An obstructed view Pliny and Dania Fisk are former professors of architecture at the University of Texas who operate an Austin-based Center for Maximum Potential Building SystemsMax’s Pot for short. The Fisks are experts in “appropriate technology,” which refers to the application of energy and other life-support technologies on a local scale at a minimum cost in terms of money, materials and environmental disruption. In practice, the concept boils down to common-sense construction. Appropriate technology means building houses from indigenous clays and adobes instead of materials that must be transported from distant quarries and forests. It means building walls with sufficient mass to heat and cool interior spaces without expensive airconditioning equipment. It means building greenhouses, attached to south walls, which function both as solar collectors and as year-round food-producing systems. It means technologies that depend much more on human labor and environmental sensitivity than on bulldozers and thermostats. That is why “appropriate technologies” are appropriate indeed for poor communities with a high percentage of “unskilled,”unemployed workers. The Fisks are accomplished scientists and innovatorsan important point, because government agencies have often cited “technical insufficiency” as the basis for rejecting their simple, accessible, down-to-earth systems and devices. Both of them are graduates of the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture at Penn State University. \(Pliny holds, in addition, a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Penn tional reputation for their scholarship and field work. And they are regularly called upon for scientific comment and practical advice by peers in the scholarly community, by congressional committees, and by local agencies and self-help groups around the country. It might be expected that people of such proven competence and creativity would naturally merit our government’s attention, that their work would be worthy of some public investment. Like their small business counterparts, however, the Fisks do not fit the government’s bureaucratic concept of a 18 JANUARY 19, 1979 proper grant recipient. As a result, the people of Texas have yet to reap the benefits that the Fisks and other appropriate technologists could be delivering. The focus of the struggle between the Fisks and the government has been Crystal City, Texas, where the two architects have worked off and on since 1972. Most of their efforts in this South Texas Mexican-American community, one of the poorest in the state, have been made since that infamous September day in 1977 when Lo-Vaca Gathering Company, then a subsidiary of Coastal States Gas Corporation, shut off gas service to Crystal City’s 8,000 residents. Before the Fisks arrived that winter, the plight of Crystal City had won the attention of the federal Community Services Administration \(due in part to the interThe CSA had originally intended to use some or all of a $310,000 grant to begin defraying the $836,000 that Crystal City “owed” Lo-Vaca after refusing for two and a half years to pay the gas monopoly’s radically increasing monthly rates \(each increase a violation of LoVaca’s 20-year supply contract signed in side Crystal City, many of whom had meekly accepted Lo-Vaca’s higher rates, buried this idea in an avalanche of protest. The CSA decided instead to apply the grant to emergency alternatives designed to get Crystal City through the winter. At this point, say the Fisks, Crystal City was in a position to launch a program of appropriate technologies which would at once have delivered the city from the rigors of winter and prepared a foundation for long-term energy selfsufficiency and economic development. Among the choices available then was a crash program of weatherization of residents’ homes, carried out by the residents themselves, in conjunction with the installation of low-cost solar heating systems and attached solar greenhouses to be produced at a hastily assembled local factory. As a still more urgent interim measure, the city would have supplied its residents with surplus Army cookstoves fueled by wood from the mesquite that grows in abundance around Crystal City. “, The Fisks advanced this proposal to local and federal officials in Crystal City as early as October 15, 1977, when there was still time to implement the program before the onset of hard winter weather. Perhaps unfortunately, their proposal had the blessing of the Zavala County Economic Development Corporation, which was and is dominated by members of the Raza Unida Party. The proposal collided not only with an opposing political faction in Crystal City but with the wishes of Governor Briscoe, who decreed that the federal money for Crystal City could be expended only for the purchase of short-term emergency fuel items. Briscoe’s wishes prevailed over those of the local community. The CSA began spending its $310,000 on propane tanks, electric blankets, and hot plates, all of which had to be imported, of course, from other places. This caused the program to lag through November and December, as did a requirement that propane installations be conducted only by bonded installers, of whom there are few in Crystal City. By the first hard freeze at Christmas, only about half of 960 new propane tanks had been installed, and residents who needed their tanks refilled were startled to discover that the cost of propane in their community had doubled in 60 days. It now exceeded the cost of natural gas fromLoVaca, and many residents who couldn’t afford the refills simply abandoned their tanks. Meanwhile, back in October, having been rebuffed by the political forces aligned , against their proposal, the Fisks had decided to try a different tack. Again with the sanction of the ZCEDC, they joined with Robert Maggiani of the Chicano Legal Defense Fund and Paula . Greenfield of. the UT Center for the Study of Human Resources to write a modified grant proposal based on the Fisks’ original idea of a local solar energy cooperative. This proposal, which asked specifically for $70,000 to weatherize a number of Crystal City homes and outfit them with solar energy equipment, using teams of quickly trained local residents, was submitted at the end of October to the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, Montana. NCAT is a story all to itself, most of which cannot be told here. It was estab
You May Also Like
The documentary in Falfurrias is sinister and spiritual.