Hero Award 2018

Thank you ILIF for bestowing me with such an honor!  Being given the Hero Award was not at all expected and I am both humbled and grateful for the recognition.

 Amanda Sturgeon, Anjanette Green, Jason McLennan

Amanda Sturgeon, Anjanette Green, Jason McLennan

Working with the ILFI for the last several years on projects ranging from the first Living Buildings in China, the first Declare labels in Asia, and being the first Ambassador in both China and Peru has afforded me some of the best experiences of my career.

 Big Bang Dinner 2018

Big Bang Dinner 2018

Now as an Assessor for the newly-launched Living Product Challenge, I am invigorated and excited to be ushering in some of the world's first Living Products.  

There are many people who deserve this award and I am under no illusions that I earned this all on my own.  Dozens of people supported and trusted me in these efforts towards brilliant, regenerative designs and one doesn't accomplish the rigors of the LBC, LPC or Declare certification alone.  These programs cannot be realized without a strong foundation of enthusiastic and supportive people. 

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So to those who helped me get to where I am today, thank you so much, I share this award proudly with all of you!

Read more here

https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6398011247090073600

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Mission Impossible: Build The BEST Composting Toilet Ever

How does one construct a composting toilet in the jungle?  With a heavy dose of tenacity, a killer design and two badass chicks who aren’t afraid to take both construction and power tools into their own hands.  Now, one might think that the humidity, the brick-heavy, clay-like soil, burning sun and incessant flies and other biting bugs would be the biggest challenges to face in a tropical rainforest composting construction project.  Oh, if only it were so simple.  In actual fact, the real challenge, for almost every brave soul who decides to build a composting toilet, is indubitably going to be breaking the negative stereotype that accompanies composting systems.  And, true to form, trumping all other difficulties, being able to cut through the “bad rep” that these systems have unfairly acquired, was by far the biggest hurdle in my effort to build a composting toilet for the small camp at LPAC.  In an attempt to help alleviate the over-taxed septic system that was on the point of collapse, I realized that the mission wasn’t so much to construct a feat of engineering in the jungle, but rather to create a composting toilet so beautiful and chic as to dispel all negativity; in fact, to transcend all expectations and allay any fears in order to quiet the naysayers’ annoying refrains of; “it’ll be gross!”, “it’ll stink!”, “those things are so messy!”; the all too familiar, negative go-to complaints from those who have never seen, or used, a properly-constructed, properly-maintained, composting toilet. 

But, back to the jungle for a moment – let’s talk logistics. LPAC is situated deeply in the Peruvian Amazon, a jungle setting so remote that it takes 2-hours by 4-wheeler, crawling over gouged dirt roads to get to the small port town of Lucerna where you load onto a shallow wooden boat not much wider than a standard canoe and moor through the brown water of the Las Piedras River to arrive at ta handmade wooden staircase, suspended down a steep embankment.  The primitive staircase is reach by straddling the river, one foot on the bow of the boat, the other on the stair.  Small prayers pass through your head as you balance your 20-pound pack on your back and make the jump to terra firma.  Next is the assent up 30 wood plank treads to another dirt path riddled with muddy reservoirs deep enough to suck the shoe straight off your foot should you be so unwise as to wear anything other than the tall rubber boots sold by the peddlers in the market all the way back in Puerto Maldonado.

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And on top of carrying your own personal effects, you are now part of a human “fireman chain”, hauling up dozens of supplies.  Boxes of vegetables, crates of cooking oil, sacks stuffed full of bed sheets and mosquito nets, flats of toilet paper, soap and massive propane tanks to fuel the camp for merely a couple of weeks.  Basically, if you want a supply or material object and you can’t hoist it up these stairs via foot, via boat, via four-wheeler, via the streets of Puerto, it ain’t coming to the jungle.  Building and construction here takes on a whole new level of difficulty, material scarcity and logistical issues of unprecedented proportions.  Given said description I won’t detail how we managed to get enough wood, corrugated aluminum siding, (calamina), three 40-gallan polypropylene containers, pipes, fasteners, mesh and tubing into LPAC for “the best composting toilet ever” project, but suffice it to say, it took grit and sheer luck to get it all there*. 

