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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Green Homes Don’t Have To Be Durable

Living lightly on the planet doesn’t require a durable shelter

Green but not particularly durable. This Mongolian family lives in a ger, a type of traditional shelter that Americans usually call a yurt. [Image courtesy of Headscarf]

According to most green advocates, green buildings must be durable. Alex Wilson memorably summed up the case for durability in an Environmental Building News article titled “Durability: A Key Component of Green Building.”

There are a few problems with the durability thesis, however: some durable buildings aren’t green, and many green buildings aren’t durable. In fact, the more one looks into the issue, the harder it is to find a link between durability and greenness.

What’s the correlation?

One easy way to disprove any generalization is to provide counterexamples. As it turns out, plenty of durable buildings aren’t green, including:

  • The Hearst castle in San Simeon;
  • Buckingham Palace;
  • Versailles.

On the other hand, plenty of green buildings aren’t durable:

  • Hippie houses made from salvaged materials;
  • Yurts or gers;
  • Tipis;
  • Old-time Alaskan log cabins;
  • Third-world favela shacks.

One might perceive a trend in these examples: when it comes to greenness, size matters more than durability.

Living lightly on the planet

Most of us are trying to reduce our carbon footprint and our environmental impact, and some of us worry that our American lifestyle is unsustainable. In the back of our minds, however, we hope that a greener future won’t require us to give up our current luxuries. That’s why we rarely look to the Third World for architectural models.

Most traditional shelters are relatively small, use local materials, require very low inputs of energy, and cause little if any environmental damage when the shelter is abandoned. For those of us who came of age during the 1960s, the landmark book documenting indigenous homes was Shelter, the 1973 classic by Lloyd Kahn. As the examples provided in Shelter made clear, to live lightly on the planet, there is no need to build a durable home.


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  1. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #1

    Way to be controversial, Martin
    Interesting theories but I think we need to take them a little farther. Durability is always important, as long as it is appropriate for the life of the structure, the building efficiency, and the health of the occupants. If you only expect the structure to last 25 years, I would hope that it would still be structurally sound and properly manage moisture throughout those 25 years, but be easily disassembled and recycled at the end of its life.

    Your comment about durability being not as important as other green building aspects concerns me. In standard building constructions (which is 90+% of what we are dealing with) durability is profoundly important, because where it is not addressed, buildings fail and become unhealthy places to live, making them pretty much the opposite of green.

    I get your point, but i think you need to be careful that you don't get misquoted (like a bad movie review) and suddenly change the direction of the industry.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Profoundly important for green -- or no correlation with green?
    Glad to have your feedback.

    Here's the thing: for most American builders, we want to start with the basic assumptions we were brought up to honor: fine homebuilding, quality construction, and durability. The result of these concerns is the production of many fine homes in the range of $200,000 to $800,000 -- and up. It's the American way: we end up with homes that are solid, imposing, and permanent.

    Green construction, however, starts from an entirely different premise: living lightly on the earth. I read recently that the green ideal is similar to the backpacker's ideal: leave no trace. Ideally, we should all consume less, affect the earth less. That's what we mean by a smaller footprint.

    When you get right down to it, most green builders in the U.S. aren't really committed to the deep green, "leave no trace" philosophy. They're in the business of building and selling houses -- imposing, permanent, durable houses. As long as someone wants these homes, and they are small and energy efficient, I have no problem with that.

    But durability is not prerequisite for green.

  3. jbmoyer | | #3

    Interesting... but I disagree.
    Durability is not a prerequisite for green? Wow. that is a bold statement Martin. Unless you convince the home building industry to start building homes out of 100 percent natural materials, durability is a must. Note how I am using the word "natural" not "recyclable." We cant assume that the recyclable content will actually be recycled at the end of the home's life.
    Yes, ideally all homes would be built out of materials that would just decompose when abandoned or torn down. But try to convince the average homeowner to build an Earthship ( Good luck! AND the thing is: though they may arguably be the "greenest" homes in America, they STILL have a footprint.
    Convincing Americans to build low-impact homes is a battle that can NOT be won. Americans want the typical stick-framed home with lots of fancy exterior and interior finishes. I do, however, believe that the home building industry can be convinced of using better, durable construction materials and methods. Without a push towards better/durable building, 25-year/disposable homes will continue to be built, and this is obviously not sustainable.
    We need to be building homes that last. Homes that are quality built, durable, beautiful, appropriately sized... and avoiding trends and fads is a MUST.

    Quality Built- An obvious component of home building

    Durability- We need to be focusing on moisture management-- exterior weather barriers, snow/ice protection, flashing details for roofs AND walls, kick out flashings, ground water protection, interior moisture control, etc. We also need to be using finishes that last-- durable exterior claddings, countertops that don't scratch (uhem... paperstone,) limiting carpet, etc.
    Beauty- A beautiful home will stand the tests of time. People are likely to think twice about tearing down a well-built, beautiful structure.

