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Green Building Curmudgeon

Luxury Hybrid Cars and Green McMansions

Using green as a cover to avoid any real change or sacrifice

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This exquisite rammed-earth wall serves primarily as a decorative element in this luxury “green” home.
This exquisite rammed-earth wall serves primarily as a decorative element in this luxury “green” home. Steel beams serving as columns capable of supporting much more than the over-structured roof above.

This post was inspired by a car commercial for an Infiniti luxury hybrid sedan that boasts a 32 MPG highway rating, which means that it probably gets closer to about 23 MPG in normal use around town. I once owned an Infiniti – there’s something about nice leather, quality workmanship, and raw power that is quite intoxicating.

I now drive a Prius, so, like those residents of South Park, I am quite smug about my average 45 MPG, looking down on others driving less efficient vehicles. I’ve also spoken to people who drive the old Honda Insight that get as much as 90 MPG, and new Nissan Leaf electric car owners who have cornered the smug market.

As they say in those TV commercials, actual mileage may vary, mostly based on your behavior as a driver. With your driving habits you can kill the efficiency of a high-mileage car, just as much as you can improve the mileage on a standard one.

I am very conflicted about the idea of luxury hybrid cars. On one hand, they can help convince people that more efficient vehicles don’t require sacrifice. On the other hand, it might just be time for people to consider a little sacrifice. And when you consider what this actually means (driving a Toyota or Honda instead of an Infiniti or Lexus), it’s not much of a sacrifice at all.

From cars to houses

This rather random train of thought reminds me of a couple of luxury homes I saw in California last year. One was completed, the other only partially built; both were seeking LEED certification.

The completed house was large (but not obscenely so), nicely detailed, and located in Tehama, an exclusive golf community in Monterey that overlooks the Carmel Bay, where walking is a rare occurrence. Because of the near-perfect weather, this house had no air conditioning and minimal heating.

It included quite a bit of green bling, including that old standby, recycled cotton insulation. That uber-green material, in one visible location, looked like a Grade II or III install, with no air barrier on the interior side – very green. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to photograph the home due to owner privacy issues and it does not appear to be published anywhere.

The other home was even farther from civilization, and featured rammed-earth walls that appeared to be primarily decorative rather than either structural or providing useful thermal mass. Locally available dirt apparently didn’t have the desired look, so raw materials were trucked hundreds of miles to the site. On top of this, there are sections that are seriously overbuilt, including what appeared to be about 100 pound/lin. ft. wide-flange beams serving as columns holding up small roof sections.

Sustainability comes in second

Both of these homes are quite beautiful, but in both cases it appears that sustainability took a back seat to the design, rather than being integrated into the homes from the beginning, addressing issues such as location and size. Similar to luxury hybrid cars, these homes provide their owners with a sense of being sustainable without requiring any real sacrifice.

It seems to me that unless, as a society, we acknowledge that we have to sacrifice (if only a little), we won’t see any measurable reduction in resource use and will just continue to build fancy cars and buildings as long as people are willing to pay for them.


  1. T.C. Feick | | #1

    The last paragraph is the plain truth. It seems so simple written there, but getting our friends and family, let alone our unknown neighbors to really think about sustainability has proven to be a daunting task.

  2. John_Hansen | | #2

    Your Random Train of Thought
    There is nothing random about your thinking here. I see a very straight line and you write well on this topic. It is at times hard to talk on topics of energy, thrift and sustainability without some trepidations that I might offend someone in the audience or tread too lightly to avoid it.

    You present the truth well, and you use clear logic. Sustainability will be in first place soon, and there will remain smugness. This change will be a generational thing as it was with the adoption and general use of seat belts.

    But quite different than automobiles, the building or buying of a new home often involves the client in intimate ways. They are often forced to grapple with many choices and trade-offs that are never presented to them in the auto showroom. Homes will forever be a unique extension of the personality of the owner. And through them and their lifestyle, we see their soul. Sometimes it is thin and shallow, and other times a person is larger than life and they leave us speechless as they walk the walk that we only aspire to.

