Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Practical Visionaries Solving Today's Environmental Problems
By Steve Lerner

Chapter One: Pliny Fisk III: The Search for Low-Impact Building Materials and Techniques

There is a hint of the mad scientist about Pliny Fisk III. Take his teacup experiment. Had you first seen him on the day he discovered a substitute for concrete you might have dismissed him as a wacky chemistry professor. Picture Fisk, an animated fifty-one-year-old, with steel-rimmed glasses, a walrus mustache, and shoulder-length hair receding on top, stirring a couple of spoonfuls of water into a teacup filled with fly ash from a coal-fired power plant.

Back in his kitchen (or "earth lab" as he calls it) Fisk's teacup of ash soup set up nicely. "In twenty minutes the fly ash turned into something you couldn't break with your hands, so we took it seriously and made a proper mix and tested it," he recalls. The result was a substance so hard that it broke his compression tester. This experimental material later tested out at 6000 psi (pounds per square inch), about twice the strength of Portland cement. Eventually Fisk came up with a recipe for his alternative cement that he now makes out of 97 percent recycled-content materials: fly ash and bottom ash from aluminum smelters mixed with a dash of citric acid, borate, and (unfortunately, he adds) a chemical in the chlorine family for which he is seeking a substitute. Fisk promptly registered this new substance under the name AshCrete.

This is Fisk at both work and play on an eighteen-acre farm located on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. Co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (a.k.a. Max's Pot), Fisk enjoys searching out new ways to use industrial and agricultural wastes as construction materials.

If Fisk's home-brewed chemistry experiments sound somewhat informal, there is an underlying method to his madness that officials in this nation's capital are beginning to detect. On recent trips to Washington, Fisk has had a busy schedule describing his new findings at various offices within the bureaucracy. He is a member both of the Committee on the Greening of the White House and the American Institute of Architects' Committee on the Environment; and a frequent visitor at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

"He's given the whole [environmental] movement a more technical bent and a less touchy-feely direction," says James White, an EPA scientist.

A couple of years ago, Fisk passed out samples of AshCrete to officials at the DOE where he pointed out that using it as a substitute for concrete had a number of environmental advantages. First, it could reduce carbon dioxide emissions, one of the key greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, because the manufacture of concrete generates an estimated 9 percent of [CO.sub.2] emissions globally. Second, it could reduce the waste stream of fly ash that pours out of coal-fired power plants.

AshCrete is also safe to use as a building material once the silica in the fly ash is bound up in the cement, Fisk asserts. Studies reveal that while fly ash contains slight traces of heavy metals, they are in quantities too minute to produce negative health effects according to EPA standards; and besides, the small amounts of heavy metals are stabilized within the concrete. Workers who manufacture the AshCrete from the fly ash, however, must protect themselves from inhaling its fine silica dust, which can cause respiratory disease.

Fisk's interest in using industrial and agricultural wastes as building materials extends beyond fly ash. For various building projects he scrounges aggregate from a nearby aluminum smelter that produces 800 tons of the stuff a day. The aggregate, which Fisk mixes with his AshCrete, is of an excellent quality, is totally safe, and is very strong, he asserts, " but we are the only people using it." Normally, much of the aggregate used in concrete comes from riverbeds and riverbanks and is extracted in a fashion that does damage to the river ecosystem, he explains.

Scrounging aggregate and recycling coal-fired power plant fly ash are not activities one might expect of someone whose name has the plutocratic ring of Pliny Fisk III. The descendant of a financial tycoon who made and then lost a fortune on Wall Street, Fisk's grandfather owned one of the largest banking houses in the country and has his name inscribed over the door of one of the fanciest eating clubs at Princeton. According to Fisk, his grandfather used to tie his yacht up to the yacht of J. P. Morgan during the holidays to share the joys of a vacation. Alas, while his grandfather's name passed down to him, none of the money came with it, he notes.

Instead of following in his grandfather's footsteps, Fisk pursues a vision of a radical change in the way we build and relate to nature. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned master's degrees in architecture and in ecological land planning, Fisk drove around the country in the 1970s in a Chevy pickup truck, visiting some of the early experiments with solar houses in New Mexico.

