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The Polyvalent Potentiality of Vocation in Net-Zero Construction
Stewart Herman

As a youngster, I waited impatiently—and in vain—for my pastor to preach about the material world, the world I inhabited. He addressed the domain of the spirit, while I was fascinated by cars and model airplanes. I wanted to build, to make something. At about that time, H. Richard Niebuhr popularized (for theologians) the term “man the maker,” identifying the urge to create as a powerful human drive. I recall during my early adolescence standing at the crude workbench in our basement, racking my brain for an idea of something to build, and frustrated by my lack of skill. Perhaps Jesus with his years as a “tekton” could have imparted a suggestion, but not likely. The Jesus I heard about was far too busy with the more spiritual callings of healing and preaching—activities superior and irrelevant to my fascination with the material world.

For almost forty years, I honored the hierarchy of spirit over matter by pursuing my chosen vocation of learning, writing, and teaching in graduate school and at a small liberal-arts college. I resisted the siren call of the material world of construction, permitting myself only occasional trips to the hardware store for house repairs. My hands were far busier processing words than fabricating things, even though my ears paid as much attention to the creakings of our old house as my mind paid to Parker Palmer. However, with retirement and an impending move from Fargo, North Dakota, to the Twin Cities, my half-hearted suspension came to an end. My wife and I needed to arrange a nest for this new phase. We contracted with an architect and a builder for the “total gut rehab” of a very ordinary 1907 house in Minneapolis, and that plunged us into the very material world of renovation.

houseThis immersion lasted more than two years and produced a delightfully livable house. All along, I wondered whether this was simply a natural nest-building impulse, or if it could be described in terms of vocation. Vocation, in Frederick Buechner’s famous epigram, is “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We certainly had first base covered. My singular and indeed obsessive passion was to produce a living space that generated more energy than it used (“net zero”) and to bask in the glory of being among the first in the nation to do so with a 100-year-old house—in the chilly upper Midwest, no less. My wife, Linda, for her part, wanted a home that would be traditionally attractive and comfortable rather than an angular, modernist box requiring environmental ascesis of its inhabitants. She wanted a modern kitchen and hot water, instantly!

Where in these complementary passions was evidence of “the world’s deep hunger” being alleviated? Where was the good of the “neighbor,” a value so cherished in Lutheran social teaching? After all, building one’s own house is inexpugnably self-centered. No one else but we were going to live in our new old house—in strong contrast to houses built for others via the organized altruism of Habitat for Humanity. Still, Linda and I felt a modest calling. We had a mission and a message for the wider world. As (retired) teachers, we wanted to demonstrate that an ordinary old house on an ordinary, small, urban lot could be purified of fossil fuel and accommodate all the technology needed to achieve net zero. More ambitiously, we wanted the house to demonstrate to skeptics that a comfortable lifestyle and environmental sustainability need not clash, and that carbon emissions could be lowered drastically without any sacrifice in comfort or convenience. In other words, we thought we weren’t just building for ourselves.

Even with this higher aim, the project raised troubling questions about human vocation in the Anthropocene. To be sure, the house is making a measurable if infinitesimal contribution to slowing climate change. Finished a year ago, its thick insulation, solar electricity, and geothermal heat has already offset more than twelve tons of carbon, all while generating about 20 percent more energy than we use. We have the daily, delicious experience of feeling that we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. However, the “problem” doesn’t go away that easily. The renovation incurred an environmental debt that will take years to pay off. I burned through 700 gallons of gasoline during my trips from Fargo to monitor the project’s progress. A long parade of subcontractors used uncounted gallons more in long commutes in their large pickups. Fossil fuel was required to fabricate the materials we used as well as the process of building. At one point, I gleefully cut the line to the gas company, but not before burning a winter’s worth of gas to heat the gutted shell during reconstruction.

