Design for Life: Got Context?

Discover the best green building materials for your site, climate, neighborhood and budget.

| September/October 2005

  • The materials for this bath were collected from the homeowners’ property, giving a sense of place.
    Photo by Laurie Dickson

People often ask, "What are the best materials for building a green home?" The only responsible answer is, "It depends." It depends on your site, your climate, your neighborhood, your budget, what's available nearby, who you are, and what your family is like. In short, it depends on your context.

Merriam Webster’s defines context as “the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs,” offering “environment” as a synonym. It is ironic, then, how often “environmen­tally friendly” homes ignore context.

I’ve been in the eco-design business long enough to have seen many fads come and go. Well-meaning people jump on the latest model and go with it, regardless of context. A few decades ago, earth- sheltered homes were the hippest thing. In the right context—a fairly dry climate with well-drained soil—there’s a lot to be said for digging your home partway into the ground. But lots of people dug in and pulled the earth over them, paying no attention to their water table, soil type, or rainfall. The result? Houses that leak from the bottom up and need perennial repairs.

Risky business

“Context is king in ecological design,” says ecological living systems designer Art Ludwig ( Ludwig has seen many systems fail because their designers ignored context: topography, climate, soil type, nearby bodies of water, rain runoff patterns, height of water table, homeowners’ lifestyles, and appropriateness to the neighborhood, for starters. “Ecological design is so context-sensitive that one piece of new information about a critical variable can change the direction of the design completely,” he says. “There are no universal solutions. There are approaches and patterns that can be applied to generate the optimum solution in a variety of contexts.”

“Half of my work is about solving problems that people created by making changes to their homes without paying attention to context,” Los Angeles-area environmental consultant Mary Cordaro says. For example, people often convert basements into living space. Because subterranean rooms tend to feel cool, the homeowner’s first instinct is to put sheetrock on the walls and paint it, add carpet to the floor, and bring in warm, fuzzy textiles. Unfortunately. most basements have some amount of moisture migrating in through the walls and floor.

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