copyright 2012 Eiren Caffall

There were lilacs blooming in my dooryard.

But they are browning now, and they are almost gone; they were very early lilacs.

It is strange to see them at the end of their lives now, since, usually, they are my markers of my birthday – late April, the time of spring coming back, the time of the thaw, the time when everything feels like home again, like live grass and new birds.

I’ve chosen houses based on whether there were lilacs there. I’ve stayed in this house, as I wrangle with the bank over possible foreclosure, sometimes only with the hope of seeing another bloom of those trees from the windows of my own office.

The lilacs in my backyard when I was little were taller than the ancient trees in my Chicago garden. They were so tall that they stood like a curvy wall of trunks topped with heart-shaped leaves. I could lie on the bare ground under them and pretend things, like forts and like towers and dragons, since that was what I would be pretending anyway, flowers or no.

In the Massachusetts of my childhood, I could have told you exactly the week they would bloom. In Chicago, I used to be content to know that they would bloom on my birthday if I was lucky, Mother’s Day if the year was cold.

This year they bloomed in March.

The winter and spring we had out here was far too warm far too early and, really, if you were paying any attention at all, terrifying.

Of course, if you pay attention to the science, it is simply another marker that extreme weather, unpredictable weather, is becoming the norm.

Huge snowstorms, fiercely destructive hail, tornadoes, heat waves, all of them are the result of the amping up of global weather. This article makes the point that the weather is now more like a baseball player on steroids. We’ve warmed the planet, sure, but that does more than just raise temperatures. It gives the weather’s muscles much more fuel. And when the weather flexes the hit is that much stronger.

We’re in a La Nina year, a pretty serious one, and this is what we get when you put La Nina on steroids.

So, in our early spring on steroids, the Juneberry trees bloomed before the pollinators were there to meet them, all along the lakeshore. My lilacs bloomed with the magnolias, the pear tree, the daffodils – a riot – everything awake at once, bright-eyed and without bees.

All very wrong.

My friends and I joked that we should call the beautiful false summer Warmageddon, a funny word for something that left all of us with the twinge of panic that the coming summer would be like 1995, the one where 700 people died here in Chicago.

It was hot so long that year that I remember weeks of hiding in movie theaters, my boyfriend and I too poor to buy an air conditioner, even if there had been one left to buy.

Things sometimes don’t feel so different in 2012: a chaotic warm winter, and a time of foreclosures. Just as off, this year, just as thin the margins, in my life at least.

And maybe in all of ours. People are still losing their homes, they build less, move less, have less chance to define home by either the standards they have of beauty and comfort and lilacs or by the standards of their conscience.

Choosing a house based on the plants in the garden and when they are meant to bloom seems perfectly cracked now – here in a city where they are planning trees for climate change.

In 20 years, this northern place I chose for snow and plenty of it will be like Texas, or Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago knows it. The city has invested a great deal of money in infrastructure to deal with coming floods, and is making sure that the trees it plants (and it famously plants lots for a big American city) are ready for the new growing zone they’ll occupy soon: fewer Norway maples, plenty of swamp white oaks and bald cyprus.

When the economy was better, it seemed like residents were planning more as well, building and renovating homes to make them carbon-neutral, green and growing, and change at least a small portion of the future by the kinds of homes they chose.

I wanted to be one of those people.

I remember reading, when my ex-husband was in grad school for urban planning, that the buildings in which we live and work are, statistically at least, the largest contributors in our daily lives to the size of our carbon footprints.

I wanted a green home.

But, I grew up with lefties and union songs, and I was also pretty sure that a boutique experience like having a modern green home was beyond me entirely, both in terms of cost and the moral expense of buying something so few people could manage.

When I dreamed about a green home it was produced as sustainably as it was designed.

But a mass-produced, affordable green home seemed totally unrealistic, an impossible equation. And then I met Jeffery Sommers.

Well, I met his wife Michele, actually. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that we had dinner, and our children played together. I had the pleasure of watching Jeff and Michele, support his dream of building just the kind of house I thought didn’t exist: a prefabricated green home that could be mass-produced for the urban market and create affordable sustainable houses for cities like Chicago, or anywhere else, for that matter.

In 2011, Jeff’s design, the C3, Chicago’s first prefabricated green building, shepherded by his firm Square Root Architecture, made its way to Chicago on a truck, was lifted into place by a crane (here’s a time lapse film of the day it arrived), and became part of a neighborhood here in the city. And it is beautiful.


And this year Livingroom Realty began selling it and you could buy one, even if I can’t just now.

I look at the pictures of this home, with the light it gives its residents, the simplicity of design behind it, the planning that has gone into its manufacture, and I have a tiny leap of hope, that home and what it means as the planet changes around us has a future.

The C3 does what anyone should want a home to do, it relies little on nostalgia, but has an empathy with its inhabitants. And, more gracefully, it has an empathy with both its environment and its time.

The C3, provides sanctuary from the city while living within it. The materials are sustainable, there are solar power options, and it will likely be awarded LEED Platinum status.

But because it works with natural light, open space, the natural world within the city, it also softens itself, using less but staying in tune with the needs of people living in small space, among many other people who are all straining the same resources.

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The affordability of the home, as well, stands out. Instead of standing in the rarefied atmosphere of the boutique house you might expect from an architect-created green home, the cost per square foot ($150-$350 depending on the options chosen) is comparable with most other new construction in Chicago.

The C3 is mercifully scaled to both its place and time.

The recession has taught anyone that didn’t know before that we never could afford to build homes that function the way McMansions do, greedy, domineering, cut off from the land, the city and the air and sun above them. We cannot allow the humans who occupy our buildings to feel as if huge space, consumption and distance from each other is to be perceived as the ultimate in luxury.

Instead, if we are doing the real work of trying to live in the moment, we should build for life as it is now: early lilacs, weather on steroids, scarce funds, and the realization that where and how we build is directly related to all the other decisions that change the planet for better or worse.

While I’ve been thinking about the C3 a lot lately, I’ve also been thinking a lot about a video I saw recently on the living footbridges of Meghalaya.

Woven over years from living strangler fig vines, these bridges span the rivers of this rainy region of Norhtern India, which vary widely depending on the season. Embedded within the culture of their place, this architecture, sustainable and unique, is a reflection of the need and character of the people who built and use it.


The C3 is a reflection of all that Chicago is at its best, a manufacturing-centered response to the environment in which we find ourselves, one dependent on factories, and teamsters and heavy equipment, but also focused on the people who need it, on reproducing a good idea enough that it becomes affordable, and becomes a new vernacular for the way people see and feel city life.

I have needed lilacs, a nod to a rural childhood, to mark place up to now. But, with a climate-based view of place rapidly being driven to extinction by a warming planet, perhaps we must take into consideration the entirety of a place, and the genuine moment in which we live there.

Now is not the time of blooming trees timed to the rhythms of our childhoods, it is a time of wrenching change, when each decision we make is as interconnected with our neighbors as those strangler fig vines in a living bridge.

We cannot separate the kind of homes we choose to build and inhabit from the factories, road, materials that made them, nor from the energy that they use to keep us sheltered, warmed, fed, educated, employed and entertained.All of it is connected, and finding the vernacular of your own time and place, and living within it seems the key.

Making a living bridge to the rest of the people that surround you is only possible with great focus and intention, and the C3 brings all of that home to where my lilacs bloom and die before I am ready.

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