Book Notes: The Good House Book

By Clarke Snell. 240 pages.

NOTE: Whenever I read a nonfiction book, I like to summarize the ‘meat’ of it, the parts that really had value to me (I copied the idea from Derek Sivers). So, fair warning: this is less a book summary and more a ‘points I liked in a book’ summary.

The only perfect building, environmentally speaking, is no building.

Clarke Snell, author of The Good House Book: A Common-Sense Guide to Alternative Building, seems to agree. Anything we build, Snell writes, has some degree of unavoidable, negative ecological impact, and so:

“For me, alternative building isn’t about fads, right way versus wrong way, how things ought to be, or how you wish they were. It s about how things are. How you are, how your land is, and how the two can come together.”

Snell believes our current way of building is broken: “The paradox of human life is that it must be both separated from and connected to nature. Modern buildings are all islands. they ‘re conceived as separate from the outside, as islands.”

I think he ‘s right. Most homes in America are usable only because we build them this way. Snell explains this ‘spaceship with life support’ idea:

“We’ve taken buildings out of their environment and boiled them down into modular packages that can be dropped anywhere. This is a hostile-environment, or spaceship, approach: a box with attached life support systems. You can install this box almost any place:Florida, Minnesota, or the Moon:because it has nothing to do with a specific environment.”

Think about it. Without this spaceship approach, skyscrapers, modern commercial structures and most homes could not exist. They would be stale tombs, inhospitable to human life. When you go into them you are, in effect, entering a spaceship. Most or all of your air, energy and water (and often, light) is supplied from ducts, power lines and pipes connected to remote sources. As Snell says:

“We install sewage systems that combine drinking water with human waste, pesticides, and anything else anyone dumps down a drain, then treat it all with chlorine:a poison itself:and pump the ‘fresh’ water back into our homes. We face our houses away from the sun, then burn polluting fossil fuels to produce heat and light. We seal our houses to keep costly conditioned air in, then fill them with materials that give off dangerous gases. We extract resources from one local environment, digging a huge hole for a quarry or cutting vast tracts of timber, then use energy to transport the materials to another local environment, which we disrupt by bulldozing to make way for the materials.”

If I had to sum up the book in a paragraph, I believe Snell ‘s saying: there is no perfect house, environmentally speaking: what works well and is appropriate here may be disastrous over there. Place (with its inherent limits) is everything. To build well we must take responsibility for our own housing and then build in a way that connects us, our shelter and the land so they work together, as harmoniously as possible, to sustain life and minimize harm.

It’s a wonderful book, one of the very best I’ve seen on tackling sustainable building. It ‘s suitable for anybody, covering everything from what a house is to how its connected to (and separate it from) its place. I read it cover to cover, but it functions well as a textbook or reference guide: you can dive in at any point. Generously illustrated, thoughtfully organized and written in a clear, direct and engaging way, it ‘s a perfect way to better understand the questions, concepts and processes of alternative/green/sustainable building.