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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Who Deserves the Prize for the Greenest Home in the U.S.?

Journalists love to announce the latest, greatest, greenest home ever built

An artist's rendering of the $2.2 million house at 2020 Alton Road in Miami Beach. Equipped with three refrigerators and two dishwashers, this home has been dubbed "the greenest home in South Florida." [Illustration: Sklarchitecture]
Image Credit: Sklarchitecture

It’s not unusual for an architect to announce, with great fanfare, that he or she has just designed “the greenest home in America” — nor is it unusual for journalists to rush these stories to print. The phenomenon has been going on for years — so long, in fact, that I decided to do a small survey of the “greenest homes.”

So, what do these 10 homes have in common? At least two things: they are all larger than the average American home, and they are all considerably more expensive than the average American home.

I was unable to get data…

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  1. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #1

    My pleasure
    Glad to have you take up the mantle since the Curmudgeon's been on a little hiatus. Nice piece. It is pretty silly to think of these starter castles as among the "greenest homes in America."

    Regarding Peter Pfeiffer's house, you stated correctly that Fine Homebuilding crowned it so, he didn't describe it that way.

  2. JoeW519 | | #2

    Consumer confusion
    No wonder, Martin, that consumers are cynical and skeptical about what is usually called Green. A small family who wants a 1400-1600 sf home has trouble identifying with any part of houses measured by the size of the maintenance staff ... and it's impossible for consumers to undersand Green as anything other than Luxe and conspicuous consumption.

    I think part of the problem is in the Green Building ranks at places like GBA -- Green Building is so vague as to be meaningless as you make clear in your blog and it's a dirty word for GBA. But to date: efficient builders and energy pioneers have abandoned the conversation to product marketers.

    As a result, in public discussion, 'green' focuses on countertops, flooring choices, maybe a window that's a cut above builder grade, and low VOC paints. And LED bulbs.

    One of the first things I learned from y'all on GBA when I came here -- over 2 years ago -- was the need to understand "green" as design system. You, especially, have suggested that individual product choices are oftentimes less significant than understanding how the system design of the building will function.

    IMO, only when builders "sell" customers who want 'green' a system design (rather than slather on a layer of product thoughtlessly) we may see the housing stock begin to improve.

    In this group, comparing a PV powered McMansion with a half mile long permeable driveway with a Tanzanian hut makes sense. But consumers need to see something more approachable than the McMansion and more comfortable than the hut, so somehow that vision needs to be broadcast often in public venues like FH and HGTV and Houzz, etc.

    My suggestion would be to popularize and promote the PGH -- that's an idea that might have real legs. IMO.

    Great blog. Especially the perspective your sampling gives. Thanks.

  3. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Carl Seville
    You make a good point about Peter Pfeiffer's house. I hereby absolve Peter from any responsibility for the headline in Fine Homebuilding.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #4

    Response to Joe W
    As you have correctly guessed (and as I have written in previous blogs), I'm not proposing that Americans move in to one-room huts without any electricity or plumbing. We need to build homes that are appropriate for our local communities and our climate.

    I'm not too concerned what you choose to call such a house -- a "pretty good house," perhaps, or maybe just a house. Just don't issue a press release calling your new crib "the greenest house in the world."

  5. user-626934 | | #5

    Waterfall showers
    I sat on a panel discussion following a movie about a "green" house a couple of years ago. I hadn't seen the movie beforehand, and neither had my builder and architect colleagues who were also on the panel. During the movie there were guffaws from the crowd when, for example, the homeowner described how great it was that they had a heat recovery system for the 20 GPM twin waterfall showers. We spent the first 15 minutes of the panel discussion distancing ourselves from the film, before we got to a discussion of our definition of green.

  6. user-1087436 | | #6

    Great posting.
    Somebody had to point out the absurdity of the "greenest home" sweepstakes, and I'm glad MH did it. To Martin's 3rd World examples I'll add the subterranean houses of eastern Anatolia, first described by Xenophon in his Anabasis, and still in use today. In those the winter heat is provided primarily by the animals, which are quartered immediately adjacent to the people. And no, there are no cherry-paneled SubZero refrigerators.

