Sustainability is for the Masses, by Design & Example

February 20, 2009 at 7:55 pm

I love Inhabitat  and think that their postings are always fresh and pertinent, examing what’s new and on the cutting edge of design.   But I just have to comment on the post from yesterday, February 19, 2009 –A Green Roofed Dog House for Obama’s New Puppy!   A gift for the Obama family from Sustainable Pet Design  (makers of Greenrrroof Animal Homes), the Obama Dog Home – Summa Canum (Latin for “Top Dog”) – was “created not only to provide an appropriately sustainable and stylish home for the new leader of the free canine world, but to introduce eco-friendly practices and materials to the American people.  ” A fantastic concept, and we’d all like to see the White House itself eventually greenroofed, right?   So why not start with a green dog house as a demonstration for all?   But as such, shouldn’t it be an example of a feasible option  available to the average American, too?

My comments aren’t  about Inhabitat, but geared to the company highlighted, the allusion of its name  and specifically to  their pricing structure.  Actually, my commentary is a long time coming, something I have to get off my chest…just give me a minute to rant and then let’s discuss the learning opportunities!   I remember first reading about  this new landscape designer about a year and a half ago in NovoMetro.   We  highly regard  all things eco-chic and always celebrate ecological design whether boutique or on a grand scale and  enjoyed reading about  her spunk and youth, and  appreciated the modern designs with vegetated roofs for dog and bird houses – see the article in NewsLinks.   But the concept of ultra-expensive boutique green architecture being referred to as sustainable irked me then, and even more when I saw so many news sources picking up on this “sustainable” dog house phenomenon…

I’m no one to diss marketing schemes and press coverage – in fact, that’s good old capitalism at its best.   And I certainly applaud entrepreneurship, especially  when it goes hand-in-hand with ecological design, but doesn’t the term “sustainability” also imply some level of long term economic responsibility?   In all consciousness, although the materials may be green, how can these prices be considered sustainable:

Greenrrrooff Animal Homes,  Dog Houses:
Extra Small: $1000
Small: $1250
Medium: $1500
Large: $2000
Extra Large: $3000
Couture Homes, Extra Large: $6000

These are obviously specialty items only for the rich – maybe for Paris Hilton, but not for the rest of us.   I’m not saying that this company shouldn’t offer these  artistic, custom  designs  to a niche market for the affluent; I am saying we’re not doing ourselves any favors by touting these structures as completely sustainable and  the media should be cognizant of this.   Regarding the Obama dog house, Sustainable Pet Design says, “Our intent is to create an ongoing testing ground for sustainable practices to which all Americans can contribute.   Summa Canum can be retrofitted with solar panels, radiant floor heating, a graywater recycling system…”   All awesome and noble ideas for promoting sustainable practices, but at what price?

OK, I can hear it now – Linda, you’ve missed the point: this dog house is made from completely donated environmentally-friendly materials from various companies, including Emory Knoll Farms, and it’s a gift.     Yes, but we learn by example and our greatest opportunity for example in the United States lies with our President.   The rest of us aren’t going to have vendors and designers donate their materials and expertise to us, and most of us certainly cannot afford even the Extra Small dog house at $1,000!

So what’s my suggestion – not to accept this gift?   No, but how about we present affordable options as well?   Maybe have a competition for the First Dog’s abode or a fundraiser for  animal charities from local Washington, D.C. area school kids to design both dog and bird houses?   They could team up with university architecture and/or landscape architecture students or even area design professionals.   I’m pretty sure we can get vendors to supply or sponsor materials and would end up with quite a wide  variety of conventional built-in-place greenroofs as well as modular ones.   This could be in honor of Earth Day, perhaps.

For example, the Augustenborg Botanical Roof Garden  in Malmö, Sweden has held very successful greenroofed bird house competitions where school children  learn about green design and construction; all the bird houses are put on display  for a while for public viewing and the winner gets a place of honor on the roof garden.   Our U.S. version could  hold the judging and/or auction on the lawn of the White House, and have non-winning entries donated to local animal shelters, schools, etc., with some of the greenroofed bird houses  set within the gardens.  What a great way to introduce the greenroof concept to many and encourage future generations to embrace ecological design!

Here are a couple of more affordable, and just as fashion-conscious dog house favorites of mine –  first is Finn and Cooper’s Dog House from Dr. Bradley Rowe, Associate Professor, Michigan State University, Department of Horticulture (see Michigan State Green Roof Research).   Brad estimates the cost at  “probably a couple hundred dollars.   Most of the cost was in the wood to build the doghouse, not the green roof part.   I harvested sedum cuttings off of some of our research plots, bought a few plants, and some were donated by Ed Snodgrass.”   The photo at left shows it newly constructed in 2003, and more fully grown in and still being enjoyed at right  in July, 2006.


Austin-based Chelsea Bandy of  Chelsea+Remy Design  and her boyfriend created the following design for the Fall 2007 Barkitecture competition, where local designers, builders and architects were asked to build dog houses with all of the proceeds going to support various local animal rescue groups.   Chelsea estimates that the total cost (if nothing were donated and everything was purchased outright) would have been about $500.   By the way, that’s Remy on the right!

Aside from the plants, other green materials used included:

-Crushed recycled glass (from local nursery Gardenville) bottles which add some fun sparkle and color to the roof while taking advantage of the “green” factor
-EcoResin 3Form Panels with Capiz shells, donated by 3 Form. ( We used these as windows.
-Concrete floor tiles.
-Reclaimed Low VOC faux paint.
-All scrap materials were donated to another building project so that waste was minimal.  

Neither of these dog house costs include designer or transportation fees, something to keep in mind (act locally, remember?).   The biggest drawback we have right now within the green building industry at large is higher up front costs to implement these new, albeit innovative green materials and services, but we know these will continue to come down as both supply and demand increase.   Designing sustainably  shouldn’t be an exclusive option only for a few, but inclusive of many.   There will always be a market for one-of-a-kind art pieces, but sustainable design as a global concept is important, and completely possible with continued ingenuity.   How about some eco-friendly design options for  our wallets, too?

Happy Greening ~ Linda V. next to my own neo-classical style greenroof bird feeder, a gift designed by fellow University of Georgia School of Environmental Design (now College of Environment and Design) graduate (now assistant professor) Shelley Cannady, in 2002 for about $50 using recycled materials and yes, donated succulents from Saul Nurseries  (it’s good to have some connections!).

March 13, 2009 Summa Canum Update:    As of March 12,  the eco-friendly doghouse is en route to the White House.   The Sustainable Pet Design press release says, “Green companies across the country have donated materials and services, including rock legend Neil Young, who is driving it to the White House this month, in his super-efficient hybrid 1959 Lincoln Continental to promote environmentally responsible vehicles; Summa Canum will be riding along in the convoy and delivered to the White House.   The dog home generated enough enthusiasm among members of the green community that almost all of the materials were donated.

“Summa Canum is more than a doghouse””it is an effort to promote and introduce sustainable materials to the American public through an accessible object.   Sustainable Pet Design and the sponsors of Summa Canum hope to create excitement through the idea that green is cool and patriotic.   The interest this generates will provide an opportunity to present greenroofs and eco-friendly materials as concrete ways to decrease climate change and waste, lower health concerns, and provide green jobs.”

Although I have reservations about the pricing of the doghouses for sale on SPD, I do wish you continued success, and offer you kudos for all of your hard work
~ Linda V.