"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Building Green

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this LEED certified green building, a single-family home.

The NYTimes says

Set on 74 partly wooded acres with a private lake, Windermere promises to be very lavish and, believe it or not, very green — as in energy-saving and preservation minded.

Windermere is the first project of NRDC Residential, a new division of the National Realty and Development Corporation of Purchase, N.Y., which wants to develop a niche as a builder of “architecturally driven, planned communities with an environmental consciousness,” said Mark Robbins, the division president.
The Times also confidently asserts this:

It is the first of 24 homes planned for a development named after an area in the English Lake District, and built in a style meant to evoke 19th-century English country houses.

Have a look at the picture and see if you find it evocative, and if so, tell me, exactly, evocative of what.

Update: Somebody just hit this article, first posted April of 08, so I looked again. On the whole I think this item missed the attention it deserved, so I am reposting it.


Dano said...

Well, it reads as if the feature writer just copied down the press release. It may be meant to invoke something, but that doesn't mean it does. Just good marketing copy.



skanky said...

Looks like something out of a Sci-fi film. I'm expecting it to disgorge a load of tanks at any minute.

Vinny Burgoo said...

A Ku Klux Klan HQ designed by Charles Voysey.

Hank Roberts said...

It's a house _and_ a hovercraft! Nice skirts.

I especially like the acronym "NRDC" -- it has kind of an ecology smell about it somehow, reminds me of something green. Hmmm....

Michael Tobis said...

Maybe this is a half second before it lands...

guthrie said...

It does evoke 19th century English country houses, well, some of them, but only because I've seen a few and that kind of main block with lower arms at either side is an easy look to have.
On the other hand how can havign a single family in there be green?

Michael Tobis said...

Guthrie, that indeed is my main point, but also there is the secondary point that the thing is as ugly as the sin it is. I suppose there may be a few particularly ugly country houses, but it's hard for me to imagine them comparing.

Unfortunately I have the disadvantage of having grown up in an architecturally interesting city and having spent most of my adulthood in another. (Specifically, Montreal and Chicago.) I've noticed that ugly buildings don't seem to hurt other people's eyes as much as they do mine.

guthrie said...

I grew up in Edinburgh, with fewer 'interesting' but lots of older buildings and I don't find it ugly. Odd, but not ugly, I wouldn't deisgn or live in it myself. Beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that.

John Mashey said...

1) I say this with mixed feelings, but on balance, this general idea is probably more good than bad, although:

a) This particular instance is certainly ugly-looking to me, but that may be taste. I've long been of the Frank Lloyd Wright "blend with the environment" school, and my town's incorporation goal was to make the built-environment subsidiary to the natural environment. That thing would never be allowed here, but of course, this is CA and that's NY, and house styles differ, as does climate. Also, we have different rules here, althou8gh we're not yet up to the UK in terms of requiring energy ratings for house sales.

Our town center has already hosted talks by Amory Lovins & James Hansen, and it's going for ~LEED-Platinum certification, hopefully by Fall.

One *can* build beautiful homes that are energy-efficient (FLW's Usonians were actually not bad for their time, with overhanging roofs, heat masses, etc.)

b) This is done by a developer, presumably hoping to help sell them. Developers who want to build big homes will probably build them somewhere, so I'd rather they at least be thinking about energy/sq ft than not. It is not possible for me to tell from the press release whether or not these folks are really serious.

c) They seem to be going only for LEED basic certification, which isn't that aggressive, but is better than nothing.

2) By contrast, if you want to see people I *know* are serious:
Paul Holland and Linda Yates are building an aggressive, LEED-Platinum Net-Zero house, here in town. Their house is pretty typical in size for the part of town they're in (not small). The detailed motivations and many design details are described here, hosted by Rocky Mountain Institute.

3) Now, why might all this [big "green" homes] be more good than bad?

a) (minor reason) If someone is going to build an expensive house, I'd much rather they go for LEED-certification than compete in some of the other ways that people do. Of course, more modest Zero Energy Homes, by folks like Clarum are way more important in the long run.

b) (Major, and this is *not* theoretical, but from talking with local architects): architects sometimes gain experience with new techniques on high-end houses, where people are willing to pay more. Then they apply their knowledge to other projects.