  7. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Response to Gordon Taylor
    I'm guessing that your are referring to the cave dwellings of Göreme, Turkey. I visited there when I was a child - a captivating town.

  8. wjrobinson | | #8

    Bon Jovi time...Cue up...
    Bon Jovi time...

    Cue up... "The More Things Change..."


    "Beautiful Day"..... U2

    or go "Green Day... American Idiot"....

    or perhaps... The Clash... "White Riot"?

    I think we all live in the cave that is here and present to us... live on.

    Attached today's project: An Entry for a small subdivision that I am pushing toward "green"... Drawn in SketchUp 8, great stuff.

  9. bryanshep | | #9

    Super Sized
    Thanks for the excellent post! It complements a book that I finished recently, Green Metropolis by David Owen. He's got a slightly different slant, but he also also focuses in our super sized lifestyles.

  10. homedesign | | #10

    Who's the Greenest
    I still think this is one of the best wisecrack posts at GBA
    from ...... Leroy who Prefers the Outdoors

  11. user-1087436 | | #11

    To Martin Holladay
    The dwellings of Goreme are not actually what I was thinking of, Martin. Those are carved from volcanic tufa, and are caves, really. What I meant were the subterranean (actually, semi-underground) houses that exist in the far eastern provinces of Turkey, where the landscape is bleak and treeless and the winters are long. Xenophon describes the Armenians living in them, complete with stables for the animals and great vats of beer out of which they drank through straws. Now of course the Armenians have been killed or driven out (they're either in Glendale or across the borders in Syria and Armenia), and mostly it is Kurds who live there.

    I read an account somewhere of their construction. A man will pace out a rough square on a patch of earth and mark it. Then he will dig perhaps four feet down within the square, throwing the earth up around the hole. He will then mix the earth with water to make mortar, and that will be used to patch together a rough wall of stones around the perimeter. When the walls are high enough the trunks of poplars will be set into them as cross-beams. On top of the beams more branches and twigs will be laid perpendicularly, and on top of the branches they'll lay more mud which they walk on until it's tightly packed. Poplar (populus nigra, Lombardy poplar, not the "poplar" (liquidambar styraciflua, tulip poplar, sold in American lumberyards) is used because it is cultivated as a cash crop and grows fast in the stream beds. These houses are warm in winter and cool in summer, but they are death traps whenever an earthquake hits. As you know from your experience with the Armenia earthquake of the '90s, construction standards are very shoddy thereabouts, and this is an ancient example.

    Here is an account of a night spent in one of these dwellings. In 1833, two American Protestant missionaries, Rev.s Smith and Dwight, traveled through these lands. In an Armenian village named Mollah Soleiman, close to the present-day road between Erzurum and Iran, they stayed with the cattle. (Remember that cattle at that time meant domestic animals in general, not just cows.)

    "We shall long remember the hospitality of Mollah Soleiman, so far superior was it to any we had experienced elsewhere during our whole journey. Nor shall we soon forget our lodgings. We were the companions of some forty or fifty cattle, in an underground stable ventilated by only a hole in our corner little larger than a man’s hand. By the breath of its inmates, its temperature was raised almost to that of a vapor bath; so that the frosty external air that rushed in near us, immediately precipitated a vapor resembling rain, and we were drenched in perspiration the whole night."

    --Eli Smith, Researches of Smith and Dwight in Armenia, 1833.

    He doesn't mention the fleas and lice, which were in heaven.

  12. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Response to Gordon Taylor
    Interesting details -- thanks very much for your comments. I have never seen houses like the ones you describe.

    When my family used to travel through northern and eastern Syria during the 1960s, we saw lots of "beehive houses" like those shown in the top photo below. These mud houses were always round, though -- not rectangular like the ones you describe.

