There is no black and white in green
Eco-fascists may or may not be part of the solution to our environmental concerns, but, one thing’s for sure... they’ve become a source of widespread discomfort. Eco-fascists are those folks who meticulously scrutinize what we’re up to, from over our shoulders, while we’re sorting our recyclables or unloading our grocery carts; they’re the ones eagerly offering an unsolicited education in sustainable-correctness when we stray from their narrow interpretation of what that means; and they’re often the ones bending over backwards to demonstrate, for us, what it means to be truly environmentally conscious, even if this requires putting solar panels on the shadier side of their roofs because that’s the side everyone’s going to see.
I never feel entirely comfortable around Eco-fascists. Hard as I may try, it’s difficult for me to remember if the overall costs of all the hot water, fossil fuel consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions that go into washing a 16 oz. peanut butter jar are outweighed by the benefits of recycling it. Questions like this can spur an anxiety in many of us that’s equaled only by the apparent glee Eco-fascists seem to derive from shaming us for such ignorance.
If you want a definitive answer to any question about the sustainable-correctness of pretty much anything, just ask your local Eco-fascist. They’ll have an easy-to-read checklist of inflexible rules clearly mandating what’s acceptable and what’s deplorable. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to do things that really make a difference, rather than be a slave to myopic edicts, your local Eco-fascist’s inflexible advice is more likely to lead you astray than it is to be of any use.
The inclusion of terms like “green” or “sustainable practices” in product labeling is equally unhelpful to one’s green-quest. The standard set by such ubiquitous self-proclamations suggests that anything we do, in terms of overconsumption and the subsequent overproduction of toxic waste, is actually good for you, good for us and good for the planet.
In truth, the greenness of a product is likely to change depending on where it is to be used, what it’s to be used for and how much of it’s needed. Nature, itself, is always having to figure out what’s necessary in any particular situation and perform a thorough cost/benefit analysis based on those findings before committing to an intelligent design. Nature’s the ultimate editor, re-purposer and re-cycler. If we were allowed to ask just one question of this All-Time Master of the 3-Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) we might ask It what the one trick to living lightly on this planet is. To this, I imagine, It might respond with something like, “It depends”.
If the advice of deities is to be trusted, all the big answers to our biggest questions are apparently as annoyingly cryptic as they are ambiguous. Maybe that’s because so many of the big questions are about things like meaning, ethics and aesthetics, and the answer to such questions really does seem to be, “It depends”. Necessity dictates the form of our unbuilt world just as it should dictate what goes on in the world we create, and what’s really necessary is always changing in response to what’s going on under one set of circumstances or another.
Fifty-five Rs of insulation in the roof of a house in Minneapolis may be exactly what the place needs to be efficient.* If the pros of using that much thermal barrier outweigh the cons, then forty-five Rs makes perfect sense. If the same house was teleported to L.A., the thermal benefits of that much insulation might be outweighed by the potentially inordinate amount of energy and waste that goes into producing so much insulation. A different house in Minneapolis, right down the street from the lot where the other one stood before it vanished into thin air, may need more or less insulation in its roof than the other did, depending on it’s particulars. And it should probably have a lot less than that if it ever gets teleported to Albuquerque.
When I built my first little house on wheels, I wanted to abide by Iowa City’s local code for the amount of insulation required in the floor walls and roof. It wasn’t really necessary that I meet building code from a legal standpoint. Buildings on wheels don’t typically have to meet building code because they’re not buildings. They’re vehicles. I just figured that, if all the other houses around had something, then my little house should have it too.
Ultimately, this meant that, while my walls could still be less than 6”-thick, my floor would have to be increased from 6 ¼ ” to 8 ¼”, and my roof would now have to be 9” instead of 6” in order to accommodate all that polystyrene. When all was said and done, the thickness added to the roof and floor to make space for the extra insulation had eaten up about 5” of valuable head room.
Finding The Balance
There’s, apparently, a balance to be considered between doing what’s considered to be sustainable under normal circumstances and doing what really works under the circumstances at hand. The maximum height-limitations for a portable structure, like the one I first built, are pretty stringent. You can only go so high with something that’s intended for the open road before bridges and powerlines begin enforcing their own, very strict, set of laws.
