Monday, July 27, 2015

NIMBY NATION


“NOTHING LIKE PEOPLE POWER TO STOP A CELL TOWER,” crowed a recent editorial in my local paper, referring to a very upscale neighborhood whose residents had managed to block a cell phone company’s plans to build a cell phone mast. “The people,” it continued, “have won big...rallying to keep the cell tower (designed to look like a tree) from “taking root” in their neighborhood.”

Yeah, they won big, and I’m sure they all got on their cell phones to tell each other the good news.
Disguised cell tower:
"Not in my back yard," they cried,
as they reached for their iPhones.

Now, I’d be the last person to stand up for any big corporation, let alone a communications behemoth like the one involved here. But there was more than a whiff of hypocrisy in this NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) crowd, each of whom were happy to jabber on their cell phones all day long, but who preferred to banish those frightful-looking cell phone towers to some blue-collar neighborhood where they belonged.

Nor is this kind of me-first thinking always aimed at big, bad corporations—it’s just as often neighbor against neighbor. Following the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991, which destroyed over three thousand upscale homes, the rebuilding process became mired in countless squabbles regarding, of all things, views. Homeowners who had rebuilt first immediately assumed possession of the spectacular, wide-open vistas created by the fire’s giant swath of destruction, and many were infuriated to find that that later homes rebuilt by their neighbors would impinge on them.

The winning competition for the National
Aids Memorial Grove: Sure, we asked for it,
but on second thought...
An even stranger example of NIMBYism is a more recent flap over a proposed redesign of the National Aids Memorial Grove, a small tract of land that had been set aside within San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1996. In 2003, the Memorial’s board of directors, apparently without being fully committed or perhaps even fully aware of what it was doing, issued a call for entries for a new, expanded Memorial design befitting the site’s national status. Hundreds of designers the world over responded, and a winning scheme was duly selected with great fanfare. 

Yet after having set in motion this vast effort by many dedicated people, a majority of the Memorial’s board of directors ultimately voted to kill the project, saying in so many words that any kind of change to the current Memorial would damage a place that carried highly personal meanings for them. This is the first time I can recall a group crying NIMBY against their own project.
The Design Review Process:
Want to build something on your own property?
No problem. You just have to get permission
from us, and pretty much everyone else.

Despite the foregoing examples of me-firstism, I don’t think people themselves have grown more selfish. Rather, we have cultivated a civic framework that now actively encourages obstructionism and and the placement of individual gain ahead of the wider public good. 

For example, all but the tiniest building projects are now subject to endless rounds of meetings and public scrutiny, heavily weighting outcomes in favor of simply maintaining the status quo. Hence, anyone proposing change is routinely placed on the defensive by groups seeking to preserve their own personal fiefdoms.

When it comes to change, our expectations too often seem rooted in the lovely yet questionable concept of “win-win”: the idea that an outcome can be expected to satisfy everyone. Well, we can talk about win-win, but it doesn’t happen without some giving in.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

ZERO PERCENT EFFICIENT

About half of our pure, sparkling,
drinkable water ends up
being poured on the ground
We Americans have many good traits, but our astonishing proclivity to waste is not among them. The strange thing is, I don’t think that a single one of us intentionally sets out to be wasteful--it’s just that we don’t seem to give it much thought. Which, alas, still amounts to the same thing.

We weren’t always a wasteful culture. For our Yankee forebears, conserving resources wasn’t just a moral imperative--it was something you did to stay alive. Even our more recent predecessors, chastened by the Great Depression, well knew the value of conservation. But the unmatched prosperity that followed World War II changed us as a people. It convinced us that, with our new wealth, we could have anything we wanted in limitless abundance.

About a sixth of our
water ends up
being flushed down the toilet
Ironically, the fact that Americans now have such unfettered access to the world’s resources is probably the very thing that makes us fail to value them anymore. Take something as simple as water: We open a tap, and by gosh, it just flows out, sparkling clean and pure enough to drink. We don’t need to think about the effort and expense that are required to make that magic happen, so we take it for granted. And in the average household, even though every drop of water is pure enough to drink, we pour nearly half of it onto the dirt in our yards, and flush another one-sixth of it down our toilets. (See the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories’ illuminating breakdown of average domestic water use at  <oikos.com/esb/42/wateruse.html>).  

