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The aim of this guide is to help you to put into practice ideas and approaches to renovating your house in an ecological way. Whether or not you are a committed environmentalist, by following the principles laid out in the following sections you will be able to:
• Organize the space in your home to better effect
• Save energy (and money)
• Live in a healthier environment
• Choose environmentally friendly materials
• Make a small, but significant, contribution to the well-being of the global environment
As this guide will show you, there is no doubt that the nitty-gritty details of our domestic arrangements affect the global ecosystem in quite profound ways. Our existing houses are a “given”: we can't undo any damage to the environment that has already occurred through their construction, improvement, or day-to-day use. However, we can begin to make the changes that will lead them from having a basically damaging effect on the environment, to having at worst a neutral and at best a healing effect.
Before we get on to practicalities though, we need to take a look at the broader picture. What are the most critical ecological problems facing our world at the present time? The perceived importance of particular problems changes based upon new scientific information, political expediency, and our own inability to cope with the enormity of the unfolding ecological crisis. Yet some problems stand out from the rest. Perhaps the population explosion is the parent of them all. Climate change resulting from global warming is another major concern, one that can be seen largely as a result of consumption patterns in the West. We can't foresee the final result of these climatic mutations. We have also been unwilling to think of future generations, our children’s and grandchildren’s welfare, as we burn up fossil fuels almost as quickly as we can extract them from the ground. We hope that science and technology will come to the rescue. However, as we are finding out, science and technology have limits; they can bring us knowledge and power, but not wisdom. It is we humans who have to learn to choose which directions in science and which applications of technology will help us out of our present ecological problems. Science and technology have brought us vast numbers of new synthetic chemicals, some in unimaginable quantities. Our careless use of these compounds has led to ozone depletion, caused air and water pollution, and contributed to the degradation of soil, on which so much of life depends.
What are the guiding disciplines that should be leading us to solve these problems? At present, outdated economic thinking is still being used as the final arbiter of most policies and actions. Our present economic system relies heavily on unsustainable growth, centralized industrial power, and opportunism. In the long term, the medium term, and (increasingly) the short term, need to rebuild our society to run along ecological lines, or nature will surely impose its own unilateral solutions upon us. The sooner our economic system, which dominates the whole ethos of our society, follows this ecological imperative, the sooner our future on this planet will be placed upon a firmer footing. Our housing practices are no exception.
Because of the questionable basis of existing economic logic, I have avoided using cost calculations in this guide as a general means of deciding on a particular course of action. You, the reader, must make your own judgments in weighing any increased costs against ecological benefits.
Our present problems largely stem from our having become alienated from the natural world on which we depend. Urbanization and the comforts of modern life cocoon us in a state of false security. Our houses provide us with most of our basic needs for shelter, warmth, and protection. Food and water are transported in to complete our basic requirements. If our work is also in our home, we can even survive quite well without going out at all. We can live in a world of TV advertising, computer communication, constant temperatures, instant food and drink, wall-to-wall carpeting, and so on. Yet we are born a part of nature, and we now have the knowledge to reintegrate ourselves into the fabric of the ecosystem that gave us life in the first place. We now need to adapt our homes by applying this knowledge. By learning to relate more directly the ecological events in the world to ourselves and our homes, this process can be accelerated. It is clear, in a given situation, that many different ecological solutions are possible. To know that this is true, we need only look at the enormous diversity of nature to see that there are many ways of achieving ecological sustainability.
I have organized the many solutions into four areas: Space, Energy, Health, and Materials, which form the main sections of this guide. Under each of these subjects or sections fall the important principles of ecology: recycling, self-sufficiency, renewability, conservation, and efficiency. The essence of ecological thinking is to learn as much as possible from nature and , if possible, to participate in these natural processes and integrated systems, albeit in a more technical way.
Perhaps the most important principles of all relate to our adaptation to our natural surroundings and the recycling of resources. These principles can be applied directly to the question of whether it is more resource-efficient and ecologically sound to rebuild or to renovate a house. The answer is clearly that renovation is the primary task. New houses represent less than 1% of the housing stock annually. We simply do not have the resources to replace all the existing houses, even if we wanted to. Although there are some wonderful examples of sophisticated ecological design, most designs for new housing fall far short of this, wasting even more valuable resources in the meantime. Not all houses should be renovated, but in most cases it is clearly better to reuse, adapt, or extend an existing structure rather than to demolish and rebuild.
Now to the practicalities: our very own homes take center stage. If you find the analysis of environmental problems somewhat daunting, you may want to move straight on to the “Priorities for Action” found at the end of each section. In a similar vein, bear in mind that a small project success fully completed is infinitely more satisfying—and effective—than a large one abandoned halfway through.