Volume 13, Issue 24 ~ June 16 - 22, 2005

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Home is What the Heart Is
Having learned that an architect must look beyond mere walls, Richard Crenshaw has built a home that lives in nature.
by Carrie Steele
Home can be a quiet haven, filled with white walls and soft carpeting for peaceful meditation. Or it can have a huge entertainment room and guest quarters for hosting. Our homes are often expressions of ourselves, reflecting what we hold near and dear.

Richard Crenshaw drew a blueprint of his heart to build his home. This architect and devout environmentalist longed to transform his fascination with saving energy and concern for the Bay into a way of life. So he built a green home.

This patriarch of environmental living intends that his passage on Earth do no harm, so he wove his home into the watershed.

“My wish is that I develop my conscience and awareness in order to serve the highest in myself and learn to live in nature without destroying it,” says Crenshaw, 69.
Let the Sunshine In
Turning passion into a way of life takes planning, patience — and pursuit.

“I started this house in 1990,” says Crenshaw, whose short white beard is highlighted by tanned skin and a royal blue collared shirt. His deliberate way of talking reflects a man who has taken time to make — and meditate over — many observations.

He made his house tall — a smaller rooftop means less runoff — and box-shaped, with the thought that fewer joints and exterior walls means less escaped heat. His Shady Side property faced the West River, and he designed picture windows lining the two-story living room. Those south-facing windows were part of the house’s passive solar energy system.

After living with his dreams for 15 years, he knows how well his plans have worked.

“The sun does wonderful things,” he says. “It’s high in the summer, where we can shade better, and lower in the winter, coming into the house for more heat.” Passive solar energy uses the hazy indirect sunlight that comes in those two-story windows. The key isn’t strong light, says Crenshaw. It’s a lot of light.

Insulation completes the work of the sun.

“The real secret to solar heating is in the insulation,” Crenshaw says. His concrete floor in the atrium-like living room is fully insulated underneath so that it collects heat in the winter. Insulation works so well, he says, that he helped build a house in Saskatchewan, Canada, where extra-thick insulation kept heating bills to an average of $50 in the cold Canadian winter.

Working as an architect at the National Bureau of Standards offered Crenshaw a broader perspective on construction efficiency. “There’s no research on buildings,” he says. “The country spends millions of dollars on all kinds of things, but it isn’t looking at our buildings to see if they work or not.”

Keeping the warmth in takes reversing conventional wisdom, for example. Colonial builders got combating the harsh elements backwards. They put heavier materials like brick on the outside where they conducted any warmth right out, said Crenshaw. Instead, energy-efficient building puts mass on the inside of a building, and lighter, heavily insulated materials on the outside.

His theory works, he’ll tell you, if you’re patient. “You have to be willing to tolerate temperature change,” Crenshaw says. In a solar house, temperature fluctuates, so you have to watch the weather and learn to open windows and adjust accordingly.

If you live alone. Crenshaw’s wife, musician Maggie Sansone, is not so patient.

“When it gets hot, Maggie wants to open the window, even if it’s going to be cooler that night,” he laughs. “She wants everything instantly.” So how does Crenshaw keep harmony in the house?

“I want her to be happy, so the price I pay is going around shutting windows,” Crenshaw says.

In addition to using solar energy for heating, Crenshaw also collects the sun’s energy for electricity through a small set of solar panels, which saves him about 20 percent on electric bills. The panels will keep the house running for up to three days in a power outage.

Crenshaw’s solar-powered eco-house also boasts a composting toilet, a wood pellet stove, interior windows, a solar cooker, a wood-cooking stove and more features designed and added with the watershed in mind. There’s even a tree growing in the atrium-like living room.
Living in a (Sustainable) Material World
Crenshaw found his passion for solar energy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with Ian McHarg, the dean of the landscaping school, who taught Crenshaw that an architect had to look beyond the walls.

“Ian convinced me that there was a role for architects outside the building,” Crenshaw said. “I got an idea. We can design with nature rather than run over it. I started to work on being a benign cell on Earth,” Crenshaw said. “That’s when I really got into solar energy. We can take energy from the sun with photovoltaics, transferring sunlight into [power], just like plants do.”

But change must first come from within.

“I realized before I started changing the world,” Crenshaw says, “that I should change myself first, work on my inner life.”

Studying with a group based in D.C. called The Work helped develop Crenshaw’s life philosophy.

“I learned that I needed to split inner work and outer work in order to grow. People need some degree of stress in order to grow,” said Crenshaw, who quotes Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh as saying that without suffering, there can be no compassion.

Now spiritual philosophies guide him in thinking about homes.
photo by Carrie Steele
My wish is that I learn to live in nature without destroying it.
“I see the house as a shell, like a turtle carries his house on his back,” Crenshaw says. “Our shell can be our mediator between us and the environment.”

But, he says, “People compartmentalize. I think that sometimes, people have divided the Earth into these little pieces of land. To them it’s not one big piece. So our houses are no longer a mediator between us and the natural environment, but an expression of superficial wealth.”

Figuring out how to live with — not just in — nature is our new frontier, says Crenshaw, who spent time designing a shell that reflects his values and beliefs, as well as integrating the weather, wildlife and sunlight.

Moving outward, Crenshaw says, “I got into building new cities and figuring out how to build a better neighborhood.” Crenshaw helped design the planned communities of Columbia and Reston. “We tried to devise a better way of living, to get rid of the car for one thing.”
Watching and Waiting
Once you’ve worked on your inner world, Crenshaw says, the next level is your watershed. That’s Crenshaw’s 21st century passion.

Cruising on his 30-foot catamaran — which has its own photovoltaic paneling and batteries — he studies the signs of the season. Crenshaw’s latest project involves taking the pulse of his West River watershed.

Neighbors make their own observations — such as when the first hummingbird appears, which plants have begun to flower and the river’s water color — and send them to Crenshaw, who records them in the West River Observer, a monthly newsletter. About 10 river-watchers now report their findings to Crenshaw.

He’ll use the data to map out the watershed’s natural world. From there, the data can be used to help look at trends and changes, including health issues. It is not incidental for Crenshaw that Anne Arundel County has a notable cancer rate that ranks us 16th out of the 24 worst counties in the state.

“I collect data on the river in order to measure changes to see how the watershed is doing with us here,” Crenshaw said. “It’s a bit like a husband or wife watching their mate to see how they respond to something they just said.”
A Change of Mind
There’s more to this conversation Crenshaw has going with nature.

Animals are teachers, he says. Studying birds and their array of characteristics, personalities and tendencies, you learn about people: the persistence of a blue jay; the cautious mosey of a great blue heron; the attention of a wren.

Trees have lessons to pass on, too.

“Watch a tree to see how it deals with the breeze,” says Crenshaw. His gaze drifts out the window past a trellis shading a side porch to a leafy tree. “It lets the wind pass right by. It doesn’t fight it.”

Learning to live in nature begins slowly. It begins inside with becoming environmentally aware, sensitive and active. “It is not so much a question of doing as of being,” the sage says. “Then, from that platform of being, one will do the right thing.”

Those individual rights could be recycling, saving energy, taking the bus or growing your own food.

“Some people have the impression that you have a list of things to do, like recycling,” says Crenshaw. “But to just give your plastic bottles to the recycling man every Thursday: Does that really help?

“A good start to changing from the inside is to replace the judge in you with an observer,” continues Crenshaw. “The observer is a lot more fun. And you could learn to laugh at yourself instead of thinking you are great one moment and terrible the next. By observing until you see every detail, you will change naturally, if it is needed, instead of through war and conflict.”
Report your West River observations to the West River Observer at [email protected].

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