When I was a young boy, my stepfather and I did a project together. We built a sailboat. It was small but perfect for me at the time. I learned a lot from that experience and my passion for sailing has never waned. Sailing demands awareness and a proper balance between self, the boat and the natural world. When equilibrium is maintained, the course is steady and life is good. It is a simple life-lesson that we can use anywhere, especially at home.
In fact, the boating analogy is useful to examine how we think about and operate our homes. Many people run their homes like a powerboat: Fill it with energy, turn the key and let technology handle things. Energy and technology can be useful, but there is more to it than the brute force of grid power and big air-conditioning systems. It’s all about balance.
Most sailboats have an engine, but decent sailors use them sparingly. As I write this column, I am also “sailing” my house. Although it is June in Southern Nevada, the morning temperature is low enough that I’ve hoisted the sills (opened the windows), welcoming the cool, fresh air and the birdsong that wafts in on the breeze. As it flows across the deck (tile on a concrete slab foundation), the natural “coolth” is absorbed by the mass of the floor. In turn, it will maintain comfort long after I’ve closed the windows against the warming day.
The sun-catchers above the cabin provide daylighting, heat water and create electricity; harvesting all the energy we need just as sure as day follows night. Soon I’ll deploy the sun oven, our solar galley that will result in a delicious meal at the end of the watch. Our ship sails a course that maximizes summer shading and winter light. There is a sense of equilibrium that feels right.
Of course, I could just leave the windows closed, set and forget the thermostat, turn on a few lights and cook on the stove – but what would be the fun in that? I love sailing our home! The destination is the same but the journey becomes so much more interesting – and green.
Not everyone is a sailor, nor should they be, but maintaining the right balance is good for everyone. For example, in my previous column, I pointed out some of the benefits of using evaporative cooling. Used properly, they can save a lot of energy and money. But compared to an air-conditioning system, they are more like a sail than an engine. They require awareness of local conditions – useful only when the weather is hot and dry. Just as a sailor trims the sails, so must the homeowner adjust accordingly: Windows must be opened, interior doors adjusted, balance maintained. When the monsoon rolls in and humidity rises, it’s time to change course and run the AC.
A tight home, whether built that way originally or as the result of an energy-efficiency retrofit, might not be the best candidate for evaporative cooling since excessive moisture creates problems. Tight homes are designed to keep the elements out. Leaky homes don’t. Only hoist the sail if your ship will benefit from it.
Sailing and balance are good metaphors for the planet too. In a sense, we all have our hands on the tiller of this ship we call Earth. We are listing a bit and conditions are getting rough. Do we have what it takes to weather the storm and stay the course? In the vast expanse of ocean we call the Universe, our planet is much like my first sailboat: Small, but perfect for us. Only by mindfully working together can we keep it on an even keel.