It's a funny thing about houses. People who have the means to commission an architect-designed home might be expected to care about issues other than big floor plans and marble countertops. For instance, they might be expected to care about whether their new place increased our dependence on fossil fuels or used wood from destructively clear-cut forests. And if altruistic motives don't move them much, they certainly might care about the harm to themselves and their families from homebuilding materials that emit toxic chemicals into the air of their nice living rooms. Could it be that one reason those women on Desperate Housewives are so desperate is that their houses are full of polyvinyl chlorides? You might suspect there's even worse stuff in their breast implants, but still.
Six years ago, the U.S. Green Building Council, an environmentally conscious industry group, adopted a rating system to promote green practices on "institutional" projects like office buildings and factories. In recent years, the council has been developing a similar set of standards that it hopes will be observed by homebuilders, especially the big companies that put up 25% of all new houses. Meanwhile, there are people who aren't waiting for anybody else to set standards. They have standards of their own. For decades there have been individual homeowners dedicated to incorporating green principles into their custom-designed homes. This is not a mass movement. It's an advance guard, homeowners here and there around the country with both the awareness and the means to build green, a practice that can incur extra costs up front but can pay them back over the longer term in energy savings and other advantages, in addition to its benefits to the wider world.
For now, the clients more likely to insist on a green house are people who care about nature and who want something more appealing to the eye than a tract house with a few solar panels slapped on top. That would describe the couple who commissioned Nathan Good, an architect based in Salem, Ore., to design their weekend home in Cannon Beach, a small town on that state's northern coast. The clients, who prefer not to be identified by name, have a long history as advocates for environmental awareness. After losing their weekend cabin in a fire, they began to envision a new house for the same site, a hill that overlooks the Pacific and a nearby marine-and-bird sanctuary. In a recent e-mail to TIME, they described what they had in mind from the outset: "rustic materials compatible with other homes in the community, [something] snuggled into the landscape, low impact on neighbors, no or low toxic impact on the carpenters, low impact on the site—spacious feeling without being big, cozy without being cramped."