April 2008

April 2008 counts as a transformative moment. In less than a year, oil, which had hovered around $60 per barrel in 2007, has broken the $100 ceiling and is still climbing. Global warming continues to wreak immense consequences on the planet. After more than 50 years of Record Houses, the time has come to consider how the individual house can help mitigate, if not solve, the problems it unwittingly helped to create.

Photo © André Souroujon

Building on our determination last year to provide environmental assessments of the projects in Architectural Record, we now address Record Houses. The issue that you hold in your hand, or see on the screen, adds sustainability as a defining criterion for every Record House. However, the term sustainability shifts in meaning, depending on where you stand.

For some, a green house might have to meet highly defined criteria as enumerated by others, such as the LEED program promulgated by the United States Green Building Council. LEED for homes extends from market-rate houses through “affordable new single-family or low-rise multifamily homes,” according to the current literature. Renovations are included. Other programs are vying for attention, including that of the National Association of Home builders, which has launched a National Green Building Standard, giving builders an online, points-based tool.

However you define the term, one fact is clear: More people care about making their own homes sustainable. A recent survey by the AIA found that “90 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay $5,000 more for a house that would use less energy and protect the earth.” But how to parse through the greenwash pouring in every day? A body of literature is growing to address the growing interest in sustainable housing.

Among the most helpful texts, and representative of the genre, the chockablock book Ecohouse, by Sue Roaf and others, now in its third edition, has helped give a rounded perspective to designers, builders, and owners for seven years. Filled with categorization, data, charts, and how-tos, Roaf’s work comprises a kind of granola textbook on the green house, while illustrating how systems within our homes work, from normal houses to the thermally layered igloo.

In its hefty pages, Ecohouse examines a variety of residential attributes, including environmental impact, building envelope, ventilation, as well as systems such as passive solar, photovoltaics, solar hot water, hydropower, small-scale wind, groundwater heat pumps, and lime and low-energy masonry. Additionally, the author includes humane values such as “health and happiness,” a broader understanding of green houses than the pragmatic.

Roaf argues that we have evolved beyond the limitations of Modernism (as slick or chic as the houses in Dwell might seem). Seen through the filter of her understanding, we need to advance from the retro-worship of the “machine à habiter” of Le Corbusier to residential “adaptations” that meet today’s complex demands. “At the heart of all these ‘adaptations’ is the robust, resilient, and safely located ecohouse, powered by renewable energy and embedded in a strong community,” she notes.

And what defines the Record Houses 2008? Are they ecohouses, machines, or anomalies? For the April issue, we invited a guest curator, journalist Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, who has written his own book on sustainable residences, The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture (with Alanna Stang). After scouring the best and most interesting ideas and houses from around the globe for Architectural Record, aided by contributor Diana Lind, Hawthorne arrived at his own point of view, represented here.

Still, we wondered, in focusing so intently on sustainability, would we be promulgating houses that violated our traditional notions of the beautiful? Or would we make unanticipated discoveries, such as houses that explored unique approaches to the vernacular? On this side of the process, we can admit that our own preconceptions shifted like a riverbank, away from assuming that we would be embracing houses shaped like yurts to a more sophisticated position—structures that combine sustainable characteristics within the fabric of real architecture. Ecohouses, if you will.

Record Houses began its own adventure more than 50 years ago in high optimism. We have been reenergized to think of alternative ways of living for a new generation that will enhance health, provide security, offer constant delight, and spark the joy of living, while leaving a minimal footprint on planet earth.

Welcome to Record Houses 2008.

If you wish to write to our editor-in-chief you can email him rivy@mcgraw-hill.com.