Room with a view
WAV’s Chris Velasco on sustainability and the human aspect of green
By James Scolari 04/15/2010
By now, it might be safe to say that those in Ventura County for whom Chris Velasco needs an introduction might not have been paying much attention to current events. He is the visionary behind PLACE’s (Projects Linking Art, Community & Environment) recently completed WAV (Working Artists Ventura), a virtually unprecedented achievement in green community building that has focused the world’s eye on Ventura. WAV will celebrate its official grand opening this weekend during ArtWalk. Velasco recently sat down with the VCReporter to discuss the philosophy behind PLACE’s work on behalf of sustainable community:
VCR: First, the WAV is a splendid gift for Ventura - I know many people are grateful to have had such progressive work accomplished here.
CV: Thanks to all of you. It was already creating reverberations around the country, before the project was even finished. I've had the chance to speak about it at several conferences, like the Grant-makers and Arts Conference in Brooklyn, and HUD's National Conference - and I'm telling people about it, and their jaws were dropping, really, and in both cases I was asked the same question: ‘Why Ventura? What's going on there, what's in the water in Ventura?' I said, ‘You know, what's nice about working in a mid-size community is they can galvanize around a vision.' And I said ‘With all due respect to the lovely city of New York, it's just too big for you to galvanize around any mission.' But that is exactly what's happened in Ventura: that first of all there are a lot of people with vision, and two, there are a lot of people who could find out about it, get involved and become part of a movement, essentially, that allowed it to happen.
I appreciate that people might be grateful for the work, but I extend it right back to you and the other amazing people that live in Ventura. I feel like I was there for a moment in time where people really got what we were trying to do and became enthusiastic about it and would do anything to make it happen.
VCR: It's a big thing to be able to activate people. People can be so distracted, while there are pressing issues we could be paying attention to and working on. We're reaching a point where that's harder and harder to ignore.
CV: One of the things I always say when we're being called by somebody in Oakridge, Tennessee or Washington DC, or Denver, Colorado is, ‘I'm really proud of the WAV project, it represents the best work I've ever done in twenty years of building intentionally thought out and planned communities. But you shouldn't think it could be parachuted down into Denver or DC. It's not the product, it's the process; the process of involving people and empowering them to participate and having it represent their dreams, which won't be the same as it was for the community in Ventura. We need to give it the freedom and the respiration room to be what it's going to be in Denver and DC and Uganda and Bologna, Italy and London, England.
VCR: One of the most pressing problems you're addressing, of course, is with regard to environmental impact. The idea of taking a project of this size and pursuing a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification is a big deal.
CV: You know, today's greenest buildings are going to be tomorrow's only modestly green projects. If you haven't even sought certification, ten years from now your project is just going to be regarded as one of the problem properties.
At the same time, while I think it's important to capture that LEED certification, we also want to also go beyond the LEED program. How the community lives and works and plays and creates, going forward, is an even more enormous factor in how Green that community will be. You can build the greenest building ever made, but if people use bleach to clean their bathroom, or paint their place with paints that create unhealthy indoor air quality, and they drive gas guzzling vehicles when really a short walk or bike trip would suffice, then it really isn't very green in the long haul. We're in the process of launching this car-sharing program, and with it we will be kind of closing the loop.
Think about what that could mean: Californians have been way out in front with building green, way ahead of the rest of the country, such that per capita energy use in California has not gone up in twenty years. But at the same time driving mileage has gone up dramatically - and driving is one of the least Green things we all do. There's some new legislation that's coming along that might help with that, but I think that rather than trying to legislate it, people can look with some intention in terms of how they build communities and how people are going to be able to live in those communities with an eye toward reducing reliance on the automobile. That's what we tried to do here.
VCR: It seems like you're talking about a partnership between the builder and the residents. Give them the tools to continue to live and take responsibility for a life that remains Green. You haven't really used the word yet, but the idea of sustainability remains ever more important for us, really the watchword for us, moving forward.
CV: It is, yes. In the sense that things can continue with their existing mode of operation in a way that is not damaging to humans and is not damaging to the other creatures that we share the planet with, to their health, to the economy - all of those things are part of what PLACE thinks are about sustainability. It's not necessarily about reducing the amount of waste, for example - it's not enough to simply build communities that are less damaging; I think we have to get to the point where they are not only not damaging, but healing to the environment and to the people that are there.
You know, the disruption of the climate is often where people go when talking about sustainability, the danger to the world; and yet it's only kind of incidental to what PLACE is trying to do, because for us sustainability is more than environmental sustainability, it's about economic sustainability, it's about human values sustainability, and it's about community sustainability. All of these aspects are something we try to work into the community, and it speaks to a kind of sustainability that goes so much deeper than climate. I think climate's a very important issue, don't get me wrong, I'm not dismissing climate at all; what I'm saying that is that if you want to sustain the sustainability movement, you have to look deeper.
