How to destroy the planet from the comfort of your own home; Part 3

By: Matt Grocoff , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Obsolete Design Elements, Old House Construction, Old House Musings, Green Renovations, Garden And Lawncare, Old House History, Historic Preservation

Read Part 2 – click here

In Part 2, we saw how we used to build homes that recognized the patterns of nature to provide us comfort and happiness.  Many preservationists like to talk about how “old homes are the greenest homes.”  But sadly, the impact our homes have had on the planet over the last century and a half has been devastating to the biosphere upon which all life depends.

Gauss House circa 1913 - this old house used natural ventilation for cooling, but over 1200 lbs of dirty coal per month for heating and cooking.

Gauss House circa 1913 - this old house used natural ventilation for cooling, but over 1200 lbs of dirty coal per month for heating and cooking.

Ann Arbor had many tanneries, brewing companies and factories that made the products the Gausses brought into their home.  The leather on Elizabeth Gauss’ shoes was tanned with heavy metals and other polluting waste products that were dumped directly into Allen Creek running straight through town.  This wonderful creek is why the founders of Ann Arbor settled here, yet is was treated as a sewer and repository for industrial and human waste.

Eventually, Allen Creek became so polluted and was physically unpleasant to passersby that they came up with the perfect engineering solution in the 1920s.  They buried the creek in a concrete pipe.  A tributary of Allen Creek runs next to our home and it remains, along with most of Allen Creek, buried in a sewer drain and is sadly invisible to the residents and visitors of Ann Arbor.  During a recent spring storm one of the sewer caps above the creek shot six feet off the ground creating a geyser of stormwater runoff.

At home the Gausses heated and cooked with pot belly coal stoves peppered throughout the house.  We still find pieces of coal scattered around the back yard.  In 1900 the average American home consumed 1,200 pounds of coal . . . per month!!  When we insulated our attic we removed newspaper dated 1902 that was still covered in coal soot.  This hardly paints a picture of a romantic “green” old house living within the patterns of nature.

Hermansville, Michigan - 1890. Burning wood for cooking and heat helped destroy 95% of Michigan's virgin forest in less than a century.

Prior to coal American families heated their homes and cooked their food primarily with wood.  In 1800, using inefficient stoves, single families would burn through fifteen to twenty cords of wood. That is a stack of wood 80 feet wide by 80 feet high by 160 feet long.

Early explorers claimed that Michigan forests were  inexhaustible and so dense that a squirrel could travel the canopy from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan down to southern Georgia without ever touching the ground.  By 1890, to satisfy the demand for building, heating and cooking, 95% of Michigan’s forests were clear cut.  Today there is evidence of only a single virgin white pine.

So, while we can learn what worked in the Gauss home and use technology to improve upon it, we can also learn from their failures.  We can’t go back to lighting with paraffin candles or whale oil lamps.  We don’t wish to return to the days of the outhouse (I shiver at the thought of squatting in below freezing temperatures).

Bill Bryson in his book “At Home” said that “the greatest possible irony would be that in our endless quest for comfort and happiness, we created a world that had neither.”  Yet, I know that we are capable of living with greater comfort and joy than previous generations.

We can choose to walk and bike more, really get to know our neighbors, spend more time with our families, shop locally, grow our own food and support local farmers, and really nurture our lives at home.  By declaring a declaration of interdependence we can live happier, healthier, more prosperous lives than if we choose a path that continues to steal from our future.

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