In theory, other small-footprint devotees might justify a large green house if it's offset by a low-impact lifestyle. Call it a household's green balance sheet. Colin Cathcart, AIA, a principal of Kiss + Cathcart Architects in Brooklyn, N.Y., feels strongly that an eco-friendly project needs to be sensibly sized. However, he says, “If you can afford 3,000 square feet to 4,000 square feet within reach of transit, then maybe” it could be considered sustainable. He'll even occasionally accept the built-in contradictions of big green houses as the price to be paid for experimenting with sustainable technology. “Sometimes people who have a lot of money can invest in new green technology, and that's a great way to jump-start a new market,” he says. “But I don't think anybody should be under the illusion that putting in 3,000 square feet of bamboo flooring makes everything OK.”
Paula Baker-Laporte, AIA, agrees. There was a time when she didn't think twice about designing a 10,000-square-foot home for a client. But now her Tesuque, N.M.-based firm, Baker-Laporte & Associates, is concentrating on its trademark EcoNests—roughly 2,000-square-foot homes with clay-and-straw wall systems. “We encourage a small footprint, but it's all relative to what the family is doing in there,” she says. “A family might want a large house, but if they're going to work in their home, that's a credit in the other direction. And some of my wealthier clients who had bigger spaces were the ones who did the eco-prototyping on water collection and sewage features, so I don't want to put them down.”
large and lean
There's been some browbeating in the environmental movement about how people should live. Often, green advocates try to appeal to the guilt factor of building big. But the idea of asking people to change their values to align with a different point of view strikes some architects as presumptuous, and therefore, as a failed strategy. “There's a large segment of humanity that we'll never access if we're asking them to change their values,” Hosey says, “and it's not my place as a designer to ask them to do that. But that doesn't mean we can't do things that challenge them or at least provide a better model.”
Angela Brooks, AIA, a principal at Pugh + Scarpa Architects in Santa Monica, Calif., is similarly convinced that taking the high moral ground is counterproductive. Although the energy-conscious firm is doing few single-family homes these days, she does not object to green behemoths, as long as construction waste is kept out of the landfill. “If a client has a piece of property that's big enough, we'll build a 5,000-square-foot house for them and make it sustainable,” she says, adding that the size issue should be put into broader perspective. Even in America, she says, we're focusing on the less than 2 percent who can build these houses, so why not?
In fact, giving clients the green light to live large can be a good thing, says Peter Q. Bohlin, FAIA, a principal with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. His reasoning: Substantive environmental measures often result in buildings people love, which ensures that they will be used for a long time. In addition to passive-solar strategies, he is enthusiastic about sod roofs, recycled timbers, and geothermal heating. “In my mind, for any kind of building or at any scale, those things are not only ethical but make for buildings with greater pathos,” Bohlin says. And even large houses benefit from cleverly combined functions. “To make a stair that is also a place to sit, to make a fireplace that itself is also a place to gather, I think makes for more touching and powerful architecture.”
As reluctant as environmentalists may be to design giant green houses, some see a silver lining in the opportunity for education and compromise. When Warren, Vt., architect John Connell, AIA, designed a 7,000-square-foot home for empty-nesters that could be closed down to 1,800-square-feet for 90 percent of the year (thanks to an internal thermal barrier), he deemed it a success. Most of his clients, he says, are either building empty nests or second homes; they've been around long enough to know who they are and the damage their house can do.
“A family is about values,” says Connell, founder of 2morrow Studio. “I can get most of my clients to look 100 years down the road and think about the house as an expression of the values they hold. Do they want their children to say that mom and dad were idiots? If you can get people to be more sustainable without compromising quality of life, it will spread to the next generation.”