Finding solutions for urban resilience on a farm in Vermont
14 Nov 2014
Source: The Guardian
By: Lloyd Alter
Resilient people: In the first of our new series on individuals helping to make cities more resilient, we meet Alex Wilson and his 200-year-old ‘passively resilient’ farmhouse
This series may be about building resilient cities, but it starts on a farm near Brattleboro, Vermont. That’s where Alex Wilson has renovated an old farmhouse into – as he calls it – a “passively resilient home”. Alex is a pioneer in the green building movement, starting the highly respected website BuildingGreen in 1992. BuildingGreen preaches largely to the converted – those in the sustainable building industry – but that’s a pretty small group, not nearly enough to make a difference. As flooding, ice storms and hurricanes start making people very anxious, the issue of resilience has to reach a much wider audience.
So, in 2012, Alex founded the Resilient Design Institute to broaden the reach of the sustainable building movement. “I want even climate change deniers to boost the energy performance of their homes. Doing so will keep their families safer during power outages and other disturbances, and it will benefit all of us,” Alex explains. “The motivation of safety, for many people, will be a stronger motivation than ‘doing the right thing’ or trying to mitigate climate change. But the benefit in reducing carbon emissions will be the same.”
Alex has started in his own backyard. He has been renovating a 200-year-old farmhouse to become a test-bed for what he calls “passive resilience”, wrapping it in fossil fuel-free foamed glass insulation underground and Portuguese cork above. It demonstrates that a house built to almost extreme standards of health, efficiency and resilience can look ... normal.
“What gets me excited about resilience is that it provides yet another motivation to create extremely well-insulated, green homes,” Alex says. He believes high levels of insulation help create a home that maintains habitable temperatures, even when the heating and cooling systems aren’t operational. “I have often referred to this as ‘passive survivability’. Insulation is boring, but it does the heavy lifting when it comes to making our homes resilient.”
It’s a different way of thinking about resilience. Some homeowners go out and buy diesel generator sets, which are only temporarily useful when the power goes out; insulation makes the home comfortable, saves money – and fights climate change.
Alex gets his water via gravity, from a pond built 100 feet up the hill; his electricity is sourced from a roof full of solar panels. This year he started farming, and hopes to source 75% of his family’s food requirements on the property. Coming soon is a chicken coop and maybe a few pigs. “Goats? A family cow? The fertility from those animals will help the gardens and minimise our need for purchased fertiliser,” Alex says. He is getting a cargo bike in case the gasoline supply is interrupted, so he can still make the six-mile journey into town for supplies.
At times this feels like early-70s hippy back-to-the-land self-reliance meets the American survivalist “Prepper” movement. Indeed, the things that Alex worries about – including changing climate, sea-level rise, flooding, drought, wildfire, earthquakes, solar flares, terrorism and cyberterrorism (he seems to have neglected asteroid strikes) – sound seriously Prepper. It makes you want to hunker in the bunker with a good supply of whisky.
So what can this approach teach residents of cities, where it’s tough to keep a pig at the best of times? Alex points out urban dwellers have some crucial advantages when it comes to resilience building.
“Strong, culturally diverse communities in which people know, respect and care for each other will fare better during times of stress or disturbance. Social aspects of resilience can be as important as physical responses. In a time of crisis, your neighbours are your first responders.”
In fact, there are many lessons to be learned from Alex’s farm that can be applied to our towns and cities: building durable, well-insulated buildings with simple, redundant systems out of easy-to-fix local, renewable materials in strong, caring communities makes sense just about anywhere. That, and get a bike.