A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to see the first house my great, great grandfather Gjermund made when he came to Minnesota in the late 1880’s. All that’s left of it today is a sunken, rectangular space in the side of a hill, nestled in a little valley in northern Kandiyohi County. There are six or seven trees that mark its place. Without the help of the current owners of the property, it would have been easy to miss.
Like most immigrants, when Gjermund built his soddie, he didn’t know how long he’d need it and didn’t have a weather report or almanac to tell him what to expect of a winter on the plains. Down the road, his daughter Clara’s future in-laws were looking to do the same. Lars Anderson was starting construction on a barn and farmhouse that would last well beyond his own years and eventually shelter his son Herman and his future grandchildren. That house and barn are still standing today.
These were the first, truly, sustainable homes. They were built by ordinary people from ordinary, local materials. Resale value was an unknown term in those days. The idea was to build a home that would last and cost very little to heat, cool and maintain. Homes were sited on their acreage to take advantage of the path of the sun, the prevailing wind currents and the location of water. These homes had minimal embodied energy and CO2 though their homeowners probably weren’t aware of the advantage of either one.
While I’m glad we’ve moved beyond living “with the earth,” there is something to be said for the way in which our great grandparents approached construction; thoughtfully and with the future in mind. Today, our homes account for 38% of the energy that is used in the United States. We have the technology and products available to construct our homes more efficiently; today. We only need to decide to do it. The reward is not only more cost effective homes to maintain but a significantly positive impact on our environment.
-Holly Bayer, ASID