On Nick and Joan Bouwes’ kitchen island, potluck critical mass looms. an electric crock of hot mulled wine steams at one end. Between the chips and dips, pasta salads, meatballs, homemade pizzas, and bottles of microbrew and wine, a single additional hummus bowl would trigger a logistical crisis. Similarly, the kitchen/dining room is packed with a few dozen adults and migratory swarms of children ranging from babes in arms to prototeens in soccer sweatshirts.
The Bouweses finished building their home in the summer of 2008. Nick, a retired US Environmental ProtectionAgency economist, acted as his own general contractor and applied the clay to the walls himself. The main space blends an open, fluid, modern layout with traditional hominess. Its handcrafted look conceals a cutting-edge soul: the hearty exposed-wood beams are certified sustainable, the paints and oils have low to no toxicity, the insulation is near hermetic, and the home’s solar array pumped more than 1,000 kilowatt-hours back into the grid in just a few months.
All that environmental wonkery, however, only begins to explain why the dining room currently looks like a college-town pub just before last call. The Bouwes house is part of a wave of forward-thinking building that is redefining Cully, a sleepy and sometimes forgotten northeast Portland neighborhood, as a miniature hotbed of sustainable construction. within just a few blocks—a territory roughly centered on the nearby intersection of NE 45th Avenue and Ainsworth Street—a smattering of green-building projects pushes the limits of insulation R-values, rainwater filtration systems, and passive solar design. at the same time, and not coincidentally, Cully is in the grip of a social lifestyle revolution of middle-class, multigenerational families creating a new breed of society. at the moment, that revolution is playing out in the Bouweses’ dining room.
A shrill whistle punctures the din, and the group called the Ainsworth Collective comes to order. For more than two years, this group’s monthly meeting has gathered established professionals and retirees who commissioned the new ecohouses, young singles and couples attracted to one of inner Portland’s most affordable neighborhoods, and a few old-school Cully mossbacks. unlike a city-recognized neighborhood association, the collective has no official status, but tonight’s crowded agenda suggests that it suffers no lack of energy. some neighbors recently built a communal outdoor oven out of cob—an amalgam of clay, straw, and dirt championed by sustainable-construction advocates. now the oven needs a roof; a young architect who lives in the neighborhood presents possible blueprints. Then comes an update on the collective’s plastics-recycling project. The meeting leader mentions the group’s business directory, a roster that includes a photographer, a baker, a metalworker, a handyman, an architectural designer, and a “certified journey practitioner.” There’s talk of an informal tool-sharing co-op. another neighbor introduces a plan to form a bulk-food buyers’ group—if 10 families agree to chip in about $50 apiece each month, they can order mass quantities of organic groceries.
Yes, it’s all very wholesome. But it reflects a sincere desire to transform an old neighborhood without damaging its robust soul. “it’s a social thing, first and foremost,” says Lisa Gambee, the self-employed graphic designer who spearheaded the collective’s formation. “But out of that, we’re trying to see what kind of environmental impacts we can have, and ultimately find ways for people to find economic opportunity within their own neighborhood. The big question is, how can we harness the power of all the great people here already to live more sustainably?”
In some ways, Cully makes an unlikely would-be utopia. it began as the 1840s homestead of English-born Thomas Cully, a stonemason, gold miner, and one-time Texas Ranger. The sprawling neighborhood, much of it not even annexed by the city until the 1970s, sits in the heart of Northeast Portland, its borders defined by roaring arterials and beat-up commercial corridors. along streets that meander like country lanes and branch off into overgrown gravel ruts, Cully’s vintage cottages and postwar ranch houses sit on rangy half-acre lots, hunkered under gnarled old fruit trees and towering Douglas firs. On a wet, gray-lit autumn day, it has a Cascadian Gothic feel. But in a city that loves its legendary 200-foot-square blocks and embraces density, this recalcitrant urban frontier represents an opportunity for ambitious home builders.
“Cully is basically a land bank of sorts,” says architect Andre DeBar, who designed several of the new houses in the neighborhood. “You can buy large lots at relatively low prices and go in and do infill development a little more readily than you can in some other areas.”
The neighborhood’s ecorenaissance began a few years ago, when architect Clark Brockman and SERA Architects attempted to design Oregon’s first “net energy” house (one that produces more energy than it consumes) for Linda Rose and Eldon Haines. dubbed the Rose House, the home became an instant green-building sensation, courtesy of the all-star consultant team’s marketing and Haines himself, a septuagenarian ecopioneer and inventor of the Copper Cricket, an early solar hot-water system. at the same time, longtime Cully resident Markus Stoffel, former co-owner of environmental Building supply, began a comprehensive green rebuild on a property just a few hundred feet away. A combination of available land, the magnetic attraction of like minds, and a welter of personal and professional connections spurred the movement.
In the fall of 2004, DeBar and a few partners bought a tumbledown 1920s cottage sitting on a bramble-choked three-quarter-acre lot at NE 45th Avenue and Ainsworth Street. One complicated subdivision process later, the Bouwes house, designed by DeBar and built by Coho Construction, stands at one end of the parcel. Another iteration of the same design, outfitted with formidable black tanks that collect rainwater and filter it to potability, sits two doors down, owned by Craig and Sybil Kelley. In between these two neotraditional homes, Seed Architecture Studio and Kaya Construction are building a prototype spec house that uses Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) and incorporates green materials into its starkly Modernist design.
Around the corner, DeBar and Coho just finished a house for Tory and Alan Cowan. Alan is a wind-energy developer, Tory a wellness specialist. Tricked out with all manner of green features, the house also reflects a hardheaded elegance. A strategically located mudroom and a super-cool attic playhouse accommodate the Cowans’ three energetic boys. The upstairs packs four bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, a tucked-away laundry area, and generous closet space into a tight footprint. a master-bath shower stall made out of cobweb-cracked auto-windshield glass epitomizes the project’s mix of beauty and green practicality.
A block or so east of the Cowans’ home, a gravel road leads past the shell of Bob and Julie Granger’s future house. designed by Communitecture from an original plan by Green Hammer, the project’s construction firm, the Granger house is aiming for LEED Platinum certification with its requisite list of sustainable traits. However, perhaps the most telling part of the project is the nondescript gray building next to the house, a worn hulk the Grangers call “the barn.” after former lives as an electrical contractor’s shop and a realtors’ office, the barn has become something of a symbol for the Grangers and their neighbors’ communal aspirations: the Grangers plan to take advantage of the structure’s commercial-use zoning and surrounding quarter-acre yard to create a mixed-use development including apartments, studios, and office space for anyone within walking distance.
“The conversations people have about the barn are all about how we can activate the space in a way that helps us engage with each other,” Bob Granger says. “To me, it’s what completes the concept and the values set. You can build a green house, but if all you do is sit inside it, it’s just a house.”
That’s as good a summation as any of the spirit animating both Cully’s green-building boom and the overlapping grass-roots ambitions of the Ainsworth Collective. “There’s a wonderful civic mentality at work there,” says Communitecture’s Mark Lakeman. “It’s like a self-emerging ecovillage. They’re talking about water, urban agriculture, energy. As they expand the projects they’re involved with, they get a taste for even more.”
Back at the Bouweses’ potluck gathering, the discussion of recycling and organic food evokes the current bourgeois cachet of all things green, but also harks back to a hands-on, barn-raising pioneer ethos. The neighborhood may be undergoing a 21st-century renaissance, but old Thomas Cully would still feel right at home.
This article was originally published in Portland Spaces magazine but is no longer on their website. The magazine and author Zach Dundas have graciously agreed to allow me to repost and submit to Energy Bulletin as I believe it will be inspirational.