July 28, 2005

· Personal · Sociology

Flickr’s photos tell me that it’s cold and sunny in Canberra. I knew that already. The Lobby Bar is closing in Cork, which comes as a shock. (It’s a great venue.) And the Saguaros are flowering in Tucson. That means it’s really hot in Arizona right now—dangerously hot, in fact—just as I’m about to return there. One advantage of desert life, though, is that it’s possible to live in a more-or-less solar powered house. Even though the materials needed to build a house like this aren’t really that expensive anymore, few are built because housing construction is a lot like film-making. The difficulty of bringing together so many specialized contractors for what’s essentially a small-scale, often one-off project means that a lot of energy goes in to ensuring that all the bits hook up together in a reliable, predictable manner. The paradoxical result is that a lot of fluid network activity amongst creative individuals produces a tendency to conservatism and a bias against innovation in the actual outputs. Reconfiguring some bit of the house (the cooling system, say) means that a bunch of other people back along the supply chain have to adjust their standard practices, and they don’t want to. Symmetrically, prospective buyers may be nervous about the resale prospects of such a house in a market where the demand for innovation is strictly limited. So in much the same way that most films are boring and cookie-cutter, so are most houses, despite the fluidity and high potential for creativity inherent to the enterprise. Nicole Biggart makes this argument for commercial buildings, and large parts of the housing market seem similar.

There is still a fair amount of innovation. It’s just difficult to get it incorporated into standard plans for homes. Tucson has many examples of solar-powered or otherwise energy efficient homes, including one of the few zero-energy homes in the country. The ZEH is net zero energy, of course: it’s designed to produce what it needs via solar panels, and its overall energy consumption is very low. An “ordinary” solar home is not a ZEH, but if its built right it’s very cheap to run. If things go according to plan, I’ll be living in one come November.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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