Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To Market To market to

Buy a pound of potatoes

As the farmers' market season winds down here in Maine, I thought to give it one last shot and came away empty handed again. The Farmers' Market is a beautiful gathering. It is filled with beautiful people mingling among the beautiful offerings of farm product.
It is not however a "market". Free markets are places where goods compete for customers based on a complex set of values. Once these values are established, externalities calculated (in the case of food, supply and demand are large factors), prices are set. In this, and my travels suggest, many farmers markets, it appears that truly outrageous prices are being assigned to foodstuff on the basis of regionalism, small farm product, and in some cases, organics. Here are real examples of prices as of last Saturday: onions $1 a piece, potatoes (maine white round) 2.50 a pound, spinach $9 a pound, scallions $2 a small bunch, Maine wild blueberries $7 pint, ground beef $8 a pound, and the cruelest cut of all; lamb shanks $10 pound. Spinach is not worth 9 bucks simply because you produce so little of it.

What is missing is any consideration of seasonality, i.e. blueberries are in and therefore plentiful and thus cheaper as farmers must move more product. The true market price as reflected by the same berries being for sale in supermarkets is more like 3.50 a pound and that is after all of the additional markups. Also missing is competition among the purveyors as there is a striking similarity of price. Maybe most importantly what is missing is the push back from intelligent consumers who know when they are being ripped.

The point was brought home to me the other night at dinner when our guest, a thirty something teacher, foodie, and triathlete, asked; "What is a fair price to pay for chevre at the farmers market?" Fair question. She had no standard by which to judge, i.e. had not bought goat cheese before, and had nothing to compare it to. She had paid at the rate of $32 a pound. She liked the cheese and felt good about supporting a local maker. The making of cheese is such a fine art, the taste variances are so subtle, that to try to place an absolute value on one or another cheese isn't possible. I did suggest to her that she was at the top end of the price range, particularly for a fresh cheese which has a high moisture content and promised to share with her a variety of other cheeses to broaden her taste. To gain some perspective it will be important for her to know that there are at least 20 similar cheeses for sale from France that retail for a third less. They are small farm, hand made cheeses, whose producers are making a living. These cheese makers have paid the freight, customs, and brokers fees, and whose retailers put on another markup.

By now we know that certified organic food costs more to produce, and if you want it you should expect to pay more for the effort. But how much more is becoming a big issue. The prices in the market would be hard to justify on the basis of farming practice. What does appear to be a factor, and one that I am not willing to support, is the idea that small scale "farmers" are entitled to make a living. If the Joneses want to sell their garden product off their two acre patch they can't begin by arguing that they work harder, incorporate no labor sharing or saving mechanism, and need to make X in order to survive. They have created a bubble, a small one, but a bubble and it is going to burst.

In June, Pete Wells writing in the NYT, went on about $35 chicken, and $14 gallons of milk. He was cutting back. The farmers had priced him out of their market.

Many articles are written re. how the local farmer is only recovering his/her cost of healthy production and usually in the same article a shot is taken at industrial food. In a recent discussion in the local paper it was stated that the reason the industry can produce cheap food is that "they exploit illegal labor, despoil the land, and spread disease".

When you make that statement in Maine, you are indirectly attacking the single largest farm crop in the state, the Maine Potato. The Maine potato is in season right now, and this highly respected food source is on sale in most supermarkets for 40 cents a pound. Clearly something else is going on here.

In the same article John Harker, a development agent for the Maine Department of Agriculture, said "research shows that the current market for direct-to-consumer sales from small farms in Maine is confined to the pool of consumers with higher incomes and higher levels of education". John had best be careful. I have run into a hail of criticism for suggesting there is anything wrong in the farmers "market".

The critical points have to be made. If persons intended to set up a food boutique, selling custom made product to richies who choose to pay for the privilege so-be-it. But that is not the ambition of the persons promoting the locovore/organic movement. A recent conference was entitled "Can Maine Feed Itself". That is all Mainers. That includes women in the WIC program, a federally funding program trying to improve the nutritional intake of new moms. They have just included "farmers markets" as eligible for vouchers from WIC participants. WIC women can now buy $10 worth of product at a certified farmers market, A MONTH. In our market that would be one lamb shank.

