Building New Isn't Building Green

Why we have to rethink our dreams of building ideal homes.

Comments (9)
Tuesday, May 26, 2009

As a teenager, whenever I was faced with a long stretch of nothing to do (road trips, insomnia, school), I would spend my time constructing my dream house in my head. The mansion that slowly grew in my imagination was a mish-mash of Victorian-era styles I admired—Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, shingle style—though at the time I didn’t know their names.

Porches and verandas surrounded the house. It had several towers, oodles of dormers, a few chimneys, several balconies, and a carport with a roof. I pictured it on a Vermont hilltop surrounded by fruit orchards and very few neighbors.

While I still cherish this fantasy house and still visit occasionally, as I’ve gotten older, the appeal of actually building my own sprawling estate has faded.

Partly this happened after my wife and I bought our modest 1930s bungalow on a quarter acre with neighbors on every side—maintaining and paying for that helped convince me I wasn’t up to the upkeep of a castle. More significantly, though, when I returned to my home town after college, I saw that so many of the forests, fields and vacant lots I used to play in as a kid were suddenly occupied by monstrous, vinyl-clad McMansions. A multitude of other people, it appeared, had been having the same kind of daydreams as I had been having, and the results were not pretty. Instead of a small woods open to anyone who wanted to wander there, with trees that had character and colors that changed with the weather and seasons, there were now huge, pastel-colored private boxes with tiny windows sitting on a bed of emerald green grass. Often the multi-port garages were in danger of dwarfing the residences.

I was forced to rethink my ideal home.


Last fall, graduate students from the University of Notre Dame came to Northampton and conducted a charrette that explored different urban design interventions to fix the city’s problem with sprawl. In an introduction to their project, their professor, Philip Bess, presented a lecture reviewing the basics of urban design and also providing an overview of Northampton’s development over the past 50 years.

In one series of slides he showed how the city’s footprint had nearly doubled in size with new construction between 1950 and 2000, while its population had remained at about 28,000. Many of these new buildings were homes miles from the center of town, or massive one-story warehouses built where there had once been pastureland and meadows.

Another slide showed an illustration by the renowned urban planner Leon Krier that was entitled “Yale University Buildings: Age and First Major Maintenance.” It showed how buildings on the New Haven campus that were constructed in 1900 did not require substantial renovation until 90 years later. Citing a number of other examples, it showed that the more recent the construction, the shorter the time period between completion and renovation. The last item in the illustration showed that one structure finished in 1975 needed extensive structural work only 15 years later. Bess pointed out that the Yale Architecture Building was completed in 1968, but only 40 years later renovations cost the school nearly $100 million, far more than it likely cost to construct the building.

He also points to MIT’s Strata Center, designed by the acclaimed modern architect, Frank Gehry, which opened in 2004 and cost around $300 million. The architect said his fantastical building “looks like a party of drunken robots got together to celebrate.” Three years after opening, though, the party was over. MIT sued him, claiming that “deficient design services and drawings” caused leaks, cracks, mold, poor drainage, and falling ice and debris that blocked emergency exits.

A central tenet of new urban design is that from 1950 onwards, as more people began to own cars and the suburbs began to grow, the quantity of construction increased dramatically while quality declined. While homes became more affordable in the short term, they were far less durable and consequently far more expensive in the long term.

The decrease in quality is not merely a result of cheaper materials and building techniques. Rather, Bess argues, modern building culture suffers from the same problems as our modern economy. In a lecture on this topic, proposing a new building direction for the Notre Dame campus, he lists three cultural shifts in the modern construction industry that stand in the way of truly sustainable growth. First, builders (like most of us) are “integrally related to national and global financing mechanisms that seek and promote short-term profit rather than long-term value.” Most of the components in modern construction are mass-produced “novelties that promote speed of construction and short-term thrift over durability and long-term value.”

Finally, he sees the bureaucratic organization of modern construction firms as making what should be “an inherently cooperative activity” into one that is adversarial. “It requires architects to produce elaborate contract documents—literally hundreds of pages… in order to avoid lawsuits and legal responsibility; it requires a competitive bidding process that encourages cost-cutting and the sacrifice of quality; and it is characterized by byzantine codes that ostensibly exist to protect the public, but in fact empower not necessarily well-informed politicians” to frustrate efforts to create the kinds of sustainable neighborhoods that existed before assembly lines did. These traditional communities, he says, were built by architects and craftsmen who “were themselves part of the same community in which they built, and could somehow make good buildings [many of which still stand today] with about 1 percent of the paperwork required today to do inferior buildings.”

