Green From the Ground Up
From siting to size to solar, how one activist grappled with the decisions that went into building his ecofriendly home
By Bill McKibben
Adopting efficient design and solar panels, Bill McKibben put his money where his values are.
THE GREENEST I EVER LIVED was back before I gave the environment a thought. I was a broke young writer sharing a sublet in Manhattan, and to say I lived frugally--well, here's the proof. One afternoon thieves broke into the apartment. They found my roommate asleep, tied him up, and then relieved him of his early-generation Betamax and a few other tools of his trade (he was a movie critic). From me, they stole the cardboard box where I kept my dirty clothes, which they used to carry out my roommate's stereo. He survived, and I found another cardboard box.
I don't live that way anymore. I have a wife, a child, a dog, a car (a hybrid), a video player of my own, and a house. Somewhere in a drawer I also have a certificate announcing that said house was the greenest structure of its size built in Vermont in 2002. But what I'm trying to say, right at the start, is that such a prize doesn't necessarily mean much. There are many ways of being environmentally sensible, some of which don't look green at all. The story of our house-raising illuminates some of those choices.
For one, there's location. Ever since Henry David Thoreau, environmentalists have wanted to live in the woods, which doesn't make much environmental sense. First of all, you need to cut down some of that forest to make room for your house. Then once you're out there on the fringe, you need to travel a long way, usually by car, to get to a job or a store. You can make a strong argument that urban living is the greenest choice and that New York City, simply because so few of its residents own cars or can afford big apartments, is the most sustainable city in the United States.
But my wife and I were done with New York City--and cities in general. We'd been done with them for quite a while, in fact. We'd spent the past 15 years deep in New York State's Adirondack wilderness, living in a ramshackle farmhouse and learning some of the ways to build a reasonably durable life there: providing our own fuel in the form of firewood, for instance. When we moved to Vermont, we knew we wanted to live in the mountains, and because we both work at home, commuting wasn't an issue. We found the town that was right for us, and since there were no existing homes for sale, we decided to build. That's a tough call to begin with--buying an old home can be an effective form of recycling. But the lure of this place triumphed, whereupon we did our small part to wreck it. Not grievously--wonderful friends sold us a vest-pocket meadow deep in the woods. A road already led to it, and the land had been cleared for a century and a half. Still, we had to take down a couple of trees, and our glade isn't as pretty as it was before now that there's a house sitting there. But all things considered, not so bad.
Next comes scale. The average size of new U.S. homes has more than doubled over the past couple of generations, even as the number of people residing in them has shrunk by nearly a full person. The last glory days of the now-fading construction boom were the most insane of all: Outer rings of crenellated and turreted fortresses were sprouting near virtually every U.S. city, each dwelling looking as if it had been designed for an entry-level monarch. The really rich, meanwhile, amused themselves by building above every ski hill and beach ranks of second homes that looked like nothing so much as modernist junior high schools. The environmental costs are myriad, of course--more materials used in construction (making cement for foundations alone is a prime contributor to global warming) and more energy used to heat and power all the resulting square footage. You can turn the thermostat down a degree or two, but if the furnace is warming 4,500 square feet, it's a token gesture.
For me and my wife, the best part of building a new house was sitting with an old designer friend and figuring out what we actually wanted our place to do. We listed all the things that mattered to us: cooking, reading by the fire, having enough bookshelves, and exercising. He configured a space that had room for them and not much more. Now we spend most of the day and evening in one big central room next to the woodstove (and in the summer months, next to a screened-in porch). Our bedrooms are relatively small, because it doesn't take much space to sleep. We're fine with only taking showers, so there's no need for a tub in the compact bathroom. And so on. At a little over 2,000 square feet, the house isn't miniature by any means, but even with two home offices, it's well below the average square footage of a new house in the Northeast (2,600 square feet). And the fact that every inch is useful is even better--there aren't rooms we never venture into, closets we don't need. It's right sized. (Except that we didn't get enough bookshelves.) When--inevitably--we found ourselves running out of money, we had to start jettisoning desires. We're fine without most of the items dropped from our wish list (I've made it this far without a post-and-beam bedroom, and I'll doubtless survive), but those built-in bookshelves would have been nicer than the small Himalayas of review copies and bound manuscripts that dot the house.
Watching our house go up was nerve-racking but also intriguing--the relative importance of various environmental choices became clear just from watching the shell of the place emerge. The real fun came from figuring out how to source materials for the house. Since we were living in a forest, some of it was easy. A neighbor with a team of horses cut a few trees in the forest fringing our meadow, and we used those big firs and spruces for beams. (The traditional technique is to put them up green and let them dry--the first year we lived in the house, we were regularly jolted awake by the gunshot crack of curing wood.) For floors and moldings, we turned to other neighbors. The innovative conservation group Vermont Family Forests was leading an effort to add value for local loggers, and we were one of the first customers for its new products. In particular, the group was pushing floors made not from a single, often imported, species of wood, but from "what the local forest wants to give." In our case, that meant birch, beech, and maple, mixed in a beautiful variety. Vermont Family Forests also specializes in "character wood," i.e., boards with knots and swirls that too often get tossed out in favor of the perfect clear grain that comes from managed plantations. If we'd lived in another region, we would have relied on some other wood for the floors and maybe built the walls with hay bales or adobe--materials that spoke of the place and spoke of it softly.
We got to make other choices too--carpet from recycled fibers, flooring for the mudroom that comes from cut-up tires, and decking made of old plastic Pepsi bottles and sawdust. In each case, the materials took less from the earth and, just as important, promised to be more durable than their conventional counterparts. Five years later, so far so good.
"Green" means a lot of things, of course, and with any finite budget, it's crucial to figure out what's most important. In recent years, the environmental movement has morphed steadily into the climate-change movement--we've come to understand that the single greatest threat the world faces is global warming, and hence the most important solutions have to do with energy. And students of energy have come to understand something else: Though we focus on how we generate power, job number one is almost always figuring out how to conserve it.
The real revelation had to do with insulation. Lots of insulation, mostly blown-in cellulose, which is to say shredded newspapers--just the right thing for a writer to surround himself with. In the ceiling, the insulation is more than a foot thick; when the contractors were blowing it into the walls under high pressure, a whole panel burst from the force. If the insulation is low-tech, the windows are high--probably the most expensive part of the house, ordered specially from a Canadian company. They come with three panes of glass and argon gas in between to increase their efficiency; coupled with a perfect southern exposure and all that insulation, they're enough to keep the house perfectly warm anytime the sun comes out and relatively snug even through a week of gray. Snug enough, in fact, that the biggest chore became how to ventilate: It takes a network of piping and a heat-exchange filter to keep sufficient fresh air flowing in the winter.
We also spent many hours on the Internet figuring out which appliances sipped the least energy. Some of that work paid off--the front-loading washer, for instance, really does the trick. It uses half the water of a traditional washer, which means half the energy necessary to heat the water, and it spins the clothes so fast that they emerge very nearly dry. (Though it must be said that when visitors hear that wild spin cycle for the first time, they invariably think that a small plane is taking off from the basement.) The refrigerator has its freezer on the bottom, which not only saves energy (warm air from the top-mounted compressor rises) but also means more of the items we use most often are at eye level. The compact fluorescent bulbs take a little getting used to; we're happy when one burns out now because we can replace it with a newer model that doesn't take so long to come up to full glow. And the dishwasher--well, we got it because it was supposed to use less hot water than washing by hand. But ours turned out to be a little too eco-sensitive. It doesn't actually heat the water enough to clean the plates, so we have to rinse by hand first.