It has come to my attention that in the last few years, there has been a lot of interest generated on the subject of “being green”. Everyone has jumped on this hybrid powered bandwagon and the millions of dollars that were once spent on telling us how much we can save on products, is now all about our contribution to the environment that somehow comes from purchasing more stuff. In the creative world of modernism, the green building techniques are worshiped but do these techniques really help at all? Does a wall of windows with no curtains on a solar powered home really reduce a carbon footprint?
My wife and I have been fans of modernism since we started dating, and we love the clean lines of modern homes and their accessories. One huge advantage to collecting modern furniture, for instance is that we are recycling. Almost all of the vintage modern furniture that we have collected over the years has been sold at an estate sale, a thrift store, or by an out-of-touch relative of a grandparent with impeccable modern taste, or even destined for a landfill. The fun that we have finding things, the sometimes zero cost versus new, and the added character of a scratch or patina all contribute to making recycling a fun endeavor. Conversely, one could spend an afternoon online and by the end have a fully appointed house ready for a magazine shoot.

Following the aforementioned fad of green building are the leading industry magazines, which need not be named, just insert whichever your favorite is. The editorials are very similar every week, and point out how the magazine is too big and wasteful, or that they have far too many insert cards. This elitist approach to a complex problem reminds me of the squabbles that go on between political parties, there is a lot finger pointing about something that both sides partake in. In this case, the reader that is outraged by such use of paper, has obviously purchased the magazine in the first place and may even have gone so far as to continue a subscription. Shouldn’t they be working on their compost pile instead of reading a magazine?

Within the pages of these magazines the reader gets to enjoy wonderful pictures of beautiful homes, furniture, art, and advertisements about products that are green, eco-friendly, energy efficient, solar, renewable, organic, natural, blah blah blah. This is all great, but the paradox comes from the idea that buying more stuff is somehow better. What’s more is that we, the modernist artsy type reader, is somehow better than the suburbia mom who lives in a “McMansion”. At first, I believed this and I drank the kool-aid. I honestly thought that it was ok to look down on those wasteful buggers, until I wondered how they heat those glass houses in the Midwest, or how they keep the Palm Springs homes cool. They must cost a fortune to heat and/or cool.

The cost of electricity and gas has undoubtedly gone up since my home was built in the 1950s, but the idea of passive solar energy being used in a home of that vintage is nothing new. In fact, the only thing that has changed in most cases is that they call it passive solar now. Our home sits in the high desert of Central Oregon so we do have four seasons and they can be quite extreme one way or the other. In the summertime, we average 78 degrees, with highs that get into the 110s. In the winter, we average 23 degrees with lows last winter getting to –9 degrees. Our home was indeed quite cold because of the lack of proper insulation under the home, as a result we spent a lot heating it. However, in the summertime our home stays very comfortable even without the aid of air conditioning. Even on those extremely hot days, everyone who enters our home asks if we have A/C or comments on the comfort. This is due to several factors, but one very important one that is found on all of the mid century homes in this area is that the homes are situated to only have direct sunlight during the cooler parts of the day. The other is that our older neighborhood has fully matured trees that shade the area during those hot days. These are simple, inexpensive, and rudimentary ways to help but they certainly do not employ the use of fancy technology to lower costs. The photos here show awnings which were a very low cost and popular way to keep sun out of the house. They were simply a way for homebuilders to add value to the home by keeping costs down, and following WWII this was extremely important to families who were use to rationing supplies and resources.

Although our home does not include any advanced solar technologies, they did exist when our home was built. In 1947, Simon and Schuster published a book that explored these technologies called Your Solar House. The book showcased some of the available technologies as they were used by some of the era’s great architects including Louis Kahn and Pietro Belluschi (from right here in Oregon via Italy) and even included simple plans for the homes. Included in those designs were homes that, even in the Midwest, could maintain temperatures of 70 degrees or more while outside was below freezing.

The point is, there were solar homes being built a long time ago and that this trend of going green (it is a trend, not a revolution as many will tell you) should probably be examined and exploited with a little more finesse. I love the look of an all glass home with the lights on and nothing but empty space inside, it is clean and orderly and nice, but I just see dollar signs flowing out those windows. I am all for conservation of our natural resources, which is one reason why I buy as much old furniture as I can and keep it so it doesn’t end up in the landfill. I also think that buying old homes and renovating them to be even more eco-friendly is much more appealing than having one built in the country far from schools, shopping, etc requiring longer drive times and wasted fuel. So if one of those magazines comes to your house to take pictures, will you draw the blinds in at least one picture?


Steve said...

I've always wondered why buying new "eco-friendly" products (with their manufacturing wastes & excessive energy usage)and sending the items they replace to rot in a landfill is deemed as being "greener" than simply making what you already have work better.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that any savings in home energy usage obtained from using these "updated" products would be offset by other newly incurred dollar, environmental & aesthetic costs (disposal, manufacturing, shipping, packaging, construction, purchase, ...).

Just my 2-cents. Thanks for the thought provoking post, amigo.

Tikimama said...

Love this post - you tell it more like it is! I've really gotten interested lately in the whole idea of greener living, but like you, wondered why I had to buy a bunch of expensive new products to do that. I'd sure love a set of those new high-tech, low-water washer/dryers, but what about the ones I have that are working fine? And you don't have to convince me about buying old furniture, books, accessories, etc! The thrill of the hunt, joy of discovery, and bonus of saved bucks - can't beat it!

Bethany said...

Another great post!

Barclay said...

You hit the nail on the head with this post. Let me add to your fire....

Have you ever noticed in many architecture and design magazines, when they talk about "green" living; either the solar houses you mention or pre-fab houses use less materials to build; they often picture exactly the kind of house you included as the first picture in this post; a modernistic all-glass-walls house? They look beautiful, and you've already debunked them from the heating/cooling point of view. But here's another complaint; these kind of houses are ALWAYS shown in an open, private, park-like setting. Because they are all-glass with no privacy (or security), they only work when the owner can put it in the middle of several acres of private property.

That's the opposite of green! Having one small family take up several acres of prime land (and it's never farm land or anything practical; it's usually lakefront acreage). It's beautiful to be sure, but these type of houses would never work in an urban setting, or any other planned living that actually takes into account how the environment is used. Not to mention that this kind of setting is cost-prohibitive to the masses they pretend to serve.

OK, that's the end of my rant. To be honest, I love the look of those houses and I wish I had a few acres of lakefront property myself. I don't begrudge people who own them, merely the magazines that present them as somehow "green" either because of the solar aspect or the pre-fab aspect, etc.

Great post; thanks!

goosefairy said...

Bravo! I echo your sentiments and very well said.