As Frank Gehry limply argued in defense of his problem construction in Cambridge, “These things are complicated, and they involved a lot of people, and you never quite know where they went wrong. A building goes together with seven billion pieces of connective tissue. The chances of it getting done ever without something colliding or some misstep are small.”

Bess sees the key difference between traditional and modern construction methods as lying in the relationship between a building’s structure and its enclosure, or exterior. Traditionalist don’t differentiate: it’s not just the interior walls and floors that support the weight of a building and make it strong; the exterior walls, windows, doors and roof are part of the equation, too. Modern builders see them more as independent of one another. The enclosure, as they see it, is not structural; builders don’t rely on the exterior walls, windows and doors for support, and as long as the base is firm the rest is cosmetic.

Many modern buildings include structural elements from traditional buildings as design elements, but they don’t serve the function that gave them their shape; underneath the decoration, the buildings are actually steel and concrete with prefabricated brick panels that are hoisted into position, bolted into the frame and then sealed with caulking. Rarely is an arch or a lintel in a modern steel-structure building actually supporting anything; it is there only for aesthetics. This approach allows for crazy buildings like Gehry’s that don’t adhere to gravity or logic, as well as some McMansions that look like classic buildings but are built at a fraction of the cost.

Traditional building materials include such things as stone, brick, timber, slate, clay roofing tiles, and high-lime mortar and cement. These are all relatively inert materials, Bess says, that typically require a lot less energy to manufacture than modern products and typically last a lot longer. The main ingredients in most modern big-scale construction—steel, portland cement mortar and concrete, and asphalt shingles—are “all relatively expansive,” expanding and contracting with changes in the weather. “Whereas traditional buildings make use of a relatively limited palette of inert materials bonded together,” Bess points out, “modern construction can be characterized as an assemblage of more expansive materials not so bonded together.”

These expansive, poorly bonded materials are particularly vulnerable to the elements, and after a few decades of freezing and thawing, water begins to seep into them. Decay ensues.


Steve Mouzon is an architect, the founder of the New Urban Guild in Miami, and a proponent of sustainable, green building. Among his many projects, he’s been the author of several books of house plans to be used in Florida and the Caribbean that are written for general audiences instead of architects and the construction trade. He believes that the modern focus on a building’s exterior has distanced people from the purpose of architecture, and he, like many New Urbanists, believes that before people can build green buildings, they need to reconnect with an understanding of neighborhoods and community that’s been lost. He refers to the bulk of what’s happening in the modern movement as Gizmo Green—focused on gadgetry and products, which aren’t very green at all. He advocates a return to traditional building and urban design methods that he refers to as “The Original Green.”

On his Website Mouzon states, “This notion that we can simply invent more efficient mechanisms, and throw in some bamboo to boot, is only a small part of real sustainability. First, we must build sustainable places, because it does not matter what the carbon footprint of a building is if you have to drive everywhere in order to live there.”

This emphasis on gizmos and un-holistic thinking about sustainable building is apparent in the U.S. government’s LEED (Land Environment Economics and Development) Certification program. The LEED system uses a checklist of green features, each with a different point attached, and certification is based on how many points a project scores. It doesn’t mandate any kind of paradigm shift from the current construction mindset, but instead offers a buffet of possible improvements that can be made to any building, regardless of how ill-planned it is. As one online pundit points out, a $395 bike rack system is worth as many LEED points as a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system. While the LEED certification process undoubtedly gets people thinking about ways to build greener buildings, whether or not a construction job is LEED-certified doesn’t necessarily mean a whole lot.

For example, in Village Hill Northampton, Northampton’s development on Hospital Hill, Wright Builders is constructing 11 houses, which it advertises as LEED certified—timber-frame houses with “environmentally-friendly features.” But before construction began on the new homes, there had already been a building on the site with masonry-bearing walls, high-lime mortar, slate roofs and heavy timber floors—truly green and sustainable materials made from local resources.

