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Green Building



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How we arrived at the Sensible House ide

While being environmentally friendly was very important to us, we saw no use in building a home that didn’t feel good to live in. Environmentalism can easily lead one toward an austere lifestyle, and although Americans tend toward gluttony, there is a point where austerity becomes unpleasant for anyone besides an ascetic. Our idea was to try to identify how much house is just enough: we already lived in a large house (although still smaller than your typical suburban starter castle), and we knew what we needed was less than that.

Because construction requires a huge amount of both energy and material resources, we needed to decide whether our whole concept of building a “green” home was wrong. We needed to believe there were no reasonable alternatives, that the impact we created was reasonable, and hopefully that whatever we did to the house was actually less long term impact than doing nothing at all. There were at least two alternatives we felt we had to consider.

The idea of “natural” building attempts to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of construction by using locally available materials that require little energy to create and are inherently recyclable or biodegradable, for which straw bales are the most common type. Because most of these buildings occur in sunny climates in rural locations, we felt this avenue was too radical a departure for our wet climate, small city lot. In retrospect, the thick walls (18-24”) of straw bales would have caused us to run into zoning setback and floor plan problems, because even at 9” we had a tight squeeze.

Re-using an existing building also reduces the impact dramatically, but when you look at the energy consumption of existing buildings over their lifetime this option doesn’t look so good. Considering that many existing buildings have other lurking environmental problems, we didn’t feel this was a good option either. The whole thing that lured us into green building in the first place was a belief that people had already discovered how to build a much better house (for both the environment and the occupant), but builders weren’t doing it yet largely to inertia and the lack of a motivating disaster, which often seems to be the only thing that gets humans to change their behavior.

Yet a lingering guilt remained, because justifications aside, we were still planning on using a lot of resources. Essentially it returns to the moral dilemma of trying to decide how much is enough, and in particular our bad habit of disparaging the blight of McMansions in suburban America continued to feed our guilt. It didn’t seem good enough to just move to a smaller house, we felt like our values dictated that our construction environmental impact be very small. In the back of our mind we knew how little space people in other countries lived in, and we wondered whether we were just trading being highly gluttonous with just being less gluttonous, and possibly it’s a question we won’t answer anytime soon. At least it seemed clear that while some people consumed much more than necessary, people at the lower end did in fact experience a negative impact on their life and had a desire for more than they had.

This dilemma led us to question the entire environmental movement, because it seemed to us that it always reduced down to “us” versus “them”, and the defining characteristic of “us” was that we’ve loved the outdoors so much we’d sacrifice to save it, and that “they” were the gluttons who in their selfish pursuit of stuff were destroying the world. Certainly environmentalism had changed our culture significantly, but yet the battle rages on as fierce as ever, so clearly in some way it’s been a total failure. The question is can you “save” the world and not have to sacrifice, which unfortunately we don’t believe can be answered without considering the issue of population.

A critical insight came a while back when on a tour of a cattle ranch where all the sudden the fundamental lessons of ecology (everything is connected, nature seeks a balance) shed a new light for us on what exactly is a “natural” environment. In carefully examining three differently managed plots of land (regularly grazed by cattle, occasionally grazed by horses and not grazed in many years) it we realized that each one had achieved a balance and that the species in each plot were dependent on each other. In this way an impact is neither good nor bad, it is simply either in balance or out of balance. If an ecosystem includes humans, it will necessarily be dependent on them when it reaches balance. Hence, the issue of maintaining balance is not just about the impact of an individual, but of an the entire population spread over the entire ecosystem.

In green building, a fundamental concept is sustainability, where the United Nations definition is typically used: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This clearly implies that we can only use renewable resources, and that rules out fossil fuel unless we can somehow determine that what we extract will at some point be replaced. In the use of renewable resources, the implication is that to be sustainable we must keep the ecosystem in balance. Of course ecosystems aren’t really static and even if humans had no effect on climate history tells us it would change over time anyhow. The conservation person would factor all these things in determining what a sustainable impact is.

As an individual we can only define our actions as sustainable if we also define the land area that it is sustainable on, but that comes down to dividing the world’s land by the worlds population, and that leads rapidly to common conclusion that our society is unsustainable. The only alternatives seem to be to hope technology allows us to be sustainable, that we will reduce our impact or that we will reduce our population, and certainly there are people who look forward to each of those futures. Since as individuals we have little control over of the extent of human population, we decided to ignore the issues of sustainability and population, and returned back to the “how much is enough” question again.

Our conclusion was that environmentalism had mistakenly taken on the dogmatic ideas that we need to reduce our impact to save the planet, when in fact it should have been about setting a reasonable level of consumption with the realization that beyond a certain level, additional consumption has little positive impact on our lives and can all too easily become an addiction. We will never “save” the planet by expecting people to reduce their consumption to a point where it has a negative impact on their lives, since it is not human nature to act this way. Nor can we expect humans to address the population issue unless they see doing so will be a positive impact on their own lives.

The message of the environmental movement is too focused on the negative impending disaster, and we believe that this is a fundamental flaw that has to change. As a result of this somewhat arduous mental exercise, our first clear goal was to demonstrate that not only was it possible to live with less than what the average American appeared to want, but it was much more desirable. If we could move from a big, attractive house on a big lot to one that was only somewhat more than half the size and actually like it, then probably there were a lot of other people who could also. Through another mental exercise, we’d make a guess at how much seemed like enough to us, but we openly admit that in spite of much thought, we have a pretty weak grasp on it, and may well change our minds in the future. Regardless of whether our definition is a good one, we believe that a fundamental part of being an environmentalist is to go through this process.

The result of all this process, we came up with the following guidelines:

  1. We would only build space we felt we couldn’t live without and that we knew we would use regularly as a result of examining our current pattern of usage.
  2. We would built as energy efficient as possible
  3. We would use materials as wisely as possible, including considering reusing materials, recycling materials, or just avoiding using them at all.
  4. We would make a home that most people would find a joy to live in, and that could be adapted to different lifestyles in the future.  In this way, we would do the best we could to ensure the house had a long lifetime.

Certainly our home would be much more environmental than is typical, and by all definitions it would certainly be called “green”, but we no longer think of it that way. We call it the “sensible house”.  Sensible because it’s the size we really want, sensible because its designed to make its occupants feel good, and sensible because it uses resources as wisely as current technology affordably allows.












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