Category Archives: Science

A Living Design for Doing Living Design

At the risk of being called a nerd (and I screwed the pooch on that one 25 years ago) here’s some sideways sharing that comes as the result of the proposal I’m making on Vertecology LLC’s (yes, it’s an LLC!) first large scale permaculture design for an eight acre community to be, just south of Ashland Oregon.

In the act of preparing the bid for the client, which ostensibly would price out a site plan and a relatively fixed final landscape design which would then be carved into an unwilling earth, not because the client demands it but because we don’t even have the language or the software for doing otherwise, I realized said Standard Way of Going About It that I learned in Architecture School is entirely insufficient.

Permaculture after all is about working with living systems, adapting flows midstream, integrating far more than the topography of dirt and the arrangement of neat rows of pretty flowers and pretty houses. We are guiding living systems with an intelligence all their own and being guided in kind by endless feedback loops that yield vision as much as they yield blackberries and soils and unpredictable opportunities and muscles as you roll that wheelbarrow out one more time. Yes, sometimes this tree just gets moved over there. But sometimes you introduce chickens to control the flies. Sometimes you replace the septic with composting toilets and the resultant soil changes the pH where you drop it, sometimes the recommendations are tiny but with huge impacts, and at the end of the day, discovering an opportunity here and taking advantage of it changes the balance over there.

How can a simple, complicated as $!*& CAD drawing, which I can do quite easily and well with my years of training reflect all of that, reflect human, plant, animal, mechanical and invisible factors? CAD is after all, as static as it is precise and it makes our heads more static as we layer our drawings with ever deeper precision and detail. How can CAD bend to reflect seasons and systems theory, succession of evolution and changes that come about on the land as we interlope and guide our systems to optimum? How can we describe the relevant opportunities on the land without involving and locking ourselves into a thousand layers and a thousand hours of ever expanding irrelevant detail? How can CAD describe a river, an unfolding?

Thus in the process I have come to realize that a wider view must be taken. CAD is a part of the solution, but so is an elegant and interactive display where client and designer alike can track ideas, visions and observations. So are books, whiteboards, a growing capacity in the client to read the land, mission statements and meditation in the various microclimates of the place. Perhaps the site map can begin and end with construction paper and crayons… Observing, visioning and implementing blend and blur and cycle back into one another with ever increasing resolution and clarity and ecosystems and income systems take and change shape. Ah, The Brain shall live in the Barn and work while I’m away.

Here’s version 1.0 of the design process diagram… one that may just live on Vertecology for quite some time.

Large Scale Permaculture Design Process

Building for a Million Years of Bounty: The Yin Before the Yang

Hello beautiful world,

Wow it’s been quiet on the blog scene for a bit… I’ve been gearing up with Vertecology for some time, laying the foundation for what looks to be an expansion. There’s talk of a Kickstarter fundraise, hints from peeps around town that orders for Hanging Gardens may be on the wings, some money for R&D to come from other work I will be doing in Oregon over May and June, an ad for a marketing intern soon to go live. And yet in the process of gearing up, of expansion, sometimes there is quiet gestation.

I’ve been thinking about this blog entry in some dark room of my mind for some time. What to say? Well, am I going to bring out the horns and declare with 10 white horses coming down the cobbled path that (wah, wah, wah!) I have a provisional patent on the Hanging Garden? Yes that is true as of about 48 hours ago, and I am thankful to all those who believed in me and helped me with emotional and even a bit of financial support to get the vision of what Vertecology can be to this milestone.

Provisional Patent Drawing Sheet for the Hanging Garden

But there is a deeper story, and to that I wish to speak. Because in the permaculture sensibility, its not about the straight line to the destination, but about the system, the garden, that was built over time that allows the destination to be at last grasped and quietly reached and owned, that allows the bounty found at the destination to be both harvested and sustained.

That is the deeper story. I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front because even though I’ve been spending long hours at work on building Vertecology, R&D, developing proposals, as well as on building my financial resources by other means for the long road ahead and putting a little time on some very interesting projects by other people in this field, I’ve also been looking closely at the spiritual underpinnings to why I started this venture at all.

