Keynote Address - 13th Annual Affordable Comfort Conference

Given at the 13th Annual Affordable Comfort Conference, April 21, 1999

I am really delighted to be here today.

They say that a prophet is without honor in his own city.

You know that an expert is a person with a briefcase a 1000 miles from home.

Since Chicago is my home, I'm not quite sure what to make of this.

I'm either really brilliant, or Affordable Comfort is really cheap!

I guess you know which is most likely.

I was born in Michigan. We moved to Florida when I was five.

We spent 5 - 6 months in Michigan every summer. We stayed on Uncle Jim's farm in a trailer - we were so far from town that we went toward town to go hunting.

Uncle Jim's family was quite well off, they had a classic 2 holer, - although I don't ever remember more than one hole being used at a time.

I don't remember being too young to ride my bike down the gravel road to my sister's house 1 mile away. I often stopped at the woods to chase squirrels or at the creek to catch tadpoles or a frog but you had to hold the frog a certain way, because if he peed on you, you'd get a wart like on Aunt Mable's forehead.(For some reason we never thought to ask how a frog had peed on Aunt Mable's forehead!)

When I was 9, Dad bought a haybaling machine. Do you know what determined the year he bought the haybaler? It was the summer Dad thought I could safely and skillfully drive a tractor. So at 9 I drove a tractor pulling a haybaler down the back roads of Tuscola County. It was a bit scary crossing the state highway.

As a 9-year-old I had a lot of range - a lot of freedom - a lot of responsibility.

Clayton lived a half mile down the road, many evenings we built castles and tunnels in his barn with bales of straw - big - king sized blocks.

When I was 12 dad and mom bought an old house in town. It was a classic "L" shaped farmhouse with a big wrap around porch. I can't tell you how many afternoons I spent on that porch - playing games with my friends or watching and listening to the rain.

Fairgrove was a classic rural town with a state highway that turned right at the 4 way stop in the middle of town. The only heavy industry we had was a 300# Avon lady.

Dad was an incentivizing entrepreneur. He paid my brother and me by the hour -plus we got a half penny a bale. In addition to that if a farmer was short of help, Dad allowed me to load bales for the farmer then I was making money 3 ways.

By the time I was 12, dad no longer followed me in the car.

He'd take care of business while I moved from one farm to the next. Now I really had range - and freedom.

Believe it or not these vignettes of my childhood have something to do with Affordable Comfort and the sustainable communities we now build.

In the 70's we had an oil crisis.

And for the first time many of us realized that we had an energy problem.

Some of us started building energy efficient houses in the late 70's, to save energy. Remember the super-insulated houses with 12" thick double walls with polyethylene sealed with Tremco - that black sticky sealant. If you got any of it on your clothes you just threw your clothes away.

Then a brilliant, obstinate, obstreperous Canadian came up with ADA - the Airtight Drywall Approach. Joe Lstiburek developed the concept that allowed us to build super-insulated production housing and guarantee the heating costs at $200 per year.

There is still no better description today for our not-so-big homes with guaranteed heating costs than Affordable Comfort.

Gradually we all realized we had a bigger problem - environmental pollution - Love's Canal, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island.

It was a direct result of all of us pursuing the American dream:
Get all you can
Can all you get
Sit on the lid
Poison the rest.

For me the real awakening came when Oliver Drerup gave a chilling, sobering plenary speech at a conference similar to this (I believe it was in Saskatoon) in which he showed slides of the absolutely dreadful effects of Chernobyl, strip land mines,

Some of you remember - you were there. It was a terrible awakening for me. So we all developed a bigger, better vision than just saving energy. We were now out to - Save the earth, - Save the environment, Save the rainforests, etc. This vision has come to be called environmental sustainability.

Today, I want to talk about a yet bigger, better vision than environmental sustainability: Cultural sustainability.

I want to talk about saving our neighborhoods - about saving our children and future generations.

What is Cultural Sustainability?

Amory Lovins, the brilliant physicist and founder of RMI once asked me: What kind of a house would the master carpenter, Jesus, build?

An equally good question is: What kind of a city would God develop? Listen to the answer given in the Old Testament of the Bible in Zech. 8:4. Zech, the prophet, wrote down God's plan for the ultimate culturally sustainable city where people live in peace and comfort: This is what the Lord Almighty says: Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets.

Do you see the same picture I see? This is a city or town that works for children and old folks. Because the old folks and the children are using the streets together, the children are learning from the old folks the principles and values that will allow them to grow old and then teach the same principles and values to the next generation of children, and so forth.

