Design for Life: It All Connects

Integrating the ideas of home, health and harmony.

| March/April 2007

I went on a green home tour recently, and all the homes had little tags to label their assets: “no-VOC paint,”  “energy-efficient appliance,” “double-pane windows,” “recycled-content material.” The message was clear: If you want to create a green home, replace offensive materials and appliances with new products that are deemed green; a green home is a static kit of parts.

I saw nothing that showed how all these parts interact—how the whole home functions as a system. Nothing told me about the process by which the owners and designers made the myriad decisions that go into such a project. Was there a passive solar heating scheme? Was the floor material selected for its thermal mass properties? Does the wall color support a natural lighting strategy? Do the double-glazed windows have different treatments in different orientations to respond to the distinct qualities of various exterior microclimates? Does the building envelope inhibit passage of heat and air without encouraging moisture to collect in the building cavities? Does the landscaping design aid natural cooling?

In short, nothing indicated how these homes relate to the natural systems around them. Nothing provided a sense of context for all the decisions that had to be made. Nothing helped visitors understand that a home is only truly green if all the parts function well as a whole, responding to the site and climate, using resources with care, and increasing vitality within and around the house.

Don’t get me wrong. Green home tours play an important and exciting role. For many people who are new to green living, they provide an important first exposure to materials and basic concepts. Even for the seasoned visitor, these tours can provide new information and inspiration. Through the years, I’ve been delighted to watch the number of green home tours—and the number of homes on each tour—grow. There’s nothing like visiting several eco-homes and talking with their owners, architects and
builders, but I think we also should pause to consider the unintended messages sometimes conveyed at such events.

When we think of a green home as a collection of green parts, we miss some wonderful synergetic opportunities and we run the risk of failing. A few examples: the house that’s full of green materials yet traps moisture and grows mold, making its occupants chronically ill and plummeting in assessed value; the straw bale home that uses more wood and loses more heat through its roof than a well-built stick-frame house; the off-the-electrical-grid house whose owners commute into town daily, using more energy than they’ve conserved at home; the green mansion that consumes several times more resources than a smaller, supposedly non-green house.

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