Four Lights Tiny House Company

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#5There 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.

Efficiency First

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”!

Posted by Jay Shafer — March 09, 2014

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