You know how much energy it takes
to heat a kettle—
now imagine how much it takes to
heat a whole shower's worth of water.
We’re profligate with hot water for the same reasons. But consider how much time and energy it takes to heat a pot full of cold water on the stove, and by extension, you’ll realize how much energy is literally going down the drain during the average long, hot shower. 

We’re a culture that loves technical solutions to gnarly problems, and we like to think that science is going to come riding to our rescue, magically making the problem of diminishing resources go away so we can preserve our lifestyles just as they are. Improved technology does hold one of the keys to conservation, but unless we acquire more respect for our resources as well, technology alone won’t save us. An example: The very best new hot water heaters are up to 97 percent efficient, thanks to a whole slew of technical improvements. But how are they marketed to the American consumer? Their manufacturers entice us--quite successfully--by promising “unlimited hot water for unlimited hot showers”, negating the whole purpose of higher efficiency.  
We can learn to conserve,
or we can end up here.

The same irony holds for other efficient new technologies. Science can do its part, but the fact remains: a high-efficiency light bulb that’s burning needlessly, or a super-efficient furnace that’s heating an empty house, are exactly zero percent efficient.

A hundred-odd years ago, when you had to work a freezing pump handle and chop a pile of cordwood in order to warm a little bath water, you wouldn’t dare waste a drop. There’s no less effort involved today--it’s just that we no longer see who and what does the work for us. We’d waste a lot less if we did.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A DASH OF WABI-SABI


We Americans routinely beat ourselves up in the pursuit of what we consider to be perfection. In my line of work, for example, it’s nothing for a homeowner to turn apoplectic over a tiny scratch in a newly-installed floor, or to insist that a contractor replace a ceramic tile whose color varies ever so slightly from its mates. In today’s litigious atmosphere, this righteous demand for a very Western ideal of perfection can have even top-flight contractors quaking in fear of their clients—hardly the basis for an ideal working relationship.

A Japanese pottery bowl:
The beauty of imperfection.
(Courtesy of fatrabbitsdelight.com)
Our friends in Japan, on the other hand, have an entirely different aesthetic viewpoint. They acknowledge that imperfection is a quality inseparable from any human effort, and what’s more, they believe that imperfection has aesthetic worth in itself. So central is this idea to the Japanese sense of beauty that it has a name: wabi-sabi. 

Wabi-sabi is a concept roughly analogous to the West’s ideal of perfection, which we inherited from ancient Greece. Western architects, for example, have accepted the Greek architectural orders as the proportional ideal for centuries. Yet the Greek brand of perfection requires an object to have a complete absence of flaws--to be, as Plato put it,  “apt, suitable, without deviations.” 

Wabi-sabi, on the other hand, explicitly accepts and even celebrates such “deviations” as an inherent qaulity of any human undertaking--a belief beautifully expressed by author Richard R. Powell in his book Wabi Sabi Simple

Chartres Cathedral: Are the
mismatched towers a mistake,
or a western version of wabi-sabi?
“Wabi-Sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” 

The term wabi-sabi can variously be interpreted as “wisdom in rustic simplicity”—a common Japanese definition--or, more generally, as “flawed beauty.” The word wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, but in more recent centuries has come to mean rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness. Sabi is the beauty or serenity that comes with age—once again, an implicit recognition of imperfection. The Western term patina is perhaps the nearest analog, though its meaning is quite literally more superficial. 

It’s important to note that wabi-sabi doesn’t discourage the pursuit of perfection, but simply acknowledges that true perfection is unattainable no matter how fervently we pursue it. The fortunate flip side of this truth is the belief that time, usage, and the anomalies of human effort--the very forces that obviate perfection--actually add new dimensions of beauty to objects rather than diminishing them.

Rampant imperfection, or a
reflection of our own imperfect humanity? 
Given all the anxiety I’ve seen clients expend on pursuing perfection in their own remodeling projects, they’d do well to experience at least a dash of the exhilarating freedom the wabi-sabi viewpoint can provide. Is it really worth losing sleep over that tiny scratch in the hardwood floor? It will, after all, very quickly be joined by dozens and finally hundreds more. Does this make the floor any less beautiful? To my mind, not to speak of the Japanese mind, it does just the opposite: By evincing the traces of those who’ve crossed it over the years and eventually the decades, it becomes a testament, not to inhuman perfection, but rather to imperfect humanity.

Monday, July 6, 2015

CAN DO?


“Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t,” said Henry Ford, “you’re usually right.”

