Jacob Deva Racusin is a designer, builder and educator of sustainable buildings. He is the co-author of The Natural Building Companion, a contributor to The Art of Natural Building, and Co-Owner of New Frameworks Natural Design. His specific areas of expertise are in mechanical, water, energy, and enclosure system design and quality control.
Jacob is the program director of the Building Science and Net-Zero Design Program at Yestermorrow Design + Build School, and has taught natural design and building science at various universities around North America.
Jacob, you focus on green construction, remodelling and education. Have you always been passionate about the sustainability of our homes, or was there a specific incident that changed your perspective?
Prior to building, I was deeply involved with sustainable agriculture and natural health. I started a family at a young age, and after finding very little housing on the market that was both affordable and healthy or sustainable, we decided to build our own home to reflect our values.
About half-way through the process, I realized that I really enjoyed construction, and that there was a big void to fill in providing sustainable building solutions in my region, particularly for smaller buildings and residences, so I pivoted my career to focus on contracting.
We now see a path forward where the building industry can partner with sustainable forestry and regenerative agriculture industries to create plant-based buildings
I am a passionate educator and advocate as well, and began teaching at the same time I began contracting, to create greater capacity within our industry and empower other prospective owner-builders. My joy and passion for making better buildings is the most important factor – joy is a critical component of sustainability to avoid burn-out and martyrdom!
To what extent do you think that the health and resilience of the built environment relate to a healthy and resilient community? Can you recall a specific example of when the physical landscape positively (or negatively) affected the social vitality of a place?
The built environment and its inhabiting community are in constant dialogue. Unhealthy buildings and vulnerable infrastructure expose the community to increased risk and have a big ripple of negative social and economic impact – look at the lead crisis, not just in Flint, MI but throughout our older housing infrastructure. In the worst cases, communities cannot hold values of health and resiliency if they do not see those values reflected back to them in their environment, creating a negative feedback loop.
Conversely, communities able to invest in healthy, resilient infrastructure reap the benefits, and are therefore better empowered to demand these values reflected in their built environment. We have seen this replicated in downtown revitalization programs in Vermont, and the result is a built environment reflecting the community’s values and supporting the community’s needs, revitalizing the economic, social, and cultural fabric of endangered rural communities.
You live in a straw bale home and permaculture-inspired homestead. Do you envision this to be a generalisable model for everyone to live in? Do you think rural and urban houses have different priorities that need to be addressed? How so?
On a high level, the priorities in urban and rural housing are the same – affordability, health for occupants/workers, safe for the planet, durability, beauty. On a granular level, things shift – urban environments must respond to density issues, yielding larger buildings.
Rural environments have more land base, and housing relates more to land management opportunities/responsibilities and regional planning models like clustered village development. How buildings are built affect this, too – small rural buildings are built by many different owners, whereas larger urban buildings have dozens of units controlled by a small number of owners.
Custom construction like site-built straw bale walls will always be difficult to scale; that said, straw is now being incorporated into prefabricated structural panels and compressed boards; this means straw as a material can readily be scaled and replicated beyond its custom roots. Scaling renewable materials is our greatest opportunity and mandate!
What advice would you give someone who is eager to make some simple changes to make their home more sustainable?
First, define your goals. Indoor health? Natural beauty? Zero waste? Reduced climate impact? Net zero energy? No fossil fuels? Resilient design (fire, flood, power loss)? Prioritizing goals is critical to direct resources to the most important areas of impact.
Next, check your baseline: what is the existing condition of the home? Look at energy bills, get a home energy audit and/or healthy homes evaluation, evaluate your home’s solar PV potential, make note of opportunities for improvement.
Then, do your research – there is a ton of good information about all of these categories, and a ten tons of bad information. Find reliable, unbiased, qualified information resources such as peer-reviewed publications, data-driven case-studies, or even paid professional consultants to help develop strategies appropriate to your home, even small and simple strategies.
Finally, define what “success” looks like and define a metric, such as % of reduced energy consumption or improved ventilation rates.
The New Frameworks Natural Design and Build webpage. Source: newframeworks.com
In relation to our Shape Your Future video series, I would like to ask you both one more question, in fact, the one to top them all and to guide all of us:
“How do you shape your future?”
I began my career building a beautiful, healthy, sustainable home for my family using local, natural materials. After nearly two decades, this work has not only become more relevant, it is being embraced by the much larger world of green building, and we are seeing major corporations investing huge amounts of money in sustainability initiatives.
We now see a path forward where the building industry can partner with sustainable forestry and regenerative agriculture industries to create plant-based buildings that can store more carbon than they emit, while supporting rural land-based economies and working landscape conservation models. These systems-based approaches are what is required to address the systems problems of climate change and social and economic injustice, and we have a real opportunity to make large, rapid change by setting big goals and developing integrated, cooperative strategies to reach those goals.
I am fortunate to stand in a role where I can reach out to architects, developers, owners, manufacturers, builders, farmers, foresters, and policy makers and build bridges across these different communities to work towards a common goal, finding ways that literally everyone can participate in whatever role they are in, and this is how I am shaping my future.