Looking Ahead: The Next 10 Years of Green Building

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Photo Courtesy Oberlin College
David Orr oversaw the design and construction of the $7.2 million Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, described by The New York Times as "the most remarkable" of a new generation of college buildings and by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of 30 "milestone buildings" of the 20th century. The solar-powered building shares its excess energy with the community.

To mark Natural Home‘s 10th anniversary, we asked as visionary group of architects and educators to predict what will happen to housing over the next decade. The insights they share are surprisingly full of optimism, creativity and hope.

Our Panelists:

Gil Friend, President and Chief Executive Officer, Natural Logic 

Pliny Fisk, Fellow, Center for Housing and Urban Development; Fellow, Sustainable Urbanism Center for Healthy Systems Design; Co-director, Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems

Sarah Susanka, Architect and best-selling author, The Not So Big House series (The Taunton Press)

David W. Orr, Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Senior Adviser to the President, Oberlin College; Author of five books, including Design on the Edge: The Making of a High-Performance Building (The MIT Press, 2006)

Michelle Kaufmann, Founder and Chairman, Michelle Kaufmann Designs; Author, PreFab Green (Gibbs Smith, 2009)

Sergio Palleroni, Professor and Fellow, Center for Sustainable Processes and Practices, Portland State University; Author, Studio at Large: Architecture in Service of Global Communities (University of Washington Press, 2004)

NH: How do you think housing will change in the next 10 years?

DAVID ORR: There are going to be two major revolutions in the next 10 years. One is that the quality of construction is going to change because of rising fuel costs and an influx of better technology for housing. Building a net-zero house is now a reality.

The second thing is the layout and design of communities. Fuel costs are going to drive people back into inner city areas, and I think suburban sprawl will be a thing of the past. We’re seeing that now.

SARAH SUSANKA:  I think that the biggest changes we’re going to see are that what we now call “green” or “sustainable” design will automatically be part of the mix. Putting in a good furnace or additional insulation is just going to be one of the basics. One of the things driving that is the public catching on that it makes a big difference to how big their utility bills are. But I think it’s just going to become completely normal.

From my perspective, good design is going to be fundamental. In my mind, good design comes with smaller and better designed. Tailored rather than lots of space without much definition. All of the things we’re seeing in computer-aided design that allows people to have a sense of what a house is going to look like before it’s done will give people better tools for assessing what makes sense.

Beauty matters. Beauty is one of the most sustainable things you can do. People are gradually realizing that if something is beautiful and it inspires them, they and future generations are going to look after it. The mindset of looking into the future and realizing that what we build today needs to last for the long haul is really starting to sink in. 

SERGIO PALLERONI: I think housing is going to get more regionalized. Too much of housing is driven by prototypes that are supposed to apply nationwide. Increasingly, sustainability is driving us to understand local issues and opportunities, both in how buildings perform and with changing economics. Consider regional materials. So I think we’re going to get a greater diversity in housing than anything else.

We’re also going to get more influence from across borders. You’re already seeing that in the way the publications are going. Housing in America has always been influenced by America itself, but you’re going to see more influence from Europe and looking at what other people are doing. We’re getting more serious about looking at other examples because of a sharing of issues.  We need potential models for these economics, energy and resource issues. 

GIL FRIEND: Housing size will probably shrink, and housing will get more efficient. There’s going to be significant growth in energy-efficient, water-efficient and resource-efficient housing -the markets are going to demand it. We’re already seeing a call for zero net energy footprint homes, and even zero net water homes. 

One of the really potentially interesting things happening now is a growth in thinking about how buildings are living systems. And not just as boxes plopped on the landscape, but as living systems participating in living systems. Housing not just to zero out its’ impact, but see housing as regenerative element on the landscape. A net producer of value: energy, water, food and enjoying well being. 

MICHELLE KAUFMANN: Over the past 15 to 20 years, so many people have been thinking about homes as quick investments, with two-year flips. People have been buying homes, doing the quick remodel (mainly with the priorities of low cost materials that will look good for open house day), and then selling them. We have almost been thinking of homes as disposable. Those days are over (and thank goodness for that!)

People are now thinking about homes as long-term dwellings. This inherently leads to more sustainable choices that are based on long-term costs versus upfront costs, choosing materials and systems that are long-lasting, timeless in beauty, and smart in design. We are going to start thinking and talking about the cost of homes in a more real way–which for most people is about their monthly bills rather than upfront sticker cost.

Because, for most people who don’t pay cash upfront, it is about the monthly bills: monthly mortgage and monthly water and energy bills. Once we start thinking and talking about costs in that very real way, sustainable green homes are seen as costing less, and we start making smarter choices. I think this is really exciting. 

NH: How should it change?

SERGIO PALLERONI:  Housing should be focusing on local conditions and economies. Of course, there’s this drag because it is hard to shift systems. Things are not moving as fast as I’d like them to, but we’re beginning to see the old models change. We’re beginning to realize that in some climates certain ideas don’t work–and don’t necessarily need to work. 

I’d like to see the current crisis of the environment and economics be a call for people to step outside of their homes and look at the environment in which they live in. I’d like people to see their home as being 50 percent of the solution, with the surrounding landscape and gardens as the other half of the solution. Then you’ll discover a more dynamic relationship between inside and outside. Then we’ll be tapping into the potential of the site and the landscape to solve part of the problem.

If we do really well, we’ll begin to look at housing heuristically again. We’ll design the house and the city together. We’ll look at it as “home-site-city” or “home-site-rural landscape”–all designed together at the same time. We’ve been creating these self-regulating boxes, which essentially isolate us from our environment and our communities. We really need to dispel that paradigm and move totally in the other direction. 

GIL FRIEND: Things people have been talking about for decades: Housing should be appropriate to place and tailored to ambient flows of energy, water and air. We need to shift from minimizing damage to how we grow regenerative capacity, resilience and beauty. How do we enrich the experience of people living in the housing? Houses should come alive: living houses and living cities. 

DAVID ORR: The changes mentioned are changes that should happen and are long overdue. After World War II, it became harder for minority populations in inner city areas to afford housing. Money flowed outside to green field areas, and the result was that, plus cheap energy, made suburban sprawl a reality. 

I hope with this new administration we’ll see more use of light rail and inner city train connections. The city of Portland recently rediscovered trolleys, and their use has been very successful up there. I hope to see trains become a part of daily life in the next decade or two. 

MICHELLE KAUFMANN: Some good that can come out of this housing crisis is that what we, as sustainable designers, have been wanting to happen, actually will happen, out of necessity. People are feeling the financial end of the reality that we do not have endless resources (money, energy, water). And that is now going to translate to people wanting green homes out of financial necessity. 

SARAH SUSANKA: I tend to be very optimistic, and I believe that when we put our minds to something, it happens. What should happen is what will happen. We just need the right mindset. That’s how change happens. 

PLINY FISK: Housing needs to become adaptive to the region and place, and resilient to diversity of culture and particular family needs. From an industry standpoint it needs to be Designed for Manufacturing (DfM), and industry protocol that forces you to think from the start about how you are going to make something–what the tools are, the manufacturing technique. In the past, this has been very intuitive (i.e. a chisel does this, and a bandsaw that), but because we’re faced with such a large housing crisis all over the world, we really have to develop a low-cost, high-performance method of meeting demand. Hopefully, in a truly eco-industrial environment, we will build homes that are understood as much by the users as the designers/engineers. We can no longer afford to one off, popcorn-style a bunch of cool ideas that go nowhere.

From an environmental point of view, houses need to be Designed for Disassembly (DfD) so that massive reuse of resources can take place.

NH: What roadblocks or obstacles are blocking progress? How do we remove them?

DAVID ORR: I think the big roadblocks are political. In the 1930s, GM, Firestone and a few other companies got together to buy up the light rail systems around the country and put them out of business. They were fined a token amount by the courts. That political clout existed without a break until just very recently. It is how the oil and auto industry, and all of the ancillary industries such as auto parts, insurance and roadside facilities survived. This political clout has been studied for the better part of the 20th century. Now in the 21st century, with the auto industry on its knees, it’s possible, I think, to forge a very different political dynamic. Put the public interest first, for the long term, in place of corporate, private interest. 

SERGIO PALLERONI: The obstacle of practice, how we do things. It’s so hard to get people to change the way they do things. How do we get a professional culture to be willing to understand that it’s not working and we really need to rethink everything? It really is a change of mindset.  There are so many technologies that are promising right now, for which there need to be changes. But I also believe there are technologies that haven’t been discovered because we haven’t gotten into the frame of mind to understand what technology will be most effective. Half of it is a technological issue, half is human behavior. 