Now comfortably ensconced in his home on the outskirts of Austin, Fisk was recently spotted in his fabricating shop inserting an auger into a pipe with the help of two sons and some visiting school friends. As he stands surrounded by a useful profusion of tools, drill presses, lathes, and racks of clamps of all sizes, it is not hard to see that he belongs to the nuts-and-bolts school of environmentally responsible architecture. As he invents new ways to use local and recycled building materials, Fisk is engineering some of the technological breakthroughs that will make practicable a more ecologically sustainable style of architecture.

Fisk's interests in alternative construction materials and sustainable design are being put to a test in a project known as the Advanced Green Builder Demonstration, a 2000-square foot, $250,000 structure that he is constructing behind the five buildings that constitute his home, office, and laboratory. The demonstration building is designed as a structure for a typical family or business and is built out of a variety of byproducts of industry and agriculture and locally available materials. Photovoltaic roof panels, low-flush composting toilets, and a natural wastewater treatment system that purifies water using gravel and plants will allow the building to be off the utility grid for water, sewer, and electrical hookups. "It's a chance to jump ten years ahead," Fisk observes.

The foundation and post-and-beam frame of the building are made out of recycled steel, AshCrete, and aggregate from an aluminum smelter. All of the posts and beams that support the building contain hollows through which the plumbing, electrical, and communications lines can run. This makes it easy to change the location of rooms in response to users' needs over time, Fisk explains.

As Fisk began fabricating the hollow posts and beams out of rebar (a metal made largely out of crushed cars), he realized that he had invented a gigantic erector set that could be useful in many building applications. He promptly applied for a patent and called the system GreenForms. These hollow posts and beams, made of 90 percent recycled steel, contain built-in anchor points along their length on all four faces and on their ends, making them simple to bolt together. The anchor points can also be used to attach a scaffolding while the building is being built, a trellis on the outside for shade plants, stairs, or even furnishings such as shelving, desks, or canopy beds.

The hollow post-and-beam system, which Fisk calls the structure's endo-skeleton, can be "wrapped" in a variety of materials. For example, when GreenForms are sheathed in a thin layer of wood they look like large wooden beams, but require only a small amount of wood in their construction. Or GreenForms can be wrapped in a cementitious material such as Ash Crete or colorful recycled plastics. Fisk is also experimenting with small amounts of precious woods as a kind of decorative inlay.

Posts and beams with multiple anchor points make it possible to install built-in furniture cheaply. A bench, shelving, a corner breakfast nook, a desk, or an "edu-tainment" center is easily installed between posts. GreenForms permit remodeling at minimal expense because walls built between posts and beams can be put up or torn down relatively easily. The house is also designed to grow or contract both vertically and horizontally. If the owner wants to add a couple of stories to the house, the hollow posts can be filled with concrete (or AshCrete) to provide additional strength; and insulation panels under the existing roof can be removed and reinstalled when the new roof is constructed.

Fisk registered another patent for a mobile kitchen system he calls Meals-on-Wheels. This innovative design for the kitchen permits the major appliances--such as the stove, sink, and serving cart--to be moved or docked for maximum efficiency. In Texas, outdoor barbecuing makes a lot of sense on hot days because it allows the homeowner to avoid heating up the house and placing an additional strain on the air-conditioning system. As a result, in Fisk's kitchen everything (including the stove and sink) can be wheeled out onto a prepared patio or breezeway, while the serving cart doubles as a mobile storage cabinet that contains racks that slide easily into the dishwasher.

Exasperated with wasteful architectural designs that call for two and a half bathrooms in a standard home, Fisk designed a single bathroom for the Green Builder Demonstration that is flexible enough to accommodate more than one person at a time, is easy to clean, and has rotating fixtures. In the center of the bathroom is a cylindrical column that the sink and shower revolve around. The whole room can be used as a shower (there is a drain in the floor) or the shower can be directed into a corner, permitting other family members to use the toilet or sink while finding some privacy behind heavy cloth screens--a configuration that may be ahead of its time in terms of being socially acceptable.