This building, the historic Northampton State Hospital, had been built 150 years before, and the builders intended it to last. Initially, the city planned to include the former hospital in a new, mixed-use, walkable village with housing, offices, and retail buildings that reflected the masonry construction already on the site. That would have made a New Urbanist proud. But plans changed. The site became less a village and more a housing development abutting an industrial/office park. Local politicians and MassDevelopment, the lead developers, operated, at least ostensibly, on the premise that potential developers—subject to the national and global financing mechanisms that, as Bess describes them, seek short term profit rather than long term value—would view preservation and reuse of the historic hospital as financially prohibitive. It was demolished at a cost of $5.5 million, paid for by taxes. The cost of demolition, in the estimation of some local architects, was about what it would have cost to renovate the building.


New Urbanists like Bess and Mouzon look to planners from centuries past for inspiration on how to build today in a way that satisfies human needs and desires for a comfortable place to dwell. Their goal is to build communities with homes that are affordable in a long-term sense, and that make as light an impact on the environment as possible. Bess contends the 1950s mark the break between traditional and modern, and Mouzon likes to refer to the period he studies as the “pre-Thermostat Age.” Both promote environments that offer transportation choices, basic necessities that are within walking distance, and a mix of civic and public spaces integrated with homes and businesses.

For Bess, a chief source of inspiration is the Belgian city of Bruges. The medieval city escaped serious damage in the two World Wars and still offers an example of a city that’s thrived pretty much intact for hundreds of years. Not only do the buildings still exist, but many of them are still used for the purposes for which they were originally built, such as hospitals and low-income and elderly housing. Bruges reflects the New Urbanist ideal of a walkable city perfectly, with nearly 25,000 of its 60,000 residents living within the 3-square-mile historic center. Just beyond the city limits are farms and pastures.

In his lecture, recommending an alternative to Notre Dame’s modern, cheap and now mostly dilapidated graduate student housing, he proposes building something akin to Bruges’ compact mediaeval cluster of homes with load-bearing masonry walls with pitched slate roofs. To avoid needing to rely on commercial building materials and techniques, he suggests employing graduates of the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, N.C., which he says is the “only program I know that is systematically training a younger generation in the traditional building arts.” He envisions creating a Notre Dame Guild for Traditional Architecture and Urbanism, which could both build this new community and be kept on to maintain it and build anew elsewhere.

Bess’ dream seems to me a perfect substitute for the one I spent my teenage years working on—rather than just one house full of exciting architectural possibilities, a whole community made up of small, beautiful buildings and interesting, well-used public spaces.

While perhaps the return of traditional craftsmen’s guilds building the Pioneer Valley’s homes and businesses with traditional techniques is unlikely in the near future, I believe that, to be true to a green and sustainable commitment, we can no longer afford to rely only on cosmetic tweaks to a modern building paradigm which has clearly gone astray and which figures so prominently in our economic future.

To set us on a path toward true sustainability, city leaders and planners need to stop looking for open spaces to fill and start considering infill to existing parts of the city. Instead of bankrolling new construction, they should focus on reuse of under-used or neglected building. Above all, historic, well-built buildings need to be recognized as the natural, eco-friendly resources they are, and new homebuyers should buy old homes and make them new.