    Appropriate Sizing- It not easy to convince people to build smaller homes. Most people want the biggest bang for the buck, and wish to maximize square footage. Building huge homes is not green, and green building programs should do a better job at restricting the size of homes. Sorry McMansion lovers.

    Avoiding Trends & Fads- I see a lot of "green" homes being built with extremely modern aesthetics. Sure that may look slick now, but who knows what people will think of them 20 years from now. Trendy carpets, floorings, cabinets, countertops, and wall coverings will more than likely be replaced in the future. I don't care if they are "green," they should be avoided.

    Who knows how homes will be built in the future. Sure, people change, tastes and styles change, BUT homes built with the above mentioned principles in mind will at least have a fighting chance of lasting 100+ years, which in my mind is a good thing.
    Sorry Martin but I must respectfully disagree... durability is paramount when it comes to green home building.

  4. user-282515 | | #4

    Necessary On Different Fronts
    I am afraid I am going to have to disagree as well. As presented, durability is linear – meaning it is defined as a time of duration. I believe that sustainability requires durability on different fronts. We must consider Energy and Water Efficiency (Durability of Planet), the Quality of Specifications/Materials (Durability of Building), Indoor Environmental Quality (Durability of Occupants), the Quality of Construction/Workmanship (Implementing Durability), and Homeowner Awareness/Education (Encouraging Durability) when discussing this topic. None of these mean that the structure must be imposing, expensive and unable to be adapted to subsequent users.

    From what I witness on a daily basis, many, if not most, homes built today are expensive and nondurable. They are quickly built, energy hogs, and unintentionally designed to last a relatively short time, but they certainly are not marketed that way. If we are going to really be honest, the lack of durability is causing failures in many homes that are barely 10 years old. How is this even beginning to serve its intended purpose? Let’s face it, we live in a disposable society. Is it better to have many things that quickly wear out, or a few things that last a long time?

    I tend to agree with Janine Benyus that we should ask human building projects to pull their own ecological weight. Buildings, hardscapes, and landscapes of a community should work together to provide the same level of life-sustaining ecosystem services as an intact native ecosystem. Though a city may look very different from the native ecosystem, it should actually function the same way. When cities and ecosystems are functionally indistinguishable, that's when we will have truly mimicked at an ecosystem level. That's when we will be ‘green’.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Lest anyone misunderstand, I am not defending the quality of typically built production homes in the U.S. Nor am I saying that durability isn't a good thing.

    It's good for homes to be durable. But just because it's a good thing doesn't mean it's a prerequisite for green construction. For example, running hot water is a good thing. But it's not a prerequisite for a green home. The majority of the world's population survives quite well without it.

    Although many people are proud of the fact that they live in a 120-year-old house, the fact of the matter is that many (perhaps most) building components get replaced every 30 or 40 years. In that sense an old house is similar to my grandfather's ax -- it's a great ax, and he's only had to replace the handle four times, and the head twice.

    I moved to Vermont in 1974, one of a wave of back-to-the-landers who invaded the state during the 1970s. Most of my friends built houses that cost $100 to $2000 to build. We put these houses together from stones, logs, salvaged hardwood flooring, and items collected at the dump -- old window sash and discarded metal roofing.

    Thirty years later, what's happened to these houses? A few are abandoned and neglected. Some are well-cared-for summer homes. And many have been lived in continuously, added on to, and repaired with better materials.

    Looking around at my neighbors in rural Vermont, I see a great diversity in housing styles. We have several million-dollar-homes within a ten-minute drive of my house. There are countless old trailers as well. Some of these have been adapted with attached mudrooms, retrofitted sloped roofs, and back bedrooms. One trailer in our village has been added on to in every direction, so there's only a 10'x10' panel of trailer that gives a hint what the core of the house consists of. Many of my neighbors lived for years in concrete basements, covered with floor joists protected with a rubber sheet, as they saved money for 2x6s and OSB to build their first floor.

    Which of these houses is the greenest? The new million-dollar homes built to code? The patched-together hippie houses? The $700 trailer? I'm not really sure. But I'm convinced that the ecological footprints of my neighbors' houses are not directly correlated with durability.

  6. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #6

    I'm not foolish enough....
    to try to change your opinion on this issue, I know you well enough at this point to realize that the effort would be futile. I do, however have to take issue with your premise that durability is not a prerequisite for a green home. Just because parts get replaced a few times a century does not mean that they are not durable, rather they have a useful life, as does everything. Under what circumstances should a building not be required to be durable? Even a yurt or a mud hut is durable, within the constraints of the useful life of the material. Let's say a standard yurt lasts for 5 years (no idea if this is true, just picked a number). So if someone comes up with a different type of yurt that only lasts 2 years, isn't that worse than the 5 year one? Unless it is cheaper and has a lower overall environmental impact, how can it not be worse? I must admit that your position on this has me totally stumped. I cannot envision a single situation where durability is not a good thing, and if fact, I see it as a prerequisite for all green buildings. Please persuade me otherwise. I am all ears.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    A single situation
    Here's a single situation. Consider two neighbors. One builds a $400,000 home measuring 1,800 s.f. with R-40 walls, R-60 attic, triple-glazed windows, slate roof, and brick veneer walls. Everyone calls it the greenest home in town.

