It's strange. I thought the era of the McMansion was over with the Great Recession, that the great suburban experiment which Jim Kunstler called " the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world" had finally run out gas. However, that bellweather that I love to hate, the New American Home at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas, demonstrates that happy days are here again.
Blue Heron Homes built the 2009 home, well into the housing crash. I wondered at the time whether they shouldn't be building a jail for Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide or Dick Fuld of Lehmans, but instead we got an "8721 square foot "demonstration of sustainable technologies." I suppose it is a sign of the changing times that this year's home is a more modest 6,721 square feet of interior space on a 17,261 square foot footprint.
And what a Godzilla of a footprint it is; one of the few things I do like about this house is the fact that they really do use the outdoor space. It takes 17 automated multislide doors to close it all off when the air conditioning goes on. Builder online notes that this house is "a distinct departure from the bargain-priced, neo-Mediterranean McMansions left in the wake of the recession". Indeed it is. It is for the very rich, the only ones who can get mortgages or pay cash.
Once you cross the threshold from the front steps into the entry courtyard and down a path flanked by a narrow canal of water that runs to the back of the house, you really don’t care how Blue Heron did it. You just can’t wait to get behind the thick wood-and-glass entry door into a foyer that opens completely to the outside and looks across a koi pond below, fed by a gentle cascade of water from the first of two zero-edge pools separated by a sunken outdoor living area. Beyond that is a pergola that appears to float on the second pool that limns the back of the property at the edge of a narrow canyon.
According to the National Association of Home Builders,
The show home demonstrates “Builders' Best Practices:" concepts, materials, designs and construction techniques that can be replicated – in whole or in part – in housing built any place and in any price range. Incorporating such elements as the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, safety and universal design as well as market value is a principal goal of The New American Home program. Its mission is to show that housing performance can be incorporated into the most simple or most complex homes, and that it’s equally as important as aesthetics.
And indeed, they don't make a big deal of it but there are lots of what would be called green features:
TNAH 2013 relies on the latest innovations in green building and construction technology, including a state-of-the-art energy efficiency package. The home’s green building features include a gas HVAC system, solar hot water heater with gas fired back-up, photovoltaic panels, closed spray foam insulation that also reduces sound transmission through plumbing walls. It also includes a weather-sensitive irrigation system that automatically adjusts usage relative to the immediate climate, tankless hot water heaters, hydronic air handlers, intelligent fireplaces, and sustainable building materials.
The Third-party verifier calls it " a symbol of energy efficiency and innovation". Here are the specs from his report:
The third party verifier also says that the house is certified Platinum by the USGBC LEED for homes program, which is pretty quick work for a house that was finished like yesterday. I won't even ask how a 6,721 square foot house in a gated community on the far outskirts of town with a monster pool evaporating into the Las Vegas heat qualifies for Platinum because that is another story.
Everybody is so happy that the housing market is recovering, and I suppose this is a perfect example of where that recovery is: for the .01% who can get a mortgage or pay cash, who can fill the four car garage. I suppose I should be happy that they actually care about green building.
But I had really thought that we had seen the end of this kind of thing. I had hoped that when the housing industry came back, that cul-de-sac planning wouldn't. That the New American Home would be designed for a New American Way of Living, in tight, efficient, affordable houses in walkable communities. Clearly, I was hoping for too much.