Better Building Codes
A Regulatory Approach to Systemic Sustainability with David Eisenberg, co-author of The Straw Bale House
June 7, 2023
Terry sits down with guest David Eisenberg to discuss his work to incorporate sustainable materials such as straw bale, cob, clay, and rammed earth into building code policies. David serves as Head of the Development a the Center for Appropriate Technology headquartered in Tucson, Arizona.
Learn More About David Eisenberg
For over three decades, David Eisenberg has served as Director and Co-Founder of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology. This organization is dedicated to promoting sustainable building practices with a focus on long-term, systemic change through changing building codes and policies. David also recently co-authored The Straw Bale House on building with straw bale and sustainable materials.
Terry Phelan: Welcome to the Living Shelter podcast, where we explore ways to create healthy, energy efficient, and joyful places to live. I’m your host Terry Phelan, a Pacific Northwest native and an architect with over 30 years experience designing with a focus on sustainable options. I am delighted to be presenting this podcast series as the Director of Sustainable Practice at Board & Vellum, an integrated design firm based in Seattle. Living Shelter’s goal is to help you expand your green knowledge toolkit, so together we can help build a resilient future that includes comfortable and sustainable places for everyone to live. Our guests share their years of experience in one or more of the many facets of the green and natural building industries. With topics like material choices for health and wellness, energy efficiency and carbon reduction, regenerative site design, waterway health, and other big picture ideas from thought leaders we think you’ll find inspiring.
In this episode of the Living Shelter podcast, we’re going to delve into something near and dear to my heart. How what were once considered fringe natural building methodologies are finding their way into the codes and rules. Building codes set the tone for what is allowed and accepted across the land, which is a good thing as they protect those who use the buildings from dangers such as structural failure, fire hazard, and other forms of physical harm. However, they can be limiting. In the early days of the green building movement, it was a real challenge to get a permit to build using materials and methods that were outside those the modern building industry was developed around. Thankfully, due to many years of work by a small and passionate group of people, many of these outsider means and methods have been tried and tested by recognized organizations and are now starting to be included in our codes. One of the people that shepherded this into being is David Eisenberg. David is a friend and mentor on my sustainability journey and I’m so honored to introduce him here. He is the head of the Development Center of Appropriate Technology based in Tucson, Arizona, and one of the primary change agents in the movement to include materials like straw bales, cob, light straw clay, hemp and rammed earth into the building codes.
Hi, David. Welcome to the program.
David Eisenberg: Hi, Terry, great to reconnect with you and glad to be here.
Terry Phelan: So, you and I met at a straw bale workshop in Carnation, Washington almost 30 years ago, just as I was diving into the world of natural building. And I remember still today, my two big takeaways from that — that was to use an inclusive approach when trying to push something new through for a building permit, rather than being adversarial. And that because you are the instructor from out of town, you’re considered the expert. I heard you say that a few times in following years and it’s always put a smile on my face. So, I’d like to talk about a few things today. Let’s start with talking about how you got started with the Development Center.
David Eisenberg: Well, DCAT is an interesting entity that actually began through a conversation that a good friend of mine, named Bob Cook, who actually worked with Buckminster Fuller on a number of things for a number of years. Anyway, Bob and I were talking about what our ideal job would be if we could like [be] free, you know — our ideal work situation, what would it be? And I said that I would love to have the ultimate shop where we could make or build anything, and with a number of other people who had different skills — I basically wanted to be the Chief Tinkerer. Anyway, we talked about this for quite a while and it was right at the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union created this really interesting moment in defense spending, and particularly with the national labs, and there is this “peace scare” that almost broke out and resulting in a lot of people getting [out of] the defense industries, engineers and people getting laid off and the national labs, kind of thinking about repurposing themselves.