    The neighbor lives in a used travel trailer that he bought for $3,000. His trailer isn't very durable.

    Which home is greener? By the way, the travel trailer requires less energy.

  8. EJ Palma | | #8

    After reading all of the
    After reading all of the comments in this ongoing discussion it seems to me that everyone is in agreement about the durability of a structure and its importance. The essential disagreement is only philosophical and as Martin stated a "devils advocate" position. His comment obviously motivated all of us to think about the question " is durability a prerequisite for green building"? In my opinion durability is a prerequisite for all structures. Green is a philosophical and lifestyle approach to reducing our personal environmental impact and footprint, in regards to sustainable living and the future of our planet. Shelter being one of the basic needs of survival is a large part of our life, thusly it is a large part of our environmental footprint, and should be addressed as such. Although there are many examples of sustainably built "green" homes and non-residential buildings displayed here, the majority of homes built in the last 50 years do not fall into this category. I live in the overdeveloped state of Connecticut. Our state is a great example of the "McMansion" philosophy of building and "urban sprawl". Most spec homes are built to satisfy the "conspicuous display of wealth" lifestyle and do not care about addressing their impact on the planet. Most people that buy the "McMansions" do not understand the meaning of "environmental impact" or "environmental footprint", and if they do they obviously do not care about a sustainable future. It is the "I've got mine" lifestyle and "who cares about the polar bears and everyone else" philosophy". I am not meaning to be facetious or insulting to anyone, but as the old cliche states "it is what it is". The past 50 plus years has seen our country become a society of wastefulness and disposability. We waste energy, water and natural resources at such alarming rates it is a wonder that we have anything left at this point. Our fossil fuel consumption is astronomical, and we continue to rape the earth to feed it. Even though the green community is alive and well we are severely outnumbered by those that do not care on corporate, community, and personal levels. Conservation is a philosophical and personal ideal that needs to be forced into practice. I have great hope that we as a green community can expand our impact on society and educate everyone to the needs of our planet in peril, while providing the services to make it happen. I am an idealist at heart, but a realist in practice. With the collective knowledge and experience that we possess, coupled with an emphasis placed on the education of the global community it can be accomplished. I personally thank all of you for your efforts, opinions, and the resulting discourse.

  9. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #9

    Martin, interesting that you used travel trailer as an example
    I would contend that if the trailer leaks water and air, that it is not a healthy place to live, causing health problems for the owners, hence, it should not be considered green. And let's not forget the urea formaldehyde filled trailers the FEMA distributed all over the gulf after the hurricanes.
    I get that you are trying to change a paradigm here, and I appreciate that, but I am afraid that many professionals will dismiss the need for durable construction by way of misunderstanding (or is it misunderestimating?) your point.

  10. NH Green Builder | | #10

    A Quick Way to Turn Americans Against Green Building
    The quickest ways to turn Americans against green building: 1. Overexposure and being "preachy", 2. Mandatory rules, and 3. Arguing that we have to accept a third world life style to benefit the planet.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #11

    Not suggesting a rule
    NH Green Builder,
    I'm not suggesting a rule. "Green buildings must be durable" is a rule; I'm arguing against the rule.

    Nowhere do I argue that we have to accept a Third World lifestyle to benefit the planet.

  12. EJ Palma | | #12

    I do not believe that
    I do not believe that discourse over philosophical and pragmatic ideas is being "preachy". The general public need to be motivated to think. Exposure to green building techniques and concepts is also in great need. Those that shy away from exposure probably do not believe in the concepts anyway, and you may find that some actually become interested in gaining the knowledge. All forms of building have rules, green building needs to separate itself using differnt rules and modifications of existing rules. Building Codes are mandates without which we would have "construction anarchy". Our society has become numb to the plight of the third world countries, and what it is like to live in one of these countries. The underlying fear in the general population that they may lose their comfortable, ostentatious, all about me lifestyle, to promote conservation and sustainable living is a large part of the problem. Everyone has to be accountable in the situation that we are in now. Everyone needs to think more communally as to how their lifestyle affects others. Exposure to sustainable living concepts and ideas is the only way to change the collective consciousness of the masses.