    I have traveled the road from Erzerum to Tehran -- my brother and I took the bus along that road in 1978. I took a photo of Mount Ararat through the bus window (the lower photo) that shows what the houses looked like in eastern Turkey (historical Armenia). Nothing very special about those houses -- just flat-roofed rectangular homes with walls of stuccoed concrete block.

  13. user-757117 | | #13

    Its good to keep things in perspective...
    Thanks for a good "perspective piece" Martin.

    I appreciate that you place some of the blame for such absurd grandstanding on lousy journalism.

    The actions of the other parties you mention are at least somewhat understandable in that they are incentivized (ie professional prestige, financial reward, etc.) unlike the journalist who's job it supposedly is to sniff out rediculous claims and expose them for what they are.

    It's going to be really hard for an American architect to win a gold medal in this event.

    I agree.
    Michael "Garbage Warrior" Reynolds might be the closest thing to an American contender in this "event".
    I find that one of the most interesting aspects of the "Garbage Warrior" documentary is the political headwinds faced by Reynolds during the pursuit of his approach to "green" building.

    Thanks again for a fun Saturday read.

  14. dankolbert | | #14

    Do they exist?
    We've been preparing Pretty Good House panel for the upcoming NESEA annual meeting. One of the cheery thoughts I've been wondering is - is there any way for single family detached to solve any problems? Not sure where I stand on the issue right now.

  15. user-1087436 | | #15

    Reply to Martin Holladay
    Martin, possibly you never noticed the houses I wrote about because they are just hovels, with nothing much to recommend them. They collapse like dominoes in an earthquake, and when really heavy, prolonged rain falls, well, eventually they go smoosh and it's over. I've found a few pictures online. On the roof of the second one you can see the cylindrical stone they use for smoothing down the earthen roof.

  16. user-1087436 | | #16

    For M.H.
    OK, once again I'm way off topic, but for another example of native Anatolian architecture see these houses from a town called Akseki, in the Taurus Mountains close to the Mediterranean. They are hundreds of years old, called "Düğmeli Evler," or "buttoned houses." Very interesting construction.

  17. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #17

    I didn't get enough sleep this mornin'...
    OK, after 2 days of reading these comments I’ll take the bait and be the Curmudgeon's Curmudgeon's Curmudgeon: (For a moment I thought RR had written this article)
    1. The reality of things is that in today’s US we can’t all live in mud huts and houses made of tires and Coke bottles, as some folks do in New Mexico, nor we all have to live in “predetermined” 1,000 sqft houses; and who decides that 1,000 sqft IS the right size? Maybe the Amazon natives will object to that.
    2. This type of comments, can do more harm than good, specially on this website, were we are trying to educate as many folks as we can; I guess it feels good and we can all sing Kumbaya, but new-comers could think this site is for “green” wackos. Its also ironic that the GBA has done dozens of great articles of large homes, expensive remodels, and high dollar “green” projects. Oh, who can forget all those good all Solar Decathlon beauties.
    3. It’s worth mentioning that for many of us who’s been in this “green” building movement for a long time, it would have been more difficult to showcase our homes if not for these McMansions. Fact is, in dozens of Parade of Homes that I’ve participated or judged around the country, the most visited homes, by far, are the biggest “green” bling homes.
    4. I also do not begrudge success and folks that want to live in 10,000 sqft houses or larger. Do we need to call any of us out for the toys we have? What’s the carbon footprint of our power tools? Or trucks or cars? Or boats? Or clothing? Or the wine we drink? Or restaurants we eat? Or vacations we take? Where do we start blaming folks for some things but give a pass for others? I for one work on making my clients homes as energy efficient, high performing and healthy home as I can, regardless of the size, and I sleep good with that.
    5. Ha!!! Now I’ll be going to the lake and fish for my food, spend $100 in gas (car and boat), $100 in a hotel, $200 in restaurants for the weekend, so I can eat my own harvested fish next week. Oh, I forgot the $58 for a fishing license. Darn it… I love FREE food.

