Electrify everything (in my house)
Your neighbor may have better info than Google
(Above: Laura's single-burner induction cooktop next to her gas stove)
Last year, my husband and I bought a home after years of renting. Owning a house is (probably) a good financial decision for us. But it also offered the opportunity to put some of my knowledge on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings to work in practice. If I was reporting on cities and states’ attempts to cut greenhouse gases out of homes and businesses through laws and regulatory moves, I could also get the first-hand experience of doing the same to my own home.
I had been considering where to start for a while, so the timing felt perfect when I recently reconnected with Laura Norton Amico. She's starting a new community-focused project about making climate-friendly changes in your own home, and sharing that knowledge with neighbors.
I worked with Laura over a decade (!)ago on her site, Homicide Watch DC, a web publication she started to cover every murder in Washington. The site's ethos was that every death in the city mattered, especially cases ignored by traditional media. Homicide Watch became a place where family members of the victims shared remembrances in the comments. While it has since stopped publishing, its' DNA lives on the news organizations that used the site's database model in other cities and a raft of new local news sites approaching crime coverage differently.
When Laura told me about her idea, it struck me as much needed, but very complicated, for reasons she explains below. I wanted to ask her about how she sees local community forming around something that has long been a bastion of American individualism: homeownership. Next week, I’ll walk you through my own big house questions.
What’s the big idea behind your new project?
About two years ago I embarked on a planning project for my home: how could I remove or reduce the natural gas my family was using. It seemed like a simple question, and since my 100-year-old home had (and still has) many updates due on it, it seemed like it would be worth making a roadmap. When I began researching what this project would take, though, I learned just how difficult it was to find quality information on the scope of the project, what the different pieces were, how to dovetail them together, and how to pay for it.
I realized, in the course of this, that if my city (Boston) is going to meet its ambitious climate goals, not only am I going to have to find this information, plan this project, and take it on, but my neighbors across the whole city will too. And so I started playing with what it would look like to build something that would help people cross the canyon that exists between thinking about climate adaptation and actually doing it.
The result is Climate Comes Home, a news/database/community platform that helps people understand what their choices are when it comes to how they live in a changing climate, meet people in their own neighborhoods who are already implementing the same solutions, and then take action themselves. My goal is to help people discover what’s on the table when it comes to adapting to and mitigating climate change in their own environments, and feeling as though those projects are things that they can tackle, wherever and however they live.
What are some of the climate focused projects in your own home?
We are starting from a fairly blank slate, so there’s a lot to do!
Our house didn’t have any insulation, so last summer we had insulation blown in. Our basement floods regularly in downpours, and so we’ve added a sump pump and French drains. We’re trying to reduce our food waste and eat less meat. When our traditional water heater went out we replaced it with an indirect water heater.
We bought a single burner portable induction cooktop to try out induction, thinking that when we eventually need to replace our stove, we’ll make the switch. It turns out that we use that cooktop a lot to do things like cook a pot of beans during the day, something that we previously used our gas stove for. So while we’re not ready to make the full leap yet, we’re finding ways to integrate it into our lives already.
What other things would you like to do? What did you consider when you were prioritizing what to do first?
We have solar on the agenda, but know that we will need a new roof in the next few years, so we’re holding off on that.
Then there’s the kitchen I mentioned above. I think part of what I’ve learned on this journey is that there is so much that you COULD do that it starts to feel overwhelming. And some of the choices are surprising. I really thought we’d go to an electric water heater when we needed to suddenly replace the old one, but it turned out that the indirect system was a better fit for us. So I’ve learned to embrace flexibility, too.
When it comes to prioritizing, on the big things it’s really a matter of how urgent something is needed. The water heater was an emergency. Adding solar, that’s something I’d love to do, but it’s not going to happen for the two to three years that we have left on our roof. Realizing this, I’ve started working more and more on smaller daily choices: food waste, composting, diet, that sort of thing. It’s made me realize how many possibilities and opportunities there are, and that making that whole list visible might be the push someone needs to do just one thing… and then another.
How much do you and your neighbors talk about these projects?
I’m probably an outlier because I’ll ask anyone about this stuff! One thing that has been really amazing is when I start the conversation, most people (ok, pretty much everyone) have something they’ve been thinking about and want to do, but haven’t quite gotten there.
The big one is solar, but it’s everything right down to composting, reducing plastics, and recycling clothes. This is true of people who aren’t doing anything beyond half-heartedly recycling and people who are well into their sustainability journey. Everyone has something they think they should do, think they want to do, and are struggling with.
The other side of this is how much people WANT to talk about things that they are doing. Surprises they had along the way, what they think of their service provider, pitfalls they overcame, that sort of thing. I think there’s a huge appetite for conversation about how it all works.
What do you think local communities can do here that googling “buying a heat pump” can’t?
Heat pumps are a great example here! So much of the information you find online is written in ways that the average consumer really struggles with. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at heat pumps and I still couldn’t tell you if my house is a good candidate for one!
But beyond the big accessibility problem, it’s hard to know what the next step is for a consumer. There are so many questions - How do I pay for it? Will it make a difference? How does it make my home different? Is it going to save me money?
When you look at how many adaptation actions are organized, you see that there are hyper-local specifics, including service providers and financial assistance, that influence the answers to these questions. And so a network of trusted neighbors becomes really important. They can tell you how much benefit they’re getting from their solar panels. How they chose which composting pickup program to go with. Or what they think of their sustainable grocery delivery provider.
Here’s another (very important) reason: so much of what I came across in my research was climate solutions for homeowners and, as someone who spent a lot of years renting, this is not enough. One of the things I think organizing communities does is that it raises a lot of solutions that may be overlooked by search engines because they don’t fit the traditional profile of a climate adaptation (and consumer spending). I’m excited to see what we can learn when we open a wide conversation.
Beyond helping someone take action, what I think these conversations do is make visible the hidden work many people are doing quietly on their own. And by making that work visible, it encourages others to take action. It’s skills sharing and it’s community-building, and hopefully it adds up to a larger impact than any of us could do alone.
If you’re interested learning more about Laura’s new project, you can take her survey and sign up for more updates (especially if you live in the Boston area).
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