An opinion piece in the Washington Post today takes issue with the
preoccupation with "green" houses - isolated and "green" only in the
design and technologies integrated into the buildings themselves but
not "green" otherwise - and suggests we need to look at the forest
rather than individual trees and think of "greening" the whole urban
How a 'Green House of the Future' Can Impede Environmental Progress
By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 2, 2009
It's fun to think about how innovative technology and creative design
someday might radically change the look and performance of a fully
sustainable single-family home.
The Wall Street Journal got into the game recently with a report on
concepts by four architectural firms that the newspaper asked to
imagine the "Green House of the Future."
But how much can cool-looking, zero-carbon houses of the future
contribute to meeting the nation's challenges: creating a healthier
environment; achieving energy independence; and arresting climate
change by burning less fossil fuel to run vehicles, generate
electricity, and heat, cool and light buildings?
The four houses envisioned in the Journal report display inventive
form-making and incorporate the full gamut of green design techniques,
some currently available and some theoretical. The houses, which would
be built with recycled, high-tech and naturally green materials, would
depend on renewable energy sources -- solar, wind, geothermal, biomass.
Speculating about visionary green houses is tantalizing, but much
greater benefits accrue at a larger scale. Entire metropolitan regions
need to be green. This means creating more compact land-use patterns;
diverse transportation options that enable fewer automobile trips;
greater mixing of land uses at higher densities; and, of course,
greener residential, commercial and civic buildings.
Focusing on hypothetical designs of free-standing houses can even be a
distraction. It can mask a more serious aspect of the challenge: the
diminished sustainability of low-density, residential subdivisions in
suburbia where most free-standing houses of the future are likely to
No matter how green individual homes are, suburban sprawl is
intrinsically anti-green. It generates infrastructure inefficiency;
car dependency and rising fossil fuel demand; carbon-emitting, time-
wasting road congestion; and, despite availability of inexpensive land
at ever-greater distances from jobs, escalating development,
construction and public service costs.
Fighting sprawl while implementing large-scale sustainability
strategies also requires preserving, expanding and retrofitting
existing neighborhoods and buildings, including single-family houses.
Use of what's already built saves immeasurable amounts of energy and
resources. Transforming neighborhoods, buildings and infrastructure to
accommodate new functions may be the best way for architects and the
real estate industry to help create a greener planet.
Unfortunately, regulatory, political, market and financial hurdles
often stand in the way of transforming cities and suburbs to make them
greener. Outdated zoning and building codes can be obstructive.
Citizens may oppose change, especially in their own neighborhood.
Consumers frequently resist design innovation. And some tactics for
making greener environments require front-end capital investment that
stresses project budgets or violate conventional financing formulas.
To make America greener, we must shift focus. We need less attention
on how to shape the individual house and more attention on how to
shape -- and reshape -- communities. And we must focus attention on
changing rules and public attitudes that make green design harder to
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of
architecture at the University of Maryland.
Montreal QC Canada