Thursday, January 19, 2006

Monuments to sanctimony

If you grew up and/or socialize in a certain "caste," oh, you know the type.
In North Carolina, the owners of a 4,600-square-foot home that cost $1.2 million wanted it to be as "green" as possible, so they spent $120,000 on solar power.

In Colorado, using recycled materials, an architecture professor built a 4,700-square-foot home that uses geothermal heating and cooling and was on the market recently for $930,000.

And in Southern California, a husband-and-wife architect team who say that they "came of age during the '60s and '70s at U.C. Berkeley" also relied on recycled materials--in building a second home six hours from their primary residence.

By now these environmentally conscious "green" houses are a staple of home design magazines, where they are presented as exemplars of both good taste and good intentions. The Colorado house, for instance, has won awards from the state and the Colorado Renewable Energy Society and has appeared in the Washington Post and on Home and Garden TV.

The question, of course, is what on earth are all these people thinking? How "green" can huge and, in many cases, isolated houses be? Wouldn't it be better to risk traumatizing the children by squeezing into a 3,000-square-foot home, especially one close to shopping, schools and work? How many less affluent, less guilt-ridden Americans can afford to build such environmental show houses?
Boomers wallowing in their own vanity. Savory.
These houses aren't just ridiculous; they're monuments to sanctimony. If architecture is frozen music, these places are congealed piety, demonstrating with embarrassing concreteness the glaring hypocrisy of upper-class environmentalism. The sad thing is that, by pouring so much money into ostentatious eco-design, the people who built homes like this have purchased status at the cost of doing some real environmental good.
If you've taken these sensible steps toward living in a truly greenish house--or better yet, a condo, God forbid--you can use some of the ample money you saved in ways that are more likely to do some good. You could give it to a land conservancy, for instance, which will preserve open space by buying it outright. If you're worried about global warming, organizations such as will use your money to reduce carbon emissions, however modestly, by subsidizing wind power, methane capture from landfills and other such ventures. Or you could simply house another family; just take the cost difference between the 4,500-square-foot enviro-palace and a comfortable house half its size and give the savings to an outfit like Habitat for Humanity.

Or you can just forget the whole thing and add on to your own place. But if you do, make sure to harvest all the social approbation you can, like the architect in Venice, Calif., who is described as "a staunch proponent of green design" by Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne in an excerpt from their book "The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture." Squeezed like sardines into a mere 2,500 square feet, the architect and his family expanded their home to 4,400. The sustainably harvested wood, solar panels and parabolic collector to focus the sun's rays must have cost a fortune, but perhaps that's why they call it "green."
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