We can solve half the environmental issues overnight if we could just get people to act differently. 

SARAH SUSANKA:  The biggest obstacles I’ve seen are apathy and fear that our problems are too big to solve. I hear this from architects, from homeowners, from builders. They are all waiting for the other to act. For example, I have builders saying, “If I don’t have clients coming to me asking for green features, I can’t really do them on my own.” So homeowners say they can’t find a builder who knows how to do this. The biggest challenge is connecting people together who have the same desire and vision so they can implement these ideas. That is happening more now than it has anytime in the past. So I think the biggest obstacle is really not being able to find the right people to support your vision. They’re there; we just have to be better connectors. 

GIL FRIEND: In the short term, the roadblock is this financial meltdown (that you may have heard about!), which is affecting credit and the ability to collect capital to do things people already know need to be done, or the things that might be financially attractive. But that will unlock, and the market will readjust at some period of time.

The first major roadblock is habit and “we’ve always done it this way” and the limitations of people’s experience. Just not knowing what to do, or how to do it, or what to ask for is one obstacle.

A second big obstacle is the widely pervasive assumption that greening will cost money. In our circles people don’t think that, but in most of the world, people do. Analysts think that because they want to delay pressures for greening; government thinks that because they want to use tax money to incentivize people to do good green things; and environmental organizations believe that because they are telling businesses to be a little less profitable to benefit the Earth. All three of these groups, which disagree on so many things, agree on this one notion that green costs money. And it’s positively just not true, but people assume it’s true. So this becomes a barrier and delaying factor in making the investments in green that need to happen.

The third obstacle is the way the market distorts prices and values. With a society that is paying far less that the true cost of energy, economic decisions get distorted. We, in effect, are subsidizing fossil fuels so we are able to build communities that are dependent on cheap energy prices in a way that we think we couldn’t if we were paying the real price. Whether through cap and trade or carbon taxes or removal of subsides from fossil fuels, we have to get to the other side. In so many ways, it’s the core of what we face. Rational actors in a market can’t make intelligent decisions if the prices are distorted. As long as prices stay distorted, we’re going to be pushing boulders uphill forever.  

MICHELLE KAUFMANN: The three key drivers for us in our work are: to make thoughtful, sustainable design; to make it accessible to not take additional time or cost; and to be easier for our clients. 

Education is still a key element. Options are still confusing in the marketplace. There is a lot of greenwashing. However, there are also a lot of good products and smart systems. Educating people to help them know what questions to ask, know what elements to look for, is critical to help people make the best choices. 

NH:  In looking at the issues surrounding energy, water, food and resources, which problems need to be solved first?

SARAH SUSANKA: I don’t think we can prioritize. My belief about how things change is all of us in our culture play different roles, like a big orchestra. You don’t ask which instruments do we have play in the orchestra first. The fact is that a violin may start, but then the cellos, oboes and clarinets come in at their appointed moment and they are all making music together. Follow what your heart tells you to do. There are a lot of people today who feel inspired to act and want to serve in some way to make a better world. Do what you feel most inspired by. That’s your part in the orchestra.

There’s a book by Glenn Croston, 75 Green Businesses You Can Start, that is an absolute must to help define what you can do. 

DAVID ORR: Those things are all related. Energy is central to all of the others, and central to the prospect of rapid climate change. With the energy subsides, we have to shift them from fossil fuels, from coal, nuclear and natural gas, to level the playing field to favor of solar and wind and efficiency. The challenge right now for Obama is to make this very careful calibration between stimulating the economy and starting the new green economy. 

The problem is that we’re riding two deficits. One is the climate deficit and deficit in natural resources, placing 5.7 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. Second is the financial hole we’ve dug. Obama’s challenge is to solve the second, but in a way that doesn’t compound the first. That would be a disaster and provide only short-term relief, but it wouldn’t solve the longer term problem.

So we need to prioritize those things and make the transition to higher energy costs and to a renewable energy economy. Here in Ohio, we’re no longer going to import food from California in the age of high costs of fossil fuels, which we can no longer burn with impunity anyway. We might have to rediscover agriculture here in Ohio. At one time there were 300,000 farms in Ohio; we’re down to 70,000. We need to rebuild local food capability.

To do that we need to focus on water. A recent book by Jim Powell entitled Dead Pool talks about climate change and the Southwest. One of the challenges for people in the Southwest is probably not solvable. In the current climate change scenarios, that area becomes dead pools without water and the water to generate electricity. People will be forced to leave that valley similarly to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. People will have to move where water is; it’s pretty difficult to move water around. 

SERGIO PALLERONI:  I’m a firm believe that water is the biggest issue we have, but I travel from the developing world back to the developed world where we seem to have an abundance of water. We really need to think of water as this resource that is worldwide, and that permeates, transpires and is shared worldwide. That is a huge challenge; a United Nations-level challenge. How do we deal with water resources around the globe when we’re so good at polluting it?

The energy crisis is one of trying to figure out transitional strategies until we can figure out the bigger energy issues. We are big consumers, so how do we come up with a strategy between that allows us to not muck everything up, while we figure out the big solutions. Solar power, wind energy, clean technologies need to work in a way that is long term and sustainable. The intermediate solutions worry me. The long-term solutions are there, but can we survive in time between the long term solutions and where we are now?  

MICHELLE KAUFMANN: Water. Definitely water. So many people refuse to believe that fresh water is going to become a scarce resource. It is important that we as designers, builders and homeowners start addressing solutions before it is too late and becomes a significant problem. 

GIL  FRIEND:  There’s a problem in the question. The question presumes these are separate things. In the system we live within, these are not separate matters, there are no boundaries between them. In human economies, even in looking at water you’ve got to pump it, heat it, treat it…that accounts for 19 percent of electricity use in California. So the water issue is an energy issue.

Integrated approaches that look at these as aspects of a single system, rather than separate problems to be solved, consistently produce better results, better incentives, better designs. The problem that needs to be solved first is how do we find ways of integratingly solving what seems to be separate problems. 

NH:  How will sustainability play into the future of housing?

MICHELLE KAUFMANN: It is no longer a question if people want a green home or not. They do. They want lower energy bills, lower water bills and healthy environments for their families.  But it is not easy to find the solutions. It needs to be easier and more accessible. That is what we are trying to address. 

DAVID ORR: We’ll have to become much more technically sophisticated, on one level, and much simpler and smaller at another level. We’re not going to be able to afford homes of 3,000 or 4,000 square feet in the new climate-changed world of the 21st century. I think what is possible is to begin to build housing that is much more condensed, designed to be elegant, but not lavish, and powered by sunlight. 

I think we need to give a lot of priority to housing clusters, taking the New Urbanism plan and putting it on speed, in effect. We’ve gone through this century of centrifugual expansion, and now I think the logic of climate change causes this centripetal contraction toward condensed communities, more vibrant downtowns and small town revision. The idea of a 5-acre estate and 4,000-square-foot house with riding lawnmowers is no longer affordable (as much as we probably never could afford it!).

That is why it is great to see a magazine like Natural Home, rather than replicating a green version of Better Homes and Gardens, discuss these issues, as that’s no longer the world we live in. The magazine could represent a world in which we rebuild community, prosperity, sustainable economy and more localized economies.

The driver for this has got to be the economic crisis we’re in, likely to affect things for at least a few years. It’s clear markets are going to shift dramatically. Housing markets are going to play catch up to reality. Some of the most exciting developments I see are moving toward more high-performance housing. 

SARAH SUSANKA: It will just become as much a part of how we think about building as we select the materials we use to build it. It will be part and parcel with making a good house, and absolutely integral.

Being “not so big” should be the first step in sustainability. And I’m not just talking about size, I’m talking about the whole sensibility of recognizing: what are our true needs and how do we accommodate those effectively, without being ostentatious and without going over the top? That mentality is at the root of true sustainability.

SERGIO PALLERONI: The house of the future will be an extension of both human intelligence and the environment outside: an adaptable membrane between two living systems. It will engage with the local conditions in a way we will become part of. That’s the science fiction vision! But the truth of what we are trying to do right now is to arrive at a home that allows us to understand better the environment we live in. It doesn’t just function better, but helps us to understand and operate as an integral part of the environment. In the end, it is a philosophical approach that we must undertake. How do we get buildings to be part of that transparency to appreciate where we live? Wow, I sound like a Californian! 

