Truly Sustainable

Posted by on Nov 11, 2010 in Uncategorized Tagged:

So what is sustainable and what does it really mean if you are considering building a new house? Some would have you believe that it is just about using the latest certified materials, good insulation, and solar panels or geothermal, or some kind of new “green” technology. A lot of the buzz around “green” building is stuck very much in the fad mode of thinking. It’s the latest cause you’re supposed to be interested in. The reality is much simpler, much broader, and much more radical for today’s American society. Live simple

We have somehow allowed ourselves to be told that we need to buy more stuff to get this economy going. Buying lots of stuff is the American way? When did our national identity get caught up in the act of consuming? Rabid consumption is NOT sustainable. To suggest that to survive as a nation we must consume more is a suggestion that sits on top of the pinnacle of extreme absurdity. Those who settled this country survived on what ever they could find around them. They were not consumers. They were producers, and they produced what they needed, then produced for the country, then the world. That is a sustainable model of living.

We live in a world where garbage is pretty much all that is produced. Most things are made for a very short shelf live. This is a concept consciously implemented by manufacturers. If they make things that don’t last very long then you will have to buy more very soon. Sounds like a sustainable business model, except we, the rabid consumers, along with the environment, are the patsies in the scheme. This unsustainable model of living represents a constant drain on our wallets and a constant source of material for landfills.

So this gets us back to architecture and green living, which begins with sustainable living habits and building practices. The housing bubble was built on the foundation of houses that will last for maybe 30 years. Some of theses houses are so badly built they are tear downs today. Speculative builders are literally building garbage. These houses will overwhelm our landfills in 30 years or sooner. Houses that were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s are now being torn down as out of date and unsalvageable. They were the beginning of the speculative market, and by today’s standards they were well built.

One alternative to going to the land fill

As a nation, even as a species, we cannot sustain this way of dwelling, and we are making ourselves miserable trying to do so. As Americans we tend to have houses that are way too big to maintain, with spaces that are so specialized that we rarely use them. Many of these uses could be utilized within a single well-designed space, or even be built communally and shared.  We put a lot of money into houses that are consuming huge amounts of income and always stressing out about how we don’t have enough money. This economy is tough, but it is also a really good reality check.

We need to find our way forward into a simpler way of living. A way of living that doesn’t require too much stuff.  We need to understand that building cheap is not building smart. We need to take responsibility for our presence on the earth.  We also need to build beautiful houses that inspire us to want to keep them. If it is a beautiful house that you want to maintain you will be more likely to do it. If the house is well designed to take advantage of natural air circulation, and the seasonal changes of the sun you will have a house that is a living structure.

Air movement can be created even on a day with no breeze

You will take joy in opening windows, sitting outside in the shaded porch, feeling the breeze of fresh air, and the warmth of a sun-filled room in the winter. If it is designed with a strong connection to the outside you will be more likely to use those outdoor spaces as living becomes more seamless.  You will take pride in owning a home that you know will be there for generations. There is a definite calming effect of living in a home that is simple and uncluttered, that meets your needs efficiently and clearly, that is scaled to fit you and your family.  People used to build this way. We can learn a lot from the way they did, but we have also learned a great deal since then and new technologies can work sustainably and should be considered.

I hear from so many people that are looking to downsize and simplify. This attitude is a growing trend and it is a wonderful sustainable trend. If you are interested in looking at sustainable living further, a good book to read is “The Original Green” by Steve Mouzon. He examines the old way of building and defines a good foundation for sustainability. A glance backward can also mean a more defined step forward and incorporating the many new and bright sustainable technologies available. In all things, we must ask the question of whether or not it will last for generations and is the maintenance simple enough that we can routinely do it ourselves.


  1. Steve Roman
    November 11, 2010

    Today there are so many books of house plans that are either Victorian OR Solar OR Green OR Low Maintenance OR Barrier Free……….I never see plans for a Barrier Free Solar Green Low Maintenance Daylighting Victorian House. And the solar houses that I do see all look like they were built by chickens or something. No one seems to be taking classic designs by Palladio or Jefferson or even Frank Lloyd Wright (although his stuff always collapses) and incorporating them with daylighting technics, barrier free, solar, etc. In other words, I want it ALL in one structure, and I want STYLE! And somebody needs to tell today’s architects that not everybody is stuck in the Mid-Century Modern Period. Not everyone wants the cloned living room with gray concrete floors, gray galvanized corrugated steel walls, the obligatory twin Barcelona Chairs, the bare stainless cocktail table with just one gray gravel on it, slightly off-center to the right. Not that I’ve given much thought to this topic…..

    • Brad Norris
      November 11, 2010

      With a little humor thrown in for good measure? Steve you are absolutely right. And you can have it all. Part of the point I’m trying to make here is that old Victorians, Colonials, Georgians, etc. are to a large extent very green/sustainable by design, if for no other reason than people love them so much many are still standing and not in the landfill. There is a lot incorporated in the design of those homes that catches the breezes, shades windows in the summer and lets sun in in the winter, fireplaces centrally located for warmth, etc. Add a little of what we have learned since those times, including the barrier free issues, keep the things that still work, of course hire the right architect that knows traditional architecture, and voila you have it all. Remember also that a lot of those designs work best regionaly. Look at our deep southern porches providing shade in the summer, high ceilings allowing the summer heat to rise above our heads, and interior transoms to encourage air flow. It can be and should be done.
      By the way I think the gravel is suppose to be off center to the left.