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The Home We All Share

Don’t Let It End Up In The Landfill


At the Hillendale house in New York. From left, the author’s sister Trishia Bowden, sister Mary Willard, brother Jamie MacDermott, dad Jim MacDermott and Tracey MacDermott.

Last month I took a trip to upstate New York with my father and siblings for a cousin’s wedding and a possible last good bye to a beloved uncle, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year.

I anticipated a bittersweet trip. As we flew into Albany, the dark reds and glowing orange of East Coast hardwoods painted the landscape while memories of childhood flooded my mind. Our arrival is almost to the date 44 years ago that we left New York. I wasn’t sure how close to my childhood home we were when we arrived, however my father and siblings had already planned on seeing the two homes we lived in. I was elated to have an opportunity to travel down memory lane.

I was worried that both neighborhoods would be drastically different from my memories, as so much time had passed and so many homes around the country are torn down for newer and bigger homes.

Still standing

As we turned on the street of the first home I lived in it was amazing how much I could recall. I was able to identify the home of a childhood friend, which had a creek flowing along the back of the house where we played for hours on the water’s edge. I was able to recall the names of many neighbors and the home they lived in.

As we rounded the corner I saw the rock wall along our driveway that we would jump from into a pile of freshly raked leaves. Of course, that rock wall seemed so much higher back then. There was a small porch added and a modest addition to the home, but it had been relatively unchanged as was the rest of the neighborhood.

We then went to the main street in Scotia and my sister pointed out the building where my parent’s dining room furniture was made and is still in their home. Although the furniture store was no longer in operation, the building stood.The bar across the street, which was owned by the same people, was open. We decided to go in and have a drink.

At the hostess table was Mrs. Maloney, now in her early 80’s, the owner of the furniture store and is still the owner of the bar. Two of her sons, who were friends of my oldest siblings, also were there and the chatter of those childhood days filled the restaurant.

Surely, the second home we lived in must have undergone unrecognizable changes. It hadn’t. Its color had changed, but the home was the same. It wasn’t just our home, it was also the neighborhood that remained intact. Both areas seemed untouched by time.

Fixing and flipping

This got me thinking about Denver, and specifically the numerous scrapes that have become standard operating procedure all over the city. As reported in Westword last August, “a rising number of entrepreneurs targeting hot neighborhoods have moved beyond house flips to tear-downs, an increasingly lucrative practice that entails purchasing a home, destroying it and building a new, higher-priced structure in its place.”

It seems this lucrative scheme benefits only the few. It does not take into account the harm to the planet. A recent study published in Energy and Buildings notes that a new single family home will result in one to three million metric tons of added emissions between 2017-2050 –  even if the new home requires less energy to heat and operate. The study concluded that replacing older buildings with high efficiency buildings is not an effective strategy to mitigate CO2 emissions.

Another report out of the University of British Columbia notes an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from teardowns even when the home that replaces it is energy efficient. It is better to retrofit an old home for energy efficiency then to tear down and replace. Scientists estimate that it will take an average of 168 years for efficiency gains to recover construction impacts.

Unfortunately, much of a teardown – including in Denver – goes straight to the landfill and requires new products to build the new home. Even if a new home is energy efficient it still requires raw materials in order to be built.

Lost energy, lost memories

I had heard a phrase years ago, “the greenest building is the one that is already built.” The one home we all share – the planet – cannot sustain our wasteful practices and our unquenchable desire for more. It is estimated that 25 percent of solid waste ending up in landfills comes from construction and demolition. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning reports that when a building comes down and its materials are sent to a dump, all the energy embedded in them is lost. Our consumption needs do not match what our shared home can sustain.

On my recent trip I was able to celebrate the joining of two lives as they head on their joint path, as well as a shared sadness of another one’s path coming to an end.

I was able to revel in the joys of reliving childhood memories and finding that there are still places on this planet that have not been bulldozed for a “more is better” lifestyle. At least for the moment.

Is it possible to return to an ideal of valuing what we have? Accepting that we don’t need more in order to be happy? I hope so. Otherwise we will destroy the only home we all have.

As we head into this holiday season, may it be filled with loved ones versus things, and allow us all a much-needed return to what we can call home.

Tracey MacDermott is chair of the board of Greater Park Hill Community, Inc. Active in the Registered Neighborhood Organization for many years, MacDermott was the 2012 recipient of the Dr. J. Carlton Babbs Award for Community Service. She was trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2017, and is currently the Statewide Chair of the Climate Reality Project for the 100% Committed Campaign.

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