  18. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

    Response to Armando Cobo
    A few important points:

    1. I am not advocating that Americans live in hovels.

    2. I am not advocating that Americans live in homes built of old tires or Coke bottles.

    3. I am not advocating that Americans live in homes that are 1,000 square feet or less -- although, to those of you who do, I take off my hat.

    4. I am not a green wacko. I'm an ordinary guy who rarely uses the word "green."

    5. I am not pretending to be a green paragon.

    6. All I'm saying is -- if you live in a 3,000-square-foot house that cost you $2 million, don't issue a press release bragging that you are one of the greenest people around.

  19. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #19

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    I wouldn't make any sweeping generalizations yet condemning single-family homes. A home has to be appropriate for its community and its environment. The best home for downtown Portland will look different from the best home for a village in the hills of Malaysia.

    Multifamily homes in a dense urban setting can be very energy efficient, especially for people who bicycle or use public transportation. There are also many rural villagers who use public transportation, all over the world, instead of having a car -- and these villagers often live in simple single-family homes that use very little energy.

  20. user-1140531 | | #20

    What did Dan say that indicates a condemnation of single family homes?

  21. user-757117 | | #21

    Response to Armando
    You shouldn't be so sensitive.
    I don't think Martin's blog or any of the comments I've read so far are advocating that everyone should live in primitive shacks, nor is anyone blaming anyone for owning large houses or for being "successful".

    As Martin said, it's about the grandstanding.

    Like it or not the word "green" has a connotation that is in contradiction with large "blingy" houses - it's just the way it is.

    And just because a person does not overlook this contradiction, does not neccesarily make them a "wacko".

  22. onacurve | | #22

    Holy hidden terabecquerels of Fukushima! This is a brilliant article, Martin. I've been wanting to write you to suggest this exact topic for discussion. I've been very irritated by a lot of the "green" construction literature that's gets published. I wonder, what's the point in all this anyway? To prove that I'm a smarter engineer than you are because I can build a lower energy consuming building than you can? That really misses the point.

    Dr Fatih Birol and his team of researchers at the IEA says we've got 5 years to radically change things in order to have an 80% chance of limiting global warming to 2 deg C by the end of this century, referred to as 2DS. Currently we are heading towards 6DS, the worst case, business-as-usual scenario . Any hope of avoiding such a catastrophic situation will rely heavily on the building sector. Multi-million dollar green machine homes are clearly not the way to go, nor do I think the $450K houses you featured are couple weeks ago are an answer. (By the way, I was wondering if you could separate out the cost of land vs the construction costs of those projects.)

    What is needed, as you point out, are buildings that are low cost and low carbon. I've seen a few reused intermodal shipping container projects projects that were interesting. I wonder what you think about them.

    Often, the global sustainability/climate change issues get reduce to an overpopulation problem, by people such as Paul Ehrlich. I don't agree with that either. It's not the lifestyles bottom 5 billion people threatening the planet. It's the top 2 billion, mainly those in Europe and North America.

    You mentioned different indigenous people from around the world. I wondered about the Amish. They seems to live in low carbon, sustainable, communities. They don't go to war for any reason, not for resources or fossil fuel fixes. American Indians could also be included had they not been largely wiped out by the Europeans and their survivors forced onto reservations.

    And as for journalism, there's so little that's not totally corporatized propagandistic bs. I hope the Murdoch empire never gets a hold of Taunton press. So who owns Taunton anyway? I couldn't find out from their main website.

    No time to track down links for reference. Got to run. Thanks again for another great article.

  23. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #23

    Response to Ron Keagle
    When Dan wrote, "is there any way for single family detached to solve any problems?" I assumed he was referring to the ongoing debates about the virtues of multifamily housing compared to single-family homes.

    On re-reading his question, I'm not so sure. Perhaps Dan is simply saying, "We are facing a huge environmental crisis, and we're not going to build our way out of it."

    Both topics are worthy of discussion, for sure.

