- Ian Thompson
Building A Green Home on the Range
Earlier this month, we closed on the sale of our starter farm (a home and 13 acres). With the funds from that sale, we’ll finally be able to build our new home at the Nan Away Farmstead. Designing a new home is an exciting process. It means thinking about colors, materials, floor layouts, appliances and all of the things that go into making a comfortable living space and a place to welcome visitors. For us, there’s another equally important consideration that will hopefully be of more practical value to our readers than a discussion about our lampshades.
Actually, it’s something that is hard to accept at first. We are serious consumers. By that, I mean that if the rest of the world consumed resources like the average American, it would take four planet earths to satisfy us. The problem isn't just inequality, although that’s part of it. Our rampant consumption is threatening our own future. This is true not just on a global scale, but for our own household too.
Living in balance with the land is a key tenet of Choctaw traditional culture. Even though the two of us have really tried to live out that ethic, the level of harm we personally still cause this planet is frightening. The house we've been living in for the last 6 1/2 years is fairly small. In it, we've always shifted our thermostat 20 degrees between summer and winter. We didn’t use our dishwasher, and we've dried half of our clothes on a clothesline outside. We recycled all of our paper, plastic, cardboard, and tin cans, and composted our food waste. Despite those efforts, with an energy co-op that derives 85% of its electricity from fossil fuels, the two of us have been putting about 10 tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year just from our home’s energy use. To put that into perspective, every year our little home has produced an amount of carbon dioxide equal in weight to twenty fully grown buffalo cows. Most of that CO2 will gallop around in the air for centuries, trapping the sun's heat and causing the planet's climate to become warmer and more erratic. In the same vein, when we bought our car in 2012, we purchased the most fuel-efficient model that we could afford. Nevertheless, with the high number of miles that we drive, our car puts another 10 tons of CO2 into the air every year. (Curious to see how much much CO2 your household emits, and how much money you could save by reversing that trend? We challenge you to enter your numbers here: https://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/).
This planet is resilient. It will survive the damage that we are causing to it, but we may not. Thirteen federal agencies recently presented their views of what human-caused climate change will mean for Americans by the year 2100, if humanity doesn't stop releasing so much CO2. Billions of hours of work productivity will be lost each year to increasing heat and humidity; the national economy will lose ten percent as a result of the broad-reaching effects of climate change, and tens of thousands of Americans will die each year from heat stress (https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/). Local projections for our region are horrifying. Long-term droughts, unpredictable floods, and a many-fold increase in days over 100 degrees each year may make farming as we know it impossible in Oklahoma within our lifetimes. The United Nations recently published a report, drawing upon more than 6,000 scientific publications about the climate. According to the report, if humanity does not drastically change our way of doing things, we may reach a climate tipping point within just 11 years. Once we pass that point, there will be nothing we can do to prevent catastrophe for ourselves.
Today, climate change is the greatest threat to our planet, our to country, and to our little farm. It’s easy to focus on the negative, but we truly have the ability to do something about it. For more than a century, the fossil fuel industry has concentrated wealth in the hands of a few owners. Some powerful corporations have funded misinformation campaigns to keep people in the dark about the lives that their pollution has cut short and to keep people confused about climate change. We really don't need that; we have the ability to empower ourselves. New technologies are making clean, renewable energy available for almost everyone. All over the world, individuals, communities, and even a few countries are taking the stand to move to 100% renewable energy. To prevent the worst of climate change, they need a lot more people to join them. We are excited to accept that challenge.
For us, building a new home represents not just an opportunity to create a new living space, but also an opportunity to build a new relationship between our household and the land that is better aligned with the traditional Choctaw lifeway. We have no experience in home construction, but with the help of knowledgeable friends and family, we have entered onto a steep learning curve. Our friends Rebekah (a talented young architect) and her husband Spencer (a carpenter and an artist) helped us to design it. Our friends and neighbors, Jim and Ryan, will be building it. The plans that we have jointly come up with to make our new home “green” are multi-tiered. We will be decreasing our living space slightly, and breaking it up into two stories, which will be more efficient to climate control. The roof and exterior of our new home will be covered in steel, a durable building material that can easily be recycled. The roof will be painted a light color to reflect some of the sun’s heat. The walls and roof will be super insulated, to help our home remain comfortable during the winter and the brutal Oklahoma summer, alike. Our floors will be concrete. We’ll install Energy Star appliances and LED lights. To top it off, literally, we'll install solar panels on the roof, which will produce as much energy as our household consumes (if our calculations are right).
Most of this is not nearly as difficult as you might think; it just requires a little research and working with a knowledgeable home builder. Actually, the biggest challenge so far has been the environmental codes of our state, which are anything but progressive. Ironically, these have prevented our home from being as green in its water use as we had originally planned.
There is a general conception that building green costs more than standard construction, but the price tag for our brand new home (including the solar panels and super insulation) is a bit less than the appraised value of the 15-year old home we'll be moving out of. Compared to living in our old home, we stand to save about $1,500 per year on utilities. Our next goal, as soon as we can save up for it, is to purchase an electric vehicle and power it with our home’s solar panels. This will not only mean that our house will stop sending up those destructive CO2 buffalos, but also that the $2,000 dollars that we had been spending each year for gasoline will stay our pockets. The small electric SUV we have our eye on is about the same price as a gasoline-powered one, but it makes more sense finically - We'll be able to run it on free, home-produced energy and with far fewer parts than a gasoline engine, it has a longer life expectancy.
Over the next few months and beyond, we’ll be posting a few blog articles on the things we're learning about building techniques and living practices that will help to make our green home on the range comfortable and cost-effective. We hope that by sharing our learning process along way, we may help make the path to a sustainable home a little easier for other people in our area who have a similar interest. When its all finished, we'll hold an open house.