Home Sweet Eco-Home

“There's no place like home,” said Dorothy as she clicked her heels together and thought of Kansas. Most Americans would agree. With all the modern conveniences we now enjoy-from VCRs to takeout pizza-it's no wonder more people are staying home these days. Unfortunately, high-tech homes have a cost-according to a special report to the Massachusetts legislature, as much as 50 percent of all illness is attributable to indoor air pollution, often a result of the chemicals in our furniture, carpet, wall insulation and even paint.

Jerry Russell Illustration

Modern homes also have environmental impacts, consuming huge quantities of increasingly scarce wood products in their construction, requiring frequent delivery of fossil fuels to heat and cool, and employing a wide variety of costly and dangerous chemicals to maintain.

The “eco-home,” a relatively recent idea, was designed to put a minimal burden on the Earth and provide a healthy living environment. The best eco-homes-and there are as many designs as there are environmentally conscious architects-are built with sustainable materials and a minimum of chemical intrusion on a compact floor plan. Features like passive solar heating and compact fluorescent lighting are built right in.

Many houses are based on this model, of course, but all-too-often today's eco-homes are really costly eco-mansions, with five or six bedrooms, three baths (including a jacuzzi of course) and other luxury features.

The Rocky Mountain Institute calls for eco-houses that are “economical to build and operate,” and that clearly means reducing square footage. Green homes have to get smaller, and there are good demographic reasons for this. About one third of American households now have just one occupant. People are staying single longer and couples are waiting before having children. These empty nesters obviously don't need five-bedroom homes but, unfortunately, having an environmental consciousness doesn't exempt us from status considerations. In the past five years, the average size of a new American home has grown by 10 percent.

The voluntary simplicity movement strikes a chord when it asks, “Why are we choosing money over time?” It's a good question. We could now reproduce our 1948 standard of living in less than half the time it took in 1948. Alice Horrigan's cover story in this issue proves that a new home doesn't have to be a money, time and resource pit. It is possible to build a compact but entirely livable home with many advanced energy-saving features for $80,000 or less, and existing plans can help you do it.

Also in this issue, E begins a two-part series on American forests with an interview with Randall Hayes of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and a close-up look at the future of Alaska's vast Tongass, where subsidized logging has long done battle with conservation and recreational interests. Part II of the series (coming up in September/October) will look at prospects for reforming the logging industry at a crucial time when only five percent of our old-growth forest heritage remains.