By Amy Knight

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


This weekend we saw a horrifying order by the President regarding immigrants and refugees, and then we saw the courts say NO. This is a system we have had in place for 250 years or so: the President has powers, but they have limits, and courts are in charge of saying what those limits are. These are the rules; this is the order of things. Now that system is being tested, perhaps more than it ever has been, and it remains to be seen whether the structures will hold.

As an attorney, I believe in them. I must believe in them; I live my entire life within them. We have done the calculations; we have made the plans. The system should hold. The walls should bear this load. I am an optimist at heart; I believe that they will.

This is a version of the faith required to build any structure. It should hold; it should withstand wind and rain and sun and earthquakes and flood. We can calculate the stresses; we can study the properties of our materials; we can rely on the laws of physics to tell us what will happen. Will it? We have to believe that it will; how could we go to sleep at night in our homes if we didn’t believe the roofs would hold?

Of course the laws of physics are vastly unlike the laws of humans. We can find ways to work around them but we cannot change them. We may not fully understand them, but we have yet to see them simply cease to operate, even for a moment. In some ways this unyielding quality is why I have never been a numbers person; there is no room for persuasion.

I am about to hire a structural engineer to look over our near-final plans and confirm for me that what we think we know about the properties of this structure is correct. That’s as close to certainty as anything gets. And I want it. It isn’t strictly necessary; it isn’t required for a building permit, and plenty of houses get built by architects and builders without this kind of 11th-hour cameo by a person who knows as much as anyone can about the laws dictating what can and will happen in the physical world.

If only we could have that level of faith in our human world. My faith remains—faith that, if we fight, if we follow the rules, if we are right, we will ultimately prevail. There will continue to be limits. But unlike the laws of physics, the laws of men have failed us before. We are sleeping in a house with its roof creaking and groaning, and all we can say is that it was built to withstand this. It is capable of withstanding this. But not without us.



Amy KnightAmy 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 equations courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Amy Knight by Richard Whitmer. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.