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Creating affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for independent living

From the Rocking Chair
by Robert Bornn and Laura Worth
Aging in Place Gracefully on Vashon

A Brighter Future Minus the Mercury

Is Rural Washington Ready for Affordable, Green “Hobbit Homes?

All That’s Green Isn’t An Emerald

Vashon Needs to Develop a Comprehensive Environmental  Strategy

Learning about Water Quality



Aging-in-Place Gracefully on Vashon
By Robert Bornn and Laura Worth

VASHON ISLAND, WA, September 7, 2007. We would like to see Vashon organizations and residents more proactively plan for the aging of Islanders.  Across the country there is a social movement afoot to support the right of elders to live independently.  One manifestation of that is the national “Aging-In-Place Initiative," which promotes comprehensive community planning of infrastructure, dwellings, and public buildings as well as facilitating effective social support networks and services for older demographics.  Today, aging-in-place and independent living represents a growing intentional strategy to prevent premature institutional care.  According to AARP, nearly 9 in 10 Americans over the age of 60 would like to live in familiar surroundings as they age. 

To facilitate aging in place on Vashon, we advocate housing designs that consider the future needs of residents while creating affordable, boldly green housing today.  As we age, downsizing becomes an appropriate strategy for containing the cost of building and maintaining our homes.  Downsizing also minimizes our ecological footprint.  Smaller homes require less material, labor, cost of financing, energy needs, and maintenance. 

We have heard-tell that some elders living on Vashon are expecting to retrofit existing homes to permit aging in place.  They may expect to easily retrofit otherwise conventional, multi-story homes with elevators for simple aging-in-place.  Unfortunately, elevators don’t widen hallways, doors, and bathrooms.  They aren’t easily converted to a comfortable residential floor plan suitable for our special needs as we age.  They limit access and don’t permit friends in wheel chairs to visit us.  Anyone who has spent time in a wheel chair or relying on a walker knows this may become their own downfall when it comes to staying in the home they have come to love.

Instead of retrofitting, we advocate building entirely new structures on 
Vashon with comprehensive universal design that result in human-friendly, nature-integrated dwellings.  By downsizing into new, highly durable dwellings we can more cost-effectively plan our aging-in-place.  Low-cost upkeep along with responsible energy and water use are integral to the authentic green “living buildings” that are advocated by the Cascadia chapter of the Green Building Council.  Along with many others nationwide, we are designing structures that can make owners proud to be modeling responsible, carbon-neutral living. 

King County is receptive to plans to handle density on Vashon by downsizing from homes that have served growing families in days gone by, to what they term Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU).  The compact ADUs can permit rental income from a former primary home to help pay for construction and property taxes. 

For additional savings to Vashon active adults, home designs should ultimately permit straightforward conversion to assisted living “in place” to avoid premature institutional care.  For example, for each year of home care residency that eliminates premature nursing home care, $30,000 to $70,000 could be saved.  Through forethought, universal design, and social engineering these savings could be used for health and wellness expenses that improve the quality of our lives in our own homes.

Our personal favorite design is a “Hobbit House,” single story, nature-integrated dwelling.  The Hobbit House design can permit exceptional visual and acoustic privacy in our rural community without requiring enormous spaces between homes.  The privacy permitted by “open clusters” enables greater density and reduces the per house cost of land. 

In addition to building structures on Vashon that support us as we age, we can also build supportive, intergenerational communities based on affinity and humanist core values.  Active adults can build cooperative communities for mutual aid and support, known as naturally occurring retirement communities or NORCs.  Many of a growing number of self-help intentional communities of elders across the nation also now refer to themselves as villages.  They are affirming that -- just as it takes a village to raise a child -- it indeed takes a village to support our aged with the dignity they deserve. 

