Saturday, December 21, 2013

the garden at mid-winter

The winter solstice is a good time to take stock of the garden at tin box. It's been a weird winter with unusually high amounts of rain (we're still using rain water from the cistern for all our indoor use, about a month later than we could last year) and very hot temperatures (over 80 degrees most days). This has made it difficult to grow cool season vegetables. Nonetheless, we're starting to harvest green beans (left) and tomatoes from volunteers, those self-seeded plants that grow from last year's crops.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

spreading the word, USGBC edition

Next Saturday, November 16, the Miami-Dade branch of the US Green Building Council (USGBC) is organizing a tour of sustainable houses in South Miami and Coral Gables. They've graciously invited us to participate, and the USGBC bus should get to tin box around 1:30.

Besides the opportunity to compare strikingly different techniques for designing ecologically sustainable buildings, the tour will also offer insights into how public policy can make communities more livable, enjoyable and sustainable. Among the people speaking on the tour are Jennifer Korth, the Grants & Sustainable Initiatives Administrator for the City of South Miami, and Jenny May, the Chair of the Coral Gables Green Task Force.

You can register through this link.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Can one garden gnome propitiate the gods of football and gardening? Can one Gartenzwerg assure our first successful crop of collard greens and the Philadelphia Eagles' first Super Bowl victory? Who but a fool would challenge the fecund power of Priapus, Greek god of fertility and patron of gardens, and his minuscule descendants?

Much thanks to Adam, favorite brother of tin box, for the awesome birthday present!

Monday, October 7, 2013


We're very fortunate to be featured in Residential Architect magazine, in a terrific article by Ben Ikenson on net zero construction. The article is illustrated with one of the amazing photos of our house by Dana Hoff, commissioned by the editors. Great thanks to Bill Richards, the Director of External Publishing for the American Institute of Architects, for commissioning the article.

Monday, September 23, 2013

thoughts on stairs

How many great stairs do you encounter in your everyday life? How often do you look forward to climbing and descending a staircase? Stairs offer clear advantages from the viewpoint of sustainability – they consume less electricity than elevators and escalators, and they add some nice exercise to our overly sedentary lives. But too often stairs are hidden away in fire-rated shafts, with that combination of concrete block walls and fluorescent lighting that just screams “maximum security prison.” Build better stairs! Make them a joy to climb, to descend, to pause and to share.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Art Fallout 2013

On Saturday, October 5, we’re participating in Art Fallout 2013, an annual cultural event in Fort Lauderdale. We’ll present our ongoing thinking about the sustainable management of water resources in a talk, “Precipitating a Solution,” at Glavovic Studio. (If you’re not familiar with Margi Glavovic Nothard’s work, do yourself a favor and check out the remarkable housing, urban landscapes and cultural facilities she’s built.) We’ll be on a panel with John Sandell, a multifaceted architect who teaches at Florida Atlantic University. We’re going to talk about our experiences with tin box, and extrapolate outward to consider how cities and regions can approach water and waste more sustainably.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

cleaning up, continued

Night views of the kitchen and courtyard, staged with gorgeous furniture from PIE Studio in advance of professional publicity photos.

Friday, July 12, 2013

furniture, couch edition

Another piece of the house fell into place today when our new sofa arrived. The sofa is more than a place to park your tuchus. It is a key piece of the three-dimensional composition of the living and dining room. We chose this sofa based on its scale and proportions. It defines the sitting area without forming too heavy a barrier (it helps to have the mass of the couch lifted off the floor on light metal legs, which pick up on some of the other silver finishes in the room).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

garden, July harvest edition

Summer is the slow season in South Florida gardens. The heat and humidity send most food crops into dormancy, leaving us with just herbs and tree fruit. But there are still some vegetables out there, like the eggplants and jalapeño peppers (left). Today's harvest included them and some sweet potato greens, sweet potatoes (harvested a couple of weeks ago), lemongrass and Thai basil.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

maintenance, water filter edition

In addition to the normal maintenance schedule for most houses - changing the batteries in the smoke detectors, cleaning out the gutters - tin box has a few other systems that need regular service. One of them is the group of filters we use to make rainwater potable. The three filters are mounted on a skid in the garage, close to the point where the supply line from the rainwater cistern enters the house. The pump (lower right) draws water from the cistern whenever we turn on a tap or appliance; the water passes through a string filter (blue tube, far right), an ultraviolet lamp (silver cylinder, center) and a charcoal filter (left). These three items need to be replaced annually.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

garden, bush bean edition

Our first batch of bush beans from the garden.

act now, climate change edition

A much less sanguine, but even more important article, is Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell's piece on the devastation facing Miami as a result of climate change. This is an important article, and the real shame of the matter is that it took a national magazine - not a local news organization - to make public what scientists and activists have been arguing for years. No amount of individual action is enough to stave off an existential threat to our lives and our region. We need collective action at the state and federal levels, and we need it now.

