The House that Ruth Didn’t Build

Months ago, I attended a local green event at a newly built, fairly state-of-the-art “eco-home” here in town. It had all the green-friendly bells and whistles, from a geothermal heating and cooling system, to ENERGY STAR lighting and appliances, to nontoxic paints and other features that promote healthy indoor air quality. But the place was so huge that when I asked to use the bathroom I almost had to write down the directions!

My own home is starting to feel this way, too. Fifteen years ago we took it from the rundown one story “pad” I bought in 1984 prior to getting married to a two-story to accommodate a family that had recently grown from two to four.

Part of the renovation involved bringing some of the outside in: What had been a narrow terrace running across the front of the house became a long hallway inside the house. I wonder now how much I’ve spent to heat that space—essentially still a walkway—in the years since. The extra 200 square feet has provided an indoor expansion great for our big once-a-year holiday party, but it is almost dead space the other 364 days a year. If another renovation were in order, I’d put it back outside and let Mother Nature heat and cool it. But as we now approach being empty nesters, we’re looking seriously to pick up and just find a much smaller place.

Apparently we’re not alone. Between rising energy prices and a growing recognition that we’d probably be a lot happier not having to manage all our accumulated “stuff,” many Americans are opting to simplify, and small-house advocates are growing in numbers. Some are at the extreme end—Gregory Paul Johnson, one of the founders of the Small House Society, lives in a 140-square-foot home—while most others are just looking at more creative ways to design their living spaces for maximum efficiency. In a time of economic crisis, we’re all beginning to reevaluate our priorities and discovering how many things we can live without. Wasted space becomes a luxury we no longer can afford.

But not everybody’s eager to give up their excesses. With baseball season underway, attention has turned to what Major League Baseball stadiums are doing to green their operations—adding solar panels, using low-flow water fixtures and recycled materials, beefing up recycling efforts. But the nation’s most famous sports outfit—the New York Yankees—has instead robbed the Bronx community where it built its new stadium of 70% of its trees and over 25 acres of parkland—including many local baseball fields. For the high-flying ticket holders the new stadium boasts more luxury and party suites and a lot more parking. Tough luck if you can’t afford the price tag.

Former Boston Red Sox pitcher Bill “Spaceman” Lee, baseball’s iconic counterculture figure, talks to E about why it’s so tough to get baseball players to care about the planet, even as so many teams—like the Washington Nationals, the Red Sox, the Colorado Rockies and the New York Mets—are finally catching on. Sometimes, it seems, getting people to care requires a bit of struggle, something the rest of us have become all too familiar with of late.