Skipper Says...
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Green Living Tips from the Porters’ 'Recycled’ Dog', Skipper,
who grew up as a stray on
the streets of Puerto Rico
until Animals in Need
helped him find a wonderful
new life with the Porters.


 

 

 
 

 

Growing up Green

 

 
 

People often ask us why we decided to build a “deep green” house, and the answer is neither easy nor short. We can certainly point to the moment when we knew that was the direction we were going, but there was no single event or experience that led us to this point. 

It isn’t that we suddenly “got religion.” We grew up during the years of the first Earth Day and the dawn of recycling. Our parents were products of the Great Depression, so we learned to reuse things until they practically fell apart, and then find another use for the individual parts!  Anna’s father was a farmer, a caretaker of the earth; David’s father worked for the forest service and later for a timber company that is a caretaker of the trees. We tried to raise our own children to be conscientious about reducing, reusing and recycling. For years while our children were in elementary school (and beyond because we had trouble giving up the practice) we collected what we called “beautiful junk,” items that wound up in art projects instead of the landfill.

As the years went by, we gradually learned more about our choices as consumers. We made an effort to buy local and organic food. We used more earth-friendly cleaning supplies. We purchased two hybrid cars. And when the building industry began to embrace sustainable practices, David was at the forefront, speaking locally and nationally on the subject and encouraging the mortgage, real estate and building industries to think “green.”

 
 

 

Lessons from Alaska

 

 
 

In 1982, David was transferred with Lomas and Nettleton Mortgage to Anchorage, Alaska. They called it a promotion, but moving your wife and infant son to Alaska in the dead of winter didn’t feel like much of a prize! In that bitter cold we understood why local homes were insulated well. In fact, David soon discovered that because of the oil windfalls the government had set up a special program with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation that  gave incentives for buyers to purchase energy-efficient homes:  the more energy-efficient the home, the lower the rate! Bravo to Alaska’s government!

This was David’s first experience at seeing what a lower rate—and lower utility costs—could do for a buyer, and it all seemed to make sense. David soon became an expert at these loans so he could earn more commissions. He was thinking green alright—green as in income!  But soon he became interested in what made a home energy-efficient and began studying the subject. When he was asked by a builder to help get an experimental FHA loan approved for the first house in Alaska with a recycled gray water system, he began investigating water conservation as well.

When we moved back from Alaska years later, the housing industry in Washington was just beginning to talk about energy efficiency. David’s experiences in Alaska had made him something of an expert, and he found himself on the Governor’s Task Force as part of the Washington State Energy Office’s Roundtable on Energy Efficiency.  The Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA – now known as Fannie Mae), launched an incentive for buyers of energy-efficient homes. Although this program, unlike Alaska’s, didn’t lower the rate, it did stretch the qualifying ratios so a person could buy a slightly more expensive home with the same income.

Some architects and builders were now talking about resource efficiency, such as using recycled-content materials in home construction. David designed a workshop on custom construction and included a show-and-tell of materials like carpet made from recycled plastic bottles and trim made from reclaimed wood. The builders and real estate agents attending the classes were interested, and David knew he was onto something big.

 
 

 

The Message IS the Bottle

 

 
 

So for us it has been a journey toward green living, rather than an immediate awakening.  But in March 2004 we had our real epiphany. David was invited to Long Beach, Washington, to speak at a “green” conference for the builders and real estate professionals from southern Washington. Anna went along to enjoy a sunny weekend at the beach. As we were driving back to the hotel after David’s dinner speech about green practices, David said, “I feel like such a hypocrite. I teach and speak about ‘building green’ and then I get into my big-ass Jaguar and drive to my big-ass house on my big-ass lot that consumes a ridiculous amount of energy and water!” Together—on the spot—we decided that we had to make a change. 

The next day we walked the beach and talked about how to change our lifestyle. We decided to go home and trade the big car and the big house for a hybrid car and a condo (right-sized for our family, reduced from six people to three as kids left home) in a sustainable neighborhood.  But we also wanted desperately to be on the waterwe’ve always been drawn to beaches like moths to a flame. We decided that we would also buy a little “fixer-upper” on the beach that we could make over using green building practices and products and eventually make that our permanent home.

At the moment that we made those decisions—at the risk of sounding corny—we looked at our feet and saw a lovely old brown bottle, still intact though well-worn by the surf and sand. Since we are avid beach glass collectors, it seemed appropriate that the bottle should become our talisman to represent our new incarnation. As David likes to say, “The message wasn’t in the bottle, the message was the bottle.” The bottle represented for us a commitment to moving on  to the next phase in our journey toward more green living. It became a symbol of our grand adventure. (Since then, collecting beach glass has become even more of an obsession, but more on that later!)