 This is how you get supplies in to the jungle

This is how you get supplies in to the jungle

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*as an aside, we did in fact lose our 3-meter long exhaust pipe somewhere on the road to Lucerna never to be seen again, but likely ended up in the hands of one of the various logging truck drivers whose flatbed trucks can be seen hauling out gigantic, hardwood trees from this region of the Amazon; one tragically-hewn segment at a time.

Fast forward to the construction site and you can imagine the hurdles that had to be overcome -  the unforgiving climate, oppressive humidity, heat and bugs to name but a few.  And to that point, I want to take a moment to talk about the flies...

The Amazonian blackflies are a special kind of pest.  It’s astounding how irritating these miniscule things are in the general sense, but imagine for a moment, attempting to make a precise cut on a piece of wood, or trying to hold still long enough to read a measurement on your scale, or gluing together tiny parts of your architectural model - both hands ostensibly paralyzed in their task and unable to swat away -  the dozens of blackflies that land on your ankles, neck, face, ears, eyes, even your eyelashes – anything you were so unfortunate as to have left exposed.  It’s enough to drive you to utter madness.  And the fun doesn’t stop there.  The welts and pocks that would appear on your body one, two, three days later as signs of their tiny feasts on your flesh, would accumulate to form constellations of angry red sores all over your skin; made so much more visible against a Western’s lily-white complexion.  But, they are battle wounds - worn like a perfunctory uniform here in jungle.

But, back to the work at hand.

Being in the jungle, suffice it to say, we had but a smattering of rusty tools and old-school measuring devices to work with to create the “best composting toilet ever”.  A hammer whose head was so precariously loose it was expected to fly off “tomahawk style” mid-swing at any moment, a sawblade for a straight-edge, discarded bent nails as post markers, blackboard chalk that we’d rub onto laundry line to act as a snap line, and bar none, the single-most important tool in any Peruvian’s toolbox; the ever-faithful, multi-functional, indispensable, machete. “Making due with what you’ve got” is an understatement in the jungle.  This felt more like an episode of MacGyver than a legitimate construction project.  But, exciting it certainly was.

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 The plan in action

The plan in action

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 Ramming earth by hand with bamboo

Ramming earth by hand with bamboo

 As sweaty as if you stood in the shower!

As sweaty as if you stood in the shower!

 4 meters high and heavier than concrete, these verticals were killer to install

4 meters high and heavier than concrete, these verticals were killer to install

 Mel...such a badass!

Mel...such a badass!

 Treads

Treads

 Nearly there...

Nearly there...

My drawings – the plans, elevation, sections and details – were themselves nostalgic throwbacks.  I haven’t hand drafted in years and this was sans Mayline, angles or trace; the “Holy Trinity” to most draftsmen.  Here, curves were drawn via plastic lids, radii measured for accuracy with stretched nylon line and would, I’m certain, have made my drafting professor grit his teeth in disapproval.  My composting toilet design required a French curve, but lacking the tool to create it, I had to mathematically figure calculations I haven’t had to wrestle with in years.  AutoCAD had made me soft!

But, after hours of laboring over geometry and obtuse angles, drafted on the most ephemeral piece of paper, I had it…the master plans for the best composting toilet ever (T.B.C.T.E)! These single scraps of paper would weather the brutal conditions of the jungle; sogged from daily exposure to humidity, they were stained to the point of transparency.  They were folded, rolled, crumpled and tucked into the pockets of the jeans of the workers and finally traced in reverse when we had to relocate and mirror the design to fit a different building site.  But these drawings, these visions for T.B.C.T.E suffered and survived!

