In the fall of 1994, I was faced with a major life decision. My marriage had broken up and I needed a place to live. One option was to rent. Unfortunately, the only homes I could afford to rent were small, dark, dingy, run down, and often at the end of dirt roads that would be impassable in the snowy winters. I also pondered the idea of buying a home. Dedicated as I was to the concepts and practices of sustainability, I knew that the environmental performance of even the best-built homes is--let me be frank--pretty awful. That left me with my last option: to build a home.
If I was going to build a home and office, however, I knew that I had to build according to my convictions. A quote by the late Edward Abbey rang in my head: "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Richard Lamm, a three-term governor of Colorado, once wrote, "It is not enough to have a handful of heroes, what we need are generations of responsible people." I reasoned that the divorce could be a positive thing, as it opened me up to creating an environmentally sustainable shelter that might serve as a model of individual responsibility. Having been an activist for many years and having burned out on trying to change people and public policy, I rather liked the idea of living responsibly and helping others see that we can live well with little impact on the planet. Maybe life could be a bit more enjoyable for me, too--not having to pound on my podium all the time.
Drawing on my work in environmental science and policy, I set out to build a state-of-the-art environmental home. In my writings and teaching, I emphasize understanding the key principles of sustainability, and using them as guidelines to reshape human systems. This project would give me an opportunity to see if these principles could be applied to housing.
Not having built a home before, however, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. One thing that became evident was that the design phase of the house was crucial. If I was going to build an environmentally sustainable home, I would need a design consistent with the principles and practices of sustainability. I knew that a house, like most things we humans construct, is a long-term contract with the environment. It commits its inhabitants to a level of resource demand, environmental pollution, and monetary outlay that must be sustained until the structure collapses or is torn down. And, lest we forget, in most cases, design decisions commit us to the burden of a huge mortgage and high utility bills. Dream homes often become nightmares, obligating us to much more work than is necessary. We end up working hard for our houses when it should be the other way around. Our houses should work for us.
I decided the design would minimize the evils of environmental destruction, economic outlay, and labor, letting me live lightly in every sense of the word. In keeping with my fiercely independent spirit, I also wanted my new home to be as free of the power companies as possible. Solar power would provide heat and electricity for the boys and me. Earth sheltering would help maintain internal temperatures year-round, keeping the structure warm in winter and cool in summer. I would also capture and purify rain water and snow melt for drinking, bathing, cooking, and watering plants; no wells or water company hookup would be necessary.
Being one who would rather write, play music, or hike, canoe, and camp out, I also vowed that my new home would require as little maintenance as possible and would be supremely efficient in its use of water, electricity, and heat. I would recycle graywater, decrease electrical demand, pack the house with insulation and, by golly, build with earth-friendly materials, or I would hand in my environmental badge forever. So began my journey, a journey that provided a wealth of information for this book. Along the way, I learned a lot about building, builders, and building departments. I learned about alternative building materials, catchwater systems and graywater systems, alternatives to septic tanks, and much more. I talked to builders, subcontractors, and building department officials. I talked with the general public, school children, and friends to learn about their concerns and objections to alternative building. And I talked to people like myself who let ethics divert them from the beaten path. My goal is to share what I have learned to help you understand the full dimensions of natural, sustainable building--what it is and what it requires of us--so you, too, can join the handful of responsible citizens who are blazing a new path in sustainable housing.
Almost everyone I talked with who lives in a natural home shared with me the need to warn readers of potential pitfalls. Many extolled the necessity of being totally honest, by which they meant telling the full story. "Don't mislead readers into thinking they can build a natural, sustainable home for a song and a dance," advised one builder. "Don't lead them to believe that building is simple. It isn't," advised another.
Taking their advice to heart, I will present the information as soberly as possible, pointing out costly and time-consuming mistakes that I and others have made, so that each new home can build on the knowledge of previous homes. I will also present a realistic view of costs. It is the only way we will succeed.
Our journey together will consist of three parts. In Part 1 we will explore principles of sustainable design and construction, guidelines vital to your future success. The principles will keep you on the path to sustainability. As you will soon see, it is much too easy to wander off the track and end up with a house that is a lame excuse for a sustainable structure.
In Part 2 we will explore natural building techniques such as adobe, cob, straw bale, cordwood, and Earthships. You will also learn about some newcomers to the natural building scene, such as earthbags and papercrete. I will discuss the essential characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of each alternative. My goal is to give you enough of each technique so you gain a realistic understanding of what building with the technique will be like. In other words, these chapters won't provide enough information to enable you to build a natural home but they will give you an overview of each natural building method--enough information to decide which ones might work for you. At the end of the book there is an extensive resource guide that lists additional books, articles, web sites, suppliers, builders, and more, so you can further your research.
In Part 3 I raise the ante: I suggest ways to build a fully sustainable home. Experience has shown me that while many people want to build environmentally friendly homes, very few understand how far they must go to create a truly sustainable structure. In Part 3, we will explore ways to heat and cool a home naturally--with little, if any, fossil fuel energy. We will examine ways people generate their own electricity from clean, renewable sources such as the sun, wind, and falling water. We will also explore unconventional, but environmentally sustainable, ways of obtaining fresh water and treating waste water. Finally, I will treat you to shopping trip through a green building products store and describe how site selection and landscaping can contribute to the sustainability of your natural home. The final chapter of the book focuses on the building process and how you can successfully navigate these largely unfamiliar waters.
Throughout the book I will present conversations with innovators in the natural building field and sustainable home construction. These men and women who are leading the charge will share their experiences, knowledge, and wisdom.
So, let's get started. . . .