John Harker has called on farmers to form co-ops to increase their footprint. He hopes for more processing plants, and he calls for consumers to form buying co-ops. He also hopes to curtail the false promise of organics as in the following article.

I have a local farmer who eschews the Portland market. He sets up a stand on the campus of our local university on Fridays. He has the same beautiful product, grown locally, at half the price of his competition. He's got my business.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Granny Flats and why you want them

The best definition of an ADU comes from an issue of New Urban News, Dec 2001:

"Granny flats add flexibility and affordability. 
In several new urban communities, accessory dwelling units are strong sellers and offer benefits to both home owners and developers.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) appear under many aliases — granny flats, garage apartments, carriage houses, ancillary units — and they almost invariably show up on a checklist of what sets new urban communities apart from conventional subdivisions. They are by no means ubiquitous, but developers from diverse projects report that granny flats have become a popular amenity and an important selling point.
For some home owners, the most attractive aspect of ADUs is the potential for extra income from renting out the unit. Other home owners view the extra space as a flexible addition that can be used as a home office, as lodging for teenage children or elderly family members, or as a guest room with great privacy.
From a developer’s perspective, ADUs provide an extra tier of housing options — affordable units that can attract people from diverse age and income groups. Another benefit is safer and more lively alleys. With more “eyes on the street,” children and adults are more likely to use the alley for play and socialization".

The article goes on to discuss great examples of win-win opportunities where the concept is implemented, and though describing new housing, it establishes the concept. It could be applied to existing stock through smart adaptation. Some companies are starting to build portable structures to be moved into back yards as needed.

This idea however is very controversial. One story jumped out at me, This from Binghamton NY:
Profs use Facebook info to evict BU students
Originally Published 2007-12-07
By Erika Neddenien
Six Binghamton University students face eviction after their neighbors — two BU professors — used Facebook to determine that they were in violation of the West Side’s R-1 zoning law, Binghamton’s Mayor Matt Ryan said.

The R-1 zoning law, which restricts a chunk of Binghamton’s West Side to “factual and functional families,” is typically only enforced when reports are made about a violation. The issue made headlines in 2000 when two dozen students were evicted from their homes.

To try to get a grip on this "problem" The city commissioned "A Report of the Mayor’s Commission on Housing and Home Ownership"
The result was to suggest the creation of an "overlay district" in which "student housing" was encouraged.
BUT: Within their summary the planners identified the following strategy to limit:"Rebuttable presumption / presumptive limit approach: This approach is a somewhat complex concept. What it amounts to is setting a numerical occupancy limit, which can be waived under specified circumstances, based on the number of unrelated tenants who can live together in a dwelling unit. The limit is waived if the landlord (or tenants) can demonstrate that the tenants are the “functional equivalent” of a traditional family—based on criteria set forth in the Zoning Code. (Most municipalities throughout the U.S. employ this functional family equivalent approach, as a result of Constitutional rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court and the highest courts of most states.) The presumptive limit approach is further complicated by the need to decide whether to apply the same presumptive limit to dwelling units in R-1, R-2, and R-3 districts- -and, if not, how to draw principled distinctions. It also creates endless debates about the rationality of applying the same presumptive limit to large versus small houses, and to houses with many versus few bedrooms " Students considered this a ghetto that limited their choices.
The city in an attempt to quell student outrage at what they conceive of as restrictive zoning addressed them with respect citing they were only interested in their safety. Too many persons in a home is a fire hazard.

There you have it. This isn't the first time the issue of non traditional families living together caused a ruckus. "Exclusionary rules" have been challenged around the country with varying degrees of success. The Fair Housing Act is a response to handicapped persons wanting to live together and having been rebuked. Same sex marriage prohibitions run right into this issue of what constitutes a family or the "head of a household".

In 1985 the following abstract appeared:
MARSHA RITZDORF Iowa State University
Copyright 1985 Urban Affairs Association

Although not often included in the literature devoted to exclusionary zoning practices, an examination of the use and abuse of family definitions in American municipal zoning ordinances is important to those who are concerned with the revitalization of American cities and suburbs. Many of the ideas suggested for innovative reuse of existing housing are linked to the family definition. Accessory units in single-family dwellings and shared housing are two examples. This paper briefly examines the history of family definitions in municipal zoning ordinances, reviews the major court decisions concerning their use and discusses the relevance of the continued use of family definitions when current demographic changes are taken into consideration.

