March 26, 2011 by: Eric Mac Inerney

Last week I was interviewing with a delightful couple about the possibility of designing a new house for them.  In our previous communications, the husband was very excited about the various green building techniques we could employ.  However, when we started discussing this in the interview, I noticed his wife was kind of shying away from the table.  It jumped into my mind that she was worried about what the house would look like.  I asked her, “Do you think that green building has a particular look?”  She said yes.

 Modern Sustainable Design

Here is a highly modern green building by a local architect.

It is not hard to believe that someone may feel this way -- especially here in Austin, where a lot of the new green houses we see as examples have a more modern, clean and open aesthetic.  But this, I think, is a coincidence in that a lot of the younger “hipster” families are choosing to build green for the environment and are also interested in the modern look.  Please don’t get me wrong: I love the clean lines, open plans, crisp use of materials, and interesting massing of the buildings, but this is not for everyone.  Many people, and more importantly, my wife (remember that we are building a home currently), don’t find these expressions as warm or as comfortable as other styles.

 Traditional Sustainable Deisgn

Here is a series of traditionally designed green buildings at Austin's Mueller Development.

Green building does not have a style.  Green building is the concept of building environmentally sensitive buildings that use less energy, provide more comfortable living spaces, and use less (and less toxic) materials.  This begins by designing your building to take advantage of and work in tune with the natural surroundings—solar, wind, trees, and topography.  Next, it's important to look at making the building work with the local climate by giving it the best ‘skin’ it can have, keeping in mind the total cost (production energy, shipping, and environmental degradation) of the materials used.  Finally, it is vital to look at the technology inside to make it be a efficient as feasible in terms of its electric, water, and gas use.

 Farm Sustainable Design

This is a farm house we did in Copland, Texas; it was featured in the Austin American-Statesman.  Traditional design with no central AC in Texas!

Looking at traditional house styles (i.e. before the 1950s, when we started overcoming environmental issues with technological solutions) for your area will often show you what works.  For example, in hot central Texas, we see porches for outdoor living and to shade the windows, high ceilings with double-hung large windows to coax in the breeze, shade trees etc. 

In northern climates, where cold is an issue, steep roofs help keep snow from piling up, and smaller windows help limit drafts.  Multiple fireplaces (usually placed on an interior wall) also help keep houses warm.  Instead of screened porches, exterior rooms are often enclosed with glass to form 'sunrooms' for cold winter days.  

A good architect can work with green building concepts and come up with just about any style you desire. A glass box in the Alaskan tundra may not be the best concept, but most styles can be developed and built to work efficiently and comfortably in your climate.  Whether your tastes run to Victorian gingerbread or high modern style, you don't have to sacrifice your green principles to have the house of your dreams.  Talk to your architect; he or she can make it happen!

Residential Design & Construction/ Sustainable Design