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Home » New West Network Topics » Development » Back to Basics: A Green House is a Small House
Let's just make this simple: Green houses should be small houses. The Wall Street Journal asked four leading architects to share their visions for the green house of the future and online today, the paper shares those visions. The point, writes Alex Frangos, was "not to dream up anything impossible or unlikely -- in other words, no antigravity living rooms. Instead, we asked the architects to think of what technology might make possible in the next few decades. They in turn asked us to rethink the way we live." The designs include incredible innovations. One, by the firm Cook + Fox, features "biomorphic" skin -- a shell that shifts from dark in the sun to clear on cloudy days to heat and cool with the weather. Another, by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, incorporates local food in an amazing way. They're all futuristic and imaginative, but, by design, dreamed up with little to no for cost or technology. (The exercise was meant to remove those constraints.) But, the advice all four architects came back to is cost-effective, easy and something very basic: From Frangos' story: But the most important order for Mr. Mouzon is to make the house compact. "The smaller thing you can create, the more sustainable it is." In fact, that's something that all four of our architects agree on: Americans need to learn to live in smaller spaces if we are going to make an impact on the environment. Click here for the WSJ story -- complete with pictures of the designs.

Back to Basics: A Green House is a Small House

Let’s just make this simple: Green houses should be small houses.

The Wall Street Journal asked four leading architects to share their visions for the green house of the future and online today, the paper shares those visions. The point, writes Alex Frangos, was “not to dream up anything impossible or unlikely — in other words, no antigravity living rooms. Instead, we asked the architects to think of what technology might make possible in the next few decades. They in turn asked us to rethink the way we live.”

The designs include incredible innovations. One, by the firm Cook + Fox, features “biomorphic” skin — a shell that shifts from dark in the sun to clear on cloudy days to heat and cool with the weather. Another, by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, incorporates local food in an amazing way.

They’re all futuristic and imaginative, but, by design, dreamed up with little to no for cost or technology. (The exercise was meant to remove those constraints.)

But, the advice all four architects came back to is cost-effective, easy and something very basic:

From Frangos’ story: But the most important order for Mr. Mouzon is to make the house compact. “The smaller thing you can create, the more sustainable it is.”

In fact, that’s something that all four of our architects agree on: Americans need to learn to live in smaller spaces if we are going to make an impact on the environment.

Click here for the WSJ story — complete with pictures of the designs.

(Hat-tip to Montanan Lance Olsen for sending this story.)

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13 comments

  1. Oh please, “Small houses are green houses”? To make such a statement is just silly and uninformed. While it is my opinion and that of many others that a very large house (read McMansion) cannot be green no matter what they do to make it so, the inverse is not true.

    A “small house” can be horribly inefficient and therefore not green. I realize that many green bloggers and the like ignore energy when talking green, instead focusing on bamboo, recycled glass countertops etc, the “green” conversation should always start with the building’s envelope and systems.

  2. Justin,

    You make a really good point — and one I agree with. (I’ve seen some incredibly inefficient small houses). I reworded that first sentence a bit.

    But, if you click through to the WSJ piece, you’ll see a lot more about sustainability than just the size of these places — in fact, they’re all very conscious of energy — there are some really fascinating ideas there. I just thought the size comment was an interesting thing to come out of that discussion, considering the scope of the project. That’s why I pulled that out of the article to highlight. But, the whole piece is worth a read and addresses, I think, just the things you’re writing about.

  3. Now that’s a first sentence that makes more sense. 😉
    I did click-through and read the WSJ article. Good article, should have mentioned that because my initial comment was solely about that darned first sentence.
    Thanks for responding-

  4. Good, I’m glad. 🙂 Thanks for the note.

  5. O.K. I’ll run with this one. If small is beautiful and green, and conspicuous consumption of starter castles by the filthy rich is no longer in vogue, and the number of low income people are increasing exponentially, then why don’t the politicians, developers and planners get off their asses and plan a community or neighborhood consisting of well insulated travel trailers with storage units?