  24. user-1140531 | | #24

    Well maybe that is what he
    Well maybe that is what he meant, but I first took him to be proposing that we consider single-family homes as a possible solution to the problem, and asking if we thought that solution would work. But maybe was asking if there was even the slightest justification for single-family homes.

    Or maybe his pivotal point of his proposal was the "detached" qualifer.

  25. dankolbert | | #25

    Some of both.
    I ask both questions, of myself and others, and don't really have answers to either.

    I think your blog was terrific, Martin - it's vitally important that we dissociate ourselves from this kind of nonsense. Gives us all a black eye.

    You coming to Portland?

  26. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #26

    Response to Dan Kolbert
    I won't be able to attend the "pretty good house" panel in Portland, unfortunately -- but it would be great if you or someone else attending the panel could write a guest blog about the event, and report back to all of here at GBA.

    [Postscript: Fortunately, Michael Maines attended the event, and wrote a GBA blog reporting on the "pretty good house" panel discussion. Read Michael's report here: The Pretty Good House: A Better Building Standard?]

  27. wjrobinson | | #27

    I second the motion Dan. Blog
    I second the motion Dan. Blog away...

  28. albertrooks | | #28

    Oh great Curmudgeon, don't go turning soft on me.
    Dan, I like it that you entertain the idea:

    "I've been wondering is - is there any way for single family detached to solve any problems? Not sure where I stand on the issue right now."

    It just confirms that your willing to question our assumptions and practices. I appreciate that. A little doubt is not a bad thing.

    Martin: Your reply: "There are also many rural villagers who use public transportation, all over the world, instead of having a car -- and these villagers often live in simple single-family homes that use very little energy." sounds to me more like an "Energy Nerd" reply since it was more "energy based" than environmental.

    A true "Curmudgeon" in my mind would also toss out that sprawling SFR development in America, even in the 1/5 range, pull more shopping centers and other services with it. It seems to me that more SFR's, no matter how low energy, brings the most intense environmental stresses when compared to concentrated development.

    Btw Martin: Great topic and thanks for calling BS on the "Green Giants". I'm never impressed by the accomplishments of a big budget. While the personal success of the project owners is commendable, the lack of restraint is not. I suppose that it's natural to "build as big as your budget" and I'd probably have a hard time living up to my own standards. But geezz... our success is going to choke us out of existance.

  29. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #29

    Response to Albert Rooks
    I'm struggling a little with your shorthand. I'm pretty sure that an "SFR" is a "single-family residence," but I have no idea what you mean when you are talking about the "1/5 range." Is that development one-fifth of a mile from the city center? Is that a development of homes that are only one-fifth as big as the average American home?

    You note that my response "sounds to me more like an Energy Nerd reply since it was more energy based than environmental." I'm not sure what your point is. Do you believe that energy use has no effect on our environment? I think those of use worried about environmental impact have to think, first and foremost, about energy use -- if we aren't, we're fooling ourselves. (Or, to put it bluntly: green building isn't about bamboo flooring and hemp curtains.)

    Concerning your point about sprawl: of course you are right that our current patterns of development depend heavily on the automobile and therefore take a heavy toll on the environment. My point is that I don't think that 100% of the world's population should move to urban areas and live in multi-family housing. We still need farms and small villages; and in these locations, single-family homes probably make sense.

  30. Mica239 | | #30

    Greenest Home
    I share your concern about these supposedly monster homes being the best of the green homes. My other pet peeve is the stories in the media from architects on how their latest home design will be so green, based on their calculations for the whatever rating system, before it is even built. I would rather read a story about the performance of the home after at least 3 years of use. Then I could separate the real green from the faux green.

  31. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #31

    Today's entry!
    It's hard to keep up with all of the entries in this contest. Today there is a new entry -- dubbed "The greenest home in the world" -- and it cost $420,000. See the new video here:

  32. bryanshep | | #32

    Questioning the free standing house
    I agree that the free standing house makes sense for small towns and farms but they seem inherently non green as the dominate form of housing. The resulting low density makes the auto a necessity with its enormous energy appetite. Connected housing --or row housing-- is one traditional and pretty sensible alternative.

