Blueprints in Green: Home Designs That Earth Can Live With

The walls of Rick Joy's Tucson Mountain House absorb heat during the day and release it when temperatures drop at night. Below, the environmentally friendly Glidehouse has been installed in a gallery at the National Building Museum.
The walls of Rick Joy's Tucson Mountain House absorb heat during the day and release it when temperatures drop at night. Below, the environmentally friendly Glidehouse has been installed in a gallery at the National Building Museum. (By Undine Prohl -- National Building Museum)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2006

In the ominous trailer for "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's new film on global warming, planet Earth is approaching the tipping point. Storm clouds swirl. Smokestacks belch. Traffic snarls. A piece of the ice cap breaks away and plunges into the sea. In the big picture, we've got 10 years or we're sunk, too.

The film's timing is coincidental, but it provides the necessary urgent context for the National Building Museum's ambitious exhibition on eco-design, "The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design." The overarching theme conveys an essential point: Ecological issues will dominate 21st-century architecture as modernism did the 20th century.

Gore's doomsday premise -- that the demands of modern living are altering the climate -- explains why. Buildings, including the 21 houses in this show, are significant villains in any profile of energy use. As the theory goes, fossil-fuel consumption is contributing to the greenhouse effect, which is raising ocean levels and one day will submerge Lower Manhattan and South Florida, like post-Katrina New Orleans, only permanently, and turn 100 million coastal residents worldwide into refugees -- if we don't act now.

With a pitch like that, who wouldn't run screaming to Home Depot to get compact fluorescent bulbs?

The exhibition suggests that individuals can do more, and that designers already are. The storyline is something like Rachel Carson meets Frank Lloyd Wright at Fallingwater. The horizon might be dark, but architects are smart and most of the houses gorgeous. Pretty pictures alone wouldn't make a landmark exhibition, but this one gains power from a call to arms: "Your actions at home can impact the world."

Activism starts in the Glidehouse, a fully furnished, environmentally correct residence erected in a first-floor gallery. The model home is a case study in the welcome new wave of domestic architecture: affordable, highly designed and factory-built. The airy dwelling also offers visitors an immersion in "green" living, California style. Except for the exhibition labels, no one need notice that every surface, piece of furniture and appliance embodies key "green" adjectives -- energy-efficient, toxin-free, non-polluting, recyclable, renewable -- to help the Al Gores of the world sleep better.

The Glidehouse was designed by Michelle Kaufmann, who worked for Frank Gehry. She resides in the original model house in Novato, Calif., and sells the kit from her Web site http://mkd-arc.com/ . At a mere 900 square feet, the replica is more of a holiday cottage. Size doesn't diminish the appeal of its proposition: A healthy home should be everyone's desire.

For those who like their houses big and opulent, curators present 20 dream houses in images and models. High-profile projects range from Steven Holl's solar-and-green-roofed weekend retreat in Rhinebeck, N.Y., to Kengo Kuma's masterful bamboo villa overlooking the Great Wall of China. There are lush retreats, but also a low-income apartment complex in Santa Monica, Calif., that looks fabulous with a facade of sky-blue photovoltaic panels.

The designs would merit a show without a green theme, and that's the point. The days when architects clung to the big A for art while sidestepping the impact of their work have passed. Some of the most artful contemporary architecture also is good for the planet.

By many estimates, buildings account for nearly half the energy consumed in the United States each year and half of America's greenhouse gas emissions. So, in architectural terms, form and function are no longer adequate underpinnings. They have found a co-equal in "sustainability," which essentially means to do no harm. "Green" is the popular shorthand.

The National Building Museum takes no position on the politics of global warming, but Executive Director Chase Rynd makes clear that "we presume green design is a best practice." The museum plunged into the topic in 2003, with the environmental epic "Big & Green: Toward a Sustainable Architecture in the 21st Century." Skyscrapers, stadiums and other massive projects revealed that a few avant-garde architects and the environmental movement had found common ground. The show also left visitors wondering what they could do.

With "The Green House," the second exhibition, the museum shifts the lens to the domestic realm. Guest curator Donald Albrecht worked with Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne, who were researching a book that became "The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005). Because most people don't live in architect-designed homes, Albrecht widened the scope to remodeling materials.

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