A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


I was 26 when I went shopping for my first suit. I needed it for the interviews I would go on for a job between the first and second summers of law school. My goal was to look as plain and appropriate as possible. If anybody noticed or remembered my clothes in one of the interviews, it would mean I’d screwed up. It had to be plain but not too plain, not sexy but not dumpy.

I was at Banana Republic—the only place I could think of that would definitely have the basic thing I needed, where I had shopped before, and where the prices weren’t too crazy—and I had hoped that I could take care of the entire thing without any interactions that went beyond the unlocking of a dressing room or the exchange of money for a shopping bag. No such luck.

Probably able to smell my anxiety, a saleswoman approached me where I lurked by the suiting separates, a dark blazer and a plain cream-colored blouse in my hand. “They mix and match,” she said. “Most ladies like to get the pants and the skirt from the same set so you have options. Are you looking for something three-season?” I confessed my situation to her, and she took over.

Back we went to the dressing room, her arms loaded up with options. I started trying on the skirt, the jacket, and the saleswoman went to get me some different blouses to try with it.

She returned with three low-cut blouses, a pair of three-inch heels, and several pairs of earrings. I tried one of the combinations on, and she told me how fabulous it looked, and I went to the three-way mirror and realized that I looked like a Banana Republic ad—not like the fade-into-the-background death penalty lawyer I wanted to look like. She had done the thing she knew how to do, and she’d done it well, but somewhere in the process, my goal had gotten a little distorted.


Matthew and I finally got some detailed information back from the contractor we engaged to help us assess the feasibility of the various design features of the house as we’ve envisioned it. What he proposed, repeatedly and at times, a little aggressively, was that we abandon the CMU/insulation wall structure we’d so carefully designed with the help of the building scientist, and instead build out of insulated concrete forms, or ICFs—a technique this contractor had used before, and which is starting to become a more well-known technique for potentially more sustainable building, especially in climates like this one.

ICFs are great—but they’re not at all what we are trying to accomplish. Part of the goal here was to get the insulation and thermal mass far more significant than what can be achieved with other techniques, including ICFs. It’s not just that I want a greener-than-normal house, with an unusual wall structure. It’s that I want it to be as close to optimal as we can make it, using everything we know. The builder had proposed a version of our plan that was in the same general category, but was a bad misunderstanding of what the real goal was.

The useful part about these experiences has been solidifying the boundaries of my goal. Sometimes it is by being forced to convince another of what you don’t want that you come to true clarity about what you do.

I didn’t have to convince that saleswoman. I bought the pants and jacket I needed, and went elsewhere looking for a top that was feminine and age-appropriate and also modest and professional. And I don’t have to convince this particular builder that I want to build the house he knows how to build. But I do have to stick to my guns. Luckily, I don’t think I could convince Matthew to change the plan at that level even if I wanted to—so off we go, into the phase we’ll call value engineering, where our task is to keep what really matters.



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

Photo of painted wall courtesy Pixabay.

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