Between the lines: Eco-impacts of home sweet home

“Dear Mr. Dennis,
“I recently read your article in the Addison Independent issue dated March 1, 2012, about your thoughts at building a house in Vermont. I wish to take you to task.
“Some months ago you wrote an article about how you considered yourself a ‘Vermontaholic’ citing various attributes about Vermont with which you compassionately connected…
“You state in your article that you do not want a long drive to work but you want to live in the country. This tells me that you not only want your cake but you want to eat it, too. You want the traditional house in town, yet you want the pristine country atmosphere of Green Mountain wilderness and typical New England farms in your backyard ….
“To me if a person says that they are a ‘Vermontaholic’ and a traditional person, then that person would select an existing typical New England house already on the market and not promote urban sprawl, which does nothing but take away the characteristic attributes that make Vermont what it is today.”
My correspondent, who shall go here by “J.,” identifies the dilemma that confronts any eco-conscious individual who wants to build a house here.
It’s a question that has faced our state for decades: In choosing to live here with a higher-consumption, somewhat more affluent lifestyle than that of old Vermonters, are we loving the place to death?
As J. notes, I’m in the process of having a new house built, in the Cornwall countryside. Its construction entails the use of raw materials and plenty of diesel fuel. Virtually all the trees on my three acres will remain, but a small portion of the hay meadow will become the site of a new structure.
On the plus side, constructing a new house certainly contributes to the Addison County economy.
But there is no denying the initial environmental impact. Along with thousands of others before me who have built new homes in Vermont, I could have — in the short run, at least — had less of an impact by buying an existing house in town, where I could walk or bike most places.
As J. puts it, “Building in the country increases the traffic on the road, promotes pollution, unnecessarily burns fossil fuel, and is a move backward with regard to progress toward a cleaner lifestyle for Vermont.”
And yet.
I’m out to prove it’s possible to build a new house that, over a couple decades, will have less of an environmental impact than purchasing and retrofitting an existing home.
Older homes are almost inevitably more likely to be energy hogs. Because they are either poorly insulated ranch homes or large structures built for a family of several children, heating them consumes a lot of fossil fuel. They are also spread out over the miles, the legacy of chopping up the landscape to turn farms into single-family homesites.
Careful readers of this column may recall that before deciding to build a house, I spent the better part of a year in the real estate market trying to buy an existing home. From this process I learned that, for someone who wants to enjoy the best of Vermont by living in the countryside but near town, the choices are few and expensive.
Unless you want to be way out in the country where you’ve got a 20-minute drive to the store — or unless you’re willing to live on a noisy highway — you’re looking at paying a lot more money to enjoy country living close to town.
The options are even fewer for those of us seeking a minimally stylish house that will economically accommodate just one or two people.
So what are the best choices for someone who wants to live in the country and is financially fortunate enough to be able build? Here’s what I’ve concluded:
Size matters. Small houses are much easier to insulate and are less expensive to heat and light. Over time the small carbon footprint of a tight, new house is a considerable advantage.
A good architect and careful attention to the bottom line make it possible to build something small for considerably less than one would pay for a larger, older house.
Design can matter as much as size.
I chose architects who saved me a significant amount of money by careful attention to the bottom line. They also came up with a structure that takes advantage of its orientation, flooring and window placement to provide passive heating and cooling; active solar; and a heartening, immediate sense of the lovely countryside in which this small house will sit.
As with all things real estate, location is key. I chose a site that is close to town, meaning I can keep J.’s unnecessary burning of fossil fuel to a minimum.
Moreover, it’s part of a planned development. That entails clustered homesites, near-drinking-quality management of wastewater, minimal visual impacts, and a rigorous Act 250 process with several McKibbens worth of environmental safeguards.
Nearly two-thirds of the land — hay meadows, woodlands and wetlands — has been permanently preserved in open space.
A planned project is far better than the piecemeal placement on 10-acre lots — the kind of patchwork development that has, for example, turned much of rural Connecticut into a kind of faux countryside.
This faux-farm landscape may eventually be Vermont’s fate, too, unless we figure out how to revitalize our agriculture and, when we allow development, protect most of the open space.
“Building a new house takes away land that could be left to some farm, or left to the wilderness of the Green Mountain landscape,” asserts J.
Perhaps. But it’s also possible to build in such a way that the very process of development allows a local farmer, for example, to still profitably hay the adjacent farmland.
The hope with this new approach is that the beavers on nearby Beaver Brook and the Canada geese nesting in the brook’s small pools still stand a chance.
The hawks, deer, turkeys, bobcats and other wildlife that populate the landscape outside the front door will, with any luck, continue to thrive there for decades to come.

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