Comments (9)
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Well written and well said. Urban infill and Reuse of old homes is where we should be focusing more energy. America has an internal disdain toward the "used" but I think that urban resale homes may be picking up some hipness in these post-Bush years.
Posted by Joe Peffer on 5.26.09 at 12:57
This is a rather convoluted article that is little more than a mash up of misinformation, urban legend and statements that are simply wrong. For good measure, a little Marxism is thrown in - after all, everyone is only in for the money, right? The work of hundreds of thousands of construction and design professionals dismissed in a few sweeping statements. The individual who presented the Northampton design charette, Notre Dames Philip Bess, is not listed as a licensed architect. Rather curious, as he seemed to have a lot to say about architectural practice and also construction methods and materials. Statements comparing construction methods and costs of different eras, without consideration of all the factors that affect those costs, is meaningless. A Yale building that supposedly didnt need First Major Maintenance for 90 years? Not hardly - changes in electrical and fire safety codes, mechanical systems wearing out, not to mention ADA compliance and possible asbestos abatement - would require several major maintenance events that time period. To say nothing of energy inefficiency. When those buildings were built - they didnt insulate because energy was cheap - another eras way of saving money on building costs. But maybe they were Marxists, too. The comment about building codes is absurd - that the codes empower not necessarily well-informed politicians. Many of those early-era buildings burned to the ground due to the lack of such codes - building sprinkler system requirements being the most obvious. Fire sprinklers were not required by code until the 1940's. Frank Gehreys self-serving, disingenuous statement about his lawsuit concerning the MIT Stata building that: never quite know where they went wrong says a lot about why those problems exist for his firm. It is hard to believe he would make such a statement - confessing that he is clueless about architectural project management - or else his lawyers told him to say that. The articles remarks about LEED are totally misinformed, and the remark attributed to some pundit stating that the credits for a bicycle rack system are equivalent to a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system is false. A bike rack system garners 1 point, the maximum points to Optimize Energy Performance is 19. The LEED holistic design for a building with a $1.3 million environmentally sensitive heating system would be interwoven with other credit areas such as Indoor Environmental Quality, Daylight and Views, Controllability of Systems - Thermal Comfort, Thermal Comfort - Design, Lighting, and several other areas. Obviously the author and the unnamed pundit are very ignorant of what LEED is, or how it works in totality. That is further reinforced in the comments by the New Urbanists who seem disdainful of efforts at sustainability (other than their own vision, of course) - and citing needing to reconnect with and understanding of neighborhoods and communities... That very issue is, in fact, addressed in the LEED credits by Development Density and Urban Connectivity. Perhaps they should read it sometime. They would also find an whole LEED certification system for Existing Buildings - its not just about new construction. Pioneer Valley residents deserve a more informed commentary on sustainability than this one, and The Advocate should try including some design and construction professionals - not just cherry-pick statements from non-architects or the ones getting sued.
Posted by J Geibel, LEED AP on 5.26.09 at 14:20
you are nothing more than an idiot, geibel, no need to spend more words with you
Posted by anonimous on 5.27.09 at 6:00
Mark, great article! Thanks for the extensive mentions. You might also be interested in a couple of recent posts on the Original Green blog: and As for Mr. Geibel's lengthy comments, it's curious that he questions Philip's credentials because he comments on architecture, while his own firm is listed as a marketing firm that sells "sales autopsies." But no worries... it's actually a good thing that these issues are sparking pointed debate, because they sorely need more attention. As for the LEED issue, I'm a New Urbanist, and I'm serving on a TAG at the USGBC that is hoping to improve the next version of LEED-ND. As for Mr. Geibel's assertion that the bike rack remark is "misinformed"... Mr. Geibel is, unfortunately the one that's misinformed. At the USGBC's Technical Development Summit in Washington in March, there was much discussion about the need to rebalance the system, and mechanisms for doing it. The bike rack example was discussed a number of times, and I never heard anybody dispute its veracity. As for the NU vision of sustainability, LEED-ND exists precisely because of the very hard work of a number of New Urbanists for years. And the TAG upon which I serve (with several other New Urbanists and others) was created precisely because the USGBC realizes that the various LEED rating systems in their current condition don't yet properly reflect the importance of sustainable places. If you don't build a sustainable place, then the carbon footprint of the building is almost meaningless. The USGBC understands this, and is working to do something about it. I'll be delighted when more of the green building advocates at large understand it, too.
Posted by Steve Mouzon on 5.28.09 at 4:39