 
 



Selling Out and Buying In

 

 
 

You might be thinking that deciding to change our lifestyle was easy for us. Nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, it’s true that we tend to agree on most things, and that when we both get excited about something we go for it with gusto. We wasted no time jumping right in. On the way home from Long Beach we made a detour to Issaquah Highlands, a Built Green™-certified community not far from where we currently lived and put in an offer on a condo. When we put our large existing home on the market, it sold in three days! The Jaguar vanished and was replaced with a Toyota Prius. There was no turning back now!

While Anna was ready to move on, David found himself struggling with this new reality. The big beautiful house in the upscale neighborhood and the Jaguar in the driveway had been the brass rings he’d worked for so hard and so long. Now we were suddenly giving it all up! Even clinging to our new ideology did little to soften the blow. Around that time Anna came across Zen poem by Mashide that kept us going:  “Barn’s burnt down; now I can see the moon!”

Throughout the tough decisions, we were sustained by our ultimate dream of living green on the water.  As soon as we had moved into the condo, we began the search for a small fixer-upper on the water, with western exposure, within easy commuting distance of Seattle/Bellevue, for roughly $300,000. (We would like to publicly thank to our real estate agents who didn’t laugh outright—at least in front of us—and dutifully took on this impossible search!)  All we can say is that we must have done something right, because we found exactly what we were looking for in a little slice of heaven-on-earth at Warm Beach. The little house we bought was perfect:  we could use it for a weekend getaway for a few years and then remodel it into the green home of our dreams. We began to think and talk about the day sometime in the future when we would put our green plan into action.

 
 

 

Our “Great Adventure” Begins!

 

 
 

That future arrived sooner than we expected! Our little beach home was cozy but it was almost 100 years old and it wasn’t aging gracefully. It was sitting on mostly post and pier foundation that was slowly being consumed by beetles. The rest of the house sat on a crumbling old concrete foundation, and some parts had no foundation at all -- just dirt! It had substandard wiring (you couldn’t run the clothes washer and a hairdryer at the same time!) and scary vermiculite insulation that filtered down from any opening in the ceiling (almost all vermiculite is contaminated with asbestos).  The siding was failing, the roof needed replacing, and the floors sloped so much that balls rolled from one end of the rooms to the other on their own!

Ah, but love is blind! We loved our little beach house just the way it was (although we did think  if we were going to eventually live there fulltime it might be nice to have more than one bathroom and one bedroom). We knew we had a fairly new four-bedroom offsite septic system, so legally we could increase the number of bedrooms. But since the original structure pretty much consumed the thirty-foot-wide lot, the only way to go was up. No problem, we thought—we’ll just lift the house, reinforce the foundation, and add a second story on top (it should be painfully obvious at this point that neither of us is a builder or engineer!) Our intentions were noble: we thought that the best way to rebuild the house “green” was to preserve as much of the original structure as possible. Ignorance is indeed bliss!

We began by doing what any sensible person would do: making lists! Our first list was a “brain dump” of all the components of this dream green home that we felt were important to us. Having built and remodeled other homes during our lives and having lived in no fewer than fourteen homes in our 25+ years of marriage, we had some pretty solid ideas about what we liked and didn’t like. We also knew that we wanted to preserve some of the character of the house.

Our list covered such topics as easy to maintain, energy-efficient, taking advantage of the view, smart design, recycled content, reuse of many of original house components, and many more. We also started collecting photos and magazine articles on green ideas we liked. Before long, our lists and collections were filling binders and bags! By the fall of 2005 we thought we might be ready to make our plan. We would start by sketching our ideas of a new design and interviewing builders in the area. David, as a very goal-oriented person, created an initial timeline which included obtaining our building permit by the end of February 2006 and completing construction by the end of June, 2006. Boy, did we have a lot to learn!

 
 


Reality Chicken

 

 
 

Not only did we think we could simply remodel our little dream house into a green house—we though we could do it fairly cheaply.  As we began to interview builders, we were hearing estimates that were well over TWICE what would have thought the price tag would be! Worse yet, we were told that most likely the original structure would just have to go, since it was not in any condition to support a second floor. Also, our idea to remodel the garage to include a small apartment where we could stay while the main house was being reconstructed was shot down due to the restrictive size of our lot and the need for the garage pad as a staging area. More good news followed: the price would most likely be higher because of the limited space for construction and the distance from most material suppliers. We also suspected we would need architectural drawings but choked when we heard the cost estimate.

Undaunted (we’re either eternal optimists or fools!), we kept moving forward with our plan. We could at least begin the application process for a building permit while we were continuing our search for a builder we could afford. We did a little research and discovered that we needed a basic architectural plan to submit.  A long-time friend of David’s—who is now our official architect—had expressed interest in helping us with this initial plan.  He could at least get us started and then we’d figure out how to afford the real plans! With David’s planned schedule and our rose-colored glasses we charged ahead, planning to submit our application to the county by the end of February...

It was actually June, not February, when we finally gathered up all our papers and marched happily into the Snohomish County Planning Department with our architect ready to hand over our application and our check. The first of many lessons about construction schedules!

 

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