Then there was waste. Old plaster came out before new materials went in—enough rubble, scraps, and wrapping to fill a dozen large dumpsters. Moreover, not all the materials we used were local: insulation came from Texas; bluestone from Pennsylvania; tile from Italy. Even the solar collectors arrived with an environmental deficit. They will have to generate three or more years of electricity simply to pay off the energy debt incurred in their manufacture. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, vocation reset in an ecological key uses no 100 percent squeaky-clean action.

crewSecond, in this era of widening inequality, I was chagrinned to discover that our experiment in renovation is not nearly as replicable as we had hoped. Older houses dominate American cities; there are far more than could ever be replaced, so renovation should be the first priority. We wanted to show how older houses could be reborn from leaky caterpillars to net-zero butterflies. To this end, we loaded our project with every new technology our architect could find: a porch finish that hardened the wood and will never blister or peel; a ventilation system that captures heat from outgoing air as it’s replaced with incoming, fresh air; insulation that reduced the global warming impact of its manufacture by a thousand times and resulted in charming, wide windowsills; earth surgery that insulated the basement without disturbing the flowerbeds;  interior wallboard that promised to ‘eat’ formaldehyde for ten years…the list goes on. Still, our pedagogical purpose eroded as the constantly rising costs of the renovation put our project beyond the financial reach of most people. We modeled a transformative path forward, but it is not clear that others might do more than emulate individual parts of what we accomplished. Indeed, our builder concluded that the project would have cost less had we simply torn down the 1907 house and built from scratch.

 

I have had to look elsewhere to see my constructive urge as a vocation. Fortunately, some signals were revealed as the project went along. The young boy who ached for something to build got his wish, but that wish was transformed in the process of its fulfilment. Linda had forbidden me to renovate the house myself—my original plan—so we hired the architect, engineer, and general contractor, who had his own staff of carpenters and a stream of subcontractors to handle the ductwork, wiring, plastering, tiling, flooring, cabinetry, insulating, siding, painting, and other specialties needed to transform our house.

To my surprise and eventual delight, the necessity of involving so many people attached other social goods besides net-zero energy to the project. Our house became a node around which a distinct—if temporary—community took shape: a community centered on quality craftsmanship. Our architect and general contractor, excited by the ambitious aim of the project, came to expect uncompromising quality, which liberated our workers and subcontractors to meet the highest standards of their trades. Our builder had to appraise the characters of those who worked on the house. Would they adhere to the standards of their craft? They were creating an artifact from raw materials rather than assembling prefabricated pieces. They had to be able and willing to deal with uneven subfloors and crooked walls. Some proved incapable or unwilling, and had to be let go. Most did beautiful work and deserved recognition and gratitude. Once the renovation was far enough along that we had moved in, Linda celebrated this community in the daily brewing of coffee and baking of treats. These contributors left their signatures in materials that I hope will endure through the house’s second century.

I was not content simply to observe this community. At the start, my builder advised me to be on-site every two weeks. Each visit required a 500-mile roundtrip from Fargo—25,000 miles by the time the house was finished. I had to develop a basic familiarity with each specialty, which I did during our interminable meetings. Architecture proved the most daunting specialty for me, but my understanding developed in meeting after meeting in the unheated shell of the house. Our architect lofted up the entire house in all its detail months before anything was actually built, and during construction he adapted the design as needed. This, I came to realize, involved a remarkable feat of sustained creative concentration. The general contractor, for his part, had to imagine and enumerate all the steps of construction in proper sequence, and then improvise as the chain of steps broke again and again. For my part, I needed to understand enough of the vocabulary of each trade in order to grasp what was going on and what the standards of quality were. Most piquant was the vocabulary of fine carpentry, whose quaint terms surely must have been borrowed from some nineteenth-century sermon. As Jesus the tekton might have said: if a window casing stands too “proud,” overshooting the expected “reveal,” it would be better for it to “die into” its neighbor.

interiorI was fortunate that the architect and builder welcomed my active involvement, for it contributed to the benign circle of rising expectations regarding the detail and quality of work. My role—and obligation—was to encourage and reinforce the norms already in place. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in her 1942 essay, “Why Work?”: “God is not served by technical incompetence.… The business of the worker is to serve the work.” And I had to measure up to the expectations I placed on everyone else. Fortunately, my labor was relatively unskilled: recycling the birch woodwork of the house and salvaging maple flooring from three houses being demolished. This work involved cleaning, stripping, and refinishing. I also chased down door and cabinet hardware and took responsibility for tasks not recognized in the initial contract. Indeed, I developed a keen appreciation for the complexities of scheduling and ended up handling it when our affable, unhurried general contractor was distracted by other projects. For me, the social good of a community centered on craftsmanship became a personal good. There were small openings for risky agape here and there, but mainly my task was to pitch in and keep the process going.

