Monday, June 29, 2009

Climate Change Begins At Home

In my latest book "The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome," I make the argument that how we design and operate homes and communities will make a significant impact on climate change, energy use, affordability and well being.

A piece of my argument rests on the technical reality that homes can become more energy stingy while producing electricity. Most of the technology is already here to do that. The leading edge of building technology research is being done at places like Oak Ridge National Lab near Knoxville, Tennessee, which was built during the Manhattan project to create nuclear bomb materials. I met scientists like Jeff Christian, who is using the lab's resources for peaceful purposes such as making homes energy wise.

Here's a piece from Oak Ridge's magazine on Jeff's work:

Becoming Part of the Process

PROBLEM: Can we reduce power consumption without compromising our quality of life? Home automation systems help consumers tailor their daily habits and energy consumption to match their needs and budgets.

When ORNL scientist Jeff Christian declared in 2004 that houses could be designed to produce enough energy to pay for the power they consume, he had a lot of people shaking their heads in disbelief. Now that a growing number of zero-energy houses has sprung up in and around Oak Ridge, the same people are nodding their heads—this time in agreement.

The growing acceptance of zero-energy housing has inspired Christian to extend to the broader market the reach of both zero-energy homes and the technologies that enable these super-efficient houses.

A combination of new technologies, new habits and new policies will be required to make Christian's vision a reality. Consumers will need to be convinced to pay greater attention to their electricity consumption. Likewise, a commitment will be necessary from utilities to making smart grid capabilities available to consumers.

On the technology front, one of the most promising tools for reigning in out-of-control miscellaneous electrical use in homes is the home automation system. Many homeowners are surprised to learn that zero-energy houses are not solely dependent upon solar panels, high-tech gadgets and cutting-edge building techniques. The success of low-energy homes is made possible when people understand how and why they use energy. Researchers have found that the power required to heat, cool and provide hot water for most households accounts for only about one-half of energy consumption. The remaining 50 percent is used for a host of smaller activities, such as washing clothes, watching television and lighting rooms. Both halves of the energy equation can get a significant efficiency boost from the use of relatively simple home automation systems.

Increasingly common, these systems provide a communication link between the household electrical system and the utility grid. Through this link, consumers have access to a detailed and real-time breakdown of how much electricity they are using for specific appliances at specific times. Equipped for the first time with this information, consumers can begin to tailor their daily habits, and their energy consumption, to both their needs and their budgets.

ORNL researchers are working on the next generation of household appliances, which will include the capability to receive pricing information from the grid, as well as alerts about when electrical demand is expected to be particularly high or low. Christian's team is partnering with General Electric, Whirlpool, and the Tennessee Valley Authority to install this new capability into their test houses—Habitat for Humanity homes occupied by families—with the eventual goal of showcasing the technologies in larger, high-performance homes.

"Consumer behavior has a major effect on power consumption," Christian says. "Utilities understand that, so they are making a substantial investment to install 'smart' meters in residential areas to enable automation systems to communicate with the utility."

One of the key drivers behind the move to smart meters is the adoption by many utilities of time-of-day pricing for electricity—that is, charging more for power during peak use hours and less during hours when the demand is low. "For example," Christian says, "in California the nighttime rate might be five cents per kilowatt hour, but in the late afternoon when it's really hot and people are demanding a lot of air conditioning, the peak rate might be as much as a dollar per kilowatt hour."

On the most basic level, home automation systems can save energy by using sensors to determine when people are present and then turning lights and televisions off when no one is in the room. With the latest technologies, consumers can go a step further and allow the utility company to control the power consumption of their major appliances.

"For example," Christian says, "with a home automation system, families can shut down their hot water heater for an hour or two during parts of the day when it's normally not being used. Consumers might choose to let the utility choose these times or choose the times themselves. Similar technologies could also enable consumers to set their dishwasher or washing machine to start operating when electricity is cheapest. For instance, the dishwasher could be loaded after supper but be instructed not to start operating until 10:00 at night, when energy rates are lower—or the consumer might instead let the utility determine the most economical time to start.

"Giving the smart grid control of certain appliance functions has essentially zero impact on homeowners. The new technologies literally do not require them to do anything," Christian says. "However, people who want to adjust their behavior and control the appliances themselves can take even greater advantage of this system."

