Big Green Deal

Daniel Gehman

Naturally, when I saw an article in my local paper extolling the advent of the first LEED Platinum rated building in Orange County, Calif., I was pretty darn excited. It was a single- family residence, which was a bit unusual, but a notable benchmark nonetheless. There was to be an open house that very afternoon, and, with a bit of time at my disposal, I decided to head on over there.

A steady stream of Priuses, old and new, braked successfully and deposited their optimistic occupants curbside. (I parked mine around the corner.) With a curious but somewhat critical eye, I drifted toward the entry court over the amber waves of native grasses. (This is hyperbole. The landscaping as installed was teeny, tiny shoots of what promised to be well-behaving, low-maintenance lushness later. I just like the way that sounded.)

It was at that moment something I had kind of glossed over in reading the paper’s description of the property leapt up and smacked me in the head like a chunk of Forest Stewardship Council-certified 2 X 4. This place was humongous!

More on that in a minute. First, let me give credit where credit is due. The team who put this palace (oops, I meant place) together stretched the (metaphorical) envelope pretty far, incorporating some resource-sensitive systems such as sinks that capture grey water for flushing of toilets and landscape irrigation use. Also, most of the hard surface on site (for cars and pedestrians) was composed of interlocking pavers, which will also allow rainwater to infiltrate the aquifer, which is a good thing. The landscaping itself was native Californian, so once the plants are established, they should be able to survive without subsequent additional irrigation. Tankless water heaters, which are big energy savers, were thoughtfully integrated, even if it took multiple units to do the job. A bone I had to pick with the paper’s description, which promised “LED lighting throughout,” was that though I looked high and low, there were none to be found–plenty of fluorescent tubes, which is a good thing, but none of the latest technical step forward. The home featured several walls that folded open to allow seamless passage from inside to out, a nice component in this temperate environment—good for climate control and fresh air.

But here’s my beef: weighing in at nearly 6,000 square feet, this domicile was enormous. Seriously. We’re talking six bedrooms, each with its own bath, plus a home office thrown in for good measure. It totally dominated its site, leaving only a little patio area and a large pool and spa outside the boundary of its eaves. Inside the house, the main living spaces were super-sized almost outside of the range of recognizable. It felt more like a semi-public clubhouse than a single-family residence, with enormous high ceilings, cold concrete floors, and very little intimacy outside the bathrooms (All six of them! Perhaps the fact that it was on a golf course led to such unrestrained excess.) Look, even if you paint a Hummer with low-VOC paint, it’s still a big, big ride. Hasn’t this team received the “McMansions are passé memo?)

It seems to me that along with accepting the general ideas that come with designing sustainably—pursuing “building high performance and resource sensitivity”—at some level there is a theme of generally stretching resources further, and, frankly, doing more with less. Whatever happened to Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House?” The conditioned area in this behemoth could accommodate an entire order of Carmelite nuns. Have I mentioned the six bedrooms?

What a disappointment that the first LEED Platinum project in the OC gets so many of the little details right, but completely misses the big picture. The developer has vowed to take on another project after this one that follows the same path. Please: keep all the cool widgets, but show us what you can do with some creative design of modest spaces, so the soul of the thing might match its makeup.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at