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Synthesis/Regeneration 45   (Winter 2008)

Deep vs. Shallow Green Building

by Don Fitz

Deep green building would look at how construction contributes to the root causes of ecological collapse, toxic degradation, global warming and peak oil. Then it would design communities so that people could live comfortably and securely while having the least impact on the environment. The construction of homes would flow from the redesign of communities.

In contrast, shallow green building ignores communities. It views homes as stand-alone objects having no connection to work, shopping, recreation and the many other facets of human life. Shallow green thinking accepts houses pretty much as they are and makes them “green” by adding eco-fads to them.

Many green architects and builders are doing their best to create environmentally friendly homes. But most have a shallow green focus on eco-techniques. They rarely understand that current construction is actually making environmental problems worse.

Look at the web site for the next green builder you see on TV or in the daily paper. Does the site show plans for a home with trees and no parking garage? Or, is it another house plan that tells you how many cars the garage will hold and says nothing about trees?

Wasted energy in homes deserves far more than the scant attention it is receiving. An estimated 43% of US energy goes to buildings. [1] The average US home devotes 51% of its energy to heating and 4% to cooling. [2] Over 90% of energy is produced in nasty ways (coal, oil, gas and nukes) that attack human health, lay waste to ecosystems, and release greenhouse gases.

US building practices in the early 21st century will probably increase CO2 emissions rather than reduce them.

US building practices in the early 21st century will probably increase CO2 emissions rather than reduce them. In 2007, two things happened simultaneously: (a) there was a glut in the housing market; and (b) the US saw more hype for green homes than ever before. The media blitz on eco-houses never grasped the profound absurdity of claiming to benefit the environment by building new “green” homes while thousands of existing homes stood empty.

This brings up the first of 10 ways that the green building fad fails to improve the environment.

1. It ain’t green to ignore perfectly good homes.

Many (if not most) US municipalities have a law prohibiting more than three unrelated people from living in the same house. The single most important green building practice would be to eliminate those laws.

Producing a ton of cement results in the creation of a ton of CO2. New homes take a lot of cement, which means emitting a lot of CO2. What’s the point of building new homes and apartments when so many homes have empty space from grown children moving out or from a spouse dying?

It wasn’t that many decades ago that Americans dealt with issues of isolation and finances by renting out empty space. Or some people got a bigger house for the purpose of renting rooms. Now, that could get you a citation.

This is just one way our grandparents were environmentally friendly without thinking about it. During an eco-house tour, I asked if it had an attic fan, and the builder replied that, no, it would not be energy efficient to circulate hot air through the house. I explained that you should use an attic fan to pull cool air through the downstairs early in the morning and close the windows so it stays 65 to 75 degrees throughout the day. He looked at me like he wasn’t quite sure if such a strange idea would work.

There’s something terribly wrong with “green” building practices that have no memory of traditions like renting bedroom space, designing cross-ventilation, and using fans instead of costly gadgets.

2. It ain’t green to build massive homes.

Alex Wilson wrote that the size of US homes more than doubled between the 1950s and 2003. [3] At the same time, the number of people living in each home decreased, meaning that the average space per person had grown three-fold by the beginning of this century.

Poorly insulated homes of 1500 square feet use less energy than well insulated homes of 3000 square feet.

Wilson shows that eco-practices don’t solve the size problem. Poorly insulated homes of 1500 square feet use less energy than well insulated homes of 3000 square feet. Economies of scale do not make larger homes more efficient per square foot. Bigger homes use proportionally more lumber and other materials due to higher walls and they lose efficiency from longer runs for ducts and pipes.

Stan Cox discovered that many homeowners associations actually require this huge waste by dictating minimum square footage for homes and garages with space for two or more cars. [4] One reason for increased space is that middle class Americans buy (or receive as presents) more and more crap that they use one or zero times and then store until they die and their relatives clean out their home.

There is considerable psychological research showing that increasing the quantity of possessions only leads to big increases in happiness when it helps move people out of poverty After that, there are diminishing returns, with large increases in possessions doing nothing for life satisfaction. [5]

It’s similar with quantity of living space per person. Most Americans grew up in a home where boys shared one room and girls shared another. The trend towards a private bedroom for every child probably has no effect on happiness while harming kids’ ability to share. Excessive space in homes damages the environment and encourages the anti-social value of lavish greed.

3. It ain’t green to encourage urban sprawl.

Builders love to advertise that a home can be designed green for any income range in any location. Really? This thinking reflects a profound disconnect between designing homes and planning urban areas. How can a home possibly be green if its location requires long distance commuting for work, school, shopping and recreation?

To its credit, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards give credit if a new home is built on an existing lot, which encourages use of vacant urban space. This is a positive band-aid, as band-aids go. But aren’t we long past recognizing the huge environmental destructiveness of replacing farms and parks with pavement? Wouldn’t a government seriously concerned with global warming figure out a way to halt it?

