The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
As a confirmed introvert, I don’t throw a lot of parties. But when I was married, we entertained fairly often; friends and family lived in the area, and it was widely agreed that our house was the best for parties, with its open floor plan, its modern kitchen and shady back yard. It would happen every couple of months–somebody’s birthday, or an anniversary, or the office holiday party–where we would decide, a few weeks in advance, to host the party. As it got closer, we’d figure out what we’d serve, which furniture we’d move, where we’d stash the coats (necessary for every party one throws in Montana, except perhaps the Fourth of July), and we’d buy ice, and pop popcorn, and heat up hors d’oeurvres, and set out vases of flowers, and chill the beer.
And still, even after the fifth or sixth time we did it, when the first guest came up the three stone steps and I could see them through the glass front door, I would feel a little amazed, a little surprised that there were, in fact, people arriving at our home. Coats were hung on the rack we’d set out. The recycling bin we’d carefully placed where it would be visible but not in the way was filling up with bottles as the chatter grew louder and people had a good time. Of course all of these things were happening; that had been the whole point of the work we’d put in in the hours and days leading up to it. But those moments when each of the steps went from something we’d thought of and prepared to something in actual use still stood out to me.
We’ve had our first real hot desert weather of the year–113 degrees one day last week. I started this project in October, when it was still warm out but the worst of the summer heat had passed, so this is the first taste of real heat I’ve had since house-building has been on my mind.
The driving need, for a sustainable house in the desert, is, of course, to deal with the oppressive heat. We’ve planned to limit south and west facing windows, to shade openings, to insulate, to cool, for exactly this reason. The calculations Matthew and David, the building scientist, have been doing incorporate this heat in the climate data they’ve been using. This heat is the reason for the operable clerestory windows, for the ceiling fans and the double walls, for the metal screen panels that will cover the windows.
The house I live in now has none of these things. Daylight comes in through the doorframes, and the bedroom has a big south-facing window. The living room has a skylight and a giant west-facing window. There’s an ancient swamp cooler but none of the vents open and close, so I can’t direct the flow of cool air to only the rooms where I need it, and neither the kitchen nor the bathroom has an exhaust fan. And though some of the windows had been shaded by plants, the landlord recently did a major pruning of the yard and left all the windows exposed to the beating sun. As I sit here sweating, I understand much more fully than before why all of these details are going to matter.
This is what it means to plan ahead. To be able to hold, in your mind, the need for something without yet feeling the need itself. To imagine needs of the future and provide for them, even in the comfortable present. How much easier it would be to design a house for the weather of April. Because of course every year we forget, a little, just how it feels in the hottest part of the hottest desert day.
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.
Photo of sun behind saguaros by Simmons B. Buntin.