Brian Milani wearshis large, bronze carpenter’sbeltbucklewith the pridethat a rodeo champion wearshis. It’s a proclamation. For Milani, an affirmation of the practical, not to beignoredamong the references to Jung, Marx, Mumford, McLuhan, Hegel, Thomas Berry, and Buckminster Fuller thatweavethroughhis conversation.
He has spentmost of a lifetimedeclaring the acceptedimpractical. Nowheispromoting the alternatives of sustainability.
He iscoordinating and teaching a course on « The Green Economy’’ at the Metro Labour Education Centre in Toronto. And, as coordinator of The Eco-Materials Group — a consulting firmthatincludes an architect, a building designer, a civil engineer, tradesmen, and an architectural preservationist — heis building a website for people seeking information on the environmental impact of construction materials and « the application of ecological design principles to economicdevelopment.’’
« LikeBuckminster Fuller used to say, `We have to do more withless,’ ’’ Milani says. « Weneed to substitute intelligence and imagination for capital and labour.’’
There’s no reasonwhyeverythinggoinginto a new building has to be a virginmaterialwhensomuchcanberecycled or reused. Alreadythere are a lot of alternative materialsavailable, hesays, such as recycleddrywall, laminatedstuds and joists made fromwastewood, and engineeredwood (beamsthatreduce the amount of wood by usingbraces and trusses).
There also are plenty of substitutes for materialsthat are eithertoxic or give off fumes thatcan cause healthproblems. For instance, thereisdrywallsheathedwithpaperthatdoes not have toxicmold and mildewpreventives, fibreboard glues thatdon’t « offgas,’’ and paintsthatcanabsorbformaldehydes in homes for up to twoyears.
Concrete poses a difficultproblem, Milani says. « It takes an incredibleamount of energy to make the cement,’’ so the level of embodiedenergy in concreteisextremely high. Whereconcreteisunavoidable, one solution is to pour itinto a waffle-likeform. « You use less, it’sjust as strong,’’ and youreduceyourresponsibility for energyconsumption.
« This iswhere intelligent design is important,’’ headds. « Right from the beginningyou have to askwhatpurpose the building isintended to serve, and how itcanbedesigned to have minimum ecological impact.’’
As hesits, elbows on knees in the living room of the modest, workman’s home he and hiswiferecentlymovedinto on Major St., in Toronto’sLowerAnnex area, hisgreyinghairdescending in wavesthat end just short of hisshoulders, it’s not difficult to imagine him as a hippie thirtyyearsago.
Wrong, hesays. « Wenevercalledourselves hippies. Wewere freaks — as in the Fabulous, Furry, Freak Brothers,’’ a comic book thatfeaturedFreewheelin’ Franklin, Phineas, Fat Freddy, and Fat Freddie’s Cat in klutzy, pot-hazed, encounterswith the establishment.
Afterdropping out of university in the late sixties, Milani wandered the continent, wrote for the alternative press, caught the tail end of flower power at HaightAshbury in San Francisco, did New York. By the mid-seventies, fed up withthatlifestyle, hedecided to write a book on post industrial change. It was, in his self-assessment, toobig a book, tooinexperienced an author.
Howeveritledhim to the insight that « the builtenvironmentwas a key area for making change. Forty per cent of the economy’smaterialsthroughputis building materials.’’
So at age 31, hedecided to approach construction and design from the bottom up. He entered the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and became a carpenter. When the Green Party wasformedin 1983 in Vancouver, hebecame chair of its first economy and environmentcommittee. By 1988 hewas in Toronto, withhisown construction and design firm, eventuallytaking a masters degree at York University in environmentalstudies.
I wouldn’tsayhe’sstill a freak. But he’sstilltaking on the establishment and now the tables are more even.
You canfindhiswebsite at www.web.net/~emg.