And so, we had a meeting to talk about this idea of creating this center for basically for developing important — I don’t think we used the word sustainable — “appropriate technology” was something that interested me from the late ’60s, early ’70s — Small Is Beautiful, [by] Schumacher, a lot of those… (There was “intermediate technology” and “appropriate technology.”) So anyway, we had a meeting and a whole bunch of engineers showed up, and people who were looking for something, what the next thing to do was. So we had a bunch of meetings, and we decided to create a nonprofit organization, and getting our tax exempt status took way longer than we imagined. By the time we finally got it, you know, the peace scare was over. And all these guys had gone back to work in the defense industry, and well, it was down to just a handful of us. And we actually started working with Habitat for Humanity here in Tucson, based in Tucson, Arizona. I’m a native Tucsonian, born here in 1949. But anyway, we started working with them, and we helped them design their first few solar houses. And we just started looking for things we could do. In the meantime, I was actually working as a construction superintendent, building mostly high-end custom homes, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing.
Terry Phelan: But you also worked on a more, a very large project. I remember you were involved in — was it the Bio-Dome?
David Eisenberg: The Biosphere 2. So, I ended up having an opportunity to go to work out at Biosphere 2, which was this three-plus-acre, enclosed, sealed — it was actually multiple structures — but anyway, and I ended up being the troubleshooter on-site for the space frame and glazing systems — the cover of the Biosphere. And I spent three years out there working on that. But I had already built with adobe and rammed earth, I guess, shortly after the biosphere, I ended up getting involved in straw bale construction.
Terry Phelan: What was that introduction? Was that inspired by a project in Tucson or…?
David Eisenberg: I had actually read about straw bale buildings in a couple of places. One, in the big book Shelter, I'm spacing out the name…
Terry Phelan: Oh, that was Lloyd Kahn.
David Eisenberg: Lloyd Kahn. Yeah. And then there was a one-page thing about hay bale houses in Nebraska, but also I was a charter subscriber to Fine Homebuilding magazine after I had been a charter subscriber to Fine Woodworking, as I was a woodworker for a long time, and there was an article in there about a straw bale studio in California that this guy, John Hammond, had designed and built. But it was really in 1992, I think it was, might have been ’91, ’92. There was an official precursor event to the Earth Summit in Rio. That was called the Sonoran People’s Summit. I had just started a little construction company with a friend and with my younger brother, which turned out was not a great thing. But that’s another story.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, working with family can be interesting!
David Eisenberg: But anyway, there was a meeting about the Sonoran People’s Summit and they were interested in builders. There were two days of the week-long thing where, there were, like, half-day sessions on housing needs, and somebody told me about it, and so I went to this thing. And they said, basically everybody introduced themselves, and I introduced myself as a new building contractor. And anyway, then they started talking about different people that were planning different parts of the program and they talked about Matts Myhrman and they were really interested in straw bale, and a lot of other things. But they were giving these little presentation slideshows about straw bale construction and doing little workshops, and Matts had agreed to organize the two housing needs sessions. But that was right after this full-page article on, you know, like the second section of the New York Times came out in which they interviewed them about straw bale construction. And suddenly they were completely deluged with requests for information about straw bale. I mean, they were getting bags full of mail every day, for months, it was insane.
Terry Phelan: Oh my gosh.
David Eisenberg: And so Matts had just bowed out of organizing those two sessions and the person who was talking about that said that they needed somebody to take on that role, and everybody looked at me.
Terry Phelan: You know how to do that!
David Eisenberg: So, somehow or other they wrangled me into saying I would do it and Matts and Judy actually gave presentations both days. I followed up on the various leads that Matts had started with. He had gotten a couple of people that committed to doing things, and I got a bunch of other people. And so he put that all together. But, that’s where I met Matts and Judy. The three of us went down to some project in Nogales together, and we started talking, and I started going to their little workshops, and before I realized it, I was sort of “in it”. So, that’s how I got in, started getting involved in straw bale. And then I started teaching straw bale workshops for their “Out on Bale” workshops. And in fact, Terry, when we met, I was teaching an Out on Bale workshop, the one that you came to, and I was on a little tour teaching those workshops, actually. One in California, and Oregon, and Washington, and one up on Whidbey Island and one in Montana, one in Idaho.
Terry Phelan: Oh, so you were doing a tour? On the road.
David Eisenberg: Yeah, Johnny Strawseed or whatever. Johnny Hayseed.
Terry Phelan: Now, I remember something, that Findhorn was part of your path too — was that before or after you met Matts and Judy?
