Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Attitudes and Latitudes

First, a gratuitous picture of Iris on the drive between Christchurch and Akaroa.

Now let's talk about the difference in attitude towards energy between the US and NZ.

Look at this cool clothes dryer that came with our first host family's new "spec" home. The smaller portion ratchets up for a small amount of laundry. The lower portion ratchets up for a big wash day. This family doesn't even own an electric (or natural gas) clothes dryer. (If it rains for an extended period of time, the hostess uses a small clothes rack in the garage.)

What builder in the US would put a clothesline, much less a cool and space-saving one such as this, in a spec (speculative) home, built with no particular buyer identified yet? In the US, builders of spec homes put in tons of energy-wasting appliances, vaulted ceilings and install marble or granite (or some other labor-intensive to maintain) finishes throughout.

We stayed with two families and went to a party at a third. There was not a single vaulted ceiling in sight, even in the two newer homes. Hot air rises. With the ubiquitous American great-room with vaulted ceilings, you have to heat a lot of air to sustain a comfortable temperature at people level during the winter.

Homes were built for easy maintenance. New Zealand has a labor shortage. (An island nation, they don't have desperately poor neighbors who will do their dirty work for them for next to nothing.)

Everyone saved their kitchen scraps for composting. The hostess of the townhouse pictured above had a very compact compost system that originated in Japan. (If I could get it in the US, I could fit them in my side yard and still have room to walk by. I gotta figure out a way to get a pair of those.)

Many people grew vegetable gardens. Even in small yards, people would tuck some edible lettuces or a few tomato plants among the flowers. They used their home-made compost. They talked about the thin topsoil and high winds in New Zealand and the need to constantly amend and improve their soil. They talked about soil in terms of stewardship of a precious resource. We hose our soil down the storm drains in the city and I am going to leave ranting about American farm practices to others.

New Zealanders import every drop of oil that they use. You won't find many gas guzzling cars on NZ roads. (Though you will see many diesel-powered camper vans like the one we rented; they are surprisingly economical with fuel.) Lacking a domestic car industry, they had no problem recently banning the importation of large trucks and SUVs.

About 2/3 of their electricity comes from hydroelectric projects. Another fraction comes from geothermal sources. Electricity is enormously expensive to store, and impossible to store on a large scale. Thus, electricity costs vary greatly by time of day. Homeowners are highly incentivized to use electricity after peak demand hours. One host family heated water only after 9 pm. If they use up the 240 liters they heat up each night before the following night, too bad. They plan their daily activities so that they don't run out of hot water.

Imagine that. Planning your daily activities in advance. Prioritizing energy and water use. Doing your own dirty work.

Doesn't the first picture of Iris remind you of the ads that energy companies in the US run? She already lost her new glasses. They were adorable, as you can see.


  1. I've been enjoying your blog for a while but I can't remember if I've introduced myself yet - hi Grace! :-)

    Just wanted to add that the first time somebody told me there are areas in the US where people aren't *allowed* to use washing lines, I didn't believe it. I thought it was just another one of those look-how-silly-Americans-are urban legends. I live in South Africa, with a climate very similar to California's -- hardly anybody I know bothers with a tumble dryer, even in winter when it rains a lot. And the idea of putting clothes in a dryer on a day that's windy and/or sunny just seems... bizarre. There's nothing to beat the smell of freshly air-dried laundry.

  2. It's the same in Europe. In Italy, where my husband grew up, they don't have dryers either and every home has a clothesline outside. They also seem more energy conscious in general. When his mom came out to visit us here, she was appalled at how all the lights were left on in the dept (at Cornell, where we went to school at the time) at night.

  3. OMG, I thought that was you! Iris is sure growing fast.

    I tumble dry my sheets and towels but everything else gets hung to dry.

    I don't have any marble, but I am curious. What is so hard about keeping it clean?

  4. I live in New Zealand and I've never lived in a house without a clothesline. We do get quite a bit of wind so it makes sense to use it, I guess!

    When we lived for 4 years in Seattle, I was constantly getting in trouble with the building superintendent for trying to dry laundry outside on the balcony. Like mamagenerica, it just galled me to use the dryer on a windy or sunny day!

  5. Marble is porous so it stains easily. Spill some red wine or oil on the counter, and you will have memories of the event forever.

    It also etches easily when in contact with acids. It requires special cleaners and sealants.

  6. Anonymous22:24

    I lived in Spain and France for several years and I can report that there are no clothes dryers there, nor are there vents if you should wish to install one. It does get cold and rainy during the winter, so you do need to allocate indoor space to drying, which can take several days. Since 80% of Spain's population lives in apartments, you can imagine the space crunch.

    If you have house guests, as I did, with all the attendant towels, sheets etc...this can be a lot of work. I asked Spanish women about doing laundry, especially since all the boys at my daughter's school wore ironed shirts to school, and most said "Oh,my maid does it."

    After a while the drudgery of hanging every sock, shirt, towel etc. got to me. Not only that, but everything dries as stiff as a board. That's why you can buy such amazing ironing equipment in Europe. Also people tend to dress better, with fewer wrinkles.

    I put a dryer in my house and vented it through an open window, where the on-demand gas water heater vented. I am all for on-demand hot water heaters. They are terrific, but do work better in climates which are not as cold as NY,where I now live. That said, the cost of energy is the killer. Europeans pay much more for water, electricity and gas than we do.

    All Spanish bathrooms have a handheld shower head on a sliding bar. 10 times more bath gel is soldthan soap.Thatis because the practice is to soap up and spray off, thus saving water.
    The bathrooms are generally small and luxurious. They are tiled, frequently with marble or stone, to the ceiling. Fixtures are usually very nice, although rubber plugs are the norm. No fans, usually just a window or vent to open. Bidets are common.

    In the rural part of France I lived in every house had a potager on the south side. Things were more expensive than Spain, but we had a amazing fireplace which was designed to heat the 2 story living room which had been converted from a barn. It was remarkably effective, we did not use the heat, even in December.

    Unless you live in another country, it is hard to imagine not having fluffy towels or doing laundry as easily as in America. I have hosted several foreign exchange students and it is rare for them to put more than one pair of jeans a week in the laundry. It would be inconsiderate to do so in their home countries. They are also usually very concerned that their clothes will be shrunk or ruined in the dryer by their host moms.

    One more thing. In Europe, since the cost of hot water is so high, dishwashers and washing machines heat cold water to the necessary temperature. Houses are not plumbed for hot water to go to these appliances. Consequently, these appliances are far more expensive to buy, since they must also include a water heater. It follows that the washing cycle takes much longer. My washing machine, a Siemens, took 2 and 1/2 hours to do one load. Add hanging all your laundry and it can take a day to do two loads of laundry!

    So, while my experiences in Europe, led me to adopt some customs and made me much more aware of our wastefulness, in other ways I really do appreciate the ease of doing laundry in the USA. I loved the bathrooms in Spain, the gardens in France, the walking lifestyle in both places, and our amazing fireplace in France.

    I also loved my German kitchen appliances, but that is another subject.

    I loved reading about NZ. How fortunate you are to visit there!

  7. I had to laugh when I read this. We have a house in an old area, so no homeowner's associations to say we can't have clotheslines. We don't want to use up too much of our small yard with a permanent line, though. My Kiwi Hubby was unimpressed with the retractable clotheslines we found online here, so he had his parents bring him one from NZ.

    But in defense of us Americans, I grew up without a dryer, too. (I grew up in AZ.) So we aren't all silly. Just most of us are.


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