GBA Logo horizontal Facebook LinkedIn Email Pinterest Twitter X Instagram YouTube Icon Navigation Search Icon Main Search Icon Video Play Icon Plus Icon Minus Icon Picture icon Hamburger Icon Close Icon Sorted
Green Building Blog

Size Doesn’t Matter

Philosophical purity isn’t always practical in the marketplace

Kim Eastin Calomino is the director of Built Green Colorado.

By Kim Calomino

Not to state the obvious, but the housing market is just that – a market. Homes come in countless varieties designed to meet the needs and wants of the countless types of buyers. If builders hope to sell houses, they must meet buyers’ demands.

Which buyer a builder is targeting, however, doesn’t (or shouldn’t) define how a home is constructed. And at its most basic, it is how a home is constructed that determines if it is green — that’s how, not how big.

A Continuum, Not an Absolute

When the term “green” is used to describe a building, it shouldn’t be construed as an absolute. While some of us who have been working in the green building arena for a long time fret over the loose use of “green” — commonly termed greenwashing — I think we might also want to keep an eye on ourselves as well, lest our “green high horse” attitude leads us to shun all but the most pure.

It is generally agreed that green building should address energy efficiency, resource conservation, durability, health, and comfort. Trying to address any or all of these attributes is typically an exercise in relativity: more energy efficient, durable and comfortable than what? Which resources and how much to conserve? What’s “healthy”?

The practice of green building progresses along a continuum, so it makes sense for the builder to identify a baseline and move beyond that in a process of continuous improvement.

Your Baseline Is Wherever You’re Starting From

What baseline? Code is one obvious, if not lofty, initial benchmark. Often the most challenging baseline to move beyond is the builder’s mind-set. But in practical terms, each builder has a natural baseline, regardless of product type: the builder’s current practice. For some builders, that baseline may already be well above code. In fact, some local regulators, wisely or unwisely, have already set about to define a local version of the green baseline.

Because of the increasing visibility of various voluntary green rating systems, the market may actually be homing in on an agreed green baseline. The market (and hence the baseline) is also beginning to reflect a growing conviction by many Americans that we really do need to do something about our impact on the environment. Politicians, most notably President Obama, have finally provided some leadership, which will also tinker with baseline. But the continuum will remain.

Okay, So What About Size?

To argue that a large home cannot be green is to say that the baseline/continuum argument applies to some but not others. Most would agree that nearly anything that gets built could have been built greener, at least in some aspect. And certainly this applies to large homes as well.

Of course there’s the resource argument: simply put, bigger buildings typically use more resources. But that tendency can and should be mitigated, even in large homes. If big was really the issue, there wouldn’t be green rating systems for schools, hospitals, or large office buildings. We’d only allow home-schools — small ones, of course — and small local retail shops. We’d limit office size and frown on large regional hospitals in favor of small local clinics. That would be silly.

When I hear the question, “Can large homes be green?,” I think the questioner is really asking, “Is it right for some people use more resources — live in big homes — when they could live in smaller homes like the rest of us?” That question is not really about green building; it’s more about moral or social equity, and I don’t think the green building movement should dilute its focus by debating the issue. We need to get ALL buildings as far down the continuum as possible, as quickly as possible, rather than dither over the tiny minority of homes that are large.

Unless the market for large homes just up and disappears, they’re going to get built and bought. There might be fewer of them, and they might be smaller, especially in these economic times. And heck, who knows, there might even be a permanent shift occurring right before our eyes. But let’s focus on getting those builders and buyers to move along the continuum, not argue about where the line gets drawn on size.

Read an opposing view


  1. Patrick D. Bunn | | #1

    Can green be large
    As a production homebuilder for over 25 years, I have always felt conflicted about what green really means. Frankly, it irked me when builders bragged about their "green" home when it sat on a 5 acre lot. It may be easier to site the house with the most beneficial southerly exposures when you have lots of land to play with, but I would suggest that wise land use and density of development may make a regular, reasonably well-built house a lot greener than many of the "showcase" houses that I have seen advertised over the years. Over those years, I considered it my responsibility as a quality builder to have a green mindset when specifying, purchasing and building, whether the house or the project could technically be considered green or not.

  2. user-659915 | | #2

    "If big was really the issue,
    "If big was really the issue, there wouldn’t be green rating systems for schools, hospitals, or large office buildings."

    Sorry, Kim, this is nonsense. It's like saying that a HumVee with a single occupant is greener than a commuter train carrying hundreds. At some point you have to look at the functional ratio of the item: resources used versus human needs served. By that standard, large houses with few occupants: major fail. Hey: second homes, too.

  3. Anonymous | | #3

    large green homes
    Its really no ones business how large someone else's home is. Its just more of some liberal sticking their nose into some thing that doesn't concern them. For some reason many of them think they are more enlightened that everybody else.
    Just for the record I have build two heavily insulated homes with passive solar and geothermal heat pumps and with a lot of attention to saving energy. One was about 1600 sq. ft and the other about 3000.
    I built them because energy prices are to high and I think I can save some money.
    If I can't make it pay out in a reasonable amount of years I'm not interested in doing it.
    In the mean time I will keep my nose out of other people's business.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.



Recent Questions and Replies

  • |
  • |
  • |
  • |