This year’s winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize was announced this week, and he’s Australian. Glenn Murcutt‘s claim to fame is that he’s an environmentally conscious designer; his work, mostly composed of single-family houses, is designed to blend in with the environment. Murcutt apparently dislikes air conditioning, and many of his houses are designed to use passive cooling and don’t have air conditioners. His houses are attractive and modern looking, but not weird; they use some non-traditional materials, but nothing as strange as cordwood masonry. Murcutt makes environmentally conscious houses that don’t look like a seventh-grader’s diorama, slapped together out of styrofoam and masking tape after reading Dune for the first time. Much of the engineering that goes into an earthship is impressive. But if there’s going to be a revolution in green housing, it’s not going to come from showcase houses and pizoelectric bamboo skyscrapers; it’s going when homes, the average everyday homes that even people who aren’t concerned about sustainable materials buy bamboo flooring anyway because it’s almost as cheap and more attractive than hardwood, when you can go to the Home Depot and buy solar shingles for your roof or a fuel cell or Stirling engine (perhaps using genius inventor Dean Kamen’s latest refinements; with a great deal of luck, by the time I’m buying a house, I’ll be able to use a Stirling engine to cool it) for your basement because it’s economical, when energy efficient windows and sensible construction of a house to take advantage of existing sunlight and shade are standard, not features. It will happen when eco-friendly houses have appeal to a buying public only marginally concerned with eco-friendliness.
I think the premise behind Viridian design — making environmentally responsible consumer products better, cheaper, cooler than those made in traditional ways — is a good one; I think making them appeal to people who aren’t early adopters is an even better one. Rammed earth houses use a highly sustainable building material, but it’s apparent that they’re made out of something uncommon; straw bale houses are covered with adobe and thus mask their underlying materials. Until the Viridian effect kicks in and people start wanting green technology simply because it’s hipper than what the neighbors have, I think the straw bale house will remain more popular. Popularity leads production, which leads to both increased availability and lower prices; given how expensive some of these products are (solar shingles cost ten times what regular shingles do), bringing the price down can only help their popularity. But a virtuous cycle has to start somewhere. Australian homes for real people that don’t announce that they use cutting edge environmental architecture but win prestigious awards anyway might just be a first step on both counts; they appeal to people with interests beyond getting their energy consumption down to a minimum, and they just might make green houses dead sexy.