Matt and I met training for Grandma’s Marathon. He was getting his PhD in biochemistry as a protein chrystallographer and I was getting my Masters in Architecture. We got to know each other over long runs and we learned that we paced each other very well.
But we never talked about energy efficiency until after we’d married, living in New York, and paying $4,000 – $5,000 a year in oil to heat our drafty 1923 Sears home. Even then, the conversation wasn’t one of overall indignation about the state of the planet, climate change, or anything like that. The conversation was more about how fixed systems like oil production limits and dictates our personal choices. We talked about how trapped we were by the oil market, knowing that its pricing was determined not only by supply and demand, but also by the politics of countries who struggle to get along, and greed for money.
We lived in the Hudson Valley of New York for 16 years. Toward the end of that time, both of our professional careers were rocked by a volatile market. I was laid off at IBM and a year later, the grant the supported Matt’s research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine was terminated. We wanted a lifestyle that didn’t require us both to work in order to pay a mortgage. We were concerned about the risks we had stepped into by participating in the ethos of chasing upward mobility. Was this really our American Dream?
As a trained architect, the lessons I learned about Passive House Design Principles always represented a certain kind of beauty to me – a beauty in how to live life if you were keen enough to leverage the resources around you. Passive House Design Principles were, in a way, representative of how to make choices that were sustainable, beautiful, comfortable, modern, free, sensitive, and responsible; this felt like a way to create our own American Dream that was based on a definition of abundance and prosperity that was not entirely focused on money.
So basically, I guess you could say that an energy efficient home was our idea of what an authentic American Dream looked like.
Building an energy efficient home was also a tractable way in which we could practice non-standard consumer choices to see if it could be done, and pave the way for others to make the same choices. We believe that as consumers, we need to find and make choices outside of those presented to us from within the fixed systems we live in, in order to make any kind of change to our fixed systems. If we continue to play the money game in its current form, we continue to feed the environmental and political issues connected with global warming.
Most people believe that building codes provide the necessary scaffolding for building well, when in fact they represent a threshold for which, if you dip below, you would be breaking the law. Put shortly: you could do a whole lot better than code. And you would experience personal benefits for doing it. But you have to ask for it.
It’s not easy to ask for things that are not part of the current repertoire. You need to find building professionals who are already beginning to practice new methods, or are willing to try. Not everyone is willing; there is resistance to doing something new or different. We certainly ran into that with our build, particularly with our HVAC choices.
So how do you convince people to do something different? Research and science doesn’t always have the evidence needed to substantiate new choices, but the lack of research isn’t proof that the choice is invalid; it only means that the research hasn’t been done yet. We relied on case studies, which helped us understand the impact of other peoples’ building choices and gave us confidence to insist on trying something that a particular building professional hasn’t done yet themselves. We want our house to be a case study for other people wanting to make different choices.
Together, we can create an authentic American Dream by making different choices within our fixed systems (which could also be applied to healthcare, the food industry and public education). How we choose to live our lives, spend our money (or NOT spend our money), and the values we strive to uphold can impact fixed systems to operate toward more authentic outcomes and the good of the planet. That’s why we built an energy efficient home.