The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
I’ve been having a lot of fun fantasizing about my house. This is the exuberant, sky’s-the-limit fantasy stage of creation. I collect pictures. I imagine perfect sunny mornings, cozy afternoons with my bountiful bookshelves, a refreshing post-run rinse in the outdoor shower I’m going to have, because this house is going to include all of the fun little features I imagine when I picture my happiest life.
But that’s only half the game. The second reason (or maybe it’s the first reason) I decided to do this is that I want a sustainable house. Until now, it’s been an abstract plan; I had vague images of solar panels and low-water plants. But going in, all I really know is that I want it to be “green.”
Naturally, as the project begins to transition from a static thought balloon to a series of conversations and concrete plans, the question arises: Why do I want a sustainable house?
This question troubles me more than I thought it would. On the surface, it seems like an easy one: I’m an, educated, progressive, concerned person with resources and some kind of personal ethics. What’s controversial about building an eco-friendly home?
Once, when I was in my 20s, my then-husband came down with a stomach flu. It was a miserable time, a spare-me-the-details affair. I was working in a law office, with a long commute and emotionally difficult work. When he was sick, he was like a child, consumed with the unfairness of it all. I didn’t want to be exposed, on any level.
On day two of the flu, I decided to spend the night at a friend’s up in the city, near my office. He could tough it out alone; as I explained to the friend, he would just be sleeping, or in the bathroom, or watching cartoons. Instead of going back to take care of him, I had some supplies delivered to him, which I accomplished via a website and a credit card. That took care of my obligation, I explained to my friend. He would have his Saltines and his Gatorade. My presence in the house wouldn’t help much anyway. With my purchases, I felt, I had done my duty; how could anyone hold it against me?
The problem, of course, was that I had declared myself absolved of further responsibility through an action that required no real effort. I didn’t even have to make a phone call, an act of which I have an existential dread. It’s not that the provisions I sent were insufficient, or unhelpful; it was that they had not cost me anything, yet I had excused myself from further effort. I waved a credit card when what was called for was showing up.
My concern, in my solitary introspective hours, is that building a house is just a highly visible gesture. With the application of funds, it announces–to my neighbors, my co-workers, my readers–I am a good person. I’ve done my duty. See?
Surely there are other less showy things that I could do to reduce my personal impact on the planet, things that require serious effort or even sacrifice. I could ride my bike to work more regularly, even in bad weather. I could get religious about reducing energy use in smaller ways, like making sure things are unplugged and the right curtains are closed at the right times. I could work hard to seek out more locally produced food. I could, I could, I could… I worry, in the dark: am I just spending money when what I really need to do is show up?
Because I am a neophyte about buildings, Matthew, my dear friend and architect, kindly started me off with some books that provided background on basic concepts of building only what you need. I quickly realized, to my surprise, that I actually wanted to understand in more detail what exactly we were setting out to do, and he pointed me toward a book that architects and designers rely on for energy strategies: Mark DeKay and G.Z. Brown’s Sun, Wind and Light. It’s technical. It’s detailed. It’s exactly what I want.
The first thing I’ve learned (and I’ve only managed, so far, to digest the introduction): most of the action isn’t in fancy-looking solar panels and expensive, cutting-edge technology. It’s in things I would not have recognized as sustainable design–shading, placement of windows for light and ventilation, insulation, orientation, air flow. It’s not about gadgets; it’s about age-old principles, carefully applied.
I am relieved to find myself undeterred by the prospect of a largely invisible effort. I search but I can’t detect even a trace of disappointment that much of what I will do here may not announce itself. Of course, the risk of self-congratulation, of unwarranted auto-absolution, is here; it is always here. I just have to be vigilant with myself: living in a house that generates its own power does not excuse me from effort.
The more I learn, the more I see that I am undertaking this project not only for the end result but because it does require effort. It will invite me, and at times require me, to engage with and understand what’s happening, how simple and beautiful it can be and how complicated, to grapple with the problem, make the choices, trade-offs of aesthetics, convenience, cost, that have brought us to the place we are now. To learn enough to realize how big the problem is, how much I don’t know.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series 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 [email protected] or leave a comment here.