Common Fire: A House Warming

Think Global, Act Local: In America, it’s not just a catchphrase, it’s a necessity. Given that the Bush Administration won’t pave the way on any environmental issues that might actually help the planet, it’s left up to individuals in and amongst their own communities to set standards and lead by example.

Fortunately, that’s what they’re doing. Overseas iJamming! readers who only get the bad news out of America might not be aware, but this last year or two has seen an enormous groundswell of “green” activism. Blame the rising price of oil, credit Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, or just allow that most American citizens (if not their leaders) can watch the news and surmise that the Great Black Out of 2003, the Terrible Tsunami of 2004, the submergence of New Orleans in 2005, the rapid temperature swings that play havoc with plant and animal life, the melting ice caps that are raising water levels…that these events are not part of the normal scheme of things. They’re not even blips on the radar. They are the result of significant climate change and if we want our children to enjoy life even half as much as we have done, we need to stem the tide. (Literally so, if like us, you live by the river and your community has just endured two consecutive years of unprecedented flooding.)

Common Fire: An unassuming Ideal Home

So, think global, act local. Stand in the place where you live, and start by ‘greening’ your house. It’s proving an increasingly easy option, partly because it’s so popular; you could even call it a trend. In the Hudson Valley, the magazine New York House has become a must-read publication, not so much for its profit-raking advertising pages, as for colorful features that substantiate how “Sustainable, Eco-friendly and Green all add up to Smarter Living.” This last year or two, New York House has been touting Common Fire, an emergent Housing Co-Op just outside the village of Tivoli that aims to be the greenest residential building in the north-eastern United States, and on Sunday October 15, Common Fire celebrated its completion with a House Warming. We were among the 500 people who responded to published invites to join them.

It was an inspirational afternoon. I recognized in Common Fire’s occupants, all of whom threw their bedrooms open to an endless parade of complete strangers, the same idealism as I once witnessed in London’s left-wing and anarchist squats. And of course I also saw in these residents the hippy ethic that runs deep in the Hudson Valley. But Common Fire is not a reclaimed urban squat, nor is it a back-to-the-land commune. Common Fire is a pristine new building kitted out with some of the latest and greatest in furniture and appliances. It is every bit the Ideal Home.

You can learn almost everything about Common Fire by visiting its web site, where the entire building process has been broken down into open-source detail. Among the building’s greenest selling points are a geo-thermal system “which uses the Earth’s constant temperature for heating and cooling”, and would take the building off the grid entirely but for the fact that there also solar panels on the grounds to maximize sunlight and feed power back into the grid; hardiboard siding (rather than vinyl); a steel roof; a decking made entirely of recycled products rather than wood; walls made either of straw (“ a green alternative to drywall”) or drywall that is recycled; flooring comprised of salvaged, rather than freshly harvested, wood; wall insulation made from recycled paper (“cellulose”) and denim rather than fiberglass; shower tiles of recycled glass; a whole-house air filter and ventilator; dual flush toilets, and so on. Old-fashioned communes would do without dishwashers, washing machines and tumble dryers, but Common Fire advocates common sense convenience, and so all appliances are from Sears-owned Kenmore and carry the Energy Star symbol: we were particularly blown away by an induction range/stove which warms pots and pans by magnetic impulse, saving not just on energy but on the risk of fire and burns.

The modern solar panel doesn’t have to go on a roof and it doesn’t heat a house: it sells electricity back to the local utility company

It’s a building that delivers all mod cons with almost no guilt. It is, hopefully, the building of the future. Unfortunately, at this stage in the game, it’s prohibitively expensive to imitate. A geo-thermal system costs about $50,000 to install; among Common Fire’s builders and contractors on hand to share their knowledge, we found one expert who confessed that there were still many teething problems with such systems and that they should be confined for now to schools, hospitals and such other buildings as can justify the capital investment.

Similarly, solar panels are not a panacea. Photo-voltaic panels send electricity back into the local grid, allowing you, in theory, to spin your electricity meter backwards, but the panels cost money both to purchase and install, and while New York State and even our Federal Government are offering hefty incentive and tax credits, you’re still looking at a few thousand dollars just to, effectively, help your local electricity company keep power to residential air-conditioners during a heatwave.

The extra costs continue down the line. The reason vinyl siding is ubiquitous across suburban America is that it lasts forever and it’s cheap (it’s the “lasting forever” part that’s a problem; the siding is completely non-biodegradable); oil-based asphalt shingles are dominant on roofs for similar reasons of cost and efficiency. And so it follows: cellulose insulation costs more than fiberglass; bathroom tiles made of recycled glass cost more than those made of vinyl; a granite or stone kitchen counter-top, even one made from locally excavated materials, will likely cost more than a Formica or vinyl-based countertop from Home Depot; and Common Fire’s ultra-insulated windows, the Pella Designer Series, are among the most expensive on the market.

