February 2017

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Contemporary Green Residences

For decades cutting-edge architecture and sustainable design have, to a large extent, existed in separate camps, with little dialogue among the leaders in the each field. In the world of contemporary residential design, sustainability often ranked well below considerations of style and cost. Many sophisticated designers seemed resigned to the notion that aesthetics would be compromised if environmental issues or energy efficiency took precedence. The environmental movement, for its part, was suspicious of the world of “star” architects, interior designers, and their style-conscious patrons, and green builders tended to concentrate their energies either on tinkering with their own residences or putting up experimental structures that many architects and critics dismissed as unsophisticated and unattractive. In the 1990s, however, avant-garde designers and the leaders of the sustainability movement began to move away from their insular thinking and toward common ground.

In creating green residences, builders, architects, and designers respond to the environmental conditions of different regions and climates.


Colorado Court, Santa Monica, CA, designed by Pugh Scarpa Kodama.
© Pugh Scarpa Kodama
Cities consume over 75% of the world’s resources, while occupying only 2% of its land. Yet cities— where people share walls, mechanical systems, gardens, and transportation—are inherently more efficient than rural and suburban areas where these components are typically replicated in every household.  Cities not only house more people on less land near jobs, shops, and transportation, but urban buildings are also more commonly recycled and renewed—a development strategy that minimizes waste and preserves resources. Many successful new green projects are small and dense, but low-impact materials and technologies are also increasingly common in residential high-rises. Perhaps the most important lesson that green architects, interior designers, and builders are learning from their urban experiments is that people in cities don’t have to live in denial of nature.



Mill Valley Straw Bale House, designed by Arkin Tilt Architects. Marin County, California, 2001.
© Edward Caldwell


Conceived as a utopia where city workers could live in pastoral surroundings, the suburb—with its typical low-rise, low-density development and redundancy of lawns, garages, septic tanks, and mechanical systems—is now generally an anti-green form of development.  However, new models aim to provide the comforts of suburban living while avoiding unnecessary waste and replication: suburban houses can be sited for optimal solar exposure and preservation of open space and trees; constructed from local renewable materials; and equipped with maximally efficient heating, cooling, and waste systems.  By combining ancient vernacular methodologies with progressive scientific technologies, architects can now deliver on the suburban promise of a green lifestyle that combines urban proximity with pastoral tranquility.  


Walla Womba Guest House, designed by 1+2 Architecture. Tasmania, Australia, 2002.
© Peter Hyatt

Sensitivity to the beauty and vulnerability of the natural waterside environment has spurred some of the most interesting experiments in rethinking the principles of residential development. Common strategies range from prescribing setbacks and restoring natural shorelines to exploiting solar and wind power and using indigenous building materials such as coral and bamboo husks. Green houses combine responses to extreme heat, wind, sunshine, salt, water damage, and climate change with technologies that allow them to be self-sufficient in their waste disposal and energy and water use.  Protection goes both ways in sustainable waterside houses —safeguarding the house from nature and nature from the house.

Forest and Mountain

Great (Bamboo) Wall, designed by Kengo Kuma + Associates. Shuiguan-Badaling, China, 2002.
© Satoshi Asakawa

More than ten billion acres of the Earth’s surface are covered in forest, mostly in mountainous regions.  Harsh weather conditions such as snow, wind, ice, freezing temperatures, and torrential rains, as well as exposure to intense sunlight and ultraviolet radiation at high altitudes, compel designers of houses in such areas to deploy a wide range of green strategies. The abundance of wind and sunlight allows builders to incorporate natural energy resources: houses can be oriented for optimal solar energy and minimal cold and wind exposure, while snow accumulations and frequent rainfall permit the harvesting of clean water.  Green houses in forests often entail another key precept of sustainability—they use local wood, stones, and boulders, rather than non-indigenous materials that need to be hauled up mountains.

Casa de Carmen, designed by Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects. Baja California Sur, Mexico, 2001.
© Luis Gordoa


The region between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, characterized by epic storms and high heat and humidity, prescribes an indoor-outdoor lifestyle while demanding adaptability and self-sufficiency from inhabitants and their homes.  The region’s vernacular architecture has provided inspiration for contemporary green architects, who are now interpreting tried-and-true features and inventing new ones to respond to the extraordinarily lush and often destructive tropical conditions: trees harnessed for cool shade and sea breezes for ventilation; siting that responds to natural protective features such as dunes to provide safety against storms; high-pitched roofs to deflect the wind; shutters, covered verandas, and wide eaves to block direct sunlight; and sustainable water, energy, and waste systems that minimize use of natural resources.


Tucson Mountain House, designed by Rick Joy Architects. Arizona, 2001.
© Undine Pröhl

Although deserts cover one-fifth of the Earth’s surface, their extraordinary temperatures and lack of natural water provide one of the harshest environments for habitation.  Deserts are also the sites of important experiments in green design.  The extreme daytime and nighttime temperatures have spurred a robust sustainable architecture, based on passive heating and cooling methods and ingenious solutions for ventilation.  Architects and interior designers use a range of strategies to reduce the environmental impact of a desert home: siting to minimize solar impact and maximize cooling by natural breezes, dense building materials to insulate against extreme temperatures, roof overhangs to protect against summer sun while allowing in winter sun, window placement and configuration to protect against glare and heat gain, and water storage and recycling systems to harvest the minimal rainfall. 

The Glidehouse™, 2004 designed by Michelle Kaufmann Designs.
© Michelle Kaufmann Designs


One of the most significant recent developments in housing has been the effort to improve the reputation of prefabricated, or modular, housing. Using powerful design software, a number of architectural firms now combine the cost savings of factory-built homes with the benefits of customized designs. The result is sophisticated architecture that can be offered at remarkably low prices and assembled faster than traditional buildings. The Glidehouse™, designed in 2004 by Northern California architect Michelle Kaufmann, represents this new breed. Working with builders in Toronto, Vancouver, Portland, and Southern California, Kaufmann has begun selling several variations of the house. A total of 10 have been built, ranging from one to four bedrooms and from 672 to 2,016 square feet in one or two stories. The price, including the cost of the design, trucking materials to the site, and construction, but excluding the solar panels on the roof and the kitchen appliances—begins at about $132 per square foot for a house on a level lot. This translates to around $200,000 for most variations—that’s $83,000 less than the average cost of a new American home in 2005.