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My design, the plan, THE final word in any architect’s mind was put through the wringer, no question. However, it served its duty because at the end of 2 weeks labor - hot, sweaty labor – I stood before what I can only describe as the most humbling, yet beautiful structure I’ve designed and built.

 What could go wrong?

What could go wrong?

 The guys helping to attach the funnel

The guys helping to attach the funnel

 Funnels have multi-functions indeed!

Funnels have multi-functions indeed!

 

So, in conclusion, did we complete the mission? Did we create T.B.C.T.E? Indeed, I think so.  Exceeding expectations, this composting toilet is truly unique, fully functional and if I can be so bold to say, downright pretty.

 Ta da!

Ta da!

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 Exhaust pipe

Exhaust pipe

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 Seed pods as finials

Seed pods as finials

 Occupied

Occupied

 Free

Free

And let it be known, to all the composting toilet opposition, the naysayers and poopoo’ers, for all those architects, designers and contractors in much more comfortable, favorable conditions than the Amazon jungle in which to build, and most of all, to all those so quick to say “composting toilets are gross”…I would like to say, in the most eloquent way that I can in a blog…B.S.

 Once and only once will this shot ever happen!

Once and only once will this shot ever happen!

Welcome to the Jungle - July 6, 2017

I have only been in Peru for a couple of weeks but time tends to slow here in the most curiously enjoyable way.  Upon first arriving, I was stationed in the ARC Amazon headquarters in Puerto Maldonado on the Tambopata River.  This is “base camp” so to speak and is the only place to get supplies, have your laundry properly cleaned, get a bit of wifi and a cold beer, which is what I am availing myself of now, sitting in my favorite bar, enjoying a cold Pilsen Callao and typing directly into my blog via my iPhone – modern technology contrasted against the backdrop of rustic Peru*.

 The best damn meal in Puerto compliments of Los Gosalves

The best damn meal in Puerto compliments of Los Gosalves

In fact, Puerto Maldonado, in the region of Madre de Dios, is officially recognized as the biodiversity capitol of the world and they have the chops to prove it.  Located near the city center, an 8-story, aquamarine, cinderblock structure, fondly referred to as el Obelisco (the Obelisk), offers panoramic views of the city and lush, dense jungle beyond.  Managing the precarious climb up some rather questionable stairs to the top, visitors are greeted by sun-bleached posters at every level that attempt to describe a few of the notable gems the region is home to.  Brief but educational blurbs highlight local favorites such as los lobos del rio (giant river otters), árboles de castaña (Brazil nut trees), and the agutí (agouti), one of the only animals with jaws powerful enough to crack open the outer shell of the castaña pod.  Albeit a crude collection of graphics, it is testament to the fact that Madre de Dios is indeed one of the most unique places on earth.

 View of Puerto from the Obelisk

View of Puerto from the Obelisk

 I don't think these are ADA compliant

I don't think these are ADA compliant

It seems a lifetime ago that I first climbed those stairs to the viewing deck of the Obelisk, but in fact it was only 15 days ago.  Since then I have been deep in the Amazon, off the grid and suffered a long, bumpy, dirty, car ride from Puerto Maldonado to Lucerna and additional 20 minute boat ride up the Las Piedras river to the heart of ARC Amazon’s Concession called LPAC.  Host to a small group of scientists, researchers, nature enthusiasts and now me, LPAC will serve as both my home and office for the next 7 weeks.   

Merely a few days and yet so much has happened; enough to fill pages of blog entries already.

Where do I begin?

I will start with my most impressionable memory; that of my first morning waking up in the jungle.  Imagine for a moment, being free of electricity, wifi and all associated electronic devices.  No phone, no work emails, no conference calls.  You are completely unburdened by modernity and mercifully devoid of the woeful news from the outside world. All you have is what fit into a 40-gallon dry bag and small backpack.  You will wear the same clothes today as you wore yesterday and you may or may not shower – its all the same in the jungle.