  13. Greg Hardwick | | #13

    What about durabilty and disaster mitgation?
    All this talk about trailers, yurts, shelter..? What about building homes durable enough to withstand the unexpected. If we only consider sheltering for "intended purpose" and not consider durability then we really do not need to consider building science or building codes at all. If we throw building science out the window (or in this case, the opening in my grass hut) then we have a bunch of intelligent people who are dedicated to making buildings "better" through the implementation of best practices scratching their heads wondering why. If it only has to last 7-years... Why secondary water protection? Why create a continuous drainage plain? Why strap my trusses to the wall system?
    What is the carbon impact of a community of homes wiped out during a hurricane or tornado or that may have to be completely rebuilt every storm season? And where will these displaced people go then? Do you think it may create a need for more reliable and durable homes?
    I do not think Americas are as "nomadic" as this topic suggests and as a remodeler and custom home builder, I see the results of negligence. The consequences of an "it won't break while I'm around" attitude. Green building is a culmination of sustainability and best practices…it is a better way to build. I think a “cheap and temporary” attitude among the building industry probably put us in the situation we are in today – the remnants of a burst housing bubble created in large part by owners wanting to move to something better every few years and builders not building things to last. Why not build something that makes better sense for people to stay put..?

  14. Bruce | | #14

    I get it.
    'nuff said.

  15. kate | | #15

    expand the view
    It interests me that everyone is framing an issue that stops at the outside wall of the structure being discussed.

    In that aspect, I would say that durability should be inversely proportional to recyclablilty/reusability/environmental impact of the materials. If a structure is created using potentially toxic or non-recyclable materials, then I would want it to be a durable as possible. But if a lean-to made of branches and leaves is all you need, then who cares if it breaks down in a single season and left to rot, or is ground up into mulch at the end of it's useful life?

    However, the factor not being considered is population density. In a city setting, we cannot afford and/or justify non-durable structures. The infrastructure needed to support the population as a whole does not justify it. In a densely populated area we need streets, water, sewers, power, etc. and in the end those things are safer for the population and the environment that the alternatives (mud tracks, open pit toilets, wells and buckets.) Once you accept that, then durable buildings are the logical next step.

  16. scott | | #16

    Benson and I discussed this
    Martin, I think you have a great blog - keep saying things you "shouldn't" say ... Tedd Benson and I had a back and forth about this subject on his blog see link below. He was promoting durability as meaning sustainability as far as buildings are concerned. I think I agree with you on philosophical grounds, but the biggest reason that I don't think durability is a valid measure is that when we discuss the durability of a building all we are really talking about changing the denominator of embodied energy equation for the building materials themselves. These costs, are always going to be a small part of the life cycle costs (though you wouldn't know it by following LEED). If we think in terms of "whole life costing" or "life cycle costs" then we can compare things objectively. I think we should encourage this kind of thinking. Where we run into problems though is the way money is treated in the future. I think that most people think of these issues through a moral lens, and the idea that adding insulation might not be a wise financial decision, is anathema to us. The way we think abotu the present value of future expenses is a huge problem. If you figure how how to deal with that problem, let me know ;-)

  17. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #17

    Thanks for the support, and for the link to your dialog on the topic, which I was unaware of.

    You're right that the embodied energy cost of the materials used to build today's durable homes are not the problem; the problem is ongoing operating costs. That's why size is so much more important than durability -- size and location. It's very hard to predict how our grandchildren will be living: how many square feet they will be able to afford to heat or cool, or how many miles they will be able to bicycle to go shopping or find a job.

  18. Kim | | #18

    durability/demolition and materials
    I am hoping everyone agrees that durability does not trump safe materials. I will "assume" we all agree that even though asbestos siding tiles are great insulators and very durable, they are not greener than wood siding.
    The thing that has gotten the housing into problems is the lie "low maintenance" for every low maintenance item I'll show you a toxic material. We can argue about vinyl siding, but I can show you a whole city of 100 year old wood buildings, some even with wood roofs, that have lived through hurricanes the salt air of the Atlantic and Intercoastal waterway of Florida. Maintenance must be considered. Durability is not just how long something lasts without maintenance and far to often durability is used interchangeably with it.
    As an earlier post mentioned, durability must be considered appropriate to the use. Why do we use granite countertops in houses where someone's personal taste will demand it be removed in 20 years? If the house even lives as long as the countertop? Granite and stone are more appropriate for uses that DEMAND durability, a countertop only demands we can set a hot pot on it and get it clean easily. I would argue formica on a sustainable backing is far greener than granite that has been mined and hauled to the house sire form as far away as the other side of the world.
    A durable material in a short term need is a waste of embodied energy and inappropriate uses of materials is hurting us as finite resources run low.
    Building 100 year houses in neighborhods that are then demolished to make way for "bigger and better" homes is a waste of embodied energy and often prescious materials and lost artisanship.
    Historic preservation is more than saving cool old buildings, it is preserving our culture and our resources to be used for needs and not just wants.
    We do need to change the way we look at the planet and I'll go ahead and also say something I probably shouldn't, but it need sto be said. We need to reconsider that growth is even a good thing. Sustainability is about keeping what we have, our way of life, etc., but we cannot grow infinitely on this finite planet. We have to recognize when we need to draw the line in the sand and not step across it anymore.