Knowing this is not my first attempt at entrepreneurship, and knowing that I have always in the past gotten results I didn’t expect with no idea why with all my dogged effort, I have learned at my wise young age that the quality of the fruit and flowers in your garden are just a reflection of the quality of the soil.

So it’s not about the flowers as much as it is about the soil. I care too much about this garden… about what Vertecology can become and what I can offer through it to ignore the soil this time, and though the payoff is making itself known slowly and steadily, I am beginning to recognize what it means with a faith I have never experienced before.

The slow building of soil is why I’ve gotten to the point of having something to patent at all. Building soil can’t be rushed, it can’t be forced. Try and force it and you get half the Midwest ripe for the next dust bowl. Let it run at its proper pace and you may get a bit impatient yes, but you also have a shot at a million years of bounty so vast it’s impossible to keep secret.

Confronting the need to build at the soil’s pace and not at that of my frantic and ever twirling mind has not been easy. My ever twirling mind fantasizes that Vertecology will “explode” at the first signpost and has promised to remain the irrational taskmaster it has been in the past. I’ve been down that road before and it wasn’t pretty, for me or for what I was trying to create. But attending to the spiritual soil of late has meant that the taskmaster has begun to let go his whip, and to let be. To allow things to grow at their proper pace and grow well. As a result of my inner work of late I no longer have to justify my existence to anyone, and that is the kind of soil to begin expansion with.

And once I noticed that it was never really about “exploding” I began to recognize that I have already, despite myself, been attempting to execute a real business plan with a little higher resolution than simply exploding. Though it has yet to be written on paper, just knowing that that business plan is being spoken by that quiet voice that comes when you are very still has given me enough pause to stop and listen, and on more and more frequent occasion, to act upon its recommendations.

I don’t “need” Vertecology to be anything. And in the silence, I begin to hear the music of its promise, calling me to joyous action, day by day. I begin to see the real road and how to drive upon it, when to floor it, and when to brake. It’s not that I’m stopping; it’s that for what seems like the first time, I am starting.

Cutting Bamboo at the Venice Community Garden

So in anticipation and yet in keeping with the true timing of things, I will leave you all with this: part of the business plan behind Vertecology, part of the functioning ecosystem it will become is a continuum of raw ideas being prototyped to fruition. I am truly happiest when I am creating with reckless abandon, without a care in the world and sharing the creating through my writing and media. Sort of like a 10 year old… “look ma, what I just made!” Except I’m now 38, have an idea of what it means to be a “crewman on Spaceship Earth” and know my way around design science, the permaculture principles, CNC milling machines, timelapse photography, dramatic prose, videography, social networking and some of the baddest creative software around. I know I’m in the flow when I’m so excited I just cut my finger and don’t care, “First blood!” and just keep on going.

The rest of it is support. So for now I have to play the entrepreneur, to handle the numbers, to make the calls, work out the marketing strategy, meet with potential investors, get the site organized for taking orders. But that’s all just the support, a setup so that ideally, I can keep creating, prototyping and testing ideas, enjoying the enjoying of those who just got served, make a lasting difference for the planet and feed myself in the process.

And so yesterday, in the midst of preparing for Oregon, writing a posting for a student intern, looking at the finances and getting the provisional patent filed, I rolled out to the Westside and met up with Norma Bonilla at the Venice Community Garden to harvest some bamboo poles. And I realized as I broke out the Japanese pull-saw, what I was actually building.

Bamboo hexagonal skeleton

I realized halfway through harvesting, what I’m building with these poles and why against all logic and with all the sobriety and sanity of an Old Testament prophet I’ll be packing them all the way to Oregon.

Long before ever dreaming up the word Vertecology and doing the dot-com search, long before SCI-Arc was an intriguing name I heard on the lips of an old girlfriend years ago, I read somewhere about the floating islands built by the Aztecs which became the ground upon which Tenochtitlan and later Mexico City were built. The vision has stayed with me, and as I learned about permaculture, I realized that such madness might be worth pursuing. Realized that one could build floating islands on bamboo skeletons and local materials to reclaim wetlands from sea level rise and build edible coastlines, geometric wildlands and engines of turbocharged biodiversity and oxygen production. The process would be entirely organic (except maybe a few well placed LEDs, hint, hint), naturally paced and the artistry of it all could be truly stunning. And the bamboo for the skeletons of course could be grown right there on site, harvested, over and over and over, forever while it makes great shade for birds and cleans the tidal waters too.

