If you could construct your house out of materials made, recycled, or found within 100-miles of your lot, would you? And if you did, would you feel proud that you never once stepped into The Home Depot? Would you tout the fact that you took an environmental stand, that you did your bit to help the world?
Would you have?
As we mentioned in February, The Architecture Foundation of British Colombia has launched a competition to construct the 100-mile House. Inspired by the 100-mile Diet of locavore fame, in which you only eat what is grown or harvested within 100 miles of your home, the 100-mile house challenges you to construct historically, “using only materials and systems made/ manufactured / recycled” within a 100 mile radius.
But is this method truly better for the environment? Or just another example of pretentious pseudo-greenery?
More after the break…
The Limitations of the “Locatat”
Briony Penn, writer, illustrator, and environmentalist, has already taken on the challenge – and not for some competition, but for herself. She constructed her 1,150-square-foot Vancouver home using locally-milled and crafted woods, driftwood she found washed up along the shores, and material salvaged from existing structures. And it works. As Penn says: ”This house was built to last. It’s beautifully made.” 
But Penn’s house also showcases the limitations in constructing a “locatat.” First of all, it can be pricey. While Locavores try buy fruit and vegetables when they are in season (hence abundant and less expensive) to cut costs, for “locatats” there are no cycles of plentitude for lumber. In fact, Penn was forced to limit the size of the house due to budget limitations, meaning her two sons sleep in a separate cabin next door.
Moreover, the locavore movement justifies itself on the premise that it decreases “food miles,” “the distance food travels from the farm to your plate,” and thus carbon emissions. Similarly, you could say that Penn’s house has few “material miles,” because of the amount of fuel used to transport its materials.
In his article for Forbes.com, “The Locavore Myth,” he outlines 3 major drawbacks to being local: (1) “food miles” don’t account for the “hidden” energy expenditures involved in extracting the food, (2) “food miles” are generally calculated without thought to scale (the amount of total gas consumed to transport apples vs. the amount of gas used per apple), and (3) buying local, while strengthening your community, negatively affects farmers in other parts of the developing world who could use your business. 
While Biory Penn’s house perhaps skirts these points on an individual level (the materials all come from reliable, non-industrialized sources also deserving of her business), McWilliams’ criticisms are important to keep in mind on grander scales, especially his 3rd one. After all, it’s difficult to reconcile a locavore mind-set with Fair-trade principles.
This, I feel, is the greatest argument against a 100-mile diet or house. Not only does it deny opportunities of growth to “green” providers in other parts of the world, it denies the reality that emergent technologies & innovations exist beyond your 100-mile bubble. If you ignore them, how will you ever know what sustainable innovations you left behind?
A 100 Mile Thought Experiment
Of course, that’s not the point of the 100-mile House.
The 100-Mile House is not meant to make you a global citizen, but to encourage you to reconnect with what’s next door. Being a locavore or construcing a locatat forces you to enter your community, to talk to your neighbors and rely on them. As Penn says, “The 100-mile house provides a fun way to define how you’re going to build a house, because you go out and you talk to all your neighbors, and it builds community and puts money back in the hands of everybody in your community.” 
But more importantly, the 100-mile house aims to challenge the thoughtless choice of materials and techniques, used despite their carbon footprint or inefficiency, with informed, innovative alternatives. The point is to rediscover methods that we have forgotten, to create techniques we were never forced to come up with before, to think outside the logic of our present – so that when the artificial boundaries are dissolved, we will have more sustainable weapons in our design arsenal.
This is the way with the 100-mile Diet as well; after a month or two of the experiment, most adherents return to “real life,” more cognizant of the origins of the food that they put in their bodies. No one is suggesting that we should all be as extreme as Ms. Penn; rather, the 100-miles house merely asks you to consider how you choose your materials and methods. So choose wisely.
- April 19, 2012 Online Registration Closes
- April 26, 2012 (11:59 PM PST) Submission Deadline
- May 7, 2012 Jury Deliberations
- May 19, 2012 Announcement of Winning Entries
- Publications and Exhibitions to follow announcement of winners
 McWilliams, James E. “The Locavore Myth.” Forbes.com. August 3, 2009.