The Ecology of a Healthy Home: Energy, Health, and Housing in America, 1960-1985

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The Ecology of a Healthy Home: Energy, Health, and Housing in America, 1960-1985

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Title: The Ecology of a Healthy Home: Energy, Health, and Housing in America, 1960-1985
Author: Wolfson, Mariel Louise
Citation: Wolfson, Mariel Louise. 2012. The Ecology of a Healthy Home: Energy, Health, and Housing in America, 1960-1985. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: On November 7, 1973, President Nixon asked Americans to lower their home thermostats to a national average temperature of 68 degrees. On February 2, 1974, over half of the gas stations in the New York City area closed after selling out of fuel. These and other restrictions resulted from the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974, a pivotal event in American history that made residential energy conservation an immediate national imperative. This dissertation situates American housing within the ecologically-oriented 1970s, when energy independence and environmental protection became political and popular priorities. I study two California communities that shared geographical and temporal proximity but responded to the energy crisis with divergent approaches to the ideal of energy-conserving, healthy housing. Part I explores early indoor environmental research at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. In collaboration with utility companies, homebuilders, and homeowners, Berkeley’s researchers studied how residential energy conservation affected indoor air quality (IAQ) in conventional and alternative homes. Their goal was finding the “optimal balance” between equally vital goals: energy conservation, healthy indoor air, and cost-effectiveness. By the early 1980s, IAQ was the leading criterion in national conversations about healthy housing. Part II explores owner-built housing in 1970s California. Owner-builders embraced environmentalism and voluntary simplicity. Like Berkeley’s scientists, they pursued residential energy conservation, but did this either by living in minimalist cabins without heat or electricity,or by using alternative technologies (solar power, earth-building). Their top priority for housing was autonomy, not IAQ. They campaigned for the right to build their own low-cost housing unconstrained by building codes. They prioritized personal and planetary health in designing and building their homes, arguing that a healthy house was an instrument of social and environmental change. In juxtaposing these two approaches -- one academic and quantitative; the other holistic and iconoclastic -- I show that healthy housing has been a flexible ideal shaped by competing priorities: energy, health, affordability, and environmentalism. Housing, the fundamental link between people and the outdoor environment, is an ideal focus for environmental historians and adds another dimension to knowledge of American history since the energy crisis.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10368127
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