Can a Green-Rated Mega House Truly be Green?

By Susan Brautovich

While the “Small Is Beautiful” home designed for maximum efficiency on a minimum footprint may be PC these days, peruse any shelter magazine and it’s clear that not everyone buys in. Homes of 5,000, 7,000, even 10,000 square feet – some rated LEED Gold or Platinum – are praised for their greenness because they incorporate the latest green products, materials, and systems. But even at the highest levels of sustainability and efficiency, is it reasonable to label such a huge home “green?” Should LEED ratings and green building incentives apply to single-family residences over a certain subjective maximum, say 2,800 square feet?

One side of the argument, call it “any green is good green” goes that any improvements in energy and resource efficiency, less toxic materials, should be encouraged in the interest of furthering The Cause of greener living. Furthering The Cause ostensibly will drive green building in the direction of economies of scale, lower prices, innovation, and wider adoption of greener building materials, systems, and methods. This side of the argument would seem to be neutral or even positive toward large-scale green homes, leaving size a simple matter of market forces. Those home buyers and remodelers willing and able to pay the “green premium” for less toxic, more sustainable materials and the current crop of high efficiency appliances, Smart Home and energy systems are simply more inclined toward larger homes. Even spec builders (the very few doing green construction in today’s abysmal homebuilding market) seek permits for the most square footage they can get because smaller house are just harder to pencil out.

The size-neutral, “any green is good green” camp might argue that we’re still very much in the era of compromise when it comes to encouraging sustainable, efficient construction methods. In other words, environmental concerns are still beggars and builders are still choosers. Unless and until green building methods gain wider acceptance and come closer to pricing parity with traditional products, limiting the size of houses that can be green rated is just counterproductive.

The other side of the argument, let’s call it “is this really necessary?” asks if a green Mega House – although arguably better than a non-green one – isn’t just plain excessive in its use of resources and energy. Regardless of efficiencies and greenness, a 5,000 square foot house built with “x” resources and using “y” amount of annual energy would obviously require less of both if the house were half the size, right? Like the SUV ads that touted “best mileage in class,” don’t we exonerate excess by stamping huge houses with a green seal of approval?

Regardless of where you come down on green Mega Houses, one point that’s very hard to argue is actual need in the conventional sense of sheltering one’s family. According to the 2009 American Housing Survey, only about 24% of American households consist of more than three members. In fact, the average size of the American single-family house has gone from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,438 square feet in 2009 while average household size hovers around 2.6, down from 3.1 in 1970. Roughly speaking, where we were building around 530 square feet per person in 1973, we built about 938 square feet per person in 2009.
Even if we attempt to tie the size of green-rated houses to family size or some other measurement of “need,” can green rating systems require a minimum number of household occupants per square foot as a requirement of building performance? Forward compliance monitoring is already a major criticism of LEED. Imagine the implications of verifying some level of required occupancy in a LEED or other green-rated home.

Of course, this whole discussion inevitably veers toward value judgments about what free-spending Americans should be allowed to build, and really, what sort of lifestyle they can lead and still call themselves environmentally responsible. Some would call this sort of questioning a slippery slope and perhaps less than productive in terms of the greater good. So if we focus on the building and not the building’s owner, we’re really back to the basic argument: are green-rated Mega Houses to be tolerated for now in the interest of moving green building forward or are they a step in exactly the wrong direction regardless of their efficiency?

Susan Brautovich is a LEED AP and reformed serial remodeler.  She now, an outsourced marketing service for green and clean technology products.

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5 responses

  1. Personally, I do not care for the idea of living in a mega-home, but I am happy that the idea of incorporating sustainable features in those homes is taking place. It allows for product development, and as demand grows, then we can see these features added to affordable housing. On the topic of sq ft/person, I feel that we are too concerned with holding onto and increasing our material goods as a society. I would like to see the idea of the “per person” values applied more in discussions dealing with evaluating sustainable structures in building science. I think that such a direction may cause us to innovate further.

  2. Actually, in terms of reducing energy use for heating/cooling, a larger house is easier to do simply because it has a relatively smaller surface area to volume ratio. A vole requires a helluva lot more calories per gram of body weight to keep warm than an elephant. Not that I’m supporting mega-palaces, just pointing out some of the physics…

  3. Missing from this is where that giant or small home is located. Do inhabitants need to drive everywhere or can they walk, bike or use nearby public transit? Does that giant yard produce food or provide wildlife habitat or recreational space for the neighborhood? No home is an island, no matter how large or small.

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