It's Not Easy Being Green

Many clients can't afford it. Builders are leery of it. When will ecologically sound housing reach the mainstream?

It began as a revelation in the wilderness. Medora Woods, a Minneapolis psychoanalyst, was wandering in the forest of northern Canada on what she describes as a vision quest--40 solitary hours to commune with the trees. At some point during the experience, she had an epiphany: Americans have lost touch with the natural world. "We forget that this highly urbanized and mechanized human lifestyle is a tiny instant in the millennia of human history," she later wrote in an article for Architecture Minnesota. "The human body and soul were not designed for freeways, computers, skyscrapers, and jet planes."

Woods is a devotee of the philosophies of Carl Jung and eventually molded her ideas into a paper titled "The Matter of Place: Does Place Matter?" which she presented in a conference to the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. Woods is also a member of the One-Percent Club, a fraternity of philanthropically minded millionaires whose organizing ambition is to distribute one-hundredth of their wealth annually to worthy charities. So with a thesis and the means to turn it into a full-blown experiment, Woods recruited Minneapolis architect Sarah Nettleton and set off to the north shore of Lake Superior to find herself a cabin. "As a result of the vision quest process," Woods explains in an interview, "I had the urge to go out and buy some property."

She settled on a four-acre plot in Tofte, Minnesota, which is a bump on the road between Duluth and Canada. Tofte is cabin country, and aside from some new condos, most of the houses here are quaint one-story affairs set at the end of winding drives. Down one of these roads near the rocky lakeshore, a crew of Toftians is hard at work on Woods's cabin. The tiny, 50-year-old summerhouse that originally stood on the lot has now been entirely supplanted by a skeletal one-story structure with a vaulted ceiling and tall, narrow windows. It's a simple building designed to make the most of its site; the bathtub, for example, will eventually afford a view of the lake, and the windows will allow natural light to flood the interior.

Although the plan is fairly low-key, the blueprints reference some prominent antecedents. The passive lighting scheme, planned to illuminate the cabin's interior and reduce energy costs, is reminiscent of the design style of Australian architect Glenn Murcutt. The structure's arched roof and asymmetric profile recall some features of Murcutt's ultramodern custom houses as well, but the Tofte cabin is also designed to fit into the contours of the site and mesh with the woodsy aesthetic of the area. It's been a challenge, explains Nettleton, to apply the complex mores of eco-design while using the small footprint of the old cabin and maintaining the integrity of the site.

While workers finish the construction, Woods is busy writing a book about her new house. The book, she explains, will document her collaboration with Nettleton and their experiments with sustainable design--construction in which little or none of the building material finds its way into a landfill. Along with fastidious recycling of wood and metal, Nettleton and her contractors are using salvaged lumber and fiberglass insulation, searching out nontoxic alternatives to the standard waterproofing agents, and carefully gauging the effect of the building on both the lakeshore and the local economy. "You have to be an industrial engineer and a chemist," says Nettleton. "It's complicated and expensive, but we wanted to figure these things out and break some new ground."

According to Rachelle Schoessler Lynn of LHB Architects & Engineers, however, complicated and expensive is the major problem with green design. "When people think of that kind of house, they imagine something like the bubble home from Northern Exposure. One of the challenges is to design houses that wouldn't look odd or wacko. We want them to look like normal houses."

Minneapolis-based LHB has made a specialty of designing green houses that are neither wacko nor prohibitively expensive--a critical step in the evolution of this architectural movement. Ecologically sensitive housing doesn't do much good, after all, if almost no one can afford it. Although LHB has been building greener houses since the early '90s, many of their initial projects were in second- and third-ring suburbs, and thus still contributed to urban sprawl and pollution from commuter traffic.

In 1996 LHB architect Rick Carter decided to experiment with environmentally friendly housing in the urban core. He switched from architect to client and commissioned LHB to design a 1,700-square-foot house on a reclaimed lot in Minneapolis. The idea was to apply the principles of green design to affordable city housing. "It came out of this blatant awareness of the dichotomy between the suburbs and the inner city," explains Carter. "We were building houses out in Orono and Chanhassen with a lot of bells and whistles...We wanted to design more than houses with a lot of high-tech stuff. We wanted to keep the plans small and the framing simple."

There are certainly some bells and whistles in Carter's custom-designed house, but they are hidden inside a simple, two-story structure that looks more or less like all the other simple, two-story homes in its Bryn Mawr environs. Carter explains that the house's windows are facing primarily to the south to take advantage of passive solar heating, although there are also windows positioned to the north to afford a view of the wooded ravine where a creek cuts through the neighborhood, and an adjacent lot that the city has turned into a wildflower field.

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