My Inner Green Builder Cries Foul

mcmansion dean terryEARLIER THIS WEEK I had occasion to visit the home of a distant relative, the brother of a cousin’s wife, someone I barely know.  The man is a physician, a specialist, and it is clear from his home and its contents that his world is about his family, his faith, and his profession.  As we (the other guests and I) moved through the rooms of this house my inner green builder antennae started buzzing and sparking.  I was appalled.

I wondered why. Was it the furnishings, the interior decorating–or was it the space itself that so depressed me?  For all its supposed grandeur this was a home without a pulse.

As a green builder and remodeler, passionately committed to sustainable design, I can’t help but notice the ill health and emotional hollowness of conventionally built homes.

The Un-Home: Inhospitable and Barely Habitable

Being in this luxury home was a chilling experience.  This is one of those prize homes that has everything you’d expect—all the high-end amenities.  And yet, it lacks everything that would make it feel luxurious to a person or feel even a like a home because it is space furnished and dwelled in incidentally. Think hotel room.

The space is magnificently ill proportioned, over scaled, and hastily appointed. In the den with its 25-foot high stone fireplace (empty of fire on this chilly night) there was no coziness.  We gathered in a corner instead, pulling chairs from their appointed places to make a close circle shying from the somber chimney beast.

I was glad to leave.  Passing through the two-story porch—illuminated like a chain hotel at a nameless highway interchange, I observed the columns desperately clinging to some weary sense of grandeur.

The Disconnect: Home Not Where the Heart Is

LATER, I MARVELED at the contradiction.  My host, a physician, who has devoted the better part of his life to healing, inhabits a home that suffers from morbid obesity, an emphysemic mechanical system, and a sagging heart—if it has any heart at all.

I struggle to draw conclusions from this.  Our homes are natural representations of our bodies.  The rooms are like chambers of our hearts, their mechanical systems like our organs, strong, efficient, and healthy.  Or they are wheezing, blinking, and trembling.

Building Green Is Building Naturally, Rationally and Sustainably

IF WE ARE FORTUNATE ENOUGH to have the opportunity to build new space for our families and ourselves I think it is worthwhile to at least consider building green.  I think it worthwhile to pause and consider how a home, like a person, is an organism regulated by a rational a system.  Consider how the bones, skin, and inner organs of the house function in relation to the people who will inhabit it.

Our bodies follow natural and rational cycles—same as the natural world all around us.  We know, too, that people, just like nature, can be unpredictable and irrational.  Yet, when we build, I believe we ought to aspire to follow the laws of natural systems as best we can.  This is the essence of a sustainable design and green building point of view.  We mimic what is natural and rational.

As a green builder and green remodeler, this is my purpose:  to create healthy, efficient homes, and nurturing spaces that are naturally, beautiful, rational, and capable of surprise.

Alan’s response to Janet, on the renovation of Apartment #1807

I’m not a fanatic by nature, and I’m really uncomfortable being a scold.  But to be a green builder requires being both.

That’s because for every way to do something green, there are fifty ways to fall short.  Fifty ways to do it faster, more conveniently, more conventionally, and, in many cases, cheaper.  Some, unfortunately, are more glamorous or trendy.  It is fair to say that temptations abound.


The Temptation of Saint Anthony, by David Teniers II

The most difficult challenges are when an impulse for certain architectural elements conflict with a purely green approach.  For example, a large, unsheltered window to the west, to obtain a beautify view, might burden the air conditioning system and cause a spike in the primary energy load.


Yet there are still consequences that derive from our decisions, which go beyond the bounds of any given project.  Those consequences go to the very nature of sustainability—which is simply a way of assessing what we do and what we create—in terms of whether it will compromise the ability of others who follow us to do the same.  Green building is the concept of the 7th Generation, put into action.

The best design may arise from the severest constraint, and the task of the green builder is create beautiful and comfortable spaces within the constraints imposed by sustainability.

Yet we are humans, and our pulse may quicken at the sight of some form or surface that is at odds with sustainability.  I have come to understand that when you seek to achieve absolute purity, to slay all evil, inevitably impurity and evil find a way to prevail—or even multiply.  Murphy’s Law stalks us around every bend, and unintended consequences are the rule and not the exception.  This is the human factor we struggle with.  Like a dieter, sometimes we must indulge in a little chocolate.

So that is the mindset I bring to my projects, and all this will come into play at #1807.