A lot of change has occurred recently in the design and construction industries. It's a palpable change that manifests itself in client meetings, site visits, and the media. Headlines like “America Goes Green” and “A Sustainable Future” grace our desks. We also hear the occasional news story about pollution-eating cement, aerogel-filled skylights, optical camouflage, and other fascinating technological advances. But how will these changes affect residential design and building, particularly in America?

This question invites skepticism, because for decades promises of sweeping changes in home building were made but never happened. We were told prefabrication would transform the industry, for example, because it could dramatically increase quality and cut labor costs. Yet most houses are still built on site. We read about “smart houses” outfitted with technologies that optimize energy use and maximize comfort, yet many people still don't use their programmable thermostats. What about the Trombe walls, earth structures, and bioremediation swales heralded in the OPEC embargo era? (Does anyone even remember these?)

I would argue that the reason these changes didn't occur was because they didn't have to. The American home buyer has historically valued size and appearance over construction methods, and the general public has expressed limited desire for technology-infused dwellings. Moreover, the return to cheap oil prices in the 1980s made novel environmental design practices seem unnecessary.

Today we face a different reality. I don't have to tell you about global warming, peak oil, pervasive pollutants, or resource depletion, because you already know about these issues. We are now facing unprecedented challenges that require similarly exceptional responses if we are to avoid future hardship.

seizing the moment

When I spoke recently with Alex Steffen, co-founder of the environmental blog Worldchanging, he declared that humanity had just crossed an important threshold—the moment at which a majority of doubters in environmental concerns was replaced by a majority of believers. He said that for years, environmentalists were screaming to be heard, but now they are being sought out for answers. Today's question is no longer, Why should we listen? but rather, What can we do? This transformation is an incredible boost for environmentally conscious architects, because we now have the opportunity to make changes out of necessity.

So what changes should we make? Do we begin specifying products with greater recycled content and attempt to conserve more energy? Of course, these are a couple of obvious approaches, but I invite us to think more deeply about the possibilities. For me, sustainable design is not an a la carte affair of itemized checklists and specification tailoring, but rather a fundamental recalibration of practice. I believe the secret lies in the synergy among sustainable thinking, technological innovations, and design itself. They should not be considered as separate elements, but rather as critical components that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

new approach

Let me give some examples. I recently asked Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA why so much contemporary Japanese architecture (including her own) is obsessed with ultralight structures and ultrathin details. She said that after World War II, resources were scarce in Japan, so architects and builders were forced to stretch materials as far as possible. In this way, a physical limitation led to engineering innovations, as well as an aesthetic disposition toward lightness. An extreme case is Penguin House by Yasuhiro Yamashita and Masahiro Ikeda (see image gallery). This project uses plate steel with insulating paint as the exterior wall. That's right: the entire exterior wall section is only 4 millimeters thick! Thinking about these houses, it seems strange that in America, we often pay less money for bulkier, material-intensive details.