In a world ever more reliant on so-called "experts", more people might take this gentle exhortation to heart. In Ford’s time, Yankee ingenuity--the ability to make a go of things in even the toughest circumstances--was a point of pride among Americans. But it’s a rapidly vanishing American trait. 

Oh, no—a dripping faucet. I'll have to call
an expert!
Granted, things have changed since Ford’s time. We’re no longer so easily pigeonholed by occupation--the butcher, the baker, the Model T maker. And perhaps because our own jobs are becoming ever more specialized and esoteric, many of us have come to believe we’re incapable of doing even relatively simple domestic repairs without the help of some kind of expert. This is especially ironic in view of the fact that, thanks to the Internet, it’s never been easier to get the information that can help us help ourselves. 

In these technologically complex times, you’d think we’d take comfort from the fact that, while we may not be able to repair our own computer, at least we can still be self-sufficient in simple things--replacing a door hinge, repairing a fence, or changing a furnace filter. But the opposite seems to be true. 

Oh, no, how on earth do I get rid of this stuff?
I'll have to call an expert!
Take that perennial domestic bane, the leaky faucet. Today, many people’s first reaction to that drip, drip, dripping is not to spend a few minutes online sussing out what the problem might be, but rather to reach for the phone book and call a plumber. Never mind that the parts for a do-it-yourself faucet repair might run you a couple of dollars, versus the hundred or so a plumber would charge. 

While everyone deserves to make living, it’s just as well to reserve an expert for problems that actually require some professional knowledge. And it’s not just dripping faucets and other modest do-it-yourself repair tasks that American have come to shun. Even simpler jobs are now being handed over to so-called experts. 

Some folks are too busy
 to learn how to fix a faucet
or get rid of some garbage,
 yet still have the time to
waste their energy
on this thing.
An acquaintance of mine recently hired a company billing itself as a “junk removal specialist”—a niche business that could only prosper in material-mad America. The project that required their expertise was disassembling a child’s jungle gym and hauling it away. This same acquaintance, mind you, also pays for membership in a pricey health club, where instead of using his energy to accomplish something useful--like taking down that jungle gym--he instead pays for the privelege of squandering it on a treadmill. Nowaday, it seems, we even need experts to tell us how to waste our effort.

I’m not sure just what is sapping our store of Yankee ingenuity. Maybe it’s the usual fear of having to learn something new. More likely, though, it’s just the laziness that grows from being used to paying one’s way out of problems. If so, America's shrinking middle class incomes should be a great incentive to relearn the grand old Yankee trait of self sufficiency. There’s nothing to lose by trying—in fact, there’s not even much to lose by failing. To follow another Henry Ford quote:

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

Monday, June 29, 2015

DAN LUDWIG'S JOURNEY Part Three of Three Parts


In the last two columns, I recounted the true story of Daniel Ludwig, a German Rumanian immigrant who came to America essentially penniless in 1955, yet was able to buy a home, build himself a woodworking shop, and establish a thriving cabinetmaking business within six years of his arrival here. 

Then, by way of example, we magically transported Dan into the present to see how his immigrant story might fare in today’s America. One immediate difference: Today, the likelihood of Dan ever affording a house was virtually nil. But even supposing he’d been able to buy some property, today’s tangle of zoning, building, aesthetic, and environmental regulations would likely have foiled any attempt to set up his own woodworking shop, much less make a success of it. Hence, the classic American immigrant story of 1955 becomes the classic dead end road of 2015.

What has gone wrong in America? 

One problem is that, rather than encouraging working class people like Dan Ludwig to succeed through their own initiative, local government now does its very best to impede them. Virtually every city hall is a hornet’s nest of regulations attempting to micromanage every aspect of what private property owners can and cannot do with their own land. While large, well-connected applicants such as developers can afford to negotiate the intricacies of zoning, building, aesthetic, noise, and environmental regulations, people of lesser means often cannot. 

Dan Ludwig relaxing at home
 in his twilight years.
If we’re serious about cultivating today’s Dan Ludwigs—the small-scale entrepreneurs who are, after all, the backbone of our economy—city governments need to clear at least a narrow path through the regulatory minefield they’ve created. One simple way to do this is to make all regulations strictly quantifiable: As long as an applicant meets clearly prescribed, quantifiable standards--whether regarding building size, noise, green material content, or what have you—they would be assured of approval. 

There’s nothing new about this idea. Building codes have consisted of quantifiable regulations for over a century: comply with them, and you’re good to go. Regulations for zoning, noise abatement, environmental protection, and practically any other area worth enforcing can be framed in the same way.