Since then the issue keeps bubbling up. New Urbanists, trying to increase density and walkability in their planned communities meet resistance. Whereas the article at the top sites eyes on the street as a positive. The following article in Reason Magazine argues against it:
"Crime-Friendly Neighborhoods
How "New Urbanist" planners sacrifice safety in the name of "openness" and "accessibility"

ADUs marketed with seniors in mind are doing better. ECHO is a program that is gaining traction. In some cases it pays to be old.

Here are other examples of places struggling with the concept. Denver,
Boston, Provo, and here is a great story from Santa Cruz.

For our purposes it is safe to say that those of us looking for creative ways to solve the housing crisis the idea of ADUs makes sense. Were this to be a widely adopted housing pattern, you can imagine a set of dwellings which enhance "family values". Owners could shift the footprint of their homes as their family composition changes without having to uproot. Homes could expand and contract as needs determined. New homeowners offset mortgage costs. If their family grows they move into the ancillary spaces. When family members move on, the now empty nester has space to rent again. This is an idea whose time has come. Be vigilant and attend those dull zoning hearings. Your life depends on it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Off the Grid

What's the meaning of this? More than the rather obvious concept of removing oneself from the big guys who supply power, the more insidious consequence is that persons who actually do move off the grid, do so as a form of insulation from the rest of us, in community. In and of itself, this movement wouldn't concern me. There is nothing new here. What does concern me is that the leading proponents of environmental reform, including a MacArthur genius grantee, have moved themselves off the grid, and model a totally irrelevant mode of existence. They also give ammo to those who argue against eco reform by exploiting the hypocrisy of those who don't "do as they say".

My personal top four include Bill McKibben whose home was featured in the Sierra Club magazine.

Mr. McKibben has actually argued for strengthening community. Consider the title of a book published about the same time he was finishing his house: "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future." Community isn't driving to the farmers market. Community is a network of goods and services that supply ones daily life with the riches that far surpass what one could or should assemble on their own. And what does he model? A free standing single family home in the countryside. So if we extrapolate. Even if the billions of the rest of us could afford this "style" of life, can we imagine what the planet would look like with billions of homes sprawled across the earth.

A quote from the Rocky Mountain Institute website reads: For many supporters and visitors, Rocky Mountain Institute® is synonymous with Amory's private residence in Old Snowmass, Colorado. Completed in 1984 and upgraded continually since then, the facility remains a state-of-the-art showcase of efficiency ideas. Amory Lovins' house was just featured in a WSJ article which they point to on their website. In the article it is demonstrated that the current set of retrofits to the 4000 plus square foot house in which Mr. Lovins grows bananas, are really not affordable, yet they demonstrate the possibility of the retrofits we might attempt to our existing housing stock. Well the guy in Houston who tried it rejected most of the technology, and again one has to wonder what are we modeling here? Oh to be rich and afford a home in which I can grow my own bananas.

The staff of the institute has been moved to a nearby preserve and the best I could discover was that the nearest food coop was 19 miles away.

When we visited Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti and arranged a lunch the attendant acolytes were so nervous they literally surrounded the great man and answered my questions for him. Questions such as why is there a question mark on the web page "an Urban Laboratory?" Is the idea to be self sufficient, living as they are, in the desert, 65 miles north of Phoenix? There was a lot of mumbling.

When on the web site click on the Solare project and realize that what Soleri has always had in mind is a rejection of the current fact of life of the cities we now occupy and instead dreamed the possibility of what his vision of the future might look like. But Arcosanti exists in the here and now. What are we to make of the tension between the guy who is trying to grow food on his small plot at Arcosanti, fighting the folks who budget concrete building material in front of his need for water? True story. People cycle thru here. People don't ask the tough questions and are being diverted from the hard work of repairing their own lives.

Another project that gets a lot of ink is Earthship.

