10 Historical Green Homes

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Many people think that green homes are modern homes that use advanced technology to reduce their impact on the environment. However, some green homes are ancient and have been around for a long time. In fact, some of the green design features used in modern homes have their roots in very old construction techniques. Humans have been adapting their homes for efficiency for thousands of years. The ancient Pueblo people of the American Southwest built homes with green designs and techniques that were later used by famous architects like Philip Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright. If you’re thinking about building a green home or making green improvements to your existing home, consider these historic green homes. Although they were built hundreds or thousands of years ago, the basic principles that made them efficient could work for your own project.

10: Ardestie Earth House: Scotland

The Ardestie Earth House is an Iron Age structure that was likely built without any modern green building techniques. It was discovered in Dundee in 1949 and consists of a series of interlinked huts and underground cellars. Although this type of construction was common in the location and era, the Ardestie Earth House offers evidence that our ancestors knew how to build green homes. The earth is a great insulator and building material, and many of the historic green homes on this list make use of earthen walls or build into the earth to save energy and reduce material usage. The people who built the Ardestie Earth House were focused on making the most of their building materials and staying warm during the cold winters. Little did they know that their home would incorporate green design features that would be praised by builders centuries later.

9: Peralta Adobe: San Jose, CA, USA

The Peralta Adobe, constructed in 1797, is an early instance of sustainable building with excellent insulation and passive solar heating.
Photo credit: History San Jose

The Peralta Adobe is the oldest house in San Jose, California. It is believed to have been constructed in the late 1700s and is the last remaining piece of El Pueblo de San Jose de Guadalupe, a Spanish settlement that later became San Jose [source: Waymarking.com]. Nowadays, the Peralta Adobe and the Victorian-era Fallon House are preserved as living examples of the city’s southwestern past [source: History San Jose].

Adobe is a combination of clay and sand that can form long-lasting bricks, walls, floors, and other structures. In arid regions such as the deserts of the American Southwest, adobe has been used for centuries as a practical building material.

Adobe is an effective choice for constructing energy-efficient buildings, in addition to its convenience factor. Adobe not only provides good insulation, but it also retains and gradually releases heat, similar to the even warmth that makes a clay oven ideal for cooking pizza or baking bread. Passive solar construction, such as placing a greenhouse on the outside of a south-facing adobe wall to provide solar heat to the home, is one of the many modern green construction methods that take advantage of adobe’s properties [source: Wilson]. However, for the early settlers who built structures like the Peralta Adobe, adobe was as much about convenience as it was about energy efficiency.

8: Underground Homes: Coober Pedy, Australia

Dugout and semi-dugout homes, which are entirely or partially constructed underground, have been built on every inhabited continent for thousands of years. It makes sense, particularly in areas where building materials such as timber, thatch, and loose stone are scarce: what better way to stay warm and dry?

The early underground homes in Coober Pedy, Australia, are an excellent example of form following function. Opal miners would move into their mine shafts after extracting as much of the gem as possible from the region’s sandstone. Over time, entire communities sprouted up from the abandoned mines, complete with churches and community gathering places. As non-miners started constructing their own underground homes, the communities grew even larger, with tunneling machines used to create dwellings that surpassed the original hand-dug shafts in beauty and functionality [source: Outback Australia Travel Guide].

Nowadays, opal mining is no longer practiced in Coober Pedy, but homeowners continue to build and expand underground homes in the stable, insulating sandstone. These are perhaps the most extreme example of a green-building technology – using the earth itself as walls, roofs, and floors – that has been in use since before recorded history. However, with the modern homes of Coober Pedy, the technique has been refined to an architectural art.

7: Earthships: Taos, NM, USA

This Earthship is situated at the Greater World Earthship Community in Taos, New Mexico, and is constructed using tires and bottles. Architect Michael Reynolds created the Earthship concept in the late 1960s, and his structures use recycled materials like cans, bottles, and tires to blend into their natural surroundings. Earthships are designed to provide water, heat, electricity, and sewage management without relying on outside utilities. These eco-friendly homes are popular worldwide and have been built in various communities [source: Freed].