Robert Bornn is a green futurist and multi-media producer (www.bornn.com and 463-4284).  Laura Worth is a life and business coach, specializing in Web strategy and development (www.coachworth.com and 463-9283). They are founders of Vashon Island’s BuildingCircles Organization, designing affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for independent living and LifeSense Institute, a nonprofit for environmental education dedicated to improving quality of life on Vashon-Maury Island.



A Brighter Future Minus the Mercury
By Robert Bornn and Laura Worth

News Flash!  Finally Available:  affordable, true-color, LED lighting (or “SSL” solid state lighting) with standard fixture bases. 

VASHON ISLAND, WA, August 19, 2007. Why is LED lighting considered by many to be more “green” than compact fluorescence or standard incandescence? 

1. Virtually no heat is generated by LEDs
2. LEDs use far less power for equivalent brightness. 
3. Longer lasting with 10,000+ hours of use. 
4. Without residual mercury, LEDs allow easier and safer disposal. 
5. Their colors are more accurate.

So why are these ubiquitous little lights just entering prime time? 

First, upfront cost has been a big factor, although at today’s prices their considerable energy savings and exceptionally long life suggest that the “supremacy” of most incandescent and fluorescent lighting is waning. 

Pure, white light in LEDs has been difficult to achieve, especially for conventional lighting of interiors.  White light LEDs first began to be introduced in a wide variety of battery-powered devices, such as flashlights and lanterns.  Most solar-powered lighting also uses LEDs because of their low power drain and longevity.  Nowadays white light LEDs are “clustered” to provide equivalent brightness to other lighting and the introduction of standard fixture bases makes it possible to use them with conventional house wiring.

Finally, the LED’s parent industry, the semiconductor industry, has had a poor history regarding the consequences of its manufacturing practices.  Improvements have finally been seen from worker-safety to more integrated, cost effective, greener” materials processes and recycling. Recent commitments made to reduce energy requirements for future computers (and “chips” in general) are pointing to a time when silicon (from sand) will be a more people and earth-friendly choice.

So why are these LEDs not available on Vashon?  Incandescent light bulbs are history and compact fluorescent light bulbs are pretty much pretenders to the throne.  We need to let GE et al. know that we see that the emperor has no cloths and that CFLs aren’t good enough.  Let’s ask for LED lighting at Thriftway, True Value, and Island Lumber and Hardware.  If Vashon stores won’t carry them, let’s buy them on the web at any number of on-line resources like The LED Light, Inc. (www.TheLEDLight.com).  Other LED commercial links are listed  by Vashon’s BuildingCircles Organization links page.  A growing market makes it happen faster for everyone!  Your future may well be brighter and the earth a little greener.

Robert Bornn is a green futurist and multi-media producer (www.bornn.com and 463-4284).  Laura Worth is a life and business coach, specializing in Web strategy and development (www.coachworth.com and 463-9283). They are founders of Vashon Island’s BuildingCircles Organization, designing affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for independent living and LifeSense Institute, a nonprofit for environmental education dedicated to improving quality of life on Vashon-Maury Island.



Is Rural Washington Ready for Affordable, Green “Hobbit Homes?
by Laura Worth and Robert Bornn

VASHON ISLAND, WA, July 9, 2007.   BuildingCircles Organization (BCO) has announced new plans to build advanced homes to enable mature adults to live affordably and independently well into the future.  The organization is looking for forward-thinking individuals who wish to build an authentic green Primary Residence or Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) on their property.  The homes will combine low-maintenance, durability, and energy efficiency.  They will allow environmentally conscious homeowners to “age in place” gracefully over the years without fear of unnecessary institutionalization.  BuildingCircles is offering to work with landowners to achieve the future of sustainable housing now. 

