Opinion: Ochogon: A Sustainability Story (Part III)

Opinion: Ochogon: A Sustainability Story (Part III)

By Charlie “Sweatpants” Schaldenbrand

Part III — Multi-efficiency building

Read part one here, and part two here.

“So that’s the situation. Due to the shortsightedness of Old New York, New New York is going to be destroyed by a giant ball of garbage.” — Prof. Farnsworth

“Fry, what the hell were you people thinking back then?” — Leela

It’s no secret that the United States has a housing crunch of near Biblical proportions. If you’re old, rich, or both and already own a place, this is good for you. If you’re not (as most people aren’t), it’s very bad. Making matters worse, neighborhoods that score the highest on walkability (i.e. where you can accomplish most daily tasks without getting in a car) are also the most expensive and the most sustainable. The cheapest and most available housing is either dire rentals where the landlords have no vested interest in minimizing energy usage or places like Sonoran Ranch. This — to radically understate the matter — is a huge problem.

Ochogon is not, obviously, a solution to the country’s housing shortage. For starters, most people don’t want to live way out in the desert anyway, and medium to high-density urban living is almost always more energy efficient than the extremely low density of very rural areas like Ochogon’s. Nor would it help to spam Ochogons into remote developments like Sonoran Ranch.

But Ochogon is exactly the type of multiple efficiency house that should be sprouting up everywhere. In terms of energy usage, the passive heating and cooling is the headline feature, but there’s so much more. For starters, there’s simple construction waste. The lumber that went into the Ochogon roof weighed down a giant rental truck on its way to the site:


Special thanks to the Lowe’s guys who loaded it for us, because we were pretty beat after getting it out of the racks.


That’s a couple of tons of wood, but it was used so well that when we were done, our tiny Chevy S-10 was able to easily hold all the scrap:


Note that almost all of it is tiny little pieces.


The average 2,000 square foot house produces four tons of waste, much of it wood, and almost all of it discarded. Ochogon’s a lot smaller than that, and the interior isn’t done, but the pile above is a couple hundred pounds at most. And since this was the first effort, Ochogon II (plans are already underway) will produce even less. Since harvesting and cutting lumber uses a lot of energy, this doesn’t just save money, but carbon as well.

And, speaking of saving carbon, here’s the power setup we used during construction:


Look, they’re facing south! This really isn’t that hard to do.


We had a portable gas generator for backup and occasional spot usage, but the power tools ran almost exclusively on solar. Even the panels themselves are recycled. Doug originally bought them for a setup at his home in Michigan, but when he moved to a house that isn’t sited well for solar, he didn’t slap them up at a bad angle. He stored them until he had a real purpose for them. The panels above will eventually be mounted on a raised platform next to Ochogon, not only further shielding the house from the sun, but powering all of its lights and appliances as well.

The roof performs a similar double function, not only keeping the sun out, but also providing a collection surface for rainwater. It doesn’t rain often in the desert, and when it does it typically comes in buckets. But all the water that hits the roof will be directed to a semi-buried storage tank so that — like Desert Home — the residents of Ochogon will never (or almost never) have to haul water. It’s off the grid living with all the comforts of home.

Again, these are not techniques that can be applied 1:1 to denser development. But the principles can. Take the rainwater collection. Most of the grid houses are connected to a water and sewage system, and that’s great. But there’s no reason to, for example, water lawns and gardens with water that has been extensively treated and filtered to make it potable.

Grey water and collected rain water can serve the same purpose. That not only reduces overall water usage (rain that falls on your roof doesn’t leak nearly as much as river water that’s pumped through miles of pipe) but saves energy as well since rainwater doesn’t need to be treated before it’s used to grow plants. Right now, individuals can have rainwater barrels, but there hasn’t been a systemic effort to push these kinds of savings, which means profligate waste continues.

The country needs millions upon millions of square feet of new housing, and most of it needs to be in walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. Beyond that, though, these new homes need to work with their surrounding environments and climates so that heating and cooling don’t need year round infusions of energy and that gardens don’t need drinking water. They need to be built with better and more durable materials that prevent energy usage for decades to come. Most of all, these kinds of tactics need to be looked on not as some kind of eco-friendly bonus, but as the default standard.

Ochogon isn’t the answer because there is no one single answer. But Ochogon is a concrete demonstration of what the answers look like when put into practice.

First published on Charlie Sweatpants.

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