THE LIFESTYLE: STRAW DETERMINATION
Sometimes, following your conscience means having to endure the same unimaginative “Three Little Pigs” joke over and over again.
Such are the travails of Tempe resident Beth Hoffmann, who fought the city for nearly a year to build her dream home, made of straw bales and earthen plaster.
“When you feel that something is good, you can’t just back down — you have to pursue it,” Hoffmann said.
By the time she succeeded, city officials were bringing their families around to show them Hoffmann’s unusual and environmental friendly home.
But it wasn’t a desire for attention or a love of morality tales featuring anthropomorphic livestock that led Hoffmann to build her house of straw and clay. She wanted to take things most people discard or destroy and give them a new purpose.
“I’m an Iowa country girl,” Hoffmann said, sitting on her back porch overlooking a modest vegetable garden and a row of fruit trees. “My parents were poor, and my mom was a saver, and I wanted to be a saver.”
Straw is the stem of a grain, which isn’t edible and is often burned in piles after the harvest, she said. Once pressed and shaped into bales, however, it becomes an excellent building material that’s sturdy and is neither flammable nor edible to insects.
But that’s just the beginning of her home’s surprises, Hoffmann said.
Its 2-foot-thick walls offer tremendous insulation from cold and heat. The electricity cost to cool her 1,200-square-foot home last July was just $18. In August, it was $14.
In the winter, heated water is pumped through pipes underneath the tile floor to heat the home efficiently.
“Plus you’re walking on warm tile,” Hoffmann said.
Almost nothing that comes into contact with the house is wasted. A rooftop gutter system diverts rainwater into three barrels, where it is stored until Hoffmann uses it to water her garden.
The house, designed by Hoffmann’s son, an architect who shares her interest in conservation, has a window in the bedroom closet so Hoffmann doesn’t have to turn on a light.
Even the antique furniture in Hoffmann’s home lowers her impact on the environment, because she is reusing items made long ago.
Having a “green” home has turned Hoffmann into a minor celebrity. Hundreds of people have toured the property, and while straw homes haven’t exactly gone mainstream, Hoffmann believes she is teaching people how to be more self-sufficient and lower their dependency on traditional energy sources.
“It takes people a long time to change their thinking,” she said. n
THE POLITICIAN: DESERT DEFENDER
Tony Nelssen is not some liberal tree hugger, although he did hug a saguaro cactus once — naked.
Nor is the Scottsdale vice mayor a global warming doomsayer. His view is that the Earth will simply spit out civilization like a bad piece of fish if we get too full of ourselves.
The tall, rugged Nelssen, clad in a black Stetson hat and cowboy boots, resembles a typical Greenpeace member about as much as a Chevy pickup resembles a Toyota Prius.
And yet, his rustic north Scottsdale residence is like a monument to peaceful coexistence between man and nature. His driveway is a dirt road, his landscaping is the pristine desert and his home is filled with images of the natural world.
Nelssen has been known to ride developers like rodeo bulls until they concede to leaving the city’s sensitive wildlife areas undisturbed. He served on the Scottsdale Parks and Recreation Commission for six years, was involved in developing the city’s Desert Foothills Character Plan and says he got into politics solely for the purpose of preservation.
“The environment’s in some trouble,” the professional photographer and artist said, hands clasped behind his head as he leaned back into a padded brown leather chair. “I guess some people have lost contact with the land, and respect for the land.”
An Arizona native, Nelssen grew up in Phoenix and became frustrated with the city’s apparent willingness to bulldoze over just about anything in the name of growth.
“‘Call someplace paradise, kiss it goodbye.’ That’s Don Henley,” he said, referring to a lyric from a song by the former Eagles singer.
In the mid-1980s, Nelssen moved to his existing property, part of unincorporated Maricopa County at the time. For eight years, he carted his own water because the property had no plumbing connection.
He eventually met Jane Rau, co-founder of the McDowell Sonoran Land Trust, who made an impact on Nelssen’s way of thinking. He realized that protecting area wildlife and natural scenery requires the active participation of concerned residents.
“Any sort of environmental activism starts with the individual,” Nelssen said, which can be something as simple as picking up trash or planting a tree. “If you’re to the point where the government has to help you out, you’re in trouble.”
Nelssen said he believes Scottsdale has the right idea and has done a better job than other cities when it comes to preserving sensitive areas.
Still, politicians have an uncanny knack for worrying less about the preservation wishes of existing residents and more about opportunities for continued growth and urbanization, he said.
“The free market, I think, works,” Nelssen said, “but somebody’s got to watch it, because it can get out of hand pretty quick.”
THE BUSINESSMAN: GREEN IS GOLD
When Robert Frost wrote the phrase, “Nature’s first green is gold,” he was thinking about the fleeting nature of youth, and not about financial opportunities.
Still, Scottsdale architect Dan Aiello is one of many local professionals working within the “green” movement, for whom business has been booming.
The term “green” is actually a neologism for a centuries-old concept in architecture, said Aiello, who has been building energyefficient homes since the 1960s.
His generation of designers called it “solar architecture,” even though the discipline encompasses more than just the use of solar energy.
But Aiello has embraced the moniker “green,” and the skyrocketing interest in energy-efficient design that has accompanied it.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know anyone in the solar industry whose business hasn’t increased 30 percent to 40 percent during the past year.