A grittier social good became evident early in the process. It became overwhelmingly clear that no matter how fascinating I found the craftwork, my primary responsibility was to cut checks. I was proud that three-quarters of the project cost went to wages and salaries rather than materials, proving Aristotle wrong on the lifelessness of mere money. Our temporary community had to be sustained, and that required the reliable disbursal of contracted remuneration. I was tempted to joke about developing carpal-tunnel syndrome from writing so many checks, but did not allow myself a quip of the lip. Paying the suppliers and subcontractors was no laughing matter. One day the master carpenter, flush with his wages, pulled up on a massive new fossil-fueled motorcycle. Again, I bit my lip and simply savored the irony.

As I signed off on expenditures month after month, I began to wonder whether the act of spending money itself might be a calling, particularly in contrast to saving and hoarding. I recalled Clement of Alexandria’s second-century claim that the possession of wealth itself is less of a threat to salvation than the disposition its possession engenders. My own disposition changed. I became comfortable with using money to leverage action. Of course, a modern-day Clement might still see a danger. Using money as power invites neglect or abuse of those who depend upon being paid. (Perhaps nothing bothered me more about Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign than the fact that he bankrupted his ventures to stiff his contractors and suppliers.) Yet I felt a moral duty to ensure that subcontractors performed what was asked of them. I gingerly rode herd on the exchange of labor for pay that had been agreed to. This still-uncomfortable exercise of power gave me a fresh appreciation for justice in its commutative rather than distributive dimension.

Now that the house is finished, our economic leverage is spent, and Linda and I are in debt, financial as well as environmental. A large mortgage insures our residence in the house until we actually own it or our natural lives come to an end—whichever comes first. Our architect, builder, and subcontractors all have gone on to other jobs; our evanescent community has evaporated, leaving what we hope are pleasurable memories for its members.

I learned that the process as well as the goal rendered by net-zero construction counts toward vocation—especially in its imperfection. For Martin Luther, vocation reliably, if distantly, echoes crucifixion, thanks to what he experienced coram hominibus as the inveterate cussedness and ingratitude of human creatures. While our adventure in renovation was generally happy, there were moments of brokenness. Our noisy work and one overly zealous, missionizing worker alienated our next-door, non-Christian neighbors, and the damage ricocheted for months through the project, eventually landing me in civil court on a trumped-up and quickly dismissed charge. This misunderstanding shredded what was left of my innocent happiness at modeling radical carbon reduction, and I was reminded that the crooked timber of humanity will not be straightened by simply pulling fossil fuels out of the equation of life. The material may not yield to the spiritual, but neither can it survive without some animating force of regeneration and reconciliation.

Overall, the experience has moved me toward seeing vocation as a shape-shifting adaptation to circumstances. My inborn urge to build found an outlet after decades of inaction, but not as directly as Niebuhr’s man the maker striving toward a single, overriding telos. Rather, the project moved in the direction of what might be called polyvalent potentiality—or polyphonic, to borrow Niebuhr’s more comprehensive image of humans as responders. Linda helped me focus on a wider set of criteria than mere carbon reduction. The scope of the project required dozens of contributors, calling me to renewed learning and enriching the social good. The finance aspect grounded me in the exigent imperatives of exchange, tracking and influencing the expectations of the contracting parties. Vocation may be less a single river than a branching and braiding of tributary streams, with no obvious terminus.

With the renovation now complete, Linda and I are back to being regular homeowners. My childhood hunger to build has been sated, at least for the time being. Indeed, it is time for me as an aging baby boomer to think of when I no longer will be able to shape the material contours of my life. (Perhaps H. Richard Niebuhr might had added a fourth type—retiree—to his famous trio of maker, citizen, and responder.) The house is now a material artifact that gives considerable shape to our lives. It has been fitted with the technologies that will facilitate “aging in place.” The warm woodwork and comfortable amenities embody beauty. It offsets carbon at the rate of twelve tons per year, and we hope to continue living here until both the environmental and financial costs have been paid off. Until then, we remain in debt to the future. Yet for those who come after, its sturdy structure should provide comfortable shelter for a second century. Good construction creates beauty and hope, and perhaps that provides a sufficient as well as satisfying frame for a useful calling.

 

Stewart Herman retired in 2015 from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he was a member of the faculty of religion for twenty-seven years.

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