The exterior walls of the demonstration building are made out of a number of earthen materials with high insulation or mass value including adobe, rammed earth bricks that are made of sandy loam under pressure, stabilized earth that is made with a gluelike enzyme, and caliche (mixed with AshCrete to form CalCrete). These earthen walls are then sealed with a mixture of wax and and linseed oil. A number of types of straw materials (all of which come from oat and wheat fields within ten miles of the site) are also used as walls and covered in a mix of caliche and fly ash plaster. Straw and mohair from local sheep are mixed to form wall panels; chopped straw is mixed with water and poured into wooden frames; and straw bales are bound with wire and staked together with bamboo. Fisk employs a number of industrial by-products in the construction of the house. Wasted wood fiber from a factory that extracts cedar oil from juniper trees is mixed with liquified, post-consumer plastic to form a wood substitute called AERT that can be used for fencing, decking, and window frames. Styrofoam from StarrFoam Enterprises in Fort Worth, Texas, is also used to form insulation panels.

Inside, Fisk combines a variety of native materials found in the five different vegetative and mineral soil zones that converge on Austin. For example, in one room, caliche will be used on the walls and a mesquite tile on the floor. Another room, which borrows from the temperate grasslands of Texas, features straw-based materials combined with oak and pecan woods. There is even a section of the building constructed of unstabilized adobe that can be plowed back into the soil after its useful lifetime. In fact, the Green Builder Demonstration has become a showcase for alternative and innovative building materials with twenty-six companies donating materials to the project. The sheathing on the roof is constructed out of straw panels and a recycled paper panel known as Homosote, while the roof itself will be covered with either metal or a membrane made from recycled tires.

A system of roof gutters and 13,000-gallon cisterns captures water on site for the use of the occupants. A former student of Fisk's conducted a study which shows that half the homes in Texas could collect adequate supplies of water on-site if they took appropriate measures. Because of the relatively dry location, Fisk is unsure if he will be able to collect enough water to supply four people, but intends to collect as much as he can to reduce dependence on an overtaxed river system.

As for energy, Fisk is installing a 1-kilowatt system that will supply enough power for an average home in a developing nation but nowhere near the 7.4 kW per household per day of energy that Americans consume. To make his low-budget energy system work, he has built stringent energy conservation measures into every aspect of the design. The 1 kW of power will be harvested by solar panels, while a backup generator will provide any excess power needs.

But here again, Fisk ultimately wants the backup generator for the building to be a hybrid electric car instead of the kind of generator you might buy at Sears. The U.S. Postal Service donated seven electric cars, which the center plans to convert into hybrid electric cars that run on a constant rpm (revolutions per minute) engine. With this extremely efficient engine, the hybrid electric car battery can be charged by plugging it into the house, and drawing from the energy it captures through its solar collectors. Or the relationship can be reversed: if there is not enough solar energy in the building to run the pumps, lights, and other electric appliances, the car engine can be used as a backup generator. In this case the house would be plugged into the car.

Deliberate landscaping around the house is also an essential element in making this design work. Fisk plans to lay out the flowerbeds, lawn, shade trees, fruit and nut trees, and shade vines in such a way that they can treat and absorb the wastewater and sewage from the house. "With this system, when it's August and everywhere else the lawns are parched, you have a beautiful lawn, your flowers are going like the dickens, and you are not using one smidgen of city water because it is your own wastewater going out into the garden," Fisk explains. He will also cover the outside walls of the house and a latticework over the windows with leafy vines to help shade the inside from the sun and protect it from the weather.

All of Fisk's architectural designs are grounded in the local environment. They are designed to accommodate the site's ability to absorb waste, harvest energy and water and are built, where possible, out of native materials. One of a new breed of architects pioneering environmentally low-impact construction techniques, Fisk is an expert when it comes to building with straw and other earthen materials. He searches for high-clay soils that make good bricks, native trees that make good lumber, palm fronds that can be used to shade a roof, or bamboo that can replace rebar as reinforcement in cement foundations.

