As we were sifting through photos for the green energy feature in this issue, a staffer commented, after viewing shot after shot of soaring vaulted ceilings, and walls of multi-storied windows, “It’s funny that it’s usually the more well-todo that can afford to build energy efficient homes.”
It got me thinking. Back in the ’70s when I was a baby, my parents, true to their generation, were into Bucky Fuller’s geodesic domes, and living lightly on the earth. It didn’t take much money to live that kind of idealistic life.
Yet, like so many parts of life, the green building movement has become dominated by technological complexity. When we think of green building now, we think of solar arrays, high R-value spray-foam insulation, and heat exchange units. These have ticket prices in the thousands. For many, the price tags are intimidating and out of reach.
People who live outside societal norms, like the Marsiglios of Stony Creek Farm (page 18), are willing to be experimental, and often apply their inventiveness to lower tech solutions. Their ideas can be very practical, and the result is often unusual design, and high-engagement homes. While not many people choose to live that way, those who do can be inspiring, and their choices slowly shift norms.
At the same time, people with deeper pockets, who are willing to pay for early adoption of new technologies, keep green-tech companies in business and give contractors, architects, and installers an opportunity to get used to prescribing appropriately. I have heard war stories from friends who built high budget, environmentally ambitious homes. They often end up with more robust systems than the site needs, overpaying, often through the well-meaning inexperience of the professionals involved.
They have the luxury of laughing that the payback on their investment is multiple lifetimes. They can take solace, or even pride, in the knowledge that they are on the cutting edge, contributing to a more efficient future. If that happens to a homeowner whose budget is tight, they might be left having to live through the winter without a roof. Friends of mine had to do just that when the HVAC professional didn’t quite know what he was doing, and they were left without enough funds to finish their restructured house before the weather turned.
When I renovated my house 10 years ago, it was hard to find contractors who were willing to work with unusual materials or appliances. I had difficulty locating a flooring installer who would finish my oak floors with a product I wanted to use called hard oil, a penetrating oil finish (made by BioShield) comprising a mixture of nontoxic oils and resins. It’s based on traditional wood finishes that have stood the test of time, but it works differently from contemporary latex or urethane floor finishes—they protect wood by sitting on top, while penetrating oil does what it sounds like. It hardens the surface of the wood itself and keeps wood from drying out, while also protecting against water and mildew damage.
My installer finally agreed to use the finish, refusing to guarantee his work, since he had no experience with the product. Later he and other skeptics admitted to me they were impressed with its look and water resistance. It also had a pleasing smell while being installed, unlike urethane finishes whose fumes smell like they’ll kill.
I also found resistance to a tankless hot water heater. My plumber was unfamiliar with them in practice, and he didn’t like the sound of them. I have never regretted my choice to install it. It’s cheap to run, and I’ve never run out of hot water. It’s a great convenience to be able to run the dishwasher and washing machine simultaneously, and still be able to take a hot shower without worrying about running out of hot water. Chores in my house are compressed into a few hours at the beginning and end of the day, and the machines work hard during those hours.
The stories in this issue explore both types of green adventure—one for DIYers like my parents and the Marsiglios, and another kind of endeavor, more specialist-based. If you’re like me, you admire both adventures and study the results.
May your life be filled with efficiency and sustainability.