Can a 4,000 ft2 Home be Green?

I regularly receive requests for my ecological design services for very large private homes.
The individuals behind these requests are generally quite accustomed to getting what they want.
Some have a difficult time understanding:

a) why money alone cannot buy an ecological home, and

b) why I won't work on their project

This is a letter to one such client who I had a particularly nice personal connection with.
I never did work on their place, but at their request, I did give them an interview for their TV show about the project, expressing the views in this letter.

 

Dear ___________,

First let me repeat that I appreciate that your heart is in the right place; you are smart, focused, dedicated to this project, and unafraid of honesty.

Because of the stage your project is at, there isn't time to beat around the bush. I would like to tell you what you want to hear and help you achieve your goals. However, as an ecological systems designer I can't embrace your project as currently conceived. You want a 4,000ft2 ecological passive solar house, with a wall of glass at the north view. These goals are mutually exclusive: the house is poorly oriented and far too big.

If you build a 4,000 square foot house for six people on your site and do it conventionally all the way, it might cost you $500,000. If you add thin "green veneer," it might add 10% to the cost of the project. Thick green veneer might double the cost to a million dollars.

Examples of "green veneer" in this context are alternative construction materials such as straw bale, nontoxic paints, real linoleum, recycled wood, high performance windows & insulation; alternative power sources such as solar electric and heating; and alternative water sources such as recycled wastewater and rain water harvesting.

Some of these features may be found to save resources over the life of the project. But if the fundamentals of the project and lifestyle of the inhabitants don't change, these features are essentially add-ons. Properly rigorous life-cycle analysis will show that many of these add-ons will increase the overall environmental impact.

"Green veneer" may seem dismissive. But the reality is that without lifestyle change and integration with other designs, green add-ons are not "green."

In contrast, building a "deep green" house for six people on your site might cost $100,000-$200,000 less than the presumed base price of $500,000. A deep green house can't be bought with money alone. It also comes from integrating lifestyle accommodation, a rearrangement of priorities, and time and personal involvement in the design, construction, and use of a much smaller, better-designed house.

Such a house might incorporate nearly the same alternative construction materials, alternative power sources, and alternative water sources. However, in conjunction with altering the fundamentals of square footage, siting for optimal solar exposure and water reuse, and occupant lifestyle, the result would be completely different.

The tendency is to view these fundamentals on equal par with other "list items" such as solar power. However, the fundamentals are vastly more—well, fundamental.

Square footage

If you overshoot on square footage, no amount of money spent on greening is going to yield a low-impact project. Lower the square footage, and you lower almost every other impact proportionately.

A 2,000 square foot house with completely conventional construction would have a lower ecological impact than a 4,000 square foot straw bale house that employed every ecological feature. Using the same money, a 1000 square foot house could be carefully designed and custom built with way more soul. Well-made, the comparative small footprint of such a house would shrink as the resources that went into the initial construction were amortized over the century or more it could last. Would it be enough space? This is a question partly of good design, and mostly of mind set. Billionaires are quite happy cruising for years on yachts with less than 200 square feet per person, which is the reasonable target we recommend for a home.

The average size of new single-family homes in the US increased from 1,500 square feet to 2,266 square feet between 1970 and 2000. The Census Bureau also reports that over the same time period, the average household size declined, from 3.1 people per household in 1970 to 2.6 people per household. Thus, the square feet per person have nearly doubled, from 483 to 872.

The ecological design approach is to take the most inherently simple solution and implement it as well as possible. In the case of housing, this means a small number of very well designed square feet. The better the square feet, the fewer of them you need. Moreover, most people will be happier in a small number of really well designed square feet than a large number of less perfect square feet.

Because the most ecological solution is always the cheapest, profiteers will do all they can to steer the market in the opposite direction. That is, towards the most inherently complicated solution, with the option of shoddy execution to "save money" (actually, ensure future income from repair and replacement sales).

Just like big SUVs are more profitable for auto makers than small cars, a big, feature-laden house is more profitable in every way. Like the impacts, the profits also multiply by the square feet. The construction industry wants lots of square feet, and they'll do everything to pass laws requiring more, bigger features, and persuade buyers into thinking they want these things, too.

Do we see our homes as investment commodities, or the cradle of our family's soul?

Even if you make houses and sell them for a living, you don't need them to have mass appeal. You just need one buyer who is in love with the place.

