LC: Switching gears a little bit. You did some building and renovation work in SLO, what considerations did you have in regards to creating sustainable structures? What was your inspiration for turning the rundown college area in SLO into a place that fosters community growth?

EM:I love restoring old houses…. almost as much as creating community. There are lots of them here in San Luis Obispo and so I just kind of went off the deep end and started buying up all the dumpiest most horrible ones I could find downtown near me. My contractor friends and I did about 13 of them over the last 10 years. The same crew did all the houses. Most of them were wooden bungalows… but two were basic 40’s era ranch houses and one was 120 year old brick house… sorta pre Spanish colonial revival.

I love architectural salvage yards… and I have a lot of friends who are carpenters and contractors and most everyone I know seems to have a small stash of old windows… or faucets or old lamps… or a door… or some tile. So I just started memorizing and noting who had what… and then collecting up all the parts.

Sometimes I would hear about a house being torn down somewhere and make a deal to buy up all the old windows, knobs, cabinets, sinks etc…. But I’d usually just get them for free… People are usually stoked to see the stuff go to good use.

As an example…the 1880’s brick Spanish style house we did across from Mitchell Park here in town was scheduled to be demolished. It had been condemned by the city. It had been in a fire in the 1970’s and was derelict since… so it had nothing original left. It was boarded up. The windows and doors and lights, and the flooring were all gone. Nobody knew anything about it’s history.

I found an obscure historian who had researched the property… via our local historical society and learned that it was built by Frank Mitchell… who had donated the land across the street to be that city park… and who had been the Mayor here a hundred years ago. We unearthed his history further… and the history of the house started to unfold. He was deeply involved in many of the early events of the city.

It was built like an adobe… on foundation of piled stones. It needed a structural retrofit to be earthquake safe. We had to build a new foundation inboard of the brick walls… and then a steel cage of structural steel to tie the brick walls to. We restored it with huge old French doors from an old mansion in Montecito CA, casement windows from a 1910 house here in SLO that was torn down to make way for a new office building, original Spanish sconces and lighting of the house came from an architectural salvage yard. I had tile made in Tecate Mexico for the floors and kitchen… and the roof. We built a fantastic inner courtyard with a fountain… it is just an awesome house now.

From this house I salvaged all the undamaged wood… 120 year old redwood… as well as a lot of bricks. Some of these things ended up in our own home… others went to a couple of other houses around town that belong to friends of mine. Like some amazing pay it forward building materials game.

This house, “the Frank Mitchell house” as it is now known… is the oldest Brick house in Central California… and is on the local historical register… and has won several preservation awards from a few historical groups. It has a bronze historical plaque out front even! I am really stoked on the fact that it is a huge addition to the area now… rather than a blight.

I spent 900k on it’s purchase and restoration… and I sold it for 910k…. I made ten thousand dollars for my year’s work. What is cool is that the money doesn’t really just go into the houses. It goes to the tradespeople that restored the houses… and the surfshop where they buy a wetsuit and to the sandwich shop on the corner… and the coffee place… and the hardware store down the street… and the gardener who now cleans the yards etc etc. around and around.

AND the house is a treasure now! The new owners cherish its history and have been very gracious showing it to many folks interested in its newfound history. Plus they are also into bicycles… as I am… in a big way… and seeing that I live just two blocks away… I get a better neighborhood… and new friends.

It is a huge win all around.

It has been the same with all the rest of the houses. They are all nearby… and I am friends with all the new owners… and the neighborhood has way less derelict houses. The tide has shifted… the area isn’t dominated by college slumlord landlords anymore… it is now mostly owners living in their own houses…. most of them friends with each other due to trading building materials… or fruit… or home-made beer… or a coffee at the local coffee/art gallery. This trend is happening all over the US I think.

My own house is built from a large batch of recycled redwood… resawn beams that were milled into siding and interior beadboard. It is also sided in areas with recycled rusty galvanized tin from an old barn that was torn down…. and a lot of used hardware, knobs etc.

I do have new wood windows… and a new wood floor, new lighting, etc. I don’t recycle everything… I’m no recycling guru or anything… I just do as much as I can… without jumping off the deep end where you build a house that looks like you built it out of car tires and wine bottles. (I am intrigued by bottle houses though… or at least one wall somewhere made of bottles.) The house is solar PV powered… a grid tie system without batteries.. and we have radiant heat … which I freaking LOVE!

The economy kind of put a stop to my house restoration fetish… I’ve supplanted this urge by becoming a Planning Commissioner… and have started restoring old French and Italian bicycles instead… it’s the same jones sorta… just a lot lighter.

LC: From what I understand, you are part of the Pecha Kucha Initiative. What is the Pecha Kucha philosophy? Is it true Pecha Kucha means ‘blah blah’ in Japanese? How are you using this philosophy to enchance SLO’s community and culture?

EM: I don’t know about any Pecha Kucha “philosophy”. PK is just a forum for people to show what they do or what interests them. Pecha Kucha means “chit chat” in Japanese basically. It is “the sound of conversation”. An architecture professor buddy along with the curator of special collections at Cal Poly started up the local Pecha Kucha event. I joined in on the first night… because it was totally awesome. There are a ton of really interesting people all around you… and usually you have no idea they are there. PK is a way for us to meet all of these people in our towns. PK is the real social networking. We have crew of 6 that puts the event on at a local Coffee shop/art gallery. We average around 200 guests per event.

Happiness comes from many things… but one of the most important is ones is interaction with positive people. Specifically random interaction I think… and the time and willingness to have a great conversation with somebody at the drop of a hat.

Pecha Kucha gives each speaker just 6 minutes and 40 seconds and 20 slides… to express whatever they want to express. We have done 13 volumes so far… with 8 presentations during each volume and each is just as fabulous as the last. The best part is the talking afterwards. I have met dozens and dozens of truly interesting people that I now think of as friends via PK. Can you say that about Facebook??? No way.

Pecha Kucha gives you the community you are searching for. It allows you to meet the people you wish you knew. I love it. I have never seen such a cool event. It feels to me like how the old Salons of Paris must have felt to the painters there… or how Big Sur felt to Jack Kerouak, Henri Miller and Eric Barker.

BTW… There is a new book called “Thrive”, by Dan Buettner… he talks a lot about what makes people happy… and he also talks a lot about San Luis Obispo! Pecha Kucha is not mentioned… but PK is a small part of what makes it fun to live here.

LC: What’s next?

EM: I am involved at Cal Poly University as one of the founders a new “Center for innovation and Entrepreneurialism”. (my first job there is hopefully to change that mouthful of a name!) I spend time with students listening to their ideas and thoughts on business and the future. (I think I learn way more from them than they get from me though) If I can leave them better than I found them… that makes feel good.

I’ve always studied art history, architectural history, design history,… any sort of creative history actually. I am also a student of trends and trend forecasting. These two subjects are tightly intertwined. What led to what and why… if you understand this you will be successful at what you do.

What’s next?

You are watching it unfold all around you… you already know it… you are both creating it and watching it unfold. Each thing you do directly impacts everything else all around you and indeed all of everything all around the planet.

My future is helping to share this.

I do still have a few shoe ideas… but then I think… “lie down until the feeling passes”

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