Our economy and our political institutions are driven by people who cannot see beyond the next quarterly report or the next election, and their disingenuous (in)actions on environmental issues will leave our city in ruins. Those who deny climate change and its effects will be seen by history with the same harsh judgment as those who did nothing in the face of other epochal threats to human life. But I will never feel any joy in being right, only despair that I did not do enough.

act now

James Jiler, the brilliant gardener and social activist who turned our back yard into a food forest and butterfly nursery, recently published an excellent essay on the value of gardening programs in prisons. Using examples taken from his own work in New York and Florida, as well as research and programs in the US and abroad, James makes a compelling case for reforming prisons to better support the rehabilitation of prisoners. We have a chance to help our neighbors and to relieve ourselves of the crushing financial burden of prison costs. Talk to James about how you can get involved.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Harlan, the elder child of tin box, had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for nine months, and agitating for a real bed most of that time. No more. Last week, we had a chance to build a bed for him, and the results were not terrible. Harlan and I drew up a plan, found some sustainably harvested lumber and formaldehyde-free plywood, and knocked together a bed with a headboard and shelf, and which sits on a continuous book shelf. The whole assembly is lifted off the floor to leave a half-inch reveal at the base.

Friday, June 14, 2013

garden, pole bean edition

We harvested our first batch of pole beans yesterday. These insanely long (and surprisingly sweet when sautéed) guys grew from beans we planted in April. Beans like to be sown directly into the ground, and pole beans need an armature to climb on. These vines produce elegant violet flowers which then turn into two quickly-growing beans.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

garden, sweet potato edition

We just harvested our second batch of sweet potatoes. This huge pile came from a single potato we planted back in the fall. The vines spread quickly in the garden (the nutritious leaves make for a tasty sauté) and as they set down roots, some of them turned into tubers. And those tubers include some giants: the conch-shaped one in the photo is about the size of a conch shell (over nine inches long). Sweet potatoes are about as easy a crop as you'll ever encounter: they required no maintenance or irrigation, and spread throughout the shallow and loose soil. However, they are not without their problems...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

the garden at midsummer

Modern Farmer magazine just posted a letter to the editor under the provocative headline, "Can I Legally Grow Food in My Front Yard?"The response: it depends on zoning, deeds and neighborhood associations. In South Miami, we're fortunate that the city allows us to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs instead of lawns. As we head into mid-summer, it's a good moment to take stock of what's been growing out in the front yard...

Monday, June 10, 2013

spreading the word, AIA Florida edition

The spring issue of Florida/Caribbean Architect, the journal of the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects, has a nice article about tin box. Thanks to editor Diane Greer for including us in this issue!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

day job, Rome edition

Continuing the video lecture theme, here is the link to the lecture I gave at the Accademia San Luca in Rome in October 2012, where I got to sit with Howard Burns and Francesco Moschini (!) in a palazzo partly remodeled by Francesco Borromini. Another bucket list item crossed off.

day job, Texas A&M edition

Back in March I gave a talk on my research in Ethiopia, called "Less Rupture than Amplification: Ethiopian Cities and Italian Colonialism" at Texas A&M University. The video is available online. Thanks to Peter Lang and Sarah Deyong for the kind invitation.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Why have there been no great women [architects]?, continued

Our old friend Mark Humphries responds to Friday's post on attribution by noting the great fame and critical success enjoyed by Zaha Hadid, including her 2004 Pritzker Prize. And certainly, Hadid is not alone - we could easily fill post after post with work by critically-acclaimed and financially successful women architects. Yet such a list belies two fundamental problems: women remain systematically under-credited for the work they do in shaping the built environment, regardless of how many success stories we can name, and the very nature of Hadid's fame embodies the marginalization of architecture as a meaningful way of shaping the public realm. In numerous ways, Hadid's success is the problem.

Friday, May 31, 2013


The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season begins at midnight, so we'll spend some of the coming weekend checking our hurricane kit. We need to make sure the batteries and canned food are up to date, and that we've got plenty of bottled water.

Why have there been no great women [architects]?

We really are grateful for all the positive responses tin box has received so far. Online, in print, on television and on tours - the feedback has been great. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, we do have to take issue with one aspect of the coverage: attribution.

