Living buildings, green infrastructure, and the collective effort for sustainable cities

It’s been a roller coaster of a ride, going to Whately, Amherst, Williamsburg, Hampshire, Holyoke, and all the places where we can learn so much about sustainability, so here’s a rather loaded post on what we’ve learned here in the beautiful area of the Pioneer Valley in the past two weeks.   We got to study and immerse ourselves in places that tackle medicinal meadows to breathing buildings, from fish elevators and carbon-free cities to spiritual environmentalism.

Let’s start with Whately.

The Bechtel Environmental Classroom

This is the Bechtel Environmental Classroom in Whately, 5th out of 17 LEED-certified buildings. It is considered a living building because it creates more energy than it consumes, recycles and composts its already organic waste, and was created with ecologically friendly chemicals and equipment and with carbon credits to offset gas usage during construction.



While there are many requirements for LEED, a basic design element that can be environmental-friendly and conducive to working is increasing the natural light, as seen in the classroom walls.


Information about energy, equity, beauty, and other principles that guide Bechtel are on its walls. Also in the building are creative works such as a rock installation that dates back to billions of years ago.


Videos show us heading towards the open area near the classroom, the trails, and heading back home from the little field trip from up north.




Rain gardens, swales, and green infrastructure for water management

Back in Northampton, we met with the DPW for a very informative meeting on water management.

This is Doug. He taught us about the water and wastewater systems of the city, including efforts to mitigate flood, log stops, treatment, and water flow.



He also showed us some DPW data (seen in the video below).  I might say the data availability is impressive here.


Doug also taught us some very efficient ways to integrate water management with public spaces, including rain gardens and swales. He shared some resource materials, which are compiled here:

Celebrating bikes, celebrating communities

Civic engagement,  volunteering, and community groups are such a big strength in Northampton. Here’s an example of a Bike Breakfast celebration, led by the Pedal People, who use bikes to improve waste management in the city.


Regional Planning: The Pioneer Valley

Springfield–We attended the Pioneer Valley (Regional Planning Association), where cities and planning groups (from campuses) came together to discuss their updates about their planning and climate solutions.

So what I gathered on the structure of planning here is that in the state of Massachusetts the regional planning level does not have the “power” but acts more as a firm that assists the cities with their work on planning and sustainability. They can also manage and implements grants that help with cities which do not have the technical or manpower capabilities to do their work.



I and Thou: Realizing environmental spirituality

So we met Robert Jonas back in Northampton, and he was such an enlightening person. He’s got three PhDs, focusing on psychology and spirituality, so he practices meditation, and studies our relationship with the natural environment.

He gave us a tour of his house, which is a smart house, and it does not waste any energy, but uses recycled air and sunlight to keep people inside going. Here are a few photos from our little tour:

This is where he teaches meditation and spirituality. His classes also take his students into the woods.
Robert and his wife have three PhDs each, so imagine how many books they’ve read put together. This is their lovely book corridor.


An ideal office space, I might say. 🙂
This is the air ventilator that helps with the circulation of air within the house. One of the smart house’ most important feature.


Robert was very pleasant to talk to–he was thoroughly interested in the environmental situation of both the Philippines and Thailand. He also shared with us a very important lesson in connecting spirituality with the environment, which can be captured in the phrase “Art and Thou.”

This concept shows how equal we are with over living things. When we cut down trees from all the built-up developments, then we lose respect for life, because we see trees as an “it” when we should be saying “thou.” It is in seeing humans as equal to trees and life that we begin respecting our environment through spirituality.

That was such a good reminder for someone who has spent too much time in a city, with all the built-up environment.

Robert also told us about his work with Kestrel Trust, which is about helping protect farmers to not sell their land but maintain it by protecting the land titles. The effort has helped protect farms and greenways over decades.


Robert was kind enough to give me and Fai a book and CD of his works, which was lovely. He has a YouTube channel which you can follow for meditation and spirituality.



