Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Manifesto: the new American dwelling

The single-family home is a great American dream, one that so many of us have been fortunate to share; but as our attitudes and awareness grow and shift, so do the definitions of that dream. It's time to redefine, to clarify what we're after.  It's time to let go of the meaningless habits of over-consumption, artificiality, and toxicity that have become accepted in the past 50 years, and to embrace a new attitude toward the home in this country.  It's time for a manifesto.

The new dwelling:


Shall be just big enough. No wasteful spaces, no unnecessary basements, no duplication of function (multiple dining areas, extra bathrooms, empty "formal" living rooms, towering foyers...). A small house means more family togetherness and more outdoor space: garden, play and discovery spaces, porches. The small house encourages you to go outside. But, to quote a client of mine, privacy and quiet are part of comfort too, so the definition of "small" will vary by family.

Shall be efficient. Small is a good start in this regard, but it also must have proper window orientation and shading, a compact form, a superinsulated, airtight thermal envelope, and efficient lighting, appliances, and mechanical systems. This is not how it's been done in the US, but it's easy, actually, once you know how. It starts with a plan that flows well; storage is cleverly worked in throughout the house, and wherever possible, is moved outside the conditioned envelope; structure and cladding is considered from the outset to optimize material use. Energy modeling is done early in the design process so that the energy implications of design decisions can be understood.

Shall promote health. No more toxic materials!-- Natural materials with minimal finishes predominate. The house shall be mechanically ventilated with heat- or energy-recovery, ensuring filtered fresh air throughout and managed humidity. That's the baseline of "do no harm," but we must actually do good--see next. 

Shall promote nature-connections. No more sterile boxes that cut people off from the environment! Harmony with Nature is the foundation of health, arguably is the definition of health. Delightful use of sunlight, views to vistas, sky, and gardens enliven the interior. Enclosed outdoor spaces adjacent to the house promote indoor-outdoor flow and frequent use. Planters for vegetables, herbs, and flowers inside and out provide texture, fragrance, and food. Water is not seen as a problem to push away from the house, but an opportunity to create pools, rain gardens, even wetlands. The garden supports habitat. And the kitchen is an inspiring place to prepare good food!

Shall be durable. No more throwaway finishes! The skin should not require frequent maintenance, but should stand up to its climate, rugged and long-lasting. Structure, finishes, and especially moving parts like windows shall be strong; and the materials within reach and at eye level on the exterior should be inviting.

Shall be lovable.  This not about design dogma, a "look" or "style"--just authenticity. Some love a box, some love a gable; the new dwelling has a purpose and intrinsic character due to all the foregoing principles. As long as it meets these and resonates with its owners and surroundings, there is much room for expression and personalization--it needs to be loved.

Now go forth and build it.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

River Forest Passive House final photos

At last! Eric Hausman took these in late summer, but I had to hold off making them public until some publications happened.  Dwell website, Green Builder Magazine, Tribune, Crain's, to name a few...it's been a good run in the press.  Awards too--USGBC Emerald Award, DOE Challenge Home Innovation Award, Green Builder "Best Behind the Walls" and a few others. Thanks to Brandon Weiss and Eric Barton for helping with the good exposure! Here's how the house turned out:
Southwest view--from garage to house. Cedar and the window cladding contrasting with the 2-texture siding

South composition: solar gain as art...

View from dining room to kitchen/back entry; indirect T5 uplighting was used throughout the house for ambient

Zola windows--great looking European Passive House performance

Stair as screen between entry and living spaces; built of yellow birch by Designed Stairs

Evening shot of the front facade.
Stay tuned for some philosophizing on design, and then the next projects.  I'm very excited to be undertaking a series of smaller, more affordable Passive House designs.  We're thinking nothing short of redefining the American home...

Monday, July 22, 2013

Quick follow-up

The Lemas have been in the house since January (moved in the coldest week of the year!), and have been extremely gracious to allow us team members to bring over clients and even take over the house for a weekend to participate in the GreenBuilt Home Tour this past weekend. It was huge success, allowing us to share the house with over 150 visitors interested in learning more about what "green" can mean in residential construction.  We're scheduling professional photography for Tuesday, but in the meantime, here are some updated shots.
Exterior in June, late morning--note shading on south
Kitchen, looking to mudroom and back door

Stair

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Finishes inside and out under way

Brandon Weiss continues to keep the schedule flowing.  It seems almost magical that a house like this can be built to this level of quality in about 7 months. 
upper family room with light shelf

back yard, landscape in!

paneling going up in alcove (piano area)
 
happy homeowner with Freyja of Dig Right In, landscape design
Completion is scheduled for late December; we'll be hosting another tour before Christmas...stay tuned.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Exterior finishes

The driveway has been poured (though it's under blankets due to the cool weather), the siding is up, and the gabions are installed: almost there!
Entry view: the door is unveiled at last!

