The Green Builder in Little Rock, AR


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When is a large green house, too large to be green?

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

The first premise in green design is to conserve energy and natural resources to create a healthy, sustainable environment.

Various green building programs have been written to perpetuate that thinking.  LEED for Homes for one, penalizes a large house by setting its standards higher as the floor area per bedroom increases.  A 2000 sq ft 4 bedroom house can achieve platinum status easier than a 4000 sq ft 4 bedroom house.  In the same logic, a 2000 sq ft bedroom house 4 bedroom house can achieve platinum status easier than a 2000 sq ft 1 bedroom house.  As designers and builders focus on the numbers and the rules set up by the green guideline agencies, they begin to play the numbers.  They lose sight of the first premise.  Once green becomes  a game of numbers for an arbitrary certificate, then we begin to question the value of those certificate.  Anyone can make a claim of being green.  Some can provide the certificate from a third party saying they are green.  We must still ask the question, are we being good stewards of this earth and are we providing a good environment for our families.  Two houses, one on each far flung coast, have been in the news illustrating this inherent problem with the label “green.”

  50,000 square feet of living space. Photo by RICHARD MESSINA /  HARTFORD  COURANT / February 4, 2010 on   Fine Homebuilding posted an editorial blog that incited some heated discussion of a very, very large house.  Questions for the Man with the Big House – Fine Homebuilding asks how can a big house ever be green.  The argument is simple.  Don’t build more than you need.  Anything else is wasteful.  Assumed is that since the average home built in the US is somewhere around 2400 sq ft, that’s all you need.  The house has 50,000 sq ft.  There is no one arguing that it is small.  On the sheer size only, the editors of Fine Homebuilding railed against the designer claiming to be green.

The first comment rallied the defence of this big house:

…Are you usually in the habit of judging a home by looking at a single picture of a side?

While the bricks obviously do not generate electricity, the 17 Kilowatts of PV certainly do. If you bothered to really study the project you mock, you would find a list of extraordinary energy saving measures (geo-thermal systems, R-values greater than 50 in the exterior walls, underground earth-mass HVAC utilization, total DDC operation of all valves and air handlers, etc). For 2009, the property was carbon POSITIVE.

To accomplish all this in a home that is architecturally correct as to design, materials, and installation makes one wonder what you would consider “Fine Homebuilding” to be?

The house has certainly forsaken the first premise, but the owner himself defends the construction which involves harvesting the stone and wood primarily from the site and state of the art building thermal envelopes and air handling equipment to be as efficient as possible.

The owner certainly built his house with all the New England frugality that his coast is famous for, but also with the showiness of that coast as well.  It is hard to place this house in either tradition without considering the other.  I once saw a custom car plate that read “Humble”.  Does that mean the car owner is or isn’t?  Does a green label on a large house mean the house owner is or isn’t?

On the opposite coast, in the heart of liberal, environment advocate central Berkley, another house intends to challenge these notions of size and greenitude.  Neighbors Oppose Green Label for the Software Mogul Mitch Kapor’s Big House –

As opposed to an uncertified claim of green by the New England house owner, the battle lines for this West Coast house are drawn in a community driven green building label.  And again, the labeling is structured and codified to the point that a clever designer can achieve a green label without the rigor of explaining its size.  Unlike a more general standard such as LEED for Homes by the USGBC or a energy efficiency centered program such as EnergyStar by the Department of Energy, this local green building program does not factor for size or consumption.  Instead of looking to the first premise, the program follows a more mild objective which is to encourage those that build to be “more” green than they otherwise would.

This is weak policy, when such a house consumes such a swath of resources and energy, and still can get a government certified stamp of green approval.  I applaud the citizens of that community for being outraged at the hypocrisy, and yet I am sympathetic to the local government for moving our collective whole toward a greener way.

As a design/build professional caught in the middle, literally in Little Rock, Arkansas, I navigate the green ways and by ways of various building programs such as LEED, EnergyStar, HERS, and just good ole fashioned common sense.  Of the choices, I trust the latter.