What innovations in housing should Saugertiesians be thinking about as economic and environmental pressures increase as a result of climate change, rising oil prices and the resulting increase of economic instability? This was the question discussed at the Revisioning Local Housing panel organized by Sustainable Saugerties Transition Town at the Saugerties Library community room on May 20. Panelists Greg Pedrick, Django Houston, Chase Randell and Frank X. O’Leary presented energy-efficient, sustainable, cutting-edge alternatives to current housing construction practices and answered the many questions that arose.
Greg Pedrick, a project manager for NYSERDA, discussed deep energy retrofitting to make existing homes significantly more efficient than standard weatherization. According to Wikipedia, the process can include energy efficient equipment, air sealing, moisture management, controlled ventilation, insulation and solar control. Pedrick cites studies that show retrofitting reduces energy use by 60 percent compared to 15 percent for weatherization. As residential buildings are responsible for 21 percent of American energy use, the energy resources saved would be meaningful, and it can all be done by homeowners without requiring governmental policies to change or be put in place.
Besides saving resources, retrofitting preserves the value of existing housing stock. Older homes in particular, because they are constructed of untreated natural materials, have many advantages over homes constructed of mass-produced synthetic and chemically-treated materials. Significant amounts of government funding ($45 million in the state of NY annually) go to heating assistance programs, money that Pedrick believes would be better spent on retrofitting older homes. The substantial expense of retrofitting can be mitigated by doing it in stages (roof, walls, basement).
Moving from improving the energy efficiency of existing housing stock to new construction, Django Houston discussed an alternative to traditional home construction developed in Taos, New Mexico in the 1970s: the Earthship. Houston, a stonemason with a local business (Living Stone), “fell in love at first sight” with Earthship design and has been learning about it ever since. It relies on passive solar techniques such as a south-facing wall composed almost entirely of windows, an outer frame of used tires which store the solar energy collected by the south wall, and a bermed back wall that takes advantage of the underground temperature of 55 degrees to help with heating needs. Cans and bottles form interior walls, completing the cycle of repurposing materials that we would otherwise waste.
Earthship houses collect and store rainwater for drinking, bathing and kitchen use. The gray water produced is used to irrigate vegetables grown indoors or outdoors and is collected a final time for flushing toilets. A solar system with batteries is used for electricity; the Earthship is “off the grid.” And its construction is very low-tech so that anyone can build one. Houston has been commissioned to build an Earthship in Woodstock next year and is hopeful that the local Planning Board will be as eager to learn about the advantages of an Earthship house as he is to get to work on one in our area.
The final panelists, cofounders of the Long Spoon Collective in Saugerties, Chase Randell and Frank X. O’Leary, have built and live in tiny houses, dwellings that encourage community living and shared resources. Randell and O’Leary believe that incremental changes have become irrelevant. As environmentalist Bill McKibben has said, the changes our environment is undergoing are not going to be a problem for our grandchildren; they are problems our grandparents should have already dealt with. These two presenters believe that as we have become alienated from natural systems and the sources of production of the goods and services we consume, we have unwittingly created the conditions for the inevitable collapse of the culture we live in. The only thing that will improve our chances of thriving in the world of the future is to change our relationship with consumerism and with each other. Sharing resources and building communities in which neighbors rely on each other is no longer just a moral argument, they believe; it has become a practical necessity.
A tiny house is a dwelling that is either mobile or no larger than 144 square feet. It shares many characteristics with Earthship design: composting toilets, solar heating technology, passive solar orientation and collection of rainwater for household use. And it exists ideally as part of a community of Tiny Houses that grow their own food and shares its resources.
Randell and O’Leary are working hard to help as many people as possible to live sustainably. The Long Spoon Collective they have founded has built two Tiny Houses and is looking for places to build more. They use reclaimed building materials, donated by contractors or scavenged, all locally sourced. And the Long Spoon Collective is well on its way to modeling the kind of social environment its founders believe is necessary for people to thrive in the future we face, including growing its own food, right here in Saugerties.
Questions following the presentation included the challenge of living in the small space of a Tiny House. Randell and O’Leary pointed out that being part of a tiny house community creates a wider world for residents in which less personal space is felt to be necessary. A member of the audience had solved this problem by adding a deck to her very small home, creating an outdoor living space. Issues related to elderly people on fixed incomes living in older houses were also addressed, with smaller living spaces created by closing off parts of a house suggested as one solution to aging in place. The importance of community to support this population was also noted. Panelists were optimistic about the challenges of working with building codes and permits as local boards become familiar with the advantages of these sustainable housing alternatives.