Arch-Subversive

If architecture can be subversive, then Pliny Fisk's latest creation is a Molotov cocktail, Martin Luther's 95 Theses, and the Declaration of Independence rolled into one shiny edifice. Combining the lowest of low tech with the highest of high tech, the building is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible. Rather than relying on a power plant miles away, it will use photovoltaic cells to make its own electricity. Instead of importing drinking water and exporting wastewater to distant treatment plants through miles of expensive pipes, the 2,000-square-foot building will provide its own water treatment.

"It's the antithesis of what's going on in industrialized building," says Fisk of the Green Builder Demonstration Project. The structure, nearing completion at Fisk's Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (aka Max's Pot) near the corner of FM 969 and Decker Lane, looks from a distance like equal parts treehouse, barn, and erector set. It's a radical departure from mainstream architecture because the building system is designed to be self sufficient, low cost, and above all, flexible. Fisk calls it a "grow home." Need another room? No problem. Just pour a concrete footing, bolt on a couple of Fisk-designed rebar cages, fill in the walls with blocks of concrete, straw, wood, or even canvas, and presto, another room awaits.

The building subverts existing construction methods because it relies almost completely on materials that are either recycled or available within a few miles of Austin. Half the building was made of compressed earth bricks. The bricks were made on-site, from soil which came from property two miles down the road. Another wall is made from a mixture of caliche and fly ash. The fly ash came from the Lower Colorado River Authority's Fayette Power Plant. The doors and windows are made from recycled plastic and wood fiber, made by a company in Junction. The straw bales in one wall came from Manor. The clay in another wall came from a hole in front of the building.

Funded by the General Services Commission, the City of Austin Electric Utility Department, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the Lower Colorado River Authority, and the Meadows Foundation, the building uses very little wood. "You don't have to have wood to have a green building," says Fisk. "In fact, the less wood you use, the greener it is, because our forests are in trouble." Instead, Fisk has transformed cheap steel rods known as "rebar" into a structural component. The load-bearing walls are held up by narrow beams made of four pieces of rebar that have been welded into a square. The rebar cages work in conjunction with pre-cast concrete box beams that can be filled with concrete.

The entire building cost about $150,000 and Fisk says it will be inexpensive to maintain. The cooling will be done by a high-efficiency heat pump that uses the cistern as a heat sink. The heat pump and thermal mass from the earth walls will keep the house warm in the winter. Lighting will come from a 12-volt system of halogen lamps powered by a one kilowatt grid of rooftop photovoltaic panels.

Fisk expects to complete the water catchment and treatment system by the end of the summer. A panoply of pipes will feed rainwater from the roof into three tanks with a total capacity of about 13,790 gallons. The wastewater treatment will be done in a series of small canals containing water-purifying reeds.

For years, Fisk was considered a fringe player in architecture. But now, his concepts are being pursued by a variety of groups. He recently signed a contract with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to work on industrial building design. Last November, his designs for affordable and sustainable development won two awards from the Mexican government. He is negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency on a program to define sustainability measurement techniques for green building in the U.S.

"Water is a hot topic. Wastewater is a hot topic. People are looking for alternatives and we are getting cooperation from a number of different levels," Fisk said. "It's not a fluke. It's not so much Max's Pot doing their weird thing. A lot of people are concerned with these issues and that's why they fund us."

Fisk doesn't like to think his building is subversive. Instead he calls it "anticipatory." His goal is to develop a building system that can "accommodate all the changes a building goes through. Houses become law offices. Restaurants become something else. Usually, buildings aren't meant to do that. It takes a great deal of effort to change a building, or you tear them down, which is very wasteful."

Fisk plans to move the Max's Pot office into the new building when it is completed later this year. If you want a tour of the building, Max's Pot usually has an open house on the first Friday of each month at 6:30pm. But be sure to call them at 928-4786 before showing up. n SALAMANDER UPDATE: Since early 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been noodling around with a proposal to list the Barton Springs Salamander as an endangered species. Earlier this year, after endless delays, the agency punted on the decision, kicking the issue back to the State of Texas. And if a recent letter from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to the FWS is any indication of the state's intentions, the salamander is as good as dead.

In a May 17 letter to Jana Grote, acting chief of FWS' Austin office, TNRCC Water Policy Director Mark Jordan said his agency has reviewed "all known final studies and reports relating to the water quality of the Barton Creek watershed." Jordan concludes that the data shows "no demonstrated material decline in the water quality of Barton Springs" from 1976 to 1994. What follows is the most astounding bit of idiocy to come from TNRCC in many a day. Jordan writes, "Nor do the studies and reports demonstrate a direct, quantifiable relationship between the water quality conditions in Barton Creek and those of the Springs."

Jordan said he reviewed a 1986 report by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) called, "Hydrology and Water Quality of the Edwards Aquifer Associated with Barton Springs in the Austin Area, Texas." Perhaps he skipped the section called, "Relation of water quality of Barton Creek to water quality of Barton Springs." On page 86 of that section, the report says "The quality of water at the springs responds rapidly to changes in quality of recharge contributed by the creek... Because of the amount and proximity of recharge contributed by Barton Creek, this creek has a greater impact upon the quality of Barton Springs than any other recharge source." In its conclusion, the USGS repeats its analysis, saying, "Surface recharge from Barton Creek has a significant impact upon Barton Springs, and the quality of water from Barton Springs is more sensitive to the quality of streamflow in Barton Creek than from any other surface recharge source."

Jordan concludes in his letter that the proposal to list the salamander doesn't "sufficiently recognize" the "significant efforts" being made by the TNRCC to protect water quality in the Barton Springs Zone. But if the TNRCC is doing such a good job, why is the salamander in trouble? Dr. David Hillis, a zoologist with the University of Texas who has studied the Barton Springs Salamander extensively, told the Chronicle, "It's clear that whoever wrote the [TNRCC] letter knows nothing about the [salamander's] biology... There's been a great increase in turbidity at Barton Springs Pool and the increased silt deposits have reduced the available habitat."

Within the next few weeks, an aquatic biological advisory team is supposed to release its findings on the salamander. Funded by a $25,000 grant from the City of Austin, the group is to study all available data about the salamander and make suggestions about further studies and protection efforts. All the members of the advisory team are from outside Austin, none have studied the Barton Springs Salamander directly, and the group has not consulted with any of the local salamander experts. Hillis said, "As far as I know, no person who has been directly involved with the Barton Springs Salamander" has spoken to the team.

But the team did hear testimony from George Murfee, an engineer who works for developer Gary Bradley. Last month, Murfee told the Chronicle that he and Alan Glen - a lawyer at Fulbright & Jaworski who represents developers - were invited to give presentations to the advisory team by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The advisory team is supposed to release a draft report of its findings within the next few weeks.

While the TNRCC, the advisory team, FWS and other agencies dither, Hillis says "There's been a precipitous decline in the population of the Barton Springs Salamander. And it may in fact go extinct very soon. Whether [or not] the U.S. government decides to put the salamander on the Endangered Species List, it is an endangered species," he said. n

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