One point in response to this by J. Geibel: "The work of hundreds of thousands of construction and design professionals dismissed...." I would have neither J. Geibels nor Valley Advocate readers think that I am questioning either the intelligence or the motives of contemporary construction and design professionals (or, for that matter, public officials). My point, rather, is that the contemporary culture of building---which includes design professionals, public officials, and many others (including architectural educators)---is broken. Physical evidence of our broken building culture is all around us, by any number of criteria but most especially by the criteria of beauty and sustainability. The built environment we have collectively made since 1945 is largely either ugly or unsustainable, and most often both. In terms of sustainability, the alternative to this broken culture of building is to recreate local building cultures that make walkable mixed-use human settlements composed in part of buildings made from durable low-embodied energy materials; and if you recreate a local culture of sustainable building, beauty is likely to follow. In the context of a modern global economy---precluding, that is, either a world-wide economic collapse or a national pre-emption of local place-making traditions---the creation of a local building culture of durable low-embodied energy materials can only occur within small self-governing communities that consciously limit themselves to the use of such materials. Northampton is a small enough community that it might be able to do so. For the foreseeable future however, in order to make a durable built environment that is also just and affordable (i.e., sufficiently inclusive that people who work in Northampton would also be able to live in Northampton), many of those well-built durable buildings will have to be (or include) small dwelling units. This represents a challenge to both the building culture and the larger culture of Northampton. Philip Bess Professor of Architecture The University of Notre Dame
Posted by Philip Bess on 5.30.09 at 7:46
a more truly walkable visit to a local museum : see an example in Smith College's Ford Hall newly disposing the first third of Northampton's Green/West neighborhood. That neighborhood was already "Original Green"--- what building and opportunity for residential urban infill should become --- yet was sacrificed by Mayor Higgins and Smith selling a "Gizmo Green" roof and "new" (from the Middle Ages) rainwater flushed toilets.
Posted by kenneth mitchell on 5.30.09 at 16:17
Nice to see this much needed discussion of this issue. I was beginning to think all involved in the matter simply viewed the term "green building" to mean where the money is. The primary problem with the green building movement in its current concept is that it seeks to create energy efficient indoor environments without taking into account that buildings need to breathe just as much as those who inhabit them. There is nothing green or healthy about constructing gigantic, airtight, petri dishes where microbes flourish in warm, cozy, controlled environments. In order to construct habitats that are healthy for the occupants, one has to build structures that allow outside air to flow inside. Not work to keep fresh air out. Go back to the old days of building structures with designed airflow space within the walls. Teach people that an indoor temperature of 80 degrees in the wintertime is not desireable or healthy. Turn down the themostats, crack open the windows and put on a sweater. Those are the building principle that are truly beneficial to the greening of our planet and the health of "green building" occupants. Personally, I would give more LEED points for a great bike rack and less for a killer HVAC system. I would give bonus points to architects who dress warm in the winter and cool in the summer as they are designing their concepts of healthy, indoor environments.
Posted by Mrs. Kramer on 5.31.09 at 4:03
The article included the follow: "While perhaps the return of traditional craftsmens guilds building the Pioneer Valleys homes and businesses with traditional techniques is unlikely in the near future." I urge the author and readers to visit the American College of the Building Arts located in Charleston, South Carolina. ACBA is the first (and only) college to offer a four-year liberal arts degree in the building arts. In addition to the traditional academic courses, students major in stone carving, carpentry, timber framing, architectural metal, plaster working and brick masonry. ACBA is a strong stragetic partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP's) website includes many references to ACBA. Your support in and involvement with ACBA is strongly appreciated.
Posted by Stephen L. Johnson on 6.8.09 at 9:30
As for Mr. Geibel's lengthy comments, it's curious that he questions Philip's credentials because he comments on architecture, while his own firm is listed as a marketing firm that sells "sales autopsies." ======================== Having noticed a number of hits on my website with reference to this article, I was somewhat surprised at the volume of comments. With regards to Steve Mouzon's comment above - if he had done more that a superficial review of my web site he would have seen a lot more than what he references, including construction industry clients. That also includes marketing studies on the use of advanced architectural technologies such as BIM (Building Information Modeling.) Also - I'm a mechanical engineer by training and have sent more than a bit of time on construction sites in various capacities. My comments on Philip Bess' remarks were to cite inconsistencies in logic - not architecture design per se. As an academic, I'm sure he's used to that kind of debate. As evidence of that, you'll that Philip Bess himself commented - but on a different topic and on a different level. And I found humorous the derogatory remarks by the individual who couldn't even spell "anonymous." As others have said here - an interesting debate on the issues - Northampton will be better for it. And be sure to check out the changes in the recently-introduced LEED V 3.0 - many of these referenced complaints have been addressed. The bike rack "debate" over "points" is trivial, but some think it is an important feature to have to support their personal sustainability efforts (e.g. bicycle commuting). Every little bit helps.
Posted by J Geibel on 7.17.09 at 10:44



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