How a 'Green House of the Future' Can Impede Environmental Progress

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 2, 2009

It's fun to think about how innovative technology and creative design someday might radically change the look and performance of a fully sustainable single-family home.

The Wall Street Journal got into the game recently with a report on concepts by four architectural firms that the newspaper asked to imagine the "Green House of the Future."

But how much can cool-looking, zero-carbon houses of the future contribute to meeting the nation's challenges: creating a healthier environment; achieving energy independence; and arresting climate change by burning less fossil fuel to run vehicles, generate electricity, and heat, cool and light buildings?

The four houses envisioned in the Journal report display inventive form-making and incorporate the full gamut of green design techniques, some currently available and some theoretical. The houses, which would be built with recycled, high-tech and naturally green materials, would depend on renewable energy sources -- solar, wind, geothermal, biomass.

Speculating about visionary green houses is tantalizing, but much greater benefits accrue at a larger scale. Entire metropolitan regions need to be green. This means creating more compact land-use patterns; diverse transportation options that enable fewer automobile trips; greater mixing of land uses at higher densities; and, of course, greener residential, commercial and civic buildings.

Focusing on hypothetical designs of free-standing houses can even be a distraction. It can mask a more serious aspect of the challenge: the diminished sustainability of low-density, residential subdivisions in suburbia where most free-standing houses of the future are likely to be situated.

No matter how green individual homes are, suburban sprawl is intrinsically anti-green. It generates infrastructure inefficiency; car dependency and rising fossil fuel demand; carbon-emitting, time-wasting road congestion; and, despite availability of inexpensive land at ever-greater distances from jobs, escalating development, construction and public service costs.

Fighting sprawl while implementing large-scale sustainability strategies also requires preserving, expanding and retrofitting existing neighborhoods and buildings, including single-family houses. Use of what's already built saves immeasurable amounts of energy and resources. Transforming neighborhoods, buildings and infrastructure to accommodate new functions may be the best way for architects and the real estate industry to help create a greener planet.

Unfortunately, regulatory, political, market and financial hurdles often stand in the way of transforming cities and suburbs to make them greener. Outdated zoning and building codes can be obstructive. Citizens may oppose change, especially in their own neighborhood. Consumers frequently resist design innovation. And some tactics for making greener environments require front-end capital investment that stresses project budgets or violate conventional financing formulas.

To make America greener, we must shift focus. We need less attention on how to shape the individual house and more attention on how to shape -- and reshape -- communities. And we must focus attention on changing rules and public attitudes that make green design harder to achieve.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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