Best Seat in the House

Countries aren’t just competing for gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. A race for the world’s most sustainable house is under way at the Future House Community Project, a group of ten homes, from eight countries (including Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain and Sweden), rising in the shadow of the Olympic stadium. The idea is to get countries competing over environmentalism, not just the long jump, and to tout China as an environmentally sensitive country.

Wait…what was that last part?

Construction in China accounts for more than six percent of the GDP, a 1,821.3 billion yuan—over $20 billion—industry, according the National Bureau of Statistics. One American architect says China adds Philadelphia-sized developments each month (not fact-checked, by the way, but the architect says a friend at National Geographic revealed the statistic to him). It’s no coincidence that China overtook the U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions in 2006.

At this rate of expansion (and pollution), it’s no wonder they’ve called on the international environmental community for architectural inspiration. Or have they?

China didn’t invite the US Green Building Council or the National Association of Homebuilders, or even the Straw Bale Association of Nebraska (why not?) to enter. Instead, they tapped engineers at Florida International University and Alternative Energy Builders, owned by developer George Bialecki, perhaps best known, if we can use that term, for creating an energy efficient assisted living facility in Moline, Illinois.

Bialecki believes the nascent industry can still be molded to the ways of green. “They don’t have as many bad habits as we have here in the U.S. because they’re new,” he explained (perhaps he hasn’t been perusing the National Bureau of Statistics Web site).

Our contribution is a stick-built, 3,200 square foot East-meets-West showcase, inspired both by Frank Lloyd and Feng Shui. We’re showing the world our recycled aluminum and zinc room; geothermal heat pumps, passive and active solar technology. The home offers a green system the builders call “Home Biology 101”—a five-principal energy efficient building approach.

Yes, 3,200 square feet, with materials shipped and shlepped six thousand miles. At issue here is a question we’re all grappling with: Just what makes a building green? Energy efficient, built with sustainable materials, and with good indoor air quality, yes—but how much of each of those?

Future House USA’s McMansion isn’t the most handsome of designs, but it sure is, um, big. If the Chinese economy keeps booming on, perhaps this will be the housing of the future. In the meantime, Olympics-goers bored with sports can check out Japan’s passive solar entry or Norway’s vacuum-paneled, aluminum sided home. Or, if all else fails, the complex includes offices, a park and supermarkets—they can always go shopping.