Sustainability – A Personal Journey… by Stuart W. Rose, Ph.D.

Each Garden Atrium home has a central atrium with a skylight roof. Photo: Courtesy Stuart Rose, Ph.D.

When I started reading Sustainability by Stuart W. Rose, Ph.D., I expected to learn about the innovative community he and his wife, Trina, had designed and built in Poquoson, Virginia. And I did. But I also learned many more things about sustainable communities and futurism that I hadn’t expected.

The book is an easy read, but also sort of quirky. Rose has a habit of ending one thought with ellipses and trailing off into a new paragraph. He has an interesting idea about where to place commas (e.g., as the last character before closing parentheses) — not exactly standard English composition. But it’s kind of charming in its literary naiveté.

Rose, however, is far from naive. As readers learn at the beginning of the book, “Dr. Rose is a registered architect, and a graduate structural engineer. He holds a doctorate in organizational development, has been a professor at three major universities, and has worked for several decades as an educator and a consultant to architects, consulting engineers, and other design professionals. Sustainability is arranged in chronological chapters, beginning “Circa 1985″ with the author’s professional and personal concerns about global sustainability.

By 1999 or so, Rose was beginning to think about applying his knowledge of architecture to building homes that would be assets to the planet. Much of the early part of the book describes his and his wife’s thoughts, trials, and activities while designing, building, and trying to market their Garden Atrium homes.

His book covers nearly a lifetime of study, work, and discovery (its subtitle is a personal journey to a built sustainable community … and an amazing picture of what life will soon be like). Readers travel through time with Dr. Rose, learning what he learned, experiencing excitement and frustration, and, finally, hope for a better future for all of us.

Energy Efficiency

What I found most interesting in the first third (or so) of the book were the descriptions of the sustainable homes the couple designed (Stuart Rose was trained as an architect; Trina Rose is an interior designer) and built. From the author’s descriptions and the photographs, the homes sound — and look — beautiful. And their energy efficiency would make anyone paying a Midwestern heating/air conditioning bill envious.

Each home is essentially a hollow box, with rooms around the sides and an atrium in the middle. Over the atrium is a large skylight.

Now the central courtyard becomes an interior space, and what the passive solar designers call a “heat sink.” … The sun’s heat is absorbed by the thermal mass of the flooring such as brick, stone, concrete, or porcelain tiles. If a desired winter temperature is 68°F, by 3:00 p.m. the atrium may warm to approximately 72°F. After the sun goes down, the flooring radiates its warmth back into the home. By 7:00 the next morning, the atrium temperature may fall to 64°F. Then the sun rises and the cycle repeats itself.

The exterior walls and roof – and even under the floor – are also heavily insulated, (R-30 to R-75,) [sic] so that the solar heat that comes in, stays in.

The Garden Atrium homes aren’t just energy efficient, they’re Net Zero: They produce as much extra energy during the day as they use at night. In the Roses’ case, they sell that extra energy back to their electric company; sadly, not every state mandates such an arrangement.

Indoor Urban Gardens

Stuart and Trina rose look up from the central atrium of one of their Garden Atrium homes. Photo: Courtesy Stuart Rose, Ph.D.

Rose writes, “Atrium homes are urban dwellings. They’re introverted, in that everything looks inward, and provides great privacy. I might not use the concept on a mountain-top site, in which I wanted to enjoy commanding views. But most of us live in urban settings, and privacy can be quite valuable.”

As I read, I pictured living in an indoor paradise. I imagined fruit trees and large, flowering plants growing year ’round. Then, in a press release, I found this description of the Garden Atrium homes:

Tropical trees and plants grow abundant throughout each home, gathering sun from huge central skylights. As a result, residents can literally walk out of their kitchen and into the next room to pick some fruit, and because oxygen levels are so high, allergy sufferers typically notice their symptoms dissipate in a matter of days.

Sounds lovely to me. And I know I would particularly appreciate the tropical feeling in the dead of winter, when everything natural in Iowa is the brown of withered plants or covered with a layer of snow.

One telling quote in the book shows how folks who purchased a Garden Atrium home felt about their decision:

“When my husband and I visit friends, then leave their house and get back in our car, we look at each other and say, ‘We can’t go back!’ [Our Garden Atrium home] is a house I never want to leave.”

Rose’s tale of marketing — and finally selling — the Garden Atrium homes was interesting to me. The Roses had limited resources when they started out and had to mortgage their stately old Georgetown brownstone to fund the project. It must have been a knuckle-biting time, when the first home they built didn’t sell. They had plans to build additional homes on contract, but still no buyers. Eventually, they learned through trial and error — and some coaching from a realtor — that, despite the beauty and appeal of the planned homes, they needed to have completed structures, ready for buyers to move in, before they could make a sale.

That worked well, and soon they were both “neighbors and developers” in their own small and sustainable community.

Building a Community

Another large portion of the book is dedicated to a discussion of what the Roses call ” ‘dimensions’ … nine factors that we believe need to be addressed to create an environment that is sustainable in all senses … physical, social, educational, cultural, spiritual … everything and anything that’s needed that would cause residents to enjoy and proclaim a high quality of life experience.”

Rose goes on to describe what he sees as important for a thriving, vibrant way of life:

[W]hile much of the “green” movement focuses on clean, renewable energy and more efficient cars, the ultimate measure of success can’t be a lack of utility bills. It  has to be happiness … fulfillment … great quality-of-life feelings … residents who are delighted to be living there and who would never want to return to the “old ways.

The nine dimensions I began exploring are:

  1. Community.
  2. Health care.
  3. Food.
  4. Leisure.
  5. Transportation.
  6. Education.
  7. Trade.
  8. Internet.
  9. Infrastructure.

Rose goes into detail about how a successful community would achieve each of these dimensions. He includes a number of sources where readers can turn for more information. Students of futurism will most likely find this a fascinating section, but to be quite honest, it was the least interesting part of the book for me.

Historians, too, will likely find this section of interest, but it’s not what I consider light reading. Rose even gets into a discussion of complementary currency systems, like the stamp scrip used in Worgl, Austria, in the 1930s; and the Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) “invented in the 1980s by Michael Linton, in British Columbia, Canada,” among others.

Beyond the Ordinary


What surprised me most about Sustainability was its last 20 or so pages. There, Rose takes a daring step and describes some unusual workshops he attended and, in particular,  metaphysical experiences he and others he knows have had. The professor of organizational development and practitioner of architecture becomes the philosopher and mystic. He writes about attending workshops where he got in touch with benevolent “entities,” some of whom he believes to be gently guiding the planet and its populace toward a better future.

This is not what I expected, but I have to admit that it was fascinating. Rose is daring to reveal his spiritual journey, in much the same way that Brian Weiss, M.D., bravely chose to tell the world that his patients’ experiences with hypnosis led him to believe in reincarnation. If you’re at all drawn to the metaphysical, I expect that you will find this part of the book intriguing. If you are a complete non-believer and prefer to stick to topics that are strictly terrene, then the earlier parts of the book will be more to your liking. Either way, it’s a book with many facets worth exploring.

The Small Print

Blue  Planet Green Living received a complimentary copy of Sustainability: a personal journey to a built sustainable community  … and an amazing picture of what life will soon be like. Other than the review copy, we received no compensation or incentive for reviewing the book. No one influences the content of any of our reviews other than the writer. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.

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Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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