I was spending a month in Oregon (in an off-grid community of mud huts and organic food) when the fires began raging in Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties. Driving home to the Bay Area, I put on my N95-rated dust mask in Fairfield (60 miles from Santa Rosa). Following my first reactions about my friends who live there, my thoughts were of the smoke’s contents. Mass-produced building materials, fiberglass, refrigerators, halogenated flame retardants, plastic, roofing. My next thought was, who is putting together the meeting about rebuilding?
For Bruce King, “The fires were still smoldering when the phones started ringing, all of us asking each other 'What can we do to help?'”
He and his wife Sarah Weller King threw a small dinner party and got planning. They put together a dedicated committee of about ten people, including the likes of Ann Edminster and Oren Wool, along with scores of others pitching in. What emerged was a day-long event four months later at the Veteran's Building in Santa Rosa.
Rebuild Green Expo gathered city planners, designers, home performance contractors, building department officials, natural builders, architects, and a chef. The intention was to share freely of their knowledge, with people affected by the fires.
Back in November, I got wind of the event, contacted Bruce King, schmoozed my way onto the guest list with a press pass, feeling proud. But the joke was on me; it turns out the event was free.
The event was free. People affected by the fires were invited to come spend the day in educational sessions with experts in sustainable building, chat with experienced architects, ask questions of code officials, and even show their house plans to consultants in an hour-long session, for free.
Not just saving hundreds in consulting fees, but learning to ask questions they didn't know they had. Many people I spoke to had no dreams of one day building their own home, but were suddenly thrown into it. They didn't want to build their own house, they had to.
The event had all the trapping of a trade show. Food trucks perched out front ready to serve up sinful, though free-range BBQ and nourishing, fresh organic delights. There was a pre-fab house to tour, and a few electric cars on display. There were five simultaneous educational sessions running throughout the day, for example:
The exhibition hall was packed with row on row of tables displaying resources, inspiration, information; and hosted by experts with knowledge, experience, and passion.
A chef was stationed inside the hall, demonstrating an induction cooker, enticing the most vegetarian of us with the smell of bacon. He engaged the snobbiest gas-only cooks among us the safety features of an all-electric kitchen.
It didn't feel like your typical Trade Show. There was something different going on.
Here was a true cross-roads, of the uninitiated, the reluctant owner-builder speaking eye-to-eye with the seasoned professional in a welcoming environment, instead of across a bureaucrat's desk or a building department counter.
My hero in self-publishing Lloyd Kahn was there, of Shelter Books fame, but if you lived in Coffey Park and worked for Hewlett Packard, say, you maybe didn't know Lloyd existed, and published the dreamy books on hippy architecture in the 70s (and is still doing so). Here was a chance to say hello, to ask of this aging skateboarder, “What would you have done differently? I think I'd like a chicken coop. What is a living roof?”
Comply with Us!
The first table as you entered the exhibitors’ hall was a cacophony of visual information, but a single banner stood out: COMPLY WITH US. I stopped at the booth to moan at the pun. The booth offered education and navigation in code compliance. I asked them what the most common question they heard today was. Their answer: “Where do I start?”
If you were just embarking on your dream to build a home, these would be enticing times, but sadly, wading through insurance claims, mourning your losses, and navigating the complexity of codes compliance in addition to detailing your living needs in a geometric shape, may not be your favorite activity. Ted Tiffany, in The Case for Building Green writes:
For homeowners who have never built a home in their life and are now thrown into a process that most never attempt, information overload is a huge problem. Many of us in the green building movement have taken a lifetime to build knowledge and abilities to bring it to bear in this moment, for those that lost their homes. Green and healthy isn’t just for the well-to-do or the perfectly insured, it’s a human right we need to bring to the rest of the community, well beyond this rebuild effort that will occupy us for the next few years.”
—Ted M. Tiffany
As in trade shows and conferences, it’s the conversation between presentations that can be the most meaningful. My favorite offering of this event was called the Hacker Session, in which a presenter sat at a table and participants could spend an hour of time with them. Offering up these one-on-one conversations with seasoned pros whose hourly rate is upwards and beyond $300, was an enormous help, and I believe new owner-builders learned to ask question they didn't even know they had.
“There is a lot of green building expertise around here, and it was nice to make important ideas more accessible, like efficient framing and heating systems, microgrids and walkable neighborhoods, and the many compelling reasons to go to all-electric homes and neighborhoods.
But the real value, as it turned out, was simply talking to people, and giving the notion of rebuilding a human face, making it a bit less daunting. I guess we delivered a lot of technical information, but the best part was just connecting with neighbors, where the value flows in both directions. Human beings are at our best when we’re giving, and I’m very grateful for the chance to pitch in.”
Bruce King is the Editor of the new book, The New Carbon Architecture (New Society, 2017)
More events are coming. Stay tuned, for example: Coming Home: Redwood Fire Rebuilding Expo March 24, Ukiah, CA
—Leslie Jackson is Associate Editor at Home Energy magazine.