Category Archives: earthly

green trials: lighting

After yesterday, I feel like I should put in a positive word for this green rehab project at RH. saving energy through lighting.

According to internet sources, lighting can consume 20% of your total energy use, and incandescent bulbs convert only 10% of the energy used into light! the rest is emitted as heat which makes them both super inefficient and dangerous as well if left on (if you’re the worried type). Switching to CFLs or LEDs is an easy and significant change, but I’m preaching to choir here right? Here at RH we replaced every bulb in the building with LED lights, (except for the bulbs dotting the reception room ceiling, which are relatively little used, low wattage, and we were hard-pressed to find an appropriate-looking replacement).

We even found decent LED “candle” bulbs!

note: these too are MOST efficient if you don’t turn them on though.

going green: climate control

To some, energy efficiency and older buildings do not go together, but here at Rhodes Hall we are trying to prove you wrong. We have teamed up with Southface (or they with us rather) to create guidelines and a point system for LEED-like certification of the energy efficient rehab of historic buildings. The starting point of that being the inherent greenness of reusing an existing building to begin with.

Demolishing one building to build new and “more energy efficient” is like flaunting your choice of compostable paper plates and then throwing them away. YOU’VE MISSED 3/4 OF THE POINT!!

So, RH is serving as a pilot project to this green-rehab initiative. As we make necessary repairs to our building this year we are also making energy efficient upgrades, the biggest issue of course being climate control in the building.

While RH was formerly heated fairly efficiently by radiators (gas boiler in basement), the AC in the summer was another matter. Window units chugged noisily in all the downstairs and 2nd floor rooms while on the 3rd floor a central HVAC system kept us mostly cool but also cooled the uninsulated attic through leaks in the ducts. After much research and debate on the part of the Southface and The Georgia Trust and more debate before approval by the Board, we installed a central HVAC system (heat inverter?) downstairs zoned so that C’s office and the kitchen can be blocked off and controlled separately from the rest of the main floor which is often not “in use.” This was ideal for the museum/events space of our building, the least visible system we could install, but there is nowhere for ducts to run on the 2nd floor so up there, where most of our offices are, we installed top of the line split system electric units which are minimally invasive (least damage to the building itself and most removable), very efficient, and don’t block windows.

The basement ceiling and the attic were insulated with spray foam which has made the attic remarkably temperate year-round.

So how is it all working out?

Well, this is still a big building with high ceilings (for hot air to rise) and opulently expansive single-paned windows. On the first floor, the central heating does an excellent job of warming the entire area*, but on the 2nd and, subsequently the 3rd floors where we put in our 9-5, we are sorely missing the radiators. Here’s what seems to be the problem:

  • the individual room units are operated on a room by room basis, meaning the entire floor (notably the center hall and large bedroom opening onto that) are rarely heated. These large spaces of cold air make it harder to heat up our offices and, even if we close the door, we must pass through these unconditioned spaces to get to the bathroom, the copier, or any other room.
  • speaking of the bathroom, they did not receive any climate control at all and, since the 1st and 2nd floor bathrooms open onto unoccupied (and thus unconditioned) rooms, they are even colder, not an ideal place to pull your pants down. We got space heaters which take the edge off but the heat unfortunately is also rising into that 12 foot ceiling space!
  • there is no heat from the 2nd floor to rise up and warm the 3rd floor as there once was, so that by midday it is colder upstairs than ever (if the central air up here was actually warming that might help but i can’t say that it is)
  • we won’t even go into the aesthetics of the things.

center upstairs hall electric split system hvac

We have miles to go before our work here is done. Work on the windows for instance—fixing drafts, adding storm windows—may help heat retention throughout the building but we still have to turn on the heat and I don’t expect to come to love these Mitsubishi split system units.

I say, if you’ve got radiators then by all means maintain them and if at all possible find a way to install central air on all levels for the summer months. save the split system hvac units for hotel rooms or other closed off and smaller spaces. Despite the selling points of the Mitsubishi units (they ARE quiet and good air conditioners and efficient) I’m not sure they were ideal for us here, then again, anything is efficient if you don’t turn it on.

honestly, this is how energy efficiency looks at RH these days

honestly, this is how energy efficiency looks at RH these days

I just ran across something on ZONE CONTROL on the US Dept of Energy website that better says I was trying to say about heating the whole house vs. just the rooms you are sitting in and something in between.

They write that “one way to save energy.. is to retrofit systems to provide separate control for different areas of large homes (RH). Zone control is most effective when large areas of the home are not used often or are used on a different schedule than other parts of the home.”—At RH this would definitely be the main floor/event space, and possibly the central areas of the 2nd floor, although… “Zone control works best in homes designed to operate in different heating zones, with each zone insulated from the others. In homes not designed for zone control (RH), leaving one section at a lower temperature could cause comfort problems in adjacent rooms because they will lose heat to the cooler parts of the home (unconditioned spaces).”

