Green Building Begins With Design

By: Brent Beecham

The latest trend in new home construction is "green building".  Most people equate green building with efficient or renewable materials.  There is even a network Planet Green that has programming dedicated to promoting green building.  Ironically many of these shows feature green homes that are thousands of square feet.  They may be efficient but the overall energy and materials use is still much greater than a smaller home.  My contention is the most fundamental principle of green construction begins with architecture.

As a small builder and developer, I am always looking for new ideas and techniques to construct homes more efficiently.  Staying abreast of trends not only helps promote sustainability but gives us an edge competing against larger corporations in marketability.  Flexibility is the key to remaining competitive.

While viewing the show "World's Greenest Homes", I found it ironic that many of these homes were thousands of square feet, were built on acres of land, and were occupied by empty nester couples.  I am intrigued by the techniques but baffled by the motive behind constructing these homes.  It was more about being trendy than anything, because the greenest principle of all is right sizing.

Since 1970 the average size of families has shrunk 27% while the average square footage has increased 66%.  I do not condemn anyone for building a large home.  As a builder we have built many large homes for affluent customers.  But if the fundamental principle in building your new home is to be green or to reduce your footprint on the earth, then you need to consider shrinking the size of your home.

The US Green Building Council has a program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ( LEED).  The very first input into their point calculations is number of bedrooms and square footage.  This is just the starting point for certain, but it has the greatest weight.  Going back to "World's Greenest Homes" I input some data from one of the homes featured.  As a 3500 square foot, 4 bedroom house, to be certified as LEED basic it required 52 points.  In my development, we just completed a 4 bedroom house that totaled 2200 square feet and nearly half of that is finished basement.  To have qualified for LEED certification we would have had to accrue 43 points.  That is a 17% reduction in points required.  Obviously the LEED program places a premium on house size. For more information

The question then is how do you design a smaller home and not give up your space.  In Atlanta there has never been a space problem so architecture here rarely has to solve this issue.  Our development  in North Georgia focused on recreating a rural, Tuscan concept with small, compact lots arranged in a "village".  Overall this allowed us to maintain 60% of our land as either undeveloped or agricultural.  At the same time many of our clients are used to larger homes so we had to create smaller homes that lived larger.

Fortunately the architectural firm we hired, Harrison Design Associates, has an office in Santa Barbara, California that is used to designing homes on small lots.  They dispatched an architect from that office to help draw the initial concepts.  What we discovered was that in our market smaller homes are generally low quality.  What our clients wanted was not so much large as high quality.  They also put a premium on entertainment space.  The result was homes that had large flexible spaces for entertaining with the ability to flow out into outdoor spaces. 

Each house design has an outdoor walled garden with fireplace and a covered porch with french doors that open to the main living area.  Though we sacrificed the size of the master bedroom and bath, we did not sacrifice the appointments.  Each master bath has a claw-foot tub, glass enclosed shower and oil rubbed bronze, Rohl fixtures.  Addressing the quality issue we use Sub Zero and Wolf appliances, granite, hand sanded, antique replica hardwood floors, hand-hewn beams and other features associated with much larger and more expensive homes.  It is easier for high end clients to give up size if they can maintain the high quality of construction.

When deciding to build your green home, consider all the principles we have discussed above.  Deciding what your core principle is the first step.  Consider that you can incorporate outdoors spaces into your overall design and not sacrifice overall space.  Remember that smaller will allow you to spend more money on quality.  If Americans are truly committed to living more sustainably we are going to have to reverse more than 30 years of thinking about architecture and construction.