David Eisenberg: Well, that was afterwards. So that was 1995, there was a conference at Findhorn called, I think it was “Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities” conference. And I’d heard about it, and I actually knew, very briefly knew, one of the organizers of it. And I wrote and said, “I’d love to come to Scotland, to Findhorn, and do a straw bale workshop during this week-long conference,” and they said that would be great. And they put me in touch with the architect who was — one of the architects actually — who was in charge of buildings at Findhorn, and I went and we built the first straw bale building in Scotland: a garden shed. A sizable building — I’m trying to remember what it was — but a good-size building, it really was quite lovely, and I met a lot of amazing people at that conference. And that also connected me up with a few more people from the states who were really well known in green building and architecture, including Bob Berkebile and Bill Reid.
Terry Phelan:: Aha.
David Eisenberg:So, one of the interesting things that happened — my involvement in straw bale, and in adobe, and rammed earth, had led me to see how easy it was to seduce people into thinking they could build with these alternative materials… And how difficult, in fact, it turned out to be for them to get permits, permission to use the materials in projects where a building permit was required. And I was feeling like we were kind of seducing people into thinking they could do it. And then leaving them to find out the reality of the challenge. That just didn’t quite feel right to me.
So, I started helping people try and get permits, and also we decided (Matts Myhrman and I and a couple of other people) to see what it would take to maybe create a straw bale building code. And we ended up doing that. Took three years with the City of Tucson and Pima County, with their building departments and with the Building Codes Committee, the joint city-county committee that was set up. And that, as I described, it sort of put me out on the slippery slope down into building codes and standards, which is what I’ve spent a good deal of time on over the last 20 years.
Terry Phelan: For our listeners, you’re listening to Living Shelter. I’m your host Terry Phelan, and I’m talking with David Eisenberg of DCAT, about bringing sustainability into the building codes. So what was the “Building Sustainability into the Codes” program that you started?
David Eisenberg: Yeah, so about that same time as the Findhorn thing happened, we had been, at DCAT - there were like five or six or seven of us back then, now there’s mostly just me, the “David Center for Appropriate Technology.”
Terry Phelan: I like that!
David Eisenberg: It’s what I always said I didn’t want it to be because I wanted to include other people. But anyway, we had been talking about how to make this shift happen in the building codes community. And so we came up with this idea of creating a program we called “Building Sustainability into the Codes.” And we thought it as a three-phase process: the first phase of which was, basically describing why it was needed. And the second phase was the sort of educational phase of: what it’s about, and how to think about these things, and how to go about integrating some of these things into building projects, instead of just rejecting them out-of-hand. And the third phase was what we call “Transfer of Leadership,” which was: if we get not just the building officials, but if we could get builders and the design community to buy into all this, that they could take over the codes and standards part of that work. And we could go on and go back to doing the fun stuff that we thought we should be doing.
Terry Phelan: You didn’t realize that you were going to be in this policy space for a good part of your career.
David Eisenberg: Yeah. It never occurred to me that this was going to be my career. A few interesting things happened fairly early on. I mean, my first building experience, aside from things that involved my own family (building an adobe addition onto our house, doing all kinds of work with my father’s — my parents — window covering business, which ended up involving all kinds of things, beyond things like draperies and venetian blinds)…
My very first experience with a building inspector was, I was doing some wiring for — which my father had taught me how to do — for a friend of ours. They bought a house and it had a small building that they wanted to add on to in the back and turn into an apartment, and I was working on it. And they had a building permit, and the building was concrete blocks. And I was doing all this work to very carefully fish UF cables down through these concrete box voids, and breaking out little openings to install the outlet boxes and switches and all that stuff. And it turned out the inspector came. I didn’t see him. He watched me work for about five minutes. And when he spoke it, it shocked, sort of, scared me, because I didn’t realize there was anybody there.
And he said, “It’s been years since I’ve seen anybody take the time and the care to do what you’re doing.” And I had all these questions for him. And I knew he knew a lot more than I knew about how to do things. And so I just took him around and I pointed out these things that I wasn’t quite sure how to do and he told me the right way to do them. And so my very first engagement with somebody in the building department was this totally positive experience. And I certainly never let go of that notion that they actually know a lot. But, as I got into the whole building codes and alternative materials realm, it started feeling a lot more adversarial, because most of the time they were telling us, telling people, what they couldn’t do and not how to do it.