Floating Island Comic

In that twirling mind, it all seemed so far away, but as I harvested the bamboo, which will probably have grown back by the time I get back from Oregon, I realized a test could set up in a matter of days, in fact, in about 3 hours, I had a lot to show.

Then I went back to the pad and started prepping to write the budget for the Hanging Garden Kickstarter fundraise, but with a new twinkle in my eye. This is going to explode! Shhhh… don’t tell anyone.

Thank you for walking with me, in patience. Let us build together.

Hanging Garden with Echinacea going to seed, overlooking Pico Blvd in Los Angeles

Growing Freedom and Blooming in a Hundred Dimensions: A Harvest in the Hanging Garden

Greetings again, beautiful world! I have a confession to make, but no worries, it turns out better than I imagined in the end. For all this talk about permaculture, I must confess I’ve felt more comfortable until now with the “Design :: Build” part of the Vertecology equation. The “Permaculture” part of course is all about a design science that applies just as well outside the context of gardening as within it and I have certainly been putting that to work.

But at the end of the day I wondered how much of a permaculturist I could be if I (supposedly) had a brown thumb. As if there was a body of proprietary knowledge needed for planting and growing stuff. As if human beings didn’t have generations and in fact thousands, if not a couple of million years working closely with the natural world; as if the beings of other species… that is plants, animals, fungi, don’t want to grow just like we do, and don’t do so to the best of their abilities on their own using the resources available to them.

Echinacea has taken root, planted from seed in the Vertecology Hanging Garden

So much for the myth of the brown thumb. The truth is that until I got that permaculture was pretty much the answer to our global yearning for a culture of abundance and a future worth fighting for, I didn’t see much reason to try to grow anything.

Now with the onset of Spring, many of the little Echinacea Purpea and a few of the Yarrow seeds I popped into the Hanging Garden at the Sugar Shack have grown into robust little plants on all five levels, and some of the little guys are even flowering. That with only sporadic watering of these drought-tolerant species and a soil mixture taken on faith from my friend and partner in permaculture crime, Norma Bonilla.

While I’ve been posting about the Hanging Garden for a while now, I couldn’t really say the  “1.0” version was complete until seeds had successfully taken root. After all, as a work of art, my vision of it was never just the hanging boxes themselves. That was just the foundation. Even though I will soon be manufacturing the structure, each installation will be unique based on what comes to inhabit it.

So now with this success, it’s on to fine tuning. Here are my thoughts on an even better soil mix considering aeration and improved drainage within the planter-box; as you can see from the diagram below, I’m thinking now of a gravel layer with a breathable sheet of fabric for future installations. Of course this will vary also with the sorts of plantings you want to do and I welcome suggestions. I’m also thinking a larger version of the Hanging Garden in the months to come for larger plantings.


Optimal soil mix in the Vertecology Hanging Garden for drought-tolerant plants

And thus humbly begins a new leg of the adventure. Growing a garden is an act of patience, and as I’m learning in my endless unfolding, so is growing a business, or anything of value. You can’t plant the seeds and then cut the first shoot and expect a grand forest to envelop your digs. Perhaps that is even a great lesson for our entire quarterly earnings and test-scores culture, and one that when we have learned, we will begin to see our world self-heal largely with little more than a bit of multi-dimensional thinking, guiding and letting ourselves be guided. Just sayin,’ but that’s a rant for another day.

Fibonacci Trees

Now it’s only great to see nature at work, and to know that this experiment is blossoming and promising fertile weeks, months and years to come. Thanks for tuning in!

Hanging Gardens Coming Up Green All Over

Here are some new photos from the Hanging Garden at Philip Horvath’s – now fully stocked with a veritable encyclopedia of baby herbs and veggies (click on the links to learn more about the plants and their benefits on Wikipedia).

The Vertecology Hanging Garden planted with herbs and vegetables

At the very least the Brewery’s first vertical garden is going to make for an oxygen-blasting, aromatic, culinary and visual symphony with medicinal benefits, and I can’t wait until the dinner parties where all these delights get served up with delicious dishes! Even if a few of the plants get crowded out, it will provide a learning experience to all of us who are paying attention.

