Speaking to the Heart and Soul of Home Performance
It was my first weatherization conference since becoming the editor of Home Energy. I remember sitting in the crowd listening to the opening speaker and being very inspired. We’re soldiers, I thought. Some of us are on the front lines—the weatherization workers—and some of us, like the staff at Home Energy, offer support from the safety of our offices in Berkeley. We are fighting for our nation’s energy security, and for the health of children and adults, and for the survival of our species. Our weapons are blower doors and blown in cellulose, caulking guns, and words. The trenches where we fight are crawlspaces and attics, in the media and in the halls of Congress. It felt good tapping into that warrior energy. After more than 12 years in the job, though, I’ve changed my mind and think of us in a different way; not as soldiers, but as healers.
Last summer at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings I had a very different experience and began to rethink my notion of what it means to work in home performance. I was listening to a panel discussing thermostats, and why some work and some don’t work in helping people save energy. One of the panelists described a very successful experiment, in which people were given the option of pushing a button to receive a blast of heat (or a blast of cool) from their HVAC systems. For example, someone could come in on a cold day and get a blast of heat in order to feel comfortable. After a few minutes, the thermostat would float back to the lower set point, but the person would still feel very comfortable. They only needed their heater to take the edge off a cold day. And they are using energy in a much more efficient way than if they do what many people do now, which is turn the thermostat up several degrees and then leave it that way.
I have been very interested of late in the behavioral aspects of energy efficiency, and in what motivates people to save energy. I’m already looking forward to the Behavior, Energy, and Climate Change Conference taking place in Sacramento next month. Maybe I’m interested because I spent 8 years ministering to Catholic Christian’s spiritual needs before returning, figuratively, to my first career as an engineer, when I began to write and edit articles and blog posts about home building and renovation. What struck me as I listened to the panelist talk about thermostats last summer, in the beautiful setting of Asilomar, California, where the Summer Study takes place every two years, is that we alleviate people’s suffering. We are healers.
Essentially, houses are where we go to find rest and relaxation, where we experience intimacy with loved ones and offer hospitality to our guests, and where we seek comfort in the midst of busy lives and a rough and tumble economy. Worrying about energy bills, especially for people with low incomes, is a suffering we can help eliminate by making homes more efficient. People who live in homes with poor indoor air quality don’t sleep well; mold in the air triggers asthma attacks in children and in the elderly. We can help people by giving them a tight, well-ventilated home with good indoor air quality. For an elderly person, or for any of us, a drafty bedroom, or a wing of the house that is always too hot in the summer makes us uncomfortable at the least, and can make us sick. We make people comfortable; it’s that simple.
When we decrease the carbon footprint of a home, we alleviate a little bit of the suffering caused by a warming planet—the suffering of the human species and thousands of others, not to mention the thousands more that haven’t survived due to human actions so far.
I like the image of the warrior, and I think we will always need to keep that in our psychic toolbox. A healer still needs to be a warrior sometimes. Think of a doctor who examines a child with bruising and other signs of abuse. The warrior protects and defends the child. But the image of the healer brings about a new energy that is very positive and ties in with my faith and the faith of others. The Jewish faith values the charitable act as an act of justice, not just doing good for an individual. The Christian tradition holds that kindness towards strangers—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners—is a kindness to Christ and to the whole Christian community. Buddhists value compassion above all else, and Islam values justice and hospitality. I could go on. I’ve never met an atheist who wasn’t also a humanist, and who wasn’t humane in their attitudes and actions. Even the common culture understands that “What goes around comes around.”
I hope this makes sense to readers. I find that our attitude is the most important thing we bring to life and work, and that the right relationship to our work can mean the difference between finding energy and meaning in it, or boredom and frustration. Taking on the attitude of a healer brings energy and meaning to my work, as did the warrior attitude in the past. Maybe these images have another benefit. They connect us to the all the warriors and healers in every cultural tradition on earth going back thousands of years. When we recognize that we have so much in common with them, living and dead, we know that our work is something essential, and that we will never work alone.
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