Enormous, sprawling ‘green homes’ are not worth our admiration
In my eyes, the house pictured in this article is the embodiment of what’s wrong with the green-building movement. It should be made into a “what is wrong with this picture?” poster.
The bottom line: that is a huge house with plenty of windows and cathedral ceilings built in the middle of nowhere, and it consumed a whole hell of a lot of resources. Just look at the framing that went into it. There are enough concrete blocks in that thermal mass wall to build a couple of small houses with. You can bet the two-car garage will be empty much of the time. I see no way to walk or ride a bike to anything.
I notice the article fails to mention square footage, and I know why. It is not a badge of honor in many environmental circles to own a huge, opulent house (you can actually lose status in that circle by owning one). By scaling from the garage doors, the house appears to be about 60 feet wide and roughly as long, with a partial second story, making it around four or five thousand square feet (about three or four times larger than my own spacious and comfortable two-story home for four).
For starters, we have an incredibly energy-efficient house.
… for its size. It would be interesting to see how much energy it actually consumes annually. I will wager it is double what mine consumes, and I have no solar panels, geothermal pond, thermal mass block walls, or radiant heat concrete floors. I will bet my right arm it consumes far more energy than their apartment used.
They are planning to use geothermal energy pulled off their pond to back up the solar. This suggests they will be using an electric powered heat pump for heating and cooling when solar isn’t adequate (at night, cloudy days, snow cover). I could be wrong; they may be using propane for back up or both. I do not know if they plan to pass electricity through their floor or heated liquid. If it is liquid, they surely can’t heat it with passive solar in the winter. Winter nights can be bitter cold in Denver and summer days can be baking hot.
We’ll rely partly on passive solar year-round, but we’ve installed a massive photovoltaic solar-panel system that should supply 85 percent of the house’s energy needs on any given day
It is obvious to me from the size of the roof overhangs that this house is designed to keep the hot Colorado sun out of the windows in the summer. I can’t see how they are planning to passively grab the winter sun, although I am sure they are doing it somehow.
It sounds like they have their panels hooked up to feed the grid instead of batteries (“I feel pretty damn green standing in front of our electricity meter, watching us put power back on the grid”). I would agree with this decision. Batteries are an expensive maintenance hassle, best avoided in my opinion.
Essentially what they have is a privately owned power station that feeds the grid like other power stations. They earn money on it in the form of a discount on their electric bill. In this case, they are anticipating an 85% discount. Power generation is a business. It might have been wiser to put their power generation business on the ground where they can more easily maintain it. They do not appear to be short of yard space, and putting it on your roof when you don’t need to may not make much sense, especially when it is time for a new roof. But it does make your house look cool.
Their little power plant cannot make use of economy of scale and has more risk of never breaking even when accounting for initial expense and future maintenance. That decade to break even may never arrive if there are a lot of maintenance problems along the way, or shortly after. Solar in Denver is a good idea (sun shines 300 days a year), but still comes with a price. Buying green energy when it is available from a utility makes more sense to me than trying to become a small player in the energy generation business, paying for your own maintenance, and sending your power along their power lines.
For example, we needed some odd pieces of mahogany to finish framing a door. Regular mahogany: $200. Certified renewable mahogany: $1,200.
Somehow I doubt that they actually “needed” that mahogany.
The siding came from a barn torn down in Nova Scotia.
Weathered barn siding has been a sought-after commodity for decades. Think of it as antique siding. The supply is limited and it is expensive (shipped from Nova Scotia). It does not really count as reclaimed because if they didn’t pay for it, someone else would have. Like other antiques, it was not destined for the landfill. Cementatious siding would have been cheaper and more durable, but less flashy.
Our beams were cut from Sitka spruce logs salvaged from a blowdown in British Columbia.
Again, this is not reclaimed. Blown-down lumber is no more eco-friendly than sawn-down lumber. It was just blown-down instead of sawn-down. Nobody was going to let it go to waste.
Our roof is completely recyclable metal.
About 68 percent of all “new” steel produced is actually recycled metal. Most ferrous metal in the U.S. is recycled because it is profitable to do so.
We used locally quarried stone for the base of the house to reduce transport needs.
Why would anyone ship tons of stone from far away when a local quarry is available?
This house is a monument to its builders, as are most homes. The thermal mass wall they plan to hang art on could have been replaced with a swamp cooler. The solar panels on the roof could have gone in the yard. Nobody needs a thousand square feet of living space per person to be comfortable. What was once a beautiful valley is now a sad case of suburban sprawl. These parents will be hauling their children around in a four-wheel drive SUV for all of their social needs because they are totally isolated from friends, relatives, and neighbors.
They have created a work of art to write articles about and to show off to friends and relatives at barbecues and dinner parties. And in all honesty, I do not see anything unnatural or wrong with that behavior, seeing as we all do it in some form or another. It is not my intent to denigrate these individuals. They could have done worse, but they sure could have done better.
In my eyes, they have created another sore on the skin of the planet. Their dog will be free to chase coyotes, deer, foxes, rabbits, and anything else that wanders into its territory marked by its urine and feces. Wildlife will soon learn to avoid it. Soon enough, others will build similar monster homes nearby to compete with them, and wildlife will avoid them also. I get depressed thinking about the day somebody finally builds their country mansion next to my forest property and unleashes their pet cats and dogs on it.
So, how are we going to save the planet? By living in communes or by building energy efficient mansions in beautiful mountain valleys? Neither. Few people want to live in a commune, and few people can (or should) afford to build “energy efficient” urban sprawl mansions.
Change what is a status symbol. Energy efficient homes in urban environments are for deep thinkers. Big “green” houses in mountain valleys are not. Spread the meme: McMansions and urban sprawl are not cool, green technology is. Add the two together and they nullify each other. You gain nothing.