The concept itself is ancient. Centuries ago, American Indians of the Southwest were mastering ways to keep their homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter through building design, Aiello said.
But over the years, those concepts were relegated to a small niche, as improvements in air-conditioning technology eliminated the need for structural frugality.
It took growing concerns about global warming, energy prices and dependency on foreign countries’ oil to renew America’s interest in solar, which he calls the most democratic of energy sources.
“It falls on you, it falls on me,” Aiello said.
Despite the growing popularity of new buildings that conserve energy and take advantage of renewable resources, he said many solar architecture concepts can be applied to just about any existing home.
Aiello also is founder of the nonprofit AZ Solar Center (www.AZSolarCenter.com), which leads seminars on increasing the energy-efficiency of standard homes, as well as showcasing cutting-edge solar homes through public tours. One such tour will be offered in the Valley on Saturday.
But lest you think Aiello is a capitalist first and foremost, know that he does not recommend people tearing down their existing home to design and build a solar version. The energy wasted in doing so would outweigh the energy saved in the new home, he said.
Simple techniques such as sealing cracks around doors and windows, and planting trees and bushes around the house to shield windows from the lowhanging sun, can help any homeowner increase efficiency and lower energy costs. If you need to paint your house, paint it a light color, he said.
“Most people think they’re going to have to do some kind of absurd, expensive things,” he said. “There are all kinds of choices and strategies for everybody’s financial position.” n
THE ACTIVIST: FRESH AND GREEN
While other 22-year-olds are sitting at their computers chatting, blogging, posting and e-mailing, Erik Magnuson is engaging in a decidedly old-fashioned activity to communicate his ideas to the world.
Magnuson, the young spokesman and lobbyist for Environment Arizona, has been standing on street corners and knocking on doors to talk with regular folks about their own environmental concerns.
“People know there’s a problem, and they know they need to do something about it,” he said, “but they don’t know who to talk to — they don’t know what to do.”
Environment Arizona, a recent offshoot of the social and environmental interest group Arizona PIRG, seeks to encourage voters and politicians to support renewable energy initiatives throughout the state.
Magnuson, who lives in downtown Phoenix so he can walk to work, said it’s appropriate that someone his age should be involved in that effort, because his peers will be most affected by its success or failure.
“This is the issue that our generation is going to have to deal with more than any other,” he said. “This generation has more of a sense of urgency about the problem.”
The issue and the problem, respectively, are global warming and the negative impact it could have on society.
In Arizona there also are more immediate concerns, such as maintaining breathable air, drinkable water and open spaces for wildlife and recreation.
“I really do think that people in Arizona are starting to come around to realizing that we can’t continue growing at an unsustainable rate without addressing the environment,” Magnuson said.
In addition to door-to-door campaigning, Magnuson participates in policy meetings with lawmakers, promotes environmental awareness events and recruits other young people to join the cause.
“There is definitely a streak of idealism in what we do,” he said, “but we definitely do try to pursue a pragmatic approach.”
That means not just talking, but also listening to what others have to say, Magnuson said. It also means trying to engage people on a personal level, rather than blasting a one-size-fits-all message out across the Internet.
“People respond to the face-to-face, door-to-door efforts,” he said.
More than anything, Magnuson said his goal is to get the public to hold all political leaders accountable for their positions on environmental issues.
“It’s not about what party you’re from,” he said. “It’s about what policies you’re interested in passing.” n
How you can help
Look for alternatives to commuting alone in your vehicle, such as car pooling, van pooling, bicycling, walking, telecommuting or working a compressed work week. About 625,000 Valley residents use an alternative mode of transportation or work schedule every day, which reduces air pollutants by 113 tons and decreases gasoline consumption by 335,000 gallons each year.
Seal exterior doorways, windows and other cracks in your home with weather stripping or insulation. On average, 35 percent of a home’s cooling costs can be attributed to cracks and gaps, and sealing them can cut monthly electric bills by up to 15 percent.
Recycle bottles, cans and paper goods. The average American tosses out more than 7 pounds of garbage daily, most of which ends up buried in landfills. In response to America’s rapid growth, recycling efforts nationwide have more than tripled since the 1960s and now result in a recycling rate of about 30 percent. Most East Valley municipalities have some form of recycling to break down and reuse materials such as glass, plastic and paper.
Replace traditional incandescent light bulbs with energyefficient compact fluorescent light, or CFL, bulbs in most frequently used light fixtures. CFLs cost three to five times as much but use about one quarter the electricity and last far longer, usually about five years. Replacing the five most frequently used 100-watt incandescent bulbs with 26-watt CFLs, which emit the same amount of light, usually reduces annual household electricity costs by more than $46 a year.
Shut off computer, television, stereo and other electrical devices when not in use. Unplugging those devices saves even more energy. A full 75 percent of average household electricity is consumed by electronic devices in “standby” mode, when they are turned off but still plugged in.
Place screens, shutters or other treatments on the outside of homes to prevent sunlight from hitting windows directly. Direct sunlight is responsible for at least half of the heat gain in a home, and windows are the worst culprits when it comes to letting in that heat. Planting bushes and trees around home to shade it when the sun is low in the sky is another way to keep out the sun’s heat.