Beauty, Style, Comfort and Green Building

Green building is independent of style, yet it places very significant design constraints on things like window placement, building orientation, building size and material use.1  The conflict further arises when the desire for beauty and plenty of space encourage the excess consumption of both materials and energy.  The sad truth is that excess space is often unused, and what seems beautiful today, all too often ends up in the landfill tomorrow.

The challenge for green architects and their clients alike2 is to find the happy medium.

Understanding Desire

Given a choice, no one wants to live in an ugly building.  Style also matters: living in a house that doesn't match your idea of "home" is like putting a cowboy in a pin-striped suit.  With a suitable budget, desire doesn't always stop there: a house can also represent who you are, or even who you want to be, or for that matter not just the house, but the neighborhood: are you urban, suburban, or rural?  A house says a lot about you, even if you're unaware of it.  The exercise here is not about judgment, but just being aware of who you are.  The fact that architecture says something about you did not start with mini-mansions--its been a fundamental tenet of architecture since the beginning.

In fact, historically, architecture was ONLY about beauty and status, and the notions of function flow and comfort were not even in anyone's vocabulary.3  Humans have an immense ability to suffer if it gains them a positive emotional sense that they are "somebody" or that they belong.  It's what will make women wear four inch heels, men drive expensive cars, and people in general to buy mini-mansion homes.

These are genuine human emotions that cannot be ignored, but beauty and status are both partly cultural, and our culture is slowly changing to view smaller, low energy buildings as being beautiful.  The popularity of the "Not so Big" book series showed that there is broad interest in smaller homes, and the recent "The Shape of Green" addresses the broader topic of style and green building.  As "green" becomes cool, our desires will change.

By getting to the root of your desires and keeping an open mind, you can usually find a way to have what you want and still be green: the process will be harder, but the result will be awesome.


Style is also dictated by climate, or at least you need to be prepared to suffer the consequences if it isn't. There is a reason for those wrap-around porches in the south, for pitched roofs with big overhangs in rainy climates, why prairie style are low to the ground, why  there are small windows in the desert, and bigger ones in the north. These are all there because they make the building work better in that climate.  Admittedly, we now have high-tech products that somewhat alleviate these concerns,  but its clearly better to work with nature rather than against it.

For the most part, the only concern here is roofs, porches and windows, as they are the major elements that control the entry of sun, light, wind and rain.


What makes a building beautiful?  If there were any answer that people could agree on, it would be that no one agrees on what it beautiful, and also that being beautiful is important.  Artists have notions about relationship of shapes and colors, and although violating them does tend to produce unattractive buildings, style is likely the bigger driver of one's sense of beauty.  Its about what the building says about you, as much as clothes, cars or any other designed object.

Environmentally, our disagreement over beauty is the cause of some sizable chunk of the remodeling that happens when people buy houses they inevitably don't find beautiful, but the problem here goes quite a bit deeper.  At one extreme is when a person's sense of beauty is leans toward the fringe ideas of beauty, or for that matter, the trendy, but reviled by many. The land fills have more than their share of brown shag carpet, avocado toilets, gaudy light fixtures, pink tile and so on4.  At the other extreme are buildings with no sense of style at all, often done on the cheap.  In between these sits the well executed buildings true to their style.

This isn't to say that architecture can't be art, but rather that the average homeowner isn't interested in it, and if not done well (the difference between Gaudi and gaudy, although some would probably argue there is none), it will surely end up in the landfill.5  Green building also hints at an alternative notions of beauty where function and comfort are observed as part of the visual rhythm, or looked at another way that beauty isn't purely visual.

By taking these ideas into account, one can still build a craftsman, modernist, colonial or any other style by keeping the original senses of proportion and material selection, but modifying the design to be greener. Its a matter of reinterpreting the original ideas in a new context.


Designing for comfort is an aspect that is often overlooked, partially because no one exactly  knows how to do it, and partly because humans are so variable.  The discussion of green building is often limited to environmental impact on a planet wide scale, but it is also concerned with building a good environment both inside and directly outside the building.  It is a difficult sell to save the planet if the result is that everyone has to live in unpleasant surroundings.

People studying human behavior have found some principles having nothing to do with architectural style or beauty of what kinds of spaces people like to inhabit.  These principles are based on both observation and human psychology, and are covered in the section on pattern principles.

In many cases, green building has focused only on engineering: energy, use material use, and even toxicity levels are all quantifiable, but comfort and beauty are not.

Alternative Notions from Green Building

Without doubt, green building requires more design work.  Its not that traditional buildings didn't also require some of this work, its that people were just willing to live with whatever result they happened to get.  There is no shortage of buildings that are sometimes too hot, sometime too cold, have bathrooms in awkward places, doors that won't open fully because something is in the way, rooms that are too bright, others that are too dark, bedrooms awkwardly placed next to living rooms and so on.  You do more work; you also get a better building.

At its heart, green building is about cultural change that is redefining what is good and desirable, even though many are adopting some of the ideas with only minimum thought about the cultural aspects.  Deep at the root of green building is the belief that people need nature; that smaller, intricately thought-out buildings are nicer than big ones, that an organic, hand made feel is closer to our hearts than a mass-produced industrial one, that creativity and inventiveness can coexist perfectly with function, and that a building needs to charm the soul as well as the eye.

The notion of "home".  It's where you sleep, where you eat (even if less so than it used to be), and where you spend a lot of time.  For some home is just that and an address to send bills, but for many its a very special place.  A person's notion of home is a significant factor in determining what kind of house they want to live in.   In the culture of green building,  home is primarily a place of refuge, rather than a place of art or status.

Ideas from other cultures: The ancient Chinese practice of Feng Shui has been somewhat popular in Green Building circles and recently the Ayurvedic and Vastu principles as well.  These practices tend to have similar ideas behind them (the notion of harmony with nature), but are stated in ways that can be difficult for westerners6 .  If they work for you, you can use the patterns here as an alternative source, although you will probably find some areas of conflict.  Someday, someone will probably find a way to integrate all these ideas into one, and the average westerner can adopt some of the principles without having to know about Chi or Jyotish.

Final Thoughts

Green building can be done with any concept of beauty and style, but its certainly at it best when those concepts are made greener themselves.  It also brings the long ignored concept of comfort to the forefront of design, increasing the odds that the green building is a source of joy in people's lives.


Home, Witold Rybczynski, Viking, 1986

The Not so Big House, Sarah Susanka, Taunton, 1998

Creating the Not so Big House, Sarah Susanka, 2000

Not so Big Solutions for Your Home, Sarah Susanka, 2002

How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand


1: as currently practiced green building means a lot of different things to different people, but since the purpose of this site it to promote "as green as possible",  all of these things should be taken into account.

2: there is all too often a terrible mismatch between client and architect where either the client or the architect leans much greener ideas than the other. Getting on the same track (or permanent lack of communication) can be a great source of stress in a project.

3: the book "home" (see resource list) is an entertaining look at status  & comfort.

4: of course they could end up at the neighborhood re-use store (if there is one), and they often do.  Alas, there is little market for those avocado sinks and toilets.

5: see "how buildings learn" for a great analysis on style and building reuse.  Brand's actual claim is that the very cheap and the very lavish tend to last longer than those in the middle, but since that muddy middle is most of the houses, the ones done well clearly last longer than those not done well, although this includes construction quality as well as design.

6: My knowledge is limited to listening to how people have used these ideas in shaping their homes.