Carbon-free: Step by step

Talking with Stephen and Rebekah Hren, authors of ‘The Carbon-Free Home’

SWJ: There is “The Carbon-Free Home,” your book, and then the actual home that is carbon free — which came first?

Stephen: We knew we wanted to live independently. The book came along with the project. I took a year off to write the book as the project was being completed. We intended the book as a guide, a sort of “how-to” for home sustainability.

Rebekah: We sort of modeled it after those step-by-step guides you find in Home Depot.

SWJ: How did you get involved in sustainability?

Stephen: We always were interested in living independently. We wanted to be out in nature. When we were together in our 20s we tried to be farmers, but we discovered everything’s in the city — food, fun, shopping, so we moved into Durham.

Rebekah: We were always looking for totally normal house — the house that we have is just a normal old house.

Stephen: It’s 75 years old, and it had been neglected for about 20 years prior to our moving in.

SWJ: With your book you’re trying to help others do what you did; how long did this project take you?

Rebekah
: Less than two years, but to be clear, we were working on it just about all the time.

Stephen: As I said I took a whole year off to write “The Carbon Free Home” and to work on the project. We both worked pretty tirelessly on getting completely weaned from fossil fuels over that time.

Rebekah: We made lots of mistakes along the way. That should be expected with something like this.

SWJ: How may projects like this have ever been completed in the U.S?

Rebekah: There really aren’t that many. Through our time working on the book and doing research on the project we came across three or four other similar house projects in the country. There is a distinction to be made between a house like ours which is carbon-free and a house that is able to reduce its carbon footprint to zero just by slapping a big expensive solar panel on its roof. Also there are people who are completely off the grid. Off grid is different — you are not in the city. Being in the city provides another slew of harsh challenges to homeowners like us hoping to ameliorate our fossil fuel consumption.

SWJ: Were there many doubts along the way?

Rebekah: I would say there were two — two major ones.

First, certain projects are much harder, such as cooking without fossil fuels. The most difficult change was getting off of gasoline cars. We have a veggie-oil Mercedes — the engine is run entirely on used veggie-oil that we collect from local restaurants.

And then also, the house was in much worse shape than we thought.

SWJ: In one of your chapters you write about composting human waste: you built facilities to compost your own feces. Pardon my interest, but how did that go?

Stephen: It’s actually not so bad once you get used to it.

Rebekah: When we have guests over I tell them “just try it at least once.” As long as you have enough sawdust down there, the smell is virtually nonexistent, and at least you don’t have the potential water splash.

Rebekah Hren is an electrician and part-time teacher, working primarily as a solar-electric systems installer and designer. Stephen Hren is a restoration carpenter and is active in edible urban gardening projects. He also teaches natural-building workshops in Durham, N.C.

FYI
Stephen Hren will be in Minneapolis on Tuesday, June 24 at Linden Hills Park for a talk and book signing, sponsored by the Linden Hills Co-op & Natural Home.

It is a free event, and it is recommended to preregister. Call 612-279-2450 or e-mail [email protected]