Before I ever bought a home, or even looked at real estate listings, I had my green renovation all planned out: Bamboo floors and solar-powered radiant heat, recycled tile and super-efficient appliances, composting toilets and a big, green roof. I vowed to live in a sustainable house even as a teenager, while growing up in drab, vinyl-clad suburbia. As I got older, articles about sustainable homes in Dwell, Natural Home and This Old House stoked my imagination. All I needed were blueprints and a bank full of money.

When my wife and I did buy our first home— a run-down rowhouse in Rodgers Forge— it was clear that it wasn’t going to be the green house of my dreams. Given our hefty mortgage and long list of repairs, the green roof and solar-powered radiant heat were out of the question. And we weren’t going to rip up a functional sewer system in a house we might sell someday to install an eco-friendly composting toilet. There was no way we could spend $30 to $50 per square foot on recycled glass tile for the kitchen backsplash. And, as for super-efficient appliances, the best we could do was buy an Energy Star gas range from Sears— a far cry from an electromagnetic induction range, which is twice as efficient and four times as expensive.

So we made green investments where we could. We bought all-natural linoleum for the kitchen floor when we could have spent half as much on vinyl tile. We hunted and splurged for recycled cotton insulation for the basement renovation, where we could have used cheap chemical-laden fiberglass. We bought paints free of toxic compounds and energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Kitchen cabinets made by IKEA, a company that embraced sustainability programs earlier than most big-box stores, were among the few investments that went easy on both our conscience and our pocketbook.

It seems like everywhere you look, sustainability is for sale. Just as the Catholic Church once sold indulgences to atone for sins, design and lifestyle magazines are often selling “responsible” and “sustainable” home amenities that offer guilt-free consumption. Green is in, more than ever. Even Wired magazine recently ran a special section on high-tech green homes— among them a 2,300-square-foot hypermodern home in the Colorado Rockies that features solar power, super-insulated walls and computers that monitor interior temperatures to save energy.

These impressive photo spreads and inspiring articles often omit any discussion of how the homeowners have changed their day-to-day lives to match the principles of their houses— or if they have at all. That house in Colorado? It’s a mile up an old ranch road in the middle of nowhere in a very dry region of the country. How much gasoline and water does the homeowner need to live in his energy-efficient retreat? The article doesn’t begin to guess.

At some point, I determined that we would still have our sustainable home. But instead of buying our way into it, we’d create it through unconventional thinking, ingenuity and sweat.

We started with the lawn. One gas-powered lawn mower can emit as much pollution as several dozen cars, so we bought a push-reel model. My father, who spent his life working for fertilizer companies and has a “perfect” lawn, would have us beat the turf into submission with weed killers and nitrogen-rich fertilizers— the sorts of things that are polluting waterways in this region. Instead, I bought a weapon-like device that yanks up dandelions and thistles by the root, by hand. As for the mess of clover and grass, I figure if it’s soft and green, we’ll let it grow.

At the same time, we tore out part of our tiny front lawn and replaced it with a vegetable garden. Most food travels 1,500 miles from field to plate, burning countless tanks of gas in the process. Our 80-square-foot garden yields a lot of petrol-free dinners in the form of salads, tomato marinara, cucumber dip and herbs. We buy our milk, meat, fruit and eggs from local producers at the city farmers’ markets— sometimes at premium prices. But we believe that the money is an investment in open and arable land in Maryland, the ultimate food security.

While providing food, our garden also provides a biology lesson for the family. My son is fascinated with the grasshoppers, butterfly larvae, beetles, earthworms and leopard frogs that live in our tiny plot. Meanwhile, I’ve learned more about how these soil creatures contribute to plant health. There is an adage among organic gardeners: “To feed the plants, feed the soil.”

To do just that, we took advantage of Baltimore County’s springtime sale of compost bins and set up one of the big black tubs in the backyard. Yard waste, paper and other biodegradable products go in; then, microbes and worms break down the garbage into nutrient-rich soil. That compost goes into the garden, completing a cycle that defines sustainability: “Waste equals food,” as the eco-architect William McDonough put it. 

To get rid of some of the other garbage in our house, we joined Baltimore’s Free-cycle Network, an online list-serv for people who are giving away junk and people who want it. We gave away an old clothes washer to a grateful person. In turn, I’ve picked up scrap wood that I used to build a breakfast bar and a pantry.

Our life isn’t perfectly green, of course. We still drive too much and buy frivolous things. When we felt our budget pinch last year, we joined Costco— not exactly a haven for local produce. But anyone who has tried living sustainably will tell you it’s not easy. It’s a constant process of self-evaluation that doesn’t end with a purchase of a “green” product.

This year, we’ll double the size of the garden and grow more flowers for pollinators. We may hang a clothesline. We still have renovations to do on the top floor of the house, which includes a bathroom, so I’ve been researching salvage yards like The Loading Dock and watching Free-cycle for useful items.

I’ll admit I’ve also been eyeing some pricey recycled glass tile for that bathroom. I saw some in This Old House the other day that was pretty cool.

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