Green-Built Homes of the Future. Some Are Unusual, Some Downright Traditional


What will the energy-efficient house of the future look like?  The Wall Street Journal recently ran an extensive article which speculates about this very subject, much of which is repeated below.  While it is an excellent piece, some of the ideas discussed in the article as possibilities ran to the absurd.  For example, take a look at these rather extreme examples:


One of these homes mimics trees and the other purports to be edible.

These futuristic homes may have gardens on their walls or ponds stocked with fish for dinner. They might mimic trees, turning sunlight into energy and carbon dioxide into oxygen. Or perhaps they will be more like chameleons, changing  color to suit the weather and healing itself when damaged.

Those are just a handful of the possibilities that emerged from this exercise in futurism. The Wall Street Journal asked four architects to design an energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable house without regard to cost, technology, aesthetics or the way we are used to living.  So, basically the way most architects do things anyway.

The idea was not to design anything impossible or unlikely, mitigating the more extreme examples that might have come forth, like antigravity living rooms. Instead, the architects were to think of technology that might be possible in the next few decades.  The participating architects came up with houses which are edible and others which mimic trees; so much for eliminating the unlikely.

To the extent that a fresh look at the design of homes is long overdue, I agree with the architects who participated.  This must be considered, especially in light of the impact homes have on the environment.  It is houses – buildings actually – that use a tremendous amount of our energy; electricity, heating and water consumption. The US Energy Department estimates that buildings are responsible for 39% of our energy consumption and a similar percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions.

That people finally understand this helps explain why green building is exploding,  even as the economy struggles and home-building is at its lowest level in a generation.  So, how will the green homes of tomorrow help solve the energy puzzle?  The WSJ article provides a gander into the future.

Out on a Limb

“I’d love to build a house like a tree,” says architect William McDonough of the Charlottesville, Va., firm William McDonough + Partners. And that’s what he set out to do here.

The surface of his house, like a leaf, contains a photosynthetic layer that captures sunlight. Unlike today’s solar panels, which are often pasted above a roofline, these are woven into the fabric of the exterior. They heat water and generate electricity for the home — and create oxygen for the atmosphere, to offset carbon produced in other areas of the home.

home-grown The appeal of ultrathin, integrated solar panels goes beyond convenience. Solar is plain ugly and off-putting to many homeowners, something McDonough calls the “potpourri of miscellany stuck on our roofs.” Unseen solar arrays, especially ones that create hot water, will be a “breakthrough from aesthetic perspective, which is a huge issue,” he says.

As for the rest of the design, McDonough envisions a sleek, curved roof with generous eaves to provide shade, which lowers the heat load in summer, thereby reducing the need for energy-hogging air conditioning. The roof also insulates and provides an outdoor garden. (McDonough designed a similar “green roof” for a Ford Motor Co. factory — one of the first large US buildings with that design.)

The “bark” of the treelike house would be thin, insulating films that would self-clean and self-heal, McDonough says, thus avoiding the need to replace them after years of exposure to the elements.

It sounds far-fetched, but some of these technologies already exist. Self-cleaning glass, for instance, has a special coating that uses ultraviolet sunlight to break down organic dirt; rainwater then washes the filth away.

Self-healing paints that contain microscopic capsules of color are in use on some car paint, for instance. These vessels break open when the surface of the paint is scratched to repair the damage. Similar ideas could expand to repair materials such as glass or cladding.  More details are contained in the WSJ article.

The Reptile House

If the previous house is a tree, this one is a lizard, whose skin is among its most important features for survival.  Cook + Fox’s house has a “biomorphic” skin that reacts to the weather, turning dark in the bright sun to insulate the house from heat and turning clear on dark days to absorb as much light and heat as possible.

connecting-people-nature The façade also captures rain and condensation to fill the home’s water needs much like a desert-dwelling lizard rolls drops of dew from its nose to its mouth.

The house of the future will look toward nature’s way of solving problems as much as it looks to technology, a concept called biomimicry. “You need to view a house as a surface area for life, as opposed to a thing to be power-washed,” he says.

Cook + Fox is well known for its green designs. Its biggest green project is the New York headquarters of Bank of America, which is known as One Bryant Park.

The sculpted white-glass tower, Manhattan’s second-tallest after the Empire State Building, creates massive ice blocks in the evening when electricity is cheapest. As the “ice batteries” melt, they are used to cool the building during times of peak electricity loads during the day.

