Last April, architect Michelle Kaufmann--whose prototypes for eco-friendly, modular homes are largely credited for having transformed prefab’s image from cheap to chic--suggested that the home building industry might benefit greatly from a standardized green labeling system for houses, similar to the FDA nutrition labels required on food. Her argument was that a similar regulatory structure for homes would allow consumers to evaluate sustainability claims on an apples-to-apples basis and alleviate the problem of rampant green-washing.

But Kaufmann's eco-evangelism didn’t stop there. Now the prefab architect has expanded her analysis to the troubles plaguing whole communities and the critical role that development patterns could play in reducing carbon emissions in the years ahead. 

Her latest white paper, “Embracing Thoughtful, Walkable Neighborhoods,” serves up, as food for thought, ten proposed EcoPrinciples for Communities--ideas, she says, that developers, planners, architects, and builders will be wise to consider as the U.S. population pushes ever closer to an expected density of 400 million people by the year 2050. 

“Now is the perfect time to reexamine the qualities we value in our neighborhoods and hopefully shift our focus onto those qualities that are conducive to…sustainability,” Kaufmann argues, coming out solidly on the side of smart growth as an antidote to the unsustainable modes of housing development that characterized the latter half of the 20th century. “Once the economy begins its recovery and credit begins flowing again, we must resist the temptation to recommence our sprawl with its associated threats to fiscal, environmental, and societal well-being.”

Kaufmann, who currently has green community projects under development in Denver, the San Francisco Bay area, and Las Vegas, notes that while the housing collapse offers clear evidence that Americans have overextended themselves financially, it also lays bare the reality that we are overextended ecologically.  “If everyone in the world lived in a style similar to that of the average American, we would require three earths to support the demand on our natural resources,” she says. 

As a starting point for change, Kaufmann maps out and elaborates on the following EcoPrinciples, which she believes must break free of the status quo:

• Smart design;
• Energy efficiency;
• Water conservation;
• Waste reduction;
• Healthy environments;
• Diversity;
• Smart location;
• Respect for the land;
• Smart automobile strategies; and
• Shared resources.
Are home buyers ready to give up the American dream as we’ve known it?  Kaufmann thinks so. “Americans, willingly or not, are beginning to turn their backs on the idea that a huge house atop a huge lot on the outskirts of town is a tenable dream,” she says, contending that new generations of buyers entering the market are, by nature, more eco-minded and inclined to prefer urban-style living environments.

Jenny Sullivan is senior editor, design, at BUILDER magazine.

What do you think of Kaufmann's eco-principles? Her belief that the new generations of home buyers will prefer more urbanized neighborhoods? Check out Kauffman’s white paper and leave us a comment below.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA, Las Vegas, NV, Denver, CO.