The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
My mother had a phrase she used to say when she thought she was being unfairly blamed for the simple realities of our lives: “Don’t make me the bad guy.” It applied in myriad situations, usually where there was some necessity we could all reasonably appreciate (Christmas ornaments, come January, had to be taken down and put back in their tissue paper nests) but it fell to her to enforce. If we wanted to go play with friends instead of packing away trinkets, and she said the ornaments had to come down first, our frustration was directed at her, not at the calendar or the tree itself.
This house-building project, I have already begun to see, will be full of tradeoffs that are simply part of reality. This is all the more true because I have made a commitment to sustainability. I might wish for more space, or more windows in different places. There will be moments where my fantasy of a perfect room will not be possible to create because of the simple laws of physics, or the laws of Pima County, or because it could be done but would double the house’s energy use. Even the most rational among us have, somewhere in there, an inner toddler who balls up her fists and scrunches up her face and says, But I want it!
Matthew has been my great friend since we were 16 (which, for those of you keeping track at home, is half our lives), after he had decided to become an architect but before he had received any of the training. We’ve seen each other through some shit. We’ve been in various of one another’s houses and apartments in far-flung cities. We danced for hours at each other’s weddings. I can talk to him on the phone for hours (and I am so not a phone person.) Once I heard someone say, You can’t make new lifelong friends, and I immediately thought of him.
Of course we’ve been warned again and again about doing business with friends. You can always fire your architect, or sue him, or write bad reviews, or report him—but the cost of any of these things if your dissatisfaction is with a dear friend is astronomically greater.
These types of worries—though serious ones are important to address—are not the ones that trouble me most. My greater concern is that inevitably, there will be times when Matthew is the bad guy. When I have an idea or a wish that can’t be implemented in the sustainable framework we’ve created, he is going to be the one to tell me that.
I owe it to him to keep this in mind: Matthew is not the source of the laws of physics that dictate how much space will be inside a building with certain dimensions or which way certain things will have to face if we are going to maximize their utility. Even the greatest architect can’t make the things fit in places they won’t. Nothing he does can make me simultaneously have and not have a second bathroom—a feature I’ve had an incredibly difficult time settling on. (And about which everyone I’ve discussed it with seems to have an opinion.)
This is my battle. It would be so much easier to blame somebody else. He’s just not designing it right! When I stare it in the face, though, I know that what I really want is for him to create a second bathroom that appears occasionally when I need it, but generally doesn’t exist when it’s just me in the house and I couldn’t use them both at the same time if I tried. His (or anybody’s) inability to do so is in no way his fault. I have to make a choice. And then, I have to own that choice.
I’m not sure I can do it—and that’s the real risk, more than disagreements over expectations and money and timelines and deliverables (which risks can be reduced some by a careful contract). It’s the risk that my own irrationality will infect the friendship when I am not just a friend, but a client.
I could, for greater safety, hire a stranger to design my home. But that would come at the cost of the shared experience of doing this together with a lifelong friend. It would deprive me of the little nuggets of perfection that only someone who knows me very well could think to design. It’s like the perfect gift a loved one buys you that you never would have thought to get for yourself, not because it’s extravagant but because it never occurred to you that that was what you wanted. Like the swap of more space for more efficiency, this is a tradeoff, and one, on balance, that I think is worthwhile.
There is risk. There is always risk. But our lives are full of risks, and without them, we would never create anything out of the ordinary. Not a word of The Sound and the Fury would ever have been written, and we never would plant the first kiss on the person who will become the love of our lives or reach the top of any mountain, and maybe we’d come out of it without stitches and scars, but the world would be the poorer for it.
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.