    I think the line is already there.

  19. Allyson Wendt. | | #19

    I think an important part of this debate that hasn't yet been discussed is the issue of flexibility. Martin, you mention that one argument against durability is the fact that we don't know what future generations will want. That's true, of course, but I think we can design with that in mind, and that's pretty essential to green buildings. It's also essential to durability. Let's take the 120-year-old house example (or 140-year-old, in the case of my own house). Yes, it's had parts exchanged and many materials replaced. But I'm willing to bet that the embodied energy of those materials is far less than that of building a new house--which you would have to do with a less durable structure. As for less technological structures (yurts, huts, etc), those have to be replaced far more often than durable structures. In some cases, that's not a huge problem. But when you're faced with population densities greater than a small village, making everyone's house out of clay becomes a resource drain. And modern yurts made in the U.S. are often vinyl-coated canvas--talk about high embodied energy and high impact on the earth!

    I would argue that durable is a prerequisite for green homes in North America (which is what we're talking about here). So is flexibility--to change the way a space works, how it's insulated, and so forth. Throw-away houses (this doesn't include cob, by the way, which is quite durable) just won't be green given the current materials economy and population density in most places.

  20. Allison A. Bailes III | | #20

    the great misallocation
    I'm in total agreement with you, Martin. Durability is NOT a prerequisite for green building. Yes, it's desirable to have buildings that last as long as they should, but I think you've made the case extremely well that durability isn't all it's cracked up to be.

    To take the 120 year old house again, yes, it's been around a long time and had some updates and has saved the embodied energy of a new house to replace it. If, however, it had been torn down after 60 years and replaced with a more efficient home, the energy savings over the past 60 years could easily have eclipsed the extra embodied energy required to replace the original home.

    The real problem here is that we've experienced such fantastic wealth over the past century that we've been able to go on a building binge without regard for the green building principles that matter: A green home should be good for the occupants and should minimize its impact on the environment. Now we're stuck with an inappropriate infrastructure for the lower energy world we're entering thanks to peak oil and our lack of preparation for it. Those exurban communities in California to which you alluded and many similar communities all over the US are evidence of this.

    I think Jim Kunstler put it best when he said that suburbia is "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."

  21. Ben Ainslie | | #21

    Getting Back to Basics
    I think this is the best article you have ever written. Being a sales rep for a P2000 dealer you and I have some strong oppinions that don't mix, but on this subject I will back you up 100% Being in the green building bussiness I see first hand how todays Green building is fuelled by technology. From building envelope theory to moisture-proof materials, "Green" is completely industrialized.
    I don't think you are the devils advocate at all, infact you are reminding us that impact on the earth is what is important here. The native Americans were living green for over a thousand years and there efficiancy levels are still admired today. Durability was not a focus point in most of these cultures. I think many people in our lines of work have forgotton green can be simple. Sure your not going to get a LEED platinum rating on a wigwam or a mud hut but you will be living green, and thats what matters, right?

  22. Robert Riversong | | #22

    What is Green?
    This is a wonderful discussion, and I agree that Martin is not playing the "devil's advocate" – the rest of the "green" building movement is being the devil's advocate by perpetuating an excessive lifestyle and an industrial economy.

    Some of this controversy is based on a confusion that Martin didn't adequately address: durability and longevity are different qualities. For instance, Carl Seville said "Durability is always important, as long as it is appropriate for the life of the structure." A 5-year yurt, he suggested, might be considered durable (though I suspect a good traditional yurt might last a generation).

    In our culture, longevity is considered a value in itself, such that a long human lifetime is often more of a goal than a quality lifetime. And yet, in the marketplace (as some here have indicated), planned or unplanned obsolescence has been the norm because the market is driven by the profit motive more than any other and based on the assumption that resources were infinite and infinitely available.

    Greg Hardwick said, "I think a 'cheap and temporary' attitude among the building industry probably put us in the situation we are in today" and Grant Dorris said, "Let’s face it, we live in a disposable society. Is it better to have many things that quickly wear out, or a few things that last a long time?" This confuses two phenomena: cheap, low quality goods and biodegradable artifacts. Planned obsolescence and disposability is not a green value, but biodegradability certainly is.

    In fact, the ecological definition of "durable" is an artifact that outlives its ecological impacts. Thus a concrete and steel building or one built of granite and marble will have to last hundreds of years to be considered durable, while a straw-bale or cob house might have to survive for only a decade to meet the same standard – particularly if it's owner-built by people who don't subscribe to the absurd notion that "time is money". And there's no reason that a simple straw or earthen home can't last a generation.

