Tuesday, February 17, 2009

change ain't sexy.

Last Autumn was a busy time for my family. Besides the day job, family life, growing food, harvesting discarded bagged leaves in my neighborhood for use as mulch (that being one of my hobbies) and attending a conference on sustainable community design (which was inspiring), we had our house reinsulated. Or rather, it would probably be more accurate to say we had it insulated—as much of it had no insulation at all.

You might think it is strange that someone who is convinced we’re embarking on a worldwide energy downturn would live in an under-insulated house for years. But like everyone else, our budget is far from unlimited. It has long been on the to-do list. The other reason is that we weren’t sure we were staying here.

My wife and I had been planning to build our own home for several years. Since my first day of architectural studies, I’ve dreamed of building my own home. In recent years I’ve studied alternative construction methods and have fallen in love with straw bale building. I’ve read book. I’ve taken 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 permit process.

But last fall we realized the situation had changed—or maybe we had. The peak in global oil production appeared imminent, and the effects of climate change are more rapidly headed our way. I became convinced that with more than 90 million homes already in existence here in America, what is really needed is less building new and more making do. Several people have suggested that I could be more useful to my fellow citizens by offering an example of effective strategies for sheltering “in place,” and last fall I started to believe them.

And there was still another reason we decided to stay put and reinsulate. My wife was expecting our second child and our other daughter was then almost two years old. Keaton can already pick up a hammer and swing it quite effectively but hasn’t yet learned what to hit and when. My family building a new home during the coming year, what with a pregnant wife, then a brand new baby and helpful toddler might make for a great reality TV show, but I wasn’t sure we’d find it funny.

I wasn’t willing to give up forever the dream of building our own home. I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons: easy to work with, sequesters carbon, insulates very well, burns more slowly than wood and is available almost everywhere. I think we need more people who are exploring sustainable building techniques. I’d like to be one of them, 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, it is, but here’s the thing—prudent change isn’t sexy. Building something new comes with all the possibilities of perfection or at least improvement over what you’ve had before. We were to create the home of our dreams and point the way toward a future of sustainable building techniques—and that, my friends, is sexy! But reinsulating an old house? Not quite as exciting.

What it mean is that I spent three days with a crew who shoved insulation made from recycled newspapers into the framing of our home. When they first arrived they hooked up a device to the front door and pressurized the whole house to get a sense of how airtight it was. The answer was not very. That part was fun to watch, but then came hours of hard work caulking and sealing and weather stripping. The real work took a long time and wasn’t much 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 in. The crawlspace below the house had to be cleaned, plastic sheeting laid against the ground 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 drilled two-inch holes all along the exterior walls of our home every 20 inches or so. That is, they drilled holes through my wife’s beautiful painting handiwork (more on this in a moment) before blowing insulation into each wall 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. And some of it was downright uncomfortable, just regular hard work. And the mess! Let’s just say that my wife, Jennifer, was not happy. And the caulking of each tiny hole didn’t make me happy either.

In contrast, my time at the sustainable community design conference was great. But all the talking and learning didn’t actually produce anything tangible. Both experiences were useful. The knowledge I brought away with me from the conference will certainly come in handy, but the real change came by getting down and dirty in the attic and the basement.

Hopefully much of what we’re talking about in this book is inspiring, and that’s great. But it is also time to move on from talk to action. It’s all fine and good to talk about peak oil and climate change, to track the progress of these issues and discuss the need for more gardens and farms. We need to spread these ideas around. But for most of us, responding to the converging calamities of the 21st century should be more work and less talk, even if the work isn’t sexy. As Mother Theresa put it, “There should be less talk; a preaching point is not a meeting point. What do you do then? Take a broom and clean someone’s house. That says enough.”

Having said that, I did film the transformation of my home. It will be turned into a video and uploaded onto the Internet some time early next year. Hopefully it will help inspire other people to begin making similar hands-on changes. My family will continue to share 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 homes and in our communities. It isn’t always sexy, but it matters.