  6. It is hard to argue with your premise Mickey. Good comment.

  7. With any two homes built to the same energy standards the smaller of the two will always be greener. First it will have less imbedded energy . Then it will use less energy year after year. It is quite easy to built a home that needs no heating from outside energy other than the sun. I know of several here in Montana. Very nice places too. No problem with 1200sqft. Or 1500 for that matter. Never forget that the smaller home is paid off sooner and so you can add in all of the commuter miles saved to your green count.

  8. Mickey: If you want to see the economic results of this depression, all you have to do is go find the places that rent to travel trailer owners. They are chock-a-block full. There are families of 4 living in campers with the truck still under it, because there is no money to drive anywhere. I went looking for a kid who was logging with my kid, and I found him living in a 24′ fifth wheel travel trailer in a park. He has water, power and sewer hook up for $300 a month. He can live there on unemployment.

    My dad, still breathing at 93, was born on a “ranch” homestead on the Oregon desert at a place called Fort Rock. Those homestead houses were usually two story, and maybe 12’x12, and if you put a lean-to on leeward side, you could add 8 foot x 12 foot to one side. The kids slept upstairs in a loft reached by ladder. Downstairs was a living-kitchen-eating room, with a curtained off place or maybe even a partitioned area for Mom and Dad…There were 4 kids, so 6 people were living there. The issue was heating it in winter. The small footprint was to keep the heating effort lower than a bigger footprint would provide. Wood was hard to come by, as it was about a 20 mile wagon trip away. There was a sawmill for a few years, and there were slabs that could be cut and burned. Small houses used less lumber to build, and fewer nails, and less newspaper to glue over the cracks behind the bats that still let in cold air and dust.

    All four of those kids went to college, and Dad followed his Dad, and became a lawyer. Grand dad was the GLO Land Commissioner in North Lake county, and a Notary, as well as a lawyer (he had read the law at American U. in Wash DC). He had some Govt income. But the Spanish flu, a late July freeze (24 degrees), and too many rabbits chased them off to a place down a mile of corduroy road in Brush Prairie, Washington, and then a good job put them in Portland in St. Johns. But never in a big house. The one in Portland I can still smell in my mind, because Great Gramma Stratton heated it with coal.

    After serving his country in WWII, Dad. with Mom, built a new home in 1947, and it was a whopping 800 square feet on a floor. Cape Cod, with a full basement (which filled with water occasionally winter), and an unfinished up stairs, complete with an unfinished bath. My brother and I shared a bedroom in the unfinished upstairs where there was a bathroom framed in but no toilet or sink. Pissing out the window served us kids well in emergencies. The upstairs was never finished all the time we lived there. But I do remember the big field to the north of us, and one spring day a team of black horses mowed the grass with a sickle bar mower, the driver on a sulky seat. And the hay was soon gone, and then a small cat scraped at dirt, and that sprouted new houses. Not one of those houses was 900 square feet. All were one story, no basement. Some were three bedroom. Soon I had friends living in those tiny new houses built for GI’s or whoever. My folks sold our house (upstairs never finished) when I was in 5th grade, and built another house, this one even bigger with an oil furnace. Daylight basement, and kids all housed in the basement, with our own bath. Hubba hubba. It was big house in those days. Maybe 2400 sq feet total. Big House. On a hill. A lawyer’s house. Custom built by my Mom’s dad, an old country carpenter, an immigrant. I miss him every day. Cost almost $20,000 including the lot. 1956. Today that house would have been three times as big, and cost $600,000. We, as a nation, have gotten too big, too fat, and demand too much space in a home. And, it now appears, once had a propensity to build houses that cost more than we can afford own, furnish, maintain, heat, cool, and landscape.

    We live in interesting times. DINKS (double incomes, no kids) don’t need big homes. Old farts are downsizing. A glut of McMansions is upon us. In college towns, they can once again become boarding houses. A bedroom, a shared bath, two meals, and a landlady to monitor your comings and goings for mom and dad. Higher ed on the cheap. We need to adapt, We should adapt. We will adapt.