    Unfortunately, Martin backtracks when he asserts, "Nowhere do I argue that we have to accept a Third World lifestyle to benefit the planet." He got defensive about this allegation because we perceive "third world" to mean a lifestyle of poverty and want rather than one of minimal needs and community cooperation. When the New Economics Foundation of London measured, in their Happy Planet Index, the efficiency by which various countries produce long and happy lives, the top ten were mostly Latin American or island nations (Cuba was #6, while the US was #150).

    The consensus is that the human population passed the carrying capacity of the earth more than 150 years ago when we were "merely" a billion creatures, each demanding far less of the earth's resources and contributing much less waste. Contrary to the assertions of urbanites and city planners, cities are inherently unsustainable and un-green. As Kim suggested, "We need to reconsider that growth is even a good thing… We have to recognize when we need to draw the line in the sand and not step across it anymore. I think the line is already there."

    Assuming that cities are sustainable leads to obvious contradictions, such as Allyson Wendt's comment that "when you're faced with population densities greater than a small village, making everyone's house out of clay becomes a resource drain". Even the greenest of all housing technologies becomes untenable with high population densities. Kate states, "The factor not being considered is population density. In a city setting, we cannot afford and/or justify non-durable structures… Once you accept that, then durable buildings are the logical next step." Assuming that dense localized populations are inevitable or beneficial requires thinking in terms of values that were alien to an ecological lifestyle for millions of years.

    Taking this line of thought to the point of absurdity, Grant Dorris suggests that " when cities and ecosystems are functionally indistinguishable, that's when…we will be ‘green’." Cities and ecosystems are distinguished by the primary fact that no natural ecosystem allows concentrations of life that exceed the local carrying capacity of the environment. Cities can never be ecological – they are, in fact, a denial of ecology's primary function of balance and diversity.

    As Ben Ainslie wrote, "'Green' is completely industrialized... The native Americans were living green for over a thousand [actually 10,000] years and their efficiency levels are still admired today. Durability was not a focus point in most of these cultures. I think many people in our lines of work have forgotten green can be simple." And Allison A. Bailes puts the issue in very simple terms: "A green home should be good for the occupants and should minimize its impact on the environment."

    Long-lasting structures often initially increase and then extend or magnify ecological impact, as Martin correctly points out. It is only because of the insane amount of time we moderns are forced to invest in what we believe to be an acceptable lifestyle that we don't have the luxury of being able to smear additional mud and straw onto our green habitations when they get weathered. There are few activities more satisfying than the regular maintenance of simple shelters – far more so than being a wage slave in order to afford the excesses and absurdities that we have come to believe are necessities.

  23. Pam | | #23

    This article is brilliant -- so unlike anything else being written today about the oxymoronic "green building". This NAILS it: Although many U.S. architects and builders are working to design large energy-efficient houses, few are proposing low-energy lifestyles that might include small, inefficient shelters like trailers. We should all strive to lower our energy consumption — a goal that doesn’t necessarily require an energy-efficient house.

    Thank you!

  24. Pam | | #24

    typos above
    I came back to this post after I saw it mentioned in your newsletter. Re my comment above, I must have been drinking too much coffee, because I did not mean to call trailers "inefficient" nor do I understand that last clause I wrote either. Argh. I am a true believer in what I understand to be Martin's core bottom line: Reduce your energy footprint. Live small, and light on the earth. What I keep wondering when it comes to all the green "building" hoo haa: How is it that we are going to consume our way out of a crisis caused by excessive consumption, exactly?

  25. user-659915 | | #25

    "How Buildings Learn"
    Stewart Brand's excellent treatise on adaptability has been mentioned on Alex Wilson's current thread on this topic which starts from the opposite perspective. Let's not forget that buildings can be both compostable AND durable, especially wood-framed ones: easy to remodel, relatively easy to move if the land on which they sit becomes subject to a higher and better use, easy to maintain and upgrade, but if terminally neglected they can just sink back into the earth, leaving no trace but a brick chimney or two.

    On a different tack though I woud like to make a plea for ordinary buildings that can be expected to stick around for at least a couple or three human generations, just for the sense of cultural continuity. A few special buildings to last for centuries - a lot of buildings to last for a hundred years or so (the house I was born in is just that age now, and is probably good for another century - and a very few, equally special, that come and go like a Christo artwork. That's the recipe for a cultural mix with resonance and depth, achieved with good land-use planning, intelligent 'scenario-buffered' design a la Brand, sensible use of known and trusted materials. And with no assumptions that our present unhinged abuse of finite natural resources can continue for any length of time.

  26. Jamie Wolf | | #26

    The narcissim of design
    A pot nicely stirred here. And fragrantly seasoned.

    I have spent the bulk of my career as a remodeler, am now a PH Consultant (continuing to remodel toward DER goals), and favor two views expressed here.

