Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Green Building.

I live in a house of under 200 square feet. I don't find it confining in the slightest. Of course I've lived for years on sailboats, and even the largest most opulent yacht is still a relatively small space. Most would think a 50 foot sailboat to be a very expensive and luxurious residence. Well, I guess. My last sailboat had about 120 square feet of living space--a big boat. The one before had about 30, and only one place I could stand up to put my pants on. I lived quite comfortably on that one for most of a decade. Space and the sense of it is relative, and the need for it is a matter of skill, and nothing else.

Today, I get asked a lot about building small homes. We boat building types know how to do it better than any, because we know how to stretch precious volume to its utmost. People are interested in small structures today because they believe they are cheaper to build, naturally, and as the economy is in the toilet and will be for a while--suddenly everyone is a compulsive minimalist.

Well, while small structures are cheaper to built, naturally, they aren't, legally. In fact, there is a full on assault on building such things--exactly the kind of homes that we need as we move into a future of resource scarcity, global warming, and population growth.

In some places it's simply prohibited to build structures of under 1000 square feet or less. No explanation as to why--that's just the rules. Elsewise, in more eco-sensitive places like Hawaii, it's prohibited in a much more passive aggressive sort of manner. While they can't tell you not to do it, as that would look bad, they simply make it utterly impossible. The best way to do this is to make the building of a 16 by 16 cabin every bit as complicated as a 3500 square foot McMansion, and make the cabin bear all of the same costs. You will need all the same permits, fees, inspections, etc. etc. and all else--including accessory costs to build the small structure as you would the large one. Of course, the point, and I will say intent, is to discourage it. If you want to comply the catchment tank you'll be required to have will be larger than your house. I'm not kidding. Really, I'm not. Of course you can just forgo insurance and all the rest, but you'll still be building a structure that costs radically more per square foot than the most obnoxious spec build, and you'll bear all that cost personally.

So of course you'll ask yourself why? If you're sensible, you'll say forget it. If you're the kind of person that's more interested in doing the morally right thing and the best thing for humanity and the planet, you'll just say fuck it and go ahead and build it and deal with the consquences. On my street to my knowledge there isn't a single permitted structure, at least any in any sort of compliance. In Hawaii that is pretty typical, but there is a big push to change all that. For what reason, I can only guess. Of course that guess is to favor development, and turn the Big Island into the worlds largest gated community.

Most people know nothing about building houses. This is why, locally, the Puna Community(har!) Development Plan and stuff like that goes mostly unchallanged. There is a heavy odor of "best for Hawaii" sprayed all over that document, and it stinks of it, like a size XXXXXX Muumuu. Conduct for yourself a thought experiment. Let's say you owned a piece of property in Hawaii that was beautiful virgin forest. Let's say your goal was to build a very small cabin in a natural clearing with the utmost of care for the land and the least disturbance. How will you go about this? Well, what you would do--pre-PCDP--is that you'd go hack/tromp a trail back into the trees, and you put down a pier someplace that was clear. You'd push a little brush back here and there, up and down, and you'd build a cabin that flows naturally around the lay of the land and the existing trees. This would be the best for the world, Hawaii, and humankind's future. Today, that's impossible, legally. You will need to stamp plans, engineered structures, tanks, and all the rest--finally you'll throw up your hands and just bring in a D-9. I promise. All this at a cost of twice of what the better option would be. And the point of all this?

I built my place and didn't clear a single living native tree. Not one. Not FUCKING one. There are more native trees on this property now than there were a year ago, and by hundreds. Is this the kind of "development" and am I the kind of "person" that we want to discourage? Apparently so. I could really go on a tirade about that, but I'll just give it a rest.

We as a culture drive our cars way too damn much. We know that, and we know it's killing the planet. In spite of the fact, we do very little to encourage others to ride their bicycles. Fortunately others do, and I thank them, as it's an amazing act of courage to do so. There is great personal risk in riding a bike, but it works for a better world. In building--and homes are a larger footprint by some measure than transportation--we need similar attitudes. Imagine policy that would require licensing and comprehensive insurance for bicyclists. Don't scoff, I can see it, and some of it has already been tried. Would this discourage bike riding? Of course it would! Hell! It's dangerous! People get killed! And of course, this will benefit car dealers, who will foot the bill for this "progressive reform." Much the same sort of crap that is tossed out about building and zoning and all the rest. I think most people at this moment would understand the issue of scale as a primary determinant in the issue of bicycles. They would say--leave them alone, they aren't hurting a thing. The same attitude should be extended to small building. At the moment however, we are running hard in the other direction. Why? To protect property values. While safety, sanitation, and elsewise is trumped out--it's all about one thing--money. If it was about sanitation--there would be some goon once a year who would come out and take a soil sample near your septic tank's drain field. And you would fail the test. It rains too much. But it's all about that magic 5000 dollar sticker, and that's all anyone give a damn about. Once you paid for the sticker, you're done. Bugger you if it's too expensive.

I at this moment could deliver a small house to a young couple that would be rude, but safe, warm, and sanitary if I wasn't impeded by all sorts of other crap for under 20000 bucks. Delivered. This isn't a building zoning issue--this is a human rights issue. Why compel people to purchase more than they can afford? Why force people to then live lives of a wage slave to pay for something they didn't want? Why force consumption down people's throat--especially in the context of safety and making the world a better place--when the net result will be to denude and destroy the eco-sphere? Why?

It ain't green if it ain't small.

It ain't progressive if it ain't small.

It ain't sustainable if it ain't small.


It ain't legal either, likely. Since the goal of the system is to keep you a slave to it, don't be surprised.


Steve Roberts said...

Good point. I'm reminded of the lunatic repression of liveaboards... whether in cases like La Conner where they have been simply evicted (in a case that is starting to look like well-deserved suicide for the marina), or Cap Sante where the prices are so insanely high that people give up and go elsewhere.

This has of course been a running battle for a long time, but now that we are trending in the direction of greater need for simple and flexible alternative living spaces, it is increasingly unconscionable. Something that should be relatively easy (well, not really, but you know what I mean) ends up encountering artificial complexity and cost... all to enforce a cultural divide that grows ever wider as the Grand Heist continues.


Anonymous said...

Some of us wish we had $20,000 period!

Anonymous said...

I have just found your blog! Very nice. I also live on a sailboat...but one with only one space where I can stand up to put my pants on. I love it! I'll keep reading your blog.

Darren said...

I've enjoyed your sensible ranting. As the crow flies, I probably live a few thousand feet down the hill from you in Eden Roc. As you seem to be one of the 'prescient minority', as Studs Terkel would say, I'm linking my website, www.islandnotes.org , to yours. Check it out if you get a chance. Looking forward to further prophetic musings, laidat.