These affordable custom home design concepts are by Robert Bornn and Laura Worth of Vashon Island, founders of BCO.  Nancy Henderson, founder of ArchEcology, LLC in Seattle will provide the architectural and universal design services.  As a well-respected LEED® Accredited Professional, Nancy will assure the highest national LEED® standards of the U.S. Green Building Council.  She will work closely with the County to assure that BCO advanced architecture is in compliance or exceeds code.  Together the team will combine the comfort, accessibility, and safety necessary for independent living with carbon-neutral sustainability and extreme durability.  Long-term, these homes can easily be converted to accommodate assisted living.  These single-story, compact homes will be nature-integrated to blend into Washington’s rural character while reflecting permaculture consciousness. 

Bornn explained, “We take a comprehensive approach to authentic green housing design that goes way beyond ‘green chic.’  These high quality but simple homes will reflect strong environmental values regarding the effort to reverse local and global environmental degradation.  This is a chance for people to not only build a lovely home in which they can ‘age in place,’ but also to lead the way in modeling comprehensive environmental and affordable world housing solutions.”

Worth adds, “Most of us older folks would like to settle into a lovely home that we know we won’t have to move from if we develop limited mobility.  If we have a friend who needs to spend some time in a wheelchair or needs a walker, we want to know that they can use our bathroom when they visit us and have room in the kitchen to keep us company while we cook.” 

Under King County code, a Primary Residence or ADU on a property can be rented if the owner lives in either.  Between rental income, energy savings, and the savings that accrue from avoiding unnecessary institutional living, the organization says that the Primary Residence or ADU can pay for itself.  Additionally, by meeting King County Master Builders Association’s “Built GreenTM” standards, permit fees and other costs may be reduced for either or both the Primary Residence and ADU. 

An added benefit of these nature-blended homes is a legal increase in density through affordable rentals that will help to maintain rural diversity. 

Bornn stated, “Design of each BCO ‘living house’ will maximize its capability to heat and cool itself.  Over time they are expected to return as much energy to the grid as they use, dispose of waste, and manage water runoff responsibly.”  He went on to say “They will achieve low-cost maintenance and reduce risk from vermin, fire, and earthquakes.  Appliances and materials for interior walls, cabinetry, ceilings, and floors will be chosen in consultation with the BCO team to minimize environmental impact and maximize energy savings.” 

Bornn elaborated that this nature-integrated housing will be highly insulated, well ventilated, and constructed of durable, thin-shell concrete with advanced moisture-control for greater comfort.  Living roofs will permit most of each building’s footprint to be permeable.  The load-bearing green roofs can contribute to the surrounding ecology and be used for gardening or small-scale farming. 

Worth added that the homes will nestle into the earth with a combination of gentle and dramatic slopes, stonework, and vegetation.  Using ‘above grade’ sites will permit abundant natural light while reducing exposure to the water table.  Sunlight can be admitted through windows on most sides of the house as well as skylights. 

She continued, “Individual choices of landscape foliage as well as stonework, masonry and other finishes to doors, windows, overhangs, decks, courtyards, and walkways will make each home a unique expression of individual taste and style.”

Regarding alternative green energy, Bornn says “BuildingCircles homes will have an option to include aesthetically pleasing,  ‘solar-energy ponds’ for space and water heating.  The SolarHarvester is an invention of Robert Bornn and Jon McWhirter (formerly of Vashon).  These unique ponds will collect solar energy passively.  Earth-sheltered heat storage and a  ground-loop cooling system will provide year-round comfort. 

BuildingCircles Organization was founded by Bornn and Worth to sponsor Bornn’s alternative housing designs.  Originally inspired by Buckminster Fuller, Bornn began to develop his designs in the 1970s for an artists’ community he founded on an island in Maine. 

Bornn and Worth have a long history of founding teams together in Silicon Valley for such diverse projects as development of special needs and medical device products and public health-education.  Bornn says that the organization’s development team will work in a collaborative process with homeowners to translate concept designs into mid-level, affordable homes that encourage older adult independence and achieve authentic sustainability.  The design team shares a unique commitment to permaculture and living buildings.  The commitment extends to evolving the designs into low-cost, manufactured housing that can contribute solutions to the global housing crisis. 