    In "How Buildings Learn"(HBL) Brand reminds us that our ability to predict the future is largely a fruitless endeavor. This was driven home for me by work with two clients locally who, in the past decade, had purchased Bauhaus inspired, architect designed visions for a future that were locked quite durably in place (built in the 1930's) in that static and momentary architectural vision, then subsequently aged out of functional relevance and ended up as tear downs (quite difficultly due to the confidence of the vision being embedded all too durably with masonry and steel - you needn't ask if they used energy wisely - they were clueless). Thus a lesson in the narcissism of design thinking. It is so tempting for us as designers to imagine that we can figure it all out and fix it (give those Bauhaus designers extra points for confidence - or should we subtract them?). Artifacts abound that indicate the fallacy of that possibility. I express this wary of this seduction in my own practice. How about you?

    As I recall, the punch line of HBL is "long life, loose fit", which brings me to a fundamental lesson of remodeling. Flexibility is at least as desirable as durability. The most valued building assembly to a remodeler is the stick built, shingle clad residence. It is sublimely mutable. Its components are familiar (our common understanding of its components lend us a super-hero's capacity to see through walls). As devoted as I am to the methods and aspirations of PH design and construction, there is an inherent fragility and brittleness to the assemblies these buildings depend on. I can't help wondering how successfully they will be adapted over time when their performance depends on being so delicately optimized and the source of their energy balance so intimately understood. How will these homes adapt over time?

    I ask this because HBL reminded us that all buildings change over time and invited us to imagine the virtues of two roads, low and high, that have responded with reasonable success over the long haul. We do well to remember those lessons, even as we must take our best shot at resolving how to design and build appropriately given the (ultimately limited) perspective that our time affords us. We sure have learned a lot over the past few decades. But we hardly know it all and endeavor forward, humbly or not, under that burden.

  27. TC Feick | | #27

    Durability is contextual.
    Two things; Materials that are durable need not be expensive, nor do they necessarily have an environmental penalty associated with them. Materials that decompose quickly are not durable, for the most part. Assuming that one still needs shelter, and that decomposition is not an "event" that occurs at a pre determined time, It is anything but sustainable to use such a structure, given a home's life cycle. If you are making an argument for straw bale, for instance, ignoring durability during construction would lead to an unhealthy and unsafe indoor environment, not to mention that wet straw is not much of an insulator either. I would contend that durability is of utmost importance for ensuring energy efficiency and decreased embodied energy in the built environment. Within that context, I believe there are still very good chices for materials with favorable end of use disposal options, which seems to be the gist of your argument.

  28. Maria Loveland Schneider | | #28

    Green Undefined
    This is a very interesting discussion about durability but at the core it comes back to the same place that all discussions about "green" do. Whether something is essential or irrelevant to building green depends on your definition of green and what outcomes you are trying to maximize. If energy efficiency is the most important outcome then durability is not the most important factor. If embodied energy is important to you then durability is more relevant. If you are all about renewable and non-toxic then whether or not a material is durable is not even the metric you will be using to choose it.

    These conversations are very thought provoking but unless "green" is clearly defined, we are really talking philosophy and not science.

  29. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #29

    Response to Maria Loveland Schneider
    Why have you concluded, "If embodied energy is important to you then durability is more relevant"? Most of the houses built in the Third World have very low embodied energy; however, they may not be durable. After all, straw, mud, cardboard, and items scrounged from the local dump don't have high embodied energy.

  30. Maria Loveland Schneider | | #30

    Durability and Embodied Energy
    Your question underscores the lack of stated assumptions in this discussion. There have been several different definitions of durability brought up in this conversation. My definition of durability assumes that the durable material will require less frequent replacement than its less durable competitor. Therefore you have eliminated or delayed the using the embodied energy associated with the replacement and decreased the total embodied energy used over a period of time. (depending on the relative embodied energies of the two materials in question). Therefore I say "If embodied energy is important to you then durability is more relevant."

    So when do you start tallying embodied energy? If it's already in existence, presumably the embodied energy has already been embodied. Just because you "scrounged it from a landfill", does that mean the sunk energy costs no longer count? (or that it's non-toxic, or that it's a good idea?) Does an inherently "un-green" building material become "green" because you got it second hand? I am genuinely interested in your take on this.

    By the way, I am a big fan of building with compressed earth which can be both durable and recyclable. I'm also a proponent of deconstruction and reuse and I'm all about scrounging.

  31. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #31

    On using recycled materials
    Most green building certification programs award points for the use of used building materials or materials with a high recycled content. The logic is that such materials have lower embodied energy costs than new materials; in general, I believe that the logic makes sense.

    Surely we can all agree that if I go to a landfill, and I rescue a piece of old metal roofing before the bulldozer buries it, then I have obtained a building material without the need to manufacture anything.

  32. Matt Jennings | | #32

    Reclaimed materials and decision-making at different
    You asked: "Just because you "scrounged it from a landfill", does that mean the sunk energy costs no longer count?"

