In case you missed the last post, we’re finally building a house!
This post is a personal reflection of how I got to the point of choosing such a radically non-conventional approach to building a house — using material straight from the earth, rejecting mass produced products, integrating it with local ecology, and hand-building as much as possible.
This is a direct response to the systemic, intensifying, and intractable problems in the intersections of growth-based economics, energy, and ecological (un)sustainability.
If you’d rather skip the back-story and get right on with what we’re building, jump here.
Finding the wrong path
I quite enjoy the process of designing and planning. I always had a nagging thought that maybe I missed my calling as an architect. The nagging thought grew strong enough that I even enrolled in night classes for a “pre-architecture” program at a local community college during a midlife career-crisis at age 37. I still had time, my thinking went, to go back to school, pivot completely away from a career in software, and reinvent myself as some type of architect/designer/planner.
I was undergoing a rather massive personal transformation at the time, questioning virtually everything about my life up to that point. I had become disillusioned, to put it mildly, with my career selling software to the world’s largest multinational corporations. I had all the hallmarks of success, by traditional measures. However, a growing feeling of emptiness eventually turned to full-on self contempt as I grew to understand that my participation in the rat race of consumer culture was a destructive force. I was making the world a worse place, not a better one.
I knew I needed to make a change, but I quickly discovered that architecture wasn’t the right path. There were numerous reasons why, but foremost was the realization that architecture, as a profession, is a game that serves the rich and powerful vested interests and destructive institutions that I was growing to despise. There are notable exceptions (Econest or Earthship Biotecture, for example) but bucking the trend means working outside the institutions and facing perpetual professional barriers.
Architects aspire to change the world through innovation and design. There’s no end to the new and better ways we can design the built environment. There’s a dizzying amount of fantastic new green products and technology to make buildings more efficient. Materials science is advancing at exponential rates just like computing and communications technology. Cutting edge manufacturing processes allow designing buildings in labs, fabricating them with robotic precision, and drop-shipping them into place. Industrialize the process, leverage global supply chains, drive down costs, and sublime architecture will change the world, the thinking goes.
Maybe. Or maybe not. The problem is that the entire mainstream building industry is a system that has emerged (as systems do) as a way to serve the dominant cultural narrative of consumerism and endless growth. Sure, let’s grow our way to sustainability by designing, manufacturing and selling countless fancy high tech gadgets and building fancy eco-mansions for the “enlightened” privileged class.
It’s a belief that we can innovate our way out of all the predicaments of modernity. A belief that we can decouple ecological impact from economic growth. It’s more of the story we all know — recycle, change light bulbs, buy the green products, get new energy efficient appliances. If you’re a real hero, buy a Tesla and build a solar-powered green mansion. Done. Problem solved. It promises to absolve the “enlightened consumer” of any guilt. It doesn’t threaten any of the powerful vested interests of consumer capitalism. It promises all the gain, none of the pain. It lulls us into a sense of complacency that prevents collective action on the scales that are necessary.
Getting on the right path
Realizing that my career-crisis was born out of a need to separate myself from this destructive but ever-present cultural narrative, I didn’t have the stamina or time to fight the system from within by going through architecture school.
Everything in my life was pointing me toward some basic truths that needed to be accounted for:
- Unlimited growth on a finite planet WILL NOT continue forever
- Every major ecological system is in rapid decline
- Human caused climate change is happening now
These points are widely known and there’s few people (especially young people) that don’t have some level of consciousness about these facts. Every individual wants to do their part to reduce their negative impact on the planet and leave things in better shape that they found them. However, every institution in our society pushes us toward a certain type of thinking as a means to solve these problems and feel better about our positive healthy choices.
These are called structural problems, because it’s our core cultural systems — economic, religious, social — that dictate our behaviors. And cultural systems evolve from core cultural narratives — basic shared beliefs we have about the role of individuals, work, relationships, etc.
How is it, that the vast majority of individuals in a system want one outcome, but the system still consistently produces another outcome? Is it because of some powerful behind-the-scenes actor controlling opinions? Fake News? The Koch Brothers? George Soros? A cabal of multinational CEOs? The Federal Reserve? This seems to be the overwhelmingly dominant theory no matter what end of the political spectrum you fall on — we’re right, they’re wrong. It’s the good guys vs the bad guys. It’s the equivalent of rooting for a political team just as you’d root for your favorite football team.
For people of this political persuasion, politics and activism are a logical response. But, I don’t buy it. These problems are structural, and each of us participates in the systems that create the problems. No politician or policy can solve our modern ecological, economic, and social problems. Our economic system requires consumption and growth which drives ecological destruction. And at the end of the day, it’s this very growth that is the problem — no amount of green-tech, carbon capture, grow-food-in-labs, magical future thinking will save us.
So, there you have it. If we’re going to re-build anything resembling a fulfilled and purposeful life, we need to consciously quit following cultural norms and standards that are making things worse.
What better way to start rebuilding this life than by building the house we’ll do it in.