Christian points out that widespread use of new grid technologies would dramatically decrease the peak demand for power. This new aspect of energy conservation is an attractive alternative to building new power plants to support ever-increasing peak power demands. Confronted with the financial and political costs of building additional power plants, Christian says utilities are faced with the policy decision of whether it is better to take advantage of emerging smart grid technology than it is to add additional capacity to the grid. "If we can get a lot of people to participate, the potential for saving energy and saving money is huge."

When Christian says "lots of people," he means lots of people. The demonstration project he is currently pitching to utility companies around the country would involve equipping 200,000 homes with "smart" meters. Ideally, these would be zero-energy homes in order to have the greatest long-term impact on power consumption. "It really comes down to the electric utilities enabling consumers to take advantage of this technology," he says. "We can talk all day about fancy controls and fancy appliances, but the infrastructure has to be there first."

For example," Christian says, "in California, the utilities are making the investment to install thousands of meters every day." Building codes that recognize the benefits of this technology are being adopted, as well. "In Boulder, Colorado, the codes are graduated," he says. "If you want to build a house that is 5000 square feet or larger, then it must be a zero-energy house. If the new house is 4000 square feet, it must be a very efficient house, and so on. Even the smallest houses need to meet Energy Star standards that are established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy."

"I'm also encouraged by the government's plans to invest in upgrading the country's electric power infrastructure using smart grid technology," Christian says. "I hope the result has an impact on our lifestyle as big as the construction of the Interstate Highway System 50 years ago.

"Christian acknowledges that the impact of any technology depends ultimately on whether consumers embrace it. "The issues of foreign oil dependence and climate change all come down to choices that individuals make," Christian says. "Zero-energy homes, smart grid technology, and home automation systems can enable consumers to reduce their energy expenditures without impacting their comfort or their lifestyles. This particular technology enables the customer to be part of the solution, rather than just complaining about the shortcomings of conventional power plants. Until recently, all we could do was buy or not buy power. In the world of tomorrow, we will become part of the process."

How can we help scientists like Christian incorporate this technology into every home? Call your congressional representative and tell them that you want to see more green building incentives built into the final climate change/energy bills. Tell your local utility that you need ways to cut your power usage such as smart meters, automation devices and agreements to buy back power you generate at favorable rates like they do in Germany.

Remember that climate change is something that hits home. Quite literally.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Song for Our Times

Right at the height of the market/credit crunch I wrote this song entitled "Bail Me Out Baby." While I don't think I'm going to give The Boss a run for his money any time soon, it was a comment on avarice and it's after-effects.

This is a video that was shot of me performing the song at neighbor Chris Mallon's home along with some other (much more talented) singer-songwriters at an event called a SongPull. Scroll down to see yours truly and tell me what you think. Concentrate on the lyrics and not my Dylanesque performance.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vote for Green Jobs

Some pending legislation would help create green jobs. This is from my local Sierra Club chapter:

Stop Climate Change With Green Jobs

Action: Contact your member of Congress

Message: Improve and Pass HR 2454

When: Congress will vote on Friday, June 26.

Why: The future of life as we know it on Planet Earth is threatened.


I. Use the Club’s on-line alert:
Paste this into your browser:

Or click this Link.

II. Telephone:

Those in the US 10 district (SE half of Lake and NE Cook), please call US Rep. Mark Kirk's office, thank him for HR 55, the COMMUTER Act, and then ask that he vote for HR 2454. Call 847-940-0202, or 202-225-4835.

Those in the US 8 district (NW half of Lake and NW Cook), please call US Rep. Melissa Bean's office, thank her for reintroducing her 3 Green Innovation Initiative bills, and then ask that she vote for HR 2454. Call 847-519-3434 or 202-225-3711.

Strengthen and pass HR 2454, the bill for Green Jobs and Clean Energy ;
Require more energy efficiency and renewable energy sooner;

Retain EPA’s authority to make sure the necessary emissions reductions are achieved in time;

Invest in green jobs, not more giveaways to Big Coal, Big Oil, New Nukes, and other polluters.


The U.S. needs comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation to jumpstart our economy, create millions of new, good-paying clean energy jobs, make us more energy independent, and put us on the path to slashing global warming pollution 80 percent by 2050. Thanks to the effective leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the support of committee members from every region and economic interest of the country, we have a bill that sets us on this path. We need to achieve these goals by supporting and strengthening American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454).

