigate, or exclude completely, this beautiful place?

Revisiting the Sarasota School of Architecture

This is not the first time these questions have been asked. Sarasotans in the 1940’s and 50’s developed a unique vision of building and living within our climate, known generally as the Sarasota School of Architecture. It was during this time that a coterie of architects, builders, artists and clients came together to define a strain of modern building specific to our unique place in the world. They began a project to develop a localized system of building, in support of a localized lifestyle.

The Sarasota School sought to define a tropical expression of Modern architecture. Modernism was thought of and expressed in many ways around the world– from incorporating new material technologies, making available ‘high design’ to a majority of people through mass production, and expressing a progressive society’s belief in the future through enlightened planning. While a diverse array of Modernist trends existed then, a common thread that united the various strains was a rejection of classical modes of expression and the desire to develop an original expression meaningfully situated within its time. Whereas Modernism was a reaction against uncritical propagation of Greek and Roman artistic traditions, the Sarasota School created a localized modernism that responded to the abstraction and homogeneity present in International Modernism specifically. The Sarasota School was realized through thoughtful response to our unique climate and place.

Sarasota School architecture may be characterized by the incorporation of a variety of passive cooling strategies such as jalousie windows, outdoor sleeping rooms, and extensive use of shading devices such as overhangs, bahama shutters and screens. At the same time, the materials from which the buildings were constructed were drawn from localized sources: cypress, sand-brick masonry and specialized systems manufactured locally. As a result of the primary the desire to enjoy the local climate year round, Sarasota School designers conceived that the buildings mediate climatic extremes in support of the comfort of the occupants. Availing themselves of the beneficent climate that Sarasota offers, a tropical form of modern expression began to be developed.

It will again be valuable to consider the work and thinking that came in to play during that time, because in the future we will be compelled to revisit these tenets once again. Whereas the earlier Sarasota School sought to define a localized building tradition for its own sake—the fulfilling pleasures of being at home in Sarasota, impending shortages in fossil fuel resources bring added impetus to revisiting this important project. The contemporaneous greening of multiple industries, extensive investment in renewable energy, and the development of localized systems of food production are harbingers of a future where localized design, planning and construction systems will come increasingly to bear.

Mitigating Petroleum-Saturated Systems of Production

Fossil fuel energy is the invisible hand molding virtually every single feature of our material culture in the United States and, by extension, our built environment. Every fastener, container of adhesive, wall panel, roof membrane, window unit, floor finish and structural member exists by application of fossil fuel energy. Many, if not most, components used in contemporary construction are mined with petroleum powered machines, transported thousands of miles by petroleum powered trucks and transported along sea, air, and road networks established and maintained in support of a petroleum powered economy. Indeed, the prevailing practice of architectural design, material procurement, and building construction unconsciously rely on an infrastructure that is almost entirely supported by fossil fuel energy.

Planners of our cities have taken for granted fossil fuel energy. The fascination with the automobile and the development of cities that primarily function through automobile transportation have obligated us to a life centered on the automobile. Our electrical infrastructure has hard-wired us to coal, natural gas, and other fuels that drive our electrical turbines. As fossil fuels decrease in availability, a radical re-configuration of American cities and infrastructure will need to accompany that shortage if society is to continue functioning.

The design, planning and construction industries are favorably responding to the foreseeable end of cheap and easy fossil fuels and beginning to question contemporary practices. This response embodies a renewed environmental agenda in the United States, one that was favored in the mid- to late-seventies and then lost in the political, cultural and economic revolution that took place after 1980. Where individual buildings are concerned, the top of this renewed green agenda includes a significant decrease in reliance on fossil fuels, alternate means of energy generation outside of fossil fuel sources, conservation and efficient use of water, judicious use of land and natural resources and the creation of more healthful human environments.

Several organizations have filled the role of establishing best practices and maintaining standards embodied in this renewed green agenda : the United States Green Building Council, Green Globes, and (locally) the Florida Green Building Coalition are a few of them. These organizations set basic standards for environmentally sensitive building practices and reward their implementation by awarding Green Certifications. They each serve as an objective third party that verifies a building’s green-ness. Typically, the greener the building is, the higher the level of certification awarded.

The growing body of work that encompasses Green Certified buildings should strike the interested observer with an invigorated sense of mission, if not sheer wonder in the diversity of idiosyncratic formal expression. It is the sheer multiplicity of expression of Certified buildings that should give one pause to consider what extent fossil fuels still saturate their production.

Green certifications systems and construction practitioners tend to rely on technology-centered solutions. These technologies may include ground source heat pumps, photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, LED lighting systems, gray water recovery systems and elaborate building shell assemblies. These technologies represent a “plug-and-play” approach to green building that do not require more time-tested means of design and construction in order to achieve certification.

