Monday, September 28, 2009

Smaller is better...I'm living proof

A recent article in the Denver Post described a recent green residence project that used all environmentally friendly materials ( low-flow water fixtures and bamboo flooring, for example) and practices (such as recycling as much construction waste as possible). The home that was profiled is 7,200 square feet. According to the article, the homeowner originally wanted to do the "responsible" thing and remodel her existing 1,900 sf house, but problems with asbestos removal made it pretty tough. Now, being in the remodeling business, I have seen it be more cost-effective to scrape a building and/or build anew rather than remodel, but going from 1,900 sf to 7,200 sf? Really?

Nearly as insulting as the size jump is the amount of money put into the project. The homeowner inherited a huge wad of cash, so she put $1.3 million into the new green home project. The house looks extraordinary, which was her goal--she wanted to make it look like the 1,900sf Tudor house that she had to scrape, and she wanted to stay true to the wonderful design details that say "Tudor". Fair enough, but $1.3 million? Again, really? That's $180 per square foot, which is pretty high end stuff.

My good friend Eric over at S7g Architecture has mentioned/discussed this before (though I can't find the specific post about it), but it still is bothering me that somehow we can't aim for good design and modesty at the same time. You can make a really nice looking house/building/store/office/whatever that meets environmental stewardship regulations and looks good, but must it be so damn big? No. No, it mustn't. The first rule of environmentally-friendly design and construction could be paraphrased from a World War II gasoline rationing poster: "Is this project really necessary?" Is all that square footage really necessary? It's a family of four in that 7,200 sf--wtf are they doing in there, breakdancing? Are they having a "You Got Served" contest every weekend, and they need a space the size of an abandoned warehouse in order to bust moves? For the love of Renzo Piano, just move the sofa and coffee table aside and put down some cardboard. You'll be fine.

Oddly enough, I don' t have a problem with the exquisite chandeliers and cornices and the many details of the house. If you want to stay true to a certain period look, then those are required. But when architects like Eric and me are trying to convince our clients to build green because it's better for the environment and ultimately the pocketbook (in the long run), a first cost like the one with this gal's project is daunting at best and discouraging at worst. I think again to Sarah Susanka's Not So Big House concept: if you right-size your house, really right-size it, you have plenty of money left over for the wonderful details that make the house a joy to live in. Some of those wonderful details are things that are good for the environment, things that have a slightly higher first cost (buying or buying + installation) but then save you money over time and/or pollute the environment less. But still, a decent number of things that are environmentally responsible are pretty dang inexpensive anyway, like the toilet Guy and I bought from Sam's that uses 1.1 gallons per flush and only cost $106 including tax.

But getting people to right-size their living and working space is harder than it looks. And I know, because I have to do it. I recall the surgery director at Wheatlands: she was originally doing all of her central processing (cleaning and sterilizing instruments) in a room that was less about 6 feet by 12 feet, which is about 72 sf. We were about to give her two rooms to do the same stuff in, each room being at least 200 sf (about 8-10 feet wide by 20 or so feet long) plus an extra room for the rest of the hospital and clinic to drop off their dirty stuff in. At one point, the director was pushing us really hard to give her more room--by God, she needed more room and we were just gonna have to take it out of the main mechanical room. Finally, Howie put his foot down with her in a way that nearly made me dance. (I really like medical folks, and I know surgery directors have to be quite strident and decisive because they truly have life-and-death kinda jobs, but they can go too far sometimes.) He said, "Carla! We are giving you over 300 square feet to do processing in--you're presently doing the same stuff in a room the size of this conference table. You have enough space." She was quiet, then for once, she conceded.

Think about what you really need to do what you need to do every day. I find most building a bit tough to navigate myself--at five feet tall, most countertops are a little too tall for me to comfortably chop vegetables or lean over to wash my face, and I can only use the bottom two shelves in my kitchen without using a step ladder. That's way too much space (and resources) that I can't use. But I know that wee people like me are better for the environment, because I use less resources in general--I can wash two weeks' worth of clothes in two washers and one dryer, and I don't need as much food to power what little carbon-based tissues I have. So there. I'm more environmentally friendly by design.

Guy, at 6'-0" and 205 lbs, does not find this amusing. To retaliate, he just puts things on high shelves where I can't reach them.


ms. kitty said...

Pixie, I totally agree with the sheer wastefulness of having so much more space than one needs and also that it makes the issue of greening up much more daunting when these kinds of extravagant projects are touted. Crazy!

BaxtersMum said...

some how, I think boys are more carbon friendly that girls, simply on the case of you own 10 times more shoes than Guy.

Then again, he probably contributes more to the methane problem.

I dunno. toss up.

Miss Kitty said...

7,200 square feet is a LOT of space. Just think how many kittehs I could fit in there... [purrpurrpurrpurrrrrr]

Srsly--I think that lady got hosed on her new house. Sheesh. How green can it be when it takes up nearly three times the room that the previous house did?

Wilderness Gina said...

I think she should be taken out and SHOT. Hows that for PC?

High shelves are good for crap you don't use much. Ice cream makers. Canning stuff. A case of paper towels. Drop cloths. I don't think I'll ever be done working on this house so drop cloths are NECESSARY.

To paraphrase My long dead Grandmother, Nany: "7,200 square feet... Oi!" (flapping my apron)

dissed said...

I went from more than 3,000 square feet (three people, too many cats, way too much space) to less than 1,100 square feet (two people, too many cats, not enough space). While it's been a challenge, it's better to have too little than to have too much. The rule is, when something comes in, something of equal size has to go away. If we don't truly need it, love it or really want it, we can't have it. It's a good policy. It keeps us honest. It's responsible. It's difficult. But it works.