Design for Life: Myth Busters

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As interest in ecologically respon­­sible dwelling grows, some fairly destruc­tive myths are spreading unchecked. These stories can needlessly undermine the enthusiasm of good-­hearted souls, and all too often they’re accepted as gospel without much examination. It’s time for a closer look.

Myth #1:Ecological building costs too much.

The misconception that ecological build­ing costs more than conventional construction is widespread. This gets to the heart of what living in harmony with nature is all about: Thinking in terms of whole systems, not isolated parts. The parts never really are isolated; that’s the central myth. Acting as if they are isolated is what really costs, both ­financially and environmentally.

When a building is created without regard for its context–site, climate, cultural milieu, real human needs–­substituting “green” materials for toxic, resource-inefficient materials may indeed raise the cost of construction above the average for a given building type and region. But context-ignorant buildings are no fun to live in, so why would you want to do that?

The first step for building or remodeling with nature is to design in response to your site and climate. Make the best use of sun, shade, the earth, and breezes to heat, light, and cool your spaces; use graywater and rain to water the garden. Depending on your circumstances, such a house may cost no more to build than the norm–and it could cost less. Lower operating costs are an additional life-long bonus. Best of all, you get a home that’s dynamic and interesting–that involves you with the gifts of nature.

Here’s another great way to create a natural home that costs less: Pay attention to how you live as a basis for design or alteration. Make a home that uses space well–that responds to your true needs, makes multiple use of spaces, and addresses storage cleverly. By not building more space than you need, you save money twice–in construction costs and in heating and cooling bills.

When you select structural materials, use those from your region; they’ll reflect your locale aesthetically and climatically, and they won’t require lots of transportation fuel to reach your site. Look also for salvaged materials; they may cost less and be of higher quality than new materials. And be efficient: Don’t over-design or use materials redundantly, and don’t over-order. Measure twice, cut once. All these techniques can keep costs below average while minimizing resource abuse.

Myth #2:We should try to create perfect eco-homes.

Too often, people wring their hands because they have to make compromises in building their dream eco-home. They can’t afford all the energy-efficient features or use all the green building materials they’d like. They think they’ve failed, but they might feel better if they adopt a broader perspective.

First, an ecosystemic approach im­plies that we’re looking at the ­interrelation­ships–of budget, culture, commerce, and the beauty of doing what we can with what’s available. Life is messy. Other animals work with what they’ve got, make the best of it, and keep going. Most plants grow, not because they have arranged ideal circumstances for themselves, but because they can.

Construction–like lots of human activities–is inherently destructive and consumptive. Land gets torn up, re­sources get used, dust goes into the air. We eco-builders try to minimize the damage, but the real question needn’t be how to build without leaving a mark. Instead, let’s ask how we can increase overall vitality. Let’s ask how to interact with the earth’s cycles and systems to create a net-positive effect. Worrying about particular materials and building systems isn’t the answer. The specific “things” your home is made of are far less important in the long run than how you live in it–how your home celebrates nature and helps everyone who enters it recover a deep love of life.

Myth #3:Preaching to the choir is bad.

I’ve seen this many times: A hardworking eco-building pioneer has just delivered an inspiring presentation and is taking questions; someone in the back of the room says, “Aren’t we just preaching to the choir?” The implication seems to be that the speaker has just wasted everyone’s time while letting the true target get away. Everyone somehow accepts the guilty message, and the energy in the room drops a little.

Whoa. If people sat through the talk, it’s safe to assume that they either learned something useful or they felt bolstered in their daily eco-building efforts. They’ll take what they’ve received, use it in their lives, and pass it on to friends, colleagues, and clients. As the I Ching says, “No error.”

There’s nothing wrong with preaching to the choir–assuming the preaching is good. A rousing sermon inspires the choir; a choir filled with the spirit sings like angels, moving its audience to get out there and spread the word. Besides, who says being in the choir means you don’t need to learn anything? In other words, we all need our wells filled. Let the ripples move outward from a preached-to and inspired choir.

It’s never quite clear where this back-of-the-room naysayer thinks the speaker should be “preaching,” but the implication is that it’s better to get the information to people who aren’t likely to voluntarily receive it. Have you ever tried that? It’s hard work; worse still, the results are rarely good. The people most likely to want to hear a message are the ones who either already agree with it or who are predisposed to agreeing if given more information. And when they’re ready for that information, who’s going to give it to them? Probably a choir member who’s just been filled up by some great preaching.

Myth #4:Eco-building isn’t spreading fast enough.

Yes, if you look at the magnitude of our problems, the impact of the ecological building movement may seem small. It might help to realize that ecological building has come a long way in the last twenty years, and the curve of its adoption is increasing steeply. Several people have recently called the eco-building movement unstoppable, predicting it will be the norm in just a few years.

We’re now moving in the right direction–and in rapidly growing numbers. Let’s do the best we can with what we’ve got, be kind to ourselves and others, support the rich complexity of life in every way we can, and inspire others to do the same. Proceeding with informed optimism is a lot more effective than complaining or worrying.

Upward spiral

You may have noticed all these myths feed on each other. Unchecked, they can create a downward spiral of negativity. The good news is that the same principle works in the opposite direction. Embrace the fact that ecological living is all about using what’s available to you in ways that respect the living world. Accept the paradox that life is always perfect and never perfect. Thank your teachers, then turn around and teach someone who’s eager to hear what you have to offer. Know that any action you take on the part of the whole will have impacts far beyond itself.

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. In addition to her design practice, she teaches in the EcoDwelling program at New College of California ( and is the author of Healing Environments (Celestial Arts, 1994).