Value Engineering

By Amy Knight

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


I don’t spend a lot of money on clothes. I try to put the dollars where they are going to matter, into things I wear every day—luxurious pajamas, a good haircut, simple jewelry, jeans that fit absolutely perfectly, high-quality shoes. Not the flashiest things, and not cheap, but the cost per wear is low. I’ve learned as I’ve gone through life that people have profoundly different attitudes toward money and spending, and that it’s usually formed very early in life, and difficult to change. I grew up learning never to waste money, but also to avoid unnecessary deprivation, and to spend, when you’re lucky enough to be able to,  where it makes sense, where your money can buy things that actually advance the quality of your life on a regular basis. I would rather have a simple, perfect pair of earrings I can wear every day than a beautiful but formal, showy pair I could only wear to formal weddings. That’s not a judgment; it’s a matter of personal style, and of history.

Matthew brought me what they call in this biz a “value engineering package.” Basically, it was a list of things we could change that would drop the price of the project.

A number of them were things I probably wouldn’t have noticed if he’d changed them without telling me—cheaper version of similar light fixtures and such.

The rest were things that I will notice—but as I told Matthew, none of them give me heartburn. For the most part, they weren’t things I went in wanting; they were ideas either that Matthew was super excited about, or that I had learned about during the process. For instance, changing the exterior from brick to stucco turned out to be a much bigger savings than we’d imagined. And ditching the metal roof doesn’t cost us as much in water efficiency as I’d feared. Similarly, replacing a folding glass wall between dining room and courtyard with some sliding doors that have lovely French-door styling—so it basically only the middle is open, with a stationary panel on each side, rather than being able to fold the entire glass wall—is a major savings. Perhaps it dials back the “wow” fact a little, but if the whole-wall idea had never been proposed, the doors would have been lovely and exciting on their own.

Perhaps a harder choice for me was making the built-in shelving—and I’ve got shelving for days—out of regular wood instead of Plyboo. We decided that we can specify to the contractor that whatever he uses needs to be FSC-certified, and then let him use whatever he thinks is best, because we are going to paint them. We’re down a sustainable talking point, but again, it keeps things from getting ridiculous, and frankly, the solar panels and the water system, along with the serious efficiency, are what this sustainable house is really about. I’ll still be making sure my wood isn’t doing more damage to the planet than it needs to, even though it won’t have those cool distinctive edges Plyboo has that advertises that fact. And that’s okay. It’s probably better; I can spend the dollars in the places they’ll make a more serious impact.

I’ve written before about my concern that the vanity involved in undertaking a grand-scale project might undercut its actual impact. That was almost exactly a year ago. It’s good for me to re-read those early posts and reaffirm my commitment to the ideas, now that I’m making the actual decisions.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for 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 or leave a comment here. Visit her website, or follow her on twitter @amypknight.

Photo of coins courtesy Pixabay. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.