As this bill is considered on the floor, we must strengthen it in three key ways: improve the renewable energy and energy efficiency provisions; allow the EPA to act as crucial backstop to make sure the necessary emissions reductions are achieved in time; and shift investments toward protecting consumers and the public interest, rather than more giveaways and bailouts for Big Oil, Big Coal, and other polluters. We must also defeat any amendments that weaken the bill, particularly those that undermine the legislation's clean energy incentives and emission reduction goals.

By voting to strengthen and pass the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the House will create vital momentum for action this year by Congress, and enable the President to show leadership in the international community. As we approach the December 2009 deadline for climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, we must show the world the U.S. is finally ready to take action toward solving this urgent global problem. Be part of this solution!

The effects of Climate Change are already evident around the world, and the emissions we release are causing it to accelerate. The hottest years on record are within this decade, and are resulting in more violent weather, dropping levels of fresh water lakes, melting of glaciers and sea ice, sea level rise, and many other unwanted effects. The resulting shift in climate zones toward the poles and to higher elevations is disrupting the life cycles of plants and animals that depend on one another for migration and pollination, and as a result, we are presently witnessing the sixth great extinction. With the stability of global ecosystems threatened, our energy use habits are gambling with the diversity of life on Earth. We cannot sit this out and hope to win a future victory. This time we’re all in.

Also see my new book "The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thom Hartmann, Ron Reagan to interview me

I'm doing two live progressive talk shows tomorrow 6/24:

Thom Hartmann at Noon, WCPT-AM 820 or WCPT FM, 92.7. If those stations don't come in, you can listen to live streaming at or XM Radio.

In the evening, I'm doing Ron Reagan's show on Air America (same stations) at 7:35 pm, or at

I'll be talking about my new book, "The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome," which explores the housing crisis and green building & development. It's currently the #1 book on suburbia on

Thanks in advance for taking the time to listen!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Doing Something About Climate Change

I think we all want to help the earth in some way. We writers like to spread the word. That's why I'm grateful to be included in an anthology of other writers addressing climate change in a new book sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

By reading the stories and supporting the group's efforts to lobby for comprehensive climate change legislation, you will be doing your part. Here's their message:

This week we expect the full House of Representatives to vote on a bill that could set us on the path toward curbing global warming, reducing our dependence on oil, and putting Americans back to work. And today we are releasing a new interactive book that puts a human face on why Congress must act now.

Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming introduces a new generation of writers and photographers with a personal connection to global warming. The 67 essays and images in this anthology are drawn from nearly 1,000 submissions about beloved places, people, plants, animals, and activities at risk from a changing climate—and the efforts that individuals are making to save what they love. A foreword by author Barbara Kingsolver serves as a powerful call to action.

From the site, you can peruse the book, send an email urging your representative to strengthen and support the climate bill being voted on this week, and help extend the reach of this book by encouraging your friends, family, and colleagues to check it out.

The essays we selected represent a variety of perspectives, voices, and experiences. The authors follow in the long tradition of great American environmental writers, like Henry David Thoreau, who have broadened our awareness and sharpened our perspective about the world we share. And they are inspiring action to protect our planet from global warming. They are Thoreau's legacy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Michelle Kaufmann's Evolution of a Dream

Architect Michelle Kaufmann had a dream. She wanted to build green modular homes. Produced in factories, they would be more environmentally sound than any other factory-built homes. Over time, if enough of them were produced, they would also come down in cost.

But the housing bust had other plans for her dreams. Running into a brick wall with the credit crunch and other woes stemming from the meltdown, she had to scale back her operations. She's now onto the next phase of her dream.

Being a generous person, she also found time to write a few kind words for my "Cul-de-Sac Syndrome," which featured her work. This is what she said in her blog:

On my trip this past weekend to Denver for the CNU (Congress for New Urbanism) conference, it seemed appropriate to be reading John Wasik’s new book, “The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustinable American Dream” while I was on the plane.

Wasik is one of my favorite writers at Bloomberg and the Huffington Post.In the book, Wasik looks at many of the causes of our housing crisis as well as offers thought-provoking ideas on possible solutions through a series of interviews with thought leaders and the latest studies and statistics.

John Wasik and I have become friends and have met on a number of occasions during the past years. During some of our discussions when he was supposedly interviewing me for this book, he would ask questions and offer ideas, that in fact, I was the one who left our meetings feeling curious and inspired. In the chapter titled “Building Smarter”, Wasik focuses on the mkSolaire as the exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry titled “The Smart Home: Green + Wired”. Wasik analyzes not only the sustainable materials, systems and process, but raises many good thoughts and questions about cost and how cost and financing is so integral to planning and the result of what and how homes are built.

