Keeping It In-House: On-site Lifecycles and Net-Neutral Housing

I’m flying from San Diego to Portland. I’m visiting home for 3 weeks before shipping out for graduate school with the intention of relaxing, unwinding, and prepping for two years of grinding away toward a Master’s degree. I strike up a conversation with my seatmate, David, and I learn that he’s working on a project to create “net-neutral housing.” Called “Earth Harmony Habitats,” these are homes that are completely disconnected from public utilities—they generate their own electricity, collect and filter their own potable water, process their grey water, and compost their organic waste. I get intrigued, I accidentally volunteer to help out, and two days later I find myself putting in 20-hours/week without pay during my 3-week vacation. Oops.

While a rest would have been nice, I begin to learn fascinating things: the design for water-recycling sun showers; solar-panels that collect and funnel rain water into storage tanks; how to use external vertical gardens as insulation. Lots of environmental innovation and technology that is exciting, compelling, and seemingly feasible.

I also learn about the problem—you’ve got to sell the concept of living in one of these things. Design constraints mean they aren’t the most conventionally “pretty” homes you’ve ever seen. They aren’t cheap to build and there’s no prior proof that they do, in fact, reliably collect sufficient water and generate sufficient electricity (despite emphatic assurances from the designer). And unless someone is already living a very “alternative”, eco-focused lifestyle, there are major behavioral and logistical adjustments required to thrive in this type of living space.

In reading through chapters in The Carbon Efficient City regarding “On-Site Life Cycles,” I was struck by the exciting nature of the innovation involved in David’s approach to a micro-version of these kinds of self-contained systems and how well they exemplify this principle. I was also struck by how, as discussed in the “Delight” chapter, the changes we need require significant cultural and behavioral shifts. They require value to be sufficient to warrant making these changes and enduring the transitional costs. Earth Harmony Habitats are a wonderful idea whose value isn’t yet sufficient for the vast majority of individuals and families in American society, even the most environmentally conscious among us.

It will (hopefully) be fun one day to tell future generations of a time where we just couldn’t make carbon efficient housing attractive enough for people to buy—and watch them laugh. Just as we struggle to comprehend an era without computers, telephones, or running water, they’ll wrestle with the notion that we and our predecessors weren’t willing to take simple, feasible steps to ensure the health and future of our planet. They’ll laugh because (hopefully) they will have succeeded where we’ve failed, and they will live in a world where sustainability isn’t a bonus—it’s a fundamental component of the way we shape the built environment around us.

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