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The Thirty Year Cicada

September 28, 2011

In 1977, Jimmy Carter created a program of tax credits for the installation of energy conscious innovations for every American home. This was in response to OPEC’s dramatic limitation of oil availability and subsequent price spiking and rationing that freaked out the American consumer more than in any other time since WWII rationing.

The extreme focus on the cost of gasoline and heating oil when combined with the devastating buzz kill for nuclear power caused by Three Mile Island created a focus on the future of energy consumption in America which was unprecedented.

As usual, architects reflected in their work what the society and culture were experiencing. Donald Watson, a professor at Yale wrote several books about using active solar architectural design to create energy efficient buildings, specifically in homes. Malcolm Wells wrote books about burying your home underground to create a home of infinite insulation. David Sellers created exotic, active solar fantasies in Vermont.

All across the United States, companies instantaneously sprang up to take advantage of the sun’s rays to heat the water in our hot water heaters and supplement the heating of our homes. Things like Trombe walls were being installed as well as phase change salts that would absorb heat in the daytime and radiate it at night. “Thermal fly wheels” were built involving large-scale trap rock heat sinks to both absorb heat for later use and provide an assist for summer cooling.

Greenhouse sales sky-rocketed and concurrently, thermal blanket/curtain/shade sales also spiked. In fact, President Carter himself probably goosed the sales of cardigan sweaters as he advocated turning the thermostat down.

America snapped to attention because of an economic reality and a governmental response. Architecture followed in a brief frenzied attempt to take the lead of a situation that was really independent of aesthetics.

But several things happened to snuff the light out of that brief aesthetic engine.

First, Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election and ended the program that Carter had started. OPEC decided that it was better to have a relationship with the West ensuring a better cash flow and opened up their production for sales in the United States.

And lastly, much of the technology that engineers and architects quickly cobbled together simply failed.

Those hot water heaters on the roof, froze, leaked, fogged up and created rot in the buildings to which they were attached and became testaments to technology’s failure and cultural indifference. Some buildings baked, some generated toxic mold, window panes fogged, miracle heating and cooling equipment broke and ultimately became unfixable.

But the truth is, that although the Solar Design Movement did die, the “consciousness raising” it imposed on all responsible architects (myself included) stayed with us. Solar technologies to heat homes in temperate climates really did work, and shade and wind and light could be manipulated to create coolness and heat in the right order.

But more than that, the real net impact of the Solar Design Movement was to prepare the field for a ripe harvest 30 years later. The Green/Sustainability movement owes its extreme level of recent public consciousness to the kernel of truth embedded in the minds of most consumers during that 1970’s gas crises.

That new offspring turns out to be steroid enhanced – a huge engine of hype and religious zealotry involving many things that have nothing to do with energy but everything to do with creating a powerful NGO: the LEED Movement. The parent organization for LEED status, the US Green Building Council is attempting to impose standards that would make every new or renovated building somewhat more expensive with a dubious payback. Their proposed approvals process would require more and more buildings to infuse their standards into all building codes throughout the United States.

Several projects I’m working on right now have instantly become more expensive with virtually no positive impact by the government mandated insinuation of green “consultants” who churn paper to review designs to sanction their credibility without any real net impact on the design or the specifications that were properly written to begin with.

So we have the birth of a new infestation that has spawned from a seed planted 30 years ago. The long gestation period has birthed a pervasive and, ultimately, dangerous power-grabbing machine. The soul of the 1970’s Solar Design Movement had the desire to minimize every aspect of our footprint on earth is not only legitimate, it is essential for the best stewardship of the resources that humanity has been given on the Earth. But the means and methods of controlling outcomes via laws reduces the potential to change the hearts and minds of consumers. The essential truth that importing fossil fuels from halfway around the world is on its face absurd and making buildings that sentence their occupants to never-ending maintenance issues is obviously crazy – and preventable.

Taking these realities and leveraging them to create a religion of ethical and political judgment will ultimately make the good intentions of the Green Movement similar to those of the Temperance Movement of the 1920’s. Government enforced moral judgments guarantees the failure of social engineering.

Forcing people to do the right thing usually leads to a desire of people to test limits and beat the system. Educating people that doing the right thing is in their own best interest ultimately leads to more people actually doing the right thing.

No one I know uses seatbelts because the law requires it, or has stopped smoking because of any legal implications.

Human beings are smart enough to understand that doing the right thing is its own reward and shouldn’t be done under the threat of penalties.

The 30 year cicada born of the Solar Design Movement is overreaching beyond its parent’s potent message and ironically may consign us ultimately to another generation of denial.

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