Feels good as an architect to see the building appearing as drawn and imagined. This goes to show how important a good drawing is. And while that's important for the visible design, thorough documentation is even more critical when it comes to airtightness and thermal-bridge-free detailing. 

That plug for our profession out of the way, I'd like to say a few things about the exterior design and finishes.  Having served on Oak Park's Historic Preservation Commission for 5 years, I became more sensitive to the massing, roof overhangs, and window-to-wall ratios typical of late 19thc./early 20thc. architecture: before the time of clean and powerful air conditioning and heating.  Studying Passive Houses, it became apparent that a similar principle was at work: the shape, orientation, and number/placement of windows powerfully affect the energy balance of a building.  This doesn't mean that Passive Houses need to look "traditional", but they do share a continuity of design thought with traditional buildings.  I like that. 

The mass of this house was intended to have a traditional compact rectangular form and gabled roof; siding detailing of the thick walls offered design opportunities. First, we provided overhangs for the old-fashioned reason: they really do protect walls and windows.  On the walls we also provided intermediate trims with drip flashings to get water away from the wall and windows.  We chose LP SmartSide as the siding finish.  Like other siding products (fiber cement), it has a really long finish warranty (LP offers a 50 year transferable warranty!). But unlike fiber cement, it is much stronger, lighter, and impact resistant, and it is made entirely of wood (SFI certified fast-growing lumber specifically for OSB and siding).  Since they pulp the lumber, they use the entire tree, and do not add formaldehyde in the manufacturing process.  SmartSide comes in smooth and rough finishes, so we took the opportunity to break down the mass and create interest by contrasting alternating bands.  The exposures are 11" (rough) and 5" (smooth), which repeat the 16" coursing of the ICF blocks inside the walls. 

The basement windows needed areaways with retaining walls.  Traditionally these are of concrete, but realizing we had a lot of brick left over from the previous house, we decided to use the brick to fill wire baskets (gabions) which could operate as retaining walls merely by virtue of their mass: a simple recycling move that saved money and embodied energy. 
South basement window

Another thing about the gabions: they're a lot nicer to look at from the inside that concrete:
Front basement bedroom window
Dig Right In, eco-landscape firm out of Brookfield, is contracted to provide the landscape design and installation, which is scheduled in the next week or two. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Pictures, Sept. 26

Here are some updated pictures I took for my presentation at the Passive House Conference last weekend in Denver.  More soon!
front--brick just installed

living/dining space looking east to stair

from stair to west (back of house)

exterior rear of house

You may be wondering why the drywall is blue--it's a new product from Certainteed that captures and sequesters aldehydes and VOCs, so it will contribute even more to the healthy interior.

Most of the Passive House-specific items are installed, and the next few months will focus on finishes and fixtures.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Blower door did not suck

There are too many bad jokes to be made about blower doors...I couldn't resist.

This is just a very quick post to announce the our PHIUS+ rater, Andy Scott of Energistics, came to the site this week and performed the preliminary blower door test.  As soon as we turned the fan on we started smelling sewer gas (plumbing is just at rough, so no traps installed.  So we plugged them with rags and fiberglass (not exactly airtight, but kept the stink down and gave us a more accurate reading.  Andy didn't have a "C ring" to be able to get below 300cfm, so Brandon got one from his truck...
...here he is wearing it like a hat...
...and we got the reading: 240cfm, which translates to about 0.38ACH50, well below the 0.6 Passive House threshold, and we will be able to tighten a bit more with the plumbing.  A big congratulations are in order for Brandon and Eric for sealing the windows and doors so well...
tiny crack at the miter--but needs to be there to allow glass to be replaced

great seals on the doors and windows
...as well as the few penetrations through the ceiling.
gaskets were perfect
I'll say it again: this is a great team!