I firmly believe that restoring existing homes is the most sensible and sustainable thing we can do. Many preservationists proudly assert that “old homes are the greenest homes.” While old homes start with an embodied energy advantage over even “green” new homes, the energy used to operate them quickly burns any historical savings unless the structures undergo deep energy retrofits.
Some old home enthusiasts long for the good ole’ days when homes were built to recognize the patterns of nature and people lived in perfect harmony with their surroundings. I call this romantic notion “the myth of the noble house.”
Wendell Berry said that “when looking back makes sense, you go forward.” I believe there are many lessons to be learned from old houses that will help us improve the way we live today. Yet, as you will see from the history of my home, looking back may reveal as many lessons about the destructive history of homes as it does examples of how we can live more joyfully with a lighter footprint.
A photograph of our backyard, taken circa 1913, documents several ways in which the Gauss family lived within their means in an elegant cradle-to-cradle, closed loop pattern. They grew much of their own food and canned, preserved and stored it in the cellar. In the far back yard we can see the chicken coop and rabbit hutch where they harvested fresh eggs and meat.
Then there is the dog house, just like Fido’s in the cartoons, right next to the coop. The dog lived outside and, in addition to providing companionship for the family, served the function of loyal nocturnal guard of the coop protecting against foxes that inhabited the neighborhood before being driven out by development.
The dog didn’t get specialized pet food made thousands of miles away on factory farms or in inhumane and environmentally destructive CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Instead, Fido got home grown scraps and nutritious food that today we ship to landfills as “waste.” And since this was a time before the advent of the multinational, multibillion dollar pet toy industry, this pet was never treated to plastic and often toxic toys made in China.
The few gallons of fresh water the Gauss’ needed for drinking and cooking was drawn from a well in the center of the yard (on the right of the photo). Ironically, we are no longer allowed to tap this well if we chose to. In the 1960s through the 1970’s Gelman Sciences, Inc. disposed of toxic and persistent Dioxane by spraying it onto a nearby field. Today, this toxic plume has contaminated the groundwater creating a large prohibition zone that restricts the use of ground water in Ann Arbor.
Next to the house was a cistern that captured rainwater used for gardening, landscaping (we still have the lilac tree in the center of the photo), washing clothes and bathing. The cedar roof shingles were preserved with their own natural oils, making it safer for growing food, rather than toxic preservatives and biocides.
And of course there was the lovely outdoor compostable toilet, also known as the outhouse. I’m still not sure how they managed Michigan winters in 1901.
The cellar door gave easy access between the garden and root cellar for seasonal fresh produce storage. But, the cellar door also provided the home with natural ventilation in the summer. By opening the cellar door and the gable attic windows, the hot air was vented out the attic while fresh air was cooled in the basement before being pulled into the living spaces above. See article “How to cool your house without air conditioning”
Even the shoes on Elizabeth Gauss’ feet seems to indicate a virtuous cycle of local, sustainable commerce. The leather was likely harvested from local cattle raised on open farms, then cobbled into shoes, possibly by Phil Gauss’ brother a local shoemaker with a shop within walking distance to the house.
But, history tells another story, one of disregard for the stewardship of the services that nature provides us for free. In Part 3, we’ll see how the Gauss’ quest for comfort negatively impacted their health and the ecology of their community.
Matt Grocoff, Esq. LEED has been honored with the 2012 Michigan Green Leader Award and is founder of Thrive - Net Zero Energy Consulting Collaborative, host of Greenovation.TV, a contributor to The Environment Report on Public Radio, the green renovation expert for Old House Web, and a sought after lecturer. His home is America’s oldest net-zero energy home and was called “Sustainable Perfection” by The Atlantic, and honored as one of USA Today’s seven “Best Green Homes of 2010″ and Preservation Project of the Year. He has been featured in hundreds of publications and news shows. Join him on Google+, Twitter and Facebook