By Cindee Karns, Eagle River, Alaska
PUBLISHED IN "Loaves and Fishes"
Presbytery of the Northwest Newsletter
Sustainable living! We knew that we wanted to make a move toward sustainable living. When my husband, Curt, took the job as Executive Presbyter of the Yukon Presbytery, we decided that our move south to Anchorage from Fairbanks needed to be real change.
Our first thought was to buy a house downtown so that we could give up our cars, start walking and using public transportation. It didn't take long to realize that we would have to pay $400,000 for a house built in 1952 to even live in that area. We broadened our search criteria.
I googled "green sustainable housing" and found www.greenhomesforsale.com. Amazingly there was a green, sustainable house for sale outside of Anchorage in Eagle River. Sadly, it was way out of our price range at $500,000. I emailed anyway and said how much we would love the house if we only had a money tree. That random email opened a dialog that led to the purchase of the house.
Amazingly, it turned out that no one wanted to buy this house. It is a living house and it requires that the inhabitants live in harmony with it. "Don't buy it," everyone said, "it will be a full time job doing all the maintenance." We thought about it all fall. Still, no one bought the house. By December we decided we would tour it and make a very low offer.
In order to live in harmony, in order to be sustainable, shouldn't you have to do some work? Should you only live sustainably if you don't have to change your lifestyle? Only if it's convenient for you?
The house has no septic system and no well. It is built on the side of a mountain, so those traditional systems would cost an arm and a leg to install. Instead, the rain and melt water is collected and used over and over again in a closed water system that the previous owner/builder designed. That means that all of the water used in the house (not toilets) is cleaned and filtered and then is pumped into the house's own indoor wetlands complete with a fishpond. Both toilets in the house are composting toilets so that human waste is turned into soil.
Of course I fell in love with the house, not only the sustainability parts, but the view, the garden, and the idea of walking lightly upon the earth. The owners/builders, who had already moved, finally took our third offer because the house was going into foreclosure. I was thrilled! We had taken a huge leap of faith that we could really live here and manage it all. I am not an engineer. I'm not even a science teacher, but I thought I could learn this one-of-a-kind system. The house was calling to me. Could I use this house to teach others that you can live sustainably? …that it isn't so hard to walk lightly on the earth? ….that if I can do it, anyone can do it?
Little did I know about the political & financial blockades that were in front of us. Since the house was non-conventional, we couldn't get a conventional loan. In order to get a conventional loan, we would have to install a septic system and a well. What nonsense! We wanted to buy a house that was WAY cleaner and so much less damaging to the environment. It didn't make sense. Finally, with nowhere else to turn, I started writing letters to my state legislators.
After lots of negotiation, we reached an agreement with the lenders that if the former Lieutenant Governor, who is also an environmental engineer, would come and inspect the house, we could get a loan. We are so grateful to him. Without his approval, we wouldn't have gotten the house.
We are now learning how to live here. We are careful about chemicals that go into the system (It is a shame that the US government doesn't require cleaning agents to list their contents on the containers.), and we are also trying to figure out the best ways to use this house to educate others about sustainable living.
One thing is for sure, in buying this house, we took the plunge! And by the way, visitors are always welcome.
Stay tuned for part two: The Living House, the details.
The Living House: the details
“Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.” (p. 7)
~ Fritjof Capra
The engineer who built this house calls it a bioshelter, "an integrated house/ greenhouse/ aquaculture system designed to emulate natural living systems in which the subsystems interact with each other to collectively create a self-regulating whole. The goal is to simulate the thermodynamic efficiencies of a complex ecological food chain." (Crosby, p. 1) What an idea: to live in a house that is supposed to be like a live system, like nature! I wondered what that meant exactly. Capra explains the properties of a living system as “properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships among the parts.” (Capra, p. 29)
How biblical, you might say. Did it remind you of 1 Corinthians 12:12? It did me. Even though that verse is talking about Christian community, the idea of the body as a natural system became a metaphor for the house in my mind. “You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body.” That's exactly what our house is: a whole body with many different parts. We live as parts of the whole within the house. Just like in a healthy body and in a healthy system, each part thrives and in our house we are thriving along side the gold fish, the plants, the gravel, the worms, the CO2, the micro-organisms and the thermal mass (earth).
The house was built on the side of a mountain facing the southwest and overlooking the beautiful Eagle River Valley, in order to collect as much passive solar heat and light through the front wall of windows as possible. Inside, the first ¼ of the house is an enclosed water garden complete with a goldfish pond and a small waterfall. Even though there are hardly any other windows, the rest of the house is supplied with natural light through the front windows and a skylight for natural lighting in the back of the house.
The garden space helps heat the house, acting as a buffer between us and the out of doors. It recycles our water and it brings smiles to our faces--especially in winter. We take good care of our garden space. Basically it's an insulated swimming pool filled with sand, gravel and topsoil that, in the deep end, collects water in a 5,000 gallon cistern. Sand, gravel and cement all collect heat: thermal mass. You know this from being in a basement in the summer. It’s cool because the ground surrounding it is cool. In the winter it’s warm, because you are heating the bricks and the ground stays warmer than outside. Our garden and the thermal mass beneath it helps heat our house in the winter and cool it in the summer.
