Building Our Environmentally Friendly Dream Home

Our ideal house is energy-efficient, ecofriendly—and can't be built

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Have we gone shelter crazy? Suburban palaces are mushrooming; affordable housing is declining. Yet we seldom question the subtle influences that shape our housing choices: cultural norms that say bigger is better, mortgage rules that say you can't put a small house on a large lot, zoning regulations that dictate minimum size. Is this how we want to live? And even when we trade real estate values for personal ones, can we make it happen? Never easy, never direct, the journey home is as individual as we are—and always worth the effort. –The Editors 

When Henry David Thoreau set out to build a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, he borrowed an ax and cut down tall white pines that grew at the cabin site. What bothered him most was that he had to borrow the ax; cutting down trees did not trouble him. Indeed, he viewed it as creating a kind of intimacy between himself and the trees. As he hewed the main timbers, his ax probed the secrets of their internal structure. The fragrance of pine pitch clung to his skin, mingling with his food as he ate his midday meal. For him, building a house was a simple, natural act, akin to birds constructing their nests.

What was true in 1845, however, is hardly true today. Neither my husband, Tom, nor I expected the process of building a house to be simple or natural, but however complex it would be, we thought we could control it. We knew what we wanted. I had taught a course at the local community college entitled "Energy Issues" that had heightened my awareness of renewable-energy sources and the limited future of fossil fuels. I had spent an entire class period discussing passive-solar houses. Tom and I were intrigued by their elegance and intelligent design. Here, we thought, was a way to build a simple, natural house.

In our small rural community of North Branch, Minnesota, we were known as environmental activists. As part of the driving force behind our local Audubon chapter, we were well versed in the planet's environmental ills—and we had a reputation to uphold.

From the beginning, we wanted the house to be environmentally responsible. We would whittle the energy requirements to a bare minimum, using superinsulation, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and high-efficiency appliances. We would use no virgin lumber (particularly from the Pacific Northwest, home of the embattled spotted owl). We would, in fact, use reclaimed lumber wherever we could. Our house would be a showcase for what thoughtful, informed people can do to live lightly on the land.

We also had requirements for the lot. It needed to accommodate a house with a long east-west axis (for an elongated south side, with maximum solar potential), preferably with a hill, so we could sink part of the house below grade. We wanted to be close to either our church or the high school, the two main destinations in our daily schedules; we needed to be within walking distance of bread and milk. For 12 years we had lived in a compact small town, with everything within walking distance; in building a new house, we did not want to succumb to the "drive everywhere" mentality of conventional suburban development.

Incredible as it seems, we found a lot that met our requirements in Center City, about 12 miles east of North Branch. The two-acre parcel was half a mile from our church, three miles from the high school, even closer to the middle school, and a 15-minute walk to downtown Center City and its small grocery store. We would not be usurping farmland nor destroying native vegetation; platted in the 1850s, the lot had long been cleared of its native trees and had become a garden, untended for 30 years. Best of all, it was on the eastern shore of a small, marshy lake. The water was weedy and rank; no one would consider swimming in it, but it would attract birds and give us a sense of privacy without isolating us from town.

We were delighted with what we found. Green ash saplings had sprung up in great profusion, and several sugar maples and oaks had grown to a respectable size. Walking about, we were waist-high in goldenrod—several different species—and milkweed, of which I am very fond: Its robust, intricate, lovely flower heads attract all sorts of interesting fauna, including monarch butterflies. We found small ferns, a patch of asparagus, and, wonder of wonders, a fringed prairie orchid.

Now we needed an architect. For years we had half-planned, in an offhand way, that a college friend would build a house for us should we ever want one. Steve did not share our environmental views but was certain he could design our energy-efficient dream house. All architects, he assured us, are well versed in energy efficiency.

The first set of plans intrigued us. The south and east exposures were lined with windows, but there was no thermal mass in the structure to retain the sun's heat and no overhang to shade out summer sun. Closets were not strategically positioned to give added protection from the north wind, and overall the rooms seemed too spacious, too luxurious. A second and then third plan were progressively more expensive yet unsatisfactory. It became apparent that the problem was not architectural—not for a minute did we believe Steve to be incompetent—but rather philosophical and perhaps moral. Steve finally voiced his frustration: "You cannot—you cannot—live out your values. It is just impossible."

The comment stunned me. I wondered for the briefest moment if it were true. But no, we could do this, I told myself. There is a word for people who do not live out their values: hypocrites. At that point, I knew we couldn't work with Steve. We put a moratorium on plans while we pondered our next move. About a month later, serendipity set the course.