When we talk of sustainability in nature we mean that the ecology of a place works in such a way that the plants and creatures of the place reproduce so that the ecological balance and health of the place is maintained and sustained.

A community that sustains and maintains itself in health and comfort can only happen when a community is designed for children, and the children are enculturated by the adults that they are safely interacting with all the time.

How would you design a community for children?

Dallas Willard is a philosopher and chairman emeritus of the UCLA Philosophy Dept. Willard in The Divine Conspiracy says that every person and child has a "kingdom" or queendom A realm that is uniquely our own, where our choice determines what happens. This reaches to the deepest part of what it means to be a person. We are made to have and want to have dominion within an appropriate domain or range of reality. Willard says that our kingdom is simply the range of our effective will. Whatever we have the say over is our kingdom.

And our having the say over some thing or some space is precisely what places it within our kingdom.

In creating human beings God made them to rule, to reign, to have dominion in a limited sphere.

Anyone who has raised a child knows how important it is "to let them do it"- whatever "it" may be, and to do it as soon as practically feasible.

Did you catch that phrase: the range of our effective will.

Do you resonate with the idea of having a range - a kingdom or queendom that moves as you move? A place or space where you have the say?

Some of us, who are concerned about animal care and healthy food, eat "free range chicken" and "free range eggs." If you have ever read an account of 1000's of chickens in tiny cages so narrow they can't even turn around, kept in special bright light 24 hours a day to increase egg production, you will never want to eat modern agribusiness's eggs and chickens again.

Would you rather be a free range chicken or that chicken in a tiny cage.

I would submit to you that a child penned up in his suburban 6' solid fenced back yard, because the street he lives on is not safe for children due to strangers in high speed cars and trucks is little better off than a caged chicken. He has no more relative effective range! He has no more effective ability to learn how to reign - to exercise his will and creativity in regards to the outdoor world.

Back to God, the developer and His culturally sustainable town. The streets of the town are filled with boys and girls playing in the streets. Do you see the same picture I see? This culturally sustainable town has streets (not just the fenced in rear yards) that are totally safe for children to play in. Children can safely explore a world that is much larger and more diverse than their own backyards. They can play safely in the streets with other neighborhood children without constant supervision. They have a moving, free range - they can be kings and queens.

Remember the recollections of my childhood? Most of my "range" had to do with county roads and town streets. Whether it was riding my bike a mile to my sisters and stopping to play in the woods or throw stones at the carp in the creek, or taking the haybaler to the next farm, or stacking bales better on a wagon than any adult had ever stacked them, or riding my bike up to the post office to get the mail. As a child I had "real kingdoms" where I exercised "real power" and did creative valuable "real work."

My children grew up on a private cul-de-sac lane in a suburban community where lot line fences were prohibited. There was a creek and a big woods accessible by crossing through unfenced yards. The key was that the lane was private - the neighbors owned and controlled it together, and, that a stranger who drove down it had to turn around and drive back out, knowing that there was probably someone in one of those houses watching him.

A few years ago I asked my 27-year-old daughter: where was your favorite place to play when you were 7 or 8? She said: In the street.

I said weren't you afraid of cars?

She said - now you have to get the body language of this 27-year-old mother of two - "Oh no dad, we owned the street". It was a reflective, automatic response to her range and reign as a child.

Did you get that - "Oh no, we owned the street."

I remember driving home after work - it looked like a war zone - there were bikes and tricycles and big wheels and wagons strewn like carnage all along the lane.

Jamie and Shari had an ever increasing free range within which they could exercise their will without adult supervision - translate that adult management, translate that adult control. Along with their spiritual training, I think this largely explains why they are both creative, free-spirited, willful adults today, they had lots of practice.

If you take nothing away from my talk today, take this: You can forget about sustainable environment or sustainable communities if we do not return again to the timeless, proven ways of building communities that nurture children.

Whether we want to or not we are designing and building homes in communities that become subcultures that either sustain themselves spiritually and relationally in health and comfort or they become places of social dis-ease and sickness. We have the power and wisdom to build safe, healthy communities in which children thrive and learn and grow and develop strong individual personalities within the context of mutual respect for everyone and everything in the community.

Back to sustainable communities

Nature is ecologically sustainable because it is complex, diverse, interdependent, integrated, decentrailzed, and locally controlled. For our human culture to sustain itself, it must be founded on similar principles. Until the last 50 years, neighborhoods and communities had always incorporated these age-old natural values. They have been temporarily and inadvertently abandoned as we have accommodated ourselves to technology and the automobile.

Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer, environmentalist, and author who has lectured at Harvard, Stanford,, taught us that a community of people is inevitably rooted in a place and in the ecology of a place and that in America there is an inseparable dichotomy between public and community and between public rights and communal autonomy, and that you cannot have healthy, sustainable natural ecosystems unless you have healthy sustainable communities; i.e. they are mutually interdependent.

Underlying our philosophy of community design is the understanding from Christopher Alexander that the people of a place have a common design language consisting of design patterns embedded in their culture and in the culture or environment of the place. These design patterns are like words that by themselves mean very little; but, when you combine words carefully, you can create a lot of meaning in a few words.

Likewise when you combine the right design patterns thoughtfully and precisely, you create what Alexander calls "dense space", space that is deeply comforting and nurturing to the human psyche, the Greek word for soul.

HomeTown is our newest community

HomeTown is a culturally sustainable community, and it is designed to be as ecologically sustainable as the market will accept.

HomeTown will have about 1100 homes in 8 distinct neighborhoods on 150 acres of former cornfield. It is in the City of Aurora about 30 miles west of downtown Chicago.

All homes are detached, except for some that are attached at the garage. The price range is $100,000 to $200,000. We opened our models one year ago, and HomeTown already has 110 sales. HomeTown is currently selling at an annualized rate of 150 homes per year. From a sales standpoint, HomeTown is one of the most successful communities in Chicagoland.

I'd like to show you the key components of HomeTown while I quickly describe it to you. HomeTown is a human-scaled and child paced community of clustered mini-neighborhoods in old fashioned, timeless authentic neighborhoods with modern lifestyle homes nestled along traffic calmed streets, private Living Lanes, and private Living Courts with an outdoor realm designed so children have freedom and range, and for their spiritual, cultural, social, emotional, and physical development.

In HomeTown children have a safe, free range across 140 acres including 8 Neighborhood parks, 3 public parks, ponds, wetlands, native prairie, the elementary school, a corner store, a town center, a church - etc.

A sustainable culture, like environmental sustainability, is a very complex issue and it would take a couple hours to just briefly cover all its facets in relation to HomeTown; so, because of the time constraints, I decided today to focus on a very small, but important part of it that I thought we all could identify with - a large free range area like many of us enjoyed as kids, but that suburban kids today don't even know they're missing. And we haven't even had time to show how this idea plays out for children of different ages in HomeTown.Slides

Just in case you're wondering if there's really any difference between a sustainable community and the typical subdivisions we've been building the last 50 years, I'd like to show you some.

The slides on your left are from our communities. The slides on your right are from new subdivisions in Schaumburg and Naperville - two of the most emulated (unfortunately) suburbs in Chicagoland.

Rainbow Street
People live Schaumburg Street
Cars live here
Easter Egg hunt
Living Court
Designed for kids
Fronts of houses
House Front
"Progress thru Planning"
The kids who live in the Living Court
Great for cars
Horrible for people
People live here not cars
Naperville -
State of the art
Suburban Planning
Kids reign
Cars reign
HT Living Lane
People live here
10 MPH
Gathering Place Naperville
Cars live here
45 MPH
HT human scale and pace A wanna be TND
Double livable porch
Dining area
Living area -Guy sitting on porch -
no room for a chair
Easy to participate in street life See guy in chair
Kind of fire engine streets should be designed for
Mixed up street
Alley left side
House fronts
Right side


In closing, I'd like to suggest; that sustainable communities can once again be the rule rather than the exception in the new millennium. That sustainable communities and environmental sustainability are inseparable and that together then are a bigger, better vision.

Finally, when talking about greater and better visions, I would be untrue to my own psyche and soul if I did not say that the desires of the human will to do good and be creative and exert positive power, which other animals simply don't have points to an even bigger, better vision that can only be grounded in the kingdom of God and can only be fulfilled by living in a loving, vital relationship with Jesus. In the last analysis it is this greater purpose that has driven me to create HomeTown.

There are handouts in the rear for those who have more interest. There's an article on HomeTown that describes it in more detail. There's a design bibliography listing the books that have had the greatest impact on the design of HomeTown. Finally there's a pamphlet about an even greater, better vision-the vision that drives me.

There is an afternoon tour scheduled for HomeTown on Friday. I will be explaining in detail what makes HomeTown work. I am told that as of 8:30 there were still places available on the tour. I hope to see you there.