  33. wjrobinson | | #33

    Zoning not single family homes is first on my list... Change it
    Sure connected homes etc use less energy.

    But no way do connected homes have anything to do with vehicle use or ownership.

    IE... my village is completely walkable. Getting to work or stores just means putting work and stores there.

    Drives me bananas that in today's age vehicle use factors rule out single family homes.

    Our choice to love driving means we have vehicles.

    We had a store nearby easy to walk to. Gone. Why? Because our horrible community leadership zoning could careless to make sure we have stores to walk to! Freedom to open a store, and freedom to run it out of town and build a Walmart with $8-12/hour wages and a savings of two cents on a tube of toothpaste.

    Our zoning is changing right now but for the better? No. Environmental can't do's. No thought being given for improving our local non-vehicle way of life. None.

    Still car addicted..... in the Adirondacks.

    Myself, put more miles on my feet and bike this year than the last ten combined. Am now pushing very hard for bike lanes and neighborhood walk to store zoning. One way to do some of this in the American spirit is to push to allow anyone to open micro business at their homes and from vehicles and stands and push carts. Yes, we will look like a foreign country to those of you hidden in exclusive suburbia, but think about it. We all love this set up when we are on vacation visiting areas like this. That is capitalism working. Zoning should be limited to Walmart size business, not lemonade stands and hot dog carts.

    Zoning is in the way today of car-less living. Not single family homes.


  34. BruceKing | | #34

    Yes! And about those mud huts . . .
    Thanks, Martin, for a great post, and also to all who have responded. As both a student of indigenous and "natural" building systems, and the author of the ASTM standard for earthen housing, I guess I have a keen sense of different strokes for different folks. While I was writing the earthen building standard, I was also serving as structural engineer for one of the Green Giants you highlight. Quite a stretch on the old brain bone!

  35. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #35

    Response to Bruce King
    Thanks for the feedback, Bruce. I think all of us who live in the U.S. or Canada, and whose work involves a connection to green building, occasionally feel what you call "a stretch on the old brain bone" -- otherwise known as leaning one's head against the nearest tree and muttering, "I don't believe this is really happening."

  36. spinoza2 | | #36

    Green McMansions and Green-leaf "hybrid" Chevy Tahoes
    A "green" McMansion reminds me of the American auto industry's embrace of green when it began putting out their obese SUVs with "hybrid" green-leaf logos. When I first saw that I laughed out loud and thought, "Who are they trying to kid?" Both realms are indicative of America's chronic illnesses of 'supersize me' (leading to obesity of all kinds), and outright falsifying hyperbole (leading to bizarre political campaigns). This lack of integrity and credibility is something other countries regard as characteristically American now, which is sad since this behavior comes to render such things as green values meaningless, at least in the US.

  37. user-982477 | | #37

    FTC guidelines for environmental marketing claims
    I am a big fan of the FTC guidelines for making environmental claims:

    As usual, it's "greener... than WHAT?"

  38. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #38

    Response to Pam Kueber
    Thanks for the link to the FTC guidelines.

    The claims I investigated didn't use the word "greener"; they used the word "greenest."

    As John Brooks correctly pointed out, the greenest house in the U.S. is probably a discarded cardboard box. That doesn't mean that a cardboard box is a useful benchmark for green homes -- only that anyone who wants to make a claim for the "greenest" house in the U.S. should slink away with his tail between his legs.

  39. Brett_Little_AES | | #39

    Rembering the poor + Leed size adjustment
    Martin. Thanks for thinking of the poor who are building some amazing homes using biomimicry. Since some of these groups are the ones who will suffer from climate change it is good to keep this in mind. We struggle with getting excited about working with extravagant clients who buy their LEED points and build oversized homes but we are glad with we have a 10,000 Sqf home for example that has a HERS of 30 and follows a good green code as opposed to not. We are thankful the LEED for homes system inherently rewards smaller homes which can help pre empt a discussion about energy and material usage per square foot that normally would not happen.