One of the central problems Fisk wrestles with is that our houses, factories, schools, and office buildings are made of materials and building systems that are unrelated to the environment in which they are built. As a result, building materials are often transported from distant locations, harvested in an ecologically destructive fashion, and put together in such a manner that they require much more energy to heat, cool, and light than is necessary. Furthermore, many buildings are built with little design flexibility, making it impossible to adapt them to changing needs. "We construct buildings and, on average, twenty-eight years later we slam them down with a wrecking ball," he observes. To remedy this, Fisk is looking for a way of building with recycled materials, reducing energy consumption in buildings, and designing them so they are flexible enough to he adapted to new uses or demolished at minimal environmental costs. 'At the end of the building's life you can unscrew the rebars and take them elsewhere, and plow the rest of the structure into the soil," Fisk adds.

Designing structures that place minimum demands on the environment requires that Fisk identify what local building materials and methods are available (or need to be developed) and learn techniques that allow people to use them effectively. Far from viewing indigenous construction techniques as primitive, he regards some of them as environmentally sophisticated. Fisk's center has tested a variety of substances for their suitability as building materials, including straw and clay, rammed earth, pozzuolana, caliche, stabilized earth, sand and lime, sulfur, gypsum, adobe, laterite, and alumina clay. If used on an appropriate scale, he argues, these earthen materials can be extracted without causing significant environmental damage, and they can be purchased cheaply since they are widely available.

Fisk regularly finds resources where others would never dream to look. For example, in Texas the clear night sky can be used as a heat sink if a structure's roof area is designed to be equal to the floor area, he says. Cooling the house is accomplished by trickling water over a metal roof at night and turning it off in the morning. This technique, coupled with the use of a vine-covered trellis to shade the walls of the house, breeze-directing windows, and second-floor outdoor sleeping porches can substitute for air conditioning, he continues.

Another material Fisk uses effectively in Texas is mesquite, a tree whose roots penetrate 50 to 60 feet into the soil of arid sites unsuited to most crops. Mesquite is viewed as a useless wood (other than as a source of charcoal) because it does not grow straight enough to use for lumber. Because mesquite uses up scarce water supplies in grazing areas, in the past some Texan ranchers tried to eradicate it with Agent Orange, Fisk reports. But after researching how mesquite is used as a construction material by people who live in an environment similar to his own, Fisk found that inhabitants of the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas cut mesquite into wooden tiles for parquet floors. He successfully copied this practice and improved on it by using mesquite sawdust as raw material for insulating block and blown insulation.

Sulfur is also on Fisk's mind as a building block. "Did you know that sulfur is the fourteenth most available element on earth and we haven't been taking advantage of its useful properties as a building material?" he asks. Blessed with a fertile imagination, Fisk envisions entire communities built out of sulfur, a thermoplastic material that can be shaped or repaired by heating it up or returned to the soil after its usefulness is over. Sulfur can be fireproofed by mixing it with its geologic neighbor gypsum, he adds.

While many of these building techniques are borrowed from others, Fisk has effectively assembled them into a regional "tool kit" that promotes a more ecologically sustainable type of construction than standard practices permit.

Fisk is an ardent advocate of mapping resources that can be used as building materials. One of those widely available in some 60 percent of Texas is known as caliche, a crusted calcium carbonate which forms on certain soils in dry regions. According to United Nations statistics it can be found on 13 to 14 percent of the earth's surface. This material appealed to Fisk because by mixing a small amount of cement with caliche he was able to reduce his use of Portland cement by two thirds.

Fisk used caliche extensively in a school for neglected and abused children he designed in Texas. Since the material was locally available it was possible to engage the children in making the bricks for their school. Not only did the children learn how to make building materials, they also learned why it was ecologically important to use local materials. When some visitors from California indicated that they wanted to buy some of these handsome caliche bricks, a twelve-year-old resident of the facility explained to them that the bricks were not for sale and that they should look for the ingredients for building materials in their own backyard instead of shipping them all the way from Texas.

But how does one determine what indigenous building materials are available locally? Often knowledge about where they are or how to use them has been lost as they have been replaced with modern construction methods and materials. As a result, learning how to use indigenous construction materials often requires painstaking research.

