By Amy Knight

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


This weekend was so full of work on my house project that I didn’t even have time to stop and blog about it! Matthew was here again, with a new and exciting set of drawings, and we spent two days tearing through decisions in the design development phase of the house. This will not be a lyrical blog post; those things require reflection. Having put Matthew on a plane a mere ten hours ago, what I have for now is more like a log of what went on. Reflection will come.  

I had spent the last few weeks feeling unsure about what I should be doing to move things along. Many things needed choosing, but almost none of them were things I could do on my own. Matthew, for his part, had been pouring time and energy into turning our ideas into an actual plan with measurements that line up and can actually be created out of real building materials, accounting for things like the thickness of the walls and the dimensions of bricks. I, on the other hand, felt a bit like I was spinning my wheels.

I had done some research, mostly on fixtures and appliances and what “efficient” means in various contexts. What’s a good flow rate to shoot for for a kitchen faucet? (1.5 gallons/minute). A toilet? (1.28 gallons/flush). A showerhead? (Less than 2 gallons/minute). I collected this information a bit aimlessly, not really knowing what I was doing or how it would fit into our selection process.

Matthew arrived late Friday night, with a bottle of Boston whiskey for me in his luggage. Early Saturday morning we were sitting on the couch with parallel laptops, going through his list of things that needed to be selected. It’s a big list, including appliances, materials for every conceivable surface, light switches, sinks, faucets, doors and windows, electrical outlets. . . for me, a person who doesn’t spend all day every day thinking about buildings, it was fascinating to realize how many different components a building has.

And when we got to plumbing fixtures, it turned out that Matthew wanted to know: what flow rate should we aim for? It was practically the only thing I had figured out for myself during a restless couple of weeks, and it was the one data point that isn’t aesthetic or taste-related that he turned out to need. I had the answers right there. He knew the sources, and we found fixtures that both of us liked, that hit my targets. Boom, huge portions of our decision-making work done.

We spent all day Saturday and all day Sunday doing this, going back and forth between suggestions he had from experience and taste of his own and looking at pictures of things I’d pulled off the internet over the last several months, many of them things I knew I liked but didn’t know why. It turned out that particular components emerged again and again in the images that appealed to me, and I realized, though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it before, that I wanted, for instance, a relatively finished, floor-like surface for at least a significant part of my courtyard. We paused only for meals with various friends and family, and, on Sunday morning, for a visit to the lot, to re-orient ourselves and make sure we knew where existing things (cactus; tree) were located.

We fell asleep early on Sunday night, having worn ourselves out with work, hours of focus and the mental and emotional energy involved in making decisions.


The final piece of our packed, productive weekend was early this morning, when we met with a consultant at Watershed Management Group to take a look at Matthew’s design so far and help us tweak it to best accommodate a water harvesting system that could, ideally, supply all of the house’s water needs. The consultant, to our relief, thought it was entirely possible, and helped us understand the kinds of tweaks we could make to our plan to meet that goal. He also inspired me with visions of a lush oasis zone in the yard, fed by graywater from sinks, showers, and laundry and by the outdoor shower, that could include things I had no idea could grow in the desert. The setup at their facility, for instance, has a thriving fig tree and a peach tree. We could, he suggested, do the same at my house. We went straight from the meeting to the airport, where I sent Matthew off with a bottle of Tucson whiskey.

It was a packed weekend, and there are so many aspects of what we did that all deserve their own posts. In the coming weeks I’ll talk about cost tradeoffs, about trying to understand what I like (and hate) and why, about showing these tender infant plans to friends and family, about programs that certify green buildings and how I feel about them (spoiler alert: I don’t know), about doorknobs, and much more about the planned water harvesting system. For now, my brain is full to bursting with new information, ideas, plans, and tasks. And most important, this weekend I had a lot of fun and my enthusiasm for the project is running high. I’m building a house!



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.


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