Opinion: Ochogon: A sustainability story (part I)

By Charlie “Sweatpants” Schaldenbrand

The “Ochogon” is a sustainable house currently under construction in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. It’s pretty cool all on its own, but it also illustrates how great genuinely sustainable housing can be. This is the first of three posts describing what it is, why it matters, and how it applies outside the desert.

Orchogon 1

Ochogon, looking very small amidst the vastness of the Sonoran Desert.

Part I — The Scale of Sustainable

“When you go home tonight, there’s gonna be another story on your house!” — Hank Scorpio

Sustainability is a simple word for a simple idea: living on Earth without taking more out of it that can be replaced. Its very simplicity means that it is easily co-opted, either by marketing departments or fear mongering denialist types. But in our increasingly eco-aware society, “sustainable” is something that a lot of people have floating around vaguely in the back of their minds.

The desire for sustainability (or at least the social appearance thereof) is what triggers that little endorphin release when you drop things into the recycle bin instead of the garbage, or use your own bags at the grocery store instead of the plastic ones. It’s what makes you feel at least semi-responsible when you buy something with one of those Energy Star stickers on it. However, while all of those are positive steps, they bring an ordinary American about as close to a sustainable existence as dry masturbation does to the peaks of sexual ecstasy.

Nobody really knows just how much our total energy consumption needs to go down to get to sustainable, but credible estimates range from 50% up to 80%. All the electric cars, residential solar panels, and LED lights in the world aren’t going to get us anywhere even close to that. It can’t be said enough: people’s personal shopping choices to be “green” (or whatever) aren’t going to stabilize the climate.

So despite any hopeful articles you may have read about the rapid adoption of solar and wind energy, we are essentially still running cyborg sociopath Dick Cheney’s energy policy: treating energy conservation as “personal virtue”. It’s not quite the same as not doing anything, but it’s not far off either.

Expecting us to shop our way out of this is foolhardy. Instead, the systems and policies that underlie our society and our economy need to be changed. People shouldn’t have to go around with the knowledge that the basic sustenance of their lives is ruining things for their children. Everyone should be able to live in confidence that their personal home isn’t slowly trashing the big blue marble we all call home.

For an example of how we’re currently going backwards, look no further than this monument to energy gluttony:

Orchogon 2

In the last couple of years, the median size of new houses built in the U.S. has gone up, beyond even where it was at the peak of the housing bubble. As a rule of thumb, the larger a house is, the more energy it takes to heat and cool it. And since heating and cooling homes take gargantuan amounts of energy, many times all the gasoline and diesel used by all the cars and trucks in the country, this overlooked trend alone could have the same size impact on global warming as anything Trump does.

Here’s the kicker:

“The post-recession increase in single-family home size is consistent with the historical pattern coming out of recessions. Typical home size falls prior to and during a recession as some homebuyers cut back and then sizes rise as high-end homebuyers, who face fewer credit constraints, return to the housing market in relatively greater proportions. This pattern has been exacerbated in the last two years due to market weakness among first-time homebuyers.”

Rich people are doing this so they can live in poorly insulated, high ceilinged, tasteless McCastles while everyone else imitates them to feel respectable. It goes almost without saying that the overwhelming majority of these monuments to excess exist deep in the sprawl where even short trips mean ten-minute car rides.

Worse yet, these houses are going to exist for decades, dangling at the end of the grid, sucking power we already can’t afford to generate. And if you think electric cars can make endless tendrils of exurbs work, consider the following.

The all new, state of the art Chevy Bolt has a 60,000Wh battery that allows it to travel (per GM’s claims) roughly 200 miles. Assuming those numbers are accurate, that means it takes your brand new, eco-conscience salving all electric vehicle about 300W to go a mile. A 2,500 square foot house built anywhere south of Iowa will probably have at least a “4-ton” air conditioner, which can easily require 5,000 watts for just an hour of use. Running that baby for just a single warm day will consume as much power as a couple of weeks of driving your Bolt. (Yes, yes, these are inexact comparisons, the scale is correct, though.)

Happily, there are all kinds of passive (a/k/a energy free) ways to heat and cool homes and offices: tighter insulation, energy glass windows, and trees that shade the sun-facing sides of buildings are all cheap ways to save money and energy. For most homeowners, the deepest green action they could take would be to spend that kitchen remodel money on better windows, tighter doors, thicker insulation, and other wonderful yet unsexy revisions.

Most existing homes were built with the expectation that energy would always be so cheap as to be essentially unlimited, and they can and should be fixed up. What’s so profoundly, maddeningly, head-smash-desk stupid about the above graph, however, is that it means that we’re still building new homes on that same outdated energy assumption.

To see what I mean, consider two extreme examples from Arizona. One is an ordinary housing development that wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in America. The other is one of the outright coolest damn houses under construction in the country.

First published on Charlie Sweatpants.

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