Nancy Henderson, LEED® Accredited Professional has joined the founders to design and build these homes using BCO design concepts.  Formerly with GGLO of Seattle, Henderson works at the intersection of affordable, green housing that utilizes universal design principals.   She says that she left GGLO to “found ArchEcology out of a passion for housing and sustainable design.”  While at GGLO she founded and chaired its Sustainable Design group for five years.  During that time she lead in-house education efforts which resulted in a third of the office becoming LEED® Accredited, adoption of an Environmental Policy, and development of an Environmental Management Plan.  She also founded GGLO’s Affordable Housing Action Team to develop a focused expertise in the office to specifically address the unique needs of affordable housing.  She serves on the Board of Directors at the Housing Development Consortium.  She is also a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.

BuildingCircles Organization says that its mission includes the design of small-scale adult communities oriented around neighborhood centers that are environmentally sound, affordable, and diverse. 

Intelligent placement of each home in relationship to the topography and to each other will provide visual and acoustic privacy in what Bornn terms “open clusters.”  Energy, water, and waste disposal systems can be even more efficient when shared in “neighborhood grids.”  The extent of community involvement and mutual support of neighbors can be personal options. 

Bornn commented, “Ultimately, we expect to work with a variety of public agencies to build carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative, energy efficient, modest homes that are suitable for rural, exurban, and suburban living in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.”  He continued, “BCO’s goal is to make environmental advances on a variety of fronts by using sustainable and recyclable building materials, design, and technologies.    Bornn explained, “The United Nations is predicting a need for 50 million new homes each year just to keep pace with population growth.  We are designing the initial custom homes with long-term, rapid manufacturing solutions in mind.  Our mission within 5-10 years is to support variations on our custom designs and technologies that can be modularized.  On a large enough scale, with appropriate government agencies and visionary NGOs getting involved, widespread adoption of these low-cost carbon-negative designs may contribute to a significant reduction in global warming and the well-being of the world’s increasing population.” 

Contact BuildingCircles Organization by calling Robert Bornn or Laura Worth at 463-4284, robert@buildingcircles.org, or www.buildingcircles.org.  Contact Nancy Henderson at (206) 860-2904 or nancyh@archecology.com.


Robert Bornn and Laura Worth are cofounders of BuildingCircles Organization on Vashon, designing affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for adult independent living (www.buildingcircles.org).



All That’s Green Isn’t An Emerald
By Robert Bornn and Laura Worth

Vashon Island, WA, June 17, 2007.  Buying a piece of land on emerald Vashon may have unwittingly put you in the Ivy Leagues – that is, the league of landowners facing down the problem of tree-choking ivy.  Ivy can look lush and green, but we are learning the hard way on Vashon that all that looks green just isn’t sustainable.  

How doth ivy kill thy trees?  Let us count the ways:  ivy climbs trees, develops tree-like strength itself, cuts into bark like razor wire, and keeps light from penetrating the forest canopy.  On the forest floor, ivy prevents new tree growth from getting the sun and nutrients it requires.  In last December’s wind storm hundreds of pounds of ivy, made even heavier with rain, brought down trees that were already stressed by other factors. Left to itself, Vashon will sadly be deforested in a few years.  And there go our lungs.

Now in summer’s calm, as we enjoy our island’s forests, it has become apparent that nearly everywhere the trees are choked with ivy growth.  On Vashon, ivy is an invasive species introduced by modern life.  Just last night, another tree announced its demise when it fell on a PSE line and left part of the island without power.

Without authoritative information about forest health, even with the best of intentions, the link between responsible ownership and caring land stewardship can be a tenuous one.  Many landowners are unaware that the ivy clinging to their beautiful trees is choking them.  Many of us like the green appearance it gives to our forests and somehow think of the ivy invasion as a natural phenomenon. 