Fortunately, a network of groups around the world is piecing together a biogeographic map of indigenous construction materials. The primary tool for creating this map involves dividing the world into fourteen distinct biomes or geographic areas whose climate, rainfall, soil, hydrology, vegetation, animal life, and a number of other factors are roughly similar. By looking at what construction techniques are used in biomes similar to his own, Fisk learned of technologies he could adopt. "The architecture that comes out of this kind of analysis takes into account the metabolism of the local environment," he observes.

Fisk gradually accumulated an extensive database about the environment in which he planned to build. He discovered, for example, that the region of Texas near Austin where he lives is part of the temperate grasslands biome where unused straw and clay is found in abundance. By looking at construction practices in other temperate grasslands, he learned an ancient technique that involves mixing a watery solution of clay into straw. He dribbled the clay batter onto the straw using a large ladle-like implement and stirred the straw with a pitchfork until it was coated with a thin layer of clay. Then he left the mixture overnight until the straw attained a noodle-like flexibility. The next day he tamped the straw-clay mixture into a wall mold and left it to cure.

Everything seemed to be going well until a few weeks later when, after the mold had been removed, he noticed that his experimental wall had sprouted and was growing like a bush. With a client coming to decide whether or not to build a straw-clay house, Fisk decided to prune the wall with a pair of shears. After examining the wall the client agreed to go along with the project, but Fisk was left with a dilemma: what would he say when his client's walls began to sprout?

Fortunately, a Dutch specialist in earthen building techniques saw Fisk's experimental wall and advised him that letting the wall sprout was an integral part of building with this particular straw method. The sprouts extract moisture from the wall and their root structure knits the wall together, he explained. When the sprouts shrivel up and die it signals that the wall is cured and ready to be plastered. The stems of the sprouts can then be bent over and used to form a rough lathe to anchor the plaster to the wall. "I felt like a real jerk for having pruned the wall," Fisk says, but at least he learned how to build a straw-clay wall that will last for hundreds of years.

"In the temperate grassland, where we live, straw and various other grasses have a turnover rate of two or three crops a year," Fisk says. By using abundant local materials like straw, he avoids using scarce wood products that must be transported from distant areas. By the time lumber arrives in Austin, the embodied energy costs in the wood are boosted by one third because of the energy expended in transporting it, Fisk calculates. As a result he uses wood sparingly.

In his investigation of earthen building materials Fisk experimented with various types of slump block machines such as the Mold Master and the Mud Cutter; rammed earth machines such as the one produced by Winget Works in England in the 1950s, the Hallomeca machine from France, and a U.S. hydraulic product fabricated by the M&M Metal Company; and cement block machines. While people in the construction industry, accustomed to pouring tons of concrete a day out of huge trucks might sneer at these techniques as archaic and slow, Fisk sees them as capable of reducing environmental damage and generating labor-intensive jobs in the local economy.

In addition to getting his hands into the soil making earthen building blocks, Fisk also is doing research for the government on how to determine which building materials are the most appropriate to use in different regions. To this end, the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems signed a $250,000 cooperative agreement with the EPA to devise an information system that will provide agency officials with data on which they can base policy about how to guide the construction industry into environmentally sustainable practices.

Fisk believes that builders should try to meet their needs for energy, water, materials, and waste absorption capacity locally before placing these demands on more distant areas. For example, architects should attempt to treat graywater and sewage in a manner in keeping with the plants that grow in a region, which are in turn determined by the climate and soils. If graywater and sewage treatment cannot be accomplished on-site, then planners may be forced to treat the waste on a slightly larger scale that encompasses a cluster of houses; or, in some instances, a neighborhood waste treatment facility might be logical.

A similar scenario holds true for building materials. If there are not enough wood fiber or appropriate soils on-site to build a structure, then architects must look farther afield to see what materials are available in the region. However, without considering the larger picture, mistakes can easily be made. Take the practice of building with adobe bricks. While adobe bricks sound environmentally benign, in fact building with them is not always without environmental costs. The soil that produces adobe block is sandy loam found in excellent agricultural lands. As a result, building with adobe in some parts of New Mexico, for example; removes prime agricultural lands in a desert area where sandy loam soils are precious. Deciding what is the most ecologically sound material to build with in a particular area can involve complex calculations, Fisk points out.

