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Positively Green

A cultural awakening

This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to visit Italy — Tuscany and Sicily. My wife and I had been planning to go for years, and it was the trip of a lifetime. We were in two distinctly different parts of Italy, but we noticed several things they have in common, especially from the perspective of "verdi," which means green in Italian.

Like the United States, Italy, and indeed, most of the European countries have room for improvement when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; conserving energy and resources; and improving indoor air quality in their newly constructed and remodeled buildings. Even so, it was fun to consider the green aspects of some of the "old-world" technology we came across.

One of the basic tenets of green building is structures that are made to last, and that can certainly be said of many of the buildings there. In Sicily, we saw an amphitheater built on a mountaintop by the Greeks in 300 B.C. that was subsequently remodeled by the Romans a few centuries later. Yes, they are considered ruins, but with some modern adaptation, the amphitheater is still being used for performances of opera, live theater and music.

In Tuscany, we toured another structure that withstood the test of time: a 12th-century castle with four floors and numerous bedrooms for the families of the military officers that once lived there. We were surprised to see that building technology was fairly advanced for that time, as many of the rooms had built-in toilets and wash basins — a bit primitive by our current standards, but they were obviously thinking ahead.

Florence and Siena are known for their art, culture and architecture, but many of the surrounding small towns and villages we visited also have structures that were hundreds of years old, but still quite usable thanks to some necessary remodeling that has occurred during the years.

So how and why did they last so long? First of all, they were built of stone and brick with clay tile roofs. With water intrusion being one of the most damaging threats to our wood-framed buildings, stacked stones that are 16 to 20 inches thick with plaster troweled over them are fairly impervious. Even if some water gets in, it dries out quickly and the damage is minimal.

Another green benefit to these thick walls and roofs is "thermal mass." They take longer to heat up and cool down, so they tend to moderate the temperatures inside. Even without air conditioning, if it's 80 degrees inside, it's much more comfortable than 105 degrees outside. And at night when it's cold, occupants stay warmer as the structure slowly sheds its heat.

However, retrofitting a block or brick structure with modern plumbing and electricity takes some ingenuity. We saw lots of exposed pipe and conduit running along walls, inside and out.

"Agri-tourism" is a growing trend in Italy. The patchwork farmlands were one of the most beautiful aspects of the countryside we toured. Talk about green! We spent much of our time at an inn on an organic pig farm (much nicer than it sounds) and also at an organic lemon orchard. Water conservation is a definite priority for the property owners. Their newer buildings were designed with small, on-demand water heaters, low flow fixtures and dual-flush toilets. Even so, knowing that we were Americans, the proprietors encouraged us to take short showers. This reminded us that if we can do it there, we can do it here, too.

Washing our laundry was an interesting throwback to our childhood years. We scrubbed our clothes in the sink using a couple of gallons of water and then hung them on the clothesline like the Italians do. The sun dried our clothes, as it did for centuries for the Greeks and Romans. Granted, some places we visited had washing machines, but no one had a dryer.

Even as we look to the future for new green technologies, we can still learn green practices from the past. One of the first things we did upon our return was to reinstall our own clothesline, and the laundry is drying in the sun as I write; time to go see if it's done.

Ciro Giammona is CEO of Harrell Remodeling Inc., Mountain View. He can be emailed at cgiammona@harrell-remodeling.com.

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