For whatever reason, people frequently credit the project to David, and discount Holly's role in the collaboration. Unfortunately, this situation is very common in architecture.

Monday, May 27, 2013


Memorial Day gives us a chance to pause and reflect, with gratitude, on the millions of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things when called upon to serve and defend their fellow citizens. There is an ethos of service and sacrifice that defines us in our best moments, and it is an ideal to which we ought to strive more and more.

And since we see the world through the lens of the built environment, our Memorial Day tribute is, of course, architectural. Of Maya Lin's sublime Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1980-82), the best description may be from John Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), where he wrote of architecture that, "We may live without her, and worship without her, but we cannot remember without her."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Florida Friendly Landscape

This week, our brilliant sustainability consultant, Lorna Bravo, dropped off our Florida Friendly Landscape sign. We received our certification back in September (along with our Florida Water Star Gold certification), but got the sign this week and figured it'd be a good time to take stock of the landscape. The Florida Friendly Landscape program is organized by the University of Florida to provide criteria for designing and maintaining landscapes that sustain native plant and animal species and don't tax our already overburdened water supply systems. 

So what's new in the garden? 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

moving FIU forward

Yesterday, we hosted the FIU GoGreen team (Carrie, Ali, Connie - seen here hugging our cistern - and Jerry) whose work at FIU involves moving the university toward more sustainable operations. It's a Herculean task - the university often mirrors Miami's troubling lack of concern for environmental issues - but the Office of University Sustainability is directed by smart and energetic people who are gradually making a big difference. Take a look at their initiatives and events on FIU's campuses, and get involved.

Saturday, May 4, 2013


One of the joys of academia is getting to watch our students graduate. One of the horrors of academia is having to sit through commencement speeches. So as a public service, we'd like to use the graduation season to offer some words of advice... to commencement speakers. Above all, there are two words you should avoid at all costs:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

garden, giant vine edition

The fence that closes off the back yard gave us an opportunity to plant some vines, of which the most spectacular is the Dutchman's Pipe, or aristolochia, that we planted just beside the side porch, facing the park. There are about 500 species of aristolochia, and we're not quite sure which one this is. The flowers are enormous (well over a foot long), smell intensely like lemon-flavored hard candy, and start out as gigantic hollow buds that resemble partially inflated balloons.

The thing has grown incredibly fast...

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

spreading the word, video-embedded edition

This is a copy of the story NBC6 ran about our house as part of their Earth Week coverage. Our one complaint: the story credits David exclusively, when the project was a close collaboration between the two of us. Otherwise, great editing and camerawork, and much thanks to Danielle Alvarez for organizing the story and Carlos Ruiz for organizing the tour of green homes!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

spreading the word, continued

Here is a brief text we put together for today's First Miami Tour of Green Houses, organized by Carlos Ruiz and sponsored by AIA Miami and the Miami Association of Realtors:

Our home approaches sustainability as a set of social and ecological concerns. Social sustainability describes the way our house helps foster a sense of community from the scale of family to the scale of the neighborhood. Ecological sustainability describes the range of approaches we use to positively impact the natural environment at the local, regional and global scales.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

spreading the word

This morning, our local NBC affiliate began running a story about sustainable building practices as part of their Earth Day coverage of environmental issues. The story might include footage of tin box shot Thursday by a reporter/cameraman - and FIU grad - named Joe. The story is also meant to publicize tomorrow's tour of five area homes chosen for their sustainability, in which we are really honored to participate. Both the tour and the TV appearance were organized by Carlos Ruiz, a local architect and realtor who is building the first two spec green homes in Dade County.

Monday, April 1, 2013

bidding tin box adieu

After eight great months at tin box, it's time to move on. With the South Florida real estate market picking up, our strategically located lot has garnered a lot of interest, and, finally, we have accepted a generous offer from a neighbor and Burger King franchisee who is going to build a new BK in South Miami. While this will necessitate the demolition of our house, we are excited by the opportunity to bring high quality, affordable food to the neighborhood. Burger King uses only the freshest ingredients in their award-winning food products. And, quite honestly, this whole "sustainability" fad has really played itself out, hasn't it? We'll soon start blogging about our next project, a seven-bedroom Mediterranean Revival home in a lovely gated community.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

garden, fruit tree edition

Intoxicated by the climate and potential for growing stuff we'd only ever seen in grocery stores, we've surrounded the house with fruit trees, shrubs and whatever it is that bananas grow on. The planters in front of the house have several citrus and non-citrus trees, and low-growing bushes, all of which have shallow roots (required by the fact that the planting beds sit above the drainage field for the septic system). The front gets tons of sun, which is perfect for the Meyer lemons (left), key limes, Persian limes, peach, pomegranate raspberries and blueberries. They all seem to be growing well, and we've already harvested some lemons.

