Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Almost Green by James Glave

Almost Green, by James Glave documents one well-meaning young professional man's attempt to create a green structure - he calls it an "eco-shed" - on his property on Bowen Island, BC.

You can see why I picked it up to read; obviously Glave is a man who shares my interests, but I didn't get far in the book before I discovered that he and I are approaching our sustainable living projects in vastly different ways.

Let's start with the fact that Glave is focusing on a shed rather than his house. When we meet Glave in his book, he's already made several huge mistakes on his path toward sustainable living. First, he chooses to live on an island. That means every workday his wife drives her car and takes a gas-guzzling ferry ride to work. There's absolutely nothing sustainable about that.

Second, they purchased their house based on a killer view and its large lot. Because they're paying so much to get that killer view and lot they don't have the money to afford a sustainable house. Even if they had the money, the homeowner's association would have vetoed such a structure; it wouldn't have fit with the character of the neighborhood.

Having dug himself a huge unsustainable hole, Glave attempts to make amends with the world by building the most sustainable "shed" this side of the Rockies. Does it work? Weeeee-eeellll.....

Let's start with the cost. Glave budgeted $50,000 for his shed. To put that in perspective, that's $10,000 more than our budget for renovating our entire 1500 sf house, putting up a 250sf addition, adding a second bathroom, moving a kitchen, turning a non-livable basement into five livable rooms, adding several large new windows, and installing a new roof.

By the end of the book, Glave has spent more than $85,000 on his green shed. More than double our whole budget. What did he get in return? A workspace/guest house. The truly sustainable thing would have been to install a desk into his bedroom and buy a couple of sleeping bags.

That doesn't even take into consideration the schlepping around he does to get his custom products, the environmental cost of running the huge equipment it takes to haul things in and out and excavate, etc.

By the end of the book, Glave has constructed a shed that showcases environmentally-friendly products (sort of), but he has not built sustainably. And I commiserate with him whole-heartedly. It's going to take a ton of Glave-type mistakes before we come close to getting this right.

Lest I sound like a sanctimonious prick, let me state for the record that I didn't start out thinking of our renovation as "sustainable". The word I would have picked was "cheap". But sometimes (not always, mind you) that results in the same thing.

Like Glave, we're taking our southern-facing walls into consideration - how can we use those windows to passively heat our house in the winter? It helped me a lot to read how he is doing it. We're also looking at our materials and trying to make smart choices. We aren't going to pay astronomical prices for reclaimed wood (we live out in the middle of nowhere - shipping a special order makes no sense at all), but we will use boards made from fast-growing second growth pine trees rather than some fancy-schmancy hardwood or gas-emitting laminate. And we have a basement full of windows salvaged from a local project that will either go into our home or into our greenhouse. The trick with recycling building materials is to make use of your contacts around your town. Pal around with builders and contractors and make sure they know all about your project. Sooner or later they'll let you know about a cheap or free source for something you need.

I may even give in and let my husband make a polished-concrete floor in the living-room addition. But only if he agrees to let me make a bunch of hand-made rag-rugs to throw all over it to warm up the space. His reaction: "Well, that's really...uh...retro."

Unlike Glave, we plan to do all the labor ourselves. We'll get help with the electrical (although I sense a course in wiring in our future), but that's about it. We've had enough practice now that we sort of know what we're doing.

I commend Glave for what he tried to do, and I doubly commend him for being honest about his attempt to be green. We can learn from his mistakes and I suspect that next time Glave will come at his project from a more wholistic standpoint. Because sustainable means reproducible, after all. And none of us can really afford an $85,000 shed.

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