VCR: What you're explaining here, the deeper idea behind your initiative, is such a breath of fresh air. I think people can plug into this idea of a societal partnership, into brokering a new vision for Ventura and a new vision for the modern world, even if some people might roll their eyes at such a utopian notion.
CV: Well, if you can find a way to do that in a way that reduces the number of eye-rolls you will have done an incredible service to these issues. I think resistance to innovation in these areas is part of the difficulty in changing how we do what we do.
A really important function is to figure out how to have these conversations. As a non-profit, we're committed to non-partisanship by law, and PLACE is committed to that in spirit as well; and yet we find the issues of environmentalism and social justice become loaded with someone's particular views about carbon cap-and-trade programs, or someone's ideas about offshore drilling. It immediately has association with things that people are for or against. So we want to go deeper with the work that we're doing, to have it represent the vitality and the health and well being of communities and the people who live in them. That is something, I think, that people would immediately say is non-partisan, but we have to be careful because there are these immediate linkages that are made around the language that we use. We can't just say ‘we'll let people have the political viewpoints that they have, we just want to build sustainable communities,' because if we're not aware of how to do this in a way that plays equally well for both sides of the aisle, then we're not really doing our job - and guess what? It's not really sustainable to become partisan, because the political winds blow, and they change, and if we are seen as benefiting more to one side than the other of a conversation, or if we're seen as excluding one aspect of the conversation, then we cannot sustain what it is that we're trying to do.
VCR: There is common cause here that can't be disregarded-we all want and need to breathe air drink water, eat food and be sustained. A very common thread in America is this idea of life satisfaction being on the endangered species list.
CV: Yes. We want to highlight the lack of association between wealth, material possessions and people feeling fulfilled, humans flourishing. It's a very powerful idea to learn that when you create and imagine tools for these ideas of well-being and you begin to study it widely, you begin to discover that the things we think are necessary for vitality and health and well being and happiness are not connected to having a lot, and they're not connected to being wealthy. So I think one of the things that we'll see when people come to visit communities like WAV is that they will see that people who are at the bottom end of the income spectrum, and people at the top end, and everybody in between, really having a high quality of life, living in a community with each other.
VCR: I'm coming to see clearly to see why you call your organization PLACE - you're re-imagining places in an astounding way.
CV: We have a little saying around here that ‘you get what you frame.' If you are framing a task or conversation in a particular way, that's going to be
predictive of the kinds of results and impacts that you have from that. The creation of communities has traditionally been framed as a business. Businesses in this country are framed so that they can produce profit for the people who are investing in those businesses - and I defend that, that's an important part of the ecosystem. But it shouldn't be all of the ecosystem, one, and two, you shouldn't expect that businesses that are framed to produce profit will look toward the happiness of the people who buy their product, or will clean up the water-that's not what they're framed to do. So part of the failure of the marketplace and then in turn the failure of policy to address the failure in the marketplace is that there is no discussion about how these things are framed - thus we try to legislate a business that is created for a given purpose to do something else that is not its purpose. That is a flawed enterprise from the start. So another important facet of sustainability is this idea of ecosystems existing in business and within the nonprofit ecosystem and within education ecosystem and within the workplace ecosystem-that these are, act, and behave like organisms, and that there are different niches in them, and the only way to create a healthy ecosystem is to be sure that all of the niches are occupied. That's a real subtlety here, but it's an important part of sustainability - I don't think it's sustainable to expect a company that is trying to make a profit by building good microchips to also be responsible for cleaning up the air, or that a company that has been created for the purpose of selling organic farming products to somehow house the homeless. They haven't been framed for that purpose.
But if you do understand that, then you've got the power of framing on your side, and communities can say ‘we've got this project, and it's on public lands, and it's going to involve public investment, and because of that it gives us the ability - and more than that, the responsibility - to have a discussion about ‘how do we want to frame this project so that it serves the community the way that we want it to be served, so that it achieves the ends that we all would like to achieve?' Again, that doesn't have to be every development, but I think it would be an important part of the whole universe of development that's going on out there to say there are certain ones that make sense to be intentionally framed to do what we'd like them to do. That's the process that PLACE has facilitated in the creation of the WAV, one that's involved 2,000 citizens in a conversation about ‘if you could build a world from scratch, what would it be, what would it look like? What kind of world would you want to build?'
I think that's a really important concept, and again, it's a deeper idea about sustainability, because clearly, not framing any of our enterprises out there for the purpose of producing human flourishing, for the purposes of producing greater well-being in our communities - if we frame nothing that way, that is not a sustainable path.