Storing our heat this way has helped change our carbon footprint from 30 tons a year when we lived in Fairbanks and heated with oil, to 10 tons a year now. It is so significant that if we suddenly lost heat in this house at 70 degrees and the outside temperature was 10 above zero, the house would take a week to freeze. Check your carbon footprint at:
We wouldn’t freeze though. We have a Finnish fireplace, a wood-fired masonry heater, that stands in the middle of the house. The fire heats the bricks and they provide radiant heat for the entire house. These kind of heaters burn so hot, there is little carbon expelled into the atmosphere. Our back up heat is a small natural gas boiler.
This house breathes; it has a heat recovery ventilator. It mixes fresh air with inside air so that our house completely exchanges the air in the house every 3 hours. The fresh, dry air is ducted into the garden at the floor level and dehumidifies the garden ---it seems like it’s exhaling. At the top of the garden space, the air is inhaled into the rest of the house and the moisture picked up in the garden space humidifies the inside air.
Even though our water system is a closed system, we replenish our water supply by collecting water from a seasonal spring and from rain water. The fresh water is piped into the garden space where it trickles through the gravel and roots of the plants getting cleaned naturally before it is sterilized through a UV sterilizer and pumped into the cistern. While the average American house uses 70 gallons per person per day just on indoor water use, (Main, p. 68) we only lose about two or three gallons a day per person by drinking it and watering outside plants. The rest of the water is recycled. Check your home water use at: http://www.tampagov.net/dept_water/information_resources/Saving_water/Water_use_calculator.asp
When we use any water in the house, (not toilet) the water is cleaned, sterilized and reused. At each stage of the cleaning process, mirco-organisms help purify the water. First, it’s drained and filtered through three different 50 gallon biofilter drums in the basement, where more than 95% of the pollutants are removed. (To see the builder talk about it, go to: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=F9XC7UoHQiE&NR=1 ) Then the treated water is pumped up to the garden space and into the goldfish pond, which is filled with aquatic plants that clean the water even more. If we have used any product that is not good for us to drink, we know. When the fish start gasping for air, we did something wrong: too much laundry soap, a new shampoo, etc. (No fish have ever died by using them as “canaries in the mine” --so far.)
Next, the pond water over flows into the gravel and topsoil, seeping down into the same collection pipe the rainwater ends up in and is sterilized and pumped into the cistern for reuse. We filter our drinking water one more time before drinking it, but the rest we use as is. Because it's recycled, we have an almost limitless supply of clean water here, something a lot of people in the world wish for on a daily basis. (To see the builder talk about it, go to: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=wDN76_UDzdI )
So what about the toilets, you ask? We have two. One is a biolet, which anyone can purchase at biolet.com. It is electric, and turns waste into dirt every six months or so. The other is a home-made composting toilet which takes human waste and our vegetable scraps. After eighteen months and the addition of 250 earthworms, we have the best organic dirt you can get to use on our flowers and trees. (To see the builder talk about it, go to http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=FYXtSRgw2ZU )
So, we are learning how to live with our house and its systems, We would be glad to encourage you to come visit or build something similar, but what if that’s out of the question? What else can you do? Our next plunge will be solar power we hope. But until we have that figured out, I’m working on how to clean without all of the chemicals that pollute our lungs as well as the common water supplies, which are sold to us in our stores . I’ve figured out that I have brand loyalties (that are difficult to break) to Comet and Lysol, among other cleaning supplies used in my childhood. I'm trying to follow advice from Christopher Uhl in his book Developing Ecological Consciousness, Path to a Sustainable World, who points out that “to eliminate the concept of waste, all materials and products should be conceived of as nutrition…Humans must design things that, after their useful life, return safely to soil and rebuild it.” (Uhl, 266) Using cleaning supplies that can return safely to the soil is something I can do right now.
If you want to follow my lead, this year for Christmas everyone on my list will get microfiber cleaning cloths (not the antibacterial ones), a gallon of vinegar and a box of baking soda with a note that says, "Skip the cleaning aisle at the grocery store for the rest of your life!" I also know that our strongest voice for change is in our dollars. I give my dollars to the brand “Seventh Generation” found in most health food sections of Safeway. It’s good, if you don’t have a favorite green brand yet. Those are things that don’t take time, they take the ability to change. Look for something new each week that you can change to improve life for those “downstream” from each of us. What new steps will you take? You can do it. Take the plunge.
“There are as many ways to build a new world of living systems as there are creative people who want to do it! . . . Each person, as an imaginable disc, can contribute to the process of today’s metamorphosis in some unique way. What matters is that we all understand the Earthdance and the healthy features of living systems at their best. From there we need only the will and the love to create a better future for all living beings.” (p. 365)
Capra, F. (1997). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. Anchor Books.
Crosby. R. (2001). “What is a bioshelter?” Biorealis Systems, Inc. Avail. online at: http://biorealis.com/bioshelter/BioshelterNarr.html
Main, E. (2008). “H2O: One glass at a time.” Green Guide. National Geographic. P. 68-73.
Sahtouris, E. (1999). Earthdance: Living systems in evolution. Avail. online at: http://www.ratical.org/LifeWeb/Erthdnce/
Uhl, C. (2004). Developing ecological consciousness: Path to a sustainable world. Roman and Littlefield.