At Home in the Zone

Originally published in 

Sustainability doesn’t have to mean monasticism and darkness—with this zone-by-zone guide to the domestic world you know best, going green can be both more efficient and fun.

Conglomerate home illustration

Life was much harder when humans lived in caves. Consider a typical Sunday dinner: First we’d have to go out and whack a mammoth; then we’d have to invent a wheel to schlep the mammoth back to the cave; then we’d have to collect sticks and dung and figure out a way for the whole mess to catch fire.

If all went well, we’d finally be able to fry up a chop or two before night fell and the jackals attacked.1 We can’t know for sure, but I imagine all this work made us grumpy.

Fast-forward a few millennia. We’re still around (a little taller, a bit less furry), and we still get cold and hungry, but times have changed. Now, if we’re cold we turn a knob on the wall and warm air blows out. If we’re hungry we order food and a delivery human shuttles it to our door with her blue Pontiac LeMans. While effortlessly obtained warm air and Buffalo chicken pizzas might mark progress of a sort, our pursuit of the easy life has created some serious environmental problems that have the potential to make us pine for the days of cave dwellers and mammoths.

We can do better. Luckily, evolution has seen to it that humans have the ability to define and solve problems, should we choose to do so. By decommissioning our modern-day caves as energy-sucking pleasure boxes and recommissioning them as efficient instruments of shelter, we can more directly control their impact on our communities and on the planet. With an understanding of the issues at stake, we must use our opposable thumbs and sizable brains to retool our homes—and redesign our behavior within them.

Although some of the steps we can take are small and highly implementable, others are much greater. Some require the purchase of nifty gadgets and others require relatively intensive, nonglamorous behavioral changes. If we really want to make a difference, the challenge is to design2 an effective, personalized strategy—one that balances our desire to live sustainably with a desire to live comfortably.

We’ll begin by taking a look at “whole house” ideas that can quickly reduce our resource usage across the board, then we’ll zero in on more localized home zones.

  1. Admittedly, my understanding of prehistoric life comes solely from The Flintstones and a hazily remembered story from a 1973 issue of Highlights magazine.
  2. Yes, design. We’re going to use that word a lot in this discussion.

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