Tuesday, December 11, 2007

change ain't sexy

The past few weeks have been very busy for me. In addition to my normal activities- work, family life, harvesting the bagged leaves of my neighborhood- I attend a one day soil regeneration seminar and a 2 day ULI seminar on sustainable community design. Both of these events were remarkably informative and I'd go so far as to say inspirational. I love to learn and synthesis seemingly unrelated bits of information into programs that facilitate change. You might even call it a hobby. But one particular event of recent weeks has been much more rewarding. We had our house reinsulated. It would probably be more accurate to say we had it insulated as much of it had no insulation at all.

Now you might think that's pretty strange, that someone convinced we're embarking on worldwide energy descent would have, up until now, lived in a poorly insulated house. To which I would respond that it's been on the list to do, but the list is long and the budget is far from unlimited. The real deal though is that my wife and I have been planning to build our own home for several years. Since day one of my architectural education at university I've dreamed of building my own home. In recent years I study alternative construction methods and fell in love with strawbale building. I read books, took classes and even worked on a few such structures. My wife and I were investigating a land purchase and organizing a few folks to help with the permitting process. But the situation has changed. The peak in global oil production is imminent and the effects of climate change are more rapidly headed our way. I've become convinced that with more than 90 million homes already in existence here in America, what we need is less building new and more making due. Several people have tried to convince me that I could be more useful to my fellow citizens by offering an example of effective strategies for 'Sheltering In Place,' and I'm starting to believe them.

But there's an equally compelling reason. My wife is expecting our second child in March and our daughter is almost 2 years old. At such a young age she can already pick up a hammer and swing it quite effectively but hasn't yet learn that hammers are not meant for the destruction of anything with reach. The idea of my family building a new home during the next 12 months could very well be the uproarious inspiration for a new TV reality show. I'm not sure if we'd find it funny though.

I have not yet thrown out the idea of building our own home. I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons and I think we need more people using it to serve as examples. I'd like to be one of them in the future. But for now it looks like we are staying put and that means more closely examining our current conditions and making reasonable adjustments. Sounds prudent right? Well here's the thing, it's not at all sexy.

Over the past two weeks I've spent three days with a crew who are adding insulation to our home. When they first arrived they hooked up a blower door to our home and pressurized the whole structure to get a sense of how air tight our home was. The answer was not very. That part was fun to watch but then came hours of action like caulking and sealing and weather stripping. The real work took a long time and was not my idea of fun. Another contractor used an infrared camera to find out where the big heat leaks were located. This too was pretty neat. But then it was back to the grindstone. The flooring in the attic had to be removed and then insulation was blown up there. The crawlspace below our home had to be cleaned, plastic sheeting laid below and insulation strapped to the underside of the floor joists. The best part, I say with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, was when the crew cut 2" holes in all our exterior walls ever 20" or so and blew insulation into each cavity. It was necessary. It will make for a much more energy efficient home. We are doing our part! And yet the work itself was mundane. Some of it was boring and some of it was uncomfortable. 3 days of regular old work. And the mess!

In contrast my time spent at the soil seminar was great as was my sustainable community design seminar. But neither of those actually accomplished anything tangible. They were useful experiences. The knowledge I came away with will certainly come in handy, but neither accomplished as much actual change as did my 3 days of insulation. Part of what I've been sensing in the community of people who are interested in issues of energy and the environment is that many are ready to move on from the arena of talk into the arena of action. It's fine and good to talk about peak oil and climate change and track the progress of these occurrences. That is important work for some to do. But for most of us, responding to the converging calamities of the 21st century should be more about getting dirty and less about talking about getting dirty.

Having said that, I did film the whole transformation of my home- about 5 hours of raw footage which will be edited into a video and uploaded onto the Internet some time early next year. Hopefully it will help inspire other people to begin making similar changes. There's no reason to stop sharing our progress with other people. In fact I think we have an obligation to do so. But as much as possible I think we need to get to work; not online but in our own homes and in our own communities. There is much to actually do.


Leila said...

A while ago at my blog, I posted about California's subsidy of rooftop solar panels. A friend who is big into conserving energy in the urban environment, and is also a very smart physicist, suggested to me that such a government subsidy is wasteful. She noted that there are much less expensive ways to conserve energy that would give a bigger value for the dollar.

We had an interesting back and forth in which I listed several improvements we could make at our California urban expanded cottage (3 BR, 2 bath, 1922 house with a 1992 addition). Basically I think her point is valid.

We could add insulation under crawl space and mend the waterpipe insulation chewed up by raccoons under there (and figure out how to keep the critters out); install new double-glazed windows; install awnings on south-facing windows; install a good quality umbrella clothesline; install a solar hot-water heater; or install a tankless gas heater (or both, one for old part of house, one for the addition).

Since we have no air conditioning (imagine that!), the awnings would simply add to our comfort level on hot days without reducing our energy consumption. But in this climate awnings are an old-fashioned and CRUCIAL solution for houses - it gets hot in the day, cools off at night, windows need protection from the sun in summer; awnings should be retractable to let in warming sunshine in winter. (and it's just not that cold in winter - it's 50 today and people are complaining).

We could also repair the attic vent fan, which used to go on and off based on temperature.

Oh yes, and Sharon Astyk's window quilts are a great solution. They also block out street lights which might mess with your circadian rhythms and melatonin levels.

nulinegvgv said...


I agree wholeheartedly. The easiest way to address issues of resource depletion and energy descent is not to focus on supply but to focus on demand. That's why I think the Riot 4 Austerity project is so interesting. There are plenty of people working to supply *more* but it is far easier just to need *less*.

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exuper.

Thanks for your list of possible improvements.

Anonymous said...

We built a mud brick house over a period of several years while our daughter was at the hammer-weilding stage. I have yet to meet another 2 year old who could differentiate between the shifting spanner and the regular spanner in an instant. Although she did bring the shovel instead of the spade when I needed to kill a large brown snake. That little dip that shovels gain with use, made it very difficult to deal with the snake with one blow.

Don't let young ones deter you from straw baling