A version of this essay about sustainable stonework by Asheville stone mason Marc Archambault appeared in Stonexus X.
“You’re green,” he said, by way of enticement. “You should totally advertise.” The biennial green building guide was due out shortly, the local bible of sustainable design, products and construction. Everyone’s in there.
“Stone’s not green,” I countered.
“It totally is,” he said. “It’s all natural and it’s local.”
“It’s even renewable,” I replied.
“Totally,” he said. Sarcasm is lost on the earnest.
I didn’t buy it, the concept or the advertising.
To me green building was high-tech: cutting edge composites and recycled content. Green was ethereal: sunlight and wind. Green was gentle: softly harvested lumber and citrus cleansers. I work stone. My material is ancient, earthy and must be wrested from the ground by explosives and flaming diesel. Green is new and now. Stone is old and by most accounts, over.
Stone does renew, but in geologic time. Visit an abandoned quarry and you’ll find rusting cars and spray paint, but no granite seedlings peeking up through the dust.
Stone is locally available here in my mountains, but the in vogue sandstone is shipped in on flatbeds from neighboring states.
Stone lasts a long time, but only when used properly. That sandstone travels a long way to be stood up on edge in thin veneers, an invitation to water and exfoliation. This style is still new enough here that we haven’t yet seen the ugly downside.
This would have been the end of it too, except I was troubled that my life’s work was scar upon the Earth, that I was a lumbering, destructive beast, ruining my children’s home in order to give them a house.
Something was not right.
I started exploring.
From these unlikely origins, I found myself preparing to do a presentation at a local green conference. The conference focuses on the construction trades and I was planning to address how stonework could be more green.
I started my research and was immediately inundated in minutia: carbon footprints running everywhere. My favorite statistic was the amount of natural gas from Bolivia used in quarrying a representative sample of granite: none. I read the same paper by an engineer four times trying to figure out if we should leave this problem for future generations to solve. It was a cryogenic argument; they’ll have better technology. I learned that lime mortar uses 70% less resources than cement, and that includes having it shipped from Europe to my job site. It might be true. Facts tend to jive closely with their sponsoring bodies. Oftentimes the stats were muddy, comparing apples to coal production. In the midst of this global crisis wrought by industry and consumption in the developed world, numerous commentators in that developed world were very upset about the growing demand in China and India. This is fallen pastor preaching, I have sinned so you’d better not. I read about certification bodies which grow in power and influence. They smack of bureaucracy and make-work. The conversation tends to be shrill. The fate of mankind is at stake and everyone agrees that someone needs to start making some hard choices real soon.
For my presentation, I drafted simple formulas that showed the way transportation, quarrying and installation techniques impacted the green-ness of a stone project. They quickly grew complex- awkward algebra problems gone horribly wrong. I found myself trying to quantify data that no one had.
I realized that I was committing the same error as many of sustainability’s talking heads; I was defining everything in scientific terms, seeking statistics and research that would guide my way. But really, we don’t know what sustainable is: how many people per planet, how much water per flush, how many cubic yards of concrete per person per year. Our science is too young and our impact too broad for us to be sure. We may have blown sustainability out of the water at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Or it might happen tomorrow.
And really, we don’t need more data points, as they can’t save us anyway. We need new ideas. This is a philosophical issue. It will only be solved by a new way of thinking.
In order to open up the conversation, I drafted my own definition of sustainability and created a tool I call the Green Target. The target is a visual tool that helps analyze the sustainable properties of any project. Color coded pie wedges score the four elements of sustainability that I identified as being key to the discussion. The graphic is quick and clear and easily understood. The tool is meant to promote dialogue as well as encourage stone workers and other builders to challenge themselves to seek ways to improve the green qualities of their work.
I broke sustainability out into four main attributes. They are equally weighted in the tool, to ensure that important parts of the sustainability conversation aren’t ignored. The embodied energy of a project is a crucial concern, but not the whole picture. The work’s function, it’s expected lifespan and what it contributes to the community and culture are also essential. The outer ring of the target is red, indicating a lower overall rating in any category. The inner ring is green, indicating that the project scores well in terms of sustainability. The middle ring is yellow indicating a neutral rating or inconclusive information. Scores in the red and yellow should prompt further inquiry and planning, to discover ways to reduce the footprint and boost the sustainable characteristics of the project. The tool is decidedly lo-fi and subjective; its value is in the conversations it creates. The four main elements of sustainability are:
Does the stonework serve a functional purpose or is it purely decorative? Are the properties and benefits of stone utilized in some meaningful way? A retained heat oven scores well, a four inch veneer on a wood frame house scores poorly.