Anonymous said...

"It isn’t always sexy, but it matters".....never a truer word spoken, WTG!

homebrewlibrarian said...

I think using straw for home construction makes sense for lots of reasons: easy to work with, sequesters carbon, insulates very well, burns more slowly than wood and is available almost everywhere.

Available almost everywhere except Alaska. There just isn't a lot of hay made up here. A friend who got very intrigued with straw bale construction had to let go of the idea since it would have cost her way too much money since the bales would have to be *imported* to Alaska for use. She looked at cob building for a while but that wasn't all that viable either.

There's a cold weather housing research center in Fairbanks that has played with alternative insulating materials but while they can build them, the materials needed aren't necessarily locally available. I think we ought to look at how the native peoples handled the winter - by being at least partially underground. I'm all for retrofitting existing housing but if you're going to build something to withstand Alaska winters, make sure to build it below grade.

I'm not sure how sexy it is to make do in Alaska but if nothing else, it will be a different kind of sexy.

Kerri in AK

Anonymous said...

How much did the insulation help? Are you a lot warmer/cooler, with lower bills?


nulinegvgv said...

Thanks molly.

Kerri, Looking back at how people historically kept dry and warm before the era of cheap energy is a great idea in my opinion.

Robin, Our home heating and cooling energy use dropped by an average of 50%.

Betsy said...

Weatherization is definitely the way of the future for 90% of Americans, so I'm glad you're "being the change we want to see". Besides, I have serious reservations about straw-bale in any climate besides the desert where it was developed. Cracks of any kind in the masonry skin invite insects and mold to set up shop in the straw and then where does that leave you.
Betsy in TX, 8b

nulinegvgv said...


We have an existing housing stock of over 90 million homes in the US. In the boom years we were only buildingabout 1 million new homes a year. At that rate it would take us nearly a century to replace old homes. Making existing homes more energy efficient is imperative.

Straw/Sod construction is ancient. Modern straw bale construction started in the US in Nebraska about 100 years ago. Using straw works across climates. Even here in the humid southeast it works fine if you use bales with low moisture content, properly overhang your roof, build up off of the ground and use a lime based plaster. I recommend _Serious Straw Bale_ by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron for more information about using strawbale construction in any climate.

Wendy said...

We came to the same conclusion about adapting in place, probably about the same time that you did, but in the meantime, while we were waiting for our dream of land to come to fruition, we'd been making a lot of little changes to our house - like the tankless water heater, adding insulation, installing a more efficient woodstove. And then, one day, it was like, this isn't even the house we bought eleven years ago ... and then, OMG! Eleven YEARS! We've been wasting, waiting to find the perfect place, when this house was just about as perfect as we were ever going to find ;). It was quite an epiphany.

I completely agree that making older homes more energy efficient is vastly superior to building new homes. I'd also love to see someone start helping home owners with becoming more self-sufficient by finding ways to make homes use less energy and/or generate their own. Some changes are really simple, like our tankless water heater or a solar pre-heater, and some are a little more complicated (and expensive) like adding power generation equipment. While I'm not in the "technology will save us" camp, I do think that it would be wise to find ways to make our indivdiual homes more self-sufficient, including supplying our own power, but I don't think there is one solution that fits every household, and ultimately, the answer is to use less.

Muddy Acres said...

Well done! We are in the same boat, we'd rather fix up an existing structure and re-insulate than tear everything down and start new. Our project is detailed on my blog.

I haven't commented on your blog yet, but I follow diligently and have become a regular reader. Thank you for sharing your journey in such detail.

nulinegvgv said...

Muddy Acres, Thank you for listening.

Kevin said...

We live in a an older home (built in the 1920s) that has been insulated over the years but could use some additional insulation in the attic. I'll be interested in seeing the video you took of the upgrades. Thanks for sharing. I'm new to your blog and have enjoyed it so far!