Sustainability Outside of Here

by | October 22, 2015 2 Sustainability

Working here at SERA, sustainability is a word that gets used a lot. We talk about it for our projects. We discuss in the products we specify. We use it in our personal lives outside the office. It is so ingrained with the current culture of architecture and design, especially here in Portland, that I sometimes forget that “sustainability” is not an unconscious motivator for everyone. I don’t really question if bike commuting is better than driving a car to work everyday, or if buying locally produced food is more resourceful, it’s obvious. But what if you don’t live in Portland, don’t work as an architect, interior designer or urban planner, and don’t work at SERA? How does sustainability worm its way into everyone else’s daily life?

Like many Portlanders, I am not a native. I grew up in rural southern Michigan with my older brother Troy and our parents. Our house was pretty remote; we had an antenna atop the roof and an underground well because cable TV and city water were unavailable. And these were pre-­internet days; our source of information was the local daily paper and the 6:30 nightly news with Tom Brokaw. I don’t recall much news about sustainable issues; the only memorable story about anything environmental involved some weirdo hippies in a state called Oregon tying themselves to trees to save them. I remember thinking then how crazy that sounded; risking your life to save trees?

Many uses for milk jugs

If not for the farm behind our property, we would be surrounded by forests. It was that farm and our well water that made me think about how we practiced sustainability without knowing it.

The neighbor’s farm was strictly an animal farm, with chickens, cows, sheep, horses and even goats. The goats were kept in a fenced area that abutted our property. The metal wire of the fence wasn’t very taut and had big openings that allowed my brother and I to play with the goats. They were eager to press their snouts to the fence to snap at whatever we held in our hands. It was always fun to see what plants they would eat, as we would grab whatever weed was nearby to shove through the big holes to watch them gobble it up. But their favorite thing was food scraps.

Today you might call it composting; we called it dumping the garbage.

Living so remotely, we ate at home most every night. After dinner we would scrape our plates clean and empty the bones, fat and whatever wasn’t eaten or saved for leftovers into a two gallon milk jug, which we kept in our garage. Each night, my brother or I would take that old milk jug with its top cut off, stuffed with food scraps, and walk to the corner of the backyard to empty it. The goats would see us coming, get all excited by running and whinnying loudly, and rush to the corner. They’d jockey for position as they fought to stick their skinny necks through the fence to get at the chicken bones and carrot tops and bread crusts we had left.

My brother Troy and I feeding the goats.

My brother Troy and I feeding the goats, circa 1980.

Over the years, a small pile grew from the few things the goats couldn’t or wouldn’t consume. The odor was rarely offensive and plants and weeds seemed to thrive around the area. Today you might call it composting; we called it dumping the garbage.

In addition to our rural landfill reduction, we also practiced water conservation, albeit in pretty unconventional way.

The climate of southern Michigan is very different from Portland, despite a similar latitude. Our area suffered through hot summers and cold winters. But more specifically, our summers were very humid, and our winters were very dry. To combat this, we had a dehumidifier in the basement that ran constantly through the summer, removing moisture from the damp air. And all the winter the opposite was true: our humidifier upstairs never turned off, always pushing moisture back into the air.

It was this constant cycle of water extraction and insertion that lead to a simple conclusion; why not just use the same water we remove all summer to moisten the air in the winter? By the time I was old enough to remember, it was just one of the chores. In the summer when the dehumidifier beeped, it meant it was full. So into the basement Troy or I would go to empty it.

In an unconditioned room under the front porch that also stored the sump pump and our root vegetables, our dad built a series of shelves to hold 60 to 80 two gallon plastic milk jugs. We’d empty the water from the dehumidifier into as many jugs as needed and place them back on the shelf. And when winter came around, we’d reverse the cycle. You’d hear the humidifier shut off when the water level got too low, so off my brother or I would go again into the basement, hauling up several jugs to fill the air with moisture again.

Getting to duh

It was old plastic jugs that got me thinking further; were we trying to be sustainable in the way that we think of being sustainable now? I don’t remember my mom or dad talking to us about the greenhouse effect. I don’t remember talking about overfilled landfills and methane build­up. I don’t really remember anything about trying to save the planet.

So if being a good steward of the earth wasn’t our motivation, what was it? Our pseudo composting and weird water recycling weren’t our only sustainable measures. We also saved all our old newspapers, paper scraps and metal cans to take to the recycling place rather than throwing it all in the trash.

There wasn’t really some philosophical reason for what we did. It was really just more about being practical and frugal; it seemed silly to pay for something that we could do easily do ourselves.

Troy and I enjoying our neighbor's goats, circa 1980.

Troy and I enjoying our neighbor’s goats, circa 1980.

It’s in that framework that makes me think about how sustainability is presented to people who don’t live in Portland, who don’t practice architecture, who don’t have tattoos of planet earth or chickens in open pastures on their arms. It’s not that we are the only ones who care. It’s just that we have made it such a priority that it has moved from something to consciously think about to something that is simply, duh.

So how do we make sustainability something that is duh for everyone? Is it through incentive measures? Possibly. Do we need to make more restrictions on products, or enforce environmental laws more? That would probably help, but would not really get people thinking and acting sustainably. Maybe people just need the opportunity and tools, like something as simple as our ubiquitous two gallon milk jug, which lets them see how their unsustainable behavior could be improved. And if they find that it this new method meets their own self interests, then a pathway to overall sustainable living is likely to follow.

Top image: My dad and I, circa 1980.


  1. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Thanks, Kyle! I love the photos. I also like the idea of reframing the discussion from “doing this is more sustainable” to “doing this will save time/money/effort.” Most of us Midwesterners will all buy into that before being told to “think of the earth!”

  2. What a thoughtful essay, Kyle. Thanks for sharing!

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