Terry Phelan: Right. Right. Well, and one of the things that makes so much sense to me in the way that the codes have changed, is codes are written to protect health and safety, and, and yet, there were so many limitations around looking at different ways that we can protect health and safety and using natural materials, and healthy materials is so much better for the people that occupy the buildings and the planet and the site. And, looking through that lens, I’m sure it must have been eye opening.
David Eisenberg: Part of it was really beginning to understand their frame of reference, actually. And the limitations. I should share this story, my “Phoenix Story” — part, because it’s relevant to what we’re talking about in this moment, but also, it’s my best story after all these years.
So, in 1997, so I had met this guy, Bob Fowler, who was a building official; when I met him, he was a building official for Abilene, Texas. And I met him at a Building Officials Association of Texas and their education week thing that they put on every year to teach code officials about the latest stuff on how to enforce the code, or about changes in the codes and all that. And then I met him again, a couple of years later, at a similar thing — a bigger — the oldest one of those education weeks for building officials in Colorado. And he and I, Bob Fowler and I, ended up being put into the same session, like an afternoon session, that was called “Potpourri” because it was this mix of all kinds of different things. And Bob was presenting about, I think he was actually talking about this thing he had started trying to do, which was to consolidate the three regional model code groups in the US into what became the International Code Council and consolidate the codes. And I was talking about sustainability and codes, and I was talking about straw bale and alternatives.
Anyway, Bob and I really hit it off and we became really good friends. And in 1997, the annual meeting of the International Conference of Building Officials, ICBO, which was the building officials for the western half of the US, their annual conference was going to be in Phoenix. And Bob called me up and he said that he was putting together a plenary panel for that conference about the consolidation that he was trying to make happen. He wanted to see the development of a performance code, not just a prescriptive code…
Terry Phelan:: Right.
David Eisenberg: And so he asked me if I would be on this panel. And I said, I asked him a bunch of questions, like, “How long would we have,” and he said about 20 minutes, and you know some things about what he wanted me to talk about. And I asked him how big the audience would be, and he said, “Well, we get about 1,500 people to these conferences, they won’t all be there, probably only be like 1,000.” And I don’t think I’d gotten up in front of 30 or 40 people at that point. And the idea of getting up in front of 1,000 building officials was a little intimidating.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, to say the least!
David Eisenberg: Somehow or other, I said yes. And then I wasn’t going to have any visuals, it was just going to be a 20-minute talk. So, I wrote out a 20-minute talk and I rehearsed it. And then, eventually it got to be that day in September of ’97 and I went up to Phoenix, and our session was the last session of the day. The session before ours ran halfway into our time. And so when finally it looked like they were wrapping up, Bob looked at his watch and he said, “You know, I think we only have 10 minutes each because we only have half the time.” And he wanted me to go first, too. I remember the feeling and it was probably very much, you know, a “deer in the headlights” kind of look on my face, I’m sure. I was going, “Oh my god, what are my key points? How am I going to turn a 20-minute talk into a 10-minute talk in two minutes?” And I realized there was no way I could do that. And I was just going to have to wing it. And so we got up there and sat down. Bob got up, introduced all the panelists, introduced me. He sat down, I got up, I started talking. And I remember thinking a few minutes in, that it was going really well, like it just felt really good.
And then a few minutes later, I was finishing up whatever point I was making and I realized that I used my 10 minutes. And the ending that I had was dependent on the other 10 minutes of stuff that I hadn’t talked about, that I didn’t have time to talk about. And this is like the classic public speaking nightmare scenario. I’m looking out at the sea of building officials, trying to figure out what to say, and there’s sort of a roar in my head like, “Aaaahhhh…” And while I was trying to figure out what to say, I realized that I was already talking. And what I said was something that I’d never thought before. So, we all got to hear it for the first time, at the same time, even though it was coming out of my mouth. What I said was, “I want to ask you all a question.”
