My study break snack in college was a Snickers bar and a can of TaB from the vending machine in my dorm. I figured if I were going to indulge in the candy, I should at least mitigate the damage with a diet soda. Well, this is pretty much the same approach architects who design large houses are taking with sustainable design. They aren't forgoing the big-house commissions; instead, they're trying to soften the blow by paying attention to passive and active energy conservation and by specifying materials that originate from sustainable, recycled, or salvaged sources. Alas, eco-purists have argued this is green-washing—and that's when they're being polite.

But what's an architect to do? It's your job to design buildings. If you were to design only small houses, you'd have to design many more of them to pay the bills. And where is the bounty of custom home clients hiring architects to do exquisitely detailed, yet resource-efficient, 900-square-foot houses? Is this a tenable business plan in our current economy?

If we were really going to think about this problem honestly, we'd indict all sizes of single-family houses as wasteful self-indulgence. And let's not even mention vacation and second homes. Those are positively profligate. Undoubtedly, multifamily housing densely packed near public transportation is a much more sustainable model for our planet's future. That is, if our human spirits could tolerate such a model. After all, owning a house is the American dream; saving the Earth is not—yet.

Maybe we'll devise another interim step along the way. Perhaps one day we'll all have our primary residences in high-rise urban buildings, but we'll also have shares in sweet little dachas in what's left of the countryside. A relief valve ... until we solve all of these problems through virtual reality and you design and build all of your work in Second Life or its equivalent. But I digress.

We're going to have to do a lot of work on our models for high-density housing before we and the dear departed Jane Jacobs can rest easy with it. We'll have to find a way to humanize it, to make it as compelling and satisfying as a 2,300-square-foot house on a quarter-acre lot. It'll have to offer more than the brick walls, stainless steel appliances, and exposed ducts those so-called loft apartment developers tout.

In the meantime, we have the here and now to consider. We're still designing and building those single-family houses. And some of them are going to be big. And if they're going to be big, shouldn't they also apply the important lessons learned on the green frontier? And can't we give them a little credit for that? Really, big custom houses are the least of our problems. They are a mere fraction of the million-plus single-family homes our country is still building each year, even in the slowdown.

There's a reason why the U.S. Green Building Council's new LEED for Homes certification program primarily targets production housing. That's where the waste on a colossal scale lies—in the millions of new 2,300-square-foot houses burning through our resources year after year. So, orient those big houses toward the sun. Heck, go ahead and get them off the grid, if you can. We've got even bigger problems to conquer now and in the future.

Photo: Mark Robert Halper
Photo: Mark Robert Halper

Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: