I was reading the Boulder County Business Report recently when an article about the "greenest home in North America" caught my eye. The house was being built to fulfill the dream of a businessman who specializes in renewable energy.
At first glance, Ronald Abramson's project, now breaking ground 10 miles north of Boulder, Colo., seemed to live up to his lofty goal. The house harvests the sun's energy through passive and active solar design; it utilizes carefully selected, earth-friendly materials. But then I noticed the elephant in the room -- the house covers 6,500 square feet.
That's nearly three times the median size for new homes in America, according to 2007 census data. For the past decade, super-sized homes have spread like dandelions across the West, testament to the outmoded consumer ethic that bigger is better -- especially if it's bigger than the Joneses. A host of derisive monickers have followed -- McMansions, Hummer homes, prairie castles, and my favorite -- humungalows.
But how can size not matter when it comes to green building? The resources required to build and furnish a larger home need to be factored in, as well as the fuel expended and pollution created to transport those resources to the site. Big homes like the Abramsons' often are built far from urban centers. The rulers of these prairie castles must therefore burn fuel to get to work or an airport. Bigger homes also require more upkeep -- think of the landscapers, housekeepers, window cleaners and dog walkers who have to commute to service the home and its occupants. Adding solar panels and cork floors to one of these mansions is a nice touch, but is this going green, or is it green-washing?
The US Green Building Council has recognized the inverse correlation of square footage and greenness, adding a new home-rating system this spring to its popular LEED (Leadership in Environmental Design) certification programs. Its system includes a "Home Size Adjustment" formula to compensate for "the over-arching effect of home size on resource consumption."
A decade ago, the term "mansionisation" didn't exist. Now, a national movement against it is gaining traction in the West. This May, the Los Angeles City Council passed new rules limiting most remodels in the city to 3,000 square feet. Seattle's planning board is currently grappling with its own home-size rules in response to a public outcry against the loss of neighborhood character.
Boulder County, where the Abramsons are building, has passed new zoning rules to limit house sizes. But, there's a loophole. Developers can exceed the limits by purchasing transferable development credits that will preserve vacant land elsewhere in the county.
In this case, Boulder was following the example set by pioneering Pitkin County, home to Aspen's bazillionaires. In 2000, the county limited the size of new homes to 5,750 square feet. Of course, for those who can afford a new home in Aspen, the $300,000 for every extra 2,500 square feet turned out to be only a minor deterrent. Mega-estates were still being built, causing Pitkin County to set an absolute maximum of 15,000 square feet a few years ago.
Transferable development rights are like the carbon offsets of the construction industry. They allow the rich to buy indulgences to ease their guilt while continuing to commit sins against the environment.
Yet a small part of me feels bad about criticizing people like the Abramsons. They are, after all, helping to advance the sustainable building movement by paying an 8-to-15 percent premium to make their mansions greener. As in the case of organic foods, as green building materials become commonplace, prices will come down, and the rest of us will be able to afford them.
Still, if they're striving to be the "greenest," I can't understand why the Abramsons couldn't make do with a more modest house, say 3,500 square feet. That would still be twice the size of the median home in America 35 years ago.
I think that the "green" McMansion symbolizes what's wrong with how Americans have faced climate change and resource devastation. Everyone's looking for the silver bullets that will allow us to carry on our consumptive lifestyles just as we always have. But to be truly green, some sacrifices have to be made, such as giving up the home theater or that fourth bay in the garage.
Monique Cole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes and tries to live small in Boulder, Colorado.