And said, “When someone comes into your into your jurisdiction, and they want to do something crazy, like build a house out of bales of straw, or maybe they think they should be able to use the dirt, the earth, and do adobe, or rammed earth, or cob, something you’ve never heard of. Or maybe they think they should be able to use bamboo as a structural material. Or maybe they want to be off the electrical grid and have photovoltaic panels up on the roof and batteries. Or maybe they don’t want to be connected to the sewer system, and they want to put in composting toilets. Or maybe they’re worried about electromagnetic fields, and they don’t want any electrical outlets in their bedroom. What goes through your mind when people come in and ask for permission to do those kinds of things?”
I said, “My guess is your first thought is, these people need to be protected from themselves.” And there was all this laughter, because that is what they were thinking. And I said, “Then your next thought is, not in my jurisdiction!” And there was more laughter. And I said, “Now, I want you to think about what’s really going on, because it’s incredibly important. The vast majority of people who come in seeking permission to do those kinds of things have made a crucial discovery, which is that their lifestyle choices have consequences. Many, if not most of which, are negative, but not negative for them. Negative for their children, and their children’s children, and my children, and your children. So those people are trying to take responsibility for the consequences of what they’re doing.”
I said, “Is there anybody in this room who thinks that’s a bad thing?” I said, “I don’t think so.” So I said, “So what’s your job as a building official? Is it to prevent those people from pursuing that goal? Or is it to help them find a way to do it well and safely?” And I remember I thought, “Shut up and sit down.” And I thank them. And I sat down to incredible applause. I mean, the room was electric. And I remember I sat down and I thought, what just happened?
Terry Phelan: Yeah, “What did I do?”
David Eisenberg: I don’t know where that came from. But it was really good. But how did I just, in the last two minutes of a 10-minute talk to a roomfull of building officials, cold, how did I just go from that, to reaching most of the people in this room? And as I thought about it, I realized a few things. One was, that I didn’t really tell them anything. I asked them some questions, really good questions, as it turned out. I didn’t make them wrong or bad. I invited them to a higher place from which they could do their work. And the interesting thing that happened, everybody else — the rest of the panel — they all gave their 20-minute talks and our session ran into dinnertime. But when it was over, there were at least 20 building officials who stood in line to talk to me and they had a lot of different things to say or ask. But there was one thread that went through all of those conversations. And it was that what I had talked about had never occurred to them before. And they never understood why anybody would want to do all that crazy stuff. They just, they had no context for understanding that there were really good reasons to think differently about all that.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, yeah. And that’s really, I think, part of your legacy of opening people’s eyes and building bridges. You’re such a humble man. And yet the things that you lead people towards considering and adopting, they come from somewhere deep. And I’ve always appreciated that and found myself humble in your presence.
This is Terry Phelan, you’re listening to Living Shelter, I’m talking with David Eisenberg of DCAT about making changes to the way building officials consider projects and look at materials.
David Eisenberg: So, you know, it was really interesting to - I’ve called that my “Phoenix Story,” or experience - I’ve called it, “Finding the Trailhead into the Work.” Because it made it so clear to me that the work isn’t adversarial; that I want, what they want. I don’t want people building unsafe buildings. It’s the last thing I want, but I have a much bigger risk profile when I think about the built environment than they do.
Terry Phelan: And what do you mean by, “a risk profile”?
David Eisenberg: If you think about building codes, they’re basically looking at a set of hazards attributable to the built environment. And they include things like fire, means of egress in an emergency, can you get out of the building safely, the structural integrity, that you shouldn’t get electrocuted, there needs to be adequate ventilation and heat or cooling — although cooling is still not required.
Terry Phelan: No, but I think with climate change that will likely be changing.
David Eisenberg: But basically, you look into sanitation, plumbing… All of these things that the codes deal with are about essentially safeguarding occupants of buildings, and people around buildings, from what my friend Art Ludwig calls, “19th century hazards.” They’re not all 19th century hazards but, they’re these really old, basic kinds of hazards. I mean, even things like toxicity in materials — it’s taken an incredibly long time, and it’s still hard to address the use of really hazardous chemicals in building materials — things like, you think about asbestos, you think about formaldehyde, you think about lead — these things were used, long, long, long after they were known hazards; they were still allowed. It wasn’t the building regulatory community that eventually forced them out of use. So that’s one part of it.
