Building Our Environmentally Friendly Dream Home

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


| September-October 1999



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.

darwincarlson
2/12/2016 6:41:47 AM

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