On Pioneering

By Amy Knight

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


When I talked to Matthew about my visit to David’s house last weekend, his reaction was one I hadn’t entirely expected: relief. David’s water system, which is very similar to mine, works. I described my basic needs and plans and he, with his experience, thought mine would work just as well. And Matthew took great comfort in this. Because of course, people have rainwater systems for indoor use—this is hardly the first—but they’re still rare, and there’s not a clear source to go to our an agreed-upon set of requirements yet. We have yet to meet anyone around here who’s created the system in new construction, as opposed to in a retrofit. So getting the feedback from someone using it in the world that our on-paper theories sound like they’re going to work was a comfort.

That’s the water system. Then there’s this whole other thing, the ultra-efficiency piece, the insulation and envelope and windows and shading that are meant to keep the house at a comfortable temperature as much as possible without relying on the HVAC system. There’s no David for that around here. It’s still out there as a question mark, something that works on paper (the building scientist has optimized it) but that we haven’t seen built just like this. It should work. It should be better than anything standing around here, in terms of the energy needed for it to run. But we haven’t tried it. We don’t know. There’s a leap of faith involved.

Our conversation about this led Matthew and me to realize how grateful we are for each other. He is a really smart guy, and creative, and can come up with this idea for a way to build the house that should mean that the energy use, even keeping the place at a comfortable temperature, is something a moderate PV array should be able to handle. And I am willing to go forward with the plan, write the checks, put my future home on the line, to test the theory. Most clients wouldn’t do that. They, understandably, want the tried and true. We don’t know for sure how it’s going to go, and I don’t get my time or money or frustration back if it doesn’t perform the way we hope.

But if it does. When it does, I’m inclined to say. Not only will I have a beautiful, efficient home, but we will have become pioneers in a kind of residential architecture that few people are doing right now. When someone else wants to build this way, they’ll be able to look at my house and see that it works, without needing quite as big a leap as I do. Hopefully someone will. And then another, and another. They’ll do it even better. People will stand on my shoulders, and others will stand on theirs, and we will have a greener Tucson, a greener planet because of it. For me, that’s worth the risk. 



Amy KnightAmy 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 geese courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Amy Knight by Richard Whitmer.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.