There are many sources of information about care of our forests for private landowners, including information about invasive ivy and what to do about it.  On Vashon, as in many other locations, goats are being rented for ivy control.  Rent-a-Ruminant, owned by Tammy Dunakin (206/251-1051), brings goats into the ivy league to control ivy on the ground, but most tree strangling ivy probably also still requires removal by hand.   The Vashon Parks District has an EarthCorps volunteer program to help manage ivy in our parks. Contact the Park District at 206-463-9602.  In Portland, the No Ivy League is a thriving organization from which we can learn..

Contrary to some popular opinion, there is a deep tradition in America for land stewardship.  Native American tradition required that we should consider the impact of human interactions with the land on seven generations to come.  Only in recent times has the legal convention of land ownership been introduced.  In today’s environmentally conscious world, we are integrating the concepts of caring stewardship with responsible ownership.  The abuses of the “landed gentry” of old agrarian worlds should be relics of yesteryear.  Here’s where the futurist and the conservationist can break bread: restore the Vashon Emerald we call home!


Laura Worth is a life and business coach, specializing in web strategy and development. (www.coachworth.com and 463-9283).  Robert Bornn is a green futurist and multi-media producer (www.bornn.com and 463-4284).  They are founders of Vashon Island’s BuildingCircles Organization www.buildingcircles.org), designing affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for independent living.



Vashon Needs to Develop a 
Comprehensive Environmental  Strategy
By Laura Worth and Robert Bornn

Vashon Island, WA, November 17, 2006. Defeat of the PUD initiative should not be taken to mean Vashon citizens have no interest in taking control of our energy future.  In this sense, the PUD won by focusing community-wide attention on environmental issues. 

Vashon needs to develop a comprehensive energy and environmental strategy.  This strategy should promote advanced energy, water, and environmental solutions in the context of the world-wide environmental crisis represented by global warming and the degradation of our air and water. 

We are encouraged at the recent offer by Bangasser, Yousoufien, and Emmer to support formation of a nonprofit organization for energy conservation.  If it gains broad support from many sectors of the community, it could test the business model proposed by the PUD candidates.  In the short-term a pilot like this would improve conservation on Vashon.  In the long-term, if the business model is viable, it could be implemented on a larger scale. 

However, energy conservation measures represent only a part of the environmental picture.  Our community needs forums where energy and environmental issues can be examined, carefully and cooperatively, in a more systematic and thorough way than was possible in the heat of an election. 

In the course of this PUD campaign, hundreds of smart and dedicated Vashon citizens grappled honestly with energy, environmental, technological, and organizational issues.  To move closer to an environmental strategy that will unite our community, we propose a diverse "think tank/incubator" approach to evaluate, test, and make recommendations to individuals, industry, nonprofits, and government organizations. 

Elements of a Vashon Comprehensive Environmental Strategy could include:

1. voluntary Vashon standards and recommended practices for limiting CO2 emissions.  Renewable fuels such as biomass, biodiesel, ethanol, and wood as well as their non-renewable cousins, coal, oil, propane, and natural gas all contribute to global warming. Their use produces CO2 and other destructive emissions. 

2. evaluation of alternative energy sources suitable for Vashon.  A "think-tank/incubator" can evaluate and test a number of freely available current studies regarding new energy technologies, including contemporary, environmentally sound, tidal and/or off-shore wave power, solar heat (daily direct and seasonally stored) and new forms of solar photovoltaic "PV" methods.  We need to steer clear of yesterday’s outdated inventory and ideas and think systematically and carefully about new, realistic energy solutions for Vashon.

3. advice to principals in private and public organizational efforts such as creating neighborhood grids for power, water, and sewage; organizing non-profits and for-profits engaged in research and development of new technologies; working to promote widespread retrofitting for conservation.  A funded and committed team could rapidly develop non-profit and for-profit financing mechanisms including grants, co-op membership dues, and micro-loans.