  40. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #40

    Response to Brett Little
    Unlike you, I'm not so sure that I am "glad that we have a 10,000 sq. ft. home for example that has a HERS of 30 and follows a good green code as opposed to not." I'd much prefer that we didn't have any 10,000-square-foot homes, no matter what their HERS Index.

    You wrote that you are "thankful the LEED for homes system inherently rewards smaller homes." I'm not sure why you are thankful, since you acknowledge the huge problem that is the topic of this article -- namely (in your words) the problem of "extravagant clients who buy their LEED points and build oversized homes."

  41. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #41

    Response to Albert Rooks
    Thanks for explaining the mysterious "1/5" fraction.

    I'm still a little confused by your local regulations: "Our zoning regulations of rural 1 unit per 5 acres. Larger lot zoning does like this does try and diffuse sprawl." It seems to me that one unit per 5 acres would ENCOURAGE sprawl, not diffuse it.

  42. albertrooks | | #42

    Response to Martin Holladay: Fixing my shorthand

    Sorry for the bad "off hours" shorthand. Yes SFR is single family residence. The 1/5 reference was to our zoning regulations of rural 1 unit per 5 acres. Larger lot zoning does like this does try and diffuse sprawl but there are no reliable defenses against it.

    It's still not a perfect world and I'm noting that I'm still too "reactionary" to it.

    I guess what I can say is that: at least the Green Giants are making the effort at Green construction.

  43. albertrooks | | #43

    Response to Martin Holladay

    The 1/5 regs are intended to be an improvement over our earlier "no regs" where large parcels would be broken down to 3 acre, 1 acre or less. The result was rural area's becoming unplanned "odd lots" that are neither rural or suburban. The move to 1/5 was to retain the "ruralness" by limiting density. This was done at the same time efforts were made to encourage urban density.

    Obviously both have their problems.

  44. Grumpa Gary | | #44

    green is now obnoxious
    About time someone did this - Thanks Martin.

    I am researching developers in a mid-sized Canadian city. The ones who I think are honestly trying to build pretty good houses and communities don't use the words "green" or "eco" or "sustainable" in their marketing any more because they are meaningless and consumers are suspicious. The only developer in this city who now markets "green" building is fibbing - blatantly in some cases.

    I have heard the Canadian Competition Bureau is currently trying to deal with greenwashing because it is so common. Might be something to watch for.

  45. j_d_allenyoung | | #45

    Thanks for the discussion
    I appreciate the article and the subsequent discussions. I have also had a hard time reconciling the term "green' with many of the large homes that I see here in the Monterey Bay area. In my residential practice, I work with many homeowners on renovations and additions to existing homes.

    My approach is to first look for opportunities to reconfigure within the existing building envelope, then move to small additions ("bump-outs") to create more usable and functional spaces. My last resort is to add entire rooms to existing structures. I always upgrade the building envelope and focus on efficient and healthy heating and ventilation (not a lot of cooling needed around here). I also try to improve both natural and artificial lighting and make the design as flexible and adaptable as possible (simply adding an exterior door to a master bedroom suite can allow it to become a home office, a guest room, a caregiver's residence or a tenant space). I don't push "green" to much in my discussions with my clients, if they want it, I can give it to them and if they don't, well they are going to get a healthy dose just because of the approach I take. In these cases, the "green" they are most happy about is the stuff still in their wallet from taking a simple and intuitive approach to solving their problem.

    BTW, my wife and I have raised two kids from infants through their teen years in a house that is less than 1,000 SF. I know it is not for everyone, but we are a very close family and I think that our home has helped create that.

  46. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #46

    Response to Jim Allen-Young
    I take off my hat to you and bow, in acknowledgement of the appropriate size of your home (less than 1,000 square feet).

    Your approach to design shows common sense, and reveals what many have said -- that "green design" is really no different from an approach that used to be called "design." If you do your job well, you're green.