My first tiny house consumed less than 1/16 the amount of fuel burnt by any of the the other houses in my neighborhood, and, accordingly, it emitted about 1/16 as much waste. Its outstanding efficiency was, primarily, the product of its very small size, not an extra inch or two of extruded polystyrene. That I sacrificed that space in favor of a little more insulation in a structure already so small and already so inherently efficient now seems to have been a mistake. I was, in essence, sacrificing the most valuable resource available for something considerably less important.
The True Cost of Building
We rarely hear about the true costs of a building. Generally, we just hear about how much money it’d sell for. Sometimes, we even hear about how more insulation, more solar panels and more eco-add-ons will reduce environmental costs by increasing its efficiency. This message about how buying more stuff will invariably improve our lives and the quality of our real estate is, more often than not, brought to us by the folks who want to sell more stuff.
It’s important to remember that the three strategies presented by the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle Trinity are listed in order of their effectiveness.
Building science looks at our homes in a much broader context than the market does. Consumption and waste are measured not only in terms of the amounts saved once a material or technology’s been implemented, but in terms of the total amounts generated in a product’s production and, even, its decomposition. It’s easy to think that adding as much insulation as possible, for example, would always be a good idea, but the law of diminishing returns is at work here inasmuch as it is anywhere else. At a certain point, the amount of life energy (total stuff) it takes to save a few more pennies on our heating bills is going to cost more in overall strife than it’s ever going to save.
The stuff we use to make our homes more efficient has its own inherent costs and inefficiencies. Sometimes the the best thing we can do for the world is to do nothing. Sometimes the best thing we can buy to make our lives better is more of the same. It’s important to remember that the three strategies presented by the Reduce-Reuse-Recycle Trinity are listed in order of their effectiveness. Using the least amount of material, space and energy needed to maximize the efficiency of our built environment is, almost invariably, the most effective way to make the most of it and minimize any negative impact.
* “Efficient” is a somewhat more useful word than “green”. When coupled with marksmanship, being efficient means pretty much the same thing as being green, but, at least, the term efficiency can be quantified. Words like “green” and “sustainable” contain enough ambiguity to make any dubious villain in the business of selling toxic snake oil, twirl their handlebar moustache and snicker maniacally. Aiming for the right target and reaching that target as efficiently as possible is what sustainability’s all about. That being said, it’s important that good marksmanship always come before the efficiency part of the equation. We have more than enough mess to clean up after too many “Ready, Fire, Aim!” strategies as it is.
Check back for Mistake #6: “I now realize that I’d been sleeping with a killer at my side”, and Mistake #7: “Styrofoam is considered a delicacy by some species”!
I moved to Western Sonoma County seven years ago with my tiny house in tow. I took up residence in a remote spot in the redwoods next to a creek. When, a week later, I came upon this little structure 500 yards up the hill, then several others within a few 100 yards of that, I knew that I had found home. Like a lot of other pricy parts of the country, Sonoma County is laden with clandestine little structures where a lot of the folks who could not otherwise afford to live here manage to live very well.
Henry David Thoreau is famous for having been an early tiny house advocate, an existentialist and for embracing grunge apparel and philosophy before it was cool. I was in Concord, MA, recently, and visited this replica of the cabin where he wrote of such things in his book, Walden. He was was also a major proponent of civil disobedience, which is also very grunge.
Right up the road from the Thimble Islands, in the town of Gilford, lives Derek "Deek" Diedrickson. He took me to a village of tiny houses in his neck of the woods. This is one of the photos I shot while we were there.
Here’s another picture I took from my kayak when visiting the Thimble Islands on the Long Island Sound.
I stumbled upon this very cool vardo at Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound at the head of Tomales Bay. I thought my photo was pretty good, but I just found a better one of the same subject on their site along with a bunch of other great photos of the area. Apparently, you can rent it nightly.
Photo Credit: Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound
Falling from tiny structures is still falling
I now know that, while it has often been used in fiction as a convenient means of explaining the otherwise inexplicable, amnesia really does exist. I know this because I’m told that, for six hours during the Summer of 2006, I was an amnesiac. I say “I’m told” that I was because I don’t actually remember being an amnesiac. Nonetheless, I have it on good word that this was the case.