4. positive "political cover" for various agencies to be safe, yet flexible, in implementing public health, zoning, and building codes in such a way as to support innovative, environmentally sound technologies.  Mitigation, not litigation! 

5. public education and support for voluntary standards for healthy environmental and energy practices (for example, the Master Builders' Association BuiltGreen specifications and King County's adoption of those standards under its "Build Green" significant incentives program).

We call on PUD opponents and proponents alike to work together on new solutions.   We can’t survive as a species without a concerted effort.  After a rest and recovery from the election, we must all move forward.  We need to continue a series of public meetings to organize this more comprehensive effort.  Call Robert Bornn (463-4284) or Laura Worth (463-9283) for details and visit us at www.buildingcircles.org.


Robert Bornn and Laura Worth are cofounders of BuildingCircles Organization on Vashon, designing affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for adult independent living (www.buildingcircles.org).



Learning about Water Quality
By Laura Worth

August 4, 2005.  Once a month on Quartermaster Harbor, Saturday mornings are a time for neighbors to meet neighbors, learn about environmental issues on Puget Sound, and compare notes about plans afoot for improving the health of the harbor.  People for Puget Sound  sponsors these ShoreWatch gatherings of concerned citizens all around the Sound for informal conversation over coffee with scientists and other guest experts.  ShoreWatch encourages each participant to bring a new guest from their neighborhood to the next meeting and in the process has expanded grass roots knowledge about the environment and activism for the health of the Sound. 

Examples of ShoreWatch topics to date include the "Strangely Popular Septic Social" featuring Public Health’s Larry Fay, Section Manager of Community Environmental Health.  Larry presented authoritative answers about the state of septic systems and their care as well as alternative systems like newly permitted self-composting toilets noted on their website (www.doh.gov).  In June there was a Birdwatching and Oil spill Forum.  Last Saturday, July 30th, Phil Bloch, Natural Resource Scientist from Department of Natural Resources met with concerned ShoreWatch neighbors (picture). 

Future presentations under discussion include repeat performances of the "Septic Social" and storytelling about the history of Quartermaster Harbor.  Also planned is a "work party" to re-plant the native Olympia oyster in QuarterMaster Harbor in hopes of reestablishing colonies of this little work horse.  Because the Harbor is so polluted, these oysters would initially become toxic to humans, but could serve as an inspiration to explore what might be harvested as food if Quartermaster was brought up to reasonable standards.  As a side benefit the oyster’s digestive system might serve as a tiny filter to water pollutants and it forms reefs that become habitats for other marine life.  For details or to schedule a ShoreWatch event in your neighborhood, contact Mary Beth Dols at 382-7007 and mbdols@pugetsound.org.


Laura Worth is a life and business coach on Vashon Island.  She is also a cofounder of BuildingCircles Organization on Vashon, designing affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for adult independent living (www.buildingcircles.org).


Contact Information
Robert Bornn and Laura Worth
BuildingCircles Organization
P.O. Box 2443
Vashon Island, WA 98070
(206) 463-4284


The Small Print:
This site is for educational purposes only.  It is not a substitute for professional consultation.  No claim is made or implied that the ideas, inventions, illustrations, and documents on this site are applicable to anyhousing, building, or land use project.  Nor does the site represent in any way consulting services of any kind.  Nothing on this site is an offer to sell, transfer, license, or use intellectual property.

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Copyright (c) 2006-2009 by Robert Bornn and Laura Worth.  All rights reserved. 
BuildingCircles, LifeSense Institute, authentic green, and Creating affordable and sustainable, nature-integrated homes for 
independent living are trademarks of Robert Bornn and Laura Worth.

Renderings by Robert Bornn and Nancy Henderson, AIA, LEED, AP.
Floor plan by Nancy Henderson, AIA, LEED, AP
Illustrative Site Plan Courtesy of Barbara Oakrock, Oakrock Design Studio

Photos by Robert Bornn
Web site by Laura Worth Web Design.