Home & Garden Columns

About the House: The Integral Urban House Book

By Matt Cantor
Friday October 19, 2007

Well, it’s happened! I’ve started a garden. Put up those slam-dancing shoes, shelved all the accouterments of an angry youth; frayed journal full of bad poetry (so bad), conga drums and King Crimson albums (in vinyl, yet!). I’m growing lettuce! 

Worse, I’m planning a chicken coop. This is not a joke. Punk rockers and American Otaku (geeks like me) everywhere will mourn. But fear not. I’m in the midst of a special sort of mid-life crisis. The resurgence of a youth mis-spent in eco-hippie-architecture school. Like a suppressed memory, all the things of my architecture wanna-be youngsterhood are coming back and it’s all Sim Van der Ryn’s fault. 

In 1969, Sim, now a professor of many years at U.C. Berkeley founded (along with urban gardeners Bill and Helga Olkowski among others) the Farallones Institute. Within a few years this long-haired band of eco-warriors had acquired a victorian in West Berkeley (5th Street near Jones if memory serves) and began a series of experiments in sustainable urban living. The toilet, a Clivus Multrum, was my favorite of the many living experiments.  

Sim had published a book on toilets (The Toilet Papers: Recycling Waste and Conserving Water Ecological Design Press) and their ecological problem in the 1970s and the ultimate emotional challenge to our conception of shelter was to toss the toilet back out of the house (it only made it inside about 60 years earlier). The Clivus was a composting toilet built largely of concrete block that would, over a course of months, turn human waste into useable compost, although they felt it best to use it in non-edible gardening. I have little doubt that the city inspectors were apoplectic over the installation of the Clivus. 

The house also featured bee keeping, chicken farming and a rabbit hutch. Food waste was used to feed animals and eventually, animals became food. This was much more than architecture. It was a revision in how we looked at city living. The idea that we could live rarefied existences, divorced of the impact of our actions, of the sources of our food, water and energy were tossed out. Social responsibility was brought home to roost, as it were. Of course, if you were Amish, this was no big deal. They and many like them had been doing this for a long time.  

Nonetheless, the ‘50s had taught Americans that we could consume as hungrily as we pleased and never look to see where the sewer dumped out. 

As one might imagine the house also featured intensive recycling, remodeling using scrap materials and water, heated with solar panels. Cooking was sometimes done with a solar oven and fish were grown in a small pond in the backyard, assisted by the wind through the use of a Savonius Rotor, a home-made wind turbine constructed from 55 gallon drums. I’ll stop but I think you get the point.  

A book was born alongside the house called, not surprisingly, the Integral Urban House (Sierra Club Books 1979). The book is currently out of print but enough calls to the publisher and I’m sure we can get it brought back. What’s particularly intriguing about this book is that it’s not just a study of ecological living, rather, it is a how-to, replete with diagrams on how to terminate a bunny, keep bees and build your own solar water heating panels. 

During these giddy years, Sim was elevated to the post of California State Architect by our then, Hippie-in-Chief, Governor Jerry Brown (‘75-‘83). 

Brown, a Jesuit seminarian at 20, dropped out, tuned in and turned onto politics, following in his father’s footsteps (“Pat” Brown) as the bleary ‘60s became the bold ‘70s.  

When Jerry became governor in ‘74 (succeeding Reagan, thank Lord Shiva), he brought with him a dedication to the environment and an fervor for democracy beyond anything this state had probably ever seen. Gov. Brown created an office of appropriate technology (yes, this is the past, not the future) and appointed James (“J”) Baldwin to run it.  

Baldwin was a student of Buckminster Fuller and an industrial designer who had made a name for himself in environmental design employing the new “alterative” energies of sun and wind. Baldwin also worked for Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue. Brand was plucked by Brown to function as special adviser in his administration, further psychedelisizing his already severely “Moon-beamed” gubernatorial oeuvre.  

As creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue and later the CoEvolution Quarterly, Brand sought to make information accessible to the masses at a time when “internet” was as yet unuttered by anyone. In fact, Brand was a founding member of the well (a very early electronic bulletin board), the first two letters of which mean … Whole Earth (the last two mean ‘Lectronic Link). Pretty cool, eh. 

These years were ones in which environmental standards, energy standards and handicapped standards for building took tremendous strides… but this is all 30 years ago. 

Though we continue to make progress on the backs of these important innovators, I’m concerned that consumerism and complacency have replaced zeal and moral drive. If we can set construction aside for a moment, let’s take a look at cars.  

I’m sure many of you have noticed that the excitement around improved gas mileage in the 1970’s has fallen fairly flat on it’s face. Every Hummer I see reminds me that Americans once again care more about the look-good than they do about the planet. 

Even the best of our leaders are forced to talk about “energy independence” or “energy security” as a way of inducing reforms, since it’s just too “moon-beam” (that’s what right-wingers called Jerry during his governorship) to say that we need to reduce our oil consumption for the longevity of the ecosphere. I guess that’s too sissy. 

Similarly, the Altamont Wind Farm, started under Brown, sat almost lifeless for most of the Deukmejian and Wilson administrations. Only now, are they once again being upgraded to larger, safer and more effective units, while Germany (6 percent wind power) and Holland (18.5 percent) kick our Eco-butts. How’s that for “energy security?”  

I tend to think that these countries are: a) very interested in the future of their people and b) invested in living on a planet with a similar ecosystem in 100 years. I’m pretty sure that these are not major objectives in the U.S. halls of power.  

But, as usual, I digress. Sim Van der Ryn and his earnest colleagues have moved on to other places now doing other things and sadly, the Integral Urban House is now… just a house. The experiment could not sustain itself and I guess we all had to take the blue pill and go back to making believe that everything would continue to be fine no matter how we lived, who we killed or how much oil we burned. (For those who’ve never seen The Matrix, the protagonist is offered the chance to wake up to the truth by taking a red pill or go back into his waking sleep by taking a blue one). 

Used copies of the IUH book can still be found (ISBN 0871562138) and it’s just about as exciting and challenging to our way of life today as it was 28 years ago. Copies are available at several of those nasty online places (I just checked) and, if you search, you might just find a local bookseller that’s got one as well. 

Our lettuce is coming up nicely and it’s surprising how touching and beautiful it is to pick some leaves from the garden, go upstairs and share a meal. The coop is still in design phase but it’ll come, as will the chickens. I’m not sure how I feel about bees but I like honey so I’ll have to think about it. This is adult stuff. Like G.W. says, it’s “hard work” and it takes time to bring myself to it.  

I’m lazy, scared and doubtful but I am certain that small acts do matter. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to find something to drink. These red pills are pretty nasty if you don’t have something to wash them down with. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.