Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wealth II - Housing

My house was built in 1918. The original footprint was approximately 450 sq ft. The builders did not have much building sense, as they missed the bearing beam with the bearing wall by a full eight inches. They built the foundation walls too shallow, then toe-nailed the floor joists into the side of the bearing beam, instead of resting them on top and nailing them together, which meant someone later came in and cut four feet out of the bearing beam to accommodate the mechanicals: plumbing, electrical, etc. Whoever it was removed the beam directly under the main pathway between the dining room and the living room, which caused the floor to buckle. I didn't know this when I bought the house, because previous homeowners had piled four layers of flooring on top of the maple hardwoods.

In the 1950's, someone added a sun room with a foundation. In the eighties someone added a kitchen without a foundation; the kitchen extends out from the main body of the house, with three exterior walls, with no direct heat source - in the winter it is rarely above 50 degrees. The footprint today is about 750 sq ft, and there are 28 single pane windows. The roof joists and the walls are 2x4 with vermiculite (asbestos) insulation. This winter, I've closed-off most of the house, but the living room and the bedroom, or my heating bill would exceed $300 a month, maybe more.

My house is not the most egregious example of foolish house design, but it is foolish. First of all, it is built as if the sun does not emit energy. It is built as if there is no such thing as a cold north wind. Which is the case with most of the houses in America, a foolishness induced by inexpensive, abundant fossil fuels. Why regard the elements, when coal, heating oil and gas are so cheap? Well, first of all, because these fuels are finite, so burning them wantonly is profligate and immoral, like stealing from your children. But that is what America has been about, the last hundred years. The world seemed bigger then. It is a forgivable error.

If my 750 sq ft house is an energy sink, what of the 4000 sq ft house? This ubiquitous, more modern version is better insulated, but what a lot of space to heat! And, these houses tend to be remote, from a pedestrian standpoint; you burn an abundance of fossil fuel just getting back and forth from work, school, food, etc. To call the suburbs the greatest mis-allocation of resources in the history of civilization, as James Howard Kunstler did, is no stretch.Without cheap and abundant fossil fuels, most suburban houses will be uninhabitable.

The house of the future will be smaller, and it will take full advantage of the sun. Passive solar design is often less expensive, and more livable, if you are willing to do with less. That house will be made primarily from locally derived materials, recycled and sustainably harvested, without toxic properties, with a minimum of waste - a house to last not less than seven generations. From this point on, any house, any building, not built at the very least for optimal solar collection, is madness. Socially irresponsible. I am not in jest.

The most important question is, when it comes to housing, what are we going to do about the houses that exist? The Market is not going to fix that problem. Under the current incarnation of capitalism, there are hundreds of thousands of men sitting idle, who have the skills to help with this. They could be engaged in the retrofitting of houses. But as far as I know, I am the only one in America thinking about it.

(In my own city, Minneapolis, my point is almost moot, because the streets were plotted in such a way that houses are side by side, north to south. Which means, they rest in each other's shadow. Which means the few houses that can be retro-fitted for passive solar collection are mostly on the south end of the block. Such a small decision by a few men without the simplest of sense, with such a terrible consequence. Nothing short of re-plotting and re-building, or tearing down half the houses in the city, will do.)

The alternative, of course, is to wait until it is no longer financially viable to heat a house with fossil fuels. At that point, of course, the economy will make the so-called Great Recession look like a boom. Which is the likely outcome, because our conception of economic growth is sadly narrow, neither accounting for natural capital or human capital, only accounting for the exchange of financial capital between parties. That the health of the biosphere, natural resources and quality of life are declining, is irrelevant to those Market fundamentalists dominating politics and business these days. Self-interest is paramount. Nowhere is that more evident than in the discussion about taxes, and the unspoken notion that the pain of preventing the insolvency of the nation should be borne by the financially weakest among us.

We Americans have wanted so much. There were no limits. We want to continue to believe there are no limits. But we overshot, badly. We are finding that the modern American house has not been good for America, nor for the character of Americans. We will find, I hope, graciously and without (much) rancor, that a smaller house in harmony with the rhythms of the Earth, will lead to a greater harmony within oneself and with one's neighbors. We are going to have to help each other get there. We haven't had much practice, the last few generations.

I'm hoping to do a passive solar retrofit with my own house. We'll see. I have the knowledge, the skills and the time, but like anybody else, as soon as I come up with the money, I won't have the time. We are all being pulled forward relentlessly by our own insatiability, and America's slavish, narrow-minded, self-righteous, sycophantic, Market fundamentalism. And guess what, fundamentalist, just because I critique capitalism, doesn't mean you get to accuse me of socialism, or communism. That dog don't play no more. I'm a capitalist. A real one. The capitalism I subscribe to isn't so god-damned mean. The capitalism I subscribe to is about harmony between financial, human and natural capital. Which is the future, if we don't destroy America, the Earth and each other before we get there.


Christine said...

Just wanted to say that you are spot on about the problem of heating houses in cold climates. I actually think that there is a serious home heating crisis in the making in Canada where every house HAS to have heat 6 months of year.

Off grid in Saskatchewan,


William Hunter Duncan said...


You have an advantage we do not have in America, because we get most of our natural gas from Canada. Your country can stop sending natural gas to us at the point when it becomes clear your people will suffer otherwise. That is, if your people control the resource.

Thanks for reading