All over America, a post-Katrina future is taking shape under the banner of “sustainability.” Architects vie to create the most sustainable skyscrapers. The current champion in Manhattan appears to be Norman Foster’s futuristic headquarters for the Hearst Corp., lit to its innermost depths by God’s own high-efficiency light source, the sun. The building’s “destination dispatch” elevators require passengers to enter their floor at a kiosk, where a screen directs them to a cab, grouping them to wring the last watt of efficiency from their 30-second trips. But it is expected to be challenged soon in Manhattan by a new Bank of America tower, designed by Cook & Fox, which takes “sustainability” to a point just short of growing its own food. Every drop of rain that falls on its roof will be captured for use; scraps from the cafeteria will be fermented in the building to produce methane as a supplementary fuel for a generator intended to produce more than half the building’s electricity; the waste heat from the generator will both warm the offices and power a refrigeration plant to cool them.
Far away in Traverse City, Mich., a resort town four hours north of Detroit, home builder Lawrence Kinney wrestles with a different problem, people who want 6,000-square-foot vacation houses they will use only a couple of weeks a year. Outraged by the waste, he refuses to build them. His preferred size is about 1,800 square feet, 25 percent smaller than the national average; he has rediscovered the virtues of plaster walls instead of resource-intensive drywall, uses lumber harvested locally by horse-drawn teams and treats his wood with stains made from plants, not petroleum. When Jeff Martin, a program manager for Microsoft, set out to build a sustainable house near Charlotte, N.C., he specified something that looked like a house, not “a yurt, or a spaceship, or something made out of recycled cans and tires in the middle of the desert.” He turned to Steven Strong, a Massachusetts-based renewable-energy consultant who says he “fell in love” with solar energy when he realized that “you could put a thin sliver of silicon, with no moving parts and no waste, in the sun and generate electricity forever.” Strong designed an unobtrusive solar-cell array on the roof of Martin’s conventional stucco-and-stone house to provide free electricity, and a sun-powered heater that produces so much hot water Martin can use it to wash his driveway. “We never run out,” Martin boasts, “even when my wife’s family comes to visit over Christmas.”