By Amy Knight

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


There is a bar on Speedway Boulevard called Dirtbag’s. Its motto, printed on the sign out front right below the apt mascot of a cartoon mosquito, is “It’s a part of growing up.” That I very much doubt. But it set me to thinking, as a writer, as a human, that there are certain iconic components of becoming a true adult. It’s never so simple as walking through one magical designated door to reach the sticky floor and dim lighting within. But certain experiences are there, predictably, in the histories of lives, and in fiction, which is so often aimed at capturing those particular moments.

Designing and building my house is less a crystallized transitional moment than a product of such moments. I have developed the capacity to make, and trust, these decisions, to tell the difference between what I recognize and what I enjoy, between what my mother would approve of and what I actually want.


I recently spent two weeks in Ireland with my parents. Ireland was home to ancestors on both sides of my family, and though I’d never been there before, it had a feeling of familiarity. It was less the physical setting than the people, who looked like people I knew, and whose combination of conviviality and privacy, sarcasm and affection, echoes through years of relationships that have sometimes puzzled other people in my life. I feel a deep connection to the Irish capacity for the intelligent, goodhearted, strong-willed blunder. While I was there I felt, in the best way possible, like one of many.

I was also reminded, repeatedly, how very much I look like my grandmother. She was on my mind in the gloriously plentiful hours where I allowed my thoughts to drift through the scenes of my life. I remembered a day with her, a growing-up moment.

She had taken me along to a party, an afternoon open house, really. I don’t remember why—why the party, why I tagged along—but it was populated by people she knew a little bit. Not well. She was a powerful real estate agent in Greenwich, Connecticut, though never the kind of old-money New England prep sometimes associated with the place. She was elegant, and graceful, and polite, the very definition of sophistication.

I remember a piano player, and hors d’oeuvres on trays. I remember coming up wide stone steps, and I remember a view of the water, a spectacular view, a house built for that purpose alone. I remember wearing pinstriped pants, and worrying, before we went, that I looked too businessy, not right for a party. The pants were new; there were to be internships and interviews in the coming months, and we had gone shopping. I was uncomfortable in them, not from the fit, but from feeling that I was in costume.

I can’t recall anyone we met, or any particular topic of conversation; I remember only that my grandmother, with me at her elbow, approached a small group of people who were in the midst of a conversation and stood, waiting for a moment to say hello to whichever of the bejeweled women it was that she knew from somewhere. I had seen her do this hundreds of times, around town, in the lobby of a theater during intermission, and surely, yes, at parties. But this group did not yield; the conversation they were having barreled forward, with no one pausing to say hello, to ask who I might be, or even for eye contact enough to acknowledge that my grandmother was there.

It felt like ages but in reality it was probably only about a minute and a half that we stood there; then she touched me lightly on the elbow and led me away, perhaps to the bar or a table of snacks, where she struck up a conversation with just me, about school. I could sense her scanning the room over my shoulder for someone, anyone she knew well enough to strike up a conversation.

Eventually the hostess of the party came to greet her, and we stayed a short while longer, but she didn’t approach anyone else at the party, and she never said anything about it, in the car or later, back at her house with the rest of the family. The entire episode felt not like something she would do, but like something I would have done. I could easily imagine going to a party in a moment of social optimism, encountering some acquaintance who may or may not have recognized me, and slinking out again without a conversation. I would not have the skills or the fortitude to salvage the scene, meet new people, and have a good time. I was too shy for that, too reserved.

And so, I realized, was she. Grandmothers could be shy. They could be treated rudely. They owned pants that didn’t feel quite right. There are many details of that afternoon that escape me, but it was undoubtedly one piece of the growing awareness that nothing, no matter how massive, no matter how perfect, comes about by magic. The policies that govern our lives and interactions were written by people; the cars we drove were designed by people, the factories that built them established, over time, by people who drew up the plans and poured the concrete and wrote up the employment contracts. None of these things required the application of a force that could not be traced to the human will, and my grandmother had one, as did I.

That moment, painful though it was on more than one level, was one seed of my goodhearted but perhaps crazy undertaking of designing and building a house. It was there, in glimpsing vulnerability, that all things became possible.



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 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.

Photo of double rainbow by Lisa Knight.

Owls is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.