Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts describing the construction of a net-zero energy house in Rochester, Minnesota, by Tracee Vetting Wolf, Matt Vetting, and their son Max. The family returned to the Midwest from New York and in December 2016 found a 27-acre parcel of rural land where they could build their new home. You can find their complete blog here. This post was written by Tracee.
Matt and I met training for Grandma’s Marathon, an annual event in Duluth, Minnesota. He was getting his Ph.D. in biochemistry as a protein chrystallographer and I was getting my master’s in architecture. We got to know each other over long runs and we learned that we paced each other very well.
But we never talked about energy efficiency until after we’d married. We were living in New York, and paying $4,000–$5,000 a year for oil to heat our drafty 1923 Sears home. Even then, the conversation wasn’t one of overall indignation about the state of the planet, climate change, or anything like that. The conversation was more about how fixed systems like oil production limit and dictate our personal choices.
We talked about how trapped we were by the oil market, knowing that its pricing was determined not only by supply and demand, but also by the politics of countries that struggle to get along, and by greed for money.
We lived in the Hudson Valley of New York for 16 years. Toward the end of that time, both of our professional careers were rocked by a volatile market. I was laid off at IBM and a year later, the grant that supported Matt’s research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine was terminated. We wanted a lifestyle that didn’t require us both to work in order to pay a mortgage. We were concerned about the risks we had stepped into by participating in the ethos of chasing upward mobility. Was this really our American Dream?
Finding beauty in Passive House design
As a trained architect, the lessons I learned about Passive House design principles always represented a certain kind of beauty to me — a beauty in how to live life if you were keen enough to leverage the resources around you. Passive House design principles were, in a way, representative of how to make choices that were sustainable, beautiful, comfortable, modern, free, sensitive, and responsible. This felt like a way to create our own American Dream that was based on a definition of abundance and prosperity not entirely focused on money.
So basically, I guess you could say that an energy efficient home was our idea of what an authentic American Dream looked like.
Building an energy efficient home was also a tractable way in which we could practice non-standard consumer choices to see if it could be done, and pave the way for others to make the same choices. We believe that as consumers, we need to make choices outside of those presented to us from within the fixed systems we live in. If we continue to play the money game in its current form, we continue to feed the environmental and political issues connected with global warming.
Most people believe that building codes provide the necessary scaffolding for building well, when in fact they represent a threshold below which you would be breaking the law. In short, you can do a whole lot better than code. And you would experience personal benefits for doing it. But you have to ask for it.
Thinking outside a closed system
It’s not easy to ask for things that are not part of the current repertoire. You need to find building professionals who are already beginning to practice new methods, or are willing to try. Not everyone is willing; there is resistance to doing something new or different. We certainly ran into that with our build, particularly with our HVAC choices.
So how do you convince people to do something different? Research and science doesn’t always have the evidence needed to substantiate new choices, but the lack of research isn’t proof that the choice is invalid; it only means that the research hasn’t been done yet. We relied on case studies, which helped us understand the impact of other people’s building choices and gave us confidence to insist on trying something that a particular building professional hasn’t done yet themselves. We want our house to be a case study for other people wanting to make different choices.
Together, we can create an authentic American Dream by making different choices within our fixed systems (which could also be applied to healthcare, the food industry and public education). How we choose to live our lives, spend our money (or not spend our money), and the values we strive to uphold can impact fixed systems to operate toward more authentic outcomes and the good of the planet. That’s why we built an energy efficient home.
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