Drive 15 miles out of Taos, into the desert, and come upon the early adopters of rammed earth, funky, alternative structures. One of the ironies is that most of them are for sale, aftermarket sale. They range in price from the low 160s to 500K and boy are they off the grid. Again so what's the biggee? Desert rats have been doing this for years. But if you polled an average population of persons plugged into eco-friendly design- build concepts, processes liked rammed earth and recycled tires would come up a lot. The Financial Times did a piece on the build your own movement and if you visit these sites you will see groups of young people rediscovering the quality crafts of post and beam construction, rammed earth, cob walls, and hay bales construction. Great for them. And some of them are looking for plots of land as I write this. They also have interesting bedfellows. I am sure that both groups cringe at the thought they are moving in the same direction.

But, the facts of life as we live them are that now most of us reside in cities.
And these numbers are growing.

David Owen is releasing a new book; Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability
that expands his original New Yorker article on NYC being the greenest city.

Living within one of our built existing environments of course places us squarely on the grid. Would that the champions of rebuilding these places got as much attention in the pop culture as did their back to the earth cousins.

Click on the image of Majora Carter and be taken to her TED talk

Monday, September 7, 2009

Thou Art

Best Products stores shattered the easy distinction between a building as functional, or as an object of art. These early big box stores were designed by the firm "SITE | architecture, art & design" ( Sculpture in the Environment ). A pictorial review of these stores is here.

The fusion of structure as art and design was shocking. I remember near wrecks as people driving by, slowed to view the structure standing near a parkway in Richmond, VA. But the firm had a serious purpose which drives them to this day: To break new ground.

As this project was winding down the firm created a book "Highrise of Homes" which was published in 1982. The following is a slide show of some of the images from that book, forwarded to me from the firm:

As I was preparing this blog I wrote to Jim Wines, now professor of Architecture at Pa State and told him of my intent to revisit this concept. He replied:

Dear Will,
I received your inquiry concerning the Highrise of Homes project. I am delighted that you are pursuing its translation into reality. SITE actually had a client in Japan who was ready to build a version of the idea around 1985, but the negotiations never quite worked out.

As you may know, the project has been getting quite a bit of attention over the past couple of years; so the prospect for serious consideration seems to be growing. In fact, I will be a keynote speaker at the Sarkozy sponsored conference on green design for Paris at the Pompidou Center in October, where HoH will be featured. Also, the project will be on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for their big Post-modern exhibit in 2011. So the timing of your interest is probably pretty good....

Thanks again for your interest.
Best regards,
James Wines

The text of the book included criticisms of the project, responses, a lot of architecture speak, and an epilogue that I quote from here:

"The Highrise of Homes is a far from perfect solution, yet it functions as a viable response to an imperfect world--a world of too many people trying to occupy too little land surface. The project is a condition of experimentation which accounts for and tries to deal with the conflicting desires of city dwellers to enjoy the cultural advantages of urban life, without forfeiting the sense of independence and identity associated with the house and garden. In an era when the mansion on the hill and the cottage in the country are becoming increasingly less attainable--and, indeed, less sociologically justifiable--the Highrise of Homes may represent the new "democratic skin" of multi-level habitat. It is architecture as the collective biography of its inhabitants. It is architecture as a chronicler of pluralism and a celebration of choice. It is architecture as the negation of the "master builder" concept that has dominated this century. It is architecture as a form of spontaneous urban theatre. It is architecture that is, at once, visionary and very traditional."

I can't be sure but I have a hunch that at least one member of the team had a tongue placed deeply in their cheek. At the least the sense of having given in to a cultural imperative is expressed in this concept: If the western pattern of dwelling is so fixed in the minds of the consumer then lets give it to them in a way that works us out of some of the attendant problems of sprawl, and at the same time incorporates an adaptive reuse of the existing infrastructure.

Anthropologists will tell you that the modern "fireplace" is a vestigial manifestation of a primitive need to gather around the warming hearth. Builders concerned with the consequences of heat loss, build in inserts, insulating screens, and finally the ultimate ventless fireplaces.

These adaptations respect the fact of the reluctance to change while adapting the dwelling to the demands of modern conservation. In the case of Highrise of Homes, SITE has retained the core concepts of cluster efficiency while suggesting to those who resist the loss of their identity, they can have it all. That's not Art. That is an artful solution to a practical problem.