How, then, did Common Fire pull this all off in something they label a Housing Co-Op? Simple: they canvassed for donations. Pella, Kenmore, USG Gypsum and Kohler-owned Sterling are big corporations who understand the shifting bottom line: their new products are aimed at the new generation of environmentally-conscious builders and renovators, and so it makes sense to give a few of them away to trendsetters like the occupants of Common Fire. (Not that all materials came from large corporations or donations: the web site details local companies too and strongly recommends individual contractors who worked on the building.)

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In the kitchen, one visitor cornered the primary builder and asked, directly, what would this house cost for someone to build who had to pay for it all? The builder was equally blunt: at least $200-250 a square foot. Allow that the average modular home comes delivered at less than $50 a square foot; and that even an architect-designed, stick-built home in the woods can be erected for $150-$200 a square foot, and you’ll see that turning fully green, unfortunately, is more of a lifestyle choice than it is a cost-effective measure.

But we all have to start somewhere and Common Fire aims to set an idealistic example which others can follow at their own pace. For example, you might not be able to install geothermal heating and cooling, or even solar panels, but maybe you’ll think about locating your building to maximize its passive solar potential. You might not be able to afford an induction stove/range, but you could ensure all your new appliances carry the Energy Star label. You may feel that recycled glass tiles are beyond your budget when you redecorate the bathroom, but that energy-efficient light bulbs can become an everyday purchase. Or though you might not be able to have hardiboard siding and a metal roof, you could perhaps afford bamboo or cork floors.

I’ve long believed that we can best effect change by voting with our wallets. Every time we opt to buy something hand-made locally rather than a plastic item mass-produced in another country, every time we buy locally-grown produce rather than food shipped from the other side of our own country, we make a statement about how we want to see our world. Sometimes such statements are beyond our means but equally, sometimes we have to make such statements to say that this is how we mean to live. Common Fire’s booklets about greening your home recognize this by coming front- loaded with ‘Things that are easy and save money’ as well as those that ‘cost morre to do right – but do them anyway.’ The former list is full of obvious incentives: “If every US household replaced just one light bulb with a compact fluorescent or cold cathode bulb, it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road.” Sadly, it’s also frank with disadvantages. “Cold cathode lights are currently only available to replace regular 20-25 watt bulbs and need to be ordered online.”

It sounds like a joke: How many people will it take to change the light bulb? The answer is not funny: Millions. Still, every time someone buys a compact fluorescent bulb, they drive the price down. Every time someone opts to insulate their house with recycled products, they drive the price down. Every time someone chooses hardiboard siding, they drive the price down. You do what you can, as you can. You think Global, you act Local.

A no-frills, high-fat car.

The Common Fire House Warming was not all about interior and exterior decorating. The occupants of the Co-Op displayed a car that runs on vegetable oil. They brought in advocates for solar and wind energy and for other housing co-ops. There were guided tours of the 25 preserved acres. The Catskill Animal Sanctuary brought along a rescued duck that Campbell managed to somehow make quack and dance along with him. Local farmers supplied fresh apples, cheeses and apple cider donuts.

And at 5pm, there was an outdoor presentation. Founding director Jeff Golden talked passionately and eloquently about the history of the land, pointing east and west to show how settlers came from Asia (tens of thousands of years ago) and then Europe (mere hundreds); his request for some silence to absorb our surroundings was respected by all except the noisiest of infants. His wife, fellow director Kavitha Rao, emitted the radiance you’d expect of a yoga teacher and proudly introduced famed tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill, and the symbiotically named performance artists Climbing Poetree, Alixa and Naima, a tattoo artist from Columbia and a gymnast from Massachussetts who now live in Brooklyn. The couple’s energetic political poetry and identifiable urban imagery spoke of the multi-cultural borough I formerly called home, of the London squat scene and of Brixton poets like LKJ alike – and carried well into an upstate scene that combined rural idyll with realistic 21st century idealism.

As we headed home, over the Hudson, west into the Catskill mountains, the trees a riot of changing autumnal colors, the day bade us farewell with a spectacular sunset. It felt good to be alive. Monday morning would soon be upon us and with it, the unavoidable compromises, but for now, the earth lay before us as pure and as green as the mountains in summer.

The end of a green day. You can read more about Common Fire’s founders and their goals in the October issue of Chronogram

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October 2021