A friend introduced us to a man who would speak on urban sprawl at a forum our Audubon chapter was sponsoring. Artistic and intense, Tod Drescher was a residential architect with a degree in environmental design. He specialized in passive-solar houses. When we approached him with our proposal, we felt as if we were asking him to be part of an intimate family act, on a par with childbirth, but we knew this time the house would go up.

Tod not only understood our ideas but expanded upon them. He rejected some because of his product experience, or because they were designed for more temperate climates. In this way, composting toilets and tankless hot-water heaters were taken off our list, and an air-to-air heat exchanger and in-floor heating, as a backup to solar heat, were added.

Tod's nature-based religion subtly infused the house plans. He used a divining rod to locate water as an aid in siting the house, and he set the house axis at due east, so that the rays of the rising sun at the equinox would enter the front windows straight on and flood the length of the house with sunlight. Because of its precise orientation, the house would be a mammoth sundial marking the seasons.

Along with helping us find a local builder whose sense of craft was perfect for the job, Tod shared our views on building materials. He rejected one highly regarded window manufacturer because their planned plant expansion had threatened to destroy a remnant of oak savanna along the bluffs of the St. Croix River. Instead, we ordered windows from a company whose environmental transgressions were less obvious even though they had been a defiant major polluter of northern Minnesota for years. It was our first indication that no one in the building industry has truly clean hands.

But the first inkling of the environmental havoc we were about to wreak came when we hacked out a rough driveway. As we swung away with our sickles, lobbing off goldenrod heads just barely in bud, a pretty red-bellied snake wriggled across my path. It disappeared into a small triangular portion that we had just isolated from the rest of the lot. "I wonder if it will cross over open ground to get back to the rest of the yard," I thought, "and is there enough food in that small triangle to support a red-bellied snake?" I realized that we were fragmenting habitat, and that we were likely to kill off individuals because of it, in precisely the same way that larger-scale fragmentation—the leading cause of extinction—kills off species. In the three years since that day, we have never seen another red-bellied snake.

There were other early casualties. Clearing the site for excavation reduced by half the cover available for mice and other small mammals. The following winter, all the old apple trees on the lot were girdled, probably by rodents, and died. We wondered if overpopulation, created by the habitat loss, had forced the mice to eat this less-preferred food. And the fringed prairie orchids, too difficult to transplant, were destroyed with the first sweep of the bulldozer.

When construction began, we found it nearly impossible—and extremely frustrating—to control the building materials, now arriving daily. Even with an architect and a builder who shared our values, we were constantly wedged into the mold by which America constructs its housing. Despite our initial ban on old-growth lumber, using it was inevitable: The window sashes, for example, were entirely built of old-growth pine from the western United States. Almost all high-quality windows are. Structural timber also came from old-growth forests, most likely Pacific Northwest Douglas fir. We inquired about using salvaged timber but were told that in order for the house to be built true and solidly, to last for two centuries, we needed new wood in its frame.

That idea—constructing to last 200 years—became a watchword. A ponderosa pine takes about 200 years to reach old-growth status; if the house could stand for that long, we would essentially replace what we had taken. Or so we told ourselves.

And then there were the exterior doors. Most manufacturers of solid-wood doors are based in the Pacific Northwest. Douglas fir doors, constructed out of old-growth trees from the last remaining coastal forests, are the cheapest. Oak and pine doors, made from (theoretically) replaceable forests, are nearly twice as expensive. The only other option was aesthetically unappealing steel doors. We spent months resisting a decision. Finally, we found a woodworker who offered to construct exterior doors using redwood reclaimed from enormous California wine casks—a happy solution, one small triumph.

Salvaged wood, reclaimed from demolished buildings, is not standard building material. It is not in the Sunday ads, nor can it be found at the local lumberyard. Our architect ferreted out a sawyer who had on hand a supply of Douglas fir beams taken from a Second World War arsenal building and some pine salvaged from a demolished department store. When the Douglas fir arrived, our builder, who had never used reclaimed wood before, was dismayed. He spent a weekend sorting it into three piles: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The ugly—which we had paid for, of course—was discarded. The good, some of which was truly lovely, was reserved for showcase areas like the mantelpiece and prominent bookcases. The bad, the largest category, was peppered with small, blackened splotches surrounding nail holes that marred the wood's original beauty but actually added overall interest, especially when we considered them as part of a story. We used this as flooring, and as trim in less exposed areas.