But buildings have lots of impacts away from the building site, in the acquisition of resources. And now we talk about embodied energy, embodied carbon, we talk about upstream and downstream lifecycle. We’re looking at a whole different set of things than we used to, and some of those things are slowly being incorporated into the building codes. But it’s an uphill battle.
And the assumption on the part of code officials is, there’s some other entity that’s responsible for the rest of those things, those hazards. And part of our work has been to show them that that’s not a safe assumption. And that when they require — so we got involved with trying to get halogenated flame retardants out of plastic foam building insulation because we’re talking about chemicals that are dangerous in the parts per million, and they’re putting pounds of this stuff into building insulation in our buildings. And these are, they’re awful chemicals. And, so there are these things, that when you start to look at the full spectrum of hazards attributable to the built environment, you see there’s a discrepancy between what the building codes cover and what those hazards actually include.
Terry Phelan: Right. And what the market still pushes because it might be economically advantageous…
David Eisenberg: Yeah. And then you could look at something like climate change. We started talking a long, long time ago about buildings’ impacts on the climate, and the climate’s changing impacts on buildings. We design buildings thinking that the last 200 years of climate are going to persist, and that the next 200 years or the next 10 years, are going to be like the last whatever period of time, and that’s not the case. We are finally starting to change our requirements based on the changes that are likely coming. But these things have all been really hard to drive up into view and then to get people to actually act on.
Terry Phelan: Right, it seems like the space that’s got the most change, the most movement has been the energy codes. And especially like in Washington State, we have a very strong energy code that every three years, that gets, that the requirements become more and more stringent.
David Eisenberg: Washington and California have really led the nation in the development and evolution of the energy codes.
Terry Phelan: Right. But I mean, there’s also the super storms and the wind loads are changing, and the…
David Eisenberg: And apparently snow loads as we’re seeing…
Terry Phelan: Oh, yes. As we’re seeing in Yosemite, oh my gosh.
David Eisenberg: Yeah, lots of things about, well, how about sea level rise for coastal cities? Yeah, floods, all of these things are changing and our work has diversified a lot over the years.
We got involved through EPA with doing work with tribes, with Native American tribes, and building codes and green building (and not imposing codes on them), but helping them evolve systems that would enable them to incorporate their worldview into creating the communities and buildings that they want and need. Not based on our reductionist, extraction-based, corporate-commercialized, product-driven, but on their own.
And then through our work with EPA, we got invited to be the principal investigator in creating this report (which still hasn’t been published, in part because it got done during the Trump Administration, had a bunch of stuff about climate change in it so it couldn’t see the light of day). But it was on resilience strategies to minimize building-related disaster debris. So really going back and looking at this whole sphere of things about how we could actually change how we build, how we think about buildings, where we build, what we do, whether it’s high wind, earthquake, flood, fire — all these things — hurricanes, tornadoes, all that stuff, that generate these gigantic amounts of, often hazardous, building-related debris, like, what can we do? What kind of resilient strategies are out there to change both existing buildings, but also change how we’re thinking and what we’re designing and building now with the goal of having more sustainable, durable structures, less hazards, all of that stuff.
So, the other thing I want to mention, is that over the years, our work with codes — because of things like straw bale, that was really the first place that we started thinking we might get straw bale into the building codes. And we did in Tucson and Pima County, and then California. And then eventually…
Terry Phelan: They’re in the International Residential Code now!
David Eisenberg: In 2013, we got the Straw Bale and the Light Straw Clay Appendices approved for the 2015 International Residential Code. And since then — so the things we’ve worked on — so, there’s a Tiny House Appendix, there’s Cob Construction…
Terry Phelan: Hempcrete, yeah.
David Eisenberg: The newest one is Hemplime, or Hempcrete, Hemplime Construction. And we’ve also twice rescued the Adobe Provisions in the International Building Code — the commercial construction code, not the residential code — and a variety of other things. Just recently, we got some changes made for, I’m trying to remember the exact name of that section, but basically rubble trench, gravel trench…
Terry Phelan: Oh, rubble trench foundations? We’ve used those successfully on a couple of projects, but they always had to go in as an alternative method.