Earthship designs are tailored to the climate, materials, and user’s needs, but they share common features. The walls are made of old tires filled with dirt, stacked like bricks, and covered with an earthen material. This construction technique creates walls up to 30 inches thick, providing excellent insulation and keeping heating and cooling costs low [source: Earthship Biotecture].

Passive solar features like greenhouses, skylights, and strategically placed windows are common in Earthships, maximizing sunlight for light and heating. With solar arrays, solar heat, and geothermal heating, Earthships can maintain desired temperatures without relying on outside power sources.

Earthships go beyond homes with organic gardens, composting, and rainwater collection. These eco-friendly homes are cost-effective, eco-friendly, and provide significant ecological benefits [source: Earthship Biotecture].

6: The Philip Johnson Glass House: New Canaan, CT, USA

Architecture historians consider the Glass House, located in New Canaan, Connecticut, as one of the first homes fully integrated into the surrounding landscape. The Glass House is notable for its transparency, with four walls of glass supported by black pillars and framing a glass door, making it appear to vanish at certain angles [source: The Glass House].

The Glass House was designed by Philip Johnson in 1947 as part of a “composition” of structures, including 14 structures he built for the 47-acre site. Johnson’s Brick House complements the Glass House, with both structures featuring clean lines and spacious glass walls that blur the boundary between the interior and nature [source: Daily Icon].

Environmentally sensitive building involves more than just solar panels, geothermal systems, or high-efficiency windows. Homes designed to blend into their natural surroundings create a closer connection with nature, making residents more aware of the seasons, natural beauty, and the valuable role nature plays in creating a home’s ambiance.

5: Fallingwater: Mill Run, PA, USA

Fallingwater is a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and completed in 1939, located in Pennsylvania over a waterfall. It was commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann, Sr., a department-store owner from Pittsburgh, and is considered to be a prime example of integrating a house with its natural surroundings. The house is cantilevered over a cascade of waterfalls, which Wright intended for the family to “live with,” rather than just observe from afar. Fallingwater has been a significant influence on architects and builders, with features such as spacious windows and an open structure being incorporated into post-World War II homes like the Case Study Houses. The passive solar design found in modern green homes also owes its roots to the architectural art of Fallingwater.

4: Monticello: Charlottesville, VA, USA

Monticello is the estate of Thomas Jefferson located in Virginia, on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The home reflects Jefferson’s Renaissance man persona, with features that are still relevant in modern green homes. The mansion’s first-floor rooms have skylights that channel light from the upper story, and ample glass doors throughout the home provide both light and temperature control. Jefferson’s design is an early example of a passive-solar heat and light system. The estate also has small details that showcase environmental awareness, such as a weather vane atop the front porch that can be read in any weather, and a clock in the main hall that uses gravitational pull to track the hours and days. Modern green homes that connect inhabitants to the natural world can trace their inspiration back to Jefferson’s visionary estate.

3: Kasubi Tombs: Kampala City, Uganda

The Kasubi Tombs in Kampala City, Uganda, are an example of a green building material that has stood the test of time. The thatched roofs and walls of the tombs are made from tightly bundled grass, reeds, or similar vegetation, which have been used by cultures all over the world to keep inhabitants warm and dry. The tomb of Mutesa I, king of Buganda from 1856 to 1884, is located here and is a testament to the durability and sustainability of thatched buildings.

Thatch can be made from quickly growing plants and is a renewable building material that provides excellent insulation. Many thatched roofs use a simple framework and can fulfill the insulation requirements of modern roofs. One of the largest and most historic thatched roofs in the world is found at the Kasubi Tombs in Uganda, which unfortunately suffered a fire in 2010. Thatched roofs are also becoming popular in modern and historic homes due to their durability and fire-retardant technology.