Chill time at Smith College

After that spiritual lesson, this is what happened to our evening: Reflections, and being one with nature for about an hour at the beautiful Smith College campus, rolling on the grass and just loving the dam falls. 🙂


Pro-hydro and solar, and pro-fish

Holyoke–Joe brought us to HG&E, a clean energy company that provides hydro- and solar power for the city of Holyoke. The company also proactively protects the fish that have to pass through the dam and towards the river way, so their plant also has fish transport, as shown below:

The landscape of the area is so beautiful. This water area on the right shows how fish have to make a decision to continue to the elevator or to pass another way (they continue upstream).


Liz gave us a briefing and a tour about the company’s operations. She has very happy to learn how I come from the Philippines, because she grew up in Manila, until 6 years old.



So it’s amazing how Holyoke runs at least 97% on clean energy. HG&E helps sell clean energy to the Grid.


What’s more important is how a power company integrates sustainability and fish protection into their operations. Species such as carp and lamprey can all swim upstream through fish-friendly water gates, elevators, and passageways for their migration patterns within the facility.

That’s me and Fai, enjoying the fish tour. 🙂
The fish elevator transports fish from upstream to downstream. 




From Hispanic community farms to dinosaur footprints along the Connecticut River to a real American road shack lunch

Holyoke’s got pretty interesting places to go to, so we visited them afterwards.

This is Nuestras Raices, a farm run by the Hispanic community in Holyoke.



Then we learned how Massachusetts has many dinosaur prints, fossils, and remains that have been preserved. We went to dino footprint conservation site that led down to a railway and the Connecticut River.


Dino x human prints. 



Medicinal meadows, art, and landscapes

Williamsburg–Joe introduced us to his good friend, Todd, who works on landscape architecture, art installations, and a medicinal garden.

This is Todd’s studio. He only uses natural elements for his art, which I might say is uniquely creative. Todd is quite the expert on flora, and he asked us to taste a lot of leaves while walking around his lands, telling us about their properties. 
Medicinal meadows are very helpful in plans and developments that aim to improve healing and meditation. 
Medicinal meadow landscapes identify the flora and list down their health benefits.
This part of Todd’s land shows how different layers have rows of healthy and medicinal plants.


Meet George! 🙂

The most important appointment was with Joe’s good boy, George. Such a sweetheart. 🙂


Buildings that breathe

Amherst–it was a privilege to meet with Jonathan Wright, founder of Wright Builders, a firm that has led to build two of fifteen living buildings in the world.

It was all the more a privilege to have a one-on-one tour with Jonathan, who explained to me his thought process of how he created Kern Centre of the Hampshire College.

The Kern Centre.
Natural light through entire building walls improves the building’s energy efficiency.
This is an orientation room of Kern (it’s the admissions building), which shows new students the beauty of not only the campus but also of Hampshire, said to be one of the most scenic places in Massachusetts.
Every element put into the Kern Centre has great meaning. The stones on this wall represent natural history through their layers. The floor has sands sourced from all over Massachusetts. The wood is sourced from timber that was unwanted but carefully design to use only the wood centre for strength. Vermont Polywhey was also used for coating, making the surfaces clean enough to eat from, without chemicals. Lights are all LED. Local sourcing helped the local economy.


Grey water, drinking water, and so, are all labeled through pipes, which are intentionally left exposed for appreciation of the water system.

One amazing impact of green buildings is how it increases the attention span of students from one hour to at least 6-7 hours, as compared to an enclosed classroom.

Jonathan was just wonderful to talk to–he toured me to see the Hitchcock Centre after Kern, taught me more how they put the rain gardens into the area, campus plans, and even treated me to lunch at a local market. We talked a lot about his very international family, his granddaughter being part-Filipino, politics and the environment (Trump does come up quite often in every conversation I have on sustainability), and how he’s writing his book about creating living buildings. He also gave me an autographed book of his photography and poetry works. 🙂


That’s me and Jonathan. 🙂



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