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The Green House

colorado_court.jpgThe Green House,by Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne (2005, Princeton Architectural Press; $45), is one of those coffee-table books that could easily make one feel rather ashamed of one's current dwelling. Not only are the buildings presented in the book often achingly beautiful, they're built to meet current concepts of sustainability, integrating high-efficiency designs, recycled materials, low-water and low-energy requirements and so forth. Not only are the green homes better looking than where you live, the book implicitly taunts, they're better for the environment.

One is not likely to come away from The Green House filled with ideas for how to make one's own digs greener and more stylish, but that's not the point of a book like this. The Green House fits the Viridian model of making environmental sustainability something to be envied, and then emulated. The book focuses on about 30 different locations around the world, divided up by context -- city, suburb, mountain, waterside, desert. This undercuts any argument that such buildings are only possible in limited circumstances, even as the the photos make clear that each is a unique offering.

But paired with the photos is descriptive text that focuses rather explicitly on how each featured structure achieves its desired sustainability goals. The authors do seem to take the matter of sustainable dwelling seriously, and recognize that, while these homes may have a desirable appearance, their real value comes from how they function -- and that this function comes from new appreciation of the role of technology:

It is... encouraging that progress, so long the enemy of the natural world, is increasingly being put in the service of saving and restoring nature -- and that this new partnership is producing some of its most significant dividends in the realm of architecture, where modeling programs, to pick one example, now help designers measure the efficiency of their buildings with remarkable accuracy while they are still on the computer screen. As a result, green architects of all kinds are ditching their old reputation as regressive Luddites who were content to labor in isolation from cultural -- and architectural -- developments. "At the beginning of the [twentieth] century, technology was like a big train breaking everything, a killing machine," Plano has said. "It was really an adversary to nature. But today you can being to see that technology and nature are not so far apart."

Despite this, I have some mixed feelings while looking through a book like The Green House. On the one hand, the design of many of the homes is breathtaking; the book has page after page of luxurious, glossy pictures of architecture that is almost surreally gorgeous. Swoops of (high-efficiency) glass, abundant (drought-friendly) greenery, carefully wrought (recycled) wood... these are homes in which neither style nor sustainability has been sacrificed. But on the other hand, few of the buildings seem readily replicable, even in part; nearly all seem to be the kind of ultra-expensive, one-off architecture that wins awards and fills magazines, but few people ever really get a chance to experience for themselves. The green homes are almost too amazing to serve as triggers for emulation.

At the same time, while I look forward to the day that building efficiency and environmental sustainability are just assumed to be intrinsic to the design of homes and offices -- one doesn't see books celebrating "The Electric House" these days -- I recognize the importance of books like The Green House in leading a sea-change in architecture. I would much, much rather see high-end designers and ostentatiously wealthy buyers competing for who can build the greenest home than who could build (say) the biggest or the most filled with irreplaceable natural materials. It's particularly important that the criteria of sustainability aren't simply a superficial nod to what looks "green" (such as buildings filled with all sorts of exotic plants... requiring far greater water and energy use to keep alive than native flora), but are well-thought-through and integrated into the design from the outset.

Few people will buy The Green House as a way of figuring out what exactly they should do with their own homes. But that's not its purpose. The value of The Green House is in helping to change the assumptions of what goes into aspirational architecture, and in emphasizing the growing correspondence of beautiful design and concern for the future.

Comments (7)


So.. I take it the other pics of these homes dont look at fud ugly as this pic? What you realy need is to get a few eco geeks together with a few people with taste and then see if something nice comes out.

Jamais Cascio:

Thanks for reminding me:

A selection of photos of homes from The Green House can be found here, linked from this Los Angeles Times review.


Good god that home reminds me of the evil genious lairs of the old 007 movies... see evil minions pop out of the walls from a secret underground nuke powered death ray cannon.


I've been particularly drawn to the Glidehouse since I read about it on Treehugger and it seems to fit the happy medium between inspirational design and affordability, not that it is by any means inexpensive. And as a prefab home, it is easy to replicate and designed with sustainability in mind.


It seems as if these ultra modern, green design, prefab homes are rapidly growing in popularity - if blogging and mainstream media attention is any indication - which would certainly make purchasing a green home more accessible.

While I particularly dislike wintermane's choice of words, there is a legitimate point among his criticism. Is architecture that is innovative both aesthetically as well as environmentally, possible? I hope some of the starchitects around today can think about both of these areas as not being mutually exclusive or seen as a tradeoff between the two, and not having to necessarily showcase the parts of the architecture that are green. Green architecture has been somewhat dominated by the birkenstock crowd


Well its just that they look so cold and set like like they are to look at not live in.

They remind me alot of .. the house of the future or as I said an evil genious lair... something.. not in the least homey. Something to look at and show but never to be at home.

I know some people will wonder about me for saying this... I play a game called morrowind and in it alot of people have designed homes as mods for that game... well some homes are .. cold and set like and some feel like HOME a place you would love to be.

This ..home.. is cold and barren to me.

Jamais Cascio:

Ah, I see. Wintermane, I think the problem is the style of photography done for architectural journalism. There's something oddly antiseptic about the images. Of course, if the pictures were taken with the homes as they're lived in -- with family members milling about, dirty dishes on the table, junk piled up on the floor, etc. -- people would complain that you can't really see the house.


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