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Meanwhile we’ve got some baby greens popping up from seed in the Sugar Shack’s outdoor Hanging Garden – a few tiny leaves sprouting up, too tiny to get with the camera just yet.

And on a business note I’m setting up some basic online infrastructure for taking orders. The email address and the Paypal business account able to accept credit cards should be coming online within the next few hours. The whole venture of course continues to be a lesson in patience; I like the oddly perfect analogy of a growing plant – you can’t rush it, and when you care for it, trust the process, and allow it to unfold at its proper pace, the rewards for everyone are rich indeed.

Five New Square Feet of Urban Economic Liberation: Planting the Hanging Garden

I’m pleased to announce that the next phase of Hanging Garden R&D is underway. Starting with a 1-1-1 mix of sand, homemade compost and potting soil, I’ve seeded all five levels of a Hanging Garden now swinging from the rafters at the Sugar Shack with small herbs that will help prepare its soil for later planting, attract birds and beneficial, predatory insects like ladybugs, long-term test the Hanging Garden’s performance in outdoor conditions and offer the intentional community here another baby step toward urban economic liberation.

Part of the fun is getting to experiment with five separate “test tubes” if you will. The bottom three levels got dusted with seeds of the yarrow plant, which according to legend was carried into battle by Achilles because of its effectiveness in treating battle wounds, and whose tendency to accumulate minerals means rich soil will be left in its wake. The fourth level up is planted with both yarrow and echinacea purpea seeds to get an idea of how the two behave together. The top level is seeded with echinacea alone, and echinacea is the go-to plant for easing a cold out of your body (something the house could use right about now).

For both herbs the winning planting formula appears to include spreading the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep. The yarrow seeds are little bigger than fine grains of sand and get spread liberally. The larger echinacea seeds get dropped individually about 2 inches apart. Then on all levels, I overlaid some exhausted coffee grinds from the house coffee maker.

The setup will get lots of sun on the rooftop, just like these plants love. It is winter here of course, but it is Southern California and these plants which would get planted later in the spring further north can take the couple of frosts we might get this season. If all goes well, we should start to see little green leaves popping up in about a week or so.

And this is a great opportunity to explore what the Hanging Garden can do best. For while we grow these herbs here, as other installs go up, Hanging Garden clients can begin to share notes – I hope to have a forum for this on Vertecology as  more installs go up and things come together.

And finally, a bit of cross pollination – it’s great to be watering the Hanging Garden with water from the rain harvesting system in the downstairs garden. Already watering the Hanging Garden on the rooftop, I’ve taken on watering the whole roof garden; prior to building the water harvesting system, I knew simply that our rooftop garden needed water. The water messily came out of a hose when I turned on the spigot, and that’s about all I knew.

The Sugar Roof Garden takes about 4 gallons of water per day in winter.

I always felt a pinge of guilt in watering the American Way, having no idea of how much water I was actually using, and only knowing that the water was coming from places like Mono Lake and the Sacramento Delta. By watering with buckets from the harvesting system, I’ve learned that the rooftop garden requires about four gallons per day in the winter time. Sure the watering is a bit more laborious but the information gained while exercising – climbing stairs with bucket in hand, has named the unnamed and means that I can now realistically design for how much water a design-build-permaculture install will actually need and yield.

Thank you Norma Bonilla for the soil mix formula and Baza Novic for the seeds and planting direction. I’ll keep y’all posted, and of course I welcome feedback. Thanks!

Sugar Shack’s Rain Collection System Captures Beautifully in its First Rain

Well it’s always a little nerve-wracking when finally cutting the ribbon on a new project, no matter how much you’ve tested it. Even though I dropped a few 15 gallon buckets of water down the chute from the Sugar Shack’s rooftop to test the rainwater catchment system after I finished the build, and even though I added an extra bead of silicone caulk to those pesky corner-rounding spots in the rain gutters, there was still that nagging sense of… what if?

No more. We got our first storm in the neighborhood yesterday, a few solid hours of rain in the afternoon, and I couldn’t wait until the sun popped out to find out how the system was doing. The inflows were dropping a heavy flow into the barrels and doing just fine. After the rains had passed our four barrels were about half full, about 110 gallons caught.

