Custom, single-family houses are a luxury and some would argue that they never truly can be considered sustainable because of the abundant energy and materials required to shelter one set of occupants. The classic interpretation of the American dream, however, is based on owning that personal parcel of land with a big house where the entire family can gather around the hearth. And although family compositions are changing, that iconic idea that owning a custom house is equivalent to “making it” is unlikely to change anytime soon.
The architects and builders whose work is represented in the accompanying slideshow do their best to offset the extravagance of building a solitary dwelling by incorporating energy-producing and resource-conserving systems. These thoughtful design pros also manage to capture the best views without forgoing solar orientation; create gorgeous buildings using nontoxic sustainable materials; and take advantage of breathtaking settings while building as lightly as possible on the land.
The projects seen here strive for an even deeper shade of green through energy independence. Some are completely off-the-grid while others feed excess energy back into the grid, but all of the designs focus on renewable energy such as solar and geothermal. Efforts to save resources don’t end with energy—these houses employ sustainable features inside and out, from top to bottom. Mechanical zoning, passive cooling and heating, super insulation, water conservation and recycling, energy-efficient lighting and appliances, nontoxic finishes, and reclaimed materials are just some of the environmentally sound amenities.
Many of the projects also sit on large pieces of untamed land that are being preserved thanks to private ownership. Architect David Warner, for example, bought a piece of land slated for the development of 14 houses. A favorite hiking haunt of his, Warner didn’t want the forested acreage to be bulldozed so he bought it, retired the development plan, and built a house on it for his family. “We had all these biological resources we wanted to maintain,” he explains, including a pair of northern spotted owls. “There's only 2,000 nesting pairs left in the world, and we have a pair on our property.” Yet another reason to credit Warner and his sustainably minded colleagues with doing at least one version of the right thing.