What do you do when you are an environmentalist, and you own a mundane ranch house on a great lot?
My late 1970's house was built about as cheaply as you could build a four bedroom, 2.5 bath house. It was a simple place for a family to use as a summer house, just 90 miles outside New York City. I remember when I first looked at the place about 10 years ago, I walked right through it, out onto the beach, looked around, and thought, "Well, I can work with this."
In the intervening decade, I gardened and enjoyed the place as I've watched the house deteriorate. I also mulled over a plan to renovate the house, using all the knowledge and insight I've developed in my years as executive director of Earth Pledge, a NYC-based non-profit focused on sustainable living. Luckily for me, I'm no novice in the construction industry; my degree is in architecture and I spent years as a carpenter and builder, working on "green" projects long before it was fashionable.
By the spring of 2009 I could wait no more, the roof was leaking and the permits finally came through. We broke ground this past fall, and all of my plans and ideas are coming together in a project named Gimme Shelter, which has, to my delight, become sustainable in a way that transcends any one building or construction site.
We've all read a lot about solar panels and super insulated windows and high efficiency appliances, and I can assure you that my home will have all of the latest in technologies and products. I am also using some innovative water management techniques because of the fantastic garden I've cultivated on the site.
But what is really special about Gimme Shelter is the leverage of community - how we work together to accomplish what we need, how we take pleasure together in the process, and share in the bounty. The inspiration came to me from my vegetable and flower garden. For the last several years, I have had neighbors and friends involved in all of the phases of the planning, planting and weeding of the garden. And of course they share in the produce, and together we've enjoyed some wonderful summer brunches and moonlit suppers.
The insight was this: why can't constructing a house be the same communal effort? Home construction is generally approached with dread, with an adversarial approach (ask ten people at a dinner party whether or not they liked their contractor on a home renovation and you'll see what I mean).
But seen in a different light, construction is a local, communal effort. Carpenters and tile setters and plumbers and electricians typically live close to the job. I can take pleasure in hiring the carpenter whose father built the place over 30 years ago. And in discovering that he also happens to be a chef, so I can often frequent his restaurant on a Saturday evening. The architect is the husband of a friend, and he and I have done this design together. I've asked many friends and acquaintances to contribute their skills - from web development to social networking to filmmaking and public relations. And the manufacturers of building materials, plumbing fixtures, heating system, appliances, and others are joining the mix. The result: a community that has come together around the project, with new friendships and business deals springing up. No weddings yet, but you get the picture. We are working with the product sponsors and a dedicated outreach team to engage an interested public in a living example of how, when we bring all of the considered elements together, we can create without consuming too much, and share the bounty of friendship, goodwill, and the things that sustain our lives.
And the community is open and growing: follow us on the web at www.gimmeshelterproject.org, post on our blog, connect on twitter @shelterHG, join our Facebook group or visit us on Shelter Island. Become part of things, and be inspired to create a community like it in your own life.