GIL FRIEND: Sustainability is at the core of the future of housing. These patterns naturally show up in housing of all types as it starts to move down market from where it started. It can have profound effects on the economics and the affordability of housing. Over the next few years is it going to be the competitive differentiator that going to draw capital and draw permitting and draw customers, much more effectively than housing that doesn’t deal with this issue. It’s a gradual, imperfect and fitful process, but it’s going to happen. Look at the health of the green building market right now in the middle of the housing meltdown. We see how quickly highly rated residential properties have sold compared to others over the past several years.  

NH: Are you hopeful for the future? Why?

MICHELLE KAUFMANN: I am absolutely hopeful for the future, especially with the goals of this administration. Five years from now, I do not believe we will be talking about “green.” That will just be how we build and how we live. 

SARAH SUSANKA: Very hopeful! Over and over again in the course of my life, I’ve wondered how something is going to happen, and then I’ve seen it happen. At the time, things seemed impossible, because of the prevalent mindset. Things shift very rapidly. Just witness at what has happened with the Obama presidency. Things don’t happen the way we think they do; they’re not nearly as linear as we imagine. When there’s a will to change, change happens. And I think there is that will right now. You can feel it.

DAVID ORR:  Optimism is the recognition that the odds are in your favor; hope is the faith that things will work out whatever the odds. Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. I know of no good reason for anyone to be optimistic about the human future, but I know a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

How can one be optimistic, for example, about global warming? Optimism in these circumstances is like whistling while walking past the graveyard at midnight. There is no good case to be made for it but the sound of whistling sure beats the sound of rustling in the bushes beside the fence. But whistling does not change the probabilities one iota or much influence any lurking goblins.

But sometimes optimism misleads, and on occasion badly so. This is where hope enters. Hope, however, requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions.

Finally, I am an educator and earn my keep by perpetuating the quaint belief that if people only knew more they would act better. We have it on high authority that the truth will set us free from illusion, greed and ill will, and perhaps with a bit of luck it will save us from self-imposed destruction. 

SERGIO PALLERONI: I am hopeful for the future because I deal with the hopeful end, since I teach and deal with the young. There’s no room for not being hopeful. I see in China, or Latin America, or Africa, or India, a real, sincere concern for the environment placed at the top of all issues. There’s a worldwide and growing concern for this. We’re all there. How do we take that one step further and make legislation to support this?

Another thing that makes me hopeful is that this new administration is much more willing to move beyond the boundaries and establish disciplinary political and social boundaries. There has to be a mutual collaboration and exchange, a transdisciplinary and transpolitical boundary of government. You really see it in this next generation. That makes me hopeful. Of course, I’m a born optimist, so that always makes me hopeful!

I work with the poorest people as my collaborators, and I see that solutions can emerge even in places there are no resources and political isolation. Places where people have been traditionally alienated and taken out of the political process. Despite all these things, people are arriving at solutions to transform their lives and make them part of the sustainable future of the world. If we can do it for the very poor, we certainly can do it with all of our education and resources that we have in this country. 

GIL FRIEND: I am hopeful and concerned. Hopeful because I am a congenital optimist, which is not only naive optimism but also as an observer of the human experience and the process of technical and social innovation. I am hopeful because I see a significant and rapid uptake in understanding of sustainability issues and a commitment to them. I am optimistic because cap and trade is going to be coming online in California next year. We have a new administration in Washington that seems to get these issues and judging by appointments like [Energy Secretary] Steven Chu, indicates there is going be some serious, science based attention to these issues. 

I am concerned because humans have displayed a remarkable ability to ignore evidence sitting right in front of their faces. There are still these extremely powerful economic interests that benefit from the old ways of doing things. So while we’re looking at changes that are a net benefit to society as a whole, there will be (as there always are) winners and losers, and the losers are going to resist. As a society, we’re going to have to come up with, not only, technical innovations, but with social, economic and political innovations to neutralize that opposition. In many ways, those are going to be more difficult than the technical issues. But the force of history is clearly in our direction.

Eric Corey Freed is an architect and principal of organicARCHITECT, with offices in San Francisco and Palm Springs. He is the author of four books, including Green Building & Remodeling for Dummies. He loves to sit around tables picking the brains of people much smarter than himself.