By Amy Knight

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


I started this series in October, shortly after I started the project.

It’s been going on long enough now that most of the people I interact with in my life are aware of it, making it a natural topic for small talk. By now, many of the questions have turned to, “Have you started building yet?” or, “Do you know when it’s going to be done?”

The short answer to both questions is no. And the primary reason behind that is that design development–the phase after schematic design before the creation of final construction documents–has taken a really long time. From my perspective, it’s probably the hardest part, requiring the most decisions from me, the most vision, in terms of imagining my use of the space and deciding just how I want it. It has also morphed a bit to include some discussions about actual building, details, and materials that would normally not be part of this stage, but are significant enough changes, with enough ripples through the entire design, that we want to make sure we have them in place before closing the book on this chapter.

So it has grown, as we’ve involved a few builders in assessing our choices, and as we’ve learned about the “typical” process for local construction–and the degree to which our level of detail and planning is unusual here, at least for residential projects. When I did initial research about house design and building, things sounded simpler—and I now realize that they were simpler, because they were describing simpler projects, with less ambitious goals, less precision, fewer innovations.

But to say that all this comes as a surprise would be to discount another important piece of what I knew at the outset: that this process is notoriously unpredictable. To the extent that I imagined a timeline at the outset, I wasn’t attached to it. It was a ballpark, a way to assess the feasibility and the big-picture size of the undertaking. I knew that this project was, by its very nature, a little different from anything else any of us has done. That’s the whole point. If I wanted to know exactly when I could move in, I would’ve had to buy a house that someone else had already built.


The best estimate we have now is that the drawings will be finalized later this summer, and that we will break ground in the late fall. We’ve consistently gotten estimates that it will take six to eight months to build. And trying to be any more specific than that would be tempting fate. And if there’s something I want to add or change or accomplish that ends up adding to that timeline, so be it. I’m more invested in the final product than the square on the calendar when it’s ready for habitation.

At a certain point, the slow deliberation of this is a conscious choice. We could’ve gone faster. We could’ve decided on things and hoped they worked out how I want them, or left some of the tricky details for later, when a few walls are already standing and we hope we can find the right place to put something. Instead, we’ve chosen to let things settle into place here on paper, to get a broader set of input than we otherwise might, and to let imagination and vision carry us a little longer. There’s still not much to see, but the solid base of planning will, I hope, both make the process a little easier and yield a better product at the end.

Patience, friends. I say this to myself as much as to you. We will be glad.



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.