4. It ain’t green to build as if space for homes has nothing to do with transportation.

Detroit and St. Louis are some of the worst examples of US cities which have huge vacant areas in the center which are surrounded by vast suburbs. This damages the ability to have an efficient mass transportation system, which requires high density to (a) make sure bus and train cars are full and (b) enable people to walk and bike for most trips.

The vision of neighborhoods without cars, without driveways and without parking spaces does not make it into many design plans.

Oblivious to issues of density, green builders typically advertise how many cars fit into their eco-friendly garages. The vision of neighborhoods without cars, without driveways and without parking spaces does not make it into many design plans.

5. It ain’t green to ignore advantages of multi-family homes.

A few green apartments, condos, co-ops and co-housing units are being constructed. They should be commended. Multi-family homes are clearly the best way to mesh green building with green transportation. They cut land space usage by at least a half — more for taller buildings. This creates more density and/or more green space. Since many people rarely venture into their yards, multi-family homes are likely to have smaller average yard space, but space that is actually used rather than merely serving to sprawl people apart.

Multi-family homes are much more efficient, both during construction and use. There is more sharing of mechanical systems, less building material used, and less heat loss because there is less surface area. Architect Bryan Bowan estimates that just sharing walls “can reduce energy consumption by 20–30%.” [6]

However, some of the most notorious public housing projects were touted as building up to preserve green spaces. It is just as important to ensure that the amount of space per person is not too low as it is to prevent it from going too high. One approach would be requiring condos, apartments, co-housing and co-ops to make 20–30% of their units available to low income families and making sure federal dollars finance it.

6. It ain’t green to pretend that there is no advantage to building underground.

Sometimes it is necessary to build a single family home — especially if there is an empty lot too small for a multi-family unit. But why not take advantage of the more constant temperatures underground? If you’ve ever been in a cave, you know they are naturally “air conditioned” in the summer and naturally warmed in the winter.

The most earth-comforted member of the family is the family car.

Rob Roy uses the groundbreaking ideas of architect Malcolm Wells to describe how to construct “earth-sheltered” homes. By building a house 6 to 8 feet below grade level (for a single story home, a few feet more for two stories), Roy says it “is like moving 1000 miles to the south.” In northern New York, where he lives, earth temperature varies from 40 degrees to 60 degrees. [7]

When I walk around St. Louis, I see new homes going up which universally ignore the benefits of building partially underground. By far, the most typical design for both single-family and multi-family homes is to build the garage as part of the basement. The most earth-comforted member of the family is the family car.

7. It ain’t green to not know what the word “green” means.

You might think that every green builder realizes that “green” means plants and that trees would be an inherent part of the design. Not so. If you tour a green building, notice if the tour guide points out where some trees are placed for summer shading and other trees are placed to break the chilling winds of winter.

This actually happens for some green homes; but as the fad catches on, most builders focus on the latest energy efficiency gadgets. Like attic fans and cross ventilation, the traditional knowledge of trees seems to be fading from architectural memory.

Earth-sheltered homes take “green” to a higher level by growing plants in dirt on the roof. Though earth by itself is not a good insulator, plants do insulate. And earth holds snow, which is a very good insulator. In the summer, rooftop plants offer shade and moisture evaporation cools the roof. The dirt helps protect the home from fire and noise.

8. It ain’t green to protect the environment with one hand while destroying it with the other.

Virtually everyone involved in green building promotes it as the new growth industry. Huh? There will be huge single-family houses built on expansive lots with energy efficient devices which are constructed and transported using fossil fuels. And there will be more each year to help fuel the gross domestic product (GDP) and serve as an extravagant growth model for the rest of the world. If this is how you protect the environment, how would you destroy it?

When you tour a green home, see if there is a sign next to the washing machine connection which says, “Since clothes dryers are the greatest energy hogs and clothes lines work just as well, there is no space for a dryer.” You might look a long time for that sign. Green homes tend to encourage the owner to use as many electricity-based appliances as possible. Though individual gadgets in green homes are more energy efficient, they are part of an overall dynamic which increases the use of electricity each year.

9. It ain’t green to build homes that will not outlast our grandchildren.

The biggest problem with building a green home is that it is a new building. At a recent Green Party forum, I asked if anyone lived in an old home. A few people said they live in a 100- or 110-year-old home. A refugee from the Green Party of Germany then pointed out that an “old” home in Europe was 300, 400 or 500 years old.

Buildings in the US have a life expectancy of 50 years.

Buildings in the US have a life expectancy of 50 years. [8] The Sierra Club wants to reduce energy consumption by 60–80% by 2050. [9] The fact that current construction assumes that homes will last an average of 50 years means that when 2050 is reached, it will be about time to begin replacing the energy efficient homes that are currently being constructed. That’s not energy efficient.