It took tremendous effort for our builder, an admitted perfectionist, to create an aesthetically pleasing effect. Upon rueful reflection, he claims that he underbid the project and would probably not do it again. But the results have been stunning. The fir, exposed to light, has taken on a warm rosy hue. The interior of the house glows with its color, and the little pepper marks remind us daily that this beauty is an extended legacy of trees that were cut decades before we were born. It is pleasing for me to contemplate the pine flooring in my study and bedroom, wondering whether it came from the Boundary Waters region or the White Earth Indian reservation, Minnesota's last areas to be cut.

We did run out of reclaimed wood. More could be used in construction, but it will never be abundant, and there is not enough to take more than the edge off the nation's appetite for lumber. It was much easier to incorporate energy-efficient features into the house. Because superinsulation, heat exchangers, and efficient appliances rely on technology, which society embraces, we weren't rowing against the current. We simply had to pay for it.

But the most distinctive feature—solar heating—is low-tech and cannot be purchased. Large expanses of south-facing windows, thermal mass (stone, concrete, tile) to store heat gain, and roof overhangs for summer shade must be built into the house. Thoreau would recognize that our house, while outwardly simple, is inwardly complex.

We enjoy our windows, snugly encased in their old-growth sashes, and the light that floods our house on sunny winter days. Thermal mass is hidden beneath the flooring. The overhang of the roof is precisely right; no direct sunlight enters the house in June and July. The system works: We paid less than $400 to heat the house in 1996–97, our first winter there. With thermal shades now installed on the windows, we expect the heating bills to be even less.

Well into the project, we began to wonder if we were deluded in our environmental correctness. With dismay, we surveyed the wash of mud surrounding the house and recalled the lovely, verdant meadow, now gone forever. The mud was wet clay—the topsoil had been scraped off in the initial site preparation—compressed by the heavy excavation equipment. Hundreds of years of soil formation had been wiped out on the small patch of earth where we now anticipated growing a garden and seeding a yard. The destruction seemed violent in a way we had not anticipated.

Each of the new construction materials took its toll on the earth. Structural lumber from the Pacific Northwest, high-grade plywood from pine plantations of the Southeast, porch pillars of old-growth cedar—each added to society's collective demand for wood and the impetus to cut our forests for short-term gain but long-term impoverishment. Paints, sealants, glues, and resins, applied to preserve the materials, were created in toxic brews and left behind trails of pollutants that tainted air and water. Our use of materials added incrementally to the demand of a society that takes and takes without much thought.

I was embarrassingly naive to believe that we could construct a house without harming the environment. Environmentalists advocate "leaving no trace," but even in the simplest scenario it is impossible to do. Every living organism changes its world as it lives out its life. For the most part, the larger web of life can accommodate these changes. Human beings alone create changes great enough to rip that tensile web. On the other hand, our ability to choose the impact we will have redeems us. The other creatures of earth are locked into the roles they play. We alone can decide on greater or lesser harm to the planet.

We don't decide in a vacuum, though. The decision is fueled by our expectations and our ability to meet them. My husband and I and our four children did not expect to live in a simple cabin, as Thoreau did. We wanted five bedrooms, a room reserved just for thinking, and space for a grand piano. Although our house has less square footage than most comparably priced houses, it is far from small. Though our conscious intent was to build responsibly and we were slaves to the task for nearly two years, our house still falls short of the mark. We had the wealth to build to our expectations and put our money into features at odds with each other: energy and material conservation on the one hand, and our demanding American standards on the other.

Did we not try hard enough? Must we all live in teepees or igloos? If this idea seems absurd, then tell me: What is environmentally responsible housing? Or is there no such thing? There are so many people on the planet now that even the simplest structures will take an enormous toll, and most of the world's people are too poor to be able to choose. They live however they can.

For our affluent American society, perhaps a deeper truth is even darker. Perhaps our affluence has blinded us to the choices we can make. Perhaps the plain truth is, we are too wealthy to be moral. Steeped in a materialistic society, with conventional expectations, we built ourselves a commonplace house, conforming to American standards, standards that cannot be maintained anywhere else. Our standards are high because there are still materials to consume. We don't really have to worry about scarcity—yet.

From Architecture Minnesota (March/April 1999). Subscriptions: $18/yr. (6 issues) from 275 Market St., Suite 54, Minneapolis, MN 55405.