The Cook + Fox house has a modern look, but it’s designed to fit into a traditional neighborhood setting.  Inside, rooms are easily configurable for lounging or work. Walls and furniture are on rollers, for instance, to take advantage of the fact that some spaces, such as bedrooms, are underutilized most of the day.

What’s more, toilets and washrooms are separated, serving more people with less space. Making a house that’s more conducive to work is important for energy efficiency because it eliminates driving — and thus reduces energy consumption.  Refer to the WSJ article for additional details.

Meals at Home

Rios Clementi Hale Studios cheekily calls their concept the “Incredible Edible House.”  Come on.  Really?  This somewhat fantastical design seems to be as much about the future of food production as architecture. The façade of the three-story abode is slathered in a vertical garden that includes chickpeas, tomatoes, arugula and green tea. Step outside in the morning and harvest your meals.

The plants both nourish the inhabitants and provide shade and cooling, absorbing heat better than a wall made of wood, brick, stucco or glass.

cook-fox-house Rios Clementi Hale, based in Los Angeles, has a reputation for playful and innovative designs. Its best-known works include the angular red, ochre and green-striped campus of the California Endowment in downtown Los Angeles.

But the plants aren’t the only striking feature of the design. At three stories, the edible house is also more vertical than the typical suburban home, a nod to the importance of building dense, urban-style houses in order to reduce energy use. A rooftop reservoir collects water and keeps the building cool; rooftop windmills generate energy.

The house is also put together in an intriguing way: It’s made of three prefabricated containers stacked on top of each other that can be moved on a trailer if the mood fits. This method exists today, but it’s not used very much, since homeowners associate prefabrication with lower-end homes.

But the benefits for lowering energy use are substantial. The standardized construction in prefabricated homes reduces defects that can hamper energy conservation. And it’s easier to ship prefabricated parts, which means reduced fuel use for deliveries.

Learning From the Past

Looking to the future isn’t the only way to be innovative. The house from architect Steve Mouzon, of Mouzon Design in Miami Beach, Florida, uses tomorrow’s technologies while mining ancient techniques to reduce energy use.

For instance, solar paneling built directly into the roof and façade provides electricity and hot water. But the house also employs a “breeze chimney,” an architectural tool used by the ancients, as a kind of old-school air conditioning.

The difference between the air pressure in the chimney and outside causes hot air to flow out of the chimney stack and cooler air to enter through windows and doors.

“It must make sense first,” says Mouzon, a so-called New Urbanist architect who believes in traditional designs that emphasize pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. His house “isn’t trying to do wild and wacky things with roof shapes or wall shapes but a good sensible building that is highly lovable. It is inventive where it needs to be.”

Like Rios Clementi Hale, Mouzon sees the house as a source of food. He would add “melon cradles,” an invention he says he thought up for this project, to allow heavy melons and other vegetables to grow vertically up the sides of his house.

Another of his innovative ideas would require Americans to do more than just feed the goldfish bowl: He would install tilapia pools in a “kitchen garden” to provide fresh fish to the homeowner. It’s among the most energy-efficient ways to raise animal protein, Mouzon says.

But the most important order for Mouzon is to make the house compact. “The smaller thing you can create, the more sustainable it is.”

In fact, that’s something that all four of our architects agree on: Americans need to learn to live in smaller spaces if we are going to make an impact on the environment.

Lexington Park at Rice Field – Green Built Homes in Downtown Plano  by Lexington Luxury Builders

I have a slightly different angle on the future of green building and sustainable design, and mine is decidedly simpler than any of those mentioned above.  I’m going to build sustainably designed, green-built homes that look precisely like any other home in the marketplace.  I think that Americans absolutely love the idea of buying energy efficient, green built homes, but they are horribly afraid of those homes looking…unusual.  Or even downright funky.  Green built homes don’t have to look funky or unusual.  In fact, they needn’t look any different than any other home, and I believe that the green building movement will meet much wider acceptance when designers and builders reach this conclusion.  This is what our green built homes look like.  Visit Lexington Park at Rice Field to learn more.  The Heritage Townhomes at Lexington Park are now available for purchase from $249,000 and for lease with rental rates ranging from $1,350 to $1,995 per month.

Lexington Park at Rice Field by Lexington Luxury Builders

by Scott Schaefer, Certified Green Building Professional

Excerpts from The Green House of the Future – by Alex Frangos