Sustainability Guide 2011

Family Education and Training Center of Hawaii
The house that saves money.

Energy House

Quoted

For a limited time, Hawaii residents on Oahu, Maui County and Hawaii Island can earn rebates up to $1,750 when they replace their old electric water heaters with solar water heaters.

Family Education and Training Center of Hawaii / Earth Day is a time to reflect on the future and sustainability of the planet and all that entails: carbon footprints, waste streams, water usage. Some people might switch their lighbulbs, others might make a commitment to recycling. Mary Martini wants to revolutionize your family. Visit the Energy House, and she’ll tell you how.

Originally built in 1976, the Energy House, which is home to the Family Education and Training Center of Hawaii (FETCH), is a model of energy conservation, perhaps one of the most comprehensive and under-recognized sustainability projects in Honolulu.

It wasn’t always that way. Although its original incarnation included solar panels and a wind turbine, when the ’80s rolled in and gas got cheap again, the Energy House lost its funding and fell into disrepair.

Then Martini, the director of FETCH, showed up.

When she found out, in January 2010, that the FETCH office was being moved to an abandoned house mauka of the Biomedical Sciences Building on the outskirts of the UH Manoa campus, she was intrigued. When she discovered the house was barely inhabitable and filled with rats, rot and discarded junk–she was horrified.

But ever interested in turning lemons into lemonade, Martini called friend and licensed contractor James Estrella, hoping he could see what she couldn’t.

He did.

“He told me that underneath the mess and the decay, was a beautiful home and a sound structure,” recollects Martini, as we sit sipping coffee in the newly renovated kitchen.

From the clutter and decay, the Energy House re-emerged to fulfill its orignial purpose. Today, powered by the passion of Martini and her colleagues, Adam Baker, James Deutch, Gary Huesel, as well as others professors and students across the UH Manoa campus, the Energy House fuses experiential learning with susainable living, focusing on the family as the medium through which these practices are best cultivated.

Think family therapy meets gardening/cooking meets summer camp, all rolled into a 12-week program.

Martini’s training as a child psychologist and her decades of work at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources prepared her to design what has become a magnum opus for the dying discipline of home economics. But it was the Energy House that provided her with a place from which to revolutionize FETCH, and perhaps the idea of home economics itself.

“When home economics originated, it was a propaganda machine to propagate middle-class values,” she says. “Now the tide is turning and people are demanding knowledge from us.”

Participants of FETCH come for a variety of reasons. Some are just interested in homemaking skills. Others are court-ordered to take a parenting class. Some come for the team and social building projects geared towards young children. Others need support as parents.

“People are coming to us demanding knowledge,” says Martini, as she takes a break from fielding requests from kids. “How can we get our kids to work with us? How can we grow our own vegetables? How do we eat the fruits we already grow in our yard?”

These families are not just interested in the savings of growing and cooking their own food, they are looking to build a stronger family by doing it.

When Martini moved into the Energy House last spring and thought about what she might do with her new space, she kept returning to the value of practical knowledge and the role it played in her childhood.

“What I liked as a child was working with adults and children outside–building canoes, making home repairs,” she says. “So as a child psychologist, I didn’t want to bother with all this talk stuff. When we moved into the Energy House, it just felt absolutely right.”

While many sustainable education programs focus on skills, youth education, and experiential learning, Energy House concentrates on the family. This has allowed Martini to reach a diverse cross-section of Hawaii and suggest that sustainable living might do a lot more than save our environment.

“Through hands on, practical skill building, we train the kids to make their families work, ” explains Martini.

She may be right. For when our families work, our communities work, and it is our communities who will end up solving the problems we face environmentally.

If the Energy House is a house of the future, it’s a future our families should work for.