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The next big thing: green mansions
The house Joe Monfredo built in Davidsonville, Md., has seven bedrooms, 6 1/2 baths and four fireplaces. The home is almost five times the size of the average new American house.
And it's good for the planet, Monfredo claims.
The two concepts of "green" and "big" hardly seem compatible. After all, green is synonymous with conservation. Big is closely linked with waste. Yet some eco-friendly homes these days are not just big, they're huge, and the relationship between size and greenness is not as clear-cut as one might think.
All else being equal, a small home is more eco-friendly than a big one. It eats up less in raw materials, emits less greenhouse gas and is more energy-efficient simply because it's smaller.
But who is to judge how much space a person needs, asked David Goldstein, energy program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in New York. If one 10,000-square-foot house owned by a family of four is "a bad thing," what about two 5,000-square-foot houses owned by the same family?
"It's really a matter of moral or economic judgment as to whether the home you're asking for makes environmental sense," Goldstein said. "Only the individual homeowner is in a position to know how much size satisfies basic needs, how much satisfies basic wants and how much is silly extravagance."
For decades, Americans have believed that bigger is better. The average size of a new home swelled by two-thirds from 1970 to 2007, from 1,500 to 2,500 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). The "supersize me" phenomenon unfolded even as the average family size shrank, suggesting that people are buying bigger for lifestyle reasons, not function.
The way builder Jerry Zayets sees it, the desire to go green has not diminished that craving for space.
That's why he built a 6,500-square-foot house in Washington, now on the market for $1.59 million. With seven bedrooms, six baths and a dramatic two-story entry, the house feels vast.
"I know people walk into this house and think it's the Ford Excursion of homes," said Zayets, owner of Nexxt Builders in Washington. "It's not. The energy costs of this home are less than my 1,200-square-foot rambler. ... Many small homes consume more energy than the one I've built."
The key is the envelope of the house, Zayets said. Each surface that touches the outside is insulated with a low-density foam that sprays on like a cream but expands to 100 times its size, seals air leaks and takes the shape of whatever space it's filling, he said. Traditional fiberglass insulation must be cut with a utility knife, making it tough to use for irregular angles and crevices.
The house qualifies as energy-efficient under the federally run Energy Star program.
Generally, Energy Star homes are at least 15 percent more efficient than homes built to 2004 building codes. Each has to meet baseline energy requirements that are then tested and inspected by an independent contractor.
The contractor who inspected Zayets' house concluded that the energy savings would total $2,150 a year compared with a house of a similar size built to 2004 code, which is similar to current building standards, Zayets said.
Monfredo also got the nod from Energy Star for the 12,000-square-foot house he has constructed in Davidsonville and put on the market for $2.99 million.
The home is so well-insulated that it's draft-free, said Monfredo, who co-owns High Tec Homes in Towson, Md. It is cooled and heated by a geothermal system that limits fossil-fuel use and reduces energy costs.
To better control energy use, the thermostat can be set to different temperatures in 11 zones of the house.
"There are lots of people with money who are going to buy a house of this size no matter what," Monfredo said. "So why not be responsible and buy green?"
Generally speaking, a house is called green if it uses energy, water and natural resources wisely and offers good indoor air quality. But there are several rating systems that attempt to measure just how green a house is.
The Energy Star program focuses solely on energy efficiency. But other features are taken into account, including water use and materials, under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
LEED, as it's known, was created by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council.
Under this system, the more green features a home includes -- such as solar panels or low-flush toilets -- the more points it earns.
The NAHB plans to unveil in March what it hopes will become widely accepted national standards for building and remodeling environmentally friendly homes.
None of these rating systems dictates size. But both LEED standards and the builders group's proposal require more points -- that is, more green features -- for larger houses.
"The point is to make green mainstream," said Emily English, green building program manager for the builders association. "The idea is: Make it as green as you can, even if you build a large house."