Like many of my fellow citizens, I feel a pull towards a large, valuable real estate holding. Considering how focused I've been on resisting it, to a surprising extent I accept the central tenet of the brainwashing, that "bigger is better," even though my life experience doesn't validate this point.

Vast, rectangular spaces with high ceilings and a correspondingly low level of detail work and craftsmanship are soulless and leave me cold.

On the other hand, I've noticed that the spaces I'm most comfortable in are cozy, well-fitting, generally older or self-built homes with "substandard" ceiling heights, odd shapes, narrow doorways, and smaller rooms, and maybe one bigger one for gathering. Interesting shapes, real materials, and a high level of craftsmanship, detail and handwork give a building soul. Such features are very expensive or impossible to implement in a large home.

This hobbit scale lodge was a surprisingly delightful family home for us as summer turned to fall in Northern California. Several skylights provided nice light. It has both a diminutive fireplace and a wood stove, bookshelves...all in about 50 square feet. Needless to say, it was easy to heat.

One summer my parents, sister and I traveled for three months in a 19-foot camper. We were all amazed at how much easier it was to live in a hundred and fifty square feet than 1500. You could reach the silverware drawer from the dining table and the kitchen sink. Cleaning was a breeze. We got along better than at any other time.

Living on various boats, I had similar experiences.

My wife, six-year-old daughter and I lived happily for a year of traveling in a two-person tent—forty square feet (with lots of outdoor living space around it).

Traveling in other countries, I noted that norms for square feet per person are way lower.

Back in our house, a 600 square foot summer cabin, we could feel the house wasn't "working." Despite all the experiences above, I bought the standard diagnosis, that the house was "too small" (apparently I'm a slow learner).

Fortunately, as the first step towards adding on more space, we filled one room with building materials, functionally removing it from our everyday lives. Surprise!—without that room, our house worked better! This was the experience that finally broke the marketers' "more is better" spell that had me in its thrall.

Now I seriously question the purported advantage of more space. What we really need is better-designed spacesomething much less straightforward, but a much worthier pursuit. Fifty square feet of well-designed space per person is possible; 200 square feet per person is generous. At 500+ square feet per person ecology is out the window and domestic help is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

Siting and orientation

Siting and orientation are also as important, but in a different way. If your house faces the sun, the solar design just clicks into place. If it doesn't, the solar design requires much more time and money to achieve less result.

I understand that you want a wall of windows to face that Northwest view, but this simply isn't compatible with your desire for a passive solar heated home. No amount of money (or wishful thinking) can make a wall of northwest facing windows a passive solar asset.

(Putting a wall of windows to the south—with a few small, well insulated sited and framed windows to views elsewhere—enables the view to be enjoyed while the house to be heated by passive solar. It is a myth that windows need to be big to make a view enjoyable. The most beautiful view window I've ever seen frames a long west view in a window well about thirty inches high by eight inches wide, and a foot and a half deep.)

The same with water reuse. If the wastewater generation points are a short distance uphill from the wastewater reuse points, the design, its implementation and use all take less time, money, and resources.

Dual plumbing in a small house might take thirty additional feet of drain pipe. In a large house with several bathrooms and other water sources, it could take hundreds. With only a few people living there, the investment in money and plastic can't be justified—the earth would be better off if you wasted the water.

 

Lifestyle

Finally, lifestyle is the king of all the considerations. If the occupants are willing to alter their habits, this makes it much easier to design a low-impact house. A low-impact lifestyle is easier and more comfortable in a house designed to support it—this synergy can ratchet impacts down dramatically.

 

I hope the foregoing helps explain the reaction of myself and the other designers you've talked with. It's not that the straw bale guy (who also turned this project down) and I don't want to help you make something ecological, it's that we can't make something ecological without ecological fundamentals to build on.

So where do you go from here? I suggest you take a breath and really look closely at those fundamentals. Read Principles of Ecological Design (article), which could perhaps help make the leap out of the Santa Barbara mind set, which is antithetical to an ecological approach.

If your wife is not willing to concede an inch on comfort, perhaps she could be persuaded to try life in a very well-designed 2,000 square foot house, with the option of adding more (already designed) space if she hates it. You could point out that she would probably not want for space if your family were cruising on a 60-foot yacht, and that your home could be equally well-designed, and twice as big.

Whether you go "deep green" or some degree of "green veneer" I suggest you hire a project manager with extensive green building experience to prevent yourself from going crazy with work overload and cultural clash with subcontractors.

Wishing you the best of luck,

Art

 

 

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