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Exploring the aesthetics of less is more GREEN

August 4, 2011

I had an awareness-building experience recently. Or maybe I should describe it as a major reality-shifting experience that is slowly changing the way I approach design.

We had some new friends over for dinner for the first time in our house and gave a tour of our recent addition. As we were sitting at the dining table, talking about some of the material choices that we made, I mentioned that we had built it on a very tight budget, so the materials were not very expensive. I’m thinking to myself how proud I am that we’ve been able to create a space that we love without spending more than we wanted to. And then our friend looks around a little awkwardly and says, “Well, you can’t tell.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cultural expectations behind that response. We are conditioned in this country to feel that it is a good thing to earn a good living and to build a dream house for our family. If you are financially successful, then of course you will pour money into your home to make it a reflection of your domestic ideal. Sure, it’s great to be thrifty if you need to be, but you are encouraged and expected to create a beautiful home if you have the money to do so. And the average American home is HUGE, with the average Seattle home being SLIGHTLY LESS HUGE.

So I am pursuing the aesthetics of “less is more GREEN.” Less space, less new stuff, less toxic stuff, less energy, less water, and — less money. It only makes sense – when you build less house, you spend less money on it. That means more money to spend in other ways. Or more time with your friends and family, rather than working long hours to make a big mortgage payment. Or maybe more time and money donated to your favorite environmental cause.

Looking for ways to green your lifestyle? There may be opportunities to reimagine your aesthetic. We often are driven to replace the worn and dated building with something new. We want the glitz and glamor of the shiny modern materials, but often don’t consider the environmental cost of sending materials to the landfill that still have a good life in them.

l get a lot of flashy magazines about design and homebuilding, which are certainly inspirational and fun to read. However, I am getting weary of the slick new look. Because I can’t help but wonder — how might the designer have planned more sensitively to reuse the existing fabric of the building? Did the kitchen appliances really all have to move to new locations? Did the existing wood floors really have to be pulled up because they didn’t seem new?

Homes become showpieces rather than comfortable spaces for life. Homeowners are pushed into spending more than they wanted. And a lot of perfectly good stuff gets sent to the landfill. This is not just an issue of landfill space, but there is a lot of embodied energy that is wasted (I.e. the energy that it took to produce and transport the stuff in the first place)

What does a “less is more GREEN” house look like? It is thrifty and thoughtful, clever and efficient. It gracefully meets the needs of the people within it, and is inspirational in its beauty and sustainability. It embraces imperfection and shows evidence of its history. It seeks to be intentionally simple, flexible, enduring, and lovable.

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