However, this standard would quickly weed out the sort of capricious building and design regulations whose uncertain outcomes only further increase a private applicant’s risk.  It would, for example, immediately and deservedly obliterate all civic design review regulations, those utterly subjective, so-called aesthetic “guidelines” that have nevertheless come to be enforced with the power of law. Quantifiable regulations would also do away with the circus of planning commission meetings, in which any neighbor with a grudge or too much free time can torpedo months or years of careful and conscientious planning on an applicant’s part. 

We still think of America as the land where anything is possible, but in truth, many things are a lot less possible than they used to be. If Dan Ludwig were still around—and I wish he were, since he was my uncle, as well as my inspiration for becoming an architect—I’m sure he would wonder why our government bedevils the very people it needs the most.

Monday, June 22, 2015

"DAN LUDWIG'S JOURNEY" Will Continue Next Week

Howdy folks--

I'm on a sudden unplanned trip, and will post Part Three of "Dan Ludwig's Journey" next Monday, June 29th. Please do stay tuned.

Monday, June 15, 2015

DAN LUDWIG'S JOURNEY Part Two of Three Parts


Last time I told the story of Dan Ludwig, a cabinetmaker who came to America in 1955, built himself a big yellow workshop in his back yard, and went on with the business of making a living. But times have changed, though, and not for the better. Here’s how things might go for Dan if he’d been an immigrant in the year 2015 instead of in 1955. 

A typical zoning map (this one is for
Barnesville, Georgia—a town of 6,755 people).
Sorry, Dan, you're not zoned Commercial.
Dan is at the counter of his local planning department, applying for a permit to build his workshop. The exchange goes like this: 

BUILDING OFFICIAL: (staring into a computer screen): Hmm, your property isn’t zoned for commercial or light industrial usage--you’ll need to get a variance (the official grabs a thick sheaf of forms and hands it to a bewildered Dan). Here’s the application. They don’t grant many of these variances, but of course you’re welcome to try.

You’ll need to contact all your neighbors within a 300 foot radius so they’ll have an opportunity to comment on your proposal. You’ll also need to give the Design Review Board complete drawings of the workshop, so we recommend that you hire an architect if you can’t do it yourself. You’ll also need to submit photos of the twenty houses closest to yours so we can verify that your workshop’s design is in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. 

An application for design review
(Hilton Head,  South Carolina, in this case)
The design review process can take
weeks or months, and typically
has to be completed before you can
 even apply for a building permit.
We’ll need a color board showing the proposed finishes for the workshop, including the roof color, the trim color, and the color and material of the windows. By the way, just a friendly suggestion regarding the color choices--the design review board likes colors that are tasteful and harmonious. You know--beiges, tans, whites. What’s that, Dan? Yellow? No, I don’t think they’ll go for yellow. You’ll probably want to tone it down a little. Talk to your architect. He’ll know exactly what the Design Review Board likes to see.

Now, this workshop you’re proposing is ten feet tall and it’s near the neighbor’s property line, so you’ll have to provide a shadow study demonstrating that its height won’t adversely impact your neighbor’s natural light. Also, will those woodworking machines be noisy? They will? Well, here’s a copy of our noise ordinance. Basically, the louder the noise, the less time you’re allowed to produce it. What’s that? Your table saw will be running a lot of the time? Well, you’ll probably need to do extensive soundproofing. You may want to hire an acoustical engineer to prove that your shop’s noise won’t be a nuisance to the neighborhood, or the staff is likely to deny your variance.

Flow chart offered by one municipality
(Winnipeg, Manitoba) showing the
process to be followed in applying
for a building permit.  This just proves
that Canadians are no smarter
than Americans.
When you have your submittal package together, Dan, you can get on the Planning Commission’s agenda. They meet once a month. If you don’t get an approval the first time—and you probably shouldn’t plan on that—we’ll carry your application over to the next month, and so on. Remember, any of your neighbors can object to your building a workshop, so you should probably do some lobbying. What’s that? Your English isn’t so good? Well, you can always hire a consultant to present your project for you. Okay, now  here’s a schedule of the submittal fees....

And so it goes. Most likely, our present-day Dan Ludwig will go home and forget about building his shop. One less middle-class entrepreneur on the roster.

Next time: Why it’s so tough to get anything built these days, and a simple regulatory change that could help break the logjam.