Greenbuild 2008 included the first ever Green Homebuilder's Day, a conference within the much larger overall conference. Homebuilder's Day welcomed old hands and newcomers to the field of green building, and the sessions were full. BuildingGreen organized the event, which coincided with the announcement of our soon-to-be-available, residentially oriented Green Building Advisor
That this day of educational sessions took place at all is a good sign for the future of houses in America and for softening their environmental impact. But in a general session on that topic, three speakers--Kevin O'Connor, host of "This Old House"; Tedd Benson of Bensonwood Woodworking Company; and Steve Kieran of architecture firm Kieran Timberlake--all expressed the view that American homebuilding is fundamentally flawed, and that the current mortgage meltdown is only one symptom among many.
In a brief view of American housing in the last century, O'Connor rallied statistics to show that our houses have gotten bigger, more elaborately equipped, more sparsely inhabited, and, in recent times, less urban. From the typical 1,000-square-foot house with seven residents and no toilet in 1900, the typical house by 2000 had only two residents, a thousand square feet for each of them, two bathrooms, and panoply of electrically powered gadgets. Although the world's population is now, for the first time in history, more urban than rural, 54 percent of American houses are either suburban or rural, and if past trends continue (a big if, to be sure) even more of them will be so in the future. While there is plenty of subjective judgment that contemporary houses are less satisfying in subtle ways that old houses, it is beyond dispute, O'Connor said, that they are far more comfortable. All that comfort comes at an environmental cost, however, and with the number of houses expected to be built in the next century outstripping the population increase, due to the trend toward fewer people per house, that cost is going to be growing quickly. An even bigger problem than these new houses, however, is the far greater number of older, inefficient houses that will continue to be sucking up resources.
Despite changes in the size and mechanical systems of the American house, a great deal has not changed much at all: they are still, on the whole, built on site, of wood, by small teams of carpenters and subcontractors. The residential builder of today approaches a project with about the same skills and methods that were in place a century ago. That builder, self-employed or part of a small crew, recapitulating the patterns of work that he learned as an apprentice, working with trades whose special tasks are fitted around the pattern set by the carpenters, is a figure of some romance in this age of mass-production, corporate ownership, and technological flux. But the prevalence of the independent housewright is a problem, according to these three speakers, and Benson has said that the American way of building houses is not a system, but a bad habit.
None of the three talked about the need for better insulation or more solar hot water heaters or the importance of ensuring that timber is cut from sustainably managed forests, though each would no doubt acknowledge all these things are beneficial and important. Instead, they focused on the inefficiency and inferior quality that results from trucking piles of materials from various suppliers to a building sites and fashioning them into houses on the spot. The assembly in controlled factory conditions of house parts, with minimal waste and a high degree of precision, is essential to the modernization of American housebuilding, they say. It was clear that pre-fabrication, in their eyes, need not be synonymous with repetitive, bland, standardized housing; rather, on the model of doors and windows, which are already factory-made and only assembled on-site but are still available in a multitude of sizes and styles, pre-fabrication would streamline construction without necessarily hampering the production of creative, beautiful houses well fitted to their sites and inhabitants.
Benson, a timber-framer by training, argued for the disentanglement of a house's parts-- the separation of structure, envelope and mechanical equipment --in the interests of longevity and flexibility. A house's structure might last for a century or two; its skin may be good for half that; the useful life of its mechanicals is likely to be even shorter. By making each element independent, materials of appropriate durability can be used and renovation can be accomplished economically. Lamenting the ugliness of much modern housing, he suggested another aspect of separating houses' elements: though most houses are built without the benefit of an architect's involvement, due to the expense, it would be feasible for far more to have their exteriors professionally designed while builders sort out the insides. Raising the quality of houses' external composition would do a great deal to improve the aesthetic qualities of our cities and towns.
Among the improvements today's architects need to make, Kieran said, is to cease regarding their creations as finished products that are over and done with when the owner takes possession, instead treating their buildings as good doctors treat their patients, checking up on them and making sure they continue to function well. He expressed his disappointment that members of his profession have too often pursued novelty and style instead of developing excellent buildings that meet the needs of the multitudes in of them while making responsibly modest demands on the world.
Despite the emphasis on the shortcomings of American housebuilding, a conspicuously missing aspect in this discussion was the issue of where houses are built. Given the imperative to mitigate global climate change and the challenge of peak oil, the suburban growth pattern that has dominated American house building since the end of World War II is unlikely to remain viable. Dwellings will need to be smaller, closer together, and less dependent on automobiles to cope with the climate change/peak oil crisis. And giant cities in the desert are in a perilous position as their water supplies dwindle and droughts threaten to increase in frequency and severity--it is questionable whether it is possible to build green at the edge of Las Vegas, no matter how superb the building.
Adding the dimension of settlement patterns to the wastefulness, poor-quality and ugliness of much existing and new housing makes for a daunting collection of problems for builders and designers to grapple with. But Kieran, while lamenting that, in his words, the United States has become a collection of toxic waste sites now burdened with toxic finances, declared that there has been no better time to be an architect, because there is so much that needs to be fixed. And Benson reminded his audience that house building is sacred work because it creates the places where people's most important and intimate experiences take place.
I heard at Homebuilders Day that a lot of builders have been too busy to catch up with developments in green construction, but now, with their industry set back on its heels by the mortgage crisis and recession, there is time to study up. Stepping back and considering what has gone wrong is sound preparation--along with learning new methods, discovering new materials and products, and revising expectations, for getting back to work when things get moving again.