One green home I toured had casement windows which were guaranteed for 10 years. 10 years? If the manufacturer cannot guarantee that windows will endure, how many other parts of the home are designed to fall apart and require energy and resources for replacement? (Maybe we’re supposed to appreciate that replacing the planned obsolescence will be done with great energy efficiency.)

10. Voluntary green ain’t green.

No one who wants to reduce highway deaths advocates that drinking while driving should be voluntary or that everyone should choose whether they drive on the left or right side of the road. The most pathetic aspect of the environmental movement is people parading their lifestyle choices as if individual decisions could ever make the GDP go down instead of up.

If politicians actually believed that there were crises in peak oil and global warming they would spend less time getting their picture in the paper every time a green home is built. Instead, they would be drafting legislation requiring not only energy efficient devices but a whole range of changes in the way space is used for living and transportation.

What would deep green building be?

The first step in deep green building would be rejecting the absurd idea that you can do it one home at a time. The architects and builders I have met seem to be sincere people who are trying to do the best they can. But most jump to expensive green gadgets or efficient systems before looking for low-tech solutions. A more basic problem is seeing the issue as home design rather than city redesign.

Urban structure hamstrings the creation of truly green homes. For example, the absence of efficient mass transportation compels the construction of garages and driveways. It makes no sense to build homes without garages if there is no way to get around without a car.

Cars destroy neighborhoods, which should be the building blocks of city living.

Cars destroy neighborhoods, which should be the building blocks of city living. Urban space should have workplaces, stores, schools, parks and churches located so that most can be reached by bicycling or walking and all can be reached by train or bus. A good goal would be for the average city person to complete 80% of trips by walking or bicycling and 80% of the remaining trips should be reachable by train or bus. This would mean that cars would only be necessary for 4% of trips. (If the figures for most trips were 90% and 90%, cars would only be necessary for 1% of trips.)

If people could get to where they needed to go without a car, they would be vastly more interested in living in a co-op or co-housing unit which had no individual parking spaces and relied on motor pool vehicles that could be reserved for that 4% (or 1%) of trips. The rebirth of neighborhoods based on the drastic reduction in use of cars would fundamentally alter the way homes are designed.

In order to make most trips accessible by walking or bicycling, urban space requires the high density of multi-family homes. People need enough space to be comfortable, but they do not need the gargantuan space of current suburban homes. Society needs to minimize energy utilized in the construction of homes, living in them, and getting around from home to other places.

The very last step of deep green building would be utilizing the many types of eco-stuff that have been introduced in recent years. Just a few of those that are available include heating/cooling systems that use 50% less energy; geothermal systems that utilize temperatures beneath a home; insulating glass; solar panels; solartubes that can provide light to basements from the second floor; and earth building with natural materials or salvaged materials.

The problem is when the eco-gadget tail wags the urban dog. Thinking of green homes as nothing but a sum of eco-gadgets leads to viewing cities as nothing but a sum of eco-homes. The inability to design green neighborhoods means eco-homes actually help perpetuate urban sprawl.

The “shallow green” approach to buildings may look like it is a step in the right direction, but it is not. By failing to come to grips with the economics of growth, current green building practices are increasing the efficiency of components of houses at the same time they contribute to the overall expansion of energy usage, thereby increasing toxic wastes and greenhouse gas emissions.

Building practices that ain’t green have a gadget fetish that is blind to the big picture. Deep green building would focus on low-tech and no-tech solutions. Deep green building would integrate transportation into home design. Deep green building would aim to improve living space while decreasing the gross domestic product, a concept which is anathema to shallow green economics.


1. Brown, M., Stovall, T., & Hughes, P. Potential carbon emissions reductions in the buildings sector, in Kutscher, C.F. (Ed.) Tackling climate change in the U.S. American Solar Energy Society, 2007. 51-68. http://www.ases.org/climate change

2. Heinberg, R. The party’s over. New Society Publishers, 2003, 148. The rest of home energy goes to water heating, lights and appliances.

3. Wilson, A. Small is beautiful: US house size, resource use, and the environment. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2005, Vol 9, Nos 1–2, 277–287.

4. Cox, S. The property cops: Homeowner associations ban eco-friendly practices, April 26, 2007. http://www.alternet.org/envirohealth/51001/

5 Jackson, T. Live better by consuming less? Journal of Industrial Ecology, 2005, Vol 9, Nos 1–2, 19–36.

6. Bowan, B. e-mail of June 6, 2007

7. Roy, R. Earth-sheltered homes. Mother Earth News, October/November 2006, No. 218 http://www.motherearthnews.com/Green-Home-Building/2006-10-01/Earth-sheltered-Homes.aspx

8. Swisher, J.N. Potential carbon emissions reductions from energy efficiency by 2030, in Kutscher, 39–49.

9. Sierra Club. Renewable energy experts unveil report. Sierra club press release, January 31, 2007. Contact Josh Dorner, josh.dorner@sierraclub.org

[2 jan 08]

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