While I was in the plane reading the book, and nearing descent, I gazed down at the landscape below, filled with various patterns of homes and communities. Instead of seeing the roofs as asphalt or shingles, I imagined green roofs, solar, and wind generation. Rather than the kidney shape pools, I imagined swimming ponds and rain catchment gardens. I imagined different patterns of density and mass transit.

It is all possible. And it is such an interesting time to work to make it happen.

Today’s post is a heart-breaking one…
…and, yet, a hopeful one at the same time.

Despite our best efforts, the financial meltdown and plunging home values have caught
up with us. The recent closing of a factory partner as well as the gridlocked lending faced by homeowners, has proved more than our small company can bear.

The past 5 years of living this work has been a challenge. There was no path to follow, no business model to emulate. Instead, we forged our own. That comes with risks and a lot of
hard work. Yet, we and our amazing clients maintained the vision of making
thoughtful, sustainable design accessible. It has been an unbelievable collaborative effort with endless support from scores of people. This work could not have been done without so many people who believed in and were dedicated to the dream: clients, employees, investors, partners, the media, and even museums. To date, we have built around 40 single family homes. Our desks were stacked high with over one hundred homes that were slated to be built in the upcoming two years. There is no question in my mind that we were successful at the proof of concept of a smarter way to design and build the homes.

However, we have always known that to pull off our mission, it requires scale. We always believed it would be our company to do the scaling. We were well on our way to do so. However, in this current economic climate, scaling for a small company has proven to be difficult.

So now I look to the next chapter. And there will be a next chapter. The mission cannot go away. We have built something important here that is not to be lost. The underlying concept works. Healthy, efficient and well-designed homes need to be accessible for all.
We simply cannot give up on it.

It just might require a different model for scaling it. We are talking to a few larger players in the homebuilding world about potentially having them continue with our preconfigured designs like the Glidehouse®, mkLotus®, and mkSolaire®. We are discussing different methods for making this happen. The reinvention and innovation continues. While these designs are like my children (I don’t have human children – only two furry, four-legged children and these homes), it might be time for them to leave the nest and go out into the world in a new way. I am also planning to continue the dream for better, well-designed homes and also focus on sustainable communities. There is so much improvement and innovation to do in creating healthy, diverse, efficient and beautifully designed communities. There is more than one model of the American Dream.

I want to urge all of us not to give up on this mission. I look forward to hearing about all the methods that you are creating in your work, in your homes and in your lives – different models of innovation and reinvention during these difficult, yet interesting times.

I look forward to all the amazing possibilities of the next chapter for all of us.

Stay tuned…

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Summer Beach Reading

I know what you're thinking. An author who recommends his own books for beach reading! How vain is that? Well, this is not my pick, although I can certainly concur:

Smarter in the Sun

Just because you’re lolling on a beach towel in Delaware Park or at Wendt Beach doesn’t mean your brain should rot. Here are smart summer reads that will broaden your worldview, as they delight your mind and engage your intellect.

1.“ The Merchant of Power:Sam Insull, Thomas Edison, and The Creation of the Modern Metropolis” by John F. Wasik.

New in paperback from Palgrave Macmillan, “The Merchant of Power” is a critically praised examination of the life and career of Sam Insull, the man who rose from humble beginnings as an immigrant to America to become a co-founder of General Electric. In Wasik’s account, Insull was the guiding force in the development of ways to use electric power to illuminate American cities. In this way, Wasik argues, he truly was the “creator of the modern metropolis.”

This was from the Buffalo News, owned by Warren Buffett.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Early Review of Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

This is from

Subtitled “Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream,” this book analyzes the housing crisis and reflects upon ways that America can move forward with affordable, environmentally sustainable architecture.

The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome is a good companion piece to James Howard Kunstler’s A Geography of Nowhere. Author John F. Wasik offers a cogent overview of the current housing crisis along with an analysis of the unsustainability of the current fads in American housing. He explains trends in environmentally conscious architecture and building, and offers his ideas about what it will take to put the American dream back to rights.

