Ups and Downs

By Amy Knight

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


In a period of relative frustration—broken promises about timing, budget issues—I am struck by the optimism that undertaking a project like this reflects. When I agreed with Matthew to get started on this, it entailed not just the self-confidence to believe that we could do it, but the belief that everything would go well enough, that we would still be here, that I would still have a good job and would still want the things I want, that we would find what we need. I had to believe that within a reasonable period of time, I would be living my life in this amazing house.

Taking that plunge requires willful blindness. I know—and I knew—that no building project in the history of mankind has gone off without a hitch. I know that my life is busy and sometimes overwhelmingly so, and that I am an anxious person, and that the unexpected happens. There are thousands of reasons why this could be a bad idea, why it would be simpler, and maybe even more appropriate, to just buy one of the 1,200 square-foot bungalows on the market in the cute neighborhoods around me, install a solar system, and work on the water thing however I could with the existing systems, and leave it at that. Believe me, some days in the last month I have really wished I had gone that route.

But I still believe that this is going to be worth it. It’s a short-term vs. long-term payoff situation. I could be moved into an existing house within two months, and easily have rainwater earthworks and a fully functional solar array in half a year. It would be nice. But it wouldn’t be the kind of experimental, really committed project I decided I want to do. It would be doing the best I could with what I had. It would be caring about all of these things, but not, in the end, prioritizing them. It’s tempting at times, but I know I came too far down this road—when I was willfully avoiding this reality that I knew, in the cerebral sense, was coming. It would have been so easy to talk myself out of it.


In some ways it’s not an optimistic project at all; it’s a project that sees a dark, dry future where things are very different and we must be significantly more self-sufficient to survive. And when I wish it were all finished now, when I think something half as good but ready to go would be preferable, I remember that. I really believe that we are going to need this. Not just in the sense that it’s entirely possible that Tucson’s water source will dry up while I am still living here and a house that can capture and process all the water it needs will be a very different commodity from what it is now—but also because the more regular people do this and actually pull it off, the more other regular people will see it, and realize it can be done, and do it themselves. Reducing my own resource use won’t have much impact on its own, but from the start, part of the goal here has been to expand the boundaries of what seems plausible to my friends and neighbors.

Maybe you guessed it—my bookshelves are full again. There are more piles of things in my house, without a permanent place, than I would like there to be. I’m feeling cramped working at my tiny desk. It can be a real struggle to take the long view. I knew that, getting in, and I signed up.

We’re about to enter the final stage of design decision making, a process that will require more choices, but also more vision, getting back to imagining the space rather than just crunching numbers and waiting. I have to think it will get fun again, that house-related emails will be exciting, rather than those things I don’t want to open because I just can’t deal with them right now. So I can sit with the frustration, with the burden, for now because I know what’s coming. It’s right around the corner.



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 [email protected] or leave a comment here. Visit her website, or follow her on twitter @amypknight.

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