Just shy of 5:00am, the first glow of morning sun starts to illuminate the sky.  Creeping up slowly, it warms your face, your eyelids and the platform where your humble, wooden-plank bunkbed sits enshrouded by mosquito netting. The netting creates a filmy, ethereal veil through which you see directly into the jungle and it’s in this moment, you realize you slept all night in the middle of the Amazon “protected” by a mere 2 millimeters of woven nylon. 

 This is my bed.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.

This is my bed.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.

And then come the sounds.  I will apologize now for my inability to properly capture and describe the amazing sounds of the jungle; I hazard there are few authors who can.  But suffice it to say, the jungle is absolutely saturated with sounds! Rivaling any urban city in both volume and relentlessness, the jungle is a cacophony of every manner of chirp, cheep, whistle, peep, croak, cry, caw, howl, rustle, crunch, crash, buzz and growl; noises you’ve never heard before and most “virgin jungle ears” grapple to make sense of.

There are birds that sound like monkeys and monkeys that sound like birds, there are the crashing of palm leaves falling down through the canopy with such violence, you’d swear entire trees were toppling over and at night the ceaseless hum of the cicadas, crickets and frogs can be so impressively loud one can hardly talk over the “white noise” of it all.

The Oropendola, a bird who’s call sounds like a synthesized imitation of a pebble plopped into a pond is one of my favorites.  The Screaming Piha (unfairly named in my opinion), has a lovely song that consists of an ascending 3-note scale, terminated by a “cat-call” whistle so perfectly toned, you’d swear it was generated by a human taking a leisurely stroll through the jungle!  There is the Toucan’s shrill, but recognizable call and of course, the parrots and macaws who’s “voices” are so comically unrefined in contrast to their gorgeous plumage, you can’t help but wonder if they lost some sort of bet a very long time ago.

I had heard of the resident Howler monkey; a species of primate that lives among the trees in Las Piedras and portions of land beyond, but no one had prepared me for their sound.  Its an eerie, disturbing, haunting, long-winded wail that ends in a guttural “whoo, whoo, whoo” and has the power to echo for miles through the jungle.  That first morning, waking up to this forlorn howl, I recall being totally confused.  Sounding more akin to wind being forced through poorly installed weather stripping during a storm, the noise was so creepy, so utterly foreign it seemed impossible that it could be created by an animal.  But each morning the howl of this monkey resonated through the trees like clockwork.  Oddly out of place and yet not.  Crazy things are alive in the jungle, imbedded deep within the wilds of this place there are species we've even yet to discover.  The Howler Monkey is merely one of the residents.

So many new discoveries, so many amazing adventures and pages upon pages of journal entries to describe.  But it will have to wait. Tomorrow, I head back into the jungle.  Again, I will again endure the bumpy, iron-red dust road to Lucerna, river ride and haul up the hill to get there.  Once more I will join my team and continue my work there and I’ll be smiling the entire way.

Turns out, I miss my Howler alarm clock.

*as noted in my previous blog; turns out "directly typing into one's blog from an iPhone" is a massive fail.  But, blog I did, post I did.  Just a "posted-dated post".

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Packing Up & Moving Out!

The moment has arrived, ya es la hora. After deciding just 5 weeks ago, I’m off to the Amazon to work for 2 months with a stellar group of like-minded researchers and environmentalists for a cause I have dedicated my entire life to: preservation of the planet and development of better ways to build. 

As excited as I am, I have one last hurdle…packing.

So here I stand, hours away from boarding; brow furrowed in concentration, biting my nails in contemplation as I mentally calculate every last inch of space available in my meager duffle bag and trusty backpack.  How’s this ‘gonna work? 