David Eisenberg: Yeah, so we’ve we expanded how they can be used, although there’s seismic limitations and other things, but you can now use them for slab on grade. Basically, you don’t have to dig as deep, you don’t have to use as much concrete. So we just got that change into the, it’ll be in the 2024 IRC as well.
Terry Phelan:: Nice.
David Eisenberg: But anyway, there’s a whole set of things that were alternative and kind of impossible — or not impossible, but really difficult — you know, that are now in the code.
Terry Phelan: And I know that, I mean, we’ve skipped a big portion of the path that you went from that speaking engagement in Phoenix to where you are today with all the work with the building officials, being on the National, what was it? The National Board of Building Officials?
David Eisenberg: Well, so I wasn’t on the board. But what the interesting thing that happened was, I ended up on the National Board of the US Green Building Council, and there, I created the USGBC Code Committee, which I founded and chaired for the nine years of its existence. While I was on that committee and on the board, I started working to get a board-level Memorandum of Understanding between the US Green Building Council and the International Code Council, which is the national organization that Bob Fowler basically helped create. And, you know, all the I-codes are under their umbrella. And in 2007, I got to sign the MOU between USGBC and ICC to work together. Of the various things that came out of that, one was the International Green Construction Code.
One of the really funny things that happened over the years, first with the International Conference of Building Officials, ICBO, and then with ICC — ICBO had their magazine, Building Standards and we got invited to do some feature issues on alternative materials and sustainability. And eventually, they gave me a regular column in their magazine called “Building Codes for a Small Planet.” They named it, actually.
Terry Phelan:: That’s so cool.
David Eisenberg: And then after the consolidation, it moved into Building Safety Journal, which is ICC’s magazine. And so I wrote, I think, a couple of years; I had a column in that magazine as well, and we did more features on green building and all that stuff.
And then one day in early 2007, I went to the post office, opened up the post office box — and all of those features, every time some green building thing showed up in those magazines, it was because we had initiated it, and you know, had pulled together the people that wrote the articles and wrote some of them ourselves. Anyway, I go to the post office, I pull out the current issue — the current issue of Building Safety Journal — and on the cover is a picture of the National Association of Realtors’ LEED Silver building in downtown Washington D.C. You can see the capital in the background. And ICC had leased two floors. They moved their headquarters to D.C., and I’ll say something more about that momentarily. But anyway, so there’s a picture of their new headquarters building, real estate building in DC. And I open it up and the magazine is filled with stuff about green building. And I’m looking at it and I’m going, “What? What? They did this, they did this without us?” You know, my first reaction was an ego reaction. Like, how could they do this? You know, and then it took about 15 seconds.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, that’s like, “This is my space!”
David Eisenberg: I realized, “Oh. Proof of concept! Phase Three of our “Building Sustainability into the Codes” three-phase process. You know, it took 12 years. It only took 12 years. And they were doing it without us.
Terry Phelan: Well, and 12 years, I mean, in the big scheme of things, that’s not that long.
David Eisenberg: So anyway, it was a really interesting moment. But before that, so Dominic Sims I had met years before; Bob Fowler actually introduced us. But Dom Sims was the CEO of the Southern Building Code Congress International, before the consolidation was completed, I think. Anyway, he became the Chief Operating Officer for ICC. And now and for the last many years has been the CEO of the International Code Council, and he’s a good friend. Anyway, he called me up one day when he was, in 2007, when he was the COO. And he said, “You can’t tell anybody about this. You’re the first person I’m telling. And because I have to tell somebody,” he said, “I just signed the lease,” he said, “So the ICC is moving their headquarters to D.C. And we just leased two floors. In the National Association of Realtors’ brand new LEED Silver building. ICC is going to be in a LEED Silver building!” And he was so excited about it. And he had to tell me first.
Terry Phelan: And this was 2007. So this was really early in the movement.
David Eisenberg: And then later that year, ICC gave DCAT their Affiliate of the Year Award, which usually goes to these big, all kinds of big organizations. And then, two months later, I think at Green Built conference in Chicago, we got a National Leadership Award from USGBC for the same body of work, probably the same decade of work. But that 2007 was a kind of a special year for me, or for some recognition for what we’ve been doing.
