Martha Norbeck & Cypress Villages, Oct07 | Green Architect Martha Norbeck Plans a Sustainable Community

Architect Martha Norbeck at Cypress Villages in Fairfield, Iowa.  (PHOTO: Copyright 2007 Mark Paul Petrick)


Right now, as I write this, I am in my office looking out the window. Outside, the sun shines down from a clear, brilliantly blue sky and the temperature is holding steady at a breezy 73º F. All in all, it seems like the perfect fall day. And here I am sitting inside in front of my computer, like I do almost every day. How much time do you spend inside on average? According to green architect Martha Norbeck, the answer for many people is as high as 90 percent of their day. When you consider that, according to the American Lung Association, the air inside your house can be 2 to 5 times more polluted than the air outside, and that indoor air pollution can lead to respiratory diseases and increased absenteeism from school and work, you will probably agree that where you live and work can play a crucial role in your overall happiness and well being.

The Green View

Creating healthy indoor environments is something Martha Norbeck is passionate about. She’s bringing her sustainability expertise to a new ecological development in Fairfield called Cypress Villages. While not technically an eco-village, Cypress Villages will incorporate many of the elements common to the most successful Swedish eco-villages that Norbeck studied while on a Fulbright scholarship 10 years ago. Rather than building just another housing development, albeit one with a green twist, Martha is putting her background in sociology, science, and architecture to work in creating an innovative multi-use community.

Kinship with the Natural World

Having spent her free time as a child playing outside, connecting with the natural world and learning scientific nomenclature from her scientist parents, Norbeck thought that a career as a naturalist might be her calling. She pursued women’s studies at Smith College and worked for policy change in Washington, DC, knowing that she wanted to make a difference but unsure of how to go about it in a way that suited her.

Then she received a Fulbright scholarship to study Swedish eco-villages. “The architects who designed the Swedish eco-villages,” she says, “were having a concrete and quick influence on how people experience their relationship with the natural world. This appealed to me. And the architects, by demonstrating this, influenced Swedish environmental policy. We see this happening in the U.S. with the U.S. Green Building Council and LEED.” (LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a rating system for sustainable building.) Essentially, Norbeck became an architect in order to save the environment, based on the idea that, if you build it, policy change will follow.

More Daylight in Green Schools

After she received her Master of Architecture from the University of Oklahoma, Norbeck worked for four years with Neumann Monson Architects, a green commercial firm in Iowa City, where she was involved in building green schools for the Iowa City school district. Research shows that incorporating sustainable building practices like daylighting (using windows and reflective surfaces to light the interior) and using non-toxic building materials can raise children’s test scores 10 to 25 percent and lower absentee rates for both students and teachers (see the U.S. Green Building Council website, In these green school buildings, kids are actually encouraged to look out the windows, since a change in focus can keep their eyes from getting tired and having a view can help them be more productive.

As Norbeck points out, we need daylight to keep us in sync with our diurnal cycles and the changes of season. “Relatively speaking, in terms of our development as a species, we haven’t been living indoors very long!” she says. “I mean, you take 100 years versus 50,000 or 100,000 years . . . it’s a pretty big difference.”

A Sustainable Community

Harmony with the environment has been a key organizing tenet behind Cypress Villages. Norbeck’s idea is not just to build sustainable homes, but to build a sustainable community where residents can forge a strong connection with their environment and each other.

To begin with, all the homes will feature daylighting, geothermal heating and cooling, passive solar design, solar- and wind-powered utilities, and non-toxic, sustainable building materials. Each residence and commercial building will be designed according to the principles of Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, an architectural tradition originating in India that Norbeck says seeks “to integrate our built environment with natural law.”

Many amenities that are vital to a thriving community are being planned to be walking distance of homes, including offices, a cafe, and an organic grocery store that will carry fresh produce grown on the development’s farm.

The homes are designed to be an impressive 60 percent more energy efficient than required by current building codes. Norbeck is also hoping it will be feasible to provide water to the homes through rainwater catchment rather than rural water.

Eliminating Indoor Pollution

Norbeck has spent quite a bit of time researching the environmental and health aspects of the materials that will go into every home, since most materials used in conventional homes these days are a major source of indoor pollution. Particleboard, for instance, is a commonly used material that can release formaldehyde into the air and cause a range of health problems. Norbeck is researching safer alternatives such as wheat board.

Insulation and Ventilation

A proper ventilation system is important, too. “In a way, our homes are a type of a second skin,” Norbeck says. “People talk about having a home that breathes, but what is breathing? Our bodies intake oxygen in a very controlled manner, pre-filtering it through our nose, in quantities appropriate for the activity we are doing… Why should our homes be any different? A tight house with a whole-house ventilation unit allows us to introduce filtered air in a controlled manner all year round.”

And, of course, if you have gone to the trouble of creating a home with pure nourishing air to breathe, you would not want to use toxic, air-polluting chemicals to keep it clean. Cypress Village’s covenants encourage residents to use natural cleaning products.

Renovating vs. Building New

For some, choosing between building a new green home and renovating an older home can be a dilemma. Since the environmental credo is “reduce, reuse, recycle,” I asked Norbeck if it wouldn’t be better for us to stay where we are and just “green” our current homes. She says that although reuse is generally a better choice, finding the right home to green can be difficult, and that green renovation can cost almost as much as building a new home. For that reason, many people choose just to build new.

With her can-do spirit and knowledge of architecture, however, Norbeck has chosen to give her 100-year-old house a green overhaul. “I’m willing to do the work,” she says. “It’s a labor of love with marginal savings. It would definitely be easier to build new. If you want a new house, it should be a green house. I consider it immoral and poor fiscal planning to build anything but green. Plus, if you can build a new green home with a 1 to 2 percent cost premium and 60 to 70 percent savings in utilities—why would you build any other way?”

Change is Possible for Each of Us

Building a healthy, sustainable home is not enough, though. Since it’s not possible to live in a green cocoon, separate from the rest of the world, how we choose to live our daily lives has an impact not just on our health, but also the well-being of society and the environment. Choosing to buy local produce and shop in local stores, making the decision to bike or walk to work, and playing a role in creating a healthy, sustainable community wherever we live are things that almost all of us can do.

As Norbeck says, “I am lucky to have a job where the results of my efforts are so tangible. But everyone has an opportunity to create change in their jobs. Even when I waited tables, I pushed for recycling and composting….
“In my personal life, I am faced each day with a myriad of choices. What do I eat, where? Do I print this or read it on screen? Do I check to make sure I turned off the lights? Do I drive, bike, or not travel at all?”

Martha Norbeck is an inspiration to anyone who is tired of waiting for change to happen and is ready to make a difference right now. And we could all start by spending more time outside, breathing the fresh fall air and reconnecting with the world around us.

Sidebar: On Building a New Green Home

When building a new green home there are several aspects to consider. When selecting materials and deciding on the house’s size it is important to pay attention to the embodied energy, that is, the energy used to create, transport the materials, and assemble the building. Choosing local, sustainable materials as much as possible and building a small but highly functional living space can help reduce the amount of embodied energy in the building.

A second thing to consider is how much energy will be consumed by living in the house. Norbeck recommends putting a lot of attention on energy efficiency before you even consider options like solar panels or wind power. Reducing the energy you use is the greenest, least expensive form of energy and you can do this without sacrificing your personal comfort by incorporating passive solar principles and daylighting into the design, using geo-thermal heating and cooling systems, and building a tight, well insulated house. Once you have done all you can to reduce energy consumption, you will find that you need less solar and wind power to meet your needs.