Post-Petroleum Design: creating a future beyond oil

My new book, Post-Petroleum Design, is nearing completion and will be published next year. I'm excited to share it here for the first time and get your feedback. Here's an excerpt:

Of all the materials found on Earth, none has had the impact of oil. With it we have transformed life on the planet, and the atmosphere it depends on. Every barrel of oil we burn releases nearly a thousand pounds of carbon dioxide into the air, and as carbon dioxide increases, so does global warming. Oil, which gave us the power to change the Earth, now threatens the existence of every living thing on it. But in a world that runs on oil, cutting back is not easy.

A single barrel of oil contains more energy than a human being produces laboring for ten years, and some fear living without it would mean a return to our pre-petroleum days of toil. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. We can create a post-petroleum world rich in the good things that oil has brought us but without its devastating side effects. But before we can create it, we have to design it. And we can’t wait for the wells to run dry or the atmosphere to overheat to begin. By then, we could find ourselves passengers on a dying planet, doing too little too late to reverse the effects of a climate out of control.

Designing a post-petroleum world is no easy task. It requires us to rethink how we make things, how we transport ourselves and our goods—how we power our entire economy. Yet ridding ourselves of oil and its impacts is not just a technical problem. Clean energy alternatives like solar and wind will help, as will alternative fuels like ethanol, but they are not enough. The production of plastics alone accounts for nearly four billion barrels of oil per year, creating four trillion pounds of CO2, enough to perpetuate global climate change even if we were to switch to clean energy and biofuels today. We need to change the way we make everything—our cars, our houses, the products we use every day—all the petroleum-based conveniences we enjoy today—and we need a coherent plan to do it.

That plan is post-petroleum design, a new way of designing and making things that uses drastically less oil. It is already taking shape in design studios, factories and laboratories around the world, where post-petroleum designers are forging an alternative to a future fouled by oil. Working with new materials and old, the most advanced technologies and the most ancient wisdoms, these pioneers are working today to shape our post-petroleum future.

Post-Petroleum Design celebrates their successes and, for the first time, weaves them together in a compelling story. In its pages, you will meet people like William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian building wind turbines from wood across Africa. You’ll see Ford Motor Company’s petroleum-free, compostable cars and hear from project leader Debbie Mielewski. You will travel the globe, visiting cutting-edge labs and remote villages where post-petroleum designers are using everything from bamboo to bioplastics to shape a better future.

Most importantly, you will experience the ideas that unite these diverse people and projects into a movement that is changing the way we make our world. Designers will see how their fellow creatives are using petroleum-free materials to shape bold new designs in everything from electronics to architecture. Businesspeople will learn how to manufacture products with radically less plastic, energy and waste. Even those outside of design and business will enjoy its eye-opening revelation of innovative designs spanning apparel, packaging, automobiles and more.

Post-Petroleum Design offers the promise of a world free from the threat of climate change and pollution caused by oil, as well as an exciting new era in design and living. It is a grand task, but as we will see, it is one that is already being taken up by leading designers the world over. With the power to change the world and how we live in it, post-petroleum design is the new oil.


Scott Constable’s House of Tree rises above the ordinary

“It feels like it’s always been there,” says designer Scott Constable of his House of Tree project, a unique and exquisitely crafted cabin perched twenty feet off the ground among the redwoods of Northern California. Its timeless beauty is a direct result of Scott’s design philosophy, which integrates site, materials and sustainability.

In House of Tree you’ll find no plastics, very few inorganic materials, and no electricity. You will find extensive use of local materials and an implacable attention to craft and detail. The focus on materials and site is consistent with the rich portfolio of work Scott has built up across the country together with his wife, Ene Osteraas-Constable. Check out the work of their firm Wowhaus, and enjoy Scott’s design insights from his recent interview with Green Technology Forum.

GTF: What aspects of your design helped you achieve the feeling that House of Tree has “always been there.”?

Scott: Having a building feel like it has emerged from the site, or is somehow obviated by the site's conditions, is always a goal for me, especially in a natural setting like House of Tree.

GTF: What role did the materials you chose play in achieving it?

Scott: Materiality is a big part of this--using materials that are from within the bioregion leads to a visual integration with a site, and how these materials are ordered and arranged can lead to a functional integration with the site's conditions- weather, seasonal variation, light, moisture, etc.

GTF: What about the siting and integration with the site?

Scott: Approached this way, buildings can be highly site-specific, even site generated to some degree, and their 'look' is as much a result of cumulative local knowledge about materials and the forces that affect them, as it is about a client's functional requirements. You might say that each bioregion suggests a specific building style.

GTF: What role do materials play in your concept of “the luxury of the essential”?

Scott: For the client, or for anyone who experiences this building, knowing that many of the materials grew where the building stands creates a feeling of connectedness with the place. This is reinforced by the natural warmth of wood, both visually and to the touch, and to its changing character over time, gaining patina and polish where worn. Darks get darker and lights get brighter with age and use, bringing out a natural beauty that is unique to that particular material and how one interacts with it. It's a haptic experience, like taking a bath, engaging all of the senses.

GTF: What were some of the other criteria for the materials you chose?

Scott: How a material is maintained and responds to maintenance is a major consideration for how I assess a material. I aim for a situation where Maintenance=Improvement. I also try to design things to be easily repaired or adapted by people who use them. I give a lot of thought to the life cycle of a material when I consider how to use it- how readily available is a material should it need to be replaced, and how does the material's natural life cycle resonate with how it is being used in a structure.

