Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Greenest Home on the Block?

In the summer issue of The Atlantic I came across an article titled Xanadu: A california couple seeks to build the world's greenest home. The article enumerates the many high-tech gadgets, monitoring systems, and solar panels used to make this house one of the greenest on the block. And it only cost the owners about 2 to 5 percent more than the average home in the area. Incredible! Oh wait, turns out they are rich folks from silicone valley where the average home costs $5 million dollars. Also turns out their super-fancy-greener-than-thou home is an exurban 5,600 square foot compound. But their pool contains no chlorine and their five electric cars are charged by solar energy and their climate, lighting and irrigation is controlled by iPad and they tore down the fences so all the nice deer can wander unhindered through their property and eat the native flowers. Wowsers!

The occupants say they built the home "to edify others and inspire them to build sustainable, regenerative houses", but this type of so-called inspiration probably does more harm than good to people looking to make their lives more sustainable.

It sends the message that to be green you have to move out of the city, become a technocrat, and spend a fortune to build a sprawling McGreension. In reality, living in dense urban neighbourhoods, in smaller apartments or row-houses, biking or using transit, spending some money for good insulation, and buying less manufactured crap is greener than this Xanadu house will ever be. I mean, they're going to have to fill that 5,600 square feet with something.

Of course, the green economy must love houses like this because it provides a home for all their manufactured technically-advanced goods. Hardly any airtime is given in our capitalist society to the fact that living more sustainably means acquiring less stuff. And yes, that even applies to stuff like solar-charged electric cars and super fancy water monitoring systems. I don't mean we all need to live like Monks, but taking a serious look at our consumption is one of the greenest things we can do.

Xanadu houses encourage over-building and over-consumption, which are two of the things that got us into this mess in the first place. You want to know the best option for the surrounding wildlife? It's not tearing down the property fence so they can walk through, it's not building your house there at all.

This is something that is laid out well, if not a bit repetitively, in David Owen's Green Metropolis. His entire argument is that living in dense cities is about as green as you can get, and he shows this point in a number of ways. However, his argument becomes hypocritical once we learn that Owen himself lives out in the country in a large poorly insulated old house with only his wife (the explanation being that if he moved out of that house into the city, someone else would end up living there and probably be not as green conscious as him--a pretty piss poor argument).

Regardless, his points are well made. Houses, like the Xanadu house, discourage and breed apathy amongst would-be green homeowners because it makes sustainability some unattainable feat reserved for only the super-rich with their digital toys when, in reality, the little old lady who walks to the grocery store from her apartment is leaps and bounds ahead in living green and probably doesn't even know it.


  1. Are you pissed off at them because they have money, because that's the impression I get from this article.

    Deer will still come around and shit on their lawn and eat their garden. Birds will still chirp and squirrels will be busy as always, fucking away. The fact that they have the money to spend, and chose to spend it on gadgets that will reduce their ecological foot print says a lot.
    Is it bigger then they require? Yes. Is the technology which reduces their foot print not-so-friendly? Sure.
    At least they're making the effort - More then can be said by white trash walmart visiting hicks claiming to spend less money by getting everything they need in one shop.

    If I had their money, there isn't a chance in hell i'd set up shop in row housing. Neither would you.

    Every time the city of North Vancouver or Poqo expand they encroach further and further into the hills and surrounding areas, displacing wildlife and clear cutting everything in sight. It's a big country we're living in. There's no shortage of space to set up home, whether you make 30k a year or 55000k.


  2. Max, you make some good points, but I'm not pissed at the fact they have money. It's that these houses are being upheld now as the ultimate examples.

    Making these monster green homes the inspiration for others gives the impression that the only way to be truly sustainable is to spend lots of money on fancy infrastructure far away from the city. I agree that if they're going to build a mansion, this is probably the best one, but it should not sit as an example of how people can live more sustainable lives. Maybe those "white trash wal-mart visiting hicks" would be more inclined to have greener housing if they saw examples of it that were for them. Being green doesn't need to take money. That's the point.

    If I had their money though, I would still be living in the middle of an urban neighbourhood, whether that was in an apartment or a street front condo, because that's the way I like to live. I don't need five cars, electric or not.

    And it's also not about having enough space. In Canada, space we have. It's that every time a community sprawls it puts public services and infrastructure under strain, from sewage to roads. Basically, it's not just environmentally unfriendly to sprawl, but expensive. We're still going to grow out, but we should consider growing in and up along with that.