Of particular interest at this stage in the discussion is the role passive, or low-tech, building strategies play in defining our physical environments. Passive technologies may be incorporated to achieve green building certification, were defining features in Sarasota School architecture, and are consistent themes repeated within human settlements throughout place and history. Passive strategies comprise those material and building technologies that use no energy to promote thermal comfort; the building shell and superstructure moderate the most severe weather.

Green Certification systems do reward low-tech and passive building systems, in addition to the high-tech systems previously discussed. The promise of these certification systems is that they can promote and raise awareness of localized building systems and passive strategies by assigning them a higher priority in the reward system.

The Vernacular Precedent

The central challenge for designers, planners, and constructors today is to imagine a human world that is built and maintained without fossil-fuel derived energy inputs. For Americans under 80 or 90 years of age, this requires a leap of the imagination and a willingness to question ingrained assumptions. While there are few examples of truly local construction in the U.S. today, many of our familiar built environments were realized before a time of widespread fossil fuels. These tend to be, in fact, the most appealing environments that people seek out, find solace within, and pay exorbitantly to live in: St. Augustine, Savannah, Charleston, Annapolis and Boston are only a few examples.

Our contemporary habits of manufacturing, procurement, and construction are an historical anomaly. Throughout the last seven to nine thousand years of sedentary human habitation, it is only in the last 150 years that fossil fuel inputs have influenced the conception and execution of our physical environment. In this time, fossil fuels have brought hyperbolic scales of production, and a movement away from human-centered environments. A sense of abundance has arisen as a result of access to fossil fuels, which has tended to negate the ingenuity and resourcefulness that are demanded by and rewarded in an environment of scarce resources.

The earthly environment within which human habitats have been constructed over the last seven to nine thousand years set forth a specific set of climatic, topographic and geologic constraints that require thoughtful building solutions to meet fundamental human needs for thermal comfort, safety and belonging. These human environments are typically executed within a localized context of skill, knowledge, tradition and economy. Physical themes are developed and repeated within localized cultures, and a sense of place and time are expressed in the built environment through the repetition of those features that serve the unique needs of the community. Vernacular construction, executed over this time, independent of fossil fuel energy, consistently expresses a rooted-ness within and expression of the unique qualities of a particular place.

Topography and geography offer the material resources from which human environments are made. In the mountains timber and stone are readily available. In equatorial jungles the primary material resources are trees; in arctic regions, snow and ice.

Weather imposes specific demands on people. In a rainy climate, humans find and create refuges within which to stay dry. In the tropics humans build environments to stay cool. In the arctic humans build to preserve warmth. In all environments we build to promote a sense of safety and belonging.

Therefore, in alpine environments humans have tended to use stone and timber to built houses that preserve warmth within the building, and exclude winter climate from outside. In equatorial jungles we use timbers to build houses that promote shade and ventilation. An extensive catalog of each place and time could be assembled, to support this observation.

Human communities develop, share and refine building solutions over time, maintaining a tradition of successful building practices and offering them to succeeding generations. The vernacular building traditions transcend the individualistic and techno-centric means practiced today, toward the creation of more humane and meaningful human environments grounded in place.

It should be noted here that the vernacular precedent formed a vital reference whereby Sarasota School practitioners found their inspiration. While expressing an architecture that was contemporary and modern in spirit, it drew on traditions that span millennia. Furthermore, while green building certification systems tend to reward a neutral menu of technological strategies, the traditional low-tech vernacular passive approach is also recognized and rewarded.

Toward a Sarasota Vernacular

An appropriate next step may be to survey and evaluate a broad range of current practices, and catalog a viable set of appropriate passive strategies and localized building systems. From this preliminary work, we may deliberatively transform our local industry. Far from abandoning our existing infrastructure, knowledge and building systems currently in place, advantage should be made of infrastructural investments already built, and proactively plan for their continued use or obsolescence.

Several significant factors present themselves as meaningful vernacular influences in lower-intensity planning, design and construction: prioritization of local decentralized energy generation; prioritization of local material resources; climatically appropriate building forms; consent-based construction practices; and increased densities of inhabitation.

Decentralized, local energy resources would form the energetic foundations upon which a lower-intensity system would be built. Given that our sprawling human environment has come about as a result of plentiful fossil fuels, the resolution of this must come through a gradual unwinding of our investment in them. With the overall goal of decreasing the fossil fuel energy intensity of our built environment, a decrease in the reliance on transportation infrastructure must be considered as a primary criterion from the outset. While planning for a decrease in fossil-fuel derived transportation, a reasonable transportation boundary would need to be identified, within which a reduced list of building materials and systems would remain viable.

A variety of theoretical possibilities for decentralized energy generation present themselves. In Sarasota, sunshine and water are plentiful resources around which concentrated solar thermal electrical power could be developed. The same sunshine and water provide a foundation for biomass power generation– both through incineration as well as anaerobic methane production. Castor bean production as well as sugar cane production may also provide opportunities for manufacture of bio-diesel and ethanol. With thoughtful planning, these systems could be interconnected, creating a closed-loop system of by-product integration. In totality these systems cannot replace the quantity of energy provided and enjoyed by current levels of fossil fuel consumption. They may, however, provide a replacement for a portion of this resource while providing a more durable energetic substitute for human and animal power.

