By Amy Knight

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

Trailblazer syndrome strikes again. We thought we’d be going out for bid this week, but we hit another innovation-related snag. After we had the project priced at an earlier stage, to gauge feasibility, we decided to swap stucco for the brick we’d planned, as a way to save some cost on something I didn’t really care about. Then, one of the final things on our list of questions to answer before we deemed the design complete was about venting the stucco; it was something Matthew expected to see, from his northeast experience, but he found, last time he visited, that it either didn’t routinely happen out here, or looked quite different from what he expected. He started asking around.

Instead of getting an answer to the venting question, he got skepticism about the insulation. Stucco installers said, you want us to install stucco through four inches of insulation? Are you crazy? We can’t do that! Matthew said, of course they can; we do it routinely on the East Coast. There are plenty of products that can accomplish that. He is now in the process of educating contractors about the feasibility of what we thought was a routine undertaking.

Through this, it has surprised me all over again how relatively simple things—putting significant insulation in the walls, for instance—that could make a big difference to efficiency are simply not part of the building culture here. It’s wonderful to develop and adopt alternative energy sources, but what about using less energy? It’s not even really innovation, at that point; it’s using what we, in the broad sense, already know, and applying it consistently. Yet that simple step is so uncommon here that contractors are balking at being asked to do it.

We will work through it. Some combination of the right people and Matthew’s convincing will get it done. And then, Tucson will have a contractor who has built a house with that type and amount of insulation and a stucco exterior, so the next time someone asks, it won’t be such a battle. It’s slowed us down, but it’s not in any danger of stopping us.

It’s tempting to give into frustration at times like this. Why can’t this just go smoothly? Why are people so set in their ways? But I’m trying instead to take it as a reminder that this is work that desperately needs doing here. The culture is deeply ingrained, and challenging it to change and grow and expand is important work. My job here is not just to plop a single efficient house down in the city; it’s to help the city become a place where houses like this are built. It may delay my tangible benefits by a week or two, but it’s all part of the larger goal.

Listen up, contractors. We want to try something a little different. It’s totally doable. It’s for a good reason. Are you with me?



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

Photo of stucco on brick by benscherjon, 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.