One of the greatest advancements man has made over our human history was to develop shelter from the unforgiving elements. A recent cartoon movie “The Croods” exemplifies the safety and security early man and his family gained from having a secure cave in which to spend the night. (Other aspects of the cartoon are just for fun.) Ask just about any mom what she values the most and it will be a safe and secure home in which to raise her children. The “American Dream” has been sold has having to include expensive cars, big homes and lots of stuff, no matter the cost or sacrifice. Another part of the ethos is the necessity to always be upwardly mobile and always be gaining more and more and bigger and bigger in order to achieve said “American Dream”.
Now, I’m absolutely in favor of achieving our God given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Pursuit, not standing still waiting for happiness to just happen.) Comfort and security for our families should be our first priority. I begrudge no man or woman that has gained a greater level of comfort then I’ve been able to achieve. Nowhere does it say that I am entitled to have has much as the other guy or that he give up some of his comfort so I feel better about my situation. (End of soapbox tirade.)
Shelter is a very important component for our long term well being. As we explore what a sustainable dwelling looks like, you will get the definite feeling that a 4,500 square foot home is not really necessary unless your housing two or three families. Good for you if you have one, but once you start adding up the long term and embodied costs (utilities and maintenance) you may decide smaller is more sustainable.
Let’s clear up the matter of what is sustainable, green, carbon footprints, earth-friendly or any of the many other descriptors of how we should live. No one should dictate to you how you should live. That is the problem when government decides to let us know how we should be living. I have decided to adhere to an extremely simple premise. Don’t use more than you need. We all have different needs and bars by which to measure those needs. Once someone tries to establish a one size fits all parameter to define our needs, someone will fall outside of that parameter and a feeling of unfairness prevails. Do you know anyone who is considered impoverished by the government but drives a nicer car then you? All of us must decide for ourselves what we need and what we can get by with or without. Sustainable living is really about using fewer resources to provide for your comfort, today and tomorrow. I don’t need a government incentive to stop wasting fuel, it should just make sense. Nor do we need government assistance (intrusion!) to achieve a truly efficient sustainable lifestyle. We just need to make it happen. We need to always be thinking about how we can save precious resources and stop the wasteful throw away thinking prevalent in our society today.
Sustainability begins at Home
Our dwelling should be and must be our safe and secure castle. We need to be safe, dry and warm while providing for our immediate needs such as food, energy, water and material goods such as tools and clothing. This is where we come together as a family to support other members of our family. This is where we gather for our meals and commune together. It must be the center of our intimate family universe. Does that mean you need a bigger castle then the other guy to achieve a greater sense of unity and accomplishment of your family? I have seen the most impoverished children with wide smiles standing in front of their hovel that most would consider uninhabitable. There are many examples of this in third world countries but here in the states most would look down on that dwelling and demand it be removed for the safety of its inhabitants thereby making them homeless. (While at the same time remove an eyesore which disturbs their delicate sensibilities.)
Here in America, many poor folks live in run down apartments or ramshackle housing that still has a television, stove and indoor plumbing. Sometimes there is even a relatively new automobile being meticulously cared for in the driveway. What is wrong with this picture? Why do we warehouse people and look the other way as they suffer. Our guiding principals will attempt to answer this question. Help a man or woman gain something to call their own and they will care for it. That is what they are doing with their automobile. Sometimes they save for months to buy a tool or item of clothing which they will protect, cherish and care for. Most do not own their dwelling and have no prospect of ever owning a home. Can you see why their houses are run down and not maintained while the car they do own is well cared for. They have no vested interest in their hovel so why would they improve their living situation for an absentee slumlord?
You will get plenty of opinions on which of the big four you should concentrate on first. As mentioned in other places, it depends on your situation. Having a big pile of canned food will not keep you warm when the temperature drops below freezing. Freezing to death next to a running stream or not being able to start a fire in a monsoon are not options we should consider. Therefore, I always consider providing a place from which I can stay dry and warm first. Then I can proceed to provide more comforts and necessities as I am able.
We are not addressing emergency or short term shelter here. For those options see the many prepper pages on the internet. We are not going to try and convince you to move out of your large comfortable home and set up housekeeping in a yurt. (Not yet!) What we are going to do is show you a way to shelter your family in such a manner that is low cost, healthy, sustainable and low impact.
There are lots of books and commentary on “sustainable, green or earth-friendly” structures that will provide shelter for a family. Understand that these options are not always cheap or easy for everyone to build. Almost every square foot of land you can build on is part of some jurisdiction that will have a say in what you build. Codes and ordinances can increase construction costs as well as dictate where you can build on your own property. Truth be told, many of our “permitted” houses are woefully energy inefficient and poorly planned. The modern tract home was designed to make the developer as much money as possible and yet comply with the codes and ordinances as little as possible. Zoning rules allowed us to squeeze as many housing units as we could into as small a space as possible. Folks, this wasn’t done by benevolent builders to make our lives better or sustainable.