The AltBuild Alternative Building

Materials & Design Expo, in its ninth year, is regarded as a place

for the “green-curious” to make the leap to “green-committed.” For

people who had already waded past compact fluorescent bulbs deep into

eco-consciousness territory, however, it was the place to show off,

compare carbon footprints and otherwise feel greener-than-thou.


of the greenest people at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium had to be

David Karp, with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Karp

stood in front of a bin of worms and plunged his hand into the

wriggling mess. Worm feces, a powerful natural fertilizer, leaked out

the bottom of the bin. Karp scrounged around in the catch tray and let

the poop dribble through his fingers. “That's the good stuff,” he said.


he brews a cup of worm tea with the poop, using five gallons of water,

molasses, fish food and an aquarium bubbler. The tea is not for him but

his plants.

Karp, a worm aficionado, waxed poetic about their

characteristics: how the components of the bin mimic the top six inches

of jungle leaf litter; how worms are hermaphroditic (“They make each

other pregnant”); how they live two years in the wild and five “in

captivity;” how, like many convention attendees, they adore vegetables

and abhor meat and dairy.

Stick their bin in a warm, shady spot,

pop in a few melon rinds, and the wigglers will happily defecate a

garden's worth of compost. “What if the worms leave the bin?” a woman

asked Karp.

“Why would they leave? Where would they go? They hate light,” Karp said. “They're not curious.”


was hard to determine who was the most hard core about going green.

People were attending hands-on drip-irrigation workshops and

rainwater-harvesting workshops and panels on “Sustainable Landscapes

Demystified.” In between perusing soy ink-printed brochures that

proclaimed “Insulation is sexy stuff,” they were contemplating urban

homesteading and native plant gardening and permaculture and solar tubes

and zero toxin paints. They were driving energy-efficient hybrid cars.

Those who didn't drive were having their bicycles valet-parked.


stuff into other stuff is one of the central tenets of green living,

and people here did this in spades. They turned shipping containers into

houses, and houses into miniature ecosystems. They turned their roofs

into gardens, and their gardens into certified wildlife refuges. They

turned recycled plastic into furniture that resembles wood. They dredged

wood from the bottom of lakes and turned it into fancy, $6,000 Danish

modern credenzas.

If recycling is a central tenet, so is guilt.

Some attendees were wracked by guilt showering and doing laundry: all

that perfectly semi-usable water down the drain!

The water people

were a category unto themselves. Leigh Jerrard installs residential

“gray-water” irrigation systems that let you water, say, as he does,

three peach trees, one plum tree, one apple tree, and some loquats with

the used water from your washing machine. Jerrard gnashed his teeth in

anger at the thought of his neighbor hosing off the driveway.


people sought to drink the very ocean itself after removing its salt.

Easier said than done. Gossip in the water camp turned to the pilot

desalination program in Redondo Beach. They had problems with backflow.

Chlorine bleach leaked out from an adjoining desalination tank at the

Redondo Beach SEA Lab, killing most of the animals in the aquarium,

including 7,000 baby sea bass being raised on-site. On the morning of

the waterborne toxic event, the fish swam erratically, then went belly

up. Tragically, and ironically, the fish were a month away from release

into the ocean.

Unsurprisingly, the Expo also was the place to

feel insecure about your greenness. At lunch (organic, vegan, tasty as a

cardboard box) I sat next to a woman who had been neglecting the

outdoors because she's too busy reading books about it. Across from her,

a guy couldn't stop talking about the guava tree he'd planted. He spoke

in glowing terms, as if it were his child. He was spending inordinate

amounts of time on that tree, he said.

The outdoorsy woman nodded

as the guava tree guy went on. “I know what you mean,” she said,

stabbing her lettuce with a biodegradable plastic fork. “If I never had

to sleep again, I'd be rereading my book on urban foraging.”


of course, is the ultimate nonrecyclable. Architect Douglas Stanton,

finding himself with an abundance of time due to the economic downturn,

taught himself to build Depression-era architect Wallace Neff's bubble

houses. The indestructible structure is made by spraying concrete onto a

giant nylon balloon, “sort of like how you make a piñata.” It uses 50

percent less energy than a wood-frame house and looks 100 percent like

Jedi master Yoda's hut on the swamp planet Dagobah.


the hardest of the hard-core sustainability advocates are those willing

to kill for it. Asked if he is vegetarian, 20-something Davey paused for

a long time. “I raise chickens,” he said finally.

He also slaughters them. “It was hard the first time,” he admitted. “I couldn't see myself doing it on a weekly basis.”


remembers watching his grandmother kill a chicken when he was a kid. He

remembers being scared. It was the first time he'd been involved with

the meat he eats. For his own fowl execution, he used a killing cone.

“It's like a traffic cone,” he explained. You hang the chicken upside

down with its head poking outside the cone, then slit its throat.


far Davey has only killed chickens. He hoped to get some rabbits soon.

“I'm not really ready to eat rabbits yet, though,” he said. “I just want

them around.”

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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