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Sweet Sustainability on the Ancient St. James Way: Kathleen O’Brien Reports in From Her Trek

DSC01424 Many of our local readers know I recently completed a 200-mile trek with my husband John along the St James Way in France. The Way, a path taken by pilgrims since the first century, and ending at the St James Cathedral in Santiago Spain, is comprised of several routes that begin in France. We were walking along Via Podensis, which passes through Conques, Cahors, Moissac, Aire-sur l'Adour and Navarrnx. We planned our trip to begin at the start in Le Puy en-Velay and end (for now) nearly halfway to the Spain border, in Moissac. Our purpose was spiritual and contemplative, and it was certainly that. But it was me that was there, so I couldn't help but notice how frequently "sustainability" was part of the landscape. Let me share just a few observations, keeping in mind that our terrain ranged from medium-sized cities to towns to places where cows and sheep outnumbered the local population.

1. Function is as important as form. No offense to the historic preservationists among us , but the French just don't seem so "precious" about their old buildings. Patterns in the stone show where doorways and windows have been "moved" to make buildings more functional, and there seemed to be no shame in covering clay tile or slate roofs with photovoltaic and/or solar hot water installations. We saw old inns, homes, and barns with new energy efficient vinyl windows (yes vinyl!) framed by beautifully maintained wood shutters. The combination of old and new, and obvious regard for reuse was really quite stunning.

2. History is a part of life. On the GR 65, which is the nationally protected hiking route that coincides with the Via Podensis, there are many, many sites that have historic and sometimes DSC01444 sacred value. Often these are off the road, so somewhat protected. But sometimes they are in the middle of modern life. In Cahors, we learned there were ruins of a Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town. We went to the location on the ville map where it was supposed to be and found a multi-level underground parking garage. We were confused. Was this just a place to commemorate the ruins? Would we find interpretive signage telling us of what once was — a popular technique in the U.S.? No, on the first level down, the car park actually shares space with the ruins, complete with tags from the original dig. There's also an electronic screen showing the latest news alongside the ruins. The ground level is a plaza used for community events. Talk about creative land use!

3. Green Building is in! We stopped for lunch at Ecoasis (one of the gite d'etapes that serve pilgrims and hikers on the Way). Ecoasis opened just this year in Grealou and was featured in June as part of the Quercy Energies 2011 Programme, for its "ecoconstruction, efficacite energetique, et energies renouvelables".  Several of the new gite d'etapes along the Way do have solar power installations and dual flush toilets, but this place went much further. The gite's composting toilets, solar hot water and photovoltaics, rainwater capture, plant-based waste water treatment, "ecologique" paint, organic food garden and husbandry were a sight for sore eyes (and sore feet!). After a delicious lunch and time to rest our feet we asked if they had space for us that night. They did not, but were able to connect us with the owner of another "sustainable" gite 5 km down the road that was a restoration of an old ruin. It also had composting toilets, solar power, and other green building features. We slept in a naturally ventilated (of course) yert dortoir (dormitory) that night. Further down the road, the owner of our gite d'etape in La Bastide told us over a simple dinner her husband had prepared for us, that she worked for a "green builder." She was very proud; they had just completed the first certified Passive Haus in the Quercy Departement. "Passive Haus, have you heard of it?"

4. Waste not. Given the rampant reuse of buildings, it's not surprising that the three R's areIMG_0246 important in the French countryside. No matter how small the city or town, you would eventually run into a set of bins for the community to use for recycling paper, metal, and plastic goods.  I also noticed that educational signage attached to these bins, and signage about the environment in general — such as those concerning protection for waterways — were well done. And dual flush toilets are pretty much everywhere, except in public WCs where it seems the flush is meant to sanitize the entire building and you while you are there. Finally, I was excited to see that homes for sale are "rated" for their energy efficiency. 

5. Someone (owners, utilities, or both) is absolutely gaga about efficient lighting, and especially sensors. This is where it got a bit much. I decided early on that there was a "trip" factor planned into any building. Even new buildings seemed to have changes in floor levels in the oddest places. This was especially a problem when hallways were dimly lit to save energy. I can't tell you how many times I stubbed my toes on the way to the shared salle de bain because of the low light levels at night, which were only triggered if you knew how to wave your hands just right. The worst situation was in a cafe's water closet. The light went out and the closet went absolutely pitch black. I tried waving, dancing, and clapping. It occurred to me then — My god, it's on a timer! Which it turns out was outside in the hallway out of reach. Yikes. As my friend Katrina says, sustainability is all about the right strategy, right place.

Kathleen O'Brien is founder of O'Brien & Company, which is celebrating its 20th year this September. For information about the celebration,  visit our website announcement.

Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like these Building Capacity Blog articles: 
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Balancing Energy Efficient Adaptive Reuse with Historic Preservation
How Can Communities Accelerate Change Towards Green Building?

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