While he is increasingly involved in research projects such as the one for the EPA, Fisk keeps his hand in as an architect who designs buildings that incorporate environmentally sustainable features. Building in an environmentally friendly fashion requires more than finding locally available building materials; it also involves evolving a design that fits in with nature rather than fighting it, Fisk asserts.

In his masterplan of a facility for the Tejas Council of Camp Fire, an organization that provides environmental education for Camp Fire girls in Waco, Texas, Fisk designed a new kind of campus. "Kids from Dallas and other cities don't know where anything comes from, where it is going, or how they fit into the scheme of things," he observes. So his design integrates the operation of the facility into the surrounding ecosystems to teach the children how to relate more harmoniously to the environment.

For example, in designing the dining hall, Fisk started by asking how many children will eat how many meals. He then calculated how much of the food could be grown locally to minimize the necessity for transporting it from distant sources. Plans were made for the processing facilities that will be needed to wash and store the food as it comes in from the fields or surrounding farms as well as a system for composting the kitchen wastes.

His blueprints show a flow of resources through the facility that is considerably more complex than the standard architectural master plan. The architectural drawings are filled with arrows showing how resources move through the facility to the point where it is sometimes hard to distinguish where buildings begin and end. This underscores the point that the design of a building does not stop at the exterior walls, Fisk observes. Trees planted to shade a house are an integral part of the design, as are the leach fields, the water-catchment opportunities outside the house, and the energy-harvesting possibilities on the land.

On the 400-acre Camp Fire facility, the roofs of buildings and other impervious surfaces take on a new significance in Fisk's design because they permit the on-site collection of water. Fisk will use the impermeable surface of the parking lot to collect water that can be used for flushing toilets or for other nonpotable services. Once water is collected on these surfaces it will be piped to the central plaza of the campus where it will be pumped up into a water tower disguised as a clock tower. A bubbling fountain will not only be an attractive focal point in the plaza, it will also provide an opportunity to purify the water using an ozonating system supplied with electricity by photovoltaics.

Fisk intends to use various icons and color codes to help visitors understand how resources cycle through the campus. For example, the tiles covering the water line from the parking lot will be color coded blue so that students will be able to understand how the campus water system works. The blue tiles will also be removable so that the water line can be easily serviced.

Furthermore, the young people who come to the camp will be invited to join in a kind of green manufacturing process where they help provide needed services and reconfigure the materials that move through the facility. This goes one step beyond recycling. Instead of simply separating waste and sending it off for reprocessing, residents will be asked to work with the materials that come through the facility to create something useful. In a central market these products and services will be exchanged for "Sustain-a-bills," which will replace dollars as the local currency.

In Laredo, Texas, Fisk designed, engineered, and oversaw the construction of the Blueprint Farm/Rio Grande International Study Center, which borrows from Israeli techniques for dry-land farming. Located between an arid desert and temperate grassland on the Rio Grande, the farm complex includes five buildings which house offices, classrooms, workshops, and storage areas. Each of these structures features a distinctive set of cooling towers, the design of which is borrowed from Persia. The cooling towers, covered with metal rooftops, work in pairs that permit both a downdraft and an updraft. Working as a passive solar air conditioner, the updraft tower (painted black) expels hot air, while the downdraft tower (painted white) sucks cooler air into the building.

Low-energy materials used in the construction of these buildings include straw bales, pozzuolana, caliche, iron ore, mesquite, stucco made from fly ash, and recycled oil well drilling stems. Tensile steel cable structures provide continuous shade to reduce open space temperatures for certain crops and the insectary for breeding beneficial insects. The project won the 1991 Environmental Protection Distinguished Appropriate Technology Award from the National Center on Appropriate Technology.

Wherever Fisk travels he teaches people how to identify local resources that can be obtained cheaply and transformed with relatively low-tech equipment into useful building materials. In 1985 he did this for the Miskito Indians who live on the Caribbean coast of northeast Nicaragua and southwest Honduras. As a first step he did a biome search of tropical savannas to gather ideas from other cultures on how to build with indigenous materials. During an eighteen-week visit to the Miskito tribal lands he conducted an inventory of locally available resources, among which he found high-alumina clay kaolinite, which can be used for fired clay and cement production. He also identified deposits of limestone and seashell as sources of masonry and cement; rice husks used in cement manufacture; coconut palm and bamboo, which could be used as a fibrous reinforcing material; pinewood for lumber; and abundant rainfall for on-site water catchment.