The oldest net-zero house in America is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The house produces as much energy as it consumes thanks to a solar array, geothermal heat system, and energy-recovery ventilator. The homeowners documented the rehabilitation project online to show that energy efficiency can be part of any dwelling’s plan, regardless of its age.

The cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado were built by the Pueblo people from 600 to 1300 A.D. These dwellings were literally built beneath a large overhanging cliff and were accessed by balconies and ladders. The natural fortress around the dwellings protected the inhabitants from intruders. These cliff dwellings are some of the earliest green homes in the Southwest.

Mesa Verde is an excellent example of the design philosophy used in many historic green structures. The Pueblo people utilized rough-hewn stone from the arid desert, working with the natural environment instead of against it. This approach to construction is not new, but it takes on a green meaning when considering the transportation costs of modern building materials. The Pueblo people took advantage of natural features to protect themselves from the elements, showing that green building can be practical and logical, without relying on high-tech solutions. For more information on green building, check out the related articles and sources listed on the page.


1. What is a historic green home?

A historic green home is a residential building that has been designated as a historic landmark and is also environmentally sustainable. These homes are typically renovated to incorporate green building practices and technologies, such as energy-efficient appliances, insulation, and renewable energy sources. The goal is to preserve the historic character of the home while reducing its environmental impact.

2. Why are historic green homes important?

Historic green homes are important because they combine two important aspects of sustainability: preserving our cultural heritage and reducing our environmental impact. By renovating historic homes to be more energy-efficient, we can reduce our carbon footprint and save energy while still maintaining the integrity and beauty of these important landmarks.

3. What are some examples of historic green homes?

Some examples of historic green homes include the Solar Decathlon houses, which were designed and built by college students from around the world to be energy-efficient and sustainable. Other examples include the Victorian homes in San Francisco that have been retrofitted with solar panels and energy-efficient appliances, and the historic homes in Charleston, South Carolina, which have been renovated to incorporate geothermal heating and cooling systems.

4. How do you renovate a historic home to be more sustainable?

Renovating a historic home to be more sustainable requires careful planning and execution. Some common strategies include adding insulation to the walls and roof, installing energy-efficient windows and doors, and using renewable energy sources such as solar panels or geothermal heating and cooling. It is also important to preserve the historic character of the home by using materials and techniques that are consistent with the original construction.

5. Are there any challenges in renovating historic homes to be more sustainable?

Yes, there are several challenges in renovating historic homes to be more sustainable. One of the biggest challenges is maintaining the historic character of the home while making it more energy-efficient. It is important to use materials and techniques that are consistent with the original construction, which can be more expensive and time-consuming than using modern materials. Additionally, many historic homes were not designed with energy efficiency in mind, so it may be difficult to retrofit them with modern technologies.

6. What are the benefits of living in a historic green home?

The benefits of living in a historic green home include lower energy bills, reduced environmental impact, and the satisfaction of preserving an important cultural landmark. Additionally, many historic homes are located in desirable neighborhoods with easy access to public transportation and other amenities.

7. How can I find a historic green home to live in?

You can find historic green homes to live in by searching online real estate listings or contacting a local preservation society. It is also a good idea to work with a real estate agent who specializes in historic homes, as they will have a better understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities that come with owning and renovating these types of properties.

8. What should I consider before buying a historic green home?

Before buying a historic green home, it is important to consider the cost of renovations, the potential maintenance and repair costs, and any restrictions or regulations that may apply to the property due to its historic status. It is also a good idea to have the home inspected by a professional to identify any potential issues or problems with the building’s structure or systems.

9. Can I get tax credits for renovating a historic green home?

Yes, there are tax credits available for renovating historic green homes. The federal government offers a tax credit of up to 20% of the cost of qualified renovations to historic buildings, and many states and localities also offer tax incentives for preserving historic structures. It is important to consult with a tax professional to determine your eligibility for these credits and to ensure that you meet all of the necessary requirements.

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