How Green Can Monster Homes Be? Topic Renewed.

Bighome

The topic pops up every month or two.  Last month, the issue of big green homes came up in the context of eco-terrorism.  Five luxury homes priced over $2 million each were set on fire with a sign left behind saying: "Built green?  Nope Black!  McMansions + RCD’s R Not Green – ELF"# #  The luxury homes were advertised as green, but clearly the eco-terrorists disagreed.#   The burnt homes were about 4200 to 4750 sf in size, which isn’t that bad, when compared to some so-called luxury green homes we’ve seen (this one being 9800 sf).  The incident highlights the tension between big homes and sustainability.   

Today the NY Times resurrects the issue in the context of a new development in Connecticut.  As you can tell from the image above, the homes are built in a style meant to evoke 19th-century English country houses.  I’m not really interested the style, but some people are and I understand that.  The above home is the model home — the first of at least twenty-four, extravagant "green" homes.  It’s 7,000 sf.

Homes in the development start at roughly $3.2 million and will seek LEED for Homes certification.  For an optional $100,000 owners can go with the geothermal, but otherwise, the residences will reduce heating and cooling costs by about 50-75%.  They’ll also use FSC-certified lumbers, low-VOC paints and carpets, high-R insulation, high-performance windows, multi-zone hydro-air HVAC systems, custom LED lighting, and Energy Star appliances.#  These are good things — positive steps in the right direction. 

But there is an issue with size.  What about the size?

I’d venture to say we’re all in agreement that these homes are better than nothing.  Some greener action is better than no greener action, right?  But footprint is a subset of green.  Accordingly, does the square footage of a property, no matter what its other achievements, disqualify it for the title of "green"? 

Think of all the materials that went into this 7,000 sf home.  The wood may be FSC-certified, but it’s a ton of wood.  The energy requirements might be minimized, but the home’s still about as demanding as the average sized American home, if not more demanding.  The water requirements might be diminished, but there’s still going to be a lot of water required.

But still, I don’t really have an answer for whether a large home can be green.  Who determines what the definition of green is anyway?  Society?  LEED?  Someone else?  It’d be nice to have some sort of demarcation.  Like say, anything over 3000 sf is not green, unless it’s used for a family of 10, or something like that.  We have to look at the activity within the structure, not just the structure, but really, how green can a big home can be?  Or stated otherwise, how big can a green home be?  And if these homes aren’t green, then what do we call them? 

Just a lot of random thoughts on this end.  What do you think? 

UPDATE: Not to be outdone, there’s a guy in Florida that’s building a 12,000 sf "net zero energy home" and he wants to try to get LEED Platinum.  When asked whether it would be greener to build a smaller home, he replied: "[the] house will be made of renewable materials that can be taken down and reused."  I’m just waiting for someone to create an organic pizza buffet and call it healthy. 


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  • Mike

    The people who want houses this size are going to build them one way or another, isn’t it good that they can be somewhat greener than standard construction?

    I take the perspective that these people are spending large amounts of money on green technologies. The more money spent on these technologies, the cheaper they get for the masses. Do the homes really meet the ideals? Maybe not. Should they be held up as role models? Probably not. Do they further the cause? Definitely.

  • Sophia Katt

    Please don’t attribute the crime to ELF until authorities have definitely done so. There is considerable question about whether someone else with an ulterior motive tossed ELF slogans around the burn site to draw blame. Thanks.

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    @Sophia – fair enough on the ELF, I changed the wording to match that.

    Also, Re-Nest writes about the same and notes that with less impact, less of bad thing is still bad.

  • http://www.100khouse.com Chad Ludeman

    As someone who has a passionate distaste for large homes, I would agree the issue of whether or not they can be green is not cut and dry. If the home is designed properly, it’s really about the amount of materials used for the home (and possibly the amount of materials it will then take to furnish the home).

    The Re-Nest post makes good points in that people are not going to stop building these large homes so they may as well be using green principles, even if the size is ignored. I also agree that the larger and more expensive a home is, the closer it should be to zero-energy or a net energy producer. The first thing I think when I see the large home in this post is how many solar panels could fit on the roof and how much room there is for small wind in the yard.

    The fact of the matter for this home is that it’s not a net zero-energy home and is probably utilizing efficient mechanicals more than it needs to while forgoing the really exciting passive strategies that could be afforded on this budget. Does there need to be an A/C system at all in this climate and will the homeowners crank it during the summer to get to there desired comfort levels?

    Mike also does make a good point about these homes helping in the effort to bring prices of green technologies down that I often would not think about.

    Lastly, your Florida guy will only have about 25 points added to his LEED thresholds if he makes his home a 10 bedroom home. This will bring his LEED Platinum target to 115 out of a possibly 136 points. Best of luck… Sometimes the LEED guidelines really get things right. :)

  • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

    @Chad, thanks for the thoughtful remarks, you hit some critical points. I think most people are quick to say, “well they’re too big so mandate smaller footprints.” That’s not going to happen, because as you say, people want to and will find ways to keep building big homes.

    So it’s good that they’re being done in a greener way. In the meantime, we’ll keep following the issue because it’s not over.

  • Uncle B

    Build them as big as you need! Big is not Anti-environmental, in fact it may be a way for an Architect to design an almost totally solar heated environment. Large expanses of thermally effective glass are great. Don’t equate Big with Bad, we are not talking wolves here.
    Of my disposable income, I will spend $x on housing. That I make this expenditure eco-friendly or not is the real question.
    A 95% solar heated/cooled partially underground home of 3000′sq+ or a strawbale/solar 3000sq’+ is a far better aim than a small conventional sticks and mortar that is oil or electrically heated. sometimes bigger is better.

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