By Amy Knight

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


While I was in Ireland, I picked up a copy of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. I started it there, but it’s a long book, and I only recently finished it. The time span runs from 1984 to 2043, the physical setting all over the globe.

I’m not a big reader of science fiction, and I don’t think I’d really classify this book that way. But it does have portions that are set in the future, in this case a significantly dystopian future, but not so far away as to be unrecognizable, or hard to understand how we might’ve gotten there. The elements of that 30-years-on future are recognizable evolutions of the things we have now.

The thing that jumped out at me was the commonplace use of solar panels, even in rainy Ireland. In a future without a power grid, that was how the people lived. They were independent. They grew their own food. And when the bad guys came, they didn’t hurt the people in the village; they stole the solar panels, which were no longer being reliably manufactured. That was the most valuable commodity.

Who knows whether we’re headed into such a future. But it makes me think more about my house’s potential for independence. The city won’t allow you to forego a water connection, nor would I, even if I could, at least not at first. Electricity is different; as far as I know, it’s not required. But solar panels only produce power when the sun is shining, and in our homes, we use much more power in the evenings when it’s dark. That’s where the power company comes in; they basically act like a giant battery, buying the excess power produced during the day and selling it back in the evening.

Matthew and I have discussed, with our solar contractor, making the system “battery-ready.” I’m not ready to invest in on-site batteries, and frankly, I don’t think the batteries are quite ready for me to invest in them, although I have heard that Tesla is getting close. But I’m aiming for my system to have the potential to operate independent of the public utilities at some point in the future. Not primarily because I’m afraid of the kind of collapse Mitchell depicts, but because I like the idea of using only what I produce on-site.

A house built now will, barring catastrophe, be standing and operating in 2043. I’m trying to build for the future, which is always a gamble. In the mean time it’s nice to imagine a world where all of the houses are powered by the sun, not because civilization is collapsing but because we’re learning, slowly, to use what is abundant.

In the end I didn’t love the book. There was action, and a plot that ultimately slotted together with an intricacy I certainly couldn’t have created. But it lacked the deep inquiry into humanity–in the personal, not the species, level–that characterizes the fiction I love best. Still, it made me think, and for that, I am always grateful.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly 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 amy@terrain.org or leave a comment here.

Image of solar panels courtesy Pixabay.

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