Tales from the Sustainable Underground

Chronicling the lives of select alternative building pioneers and the laws they broke in the name of sustainability.


| April 2013



Tales From the Sustainable Underground

A Wild Journey with People Who Care More About the Planet Than the Law

Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

Activists striving for any type of social change often find themselves operating on the fringes of legal and social norms. Many experience difficulties when their innovative ideas run afoul of antiquated laws and regulations that favor a big business, energy- and material-intensive approach.Stephen Hren brings Tales from the Sustainable Underground (New Society Publishers, 2011), packed with the stories of just some of these pioneers – who care more for the planet than the rules – whether they’re engaged in natural building, permaculture, community development, or ecologically based art.  

I grew up in the burbs, a no man’s land of boxes and highways. We lived in a box, we rode around in shiny metal boxes, even time was divvied up into boxes. Bells rang and I moved from one classroom box to another, listening disinterestedly to prepackaged lessons until the lunch bell rang. Then I went to an enormous box and ate food made out of cardboard. A few more boxes of time and then I got on a giant yellow box and rode back to our box, where I would kill time watching a flashing box — Three’s Company, What’s Happening, Alf. 

I would ride my bike around our neighborhood, where the most prominent feature of most homes was the garage for the automobiles, a style of building I would come to call “carchitecture.” Out front, a few small bushes would be the only green thing around, usually openly hostile holly bushes with spiny leaves that would attack you if you scraped against them. Even these bushes were shaped into boxes. 

Growing up in a family where my father and three brothers were all variously employed in engineering, the built environment was of incredible importance to me. I am a builder by nature. From my teenage years, I had an overwhelming desire to build my own home. When I got together with my first wife, we also had a strong desire to escape what seemed to be the empty and destructive existence being lived by our elders. At that time, there was little philosophy behind this motivation, more just a visceral instinct that what we witnessed around us was built on a rotten foundation. Building our own home would turn out to be an almost decade-long process, one that would be a long education in society’s rigorous reinforcement of the status quo and its ignorance and often outright hostility towards sustainable alternatives. 

By our early twenties, we had used a small inheritance from my grandparents to purchase 10 acres of land about 45 minutes north of Durham. Our education in alternative architecture had begun. At first, our primary motivation was thrift. Once the land was purchased we had very little money to build much of anything, especially after putting in a well, septic and driveway. What could we build to live in by using materials readily at hand? How much reused stuff was available? What would be inexpensive to operate in the long term? Coming from a land of bigger is always better, McMansions and SUVs just starting their hostile takeover of society, these were radical thoughts. 

At that time in the mid-90s, there was very little evidence of alternative architecture, although a powerful new movement was just starting to bubble under the surface. Much of what we came across was either the traditional pioneer building styles such as log cabins, or relics from the 60s and 70s, some of which we soon discovered we wanted nothing to do with. We had a good friend who lived in a geodesic dome, built in the mid-70s a few miles outside of Chapel Hill. It was a fascinating place, and the roundness of it was appealing, at least up to a point. There was a little mini-dome built beside the original one, its function never entirely clear to me, but cute as the dickens. Both domes leaked like sieves, of course, and although a dome does enclose the largest volume of space with a minimum of materials, just as Bucky claimed, much of that space is utterly unusable. The walls slope inward at about waist high, and are curved to boot. So pushing furniture against the walls was impossible, leaving mice superhighways behind. No one who’d ever lived in the dome had ever figured out how to insulate the thing, the triangles that made up the ceiling not being amenable to any of the rectangular board insulation sold at the lumberyard.