Mother Earth Living

Design for Life: Got Context?

Discover the best green building materials for your site, climate, neighborhood and budget.
By Carol Venolia
September/October 2005


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People often ask, "What are the best materials for building a green home?" The only responsible answer is, "It depends." It depends on your site, your climate, your neighborhood, your budget, what's available nearby, who you are, and what your family is like. In short, it depends on your context.

Merriam Webster’s defines context as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs,” offering “environment” as a synonym. It is ironic, then, how often “environmen­tally friendly” homes ignore context.

I’ve been in the eco-design business long enough to have seen many fads come and go. Well-meaning people jump on the latest model and go with it, regardless of context. A few decades ago, earth- sheltered homes were the hippest thing. In the right context—a fairly dry climate with well-drained soil—there’s a lot to be said for digging your home partway into the ground. But lots of people dug in and pulled the earth over them, paying no attention to their water table, soil type, or rainfall. The result? Houses that leak from the bottom up and need perennial repairs.

Risky business

“Context is king in ecological design,” says ecological living systems designer Art Ludwig (OasisDesign.net). Ludwig has seen many systems fail because their designers ignored context: topography, climate, soil type, nearby bodies of water, rain runoff patterns, height of water table, homeowners’ lifestyles, and appropriateness to the neighborhood, for starters. “Ecological design is so context-sensitive that one piece of new information about a critical variable can change the direction of the design completely,” he says. “There are no universal solutions. There are approaches and patterns that can be applied to generate the optimum solution in a variety of contexts.”

“Half of my work is about solving problems that people created by making changes to their homes without paying attention to context,” Los Angeles-area environmental consultant Mary Cordaro says. For example, people often convert basements into living space. Because subterranean rooms tend to feel cool, the homeowner’s first instinct is to put sheetrock on the walls and paint it, add carpet to the floor, and bring in warm, fuzzy textiles. Unfortunately. most basements have some amount of moisture migrating in through the walls and floor.

“Using materials that don’t breathe well or are great food for mold (like the paper on drywall) is asking for trouble below ground level,” Cordaro observes. “What you really want in a basement is for all the surfaces to be highly vapor permeable; you don’t want any cellulose products (wood, bamboo), impermeable paints, or textiles that you can’t take out and clean. Otherwise, you’re creating ideal conditions for mold growth.” Cordaro recommends “breathable” materials such as natural plaster and ceramic tile. Warmth can come from natural fiber area rugs.

Natural inspiration

“Context involves recognizing the matrix of life around us and making connections to it,” says Californ­ia builder Seth Melchert. “When we do this, the building becomes a vessel for spirit, and it comes alive in ways that both nurture us and magnify our connection to all things.”

Melchert transformed a cramped basement room into a wonderful office by making it reflect his region. “On the walls, we painted murals of the mountains that ring the Bay Area,” he says. “Now, instead of just being a small room, it conveys a sense of connection with—and expansion into—the world around me. I also decorated a corner of the room with the trunk of a tree that had recently died; I planted that tree in my parent’s yard as a boy, and now it stands as a symbol of my part in the family and the cycles of life.”

Interior designer Deborah Coburn from San Rafael, California, also finds inspiration in homes’ natural surroundings. “Color is a significant aspect of place,” Coburn says. A region’s soils, rocks, and plants can give rise to harmonious palettes. She points out that the colors used in Southwestern homes are often the local earth’s hues: soft clay colors, reddish browns, pinks, and ochres. “When buildings aren’t integra­ted with their context,” Coburn notes, “it’s amazing how awkward they look.”

You can't fool chi

Consultant Richard Feather Ander­son finds that valuable feng shui principles become pointless when applied out of context. “As any unfamiliar body of knowledge becomes popularized, there’s a tendency to lose sight of context in the rush to make the practices more accessible,” he says. “So people get the idea that feng shui is about hanging wind chimes, placing mirrors, and painting the front door red to improve your life.”

Anderson tells of a client who had recently painted her front door bright red. As he spent time with her, he sensed that red was not her favorite color, didn’t express her personality, and wasn’t a good match for the blue-green gutter above the door. When he asked her why she painted it, she replied, “My first feng shui consultant told me I should.”

“The ultimate reason to paint a front door red is to make your entry visible to helpful people,” Anderson explains. “But if a red door clashes with the rest of your house, it creates disharmony.”

People are context, too

Social context is another factor that can enrich our lives. “We’re naturally social, congenial beings,” says Lynne Elizabeth, director of New Village Press. “Making space for neighborly socializing is primary.” If you have a front yard, Elizabeth suggests looking for ways to make it welcoming: a vegetable garden gives neighbors an excuse to visit while you work; a generous front porch or bench welcome visitors to refresh themselves.

You don’t have to make physical alterations to change your social context. You can hold regular block parties. Elizabeth’s cohousing community sponsors a regular craft get-together, where neighbors share their handiwork and knowledge. It’s also fun to organize neighborhood work days for planting, pruning, or small construction projects.

On a personal level, context is everything around you and your home. Noticing your surroundings is a powerful way to heal the schisms of contemporary life. You are already in context; just pay attention to what’s around you.


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