Beyond Net Zero: The Ethics, Theory & Practice of Personal Sustainability

Martin Voelker
CRES Jefferson County Chapter

For the geeks and tinkerers among us, bringing a typical house built in the 1970s into the 21st century by converting it from your typical energy hog to carbon negative would be a thrill that would be its own reward.

But for long time CRES member Steve Stevens, a retired but restless Bell Labs Scientist who presented for the CRES Metro Denver chapter, the motivation to do just that goes much deeper. The larger context of his project is the imperative to take action on climate change, and he illustrated that point with a series of slides of global climate maps alongside photos of his grand children today and the projected climate future they will be facing as senior citizens.

Having sensitized his audience to the ethical dimension, Stevens then covered the logic, theory, and science behind his particular choices on how to power his home and his life, and how his home evolved as a lifestyle integrator supporting the energy needs of food production and powering personal transportation.

In 2006, Stevens was among the first in the neighborhood to get a substantial number of solar panels. Then he  perfected the building envelope, doing the easy things first, such as filling the attic with blow in cellulose, sealing cracks, gaps, and the notorious electrical outlets throughout the house with foam and caulk, and adding thick poly-iso panels to the outside foundations.

In later years he thickened his walls, again with layers of (reclaimed) poly-iso both inside and out. He converted an outside porch into an additional room designed to add warmth to the house, using both Sun Tunnels and LED lighting to brighten things up and eventually building a translucent three-story greenhouse addition designed to grow food and funnel warm air into the living spaces.

An avid bicyclist and collector of historical penny-farthings and early iterations of bicycles, Stevens built a net-zero museum in his basement – fitting, as this mode of transportation is about as efficient as it gets. Steve was also one of the first people to put in an option for both the Tesla and the three-wheeled Aptera. The Tesla Roadster turned out an ill physical fit for his tall frame and the Aptera never made it out of development. He realized that the first generation Volt would suffice to fill most of his driving needs in all-electric mode while fueled by his solar panels.

Last but not least, the lawn on his southwest facing corner lot on the hillside of South Table Mountain in Golden had to make way for a small but productive vegetable garden, powered by the sun, nitrogen rich alpaca poo, and massive amounts of biochar, as well as grapes and grafted fruit trees.

Stevens has taken great care to photographically document the many stages and individual projects to change his 1979 home from a carbon footprint of 12 tons in 2002 to a minus 7 ton footprint in 2012, and his archives illustrate his progress well.

As one of the participants remarked: “there was nothing routine in this fast paced presentation. It was all original material working from philosophical theory up to concrete examples of what we can do starting with our own homes to fix the problem.”

This article can’t do justice to the breadth of measures, both ingenious and common-sense, elaborate and simple, expensive and trivial, Stevens has taken. Fortunately he will be presenting again on Tuesday, April 14th for the CRES Boulder County chapter, as well as later this season for NCRES. In addition, interested groups are welcome to arrange a private tour of his home – or wait until October 3rd when it’ll again be part of the Golden Solar Home Tour.