It goes on to say that you can of course enforce zone control/”insulation” by closing doors which we reluctantly do at RH right now though it shuts us off from each other. However, social/work interaction aside this is also not an entirely effective solution as everyone’s office opens onto the cooler central space and thus there is a lot of opening and closing doors. It would probably be advantageous to heat the central spaces daily in conjunction with our offices, thus providing a more reasonable level of comfort all around. let’s put these energy efficient units to work! sigh.

* update in January: The HVAC system downstairs is failing miserable due to several likely factors: the basement now has NO heat where it was once quite toasty thanks to the boiler, this makes it harder for the heat inverter system to warm up and provide properly warm air to the 1st floor, it also means there is a major updraft from the basement door (we use the basement which is partially finished but unconditioned), even though, yes, there is insulation in the floor joists below the 1st floor.



it has taken me a surprisingly long time to get down to Serenbe. V too, the two of us kept saying let’s go! and never going, goodness knows why, it’s barely 40 minutes from our houses! So on Saturday, just days before she moves to the Netherlands, her, J, me and N went to visit this little dream community in the country.

the MAP

A New York Time article in 2009 touted Serenbe as “the new south” really, a sort of new new new south, but in essence it seems pretty true. new development with a little green, or a lot of green consciousness thrown in, southern home-cookin’, organic farming, farm animals and woods—and all this with your shirt tucked in. By living here you are doing good!

Serenbe was begun as an idealistic and hopefully realistic answer to the ever increasing suburbanization of the huge metro Atlanta area. From a 2004 article in USA Today:

As the nation’s metro areas expand ever outward, the forests and farmlands at their edges are rapidly disappearing. From 1982 to 2001, the amount of developed land in the USA increased by 45% to 106 million acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Brookings Institution, a research organization in Washington. and About 70% of residential and commercial construction is still occurring in woodlands and rural areas instead of areas that are being redeveloped.

At the same time, homebuyers increasingly are expressing a desire to live in a way that protects the natural landscape, and developers are responding. One of the fastest-growing segments of the housing industry is conservation subdivisions, which usually have compact lots clustered together and open space that is shared by all homeowners. These developments are designed to accommodate the maximum number of homes while protecting much of the adjacent farmland and natural resources.

Steve and Marie Nygren saw this happening and took it to heart. They did some really revolutionary work in their community, getting neighbors together to discuss what they wanted for their community in the future. Something done less in rural than in urban areas, but definitely needed in both.

Serenbe’s beginnings in the 1990s were, if not humble, at least somewhat organic: wealthy Atlantans bought land which became their home, then a B&B just in time for the ’96 Olympics, (she being the daughter of Mary Mac’s co-owner presumably meant good food was in the equation at an early date), more guest houses were added and eventually, in the early 2000s, this experiment in suburban planning.

If there is all this good, why was my first impression that, pleasant a place as it was, it felt all wrong??

Serenbe_residencesSerenbe feels manufactured, like a movie set, everything, EVERYTHING feels fake. Even at the farmhouse (which has some historicity buried in the walls that haven’t been removed)—I had a vague feeling of walking into a set, were we all participants in a play? Later on I would feel that the shop proprietors must receive a paycheck from “Serenbe, Inc.” like working a store at Disneyland, probably managers, not business owners (note: I don’t actually know for sure how this works but I’ve seen that the details of most establishments are in the plans long before they exist).

We didn’t take any pictures until we were about to leave, and I realized we needed to document. The manufactured-picturesque landscape had not been inspiring, CREATED to be photogenic, like Miss America on stage, it didn’t need me to capture it’s beauty. In the end I took a picture of the map, which saysit all, because ultimately Serenbe is just one big plan, a stage, and we’re not talking Shakespeare here.

There are other communities like this in history, Sunnyside Gardens, Radburn, and Atlanta’s own East Lake Commons. I’ve been trying to figure out what they have that’s different, accessibility, interaction with their surroundings, even if shops are part of the community its commercial space that’s not dictated by the creator but by an entrepreneur. Idealism is tough, and perfection comes in many forms.

Maybe it simply hasn’t grown into itself. The economy downturn occurred shortly after liftoff which may account for the lack of residents? maybe they were just all inside their fab [environmentally friendly] climate controlled houses on this rainy day, maybe they were… I have doubts, this community has nothing for the average homebuyer, and the more I think of it the more it frustrates me, with all the talk of affordable housing in the community the only thing one woman who works in the village was able to afford was a 900 sq. ft loft space WITHOUT A KITCHEN, without a KITCHEN?? I used to live in a 600 sq. ft brooklyn apt WITH a kitchen and that was roomy.

