Green Building Goes Mainstream

Erica Gies

Not long ago Bill and Becka Doering, of Santa Barbara, California, decided they needed a bigger house to accommodate their two young children. After a fruitless search of Santa Barbara’s pricey real estatemarket, the Doerings took Becka’s father up on an offer to trade his 102-square-meter (1,100-square-foot) tract house for their 84-square-meter place across town. That helped, but the tract house had just two bedrooms and one bath, so the Doerings remodeled, resulting in a 150-square-meter four-bedroom, two-bath house.

But this wasn’t simply about elbow room. The Doerings also wanted their new home to be energy efficient and healthy. So they seized the opportunity to transform the building by hiring a like-minded architect and contractor to help them implement many green building principles. The remodel made improvements in site sustainability, energy and water efficiency, materials and resources, indoor air quality, and more.

Ironically, despite certain high-tech materials and the sophisticated design principles involved, theDoerings’ remodel was in some ways a nod to the past. Humans used to build more sustainably and in context with place. The mud city of Djenné,Mali; the sod houses of the American prairie;African rondavals (round huts with grass roofs); the stilted, openwalled thatch shelters of Asia; igloos in the far north—all are examples of how people use natural, localmaterials and sited their buildings for optimum natural ventilation and climate control. Bill Doering said that following such ancient wisdom and embracing simplicity were key in his family’s remodel: “Sometimes we overthink and try to overbuild when some of the most simple principles are what should be guiding us in green building.” For example, Doering initially designed a single heating systemfor hot water and space heating, but it turned out to be prohibitively expensive.“And then we realized that this didn’t really make sense,” he said. “Why would we spend $30,000 on a heating system,when our whole intent was to turn it on as little as possible?” In the end, they put a solar water heater on the roof and bought an inexpensive, energy-efficient furnace.