What is the embodied energy cost or carbon footprint of the project? What is the environmental impact of the project? This includes the sourcing of all materials, freight and installation. Drystone walls and carpooling to work improve the scoring here. Using Pennsylvania Bluestone in Wichita does not.
How long will the work last? How much maintenance will be needed under fairly typical usage or conditions? A well built drystone retaining wall scores well. A typical veneer with backset mortar and face bedded stone does not.
What does the work contribute to the community? Are local craftspeople and merchants being used? Is it a public or private project? Does it advance the craft? Does it educate people? This category looks over the whole lifespan of the work. A public stone installation scores higher than one in a gated community. Oddly enough, cultured stone does not rate at all in this category.
I gave my presentation to a small but attentive group of architects and builders. I went in nervous, having attended a couple of prior presentations about certifications and the building envelope. It seemed like there were so many abbreviations I didn’t know, so many new products that would save the day; how could I ever keep up? I introduced the Green Target and shared a couple of case studies, one good and green project, one not-so-good. They were both of my own work, as that only seemed fair. After my talk several people came up to chat with me, sharing similar concerns about the rarefied air around the topic in general and expressing some appreciation for the simplicity of the Green Target. I packed up my stuff and went to listen to a local architect and friend of mine speak.
Ken Gaylord is an architect and builder, a fairly rare breed anymore. Instead of detailing the green-ness of his recent projects, as I expected, he cut sustainability down as an unknown, unworkable quantity. He suggested the building trades focus on durability. This seemed to reflect the Lifespan element of the target. But then Ken offered the first element of a durable building that opened a new door for me: aesthetics. A durable building must be beautiful. It must warrant preserving, renovating and reusing. His examples of modern strip walls, young, ugly building in disrepair and already being torn down drove the point home; ugly building have short lives. And that’s extremely wasteful.
Ken proposed seven aspects of a durable building. With each, I felt like stone’s contribution to architectural history was being noted and it’s ability to contribute to the future being welcomed. In addition to 1.) aesthetic beauty, Ken noted the importance of the the 2.) context of the building- how it contributes to the fabric of the community. He stressed that a building should be 3.) carefully crafted so as to require low maintenance. A building should be 4.) healthful, with ample air and light and it should be 5.) local in style and materials. A durable building is 6.) adaptable to future uses and 7.) utilizes the best available conservation technologies for its energy and water consumption as well as its structural materials. Durability as a goal is something all true stone masonry aspires to.
Other insights came from a less likely source: Youtube. My four year old and I started watching pirated clips of Discovery channel shows How Do They Do It? and How It’s Made. Both programs show how everyday things are designed, manufactured and constructed. We’ve seen how to manufacture canoe paddles, recycle old war planes and refine copper. They are illuminating shows and they are frightening; it becomes clear that most of our resource consumption disappears into processing goods. Steel, glass and cement are all burnt at high temperatures for incredible lengths of time at a great cost in fuel. The process by which gold is refined is complex and all-consuming. Mountains are flattened, pulverized, bathed in toxic acids and so on, to produce miniscule amounts of the precious metal. Suddenly simple stone, wrested from the ground by explosives and flaming diesel, seems like a gentle way to go.
I know how many new homes built this calendar year will be structural stone: none. But I feel that by consenting to decorate houses in stony wallpaper that we sell the craft and the material short. It’s hard for me personally, because I am past a point in my life where I feel any real need to tell anyone how to live their life and do their work. I am responsible for me and my family. I am responsible to me and my family. When I get perfect at that, well then I can tell everyone else what to do…
For me, I am focused on building dry in the landscape and when I do mortared work, it should be structural. I avoid block and concrete as much as I can and try to conserve all my materials and by-products. Working alone makes it easier, as I only have to account for my own footprint. The work takes longer, but I feel better connected to the history of my trade and I am learning lessons that will help me build amy own stone home someday. I am not getting rich but I have the best job on Earth and I can take care of my family. And someday I will build them a home, of my own hand, that is durable and beautiful and honors the past as it reaches towards the future. That’s as sustainable as I can hope to be.
With thanks to Ken Gaylord, Karl Opanowicz and Tracey Blackwell for their contributions and editorial help.
The Stone Foundation: Publishers of Stonexus