Peter Arkle

In the mid-1990s, when Bill Gates announced that he planned to spend a fortune on a new house, a Seattle schoolteacher asked her fifth graders to draw what they thought such a house might look like. Harper’s Magazine published one of the drawings, a multistoried shoebox that was architecturally blank but technologically fantastic. A corkscrew waterslide ran from the rooftop to a pool in the basement. One level had a desk with a computer, surrounded by an enormous library apparently containing “all the video games in the universe,” and another level featured a small phone-booth–looking chamber topped with a blinking red light. A sign identified it simply as a “time machine.”

The real Gates residence, by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and Cutler Anderson, was big but rather modestly designed—a streamlined lodge that, for many, set the standard for bioregionalism. The architecture and landscape were a model of environmental sensitivity when few knew what that meant and LEED hadn’t yet been created. Today, however, green has gone mainstream, but much of the resulting architecture bears less resemblance to the actual Gates house than it does to the child’s fantasy house. The popular image of green building, replete with solar panels and wind turbines, is like that drawing—dumb design with smart gadgets.

A memorable example is the “Eco-House for the Future” concept that Diller Scofidio + Renfro developed for The New York Times Magazine in 2007. Located on an imaginary two-acre lot somewhere in the American Southwest, this “guilt-free, sustainable luxury house that thrives on excess” draws on existing technologies and “those that may come to be.” As with the concept published in Harper’s, the architecture itself is simplistic—a glass box propped on sculptural legs, like the love child of Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer. With huge expanses of glass in a desert climate, the house is an expensive toaster oven.

But the technology pulls out the stops: photovoltaics, geothermal heating and cooling, a rain collector that deploys like a giant umbrella, a “piezoelectric bed,” an energy-generating jogging treadmill, and a hydraulic swimming pool (but no slide). The Times claimed the house is a lesson in “how sustainability can have style,” but really it’s a master class in product placement for brands that don’t exist. “RotoFridge” is a “conveyor refrigerator,” “DryerCloset” is a mobile storage area, “DomestiSleep” regulates energy output, “EasyShower” essentially spits water instead of spraying it, “CoolingBlanket” evaporates heat from the body, and so on. Among the most intelligent and innovative practices working today, Diller Scofidio + Renfro here showed less imagination than that Seattle fifth grader. (What, no time machine?)

Futurist John Naisbitt distinguishes between “high-tech” and “high-touch”—quantity vs. quality. Green building is still laden with bells and whistles, but sustainable design deserves less tech and more touch.