(See architect Robert Glazier's comments in description of the Yates/Holland house..)

c) Often, new technologies are low-volume and expensive, and get their kinks worked out in the high end of market, and then experience and volume drive the prices down. This certainly happens with cars & computers, but with homes as well. In particular, it is crucial for startup companies with interesting ideas to find low-volume markets that can support them before they've scaled up.

4) I've been through plenty of local arguments about this, but my general opinion is that the *worst* things to build are huge, energy-inefficient houses. If somebody with a lot of money wants to build a sizeable, hyper-efficient home, for real, there can be useful benefits. Of course, the key thing (for new construction) is to be be building hyper-efficient, moderately-sized, long-lasting dwellings of various kinds.

Michael Tobis said...

John raises a number of issues as to what wealth ought to mean in a finite world. If every cubic foot of your house is a cubic foot less for everybody else (roughly true, and probably, if anything, more skewed against the wealthy) what size of residence if any, vehicle, amount of airplane, starts to be explicitly unethical? And if not unethical, at least how do we go about disincentivizing this sort of conspicuous consumption?

(You know, if they really wanted to be green they could invest in a nonprofit to engage the talents of underemployed PhDs in doing productive research.)

A second issue is raised as well. Does "green building" even make sense for the most part? There is an energetic sunk cost in our oversupply of conventional building. On balance if the green building has to account for the energy of its construction and the energy of otherwise premature disposal of otherwise equivalent housing stock, how long until it breaks even? Ever?

It's a hard one.

John Mashey said...

MT: your last comment didn't make a lot of sense to me...

As far as I know, cubic feet are not a fixed resource ... TX alone has many spare ones :-)

I don't know about Austin, but some towns (like this one) have long had in place rules about building construction, and if the next time you're out here, you should drive through here, and then through the two nearest towns. You can see whether or not such rules make a difference.

The second part also doesn't make a lot of sense to me. In the SF Bay Area, there is *no* oversupply of conventional houses. In the Central Valley, there is. Does that mean someone should assume 200-mile-a-day commutes?

Does that mean that we shouldn't do infill building of the greenest designs we can make, near railroads and public transport? Whenever a building is truly run-down, but sitting in a useful location, should we not replace it with something better right there?

Michael Tobis said...

Well, sure.

But though cubic feet aren't limited, the resources to construct them and maintain them are.

Certainly, where green retrofits don't work and replacement is necessary, green building is good. But for the most part the country is massively overbuilt. Economists understand this differently from how I (and I suspect you) do, but the consequence is the same.

Really I only begrudge you Portola a little bit. I think somebody ought to have things good somewhere. It's an interesting question how much of that sort of thing we can manage, and certainly the greener Portola is, the more Portolas the world can manage.

Certainly some locations are more desirable than others. But on the whole, building is the least of our problems right now.

John Mashey said...

At the bottom, the main reason people worry about making home retrofits and any new construction as green as possible is that housing stock can last a long time, compared to cars, for example. I.e., it's sort of like CO2 vs CH4.

My issue with cubic feet is that it's the wrong metric. People around here worry about energy&CO2 to build and to run, and there is huge variation of those per cubic foot.

One can argue whether or not various things should be built, but we surely can try very hard on efficiency (including building places intended to last) of whatever is built. [In your NY example, my disappointment is that they're only going for the basic certification. I've seen enough excessive houses up there to think that these are less excessive than most.]

I am reminded of visits to big old English manor houses, now run as tourist sites, because they don't really work as homes any more.

I certainly agree that there is massive overbuild, but geography isn't easily fungible.

You might want to take a look at Stanford conference I attended in May.

For example:
Porat: the Built Environment:
51% Total US energy, 55% of CO2.
Of 51%:
39% operations (22% residential, 17% commercial).
12% Materials (9% buildings, 3% infrastructure)
But see the other talks as well.

These are serious people, and really, there is a huge amount of long-hanging fruit, but some of it takes time, and it's really going to be hard to shut those coal plants without doing a lot.

The Long Future said...

Not tanks,