What little I do remember of those six hours is that I’d been telling some folks interested in building safety about how dangerous it would be to step on any of the plywood subflooring beneath our feet that wasn’t nailed down. I droned on to explain the even more obvious fact that it would be quite a fall from there to the hard surface nine feet below. My then-girlfriend, Jenny, and our mutual friend Deanne were attending, and they were doing a very good job of not rolling their eyes as I went on to say absolutely nothing a complete idiot wouldn’t already understand.
The next thing I remember is sitting on a hospital gurney asking Jenny and Deanne to explain what had just happened. “You fell through a floor!”, they scowled. This time they were, apparently, making no attempt not to roll their eyes, and I could tell by the exasperation in their voices that I must have done something else really dumb to piss them off. Jenny’s irritation turned into excitement as she suggested to Deanne that it seemed like I was starting to remember what was being said.
It turns out my two cohorts had been reiterating the words, “You fell through a floor”, ever since I’d regained consciousness six minutes after my fall. They tell me that my role in our inane dialogue was as limited in its scope as theirs. “What happened?”, is a question I had apparently been asking every few seconds for more than 5 ½ hours.
Once I was more coherent, the two apologized for their rightful irritation, and for the state of my, now, ripped and pee-soaked clothes, which were contained in a plastic bag sitting at my side. They explained that it had been necessary to cut the shorts and underwear from my shivering body with a pair of tinsnips and cover me with housewrap after my fall, as I’d peed myself upon impact and seemed to be going into shock. They said they’d anticipated the ambulance in Charlottesville, some fifty miles away, taking at least an hour to arrive, so the urine-saturated cut-offs and boxer-briefs would need to go. Their tone seemed inappropriately apologetic for a couple of friends who’d just saved my life.
I still can’t remember new information worth a tinker’s cuss, but, then again, as far as I can remember, I was never much good at retaining knowledge anyway.
I hope a few words about my own ill advised mishap might save someone else some trouble. I see two morals to this story, 1) Be careful when you’re building your house, especially when you’re working in high places. Ladders, in particular, are the most dangerous tool on the jobsite, and 2) Don’t demonstrate the obvious when it is far more easily, and safely stated.
Check back for Mistake #5: “There is no black and white in green”!
I told you I’d have more images of the little houses I saw on Martha’s Vineyard, and here’s one now.
So, picture this: You. Basking in the sunlight of a perfect day in Palo Alto — or Tahoe — or wherever your 'there' may be.
You're having a particularly good day because you just finished moving into this gorgeous, state-of-the-art tiny house on a foundation. Keys in one hand, lemonade (or something stronger) in the other, you take stock of your incredible new home:
Exquisite features. Elegant modern design. Small but spacious. Has a loft, but isn't lofty.
Simple. Refined. And in a word: You.
Of course it's got the usual stuff:
450 Sq ft. complete with a full kitchen, bathroom, laundry, a bedroom, and a sleeping loft.
But it's not really what is has, but how it has it — sustainability built into every square-inch: Bamboo floors, recycled glass tile, solar panels. This 450 square-foot oasis is (literally) a model for the future of housing, and here you are — right where you like to be — ahead of the curve.
You look out the window. Maybe you see mountains, or perhaps the ocean. Maybe you see your main house — a nice compliment to this new office, yoga studio, or art space. Maybe your son's moving in. Maybe your mom. Either way, this is a big step and it couldn't feel more right.
Another sip of lemonade. A smile.
Then there's the kicker. That familiar excitement with a dash of fear, because the truth just hit you for the hundredth time today —
You stole it.
Okay, you didn't steal it. Not really. I mean, hey, you paid what they asked, right? So what if it was highway robbery.
But they only asked $269,900.
Your land. This house.
Delivered. Installed. Permitted. And so fast. How'd you get so lucky anyway?
Oh yeah. That's right. There was that link at the bottom of the Four Lights blog post. It was a little impulsive. You weren't sure the house was right for you at exactly that moment, but — what the hell — you only live once, right?
You came. You saw. You bought. And now, with great satisfaction, you sip.
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I took this picture while I was kyaking amongst the Thimble Islands just off the coast of Connecticut.