Blueprints in Green: Home Designs That Earth Can Live With

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.

Stang and Hawthorne chide the architectural profession for sidestepping environmental design as "a haven for the untalented, where ethics replace aesthetics and get away with it," a quote they attribute to Harvard Design Magazine. The exhibition shows that's not true now, if it ever was. No designer has equaled Wright's famous Bear Run, Pa., house cantilevered over a brook. But Rick Joy's rammed-earth house in Arizona seems as close to nature. William McDonough + Partners used reclaimed wood and stone to blend a residence into a woodland setting outside Charlotte. Little wonder that Joy, McDonough and Holl have won National Design Awards.

Strict legislation has compelled European designers to be especially adventurous. In Germany, Werner Sobek created a homage to the 1951 Farnsworth House designed by modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Plano, Ill. The Sobek house has triple-glazed walls topped by solar panels that produce more power than the house consumes. The multistory structure is fully recyclable and probably more comfortable than any Mies might have imagined.

The most radical house in the exhibition is a chartreuse hut atop a warehouse in Rotterdam. It is an experiment in hyper-efficient land use for urban areas. Dutch designers Rien Korteknie and Mechthild Stuhlmacher call it PARASITE, which is short for Prototype for Advanced Ready-made Amphibious Small-scale Individual Temporary Ecological dwelling. On its bleak borrowed terrain, the house could be the last refuge standing after the planet exhausts its resources.

Smaller is undoubtedly greener -- less energy is needed -- but as President Jimmy Carter learned when he asked the nation to turn down thermostats, making do with less is not the American way.

Making green luxurious might be. The Glidehouse offers a gourmet cooktop made from 98 percent recyclable materials and a patio made of permeable tiles to reduce storm water runoff. The question is whether such features can compete for status with double-height entry foyers, spa baths and great rooms, which attract buyers to typical suburban developments.

This exhibition drew the line at suburbia -- for two good reasons. First, the museum is saving neighborhood developments for a third exhibition under the working title of "Green Communities."

Second, the big home-builders aren't ready for a green spotlight. Stang and Hawthorne write optimistically that architects set the pace for home builders, just as the fashions in Paris and Milan influence merchandise at Target. But on Earth Day last month, the National Association of Home Builders announced that fewer than half its members describe themselves as "moderately or heavily" engaged in green building practices.

With Gore's eco-thriller now playing, it's time to ask an inconvenient question: What are they waiting for?

The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design runs through June 3, 2007, at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free. Call 202-272-2448 or visit http://www.nbm.org/ .

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