But still, all the businesses cater to tourists, there was nothing real about them. I mean, what town actually needs 5 boutique shops with local or handmade-by-African-women-and-children-in-need scarves, coasters, vases and jewelry? and that’s about it for general retail. You can also go to the Bosch showroom which may be the most useful commercial space, or MAYBE the General Store where you’d run for one or 2 ingredients if you lived/stayed at Serenbe but impractical for actual grocery shopping, plus, you’d deplete their supplies in one go. I assume residents grocery shop at Whole Foods in Atlanta, because goodness knows they wouldn’t be caught at Bradley’s Big Buy or DJ Grocers in Palmetto.

But that brings us around to the inherent anti-environmentality of a secluded subdivision that is not supporting itself (despite dreams). At least you only use a little gas to get around in the village, maybe none if you use your golf cart. On fun days you might pull out a bike, but we didn’t see any of those in action.

It was weird, I mean REALLY WEIRD. I’m hoping a second trip on a sunnier day will yield better results, and a chance to visit the farm (which I suspect is cool no matter what), some real people, and a chance to really enjoy my favorite part: the in-ground trampoline in the park!!

Now I better go see how N’s cookie-making is going (they’re for V, but maybe we’ll get some?).

All Souls’

tis the season for cemetery talk I guess!

All Souls’ Day has always fascinated me. Maybe not always, but ever since Italy when Taffco was first exposed to the ritual of visiting the graves of the departed en masse. The cemetery was crowded, a parade was had and flowers and gifts were everywhere. We celebrated with H and R in our own fashion, there was no trick or treating in Castel del Piano so the grownups must’ve felt something needed to be done for these American kids. We sat in the dark and ate chestnut soup (All Saints Day, November 1, marks the first day of open-door chestnut harvesting, meaning, anyone can tromp through your woods and gather the chestnuts you missed) and read “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” Poe, and other eerie tales by candlelight.

Growing up Baptist in Mississippi, All Souls Day is a mystery to me and not until recently did I bother to look up the confusing logistics. Liturgically the string of Halloween-All Saints-All Souls Day is of course a primarily Catholic observance with some Anglicans joining in the rituals. All Saints Day perhaps is more commonly observed on November 1, the day after All Hallows Eve (which we all know well), but the liturgical Day of the Dead follows All Saints on November 2. All Souls Day, Day of the Dead, Il Giorno dei Morti, The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (Catholic), Feast of All Souls (Episcopalian), these are the names it goes by. While All Saints Day commemorates those who have attained the beatific vision of heaven, All Souls Day is an effort to urge the souls who had not attained such perfection in life onward through Purgatory toward a happy ending.

Personally I just like the solemnity of sitting in a darkened church, listening to music and vespers and contemplating the souls of those who have gone before, which is exactly what Viv and I are going to do tomorrow evening.

st barts

a little on death

Americans these days are so far removed from death. We have no grave rituals, at least we used to leave flowers, now, if there even IS a place to visit, we hardly ever do.

Cemeteries are definitely important to the Taffs. Roadtrips growing up led us to many small towns, we’d come off the highway and Dad, driving, would sniff in one direction, then the other: “downtown’s right over there,” he’d say, “so the cemetery…” and we’d turn in the other direction and up a street here or there until sure enough, there was the city cemetery. I don’t remember any of the downtowns but we always got out at the cemetery.

Bayside Cem Ever since, graveyards have been a part of my life. I cried when I was kicked out of Oconee Hill Cemetery on the backside of Sanford Stadium for sketching. I was outraged, I did not believe a cemetery could be private property. That hadn’t stopped us from climbing over the stone wall in the middle of the night, though the tar on the other side later would.

Many of us today do think cemeteries are beautiful places, we tour them and have festivals, we jog through Oakland with our dogs if we are so lucky. A recent class trip to Oakland Cemetery, surveying a block of “Hogpen Corner,” has led me to renewed cemetery contemplation about our interactions with death. Oakland is a park these days, the graves are old and I, at least, know no one who knows anyone buried there. There is death, the beautiful representation of it, but it is far removed from me, I can absorb the beauty and none of the personal proximity of death.

Dad was cremated, but he would like to have a marker. In college his final project was on cemeteries, a box of photographs I’ve seen and should investigate further. I think the living need a place to visit the deceased, i think the deceased need a place to be remembered. Aunt Sherry wanted to be buried in nothing but a clean white sheet and pine box. What with modern ways, the best that could be done was locating a pine coffin for her, it was beautiful, it was a start.

