This summer my husband and I made the largest purchase decision ever in our life. In one day we committed our life savings and our future earnings to our first home in a western suburb of Philadelphia. The decision-making was nerve racking and complex with high stakes. Where do we want to live and raise a family? How much debt are we comfortable taking on? What do we need in our home and way of life? In a 2013 blog post I mentioned how Americans overwhelmingly prioritize comfort, style, and convenience when buying a home with little or no thought to the environmental impact of those decisions. But the decision of which home to buy is arguably one of the most important environmental decisions we can make (after how many children to have), and we wanted a home that would set us on the “green” path for a sustainable, low-carbon lifestyle. So how did we make those decisions? Were we able to get the green features we desired without compromising on cost, comfort, and other factors that matter?
When people think of green homes, they usually think of solar panels, organic fabrics, and fancy modern construction. In reality, being green has little to do with these things. In my years of studying sustainability and the way we live it is generally known that the newly constructed, detached, single-family home in the far suburbs is the least sustainable (and the most popular) living option available today. More than 50% of Americans live in the suburbs, and the last few decades has seen a rise in the construction of McMansions—the ultimate mass produced high carbon home. Of course this means that a home that is the opposite of the McMansion would be the most sustainable—small, urban, prebuilt, and close to public transportation.
Because my husband works in an office park in a far suburb of Philadelphia called Malvern, living 30 miles away in center city Philadelphia would not be the most sustainable choice. Malvern is also on the Main Line, an affluent suburb where a one bedroom apartment costs $1200 a month, hence, our motivation to buy. We focused our search in Phoenixville and Chester Springs, two communities that were close to Malvern but not on the Main Line.
The first home that we loved and wanted to make an offer on was a three bedroom, two and a half bath townhouse in a planned community in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Phoenixville is an up-and-coming town 28 miles northwest of Philadelphia near Valley Forge National Park. The downtown has the feel of a New England village with eclectic shops, unique restaurants, galleries and theaters. It is the kind of Main Street with an old tavern turned night club at one end and a Ten Thousand Villages shop at the other. The street is heavy with vehicle and foot traffic and families pushing strollers on the sidewalks or eating in outdoor seating areas in the summer. The house was a little more than a mile from the downtown, and there were also grocery stores and large chain stores within two miles. In the neighborhood, we met families with young children and professionals. Everything we wanted really in terms of a neighborhood. The house was in a planned community so the maintenance and landscaping were done by the Homeowners Association. Lei and I liked that because we did not like the suburban lifestyle of pushing a lawnmower every weekend.
The home itself had a spacious open plan, was attached on one side (good for heat conservation), a large kitchen (one of my must-haves), a finished basement, and one luxurious selling point: a huge master bathroom with a double vanity and large soaking tub. A major problem with this home was that it was not close to Lei’s work. Phoenixville is 7.5 miles from Malvern, where Lei commutes to work every day. Granted, the average American commutes 30 miles a day to work, and many of Lei’s coworkers commute much farther, but to me, 15 miles every day is 75 miles a week, 3750 miles a year. In our 1995 Toyota Avalon that gets 12 miles a gallon in slow traffic, transportation would be our biggest carbon footprint. I was keen to minimize this, but the sight of that spa-like bathtub was almost enough to make me say, “What’s an extra 30 minutes a day on the road?” After all, I work from home.
The second home that we looked at was a detached single family home on a ½ acre plot in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. Chester Springs is almost a rural community with horse and hay farms all over the place. The 7 mile commute to Malvern was on a beautiful country road passing through forests, streams, and farms. With some land, it would be quite a lot of work maintaining the place, but perhaps we could have solar panels on the roof, the backyard could be turned into a permaculture garden, with composting, chickens and maybe even a goat. I have always wanted a goat. Our dog Dennis would absolutely love it. The vision of living on a small country farm was romantic to me, but since Lei and I both grew up in the city, we knew our skills were not up to par. Plus, the closets in that house were much too small.
We continued to look at townhomes in planned communities where we did not have to do all the yard work, and were pretty resigned to a 15 mile commute, when a listing for a townhouse in a planned community in Malvern caught our eye. Like the first home we saw in Phoenixville, it was attached on one side on the end of a block of townhouses. It was 1.5 miles to downtown Malvern; 1.5 miles to the train station to Philadelphia; and 2.5 miles to Lei’s work. This reduces Lei’s commute to just 5 miles a day, or only 20 minutes.
When we went to look at the house, it had other features that we liked. The common space behind the house was a beautiful green space with trees and flowers maintained by the homeowner’s association where we could exercise our dog. The house has enormous windows on the east and south side, which gives lots of light and heat gain. Since I am a person who fears the cold this means reduced energy bills. The heating system is forced air, which is not as efficient as natural gas, but considering the problems of fracking, it’s probably best. There is a little land in front and on the sides where we could do some gardening if we wanted to. The kitchen is tiny, there is no spa bathtub, and all the floors were covered with a hideous gray carpet, but hey, those things could be remodeled. The price of $240,000 was a real steal for a house this size on the Main Line, which is prestigious in and of itself and also a great school district.
On July 14, we went to settlement and obtained the keys to our new home. Three months later, we have replaced the carpet with a laminate floor, gave away the used carpet to a friend who was remodeling his house, painted the walls in low VOC paint, and obtained all of our furniture second hand from Craigslist, including a $900 couch that we bought for $250. Because work is so close, Lei comes home almost every day for lunch. I killed several potted plants that Lei brought home to decorate the front of the house, which shows how well I would have done on a property that requires yard work. I have plans to obtain a composting barrel for the patio. I would also like to take on a tenant to maximize the use of our living space.
In the meanwhile, we are getting to know friends in the area who are pursuing sustainability in their own way. Tom, the one we gave our carpet to, purchased two historic buildings in downtown Norristown which he is remodeling into a community center. “We don’t need more new construction,” he says, “We need to revitalize what’s there and make our neighborhoods communities again.” Another friend, Mike, is purchasing a 10 acre property outside of Norristown that he is hoping to rent out to friends and turn into a permaculture ecovillage. Alan, our wonderful friend who helped us fix a leaking pipe, has been quietly building an intentional community for 20 years in his home in Conshohocken. He and his wife and their six housemates live together in four townhouses joined together with chickens in the backyard, a vegetable garden, and a hot tub. By sharing food, tools, appliances, utilities, and human company, Alan reduces the carbon footprint of everyone in his household. Alan also runs a charity where he donates leftover organic food from Trader Joes to families in need in the community.
Through these experiences, we know that green living does not have to involve a lot of money, fancy technology, or sacrifices to peace and comfort. What is required is community, ingenuity, and good old-fashioned prudence. By prioritizing commute reduction, my husband and I are able to save money, time and carbon emissions. By locating ourselves near public transportation and a town center, we are able to lower emissions while improving quality of life. By choosing a townhouse instead of detached residence, we save on energy and maintenance. (I did not turn on the air conditioner but once during the whole summer.) We did not get organic couches or FSC certified wood furniture, but we kept items out of the landfill and helped the local economy by buying things second hand. And while we didn’t get that spa bathtub I longed for, we get to hop into Alan’s, on nights when we join him for dinner with vegetables from his garden, and meat from grass fed animals from Trader Joes.