Fisk brought with him a minimal amount of laboratory equipment that permitted him to test the composition of these raw materials to see if they would stand up as building materials. He also built a prototype sawdust panel press, a mold to make fibercrete corrugated roofing, and a slipform to pour septic tank cisterns. Unfortunately, the political situation became so chaotic that no village was ever built using these techniques, but they were incorporated into the manufacture of some houses, he says. When Fisk's life was threatened he left promptly.

Closer to home, Fisk was called to Crystal City, a largely Mexican-American community in southern Texas where the utility company had shut off the gas after the community failed to pay its bills. Health problems associated with lack of hot water for cooking and cleaning began to arise. Asked what he could do to help, Fisk started building solar water heaters out of locally available materials. This involved collecting thousands of fluorescent tubes and emptying them with a vacuum cleaner. He then tied the fluorescent tubes around the circumferences of old solar water heaters using pieces of garden hose to cushion them. He also scrounged printing plates to use as reflectors. When installed on the roof the sun would hit the empty florescent tubes and be directed right into the water heater rather than bouncing off. Fisk was able to produce these solar water heaters for $18 apiece and the community affectionately nicknamed them "las bombas." He also designed mesquite-burning stoves for the town, some 800 of which were eventually installed. Finally he helped put together a solar collector factory that sold solar collectors to five surrounding towns.

Fisk's work with local and recycled building materials won him a contract helping to rewrite the architectural and engineering guidelines for the state of Texas. This gave him an opportunity to insert language into the guidelines that calls for publicly funded projects to be built using both energy conservation measures and a variety of materials containing recycled content.

"What we discovered was that it was extremely important for people to understand where materials come from and where they end up so that consumers can be responsible for their effect on the environment," Fisk says. To this end, he helped create a system that rates building materials according to their environmental costs. The rating system calculates the environmental costs of manufacturing or harvesting a building material, whether a material is safe to use, how long it will last, whether it is useful, whether someone really needs it, and whether there is a place to get rid of it once its usefulness is over.

Over time the rating system evolved into Austin's Green Builder Program, which certifies green homes on a scale of one to four stars with more stars indicating that more green features are built into the home. "Initially people thought this method was somewhat far-fetched," Fisk reports. But the Green Builder Program was honored by the United Nations at the Earth Summit as one of the twelve exemplary local government initiatives around the world.

Some local builders find that building in an environmentally sensible fashion and getting their houses certified through the Green Builder Program is a great marketing tool and, to date, some 250 houses have been built using the rating system. The city of Austin now applies the rating system to city buildings and has developed a rating system for commercial structures that will soon go into effect. What surprises Fisk is that some of the more radical implications of the rating system, such as building with earthen materials, have caught on. "I can send you to five builders whose main livelihood is straw bale buildings; I didn't think we would see that for the next ten years."

To provide a resource for builders and designers, Fisk's wife, Gail Vittori, co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems and former head of Austin's Solid Waste Advisory Commission, assembled a 500-entry database and library complete with samples that architects and engineers can refer to when looking for recycled materials and energy conservation techniques. The center is currently offering a number of seminars in Texas aimed at stimulating the use of environmentally sustainable practices in the construction and retrofitting of state buildings. The seminars familiarize designers and contractors with a range of environmental practices involving the use of passive solar and natural daylighting design, landscaping design that serves to cool the house and treat graywater, building techniques that improve indoor air quality, innovative solid waste processing systems, and alternative and recycled building materials.

"I used to think that all you needed was a good idea and everyone would just start to do it," Fisk says, but he has since learned that shifting building practices to a new paradigm requires a series of incremental steps to bring them into common practice.

Copyright 1997 Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The MIT Press

Back to the top

Navigation image map
Home page Site Index Search Help! Home page Site Index Search Help!