My supplies and clothes are a walk down memory lane in many ways; my tried-and-true professional-grade hiking pants that have seen at least a dozen different climbs on Washington State trails, my amazingly tough REI fleece that I’ve worn at minimum twice a day since receiving it as a birthday gift at 23, and an odd mix of t-shirts and linen tunics procured from Goodwill.  In contrast, I have also equipped myself with the latest in outdoor technology; new-fangled gadgetry such as a solar-powered battery charger, headlamp and satellite locator.  Toss in an array of random-but-acutely-necessary tools, first-aid supplies and gifts for the locals and you arrive at my state of puzzlement; how is this all going to fit?  A real-life Rubik’s cube, I have to figure this out and quick.

I am no stranger to packing – I proudly packed my entire Shanghai life into 7 medium boxes and a suitcase when I repatriated to the US and have racked up thousands of travel miles since first exploring the planet when I was 22.  An explorer at heart, I regularly move from place to place trying on cities like new clothes (much to my family’s unease), but true to my personal conviction; I don’t think you really understand or appreciate a place until you’ve lived there.

To that end, I have had the good fortune to be a part of some of the greatest cities in the world; Seattle, Siena, London, NYC, Shanghai, SF and pond-jumped to and from hundreds of cities spanning over 33 countries en route.  And it isn’t lost on me that as of tomorrow, with the addition of South America, I will have visited 5 of 7 continents.  Australia is next.  Antarctica is a bit lower on the priority list…for now.

But I digress, back to packing.  As mentioned, I am no stranger to packing and am typically adept at it, but going to a place such as Las Piedras, a location so remote and off-grid does give me pause.  This is packing and preparation of an entirely different caliber so wish me luck in solving this puzzle in time for wheels up!

And to all those that helped contribute to my list of necessary supplies and GoFundMe plea; muchas gracias!  Because of your generosity and thoughtfulness, I am able to adventure on.

Adios mis amigos, hasta la proxima vez y blog!

The Amazon calls and I must go.

This is my next test and adventure.  To put into practice what I have been preaching for nearly 15 years; to build sustainable structures, using regional materials free of chemicals of concern and tap into the wisdom of local craftsmanship and ingenuity of biomimetic design.

Yep, I am heading to the Amazon, the Peruvian Amazon to be precise, to a small corner in the jungle called Las Piedras.  Las Piedras is one of the last places on Earth unadulterated by humans and is host to one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet.

 Scarlet Macaws, photo credit Ian Markham

Scarlet Macaws, photo credit Ian Markham

But, like so many delicate forests, reefs and parcels of land that have made it thus far without being destroyed by rampant illegal deforestation or effects from global warming, Las Piedras and the Amazon as a whole are in a precarious position.  Sway but a little and the future of these amazing jungles and habitats to animals, plants and indigenous people is threatened to collapse.

So, I am going to the Amazon to be proactive and do what it is I have been training to do. And hopefully inspire a few followers.

Please read more about ARC Amazon and Las Piedras by clicking here.

If you'd like to donate to my efforts, either with supplies, construction materials, advise and know-how please visit my GoFundMe page here.

And thank you all for your support!

Shots Fired!

Getting ready for the biggest volunteering adventure also means getting shot...with immunizations that is.  Yellow Fever, although rare in the region where I will be working, this preventative immunization is compulsory in order to enter Peru.  I decided it would behoove me to throw in a tetanus shot for good measure.

So after calling pharmacies from San Francisco to Seattle and even Spokane, I quickly discovered that Yellow Fever shots are not offered in many places and further, they're not covered by most insurance plans.  

Luckily, the pharmacy that was closest and most affordable ended up being Walgreens, a 20 minute walk from my front door.  

One quick call to confirm an appointment, a simple questionnaire and voilà, shots fired.

 Needless to say, I'm not afraid of needles.

Needless to say, I'm not afraid of needles.

I'm not sure anyone should have this much fun getting poked with small doses of disease, but what can I say-- I'm headed to the Amazon and I just can't stop smiling!

 One for Yellow Fever, one for good luck?

One for Yellow Fever, one for good luck?