    This adjective -- "green" -- isn't very useful after all, is it?

  47. BuilderEliHarding | | #47

    What a sorry bunch
    The article and many of the posters utterly miss the point here. We WANT builders and architects vying to build and brag about building green homes. Your definitions of green may be different but the only way to move the industry to build greener and greener homes for AVERAGE Americans is to start with more expensive homes whose enthusiasm and efforts will trickle down to mainstream homes.

    So what if these homes are large or expensive? The fact that they were built green and their owners, architects and builders were proud of that and they made huge strides to get there should be a fine example for the entire green building industry.

    Sadly, the author and many of the commenters take what should be great examples for all of us and spin them on their faces. If it's anything more than a hut made of mud or sticks or greater than 1,000 sq. ft. it is lambasted by this group. No wonder builders, architects and owners are loath to implement green solutions to their projects. Sad.

  48. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #48

    Response to Eli Harding
    GBA has been advocating in favor of energy-efficient homes using environmentally responsible materials since the day this website was launched. Needless to say, we strongly believe that all homes should be built according to these principles.

    There's nothing wrong with architects bragging about the energy performance of the homes they design. Nor is there anything wrong with builders bragging about their use of environmentally friendly or recycled materials.

    However, it's jarring and disturbing to hear an architect or a builder brag that a multi-million-dollar home measuring 3,000 square feet is the "greenest home in [fill in your favorite geographical location here]." Such statements display a fundamental misunderstanding of green principles. In fact, a humble little cottage (or a small apartment in a large building) is likely to beat the multi-million-dollar home when it comes to every principle advocated by green builders.

  49. user-946029 | | #49

    The perspective on this article bounces around a little. Headline reads "... in the U.S.", but then later talks about a global perspective. Two different things. Sure, we don't live as resource-efficient as the people who live in the Mali Desert, or other locales highlighted in Art Wolfe's Impact Series webinar ( You're right in that a home in the U.S. (other than a cardboard box) will never be the greenest home in the world. But we've got a different standard of living here. There's no need for us to build housing out of animal dung, or hike 20 miles every day for a jug of water.

    This article also seems to fixate on sale price and total size of the structure. Interesting metric to choose. Again, I think perspective is needed. I honestly didn't think one could build a home in Santa Monica, CA for $1 million anymore. (In fact, one of my members just completed a very green infill project near there and paid that much for the lot.) And, depending on its location, a $1.6 million home in Chicago might not be all that luxurious.

    And what about operational impact? This is where I think the focus should be. I've got another member who's finishing up a remodel/addition that is net-zero energy and water. I'm fairly confident that those 5,000 sq. ft. of structures has less of an impact than any of its neighbors, regardless of their home sizes. Heck, it's probably got less of an overall impact than the theoretical 1,000 sq. ft. green house being bandied around in the discussion above. So should it be lambasted because of its size? Which project has a bigger impact on our fresh water supply? Or air quality?

    For me, this site has a propensity to focus too much on upfront cost (and sometimes, the horrific "simple payback"). If people are constantly looking to be green but only utilize a shoestring budget, or expect to pay no extra for such upgrades, a lot of wonderful products will be overlooked/ignored. My business partner's quote, "Green ain't free. But brown isn't either." comes to my mind almost every time I read an entry on here.

  50. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #50

    Response to Mike Collignon
    I stand by the statements made in my article. At no point did I advocate that Americans build homes out of animal dung or hike 20 miles to haul water.

    In each of the cases I cited, I'm sure that the homes under discussion were not, in fact, the greenest homes in the cited geographical area -- whether we are talking about Santa Monica, South Florida, San Francisco, California, the U.S., or the world.

    Perhaps you are right you you cannot build a home in Santa Monica for less than $1 million. But I'll bet that somewhere in Santa Monica there is a 500-square-foot apartment or an older cottage without air conditioning that has a lower environmental impact than your proposed new $1 million house.

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