Now I can  get a more accurate idea of how much water we can catch: I went to and typed in our zip code. The nearest weather station to us is on the USC campus, which is a few miles away, but it’s close enough to give an idea of how much rain we got. The USC station got about 0.16 inches of rain during the storm; an average LA rain year of 15 inches would fill our barrels almost 50 times, though most of that will occur over the course of an entire six month “wet” season, and anything over 0.3 inches at once will be lost to the overflow.

It’s a good thing then that I actually improved the garden drainage by shunting the overflow directly into the drainage pipe, and there’s ample opportunity (and barrels around the garden) to do a rooftop catchment as well.

Refinement to the Hanging Garden for Fast & Easy Installation

Today I proved a refinement concept to the Hanging Garden, and was so excited to see a five-level prototype (ceiling to floor, baby!) that I was tempted to drop all the other stuff I have to do this weekend in favor of a fat dinner and a movie, lol! The main change, the knot-&-keyhole connector system means that anyone can now assemble a Hanging Garden in just a couple of hours and will need only a decent drill to put the ceiling mount in place. These photos show the simplified version made out of reclaimed MDF I put together just to test the improvements.

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There’s more to come as I will soon be installing two of these beauties, one in an urban loft for an in-house herb-garden, and one outdoors in a Venice community garden.

As I mentioned in my last post about the Hanging Garden, I’m taking orders in California. I’ll build you a five-level hanging garden with integrated planter boxes on each level as shown in the original post for $500 and the right to capture some photos over the next few years. For a different number of levels and for customization, the price varies. Until I have a Vertecology online store up and running, just call me at 818.538.6586 or send me an email at markscottlavin-at-gmail-dot-com with “Hanging Garden” in the subject line. Thanks & happy Halloween everybody!

The Hanging Garden Proof of Concept… and Now Taking Orders

I’ve been dreaming of an ultra-eco, hyperversatile hanging garden system for the modern age, one where multiple useful species can grow together for maximum effect in a three-dimensional ecosystem. In fact, I’m dreaming no more. Here are some computer model screenshots and the proof of concept.

Already the product is exceeding expectations; one will note the extreme rigidity and stability of the system, which shocked me as well as pretty much everyone here at the Sugar Shack. First it was just about feeling the uncanny rigidity when you’d try to swing the structure, but as of about 10 pm tonight, the system also successfully passed a 200 lb weight test with barely a creak. Apparently that’s just the magic of triangles, which R. Buckminster Fuller noted as the most stable shape in the universe.

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And it doesn’t have to be just a garden structure. Shelves, cat-houses, bird-feeders, bat habitats, even elevated fish ponds and combinations of all the above have been suggested in the last few days. You can hang ‘em from the patio, from the ceiling joists, from a tree, from a bridge, from a utility pole (guerilla gardening in the concrete jungle anyone?), and you can build a wall of them on the farm or your 30th floor balcony.

It’s all just rope, reclaimed wood and reclaimed plastic lining, except for the three hardware mounts, and I intend to keep it that way. At the very least I’ll be using exclusively Forest Stewardship Council certified wood and reclaimed/recycled if you want other materials like plexi. I’m now refining the connector system so that it will be easy for anyone to assemble in half an hour. Once I’ve determined how to manufacture the components quickly, cheaply and in a way that empowers people, communities and planet (I’m quickly learning that this will be an on-going process of refinement) the plans, CNC files if applicable and kits will become available here at and possibly through other vendors.

For now I’m taking orders if you’re in California and want a Hanging Garden. I’ll be happy to build you a five-level hanging garden as shown in the computer graphics here (2 feet wide by about 8-1/2 tall) and install it for $500 and the right to capture some photos over the next few years. For a different number of levels and for customization, the price will vary. Until I have a Vertecology online store up and running you can just call me at 818.538.6586 or send me an email at markscottlavin-at-gmail-dot-com with “Hanging Garden” in the subject line.

Free Energy Can Be So Black and White

Ever the iconoclast, or at least ever the wannabe, I spent a good number of my teen years insisting on an all-black wardrobe, and to this day I still have my happy black days. Leaving for school in September, Mom would always ask “Aren’t you hot?”

“Nah…” (yes, but it was about looking good. Sweat, what sweat?)

