Dawn from my front deck after a “male” rain (an intense but brief thundershower). Photo: Susan J. Tweit
Sustainable. adj. 1. Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. 2. Able to be upheld or defended.
No matter how overused it may be, I find the idea of sustainability meaningful, especially at the personal level: What does it mean to live a sustainable life? To find a balance that can be maintained in the long-term? A life that can be “upheld”?
For the past 15 months, I’ve been engaged in building and finishing my new small house and garage/studio, an activity that might not seem particularly sustainable (new house, new materials, filling yet another bit of urban habitat with a building).
I can’t argue about that aspect: I did use some new materials, in particular concrete, which requires a great deal of energy in manufacturing, and new wood, steel and the rare earths that go into photovoltaic panels. I also can’t argue about the fact that my house and studio, small as they are, displace other species.
In that sense, it’s not a sustainable project. In other ways, it is. (Sustainability, like so many things in life, is not a simple concept.)
The parcel I built on was the last un-reclaimed slice of what Richard called our “decaying industrial empire.” This long, wedge-shaped chunk seems to have been an informal dump–its post-industrial “soil” yields abundant scraps of metal, railroad rails, and chunks of concrete, coal and broken glass, among other things.
Before we began excavation in April of 2013, the place was a vacant lot that sprouted a healthy population of invasive weeds. In replanting the native high-desert grassland community around my buildings instead of a lawn, I’m restoring habitat and mitigating my impact. (The deer and hummingbirds certainly approve!)
The native plant community also acts as a living sponge, cleaning the soil and the water that runs off into Ditch Creek. That’s definitely “conserving an ecological balance.”
In designing the house, I aimed for small and efficient (thanks to Tom Pokorny at Natural Habitats). The house is 725 square feet; the studio atop the garage for guests and Terraphilia residents is 384.
Both structures are passive solar, using our abundant winter sunshine for heat and summer’s down-valley breezes for cooling. They consume so little electricity and natural gas that the payments from the electric utility for the excess my photovoltaic panels produce cover my natural gas bills.
I was also deliberate about fitting into the neighborhood. The two buildings are designed to look like railroad sheds that grew over the years. The exterior finishes are durable, long-lasting ones appropriate to both the industrial character and this harsh high-desert climate.
I also used recycled and scrap materials wherever possible (my builder, Dan Thomas, also of Natural Habitats, made that easier). For instance, those kitchen cabinets are made from leftover ash from the cabinets Richard built for Terraphilia, my old house; the corrugated metal island facing is a scrap from his studio; the countertops are also made of laminate left from Terraphilia as well.
The house is also designed to be accommodating to people of differing mobility, including me as I age, hence touches like the ramps built into the front deck.
I did my best to be thoughtful throughout the process and to consider sustainability in each decision—this is my last house and I want be proud of it. I think that honors the spirit of sustainability.