Behind the megahouses

Saturday, August 20th, 2005

Encouraging trend shows that giant dwellings really can be green

Kim Davis

Canadians certainly like their space. Since the mid-1940s the average Canadian home size has increased by half, but the average number of residents/dwelling has decreased by nearly half. In essence, fewer people are living in bigger spaces.

At the extreme end of this trend is the megahouse: 4,000 square feet or more of living space. And like a growing number of other homeowners, megahouse owners are beginning to embrace green design.

A local wood supplier I know was recently contacted by a couple looking to use more environmentally responsible materials in the new home they are building. As their children have all moved out, they want to downsize from their current 10,000-square-foot house to a 6,000-square-foot home and are interested in “going green.”

And then there’s the eco-conscious couple with small children who approached an environmental designer about constructing the 4,000 square-foot home of their dreams using straw bale.

Both of these examples raise an important question: Can big houses really be green?

As an aside, in the Lower Mainland, the over-all trend toward larger houses seems to be shifting. Cameron Muir of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation says metro Vancouver house sizes have probably reached their peak and will henceforth start to level off in response to the increasing scarcity of large lots in and around Vancouver. More and more municipalities are reducing lot sizes and encouraging higher densities (and therefore multi-family units) in an effort to control sprawl and its associated economic and environmental impacts.

This being said, there are still big lots out there, and for those who can afford it, few pass up the opportunity to fulfil their greatest spatial desires. More often than not, this translates into the megahouse.

So what does going green mean at this scale?

On the one hand, there are those who say that big green homes simply miss the point, and are merely “veneer green.” While homeowners may have a sincere desire to select products better for their own health and that of the environment, critics believe that dwellings at these larger scales, unless housing a large family, ultimately neglect one of the fundamental principles underlying sustainability — resource conservation.

While these homeowners’ commitment to environmentally preferable products is admirable, it is hard to ignore the fact that big houses require a sizable amount of materials to build and operate. For example, a conventional, medium-sized home uses less energy than a high-efficiency large home. To some environmental design and development professionals, homeowners who build large green homes fundamentally lack the “deep green” lifestyle commitment critical to sustainable design, development, and living.

On the other hand, there is the attitude that “at least they are doing them green.” According to this view, we must accept that there will always be people who want to build giant houses. (One builder’s client was frustrated that his municipality would not allow him to build a home bigger than 7,000 square feet on his property!)

And if they are going to build such large homes regardless, it is certainly better that they do so using sustainable materials and practices. Following basic market principles, this helps promote manufacturers and suppliers of environmental products and services, which in turn helps increase the demand for these products. This ultimately aids in bringing down prices and making them more accessible to the average consumer.

Noting this positive impact of green megahouses, Muir describes their respective homeowners as early adopters: People who have the financial means and want the cachet associated with particular products or services, i.e. eco-chic, healthy homes.

These early adopters provide eco-minded companies and suppliers with hands-on experience and the opportunity to promote their product. “Consumers are educated through desire,” says Muir. “It is commodity fetishism. It is not about the actual product, but rather the feeling it evokes.”

Big homes, have for millenia represented the luxurious ideal for many societies. While building them today blatantly ignores at least one of the key principles of sustainability (i.e. resource conservation), when done in the green tradition, they arguably become a powerful market force for change.

As Muir points out, “academic arguments don’t really sell products.”

“Consumers demand something because they aspire to it, but the message, the ideal, needs to be conveyed.”

While homeowners planning to build big green homes need to realize the inherent contradictions of such projects, it is far better to build green and big than just big.

Conventional megahouses may epitomize the pervasive denial of environmental degradation, but their eco-counterparts could play a pivotal role in inspiring consumers to adopt sustainable ideals for their homes.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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