VCR: You said something almost in passing that I found thrilling - this idea of the community consisting not only of the people who live in it, but those around it. This notion of sustainability really pivots on inclusivity, and the idea that it's something that we all can participate in whether we have one of those abodes or not.
CV: Yes, very much so. You actually picked one of our three guidelines for process: inclusivity, respect and purpose. Those are the three things that we're constantly talking about in all our community processes. We had 142 public community meetings before we occupied the WAV project, involving people who wanted to live there but weren't going to, and people who never had any intention to live or work in the WAV project, but wanted to be involved in the creation of a world from scratch. That ended up broadening itself out to about 2,000 people involved in it, and at every meeting, the first slide that popped up simply said ‘respect, inclusivity and purpose.'
So you picked one of the most important aspects of this community process for us. When we're having conversations with other countries and other cities about creating something, we say it's the process that replicable, not the product. That process of inclusivity, respect and purpose is not something we come out of our culture trained to use, so framing our meetings around those things gives us a great outline for interaction. Those tools really tend to support one another - you can't have inclusivity without respect, and vice-versa. And then purpose is really important because you can go off-track or your intent can become de-railed if you don't keep purpose out in front. Many times in the process people can go off on tangents - one will say ‘I think we should create a sub-committee, and I'm volunteering to head that subcommittee,' and there might be resistance to that, and you find yourself at the threshold of conflict. So I like to ask ‘What's our purpose here? Thus we can ask, ‘is what we're trying to do here necessary for that purpose, or not?' It's amazing how often the unnecessary things that could create conflict sort of fall away, because it's pretty clear to people without much discussion what is consistent with that purpose and what isn't.
So with WAV we had all these meetings, and then people began to move into the community - and guess what happened? Those tools continued to be used, carried forward like a banner in terms of how the residents wanted to continue with this ever-renewing process of community building, using respect, inclusivity, and purpose. It's really rewarding when I come into town and sit in on some of the community's meetings, to see that those tools have actually become part of the process of building a great community, and re-building it on a regular basis. The tools are now just built into their conversation.
VCR: What excites me about that process is the idea of accrual and momentum. I believe in a sort of critical mass - if you can start putting something on its feet, you can get it to the tipping point where momentum takes over, carries it the rest of the way. A few activated people who put their shoulders against it and push and get it rolling, and momentum grabs it and it takes off.
CV: Yes, and it takes a smaller number to get started than most people think.
VCR: Yes, by all means, in the manner that a nuclear device is triggered by a very small explosion - that small explosion leads to a chain reaction that results in this cataclysmic, transformative explosion. It's an indelicate metaphor, but one that's most apt in the way society works. I'm fascinated by Facebook and the manner in which people from all walks of life and every age strata are adopting it and participating in this sort of grassroots democracy the likes of which we've never seen. It's transcended what the intention for it might have been, to the point where no one can control it and no one knows where it might be going.
CV: I'm fascinated by the same thing, and I think it will change the way we think about complex systems like the economy, for example, which is a very complex system where even the most expert people with the highest training are able to do little more than nibble around the edges of understanding how it actually works. I think it's going to inform how we look at these complex systems and help us understand that they emerge from a multitude of small, individual acts. That's how these things are shaped and changed, and that's why it makes it difficult to predict where it's going, makes it difficult to legislate and control - instead, the idea is to get involved and make sure that the contribution that you make to that system is the one that creates the kind of result you want to see at the end of the day.
A state-of-the-art sustainable ecovillage designed to provide affordable living and shared community for creatives, WAV is LEED-certified, which means it underwent a tough review process to meet rigorous sustainability criteria. It is the first commercial construction project to achieve this certification in Ventura County, and only the second in California. Developers of WAV worked with E.J. Harrison and Sons to recycle all the waste associated with the construction of the project. According to Chris Velasco (see accompanying article), half of all landfill waste in the U.S. consists of perfectly usable construction material. In addition to green construction, the WAV lifestyle includes green practices. Residents are asked to make certain commitments with the long-term health of the community in mind.
These include not smoking, using nonpetroleum-based cleaning products and car sharing. (For an hourly fee, residents may rent a community vehicle.)
Inside the WAV
Energy efficient appliances
Low-flush toilets (conserve water)
Solar panels (reduce electricity usage and cost for all of the public areas and the theater/gallery)
Forestry-certified wood (meets standards of conscious stewardship set by Forest Stewardship Council)
Recycled materials wherever possible
Low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints (less toxic)
Triple-paned windows for additional energy savings
Drought-tolerant landscaping and drip irrigation (to avoid evaporation.)