More on Why I Hate Martha Stewart's Builder Concept Home

marthastewart green house postcard

After writing The Builder Concept Home 2011: Time To Redefine What We Mean By Green I received a lot of thoughtful but very critical comments where the consensus seemed to be that a) I was mad that they didn't consult me; b) Like it or not, this is what Americans want, c) what do I have against concrete in Florida? d) this is a horrendously poor piece, or my favourite, e) "I personally think the author wouldn't be happy unless we all either lived in a cave, igloo or reused some unused section of the nyc sewer system."

I thought I should revisit the poor piece and go through my rationale in a more logical, careful and restrained process, point by point.

1) It is rude, self-centered and anti-urban.Streets are the lifeblood, the arteries and capillaries of our community. Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman , not to mention new urbanists like Steve Mouzon, would tell you that eyes on the street keep them safe and vibrant. And what faces the street in this house? A snout garage, an inaccessible front door (look at the plan, there is a table in front of it) and a tiny bedroom window. This house, approved by Martha Stewart herself, turns its back on its community.

florida vernacular house photo
Old Florida style house: lots of windows, porches, overhangs. Credit JF Smith
2) It is an inappropriate New England style in a Florida climate.

I took a lot of flack for complaining about the concrete block construction from people who noted that it is solid in hurricanes and doesn't rot; Ignoring the fact that many Florida vernacular houses are built out of wood and are still standing, I think they have a point. I was thrown off by the complete nuttiness of covering it with imitation clapboard to look like a New England frame house.

I will acknowledge that concrete block is a common and effective way of building a rotproof and hurricane resistant house. It also has good thermal mass that can be used to moderate temperatures- if it was designed to do that, instead of just being buried between insulation and cladding.

thomas edison house photo
Thomas Edison House, Fort Myers. Porches. Trees. Shade. Big Windows.
3) It completely ignores any lesson from Florida architecture and design, meaning that the owners will have no choice but to air condition it constantly.

Dorinda K.M. Blackey defined Florida vernacular architecture in 1982:

In Florida's mild winters and long, hot summers, it is more critical to keep shelters cool. Florida's indigneous builders developed several architectural elements to combat the intense summer heat and lack of breezes, THe use of extensive porches and large roof overhangs provided extra protection for shelter from the sun. Porches were also important living spaces allowing the user to enjoy waht little breeze there might be available for cooling. To maximize these breezes on the interior space large window openings and cross ventilation designs were utilized wherever possible. A stippely pitched roof with high ceilings induced extra ventilation on the interior spaces, too. During these hot seasons the extensive rainfall acts as a natural cooling factor. The large overhangs and porches allowed windows to remain open during the rainstorm allowing the interior to take advantages of their cooling effect.

And what does Martha give us? dinky windows, almost no cross ventilation (the master bedroom is good), no overhangs, and no high ceilings, even though the roof in insulated in the rafters. In this climate, it would wilt in hours without air conditioning.

I understand that people do not want to live the way they used to in Florida, and that Thomas Edison had the luxury of being able to leave in summer. But if they applied some of the lessons of vernacular architecture, they could use a lot less air conditioning and perhaps enjoy Florida more.

focus house
A Green house for Florida built with traditional tech: University of Florida's Entry At Solar Decathlon Mixes Old Ideas, New Technology
4) It is not a green house, it is a conventional house with green stuff stuck on it.

The developer even admits this in the Wall Street Journal:

Still, the company is hedging its bets. The environmentally friendly features are largely options that buyers can choose if they wish. If not, they can just get a Martha house that isn't so green.

The problem with this optional extra approach is that it makes it really expensive, and really easy to take a pass on. Here I have to go back and quote Nic Darling in greater detail, from his essay on Polishing a Turd.

OK, so it's a bit harsh. Turd is, maybe, an unnecessarily rude word to use to describe what are often pretty nice homes, but the concept is sound. Most of the builders and developers reporting high premiums for pursuing LEED are still trying to build the exact same home they have always built. They are simply adding features to make that same house energy efficient, healthy and sustainable. This addition gets expensive....

So, they polish the turd. Rather than redesign the house that has been successful for them in the past, they add solar panels, geothermal systems, high end interior fixtures, extra insulation and other green features. The house gets greener. It gets certified, but it also increases significantly in cost. Since the features are add-ons and extras, the price rises as each one is tacked on.

green subdivision florida
University of Florida development proposal

5. It is simply not the way we should be building anymore.

A commenter wrote:

Like it or not (and I don't) but the burbs and houses like this aren't ever going away as long as America is America.

But when it comes to real estate, America is no longer the America it was. The fundamental equation becomes clearer every time you go to the gas pump: How green your house is becomes irrelevant compared to how much you drive. Houses like these are going away, because the externalities, such as fire departments, schools, highways and services, are becoming prohibitively expensive to support at such low densities. There are also twenty million vacant houses in America, many of them much like Martha's here; how many more do we need?

I don't know if this clarifies my position or digs me in deeper. As always, I look forward to your comments.

More on Florida and Housing:
The Builder Concept Home 2011: Time To Redefine What We Mean By Green
University of Florida's Entry At Solar Decathlon Mixes Old Ideas, New Technology
Is Energy Saving Weatherization Being Wasted in Florida?

Tags: Designers | Florida | Green Building


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