Common Sense Green

Elements of good design are essential to truly green design

photo by Katherine Drew Dilworth

photo by Katherine Drew Dilworth

There’s a lot more to green building than green products and check lists. Yes, yes, bamboo flooring and recycled glass tiles are hot right now, but they’re only part of the equation. They’re not going to make much of a difference if your house (whether it’s existing or new) is oversized, poorly sited, and/or out of touch with fundamental environmental forces. Trademarks of good design such as efficiency, informed siting, and spatial sensitivity to the sun, wind, and other environmental factors are vital to common sense green design. That’s not to say that all good design is green design or vice versa, primarily because the role of aesthetics in the green paradigm is a murky one. But you can’t have truly green design without elements of good design.


Keep in mind that green design can mean renovating green rather than building green. It’s certainly greener to re-use an existing building than to discard it for a new one. Of course not all existing structures are suitable for re-use, especially if they were poorly designed in the first place. Many existing, quality homes, though, can be renovated (without prohibitive expense or alteration) to function more efficiently than they were. It’s a balancing act, but one well worth investigating.

I, for one, live in a 240-year-old antique. In the winter, wind whistles through the windows. In the summer, the attic level traps heat. But these are not insurmountable inefficiencies. We could splurge for new insulated windows, repair the existing windows where possible, or replace the failing storm windows with better-functioning alternatives. We already have plans for new, fully operable, insulated skylights to alleviate some of the attic swelter. Over time we’ve swapped-out inefficient appliances and fixtures for greener options. Mainly, though, I take pleasure in treading the same wide-pine floor boards that the sea captain, who built the house, trod. It’s probably the greenest thing that I do.

build smaller

photo by Katherine Drew Dilworth

photo by Katherine Drew Dilworth

If you’re going to build new and green, you’ll need to build less. Smaller buildings consume fewer resources. It isn’t rocket science. Good design can reduce square footage without sacrificing a feeling of spaciousness. Common sense green means eliminating rarely used spaces and merging functions where possible. It also means creating reasonable room sizes that accommodate relaxed conversation as well as opportunities to tuck away for privacy. The key is to incorporate semi-open living areas in which one space borrows visually from another while remaining distinct from it, thanks to any number of treatments that provide partial enclosure. Increase efficiency by allowing circulation to overlap with living spaces rather than cordoning it off in separate hallways. Maximize your property’s potential by bringing the outdoors in and indoors out with the help of decks, porches, patios, screen porches and/or exterior rooms that are framed by outbuildings, landscape features, and/or garden structures. Efficient design needn’t be a sacrifice. It can be far more comfortable, functional, and engaging than the over-scale, inefficient alternative.

work with the site, not against it

Good design and thus common sense green design will determine where you locate a new building on your property. Attention to site features, prevailing forces like wind and drainage, as well as solar orientation will lead the way. Of course zoning bylaws and other governing regulations will play a role too.

According to Christopher Alexander the author of Pattern Language, “We must treat every new act of building as an opportunity to mend some rent in the existing cloth.” He encourages us to “leave those areas that are the most precious, beautiful, comfortable, and healthy as they are, and build new structures in those parts of the site which are least pleasant now.” In other words don’t spoil the best part of the site with the disruption of construction. Preserve it to enjoy from your completed new home. (By the way, if you don’t own Pattern Language, and you’re embarking on a design project of any sort, I recommend that you pick up a copy. Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

photo by Katherine Drew Dilworth

photo by Katherine Drew Dilworth

If there’s a south facing meadow, relish it and site your building so you can appreciate it from multiple vantage points, basking in the southern light and view. If there’s a hill, avoid the temptation to build directly on top of it. Nestle into it instead, where you’ll be more sheltered from wind and weather and where you’ll presumably have easier access. Preserve the hilltop for outdoor pleasures: reading while sunning, sharing a picnic, visiting en route to a garden. If there’s a stunning specimen tree, site your building to take advantage of its shading properties or to appreciate the birds that nest in it. There’s nothing greener than preserving the green.

harness desirable environmental forces, deflect undesirable ones

In New England designing a new home such that the majority of spaces enjoy sunlight and solar heat gain in the winter while harsh, late-day sunlight and solar heat gain are deflected in the summer is fundamental to good design and, by extension, common sense green design.

To revisit Christopher Alexander’s advice, he says, “A long east-west axis sets up a building to keep the heat in during winter, and to keep the heat out during the summer. This makes a building more pleasant, and cheaper to run.” His Pattern Language co-authors would later come out with another book, Patterns of Home, in which they tweak his teachings. They say, “Siting the building diagonally to the south takes maximum advantage of available sunlight.” (You might want to pick up a copy of Patterns of Home too. Click here to buy it from Amazon.) Both scenarios can be effective, though I’m partial to the latter since it places only a building corner toward the dimly light north, rather than a long side.

Good design takes wind patterns into account as well, which is also common sense green. Locate spaces relative to landscape elements, such as trees and berms, to deflect unwanted nor’easter storm winds, for instance, but to welcome southeastern summer breezes where available.

Good design also incorporates southern overhangs and deciduous trees for summer shade which, come winter, will still allow sunlight to penetrate deep within the house. This, too, is common sense green. Window sizes and placement are also critical to managing seasonal light and solar heat gain.

make green building-system and product choices and be mindful of every-day conservation

Once you’ve acted on the many basics of good design that are intrinsic to common sense green design as reviewed above, you’re ready to investigate the many green alternatives much discussed in the marketplace. True, it only makes sense to use high-performing, efficient and safe: building materials, systems, appliances, fixtures and finishes and to be mindful of every-day conservation. Simple measures like recycling household goods, attention to water usage, remembering to switch the lights off in un-used spaces, turning the heat down, grouping errands etc. can make a difference. Just remember that the first step in expressing a green philosophy at home is to employ good design practices that are inherently green.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast