Your Green Dream House Might Be Illegal

ReCode is a project that is attempting to change building codes and zoning laws across the country to make them more amenable to sustainable design and renewable energy.

Your Green Dream House Might Be Illegal
Construction Worker via Shutterstock

In the mundane, bureaucratic world of zoning, innocuous rules can make a truly green home impossible. Al Gore’s attempt to install solar panels on his (admittedly massive) home in Belle Meade, Tennessee in 2002 ran into regulations preventing any “power generating equipment” above ground level (new rules were issued for solar panels in 2007).


And it’s a similar story around the country. Non-standard materials, mixed agriculture, and residential use and even (in the case of Oregon) having more than six unrelated adults share housing are prohibited or difficult to approve. It’s also needlessly expensive. Graywater recycling and composting toilets, while cheap to build on-site, are often pricey features because building codes mandate manufactured alternatives backed by industry testing, despite being less effective in some cases.

An Oregon-based initiative is determined to rewrite the rules. When Tryon Life Community Farm attempted to build green housing in Portland, it ran into this maze of regulation. Their trials inspired the ReCode project, run by about 50 volunteers, focused on transforming the state’s building code, making it friendly for greener building one campaign at a time.

And it’s working. Their successes so far (since 2007) include legalizing graywater reuse, site-built composting toilets, and broadening the number of manufactured composting toilets permitted for use in Oregon.

That may sound modest, but rewriting zoning laws is not easy. Building codes are designed to guarantee safety (and avoid litigation), often by mandating standardized, expensive, and industry-tested materials or techniques. Maximizing efficiency, affordability, comfort, sustainability, and other features is usually a distant second.

While adjusting the code on a case by case basis is possible (see this New York Times profile of a building inspector in Moab, Utah who approves straw bale houses), it’s the exception rather than the rule. What’s needed is a more systematic overhaul of building codes. That means data and testing.

So ReCode is nothing if not rigorous. Besides revealing the laborious engineering, testing, and permitting a house must go through to get approval (see this scary infographic), its website offers a technical tour de force of the most mundane details on subjects such as “Sewers and Septics: Navigating the Gray Areas of Blackwater” and “Illustrations & Books on Composting Excrement.”


Things are starting to move ReCode’s way, and not just in Oregon. Cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and New York are clearing away old codes to make way for new urban farms and renewable energy.

In late 2001, New York City revealed its set of comprehensive Green Building Amendments, what it calls Zone Green, that will remove barriers to inefficient buildings and green development. The city says its proposal will let New Yorkers save $800 million in annual energy costs, while encouraging local food production in urban greenhouses and rooftop farms.

Before long, your green dream home might be legal after all.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.