From Slow Food to Slow Building: Bringing the Principles of the Slow Movement to Our Housing Choices

By Maria Klemperer-Johnson

double-dog-17Are you familiar with Slow Food? As a member of GreenStar, you likely know something about the movement that advocates a food system working at a more traditional pace: from production to distribution to consumption. In contrast to fast food, where industrialized processes deplete our environment, disempower workers, and produce unwholesome food, Slow Food creates a richer culture that nourishes consumers, the environment, and the people within the food production and distribution system.

As a builder and educator, I've been contemplating bringing the principles of Slow Food to residential building: Slow Building. What can we achieve by slowing down the process of design and construction, rooting our buildings in local traditions, and considering the impacts of our building choices on us, our environment, and the people working in the system?

Think of the ways that our building choices impact our community. Do they fulfill us personally? Do they sustain or deplete our physical environment? Do they contribute to a socially just economic system?

When making building choices that are nourishing to us personally, we usually think aesthetically. Most of us have made a self-indulgent choice to spend more for the granite countertop, or the extra dormer, or the flat-screen TV. Other less conspicuous, health-oriented choices are also worth making to promote our well-being in the home. We might consider the toxicity of materials, indoor air quality, and the relationship of our homes to our outdoor environment. Taking time to account for both aesthetics and the healthfulness of our homes is one aspect of Slow Building.

Many of us have already begun to consider the energy performance of buildings — insulation, efficient appliances, and home-scale renewable energy generation — as we work to minimize the effects of our housing on the environment. A less obvious consideration is the "embodied energy" (the amount of energy used to produce and transport building products) of the materials used in construction. Seven inches of foam has the same insulation value as a straw bale, but the foam is produced from petroleum in a factory in a distant location and then shipped to a big box store to be bought by the consumer and delivered by car to their home. By contrast, the straw bale is grown in this county, bought from a local farmer, and driven directly from the farm to the building site.

It's also useful to consider the lifetime of the house being built. A well-constructed house should stand for at least 100 years. While the time invested in good weatherization and moisture management is usually invisible, it reaps huge environmental rewards over the lifetime of the building. These practices minimize repairs or even prevent the need to rebuild or decommission a building, both of which require more in terms of materials use and associated energy impacts.

At the end of a house's useful life, what's to become of it? Since houses often last beyond our lifetimes, we seldom consider their endings. You may have heard the phrase "vinyl is final" thrown about. In truth, vinyl is final, and if a tree falls on a home with vinyl siding, or someone chooses to tear it down in a hundred years, what remains is a pile of synthetic materials.

In Slow Building, end-of-life considerations are thought about up front. Will the non-compostable parts of the house be bulldozed into a landfill? Or may parts of it be recycled and the rest left to gently decompose into the surrounding environment, renourishing the earth it stood on? Building with natural or recyclable materials (wood, straw, cellulose, metal) rather than petroleum-based or composite materials (foam, plastic, asphalt) means that at the end of its life, your house is compostable and recyclable.

Finally, slowing down our building processes gives us time to think about the impacts our building choices have on the people working within the construction system. Are construction workers exposed to toxic materials and hazardous work environments? Are the tradespeople in the system active participants in the on-site construction or are they reduced to low-paid automatons generating identical parts for cookie-cutter developments? Are we committed to paying a living wage with benefits to the people building for us? Are we supporting an economic system that provides equal employment opportunity to a diverse range of people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation?

All of these considerations have economic impacts. When we choose to build slow, we usually spend more money per square foot, just as when we choose to eat slow, we usually spend more money per calorie. But when the full economic ramifications of the personal, environmental, and social impacts of our choices are taken into account, Slow Building turns out to be a reasonable and wise investment.

Maria Klemperer-Johnson has been building in the Ithaca area for over 12 years. With a background in natural building, she has been working more recently to bring gender diversity to the building trades through her Hammerstone School's Carpentry for Women program. On Tuesday, August 5, she will lead a hands-on micro-workshop and talk at GreenStar about her work teaching women (see page 10 to register). For more information about Maria and her work, visit www.hammerstoneschool.com.

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