But, you ask, how do you grow a cold-weather shrub like blueberry in the subtropics?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

garden, herb edition

We have had great success with herbs, so far. The temperate herbs common in North America do well here, including mint, basil, oregano, dill, rosemary, sage, thyme, sorrel and tarragon. Each of them has grown dramatically over the winter, and our next task is to start separating the really big ones. The only herb we've had trouble with is cilantro, which we'll try again, soon. All the savory bulbs have done well, too, including onions (yellow, white and red), garlic, scallions and leeks.

The exciting addition for us has been tropical plants, like ginger, culantro, lemongrass and turmeric. The picture at left shows two lemongrasses: the one in front is a more typical culinary lemongrass (which ended up in last night's lemonade, along with some mint and a Meyer lemon, all from the garden), while the tall red-stemmed one in back is a citronella grass. They're both in the cymbopogon genus.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

garden, leafy green edition

Our goal has been to fill the planting beds with an understory of leafy greens and low-growing vegetables, while creating a canopy of fruit-producing trees above. So far, we've run into two problems with the leafy greens and veggies: bitterness and pests. The lettuces and chards, left, have grown well through the winter, but the lettuce has been very bitter. This is also true of the basil that has grown prolifically around the garden, and which we've used to mitigate the second problem: peafowl. The peacocks and peahens are particularly fond of the tender leaves of seedlings, and they've ravaged our collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, mizuna, bok choi and other plants. The basil and lemongrass seem to keep them away, so we've been using these herbs as a kind of bodyguard around other plants.

garden, not-really-a-vegetable edition

Spring break has meant a chance to putter around perform needed maintenance in the garden, and a little time to write about what we've planted so far. Over the coming days we'll talk about the mix of edible (both ground crops and tree fruit) and native plants and trees we've planted, so far. We'll also write about our compost bins.

Our most prolific crop, so far, is the plum/Roma tomato plant we got in the fall...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

driving lessons

Last night, somewhere on I-75, the odometer on our 2007 Prius crossed the highly symbolic, yet utterly unimportant, 100,000 mile threshold. To mark the event, we’re listing the lessons learned from the car, and how they influenced the design of tin box...


It's spring break at FIU, which means a chance to step out of the daily cycle of teaching and grading to catch up on research, writing, gardening and writing about gardening. But first, a public service announcement: remember to change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Use the semi-annual clock adjustment of daylight savings as a reminder to replace those 9V batteries, even if, like us, your batteries are just back-up power sources for a hard-wired alarm system.

Friday, February 22, 2013

cotton anniversary

It's been two years (and 50,000 page views) since we inaugurated the blog that accidentally gave the house a name, and six months since we moved in. We have not been good about updating the blog since moving in (blah, blah, day job, blah, blah), but we hope to start offering some real data on photovoltaic electric generation, water consumption and gardening, soon. For now, things seem to be working well, our utility bills appear very low, and our tomato vines are prolific. Here are some photos...

[Ed. - Here's a link to much better professional photos of the house.]

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"the earth torn, split open"

Richard Blanco, who read his Whitman-esque poem "One Today" at the presidential inauguration last week, is a Miami native and FIU alumnus. And like so many poets, he has a day job. He is a civil engineer. In 2008, he was involved in a road improvement project on Sunset Drive, the major artery running through downtown South Miami. While working on the project he became captivated by one of the black-and-white photographs at City Hall that depict South Miami long before his or our family arrived here. Thinking about the temporal space between himself and the single figure depicted in the photograph, he responded in poetry. Here is the text of "Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008," from the groundbreaking ceremony of the Sunset Drive road improvement project (published in 2011 in Floating Wolf Quarterly):

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"a nursery of opportunity"

This is the video of James Jiler's talk, "A Sentence of Transformation," at TEDxCoconutGrove last October. James talked about his experiences developing horticulture programs for prisoners at Rikers Island, and, since 2008, his work with Urban GreenWorks, which helps at-risk adults and minors through garden-building projects in South Florida.

James designed the beautiful food forest and native plant landscape around tin box, which produces food for us, creates habitat for native species, and conserves water and natural resources. Next on our reading list: his 2006 book, Doing Time in the Garden, about gardening in prisons.