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COLUMN: Brian Libby's PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE

Net-zero architecture remind us that we can change the future - despite the dark visions of science fiction.

COURTESY PHOTO: GABE BORDER PHOTOGRAPHY - The Treehouse by EmZed Architecture is just one example of how a home can be built to be energy efficient, thereby reducing its carbon footprint.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of a classic book by perhaps Portland's most famous writer: the late Ursula Le Guin. And though its story is fantastical, it's also prescient.

Reading 1971's The Lathe of Heaven this August, amidst a summer of record-breaking heat and the grimly familiar sight of wildfire smoke clogging the sky (a setting that almost feels like science fiction), I laughed and marveled at Le Guin's darkly comic vision. But I also thought about something seemingly unrelated: architectural resilience, namely two net-zero houses I've encountered in recent months.

What do EmZed Architecture's Treehouse and Minarik Architecture's Springwater Trail Residence have to do with imagined worlds like Le Guin's? Maybe that the future is what we make it.

Brian LibbyThe Lathe of Heaven is set in a near-future Portland, and in the TV movie version from 1981, existing buildings like the Portland Plaza condos and Wells Fargo Center even have cameos. The plot is fantastical, involving a man whose nighttime dreams can actually change the real world. But today's problems are familiar too, even though Le Guin was writing a half-century ago. In Lathe, the impact of global warming means Mt. Hood no longer is topped with snow, and our skies are too polluted to be blue. Oh, and downtown is at times full of protesters.

In Lathe, every time the protagonists try to magically change the world for the better, it keeps getting worse. Even so, Le Guin, who was honored earlier this year with a commemorative U.S. Postal Service stamp, wasn't one to wallow. 

"I don't think despair was in Ursula's DNA," said Martha Ullman West, Le Guin's longtime friend, a dance critic and historian, in a recent email. Rereading the book recently, West added, "I don't get despair, though I do get hope. I get focused rage from it all right, informed rage, and a lot of laughter."

Maybe that's a good lesson back here in the real world. A new United Nations report on climate change, which U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres described as "code red for humanity," reminds us that if it's not too COURTESY PHOTO: SIMON & SCHUSTER - Usula K. LeGuin's seminal science fiction novel, The Lathe of Heaven, reminds us that it's not too late to change our planet's future.late to save the world from becoming inhabitable, that moment is dangerously close at hand. It means we have to leave fossil fuels behind and build our world differently — like the Treehouse and Springwater Trail houses.

Each was built on a limited budget for clients far from affluent. But they do smart things that ought to be the norm in 2021: design choices that aren't even futuristic — just functional. They're insulated well enough to need little energy, which makes powering the houses with solar energy all the easier. They demonstrate how captured rain can provide our drinking water. Put them together, though, and do it on a scale of millions of houses, and we have a chance.

In The Lathe of Heaven, playing God to save an already-damaged planet is shown to be folly. But it's not as big a folly as the inaction that got us there.


Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com


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