By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


What we speak becomes the house we live in.
  – Hafiz

It was the spring of 2013. I was working a bruising job as a law clerk for an overwhelmed judge, living in one of the busiest and most expensive areas in the country, and about to turn 30, and when I rounded the ramp from the second to the third level of the parking garage, I quite suddenly knew that I wanted to cut off all my hair. There was no obvious impetus; I was not running late having spent too much time with the blow dryer; I had not just passed a billboard displaying a perfect pixie cut. But the idea, wherever it had come from, demanded action. The first thing I did when I got to my desk was email a classmate who had an enviable short haircut for the name of her stylist, and within two weeks, I’d made the chop, shorter by a wide margin than any style I’d had since the age of eight.

This is not to say that I didn’t, in those days in between, run that decision through a series of reality checks. (More frequent haircuts but less daily styling; perhaps too trendy; a pain to grow out; that awkward first week where everyone who sees you displays some measure of shock). But I think we all know that it’s not hard to find confirmation for a decision that’s already made.

So it was that a month or so ago, an old idle fantasy that had never been tethered to real life gripped me all at once. It was a Wednesday morning, and I was drinking my coffee and catching up on email after a morning run when a couple of thoughts that had been rattling around in my head for months came together, and became urgent. I wrote to my dear friend Matthew, who is a Boston-based architect:

Hello my friend! When we were in New York and drinking whiskey we talked a little about, you know, houses, and buildings, and where I might one day live.

I’m now thinking about the future and wondering if it makes sense to at least explore the idea of spaces that are not right now fit for Amy-habitation but might be made so. Was that a pipe dream?

If you think it might be worth exploring, I don’t even know what I’d need to look for. I can certainly talk to a real estate agent but I wouldn’t know what to tell her. Do you have thoughts?

Also, how are you? Is it fall there yet? Xoxoxo

Three minutes of typing before work one morning, and it had begun. His response, within the hour, was enthusiastic, and after a long phone call with him the next night, I sent another flurry of emails. The idea was for a house that would be as efficient as possible, uniquely suited to its desert location and my needs. Things began to happen quickly; in two days I had real estate listings and the phone numbers of recommended contractors to consult. It had gone from a vague idea of something that might one day happen to a plan with a string of concrete steps within my reach.


I don’t know what brings these ideas to a boil so quickly, or why it happens mostly with major choices, especially when small choices (should I buy a new tea kettle?) can paralyze me for weeks. Perhaps these essential plans, the ones that implicate identity, incubate in my subconscious, such that it’s not sudden at all; they grow underground until they cross a threshold where they become visible, appearing as plans that cannot wait because they come from my core. They are not my choices; they are myself.

The exclamation Eureka! is attributed to the Greek scientist Archimedes on discovering a method for determining the purity of gold; we use it primarily to celebrate the sudden solution to a problem over which we have been laboring. That is decidedly not my experience here. I had not been ruminating over the problem of where to live; I’m set up in a small but sufficient rental in a good location. I could stay put. It is not a classic Eureka moment.

But the word comes from the Greek heuēka, meaning “I have found.” And in these moments, I have found something. I have found the problem and the solution simultaneously. This is my heart’s gift to my brain. It does not say, Something is wrong, we have a problem, please find a solution. It says, like the most loyal and competent henchman, I have found the solution to a problem you have not yet realized you have. 

What controls the internal timer that says without warning, “Now!”? I don’t know. And of course I can’t listen to it blindly. There are realities to face: finances, availability of the right people and places, reflection on what I actually need. Not every choice I’ve made with such conviction has been a long-term success, a fact that lends the process a certain anxiety. If I’m honest, I don’t know that this is a good plan, that I will be happy. That’s not the sort of thing I can be certain about.

But this burst of enthusiasm has a life of its own and if the advice I’ve been getting is true, I’m going to need it.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series starts this week with an exploration of how she decided to undertake this crazy process and will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at or leave a comment here.
  1. How exciting Amy! I’ve loved for years, live in Tucson myself and can identify GREATLY with your ambition for the house. That is so great. And I love your rendition of the Eureka moment, how that conviction for what is needed can arrive fully formed, problem and solution in the same container. You go girl (woman)! as they say. I look forward to sharing the journey in future installments.

  2. Good Luck with that….
    Very early this morning, Rita whooshes down Koenigstein in her red Tesla. Perhaps she is driving to the west side of Los Angeles to meet with a client. She is a personal trainer.

    Three years ago, she and her husband bought the old Hansen property (Death Comes to Koenigstein) at the top of the hill. A Los Angeles architect designed a modern re-model of the 1960’s stucco ranch house and after a protracted construction period approaching two years, Rita moved in earlier in the summer. The major views and windows are all to the west and despite a roof laden with photo-voltaic panels I imagine the house falls short of being net zero in energy consumption: of an afternoon, the searing westerly sun is likely to defeat the best efforts of even a continuously running refrigerated air cooling system, and then, when it cools down and the a/c finally shuts down, there’s the six or seven hours to charge the car’s battery at a 240 V outlet. As Kermit sings, “it’s not easy being green”.

