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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

An Environmentalist Builds his Dream House

Air Date: Week of

Jyl Hoyt of member station KBSU visits an earth-friendly house in Montana and the man who built it. Author Richard Manning used to decry development at the edge of wilderness, but he was motivated to build his house by the belief that attachment to a place will inspire the human desire to protect it.


CURWOOD: Few, if any things define a culture better than its dwellings. Language perhaps, but people are how they live. It was that notion that sent author Richard Manning off to the woods. Once a reporter for the Montana Missoulian, Manning found himself alienated and out of work after he wrote a series of exposés on clearcutting in the Northern Rockies. So with his hammer and pen, Manning headed back to nature and set about designing , building and writing about what he calls an earth-friendly abode outside of Lolo, Montana. The result was a home and a book, entitled A Good House: Building a Life on the Land. Reporter Jyl Hoyt recently stopped by for a visit.

(Sound of crickets outside, walking)

HOYT: Richard Manning's frizzy curls blow in the afternoon breeze as he throws the last bit of straw mulch on his garden, closes the gate and heads uphill to his home. Manning, compact and muscular, squints through the summer glare searching for signs of elk and deer that live on the steep, tree-covered mountain behind his new house. He doesn't see the animals, but knows they're there and has made sure they'll be able to stay there.

MANNING: It's open space, it always will be open space, and it will be preserved completely for the wildlife that live up there - and we're gonna take care of that land.

HOYT: Caring for the land has been a concern of Manning and many others who live in this remote part of the country. In recent years, he'd seen more and more land cut up for homes and concluded that residential development was as big a threat to the environment as industrial or resource development. But in recent years, Manning has had a change of heart. If done properly, he now says, building in rural areas can be beneficial - because people tend to protect land once they have an attachment to it. This idea is the focus of his book A Good House: Building a Life on the Land. His new philosophy began to take shape when he realized that during his life he had spent too much time moving from one town to the next following job opportunities. Moving on was one option, after he left his job at a Missoula daily newspaper. Montana loggers had complained about a series of articles he wrote on clear-cutting. Manning says his editors pulled him off the environment beat and he felt he had no choice but to quit.

MANNING: I didn't want to move on. I decided that this time I needed to stay in a place. I needed to settle down and come to understand the land and what I needed to say about the land in a given place in the Northern Rockies - I needed to make a stand, in effect, so I stayed.

HOYT: By staying in Montana, Manning's life became a quest for understanding the relationship between nature and humans. He decided that in order to preserve a place, people must value it, make a commitment to it - even spend a lifetime on the land. Manning also concluded that because of the amount of resources we use, Americans are as responsible for environmental destruction as the companies they like to blame. He decided to build a house that would commit him to the land and that would use natural resources as frugally as possible.

MANNING: I mean, this is really about limits in the end. The limits of our use, the limits of the damage that our lives create.

(Sound of walking into house)

HOYT: Manning's house has two stories; a wood stove sits in the center of a sunken living room. At 1000 square feet, the house is small, about half the size of the standard American house. Floor-to-ceiling windows that face south allow for solar heat. The open design allows heat to circulate without electric fans. Manning's design also includes an ancient construction technique called "timber framing."

MANNING: If we walk into the kitchen here you can see the massive beams that are in the ceiling. People look at this and they say, my God, you must have killed some enormous trees. Well, they're not, they're quite small trees.

HOYT: But they seem large because timber framing uses whole trees, squared off. Timber framing creates less waste and requires less wood than contemporary construction techniques. The back of Manning's house, where the kitchen is, is earth-sheltered - dug into a mountain. This "berming" technique saves energy and keeps the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter - but there's a tradeoff: no window by the kitchen sink.

MANNING: You learn as you go along that you can't have everything in a house, and after a while you have to understand that there are limits. It's a constant process of compromise in the building of a house. Let's go upstairs and see how it lays out up there.

(Sound of footsteps on stairs)

HOYT: The bedroom and an office are on the second floor along with the bathroom.

MANNING: That's the composting toilet. About a third of the water used in most houses is the toilet. We live in the arid West, and would just as soon not use water that we didn't have to use. In addition, because our wastes aren't going into the septic tank, all the other water that comes into the house, such as the shower, and the sink, goes into a holding tank but is also available for irrigation.

HOYT: The used water from the house irrigates a small fruit orchard the Mannings planted.

(Sound of walking outside)

HOYT: Not far from the orchard are neat stacks of firewood.

MANNING: The trees I've been cutting here are what you would call excess - they've been putting out forest fires for so long in this area that there are too many trees. So I've cut a lot of diseased trees that normally would be killed by fire. That's what I mean by living within the context and limits of the land, is that I heat the house with a wood supply that becomes available to me by understanding the needs of the forest around me.

HOYT: Manning is also working to reintroduce native grasses that were destroyed in years past by overgrazing, logging, and fire suppression. Now, deer and elk browse on the rejuvenated land.

MANNING: What we tried to do is bring the sensitivity that's necessary here to keep the elk coming here. In other words, people can live in rural areas if they do it with some sensitivity.

HOYT: Manning recognizes his profession allows him the flexibility to make this kind of choice - he also recognizes that some of his neighbors in this rural subdivision don't share his sensitivity. He's working on getting them to build houses and live their lives with a better understanding of the ecosystem.

MANNING: It boils down to taking responsibility for your own life - personal responsibility for the solutions. And building a house taught me that.

HOYT: Richard Manning lives in Lolo, Montana. His new book, A Good House: Building a Life on the Land is published by Grove Press. For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt.



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