A Home Truth

I grew up in an A-frame with mildewed redwood siding perched alone on a shrubby hill in Medford, Oregon. The house was an oddity in its prime. Today, from certain angles, it probably frightens children. The neighborhood has also changed, from thick stands of chaparral and oak to stone-veneered McMansions. Down the road, at Roxy Ann Orchard, my folks used to pick up crates of pears and leave a few bucks at the untended till inside an old white barn. Over the years, I watched their pear trees yield to grapevines. The barn is now the rustic-chic tasting room of a winery. A bottle of its flagship Honor Barn Red goes for $18. They don’t use the honor system anymore.

In the late 1970s, when my parents began building the house, the oil embargoes had given America an unwelcome sense of its limits. Dad was a millworker and tennis coach; Mom did vocational rehabilitation. (The lumber mills kept her busy, too.) They thought of themselves as “earth people,” as in they ate lots of granola and lentils, and used a composting toilet while they forged ahead with a home design oriented for prime solar exposure. The giant isosceles triangle they fashioned — its roof sloping at 20/12 — is sturdy as a brick. But pinched by double-digit mortgage rates, they paid for it piecemeal out of pocket. The result was an endless project that never really met its mark in form or function. A drafty enclosure with poor insulation gave our comfort over to the whims of the elements. Rain and pests always seemed to find creative ways in. I distinctly recall the piercing crack of my dad’s .22 repelling woodpeckers from the eaves while we watched Saturday morning cartoons. More recently, my mother texted me a photo of an elaborate honeycomb she had discovered in the ceiling of my old bedroom. Today, almost 40 years after its foundation was poured, the house remains unfinished.

Having never built a house of my own, I don’t mean to throw shade at my parents, but to illustrate what I see as a housing professional: a tendency to design and operate buildings as an assortment of components, rather than a fluid union of interdependent systems. Part of the problem is that we’re not used to expecting as much from our homes as we do other technology in our lives — in fact, we probably don’t even think of them as technology.

Since I took my first “green” job weatherizing low-income homes eleven years ago, I’ve learned to see human habitat as more than four walls and a roof. The thought — or lack of it — that goes into building a house shapes everything from the smallest details of our lives to the fate of the planet. Beauty matters. To paraphrase Tom Robbins, ugly homes breed ugly habits. A “broken home” is understood to be a kind of portal through which evil enters the world. The extent to which our homes are a haven to us and a credit to civilization has as much to do with their elegance as their fundamental engineering.

Today, I live and work in Arctic Alaska, surrounded by beauty — jagged towers of rumbling sea ice, failed sunrises that spill like egg yolk over the horizon. I’ve watched lightshows in the northern night sky that left me longing for a cigarette afterward — and I don’t smoke. But the place has its demons. The scourges of suicide, child abuse, rape, and drug addiction pierce every boundary of class and clan, leaving no one untouched. The warming of the earth’s climate is felt severely enough here to squelch all but the most obdurate skeptics; little sincere doubt remains in the hearts of proud people forced to plead with the federal government to save their towns. Census takers clinically describe the housing as substandard. From the air, it looks like a jumble of crates that fell off a UPS truck.

Build now, civilize later. John McPhee characterized Alaska’s frontier country this way, but the same sentiment permeates acts of construction everywhere. It’s the mantra responsible for strip malls and traffic jams and thermostat wars and whiplash over pipelines and the consumptive isolation of suburbia. It explains the frustrating kludge of my childhood home.

I can swing a hammer, and some days of the week I do, but I’m a project manager, not a construction guru. To tell the truth, I’m not really much of a project manager, but you wear the hats you’re given when you’re a moderately capable person in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. I am enough of an observer, though, to sense the parallels between my earliest experiences with green technology — plugging literal holes in buildings — and my impulse to help close gaps in human understanding, the seed of which undeniably took root in the long shadow cast by that ambitious, flawed house on the hill.