ASHRAE 189 was the thing I was trying to remember. That kind of grew out of that working together with USGBC and ICC, and then ASHRAE.
Terry Phelan: What is ASHRAE 179? What does that outline?
David Eisenberg: 189. It’s kind of a green building standard. That’s more for, you know, it’s focused more on HVAC kind of stuff and indoor environmental quality, but more. More than that. It was interesting. The codes realm is one thing, the standards realm is different. They’re similar, but they’re different. And I got my introduction into the ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, process of consensus standard development when I was the Vice Chair of an ASTM Subcommittee on Sustainability for Buildings. And while I was — I did that for five years — and during that time, we created the lowest tech ASTM Standard, I think, in existence, which was, I think it’s 2394? Anyway, it’s a standard guide for the design of earthen building wall systems.
And then Bruce King, structural engineer in the Bay Area — who has a great nonprofit Ecological Building Network, EB Net — Bruce got funding from the Getty Foundation, mostly because of their interest in the preservation of historic earthen buildings, to create, basically, to update that standard and create a structural appendix to go with it. So 2392, I think, I think it’s E, ASTM E 2392. That standard guide. Anyway, all that work, it’s been very interesting and educational to see the insides of how different sausages are made.
Terry Phelan: Well, you’ve always been an inspiration to me, the heart-centered path that you’ve taken even through this bureaucratic maze. I really honor what you do and what you’ve done. I am curious, what inspires you?
David Eisenberg: Well, my kids and grandkids, I guess, as much as anything. There’s a great quote that I often start and end my presentations with, which is a Jonas Salk quote. It’s quite condensed and it pretty much says it all. And that is, “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.”
Terry Phelan: I love that quote.
David Eisenberg: Yeah, it’s pretty grounding. You know, whoever you’re talking to, whoever you’re talking with, presenting to, just say, “Here’s a frame of reference that I try to be operating in, in this work, and I invite you to operate in that frame of reference as well.” Like, what are we doing, and what does it mean? And who benefits and who pays, in not just money, but in all these ways that are the real costs of what we’re doing, and the real benefits.
Terry Phelan: Well, David, we are about out of time, I want you to let us know where can people go to find out more information?
David Eisenberg: So probably the — we have an incredibly out-of-date website, which is DCAT.net. But where I’ve been posting things that are more current is on a Facebook, a public Facebook group, called DCAT Group, and a public Facebook page and I upload files there.
The newest one is a guide to create straw bale emergency shelters. It came about by my friend Bob Cook and Matts Myhrman and Out on Bale. Matts was actually contacted, I think, by a woman who has been working with people in Ukraine. I think she’s Ukrainian, but she’s in the States. But anyway, through that network, there was a request that came, I think, came through Builders Without Borders. But anyway, through Catherine Waning to Matts and then to us too. And we had done some work a long, long time ago with straw bale emergency shelters. And so anyway, we created some new stuff, dragged in and updated some older resources, and put together this PDF file that is now on the DCAT Group Facebook page that you can find and download.
So, you know, continue to work on all manner of things and working locally with sustainable Tucson and Tucson 2030 district, which is part of the National 2030 districts trying to deal with Architecture 2030’s 2030 challenge more. And, you know, there’s no shortage of things to do.
Terry Phelan: No, no. Well, thank you. Thank you for everything you do. And thank you for being with us today. It was wonderful.
David Eisenberg: Well, thanks for inviting. It’s lovely to spend time with you, Terry.
Terry Phelan: That was David Eisenberg of DCAT, the Development Center for Appropriate Technology. They are a nonprofit organization, so please support them if you’d like to see this work continue. I also want to thank everyone listening in and hope you’ll tune in again for more in-depth conversations with inspirational guests from the world of sustainable design.
The Living Shelter podcast is a project of Board & Vellum, a multidisciplinary design firm practicing architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture for residential, commercial, and civic projects. From our studio in Seattle, I’m your host Terry Phelan. Take care and we’ll talk again soon.