  3. wolfnowl | | #3

    "Green Luxury"
    I also have divided thoughts on this. On one hand, there are those who will stick 'green' features randomly onto a building or whatever in the name of calling something green. There are also those who build huge 'net zero' houses, which may use little in the way of day to day energy needs but require tremendous amounts of resources to construct. On the other hand, I'm reminded of a scene from the movie, 'The Devil Wears Prada'. No, I didn't just take a suddent left turn from reality. Near the beginning of the movie, when Anne Hathaway first starts working for Meryl Streep, she has no real sense of fashion and sees no use for it... until Meryl Streep points out that the colour of the sweater Anne Hathaway is wearing originally came from a specific designer, made it's way to a runway, was made into a haute couture fashion outfit and eventually was copied down to the bargain basement department store where she no doubt purchased it. Or something like that. The point is, those who purchase high-end luxury hybrid or electric vehicles for example provide the funding that goes into research to drive new technologies and change. There's a reason that Maserati, Lamborghini, Ferrari, etc. are all owned by other companies. The innovations that are being touted in a Toyota or Nissan were likely first tested in an R&D lab at Infiniti or Lexus... For some questions there are no simple answers.


  4. user-1051743 | | #4

    Technology and Sacrifice
    I'm all with you on the need for sacrifice. The problem as I see it is that a lot of people don't necessarily recognize this need or agree that there will be consequences (like resource depletion or accelerated climate change) if we don't.

    So the question becomes, how do we convince the larger segment of society that this sacrifice is necessary and worthwhile? Simply buying a hybrid is perhaps better than the alternative, but how can we (myself included) use this as an opener for the conversation about buying less or driving less? Those same sorts of conversations are the ones that will be similarly meaningful for building homes.

  5. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #5

    Not likely to see any improvement
    Travis - I agree that most people don't recognize the need for sacrifice. I've sort of reached the conclusion that we are too far gone and too selfish to achieve any real improvement in our abuse of the earth. We won't convince enough of our society to change their behavior until it's too late. I have rarely been able to convince anyone that they should buy or drive less. They either believe it or they don't. Until something happens that affects them directly they will just go along their merry way. See the Green Curmudgeon logo for my opinion on where we are headed. Thanks for the comment.


  6. 7nX3WShRc2 | | #6

    Need culture shift not sacrifice
    Thanks for the thoughtful article. My two cents worth is that if sustainability, efficiency issues are framed as "you must sacrifice" then it won't sell. Rather, new and more efficient products such as cars and homes need to be seen as the better choice. For example, is a non-smoker sacrificing? Is someone who grabs an apple and goes for a walk rather than sitting on the couch eating cookies sacrificing? No, they are just making different, and you might say, more sustainable choices. People are beginning to realize and embrace that there are sustainable products available, which fit their lifestyle. Let's hope such products aren't seen as requiring sacrifice.

  7. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #7

    Bill - Good point, but, thankfully, I am not running for office, so I get to say whatever I want and don't really have to worry about the consequences. I suppose I could have phrased it differently, but to soft sell everything just so people might either be fooled or else convince themselves that they are doing something that they are not may be a little silly. Also, Americans have sacrificed plenty in the past - during WWII for example, people sacrificed so we could win the war. Sacrifice is not always bad, and the fact that we have to pretend that it isn't necessary makes us a weaker society.

  8. 5C8rvfuWev | | #8

    That's a good metaphor, Carl
    Equating the approach to the sacrifices to win wars, or to survive the Great Depression, etc and valuable and instructive, especially regarding any widespread adoption of standards of efficiency, sustainability, and "responsibility."

    Just like the environmental "war," the great majority of consumers weren't interested in war in 1939 -- there was a huge isolationist movement, in fact -- and that didn't change until Pearl Harbor when the nation was directly attacked. Even then, there was big support to let Europe handle Germany by themselves.

    And the Great Depression called out the best people had to offer in creative energy, survival habits (which my mother honors to this day), and a "hunker down" mentality ... It was preceded by the great binge of modern times, "The Roaring Twenties." It was only when there was absolutely no alternative to irresponsibility that the mass turned to role models for survival.

    The exchange of exercise and apples for TV and cookies is also effective. Sure, some of us enjoy being healthy. But most prefer being sedentary and gorging on junk food and it's only the onset of diabetes or coronary or other painful threats of death that provoke a lifestyle change of the sort that can be described as "responsible" or "sustainable."

    LIke those folk who choose the ostrich approach, I too do what I want. My family's lifestyle is pretty much healthy, and self-sufficient. I'm here to figure out how to build/reno a house that will last and which I can afford. I don't have much faith in "people" but place my confidence in nature -- however badly we screw it up (cf: your logo) I'm sure nature will survive quite nicely, with us or without us. There are many life forms.

    Sheesh. I'm glad I caught this when I'm in a good mood, lol.

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