    The answer is yes. Here's the logic:
    In setting best practices for green building, the community attempts to guide the decisions made at the project level. From the point of view of decision-making for a project occurring now, encouraging builders to use reclaimed or recycled material is optimal. The decision that would have avoided the creation and subsequent disposal of the material that is now available to be re-used is outside the project builder's available options. In fact that decision was likely made years ago and certainly cannot be changed.

    However, as a broader policy matter it is legitimate to ask whether increasing demand for reclaimed materials has unintended side effects. I can't think of any off-hand, but there's probably something there.

  33. Adam Zielinski | | #33

    Permanent Housing vs Temporary Housing
    Martin, I think you are confusing the issue by comparing permanent housing with temporary housing. Just like a small house that is energy inefficient will still use less energy than a big house that is energy efficient, a small temporary housing unit will use less energy than a code built permanent home.

    Your point about durability makes sense if you are comparing site built homes to temporary housing, but in doing so you are basically comparing apples to oranges.

    Let's keep the discussion focused on typical site built homes built to code or better, so that we are comparing apples to apples.

    It is true that one could build a durable home that is not green and not energy efficient, and it is also possible to build a home that is very green and energy efficient but not at all very durable. But would the not durable home that is green be a very desirable home to live in? Especially after it starts falling apart after 10-20 years?

    What is the resale value on that home going to be? How could a home that is designed to not be durable appreciate in value over time? By definition, it would have to depreciate in value over time, like an automobile. Who would want to buy a home that will wear out and depreciate in value over time? Unless it is one of your temporary housing structures or a third world housing structure that isn't built to any kind of building code.

    Perhaps what we really need are homes bulit of durable but interchangable parts, in modular fashion, that can be deconstructed and re-constructed relatively easily, but would still create homes that could last for hundreds of years if need be - and be green and energy efficient.

  34. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #34

    Response to Adam Zielinski
    My basic argument remains the same, even if temporary housing is excluded from the discussion.

    Most of the world's population lives in homes that are much less durable than those advocated by many green proponents. For the reasons explained in the blog, there is no correlation between a home's durability and its environmental impact.

    Small, cheap homes generally have a far smaller environmental impact than large, expensive homes.

    You seem far more concerned with resale value than environmental impact. You ask, "What is the resale value on that home going to be? How could a home that is designed to not be durable appreciate in value over time?"

    But I'm not trying to make an analysis based on resale values or guesses on the appreciation of home values. That is beyond the intended scope of my article. I'm talking about environmental impact.

    It's fair to say that a lot of Americans who were obsessed by resale values and the appreciation of home values made some very bad decisions in 2007, so I don't think it's a good guiding light for the green movement.

  35. Beachton | | #35

    Durable but not permanent
    I agree with the idea of this article. It may not be something that will be accepted by the majority of people buying houses in cities, but I certainly was thinking this way when I built my house in the country. I built near my childhood home that burned down in the '80s. I had a well, a driveway, power lines, and a huge mess from a burned wood frame house on a slab. That slab bothered me so much I built my tiny house as a rigid frame around 4x4s buried in the ground. I used leftover materials from bigger jobs, recycled gym flooring, the works. I made it fireproof because we burn our woods. But if it did burn down you could just pick the steel roof out of the ashes and recycle it along with the cast iron tub and sink, throw away the refrigerator and freezer, and rake the rest smooth in the hole I dug under it. My preferred riddance, however, would be to sell it for removal. I designed it for easy transport. Put some beams under it, cut off the posts, and tow it away. Only sign it was ever there would be the buried pipes and wires. So it's DURABLE, but not PERMANENT. The land could be returned to it's unsullied state very easily. Because I think like Martin. I don't assume anything about future generations. They are required to keep the land in conservation use, but there are no restrictions on structures. Those are just liabilities.

  36. ethan_TFGStudio | | #36

    "Permanent" Wood Foundations
    With trepidation, I mention Permanent Wood Foundations on this thread. It seems that the most difficult aspect of building green is to figure out foundations. Barbara figured it out by building on 4x4 posts, but this is not always ideal. I've thought of pole barn frames too ( but this is not conducive to sloped sites... I feel that "Permanent" wood foundations seem actually less permanent than concrete, but perhaps in this context they make sense.

  37. lilingyoung | | #37

    Wow, found this article by following the rabbit hole from a GBA article celebrating the Whole Earth Catalog. It's blowing my mind, not because of the deliberate embrace of controversy, but because it all rings so TRUE. There has always been a lingering, unacknowledged shadow of regret around homes on which I consult. For the most part they are not the simple homes that inspire with their unrestrained potential. Instead, they are homes that seem weighed down by faddish features that any honest person would acknowledge as severely limited in their appeal. Energy efficiency is but a sheen of redemption on a bottomless well of bad decisions. Better that a home be built easy to disassemble than efficiency-celebrated but regrettably permanent. After all, you can do better next time... if there is a next time.

  38. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #38

    Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad that a 9-year-old GBA article can still blow readers' minds.

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