Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Super Green" Lake of the Isles Bungalow

Today's Star Tribune has an interesting article about a Lake of the Isles LEED Platinum home. It's an interesting story, and it's an attractive house, but the more I read the more I started to wonder about how "green" we can really consider a project of this sort. First, let me admit that I don't know the details. As of right now all of my information is coming from the Star Tribune article. So please, if you have updates, go ahead and post them. All that said, let's get into the issue. First, some basic points drawn from the article:
  • This is a new home. And more significantly, it's not just a new home: it's a new home sitting on a lot that was, until recently, housing its original 1926 bungalow.
  • Hicks is quoted as saying she had intended to "fix" the original house, but "when she discovered how much it would cost to fix what needed to be fixed, including the foundation, the electricity, the plumbing, and the outdated 6-by 12-foot kitchen with three doorways, Hicks decided it made more sense to build a new house -- one that didn't look new."
  • The original house was "just under" 2000 square feet; the new home is 3,300 square feet, including the finished basement. The new space does, however, cost only one quarter of what the original did to heat.
  • Final quote from the architect: "you should be able to take any style house and make it green."

I tend to be firmly on the side of historic preservation, but at the same time readily acknowledge that not every house can or should be saved. But this article really has me wondering: did the original house REALLY need to be destroyed? Maybe it did; I don't know the extent of what needed to be fixed. And I know it's not fair to start questioning without having all the details. But I'm always wary whenever people start throwing around things like "fixing" a small kitchen. A dangerous foundation or broken plumbing or other serious issues might indeed need fixing, but throw in mention of a small kitchen and my skepticism radar starts going up. Did all of those things really need to be fixed? Was the house in such bad shape that it required demolition? Sometimes houses do, and that's part of a neighborhood's evolution. But it's also true that there's a history of wealthy homeowners out there who want a house that looks old, but they don't really want the older house. They want the big kitchen, the enlarged square footage, and yes, the added energy efficiency and other similar perks. I don't have a problem with that, as long as they're not tearing down existing homes that don't need to be torn down. And by "need" I don't just mean they need to have a kitchen with an island. And if they do unnecessarily tear something down because they want a new house, then they'd better not call label themselves green. (Again, apologies to Jennifer Hicks, as I don't know if this applies to her situation or not.)

This isn't an attack on Jennifer Hicks or her architect; they did a nice job with the house, and it fits in well (although I'd be equally fine with a well-designed modern house, too) and shows that new construction doesn't have to look like a McMansion in Eden Prairie. I would, however, be curious to know just how uninhabitable the previous home was when she bought it. Mostly, I'm tired of reading all of the rah-rah puff pieces on LEED certified buildings and "green" consumerism. Again, not Hicks' fault, but where's the story of the many, many other people who buy existing homes? (rhetorical question: yes, I know, that doesn't make a good story. It's old news.) That's more environmentally friendly than ripping something down and building new, even if the old house was in terrible shape and the new house built to LEED platinum standards. Modern society seems to think that we can all just buy our way into "greenness;" just put up some low-VOC paint, an Energy Star refrigerator, and some bamboo flooring. All of this is great, of course, and new construction should absolutely seek to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. But all this attention on the new stuff distracts from the bigger issues. At risk of looking really grumpy, the article makes me ask: does it really make sense for one person to live in 3,300 square feet of space in the city, for one? (I wouldn't typically bring that up, but it seems a relevant question in the context of an article about a "super-green" project)

Or, when the architect says "you should be able to take any style house and make it green," I'm really not all that interested in how that works for new construction. That's fine, and someone has to be concerned about it, but the environment would be far worse off if everyone in Minneapolis rushed out to demolish their homes and build new "green" historic-looking homes in their places. It would be nice to see a bit more attention paid to existing houses retrofitted to make them as energy efficient as possible, as well as some debate or guidance over which environmental upgrades to existing properties are worth it (from a green perspective -- both the cash and the environmental kind of green) and which ones aren't. Because really, with the large number of houses already standing -- just take a look at all the empty foreclosures around (although admittedly not by Lake of the Isles) -- it's hard to get really excited about the environmental credentials of someone knocking down something old and putting up something new.

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