I wish we were closer to death in our society, closer on a personal level, not just enjoying the beauty of the landscape but the solemnity, the reality, and sometimes the sadness of it. In Italy the graves are crammed in, mostly slabs of marble and headstone, packed in with the cemetery wall a mausoleum. They celebrate All Soul’s Day by parading through the cemetery. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead. I imagine Loreena McKinnit’s poignant “All Souls Night.” Cuba has the most shocking proximity to the dead that I’ve encountered by far, they remove the bones from the grave after 2 years (all the time it takes for flesh to decompose in the tropics apparently) and clean them (sometimes there is flesh left), replacing them in a receptacle, or a box on top of the tomb that is engraved with the person’s memorial, leaving the tomb free for the next family member. This is a festive time, when all who knew the deceased come out, wives and husbands, children, lovers, mistresses, and together clean the bones and celebrate the life of the deceased. In Japan I just learned they wash the grave when they come to pay their respects. In America? We might remember to put out fake flowers, if such is allowed in our eternal care pastures. But even that task is mostly left to the older generations—what about this generation, what will we do at the graves of our parents and grandparents?


crop mob at last

I finally made it to my first Crop Mob! This has been happening on monthly basis for at least 2 years and I’ve been meaning to go for just that amount of time, get the email every month, say I should go, even sign up and… you know the drill. Anyway, it’s a very simple concept, people show up at local farms that could use some hands to weed, shovel manure, top-dress seedlings. You get to work about 9:30 and when you’re done it’s lunchtime provided by some local, farm-to-table-sympathizing eatery. Today it was vegetarian gumbo from Five Season Brewery—some of us were kind of relieve about the vegetarian part, but it wasn’t because we were picky.

The location was East West Farm in May-retta (sorry, i can’t help but say it like that). It’s a bizarre little piece of property on the Barrett Parkway, just off the Dallas Highway (Whitlock Ave), so not far out of town and, as you would expect, wedged between 2 appropriately-named subdivisions (Bolton Abbey and Green Acre Farms or some such). It’s one of those crappy little 1940s bungalows or early ranches that you see, sheathed in asbestos shingles and often overgrown, pokeweeds at the picture window, a property just waiting for the recession to end. But this one is lived in, a lived in well. D and family are new to the area, having started this farm up just this past year, he has a small truck garden in the side yard, a profusion of newly planted fruit trees, a dairy cow and 2 calves and a bevy of chickens. All this just over the back fence from one of those over-sized multi-gabled vinyl-sided boxes. In fact, the neighbor had a full view of our chicken slaughtering operation. Well, to be honest, I was not helping with that, I shoveled woodchips, weeded, and side-dressed the kale seedlings, just getting close enough for some good photos of the poultry processing (80 or so I heard?).


Ligustrum sinense

I have been contemplating this post for a while now, but A’s comment this morning brings it to my attention that it is HIGH TIME it get done. Regarding the possibility that privet pollen was the cause of her (and my) allergies these last few days, she said, “oh, no! i love privet! please tell me it is not what is doing this to me!!” well, that was the first time i’d seen “love” and “privet” in the same sentence and I was concerned.

Ligustrum japonicum - waxleaf Ligustrum sinense - privet

Privet in our family is a bad word. Once upon a time, when all the exotic Asian varietals and new plants were introduced, people got really excited. Southerners, in whose soil these plants thrived—and MORE than thrived—immediately filled their yards with the showy and heavenly scented non-native wisteria, honeysuckle, trumpet flower, kudzu and privet. Privet was valued for its easy growth as a quick hedge, a substitute for the restrained boxwood in Southern formal and slightly less formal gardens. Country yards could suddenly afford a lush and easily maintained accoutrement of the wealthy but this also meant homeowners intentionally ringed their yards with what would soon prove a problematic invasive.

Recently, Ligustrum has repeatedly come up as an attractive yard shrub in several circles and after some confusion is has been determined that there ARE vastly different varieties. On the Vernacular Georgia trip down to Clinton I felt a bit silly arguing against my elders that that rather nice tree-like shrub in the yard of a historic home could NOT be Ligustrum despite the tell-tell blue berries. The leaves were much larger and waxy, nothing like the flimsy little leaves of the hedge that encircles Sunshine’s yard (and bursts from the orchard). Turns out, it’s a different kind, Waxleaf Ligustrum some might say, or Ligustrum japonica perhaps, wikipedia images do little to help the definition hence the extended confusion at the discovery that all privet might not be the invasive woody weed I’d learned to abhore. On top of that, what wikipedia returned for me first was English privet which looks nothing like either!!

Today we might liken this to the current fanaticism for Thuja Green Giant, a fast-growing evergreen, bred and marketed for its ability to “Quickly screen out neighbors or unsightly areas….without taking up a lot of yard space…” A few words of wisdom any landscaper or gardener would do well to remember, weed resistant! fast growing! such traits should be questioned, not for the verity but for what else that says about the nature of the plant. just be wary, and don’t you dare plant any Ligustrum sinense (Chinese privet) near my yard.

webpage for identifying invasive plants