The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
There are really two parts, aren’t there? There’s the building–the process and the materials, as one aspect–and, largely separately, the impact of its systems once the thing is built, mainly power and water. It would be entirely possible to attend to only one of these. You could build a standard house, with all kinds of resins and composites and non-sustainable woods and materials flown halfway across the world from factories spewing pollution but make it electricity- and water-neutral as it stands when finished. Or you could build a house out of materials sourced for as little impact as possible, salvaged fixtures, recycled countertops, the whole nine yards, but leave out the PV panels and the rain harvesting system. They’re both good projects. They’d both fall under the umbrella we’d probably call “green.”
And this is where the elephant that’s been hanging around this conversation for months now pokes his floppy ears in, and says: How much does it cost? It’s no secret that specialized sustainable materials often cost more than standard materials, and water harvesting and solar panels are entire systems that would otherwise be absent from the house (and the bill). Of course these things can save money over time, with power and water bills. But just how much, whether and when they’ll pay for themselves, are tough to figure, with new construction whose energy needs are untested and, here in Tucson right now, an uncertain regulatory climate.
I have focused largely on making the house run green. Although I have made some choices guided by sustainability of materials, my primary interest, at the outset and moving forward, has been in ending up with a product that won’t drain natural resources more than necessary just by existing once it’s built. I probably focused on that to the neglect of the other component. Now, as I’m starting to face getting the budget firm, I have choices to make. Is the extra spend for recycled countertops worthwhile? The current plans include several things like that that I put in there because they exist, because there’s talk about them, marketing, because people ask, or assume that a green house would include such things, and I would feel like some kind of failure or fraud to say, well, no, actually, just regular old countertops. Just normal paint.
Those are of course the wrong reasons to make these choices. It goes back to the kind of eco-vanity I’ve explored in the past, visible gestures versus actual utility. Am I deeply interested in sustainable sourcing? Turns out no, I’m really actually not. I care in theory–and I want world peace–but it isn’t the part that excites me and feels most important. There. I’m admitting it.
I care about how the house works. And if I can get lower-impact materials for a reasonable cost, I will buy them. But we all have to come to terms with our priorities. There hasn’t been a lot of visible progress on the project recently mostly because we decided to send the project out for pricing now, before all the final details were added to the drawings. Why draw details of things it turns out we’re not going to be able to build? But the final choices are coming.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment here.