Wisely using the Earth’s resources is a challenge for most of us in “developed” countries. For the most part we’re so used to having warm but inefficient houses (because heating costs have historically been low), the luxury of jumping into our cars on a whim to get us anywhere we desire, and lounging under a hot and steamy shower at least once a day. When you’ve grown up with such amenities in your life, you easily come to expect that you’ll be able to have these things forever. And you work darn hard in your life – you deserve the material wealth that goes with hard work and money. Right?
But, the horizon of cheap oil and energy is close at hand. We’ve already gone through one energy crisis in the ’70′s, and a new one is just emerging. Why are people (at least in the US) apparently unconcerned about this burgeoning problem with running out of the Earth’s petroleum reserves? Why aren’t people more in tune with wisely using the Earth’s resources?
I believe it’s akin to the old story of how to get a frog used to boiling water. Have you heard that one? You simply turn up the temperature slowly over time and he doesn’t seem to notice, but plop him into boiling water right off the bat and he’ll jump right out. Petrol prices have been slowly edging their way up over the last several years. Slow enough to get us gradually used to it.
But, all is not lost. There are many small groups, and individuals, that are actually doing something on a daily basis to curb their consumerism habits. This grassroots philosophy is something that has been growing slowly and steadily over many years. Hopefully you’ve come to this website because you’re questioning the Standard American Lifestyle (steady consumerism) and looking into ways to live and build a home that doesn’t require so many resources.
“Frog in Boiling Water”
How do you get a frog used to boiling water? Slowly turn up the temperature over time. The psychology is similar to getting consumers to accept higher prices for everything from gas to food to building materials, etc.
How do you get out of the boiling water of high prices and scarce resources? Take your very thin checkbook, slap yourself in the face, and put your LIFE on a diet. I’m half kidding. You might start by looking at small houses as wise resource use.
Yes, this is my corny sketch… although I took inspiration from another artist (thanks, Doug).
So, how does this relate to building your small house? In every way. It should be easy to see that there is a tremendous amount of materials that go into building the average home. Not only wood and nails, but concrete, siding, insulation, wiring, plumbing, roofing, drywall, etc. Believe it or not all these materials aren’t manufactured at your local Home Depot store. No kidding. They have to be trucked in, usually from great distance to get on the shelf of your local building supply store.
If you are trying to wisely use the Earth’s resources in building your home, then start out by asking questions of the people at your building supply store. Do they know where the lumber came from? Can you get in touch with that supplier to see if the timber was sustainably harvested? Try and acquire lumber from within 100 miles of your building site. Also ask if your lumber order can be directly delivered to your building site from the saw mill, rather than first having to go to the lumber supply store. That alone could save delivery cost as well as many gallons of gas for the delivery truck.
If you’re having a crew of people come to work on your house try to get as much done in a day as comfortably possible. This will help to eliminate subcontractors from coming back to your site over too many days (think about the gas to get them to your job site and back). Here in Wisconsin I’d say this really isn’t a problem. I’ve been very impressed by the pace of work and professionalism of the subcontractors I’ve worked with. Frankly, in any area of the country, if there are sub’s that do slip-shod work and are generally inefficient or dishonest they probably won’t last too long in the profession. That’s why it’s so important to ask around for sources of great subcontractors. Word-of-mouth is extremely valuable.
Resources for Better Resource Use in Building
SustainableSources.com has a wealth of resources if you’re researching ways to use resources more efficiently or conservatively. They offer a Sourcebook of information on categories such as water, energy, building materials, and solid waste. It’s a great starting place for your research.
Resources to Find
Green Building Standards
Green Built Home is the Midwest’s residential green building program based in Madison, WI USA.
Built Green is an environmentally-friendly, non-profit, residential building program in the greater Seattle area providing consumers and builders with an easy-to-use rating system.
Built Green Colorado is one of oldest and largest green home building programs in the nation since 1995.
Green Building-Nebraska offers a certification process for both homes and builders.
If you’re more detail-oriented and like to work off a checklist of building practices to help you wisely use resources in home building, then check out Green Built Homes building checklist. Green Built Home is a national award-winning green building initiative that reviews and certifies new homes and remodeling projects that meet sustainable building and energy standards. It’s a product of the Wisconsin Energy Initiative.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has a Green Building Rating System for both new construction and existing buildings. They have quite an extensive list of standards that buildings should meet in order to be certified. But, you don’t necessarily need to have your home certified to implement most of energy-saving items on their checklist. Go to this page at LEED to find a download-able checklist for you home building project.
Energy Star is a US Environment Protection Agency program that offers 4 factors to shoot for in new home construction: sealing air leaks and insulating, tightly sealed ductwork, low-e energy efficient windows, and independent inspection with a blower door test and infrared camera analysis.
Even if it doesn’t directly affect your pocketbook by saving you money, you may want to try stretching your sense of civic responsibility by considering the wider impact of acquiring your building materials as close to your building site as possible. You may even want to consider an alternative building material like strawbale or cordwood if you want to use locally generated building materials. I’ll provide more info on these down the line…