The material basis for a favorable portion of a localized construction system would be derived from our immediate environment. Our Karst limestone (calcium carbonate) geology would suggest the consideration of limestone masonry, lime plaster and “whitewash” finishes. The same calcium carbonate resource provides the primary material component for portland cement, the active ingredient in structural concrete. A localized mortar standard could be developed comprised of hydrated lime, portland cement, and our omnipresent sand. Masonry bricks as well as various types of plaster made from our local sand/ lime mix could also be explored. Gypsum deposits, common within our immediate area, provide gypsum plaster and drywall material components.

Southern pine and cypress provide more direct building material resources with obvious and traditional uses many people are familiar with. Various species of southern pine perform very well in structural applications, while cypress works well as an exterior building skin, as well as decorative and functional interior components such as trim and cabinetry. Many other tree species thrive here, native and exotic, from Indian rosewood to red maple to pecan, each of which may be explored to see which applications fit their particular characteristics. Native Cabbage Palm and Saw Palmetto, both of which produce cellulose fiber of notable tensile strength, may be discovered to serve the particular needs of a low-intensity approach to construction. Exotic invasive plants may additionally provide direct material resources for incorporation into construction, or may serve as renewable biomass for energy generation.

The existing inventory of steel, copper, aluminum and other metals that have been imported into our region could provide the basis for a localized economy of specialized systems production: wiring, cooling and heating coils, structural frames and fasteners, waterproofing and window and door systems. It may be possible that the accumulation of these metals within our region in the last fifty years may serve a material reclamation, re-use and recycling economy that can serve our region for the next two hundred years. The existing inventory of asphaltic shingles and other bituminous materials may also be re-purposed toward similar ends. An extraordinary opportunity presents itself in the breadth of material wealth that we retain but anachronistically perceive as waste and garbage.

The preceding paragraphs are not intended to be exhaustive, rather they point toward a conception of geologically determined advantages from which a significant portion of a localized vernacular could be derived. A contemporary vernacular system would prioritize locally manufactured goods without eschewing specialized and indispensable building systems from outside of the boundary area.

In Sarasota, the goal of lower-intensity building is to develop an architecture that mediates between the natural environment and the human body. The building should be designed to reduce environmental heat and promote the body’s natural ability to cool itself during the hottest times of the year. Therefore the active role of architecture appropriate to Sarasota is to provide shade and promote ventilation. Shade shelters the human body from direct exposure to solar heat gain from the sun. Ventilation facilitates bodily cooling in two ways. It promotes the removal of body heat through evaporative transpiration of bodily perspiration, and it directly removes body heat from the surface of the skin through convection. The architectural solution that supports this environmental-physiological dynamic would include properly-sized roof overhangs and porches to improve shading effectiveness, combined operable windows and insect screen assemblies to allow for ventilation, canopies and louvers over and beside window and door openings for additional shading of openings, and an elevated height to increase exposure to prevailing winds.

Colder winter months should be designed for, and this would include methods to close the building assembly to ventilation and promote controlled admission of sunlight into the structure. While the temperature difference between winter and summer months can be as much as sixty degrees fahrenheit, the primary determinants of the architectural character of buildings in Sarasota should properly center on the hottest months of the summer.

There exists here the need for regional- and community-based groups to come together to evaluate existing opportunities and direct future prospects. The shared work of positively envisioning and transforming our built environment should include a broad array of specialists and stakeholders engaged in a consent-based process. These stakeholders would of course include the contributions of architects, contractors and consumers, but also mine operators and material fabricators. Planners and systems engineers and vocational school educators would necessarily be included in the milieu. Envision the shared work of committed people within a structured system of dialogue, analysis, and decision-making– it may be possible that a deliberative procedure of analysis would yield a defined set of energy, material, manufacturing, design, and installation criteria around which a localized tradition could be built. Indeed, the best practices tested, adopted and refined through such a community-based process would form the cultural core of future vernacular building production.

To consider the development of a building industry informed and directed by a vernacular imperative, it must be asked how fully this can be realized. Vernacular building types tend to arise from decentralized, communal, or artisanal methods of production: houses, collections of houses, civic squares, and monuments. While local traditions may provide a catalog of solutions through which contemporary building can be influenced, these solutions cannot completely fulfill contemporary building needs. These needs include higher intensities of land use, diverse and technically specialized life safety systems, and institutional functions not present earlier in human history. Vernacular systems may not solve all contemporary and future needs for lower-intensity environments, however they can substantially influence the design synthesis of a great variety of building types.

With the interest of restoring a sense of place and belonging, of living within our energetic means, and building durable foundations from which future communities may endure this work should begin. May we look toward the day when we become more certain of our place in Sarasota.