Greening the Present and the Future

Amazingly, with all that ills the world today and the repeated missteps of the Bush administration leaving a wake of messes to clean up everywhere, President Obama says getting greener is a priority for our country. That hum you're hearing might be the c

There are so many ways to cut back on our energy consumption it can be dizzying.

When President Obama was sworn into office Jan. 20, I looked at the man standing (high above, on a specially built platform) on the Capitol steps with the burden of the world on his shoulders. Amazingly, with all that ills the world today and the repeated missteps of the Bush administration leaving a wake of messes to clean up everywhere, Obama says getting greener is a priority for our country.

That hum you’re hearing might be the collective sigh of green-conscious people everywhere coupled with the big one let out by Mother Earth herself.

For my birthday last January I asked for fluorescent bulbs to replace every single bulb — from tiny ones to dimmable ones — in my apartment. I saw my electric bill dip about 20 percent.

Greening up locally requires a visit to Park and  Vine, the general store for the green conscious consumer, fittingly located at Central Parkway and Vine Street in Over-the-Rhine. That’s where I’ve found a metal reusable water bottle I fill with tap water chilled in my refrigerator to remove the chlorine taste, power strips that cut power to my computer and stereo components when not in use and turn back on automatically when I need them and cat litter made from corn that, unlike the typically clay stuff, actually breaks down in a landfill.

I ride the bus whenever I can. If others did, too, it actually might make a difference.

What else could I do? How can our local economy be stimulated by green energy? Ken Cunningham and John Spencer, partners living in Over-the-Rhine, co-own KCAI Inc., a boutique architecture firm that has some serious ideas about what can be done.

Greater Cincinnati’s air quality is notoriously bad — some of the worst in the country. To combat this, Spencer and Cunningham have looked to the past for ideas and found them in nearby buildings.

Home architecture made a dramatic shift in the 1950s and ’60s, Spencer says, because of advances in technology. No need to have high ceilings and big windows to circulate hot air in the summer when an air conditioner can provide the same effect, for example. The same holds true for natural light and growing vines up the outside of walls to help insulate buildings, both of which lost favor as technology took over.

Spencer points to the thick adobe walls of buildings in hotter climates. Their mass held back the heat during the day, but heat passed through the material at night when it was cooler outside.

He also mentioned something I noticed during a visit to Germany: green walls. Growing vegetation on the outside of the walls creates a cooling effect inside. Germans apparently figured this out long ago, and the tradition never really died there.

Cunningham and Spencer believe traditional ideas can be translated locally to help us. Transpiration of water in plants on green walls reduces the wall’s temperature. Green walls retain up to 90 percent of the water that falls on them and lets it out slowly, which reduces storm water run-off, a major problem in areas like ours that have combined sewer systems. That water can be re-used to water plants, fill pools, landscape features and the like in drier times.

Green walls (and their close cousin, green roofs) reduce the “heat island effect” that makes cities hotter thanks to all the heat-retaining asphalt, concrete and structures built here. They can become cash crops when edible things are grown, like grapes for wine or hops for beer.

History tells us that our demands for greener energy come when energy prices rise. With them low lately, Obama’s call might fall on more deaf ears than just a few months ago. But now is the time to institute changes.

Change will create jobs, helping to turn the tide on this dastardly economy. It will make our air cleaner so we can all breathe easier. It will make our country safer, allowing us to focus on other important issues happening around the globe.

The ingenuity of people like Spencer and Cunningham, I’m sure, is just the beginning. This is an exciting time, dizzying as it might seem.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: [email protected]

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