Monday, November 12

Why houses don't use the information we already have

I love fireplaces. I know people who hate them, but I love them. I have fond childhood memories of getting to build fires and light them any time I wanted to at a certain neighbor's house, so there's a sense of connectedness and competency that comes from seeing one. Another part is the coziness that the smell of pine smoke hanging in the winter air evokes. I've never had to depend on a fireplace for heat, so it's recreational. And I make fires so rarely that I just buy pre-chopped wood, so there isn't work associated with it.

My childhood home had a fireplace chimney on the roof, but the space the fireplace would have been in under it was a sun room. Someone long before my parents bought the house took out the fireplace. I always wondered about this, and vowed that I'd never do that.

Well, I have a fireplace now, and I'm seriously thinking about doing exactly that. It is the fireplace that makes my living room cold.

First, there there the masonry which conducts my heat outside. Second there is a pipe that allows air warmed through the glass doors to move upward toward the sky. Third, and most frustratingly, the fireplace is located in a bump-out in an external wall and the bumpout is capped above ground. So this conduit for the warm air in my house is exposed to the elements on 5 out of six sides. Finally, the cap on the bottom on my bumpout is rough plywood. And when I knock on it, I can hear the firebox echoing. So it is an uninsulated exposed masonry extension of my living room. I feel like my house is mooning the world.

When I was house shopping I found myself wondering over and over, "With 6,000 years of building experience, why do we still do things like this?" My house was the first I'd seen that I didn't have that reaction too... all the windows are double-paned, the roof space is insulated, I share a wall with neighbors for better use of heating resources, the roof lines and decks are positioned to provide shelter from the summer sun but access for the winter sun, and the floors are partitioned into modest-sized rooms that open onto shared areas.

Then there's this darn chimney. So why do we do things like this?

The simple answer is it's the market. I want the best house for the money I have to spend, and I'm more likely to respond to the visible things inside -- the fireplace -- than the care taken in construction. If I wanted to buy a house this size with a pre-insulated basement, insulation in the external walls, an efficient fireplace, great window placement, and energy star appliances, they're available just up the street... for a mere doubling of the cost. If I want all that, and my current house payment, I'd have a condo in a transitional urban neighborhood.

This, of course, is also the reason why there are so many more houses like mine than there are like the houses up the street.

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NotSoBigLiving is the story of a woman inspired by Sarah Susanka, Bill McKibben, Airstreams, Tumbleweed houses, Mennonites, Jimmy Carter, hippies, survivalists, Anasazi, Pema Chodron and Joko Beck, Scott Peck, Buckminster Fuller, and Al Gore to see what she can do to reduce her carbon footprint in her mid-80's suburban townhome. Strategies include roommates, alternative travel, organic eating, planting a victory garden, mindfulness, and a belly full of laughter.