    Nevertheless, several of us on Koenigstein are attempting to present a virid face to the world. It is all, to some extent, a sham. The three overtly ‘green’ structures feature enough newly embedded energy to discount whatever savings to the grid are effected by their solar strategies. In the bigger picture, our contribution to saving the world is precisely nil. We remain part of a society that is dedicated to endless economic growth – of which so-called ‘green’ industry is a contributing factor.

    It is the fatal model of expansionary capitalism (if that is not a tautology), consuming the world’s resources and producing biosphericaly threatening levels of greenhouse gases that requires immediate mitigation – not our relationship to the power grid. There is, of course, a connection between these two phenomena, but an amelioration of the latter is unlikely to make much of a dent in the former. Indeed, it has been argued that the replacement of dirty, fossil energy with clean solar, hydro or nuclear power is entirely beside the point: what we need is a society that uses radically less energy, of whatever provenance, since its consumption is largely devoted, at present, to the rape of the world.

    The Pope, in his recent ‘green encyclical’ has called for a “truly communitarian economy”, where “human beings in harmony with nature, structure the entire system of production and distribution in such a way that the abilities and needs of each individual find suitable expression in social life”. In other words, he is calling, at least in this speech, for the revolutionary overthrow of the results of at least half a millennium of Western colonialism in which the Papacy has been entirely complicit, as well as the financial structures that grew out of this exploitative model and that now support the plutocrats, oligarchs and kleptocrats who conspire to rule the world irrespective of the political arrangements that pertain in individual states.

    But he goes further. He has nominated as the foot soldiers in his Revolutionary Army, “social poets” who remake “social reality” along their own unique paths, person by person, generation by generation. It is a fantastically bold vision that entirely transcends ideology and attempts to return the world to a prelapsarian Eden where individuals can create their own destinies certain of “access to education, health care, new technologies, artistic and cultural manifestations, communications and recreation”. Nothing here then, that cannot be achieved in the kind of primal harmony evinced by tribal societies intimately connected to their local ecosystems and surviving within them by hunting and gathering – in a return, in other words, to traditions from which Homo sapiens has only very recently departed. The Pope may believe that his Edenic vision can be achieved without abandoning the technological infrastructure of the modern world, but that infrastructure is entirely dependent on the exploitative model he deplores. The Pope, as Unintended Revolutionary is, perhaps, not quite ready to follow the full implications of his utopian, populist rhetoric.

    Neither are we, emerald hued ones, on Koenigstein Road. Our position, as beacons of energy responsibility, does not quite elevate us to the position of social poets. We are acting in the belief that the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess can be utilized in extricating ourselves from it – that ever more sophisticated, nature alienating technologies can save us from the previous generation of sophisticated, nature alienating technologies; that embedded energy is somehow free provided we use it to demonstrate our conservation bona fides; that conspicuous, individual consumption can be justified if it models a slightly better than average understanding of how to build responsibly in the urbanwildland.

    Not a social poet then, but at my best, perhaps, a lyrical observer of the rural scene: a watcher of the weather, a cataloger of the light, of the twilight and of the dark and, betwixt all this, a writer of jeremiads, a doomsayer, an unrepentant nostalgist and occasionally, a bringer of hope – my bleak outlook flecked with gold seams of optimism, like July’s drenching rain in an unending season of drought.

    As the veil of rain lifted a world of yellow green was revealed, punctuated with late blue-grey evening shadows; the two galvanized corrugated steel water tanks at the base of the hill pulsated with a silvery, aqueous light – their conical lids reflecting, in a colloidal amalgam, the concentrated light of the tropical skybowl. The infinitely subtle colors that surround our house reach through the windows (despite the impediment of their solar bronze coating) and inflect the pure white of the walls. Our house, as I was reminded when dining at a friend’s place at the tippy-top of Foothill, sits in the landscape, partakes of it and is colored by it. Our friend’s, sits on the landscape, in sublime difference.

    The unexpected July rain had me thinking: are we, in Hawaii yet? Or better yet, Japan…..where Rikyu grey might so perfectly describe the eventide chromatic impact of tropical depression Dolores on the parched chaparral of Upper Ojai? No: just another Global Warming impacted Ojai summer long since returned to normal: dry, bleached and hot – 106 degrees Fahrenheit this Sunday, 16th. August, an Ojai record high for the day. Now, at the end of the month, it is still warm, soft and the day capable, if one takes a moment to bask in it, of inducing a delirious drowsiness. Meanwhile, we thrill in anticipation of a major El Niño promised us by N.O.A.A., which, in conjunction with the hemispheric air pressure variable, the Southern Oscillation, (ENSO) is a reliable indicator of heavy winter and spring rain in California…….

    Not then, a social poet enrolled in God’s Army (as proclaimed by Pope Francis), nor a Green Crusader, but simply the creator of a place (by virtue of building a structure and tending the land), and the creator of an ecotone, between town and country (manifested both physically and through the posts of Urbanwildland): a place where I can observe the confluence, at least within my own psyche, of drought and rain, of the wild and the urban and of hope and hopelessness. Alternatively,

    We’ll keep on spending sunny days this way
    We’re gonna talk and laugh our time away
    I feel it coming closer day by day
    Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly

    Edward Brigarti and Felix Cavaliere (of The Rascals)

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