The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
Bob was one of my favorite law school professors. He gave the impression of being scattered and self-effacing, talking like Woody Allen and unnervingly answering long, complicated questions with a simple “Sure, why not?” But I quickly learned not to be fooled. He is brilliant, a leading scholar on criminal justice. He has a PhD in English Literature, was a tenured English professor before he studied law, and regularly competes in marathons. Really.
Bob taught my first-year criminal law class, and although he taught me about mens rea and theories of punishment, perhaps the most valuable thing he did for me was to provide a framework for the process of learning about a new and highly complex subject. He drew on the board something that looked basically like a normal distribution. A line with a big hump in the middle. At first, he explained, you don’t get it. You have no way to understand all the information you’re getting. Then, as you learn, you do get it. Or you think you do. Things click. The subject is under control. And if you keep at it, you will eventually realize again that you don’t get it at all. Voila. You have entered into the realm of complexity.
So it has been with sustainable design. I knew almost nothing when I started, but slowly, through reading, discussion ,and observation, certain concepts began to come into focus. I learned about passive solar design. I learned about ventilation. I learned about water and all the ways it can be saved and used and conserved. I got some clarity. We started designing the house.
Now I’m on the other side of the hump. So many questions have come up as we’ve gotten more specific that at times I feel lost. I don’t understand electricity. Every time I think I’ve gotten something picked out, I’ll realize that there’s an important principle or alternative I neglected to consider. And a good choice on one dimension might be disastrous for another, and then I’m stuck.
So I, being me, have resorted to further reading. I’ve returned to my old friend Sun, Wind, and Light, and now I understand a lot more of it, having thought about design challenges more concretely. I ordered some books with case studies from the International Living Future Institute. I got some more theoretical background reading on what sustainable design really is, as a practice, a movement, a philosophy. I’m trying to get comfortable with the fact that it’s always going to be this way. It’s far too complex and dynamic a topic to ever truly master, especially for someone who spends the bulk of her time on something else. And if it were simple, it wouldn’t be the engaging and challenging project that it is.
I heard a lecture once by a favorite author of mine, Ann Patchett, in which she talked about the role of research in her writing process. She said she might do a small amount of reading at the outset to get oriented, but generally, when she’s drafting something, she doesn’t research. At all. The reason she gave was two-fold. First, when you learn lots of interesting details, you want to include them whether they belong there or not. You feel the urge to include the knowledge even when it doesn’t serve the story. The other reason was that she could go down the rabbit hole. Especially in the internet age, but even in a library, hours evaporate as you follow trails, collecting information. It feels like progress on the ultimate creative process but most of it isn’t. You could wake up a year later and realize you haven’t written a word.
Go forward, says Bob, says Ann. Invent what you need. Go back and research and revise when you’ve figured it out a little more. Let it be complex. Let yourself know only what you can know, and never, ever let what you can’t know stop you from using what you do know.
Go forward, says my law professor. Go forward, says my literary role model. Go forward and build something great.
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.