The Seattle Green Home Tour: What Is “Green” Anyway?

We spent Saturday afternoon trolling the Seattle Green Home Tour for ideas. We started at the home of Jeremy Smithson and Pamela Burton, owners of Puget Sound Solar. Their home was decked out with not one but two solar panel systems, a solar hot water heater, about ten rainwater collection barrels, and an electric car parked in the driveway. Perhaps most impressive, they had stripped the walls off the inside of their 100-year-old home and added layers of insulation, bringing them almost to net-zero. This house was all about saving energy.

With a few other exceptions, most of the other houses on the tour took a different approach. Energy savings were secondary, and most of the focus was on recycled materials. One particularly beautiful remodeled house preserved the antique leaded glass windows (energy-bleeding single-pane, of course). We saw some beautiful craftsmanship, but it got us talking as we walked between the ten or so houses we visited in Ballard and Phinney Ridge about whether one word, “green,” should be applied across such a wide range of projects. Is a large addition or a fancy remodeled kitchen green because some of the wood came from an old building? Or should that term be reserved for houses like the first one we saw, which also used recycled wood but used almost no energy?

I don’t know the answer, but one way to approach it is to ask another question: Is this project necessary? Fixing some shortcoming on a house, like a lack of insulation or an under-performing mechanical system, with something more efficient is certainly green. Doing a gut renovation for aesthetic reasons is perhaps less so, yet incorporating “green” building methods into a project of questionable necessity is better than sourcing all the materials from Home Depot.

Our house earns its green cred mainly for its energy efficiency. But can building a new house on an empty lot really be considered green? Maybe one of the ads from the tour brochure (for a green excavation company, of all things) sums it up best: “It’s gotta be done, so why not use a sustainable product.”

True to a point. Using a sustainable product is good. But in green building circles, it’s not yet cool to question whether “it’s gotta be done.”


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