  9. Bearbait, we finally agree. Best post I have seen from you.

    Interesting history in that text. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  10. That’s exactly the point that I was trying to make but apparently missed the mark. More and more Americans can only afford to live in a trailer but trailer parks are being closed down all over the west driving up the cost of hooking up and forcing low income folks into homelessness. So the question is why aren’t more trailer park communities being designed and built to accommodate the increasing number of folks who can only afford to live in a trailer? Could it be that there’s a lot of Nimbyism and snobbery involved in zoning?

  11. No question there is snobbery. And let’s be honest – a trailer park is much more “green” than a subidivision of Mcmansions. In all honesty those thigns should be supported.

  12. The issue, then, becomes one of how do you accept that some people will be poor. And how do you regulate the process so as not to create ghettos? It is not an inherently bad deal to not be well off. If you work, can feed your family, and have decent housing, even if you have to walk to work, or ride a bike, not own a car, and a family of four is in 800 sp feet of warm, livable space, how can that be a bad deal?

    I have infinite faith in designers being able to created livable spaces on the cheap. I have infinite faith in the American citizen to set aside land for poor people’s housing. I do not have faith that regulators would bollox the whole of the deal. I do not have faith that all too many of the poor in a housing deal like that would not attract the societal dregs that prey on them, and then the rest of town. The architects and designers, the builders and suppliers, can create that kind of housing. The NIMBY aspect is the sociological problem of concentrated poor.

    The way the thing has appeared to work in America, to my observation, is that new, affordable housing is aimed at first time homeowners, the young married people, built on recently cleared farmland on the fringe of a growing city. Those that stay and raise a family, have roots, will grow old there. And the housing grows old, as well. One by one, the original folks move on, some to larger homes on the new fringe, to other cities, and some to smaller digs as they grow old themselves. The homes are bought by people who will rent them, and want the rents to pay the baggage. So maintenance, yards, the like are not that of a the new neighborhoods. Eventually, the property values, the conditions of the dwellings, fall to where the government is renting the homes either by direct renter assistance, or the landlord is renting the house to government for a no hassle rent collection and no liability situation. The government is the landlord, and we know government expects nothing from the people, and people on the dole to that extent give nothing.

    What can and does save that kind of neighborhood is always gentrification, because the new housing has moved so far from city centers and jobs, that buying the fixer-upper becomes a viable option for young families on the economic rise. What you save in transportation you use to pay for higher inner city real estate. Meanwhile, the poor are moved farther and farther from the jobs, the city core, as the aging home developments move farther from the city core. And that is where the tent cities begin to appear, and the problems become more visible. The issue of camper trailers, pick up campers, as homes in an RV park is not a big city deal, but a small to midsize city thing. And at its fringes. Hidden, right now. One would hope the census in 2010 would have a way to identify and enumerate the numbers of domiciles and people living in that type of housing. It is not unlike the Katrina trailer deal, but to the people living there, a whole lot better than being homeless. I think the deal is right now so far out of sight of mainstream policy folks that they don’t have a clue. I also think a lot of those folks are the uncounted unemployed, with benefits having run out, and maybe Mom with a job at Mickey D’s. Just gettin’ by. And for the most part, not being a problem that is noticed. The people are heroes, really. To be admired for their spunk. They are gittin’ it done.

    We have to go back to building, financing, zoning, building regulating, for an energy efficient, safe, small home program with home ownership the goal. A society that wants to force people into small cars, can certainly lure people into smaller homes, safer homes, with a smaller demand on Earth’s resources. Not only does that program create jobs, it will also save energy over the long term.

  13. Hidden in that ramble is the idea that the market place will provide low income housing. Hasn’t happened yet and we’ve been waiting a long time. In any case, in today’s Nimby, Anti-sprawl restrictive planning and zoning environment, the market place isn’t allowed to operate freely. Its true that exclusively low income communities are not a good idea and mixed income is better. The are plenty of retired people who can only afford to live in a second hand trailer and have no place to go when their trailer park shuts down. Trailers can be manufactured a lot more cheaply to any green standard you specify than site built housing.