GTF: How does your design approach complement your material choices and vice versa?

Scott: I hinted at this a bit in the previous question. I'd add that the two are inseparable when I work in such a highly site-specific way. It's a bit like song writing. Sometimes you start with the lyrics and sometimes with a melody. Certain materials lend themselves to performing particular functions, and certain functions obviate a set of material properties. I've gleaned a lot by studying any region's vernacular patterns and seeing what works and why things sometimes fail. The fun of designing this way is trying to invent within these patterns.

GTF: It seems that simplicity is one of your main goals. Can you describe a few key features of your approach to design, site and materials that enable you to achieve that?

Scott: It gets back to my concept of trying to provide a kind of 'luxury of the essential'. What do we really need? I think that most people are happiest when they have eliminated distractions as much as possible, like when camping or on a road trip or even when the power goes out for days on end. Something else starts to emerge that is just under the surface, something a bit primal that we forget is even there. We feel more like the animals that we are, more alive, more alert, more present. In a project like House of Tree I try to abandon nonessentials and reinforce elemental, sensoral pleasures as much as possible. This leads to making design decisions that vary with the client and their sense of deep comfort, so part of the design process is unpacking this with the client. We hang out on site, go for walks, cook dinner together, stay up late and get stoned kind of thing. The rest just falls into place.

GTF: You’ve also said that you wanted House of Tree to have a low impact on the environment. How did you achieve that?

Scott: In the redwood forest it's important to protect their complex root system and the deep duff that comprises the first layer over the soil. To make such a tall structure, we engineered a foundation that used four 12-foot long, helical anchors made of steel, screwed diagonally into the ground at each of the structure's four corners. These are then embedded in a shallow, reinforced concrete perimeter footing, allowing rainfall to drain relatively unimpeded. We also milled wood from the trees we had to fell to make room from the structure, using very little fossil fuel compared to buying stock from the lumberyard. We chipped branches from the fallen trees, and all chips and sawdust were added to the duff layer to naturally decompose.

[photo credit: Tim Maloney]


Portland, Oregon, to expand its plastic bag ban

The Portland City Council has voted to expand the city's plastic bag ban to include all 5,000 restaurants and retailers.

The expansion of the existing ban on single-use plastic checkout bags will happen in two phases. The first phase goes into effect on March 1, 2013 and will cover retail stores and food providers over 10,000 square feet in size. Phase two will expand the ban to an estimated 5,000 restaurants and retailers, including farmers markets and corner stores, and even Portland’s hundreds of food carts.


15 Tips for a plastic-free holiday

Here, courtesy of the Goody Awards, are 15 tips for reducing your plastic footprint this holiday season:


1. Encourage your company to have a Green Plastic-Free Holiday Party

2. BYO – Bring your own utensils, cups, containers, and straws to holiday parties and gatherings

3. Instead of plastic, use washable plates, cups and utensils or paper / bamboo products that are easy to recycle or reuse

4. Use candles for mood lighting versus plastic lights 5. Reuse food containers for holiday leftovers


1. Buy plastic-free gifts – You can buy gifts from local artists with more sentimental meaning. You can also knit, cook or paint your own gift.

2. Give away metal straws and reusable utensils as party favors/employee gifts to encourage everyday green habits

3. Give the gift of cash versus trash

4. Buy music gift certificates on iTunes vs. CDs

5. Make your own wrapping paper and use paper not synthetic ribbon


1. Take your own cotton bag shopping to the grocery store, Best Buy, and department stores

2. Buy juice in a box carton versus a plastic bottle or make your own fresh fruit drinks using the farmer’s market fruit in a blender.

3. Buy from bulk food bins at grocery stores like Whole Foods to avoid plastic packaging

4. Support local artists by buying gifts that are plastic-free.

5. Bake cookies for tree decorations and pass on the tinsel.

The Goody Awards is launching their Have a Green Plastic-Free Holiday campaign in connection with the Golden Goody Award (aka Oscar for social good) presentation to Anna Cummins of 5 Gyres at a UN Women’s Greater Los Angeles Chapter event on December 8th. Congratulations, Anna! And if you can't be there in person, join in her spirit of saving marine fish and wildlife from the plastic pollution that is choking our planet's waterways. Your efforts to reduce plastic pollution  can make a difference this holiday season and year round.

Oh, and the snow people? They're from a plastic-free Christmas blogpost by our friends at Life less Plastic. Check it out, and Happy Holidays!

Green Building Information Gateway unveiled by US Green Building Council

The Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG) is an impressive new database from the US Green Building Council (USGBC) that reveals a host of data about the nation's most sustainable buildings. Information on over 42,000 buildings can be searched according to geographic region, green building strategies, and building name.

USGBC describes GBIG as "a global innovation platform for exploring and comparing the green dimensions of the built environment."


Green Building Information Gateway from U.S. Green Building Council on Vimeo.

But don't get too hopeful; it doesn't provide comprehensive energy use data or other info on building performance, except for select buildings and cities. It is, however, a good resource for learning which buildings are using which strategies (organized by LEED credit), and getting an overview of green building projects both nationwide and in specific cities and states.

It's a good framework for future development that will hopefully include more rigorous data on project performance--especially energy use--but it's a gateway, and that's a start.