So everyone knows a black outfit on a hot day is very different than a white one, even when they’re otherwise identical. Black absorbs heat and white reflects it.

But just how useful might this principle prove in ecological design? What opportunities does it provide? Could we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? How about artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Could we reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? If so, painting the house isn’t just about pretty; it’s functional… and more profoundly beautiful.

So to grow as a designer and see what’s possible, I pulled together an experiment. It isn’t rocket science, and I know I’m not the first to do it, but it was great to engage.

With one of my wooden octahedron prototypes, about 3 feet to a side already painted black for the LooptWorks show, I painted the other one white. On each I put a triangular “table top” made of half-inch ply, one painted black, the other white. Then I lined them up about two feet apart along the sun-arc so that both got full sun all day and so that neither sat on a hotter or colder spot than the other.

The two octahedrons, one white, one black, side by side in the roof garden

With a laser temperature gun, I took the temperature at the center and corner of each table top, and for comparison, took the temperature of the tar-panel rooftop itself. I should also mention that I did this experiment on a hot LA August day, with not a cloud in the sky after the initial coastal burnoff by probably 10 am.

I found several relationships. When the sun is directly overhead, there was as much as 65 degrees F difference between the tabletops. The black might close in on 150 degrees F while the white hovered around 80 or 90. The difference fell quickly once the sun dropped to the horizon, and disappeared entirely once it was gone, so with sunlight out of the equation, factors other than color determine temperature.

Results from the temperature experiment, showing big differences between the black and white octahedrons

The temperature of the black octahedron swung wildly in daylight with even a slight breeze, more in the corner than the center. While I scanned with the temp gun for 20 seconds, the temperature at the corner might vary 10 degrees with a breeze. The thin plywood, with little thermal mass, would dissipate and regain its heat quickly. The white also fluctuated but not nearly so wildly. And the white sometimes even hung out in the 60 degree range while the hot sun roiled above, setting the roof ablaze to the tune of 120-140 degrees F. The temperature difference between the black center and black corner also varied as much as 20 degrees F while the sun was high up, showing again how the slight thermal mass and poor heat retention of the plywood gives it up to the air quickly.

So can we we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? Artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? Yes, but exactly how and how much is a matter of more experimentation, as well as learning from people who have done these sorts of things, in some cases thousands of years ago, and in some cases learning from the most recent science available. A half-cup innovation plus a half-cup of remembering.

Thinking about the 2012 festival circuit, experimental structures in the “developing world” and some planned DIY offerings, this new awareness is definitely clarifying and helping to define some Vertecology build proposals already in the works.

Some design opportunities now apparent: Using a material other than wood will effect the temperature differences. Using steel or some kinds stone of could produce differences in the hundreds of degrees, maybe enough to turn electrical turbines or “magically” pull water out of “thin air,” though steel heat would probably dissipate a lot faster than stone heat.

Greater thermal mass would also take much longer to heat but also to cool, making it possible to radiate warmth well into the night and keep a house cool well into the day. And materials can be played against one another – low retention, low conductivity wood painted white, vs high retention and moderately conductive stone, vs highly conductive and low retention steel, to create truly designer passive solar effects.

Taking this into consideration, here’s one application of passive solar in a “permaculture structure” with multiple functions in the diagram below. This is based on solar updraft tower technology, and this specific set of diagrams takes the fuel-free energy-generation Botswana Solar Updraft test facility, which ran in 2007, as the starting point. (Their experiment documentation here).

Solar Updraft tower diagram, inspired by the Botswana Solar Updraft Test Facility, a fuel-less passive energy genesis system with more potential ecological benefits

While their small test tower would probably not generate much power, with the right combination and density of materials, its performance might improve dramatically without an increase in size. This at the very least would make a great project for the 2012 festival circuit, and it could become a model for community-scale free energy generation, desert-greening and even seed spreading and vertical habitat building… all at once. (I actually have less interest in really huge industrial versions of this structure 800 meters tall, which require industrial-scale funding, a corporate building approach, and which could have adverse effects on the earth’s atmosphere – think jets of our precious air superheated and streaming into space)

On a more immediate note I also now know why the Sugar Shack roof garden is frying, and we can do something about it. The first of the new tire planters has already been painted white, as of about 4 pm today.