I was most interested by his discussion of “spurbs,” housing clusters that are not connected to a metropolitan area, offer no public transportation, are not walkable, and are interspersed with strip malls and shopping centers. I grew up in a suburb of Baltimore and now I live in Queens, NY, so I’m not intimately familiar with these areas. They sound like nowhere I’d want to live. I love what I read about the New Urbanism, one of whose central tenets is “get people outside.” I love that I can walk everywhere–sure, it’s a 30 minute walk to the park but that’s great exercise, and it’s so fun to bump into people I know along the way.

Here's my take on the book:

The book examines the housing crisis through an ecological lens. Why were homes built in the middle of deserts? What kind of damage did the creation of "spurbs" do to our environment, health, well being and economy? All these questions and more are answered as I explore how the American dream went awry.

I'd be happy to speak before your group.

Why should you care about this book? It’s about our homes and communities and how we need to re-invent, re-envision and re-build the American Dream if we want to survive in this contentious century. Economics meets ecology in this radical new look at what we’ve taken for granted as a birthright.

I urge you to review it, blog about it and start discussions within your network about the implications of my recommendations: Affordable, sustainable, environmnentally sound housing and communities for all Americans.

Here’s What Initial Reviewers Had to Say:

"John Wasik's The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome offers enough to chew on for three sets of teeth, enough to digest for three stomachs, and the alerts the mind faster than an approaching siren."

--Ralph Nader, Consumer advocate

"Get ready for a totally original look at the American dream. Wasik delivers the first truly multidisciplinary examination—using planning, law, architecture, and history to focus on working solutions that can keep the dream alive. This is a winner!"

— Paul B. Farrell, JD, PhD. Columnist, and author of The Millionaire Code

"This excellent book takes a ground-level look at the causes of our housing crisis and offers a myriad of ideas on reinventing the concepts of home and community.”

—Ilyce R. Glink, syndicated real estate columnist, author of 100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask

"A genuine kick to the head, showing how our individual quests for the biggest house on the hill is destroying our environment, the economy, and our health. But The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome is no dead end. It offers a new, green, urbanized promised land with real community, more free time, and a higher living standard. It's a masterful blueprint to unpave paradise and restore the world we cherish."

— Laurence Kotlikoff, Co-author of Spend 'Til the End: The Revolutionary Guide to Raising Your Living Standard—Today and When You Retire, and Professor of Economics at Boston University

Here’s the background on the book:

In The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome (Bloomberg Press, June 2009) John Wasik examines the American dream and questions whether the typical suburban home is the right dream for now. This is an incisive look at the consequences of today’s costly and damaging suburban lifestyle and the specific areas at risk.

Here are some uncomfortable questions the book asks:

  • Why “green” homes and communities make sense for every area and how they will make housing affordable again.
  • Why will getting rid of the car and making communities walkable again help address the housing crisis.
  • How the old way of building homes and subdivisions was unsustainable and created “spurbs.”

Read about solutions to the “sustainable dream”:

  • Revitalize inner cities and suburbs instead of building in the middle of nowhere
  • Re-invent the American home and community to make it affordable and green.
  • Throw out the car and rewrite building and zoning codes


John Wasik has won 18 journalism awards, including several from the National Press Club, for consumer and business journalism. His Merchant of Power was praised by Studs Terkel and well reviewed by the New York Times. Wasik is a financial columnist for Bloomberg News and the author of 11 other books. He has appeared on such national media as NBC, NPR, and PBS.

To contact the author, or 312-246-1121.

Published by Bloomberg Press June 2009

978-1-57660-320-8 • 224 pages • 6" x 9" • hardcover

$24.95 US • $27.95 CAN

Available now on or

Follow news of this book on my blog and my website New blogs and sites coming soon! I’m also available to speak on this subject.

Your Humble Author,JW

John F. Wasik

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Unaffordable Homes

Homes still cost too much. Even with this housing recession, it's important that we work toward affordable home ownership.

See my recent article on Huffington Post.

Here's another source:

What do we do?

1) Promote more high-density housing, 2) affordable rentals, 3) rebuild inner cities and inner suburbs, 3) create more incentives for modular, green housing, 4) stop subsidizing new highways and "spurbs," (sprawling urban areas with no public transportation or connection to central cities).

Ecology is the key! How can we build communities and not subdivisions in the middle of nowhere? How can we lower the closing costs on mortgages? Should we be fully guaranteeing mortgages? How can we reduce the burden of property taxes on homeowners?

We now have a window of opportunity to fix a lot of problems in the housing market. Let's seize the moment.