Choreographing a more elegant construction
The usual way of piecing together a house is clumsy and problematic when designing for maximum energy efficiency. The wasteful example of carefully crafting a well insulated, airtight house and then having an HVAC subcontractor install a conventionally sized system that's too beefy for the job. According to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a home's energy needs can be slashed by as much as 50% to 70% if the architects, contractors, and trades people work in an integrated way.
Open building is one way of ensuring that the design and construction processes are coordinated. Open building "isn't a technical idea, it's an organizational idea." It considers the home's major systems individually as they will function over time, anticipating the service life of each as well as the likelihood that owners will want to make changes. Turning two bedrooms into one when the kids leave home, for example.
The design of an open-built house anticipates the need to repair or upgrade these systems. One system can be worked on without interference from the rest.
Open building is a way of inoculating houses against becoming obsolete as new and improved technologies reach the market. We can
prepare our buildings now for photovoltaics so that when they're cost effective, we're ready to put them on. One of the big problems with design is that people don't anticipate these
No one knows exactly how technology will affect the design of the home. Digital technology is making it possible for more people to work at home, to shop on the Internet, to pick up college credits online, to do banking and read the local paper, to be entertained, and to grow old gracefully. The home also likely will generate at least some of its own energy, making it still more independent from the outside world. Zero-energy homes are being built now. We should shoot for homes that are net producers of electricity, generating 20% above their energy needs.
photovoltaics into the mortgage.
Solar remains the best bet for on-site energy production. Although solar generated electricity is far cheaper today than in that era. As nonrenewable resources become scarcer and state and federal incentives come into play, PV power will look more attractive. Also, lenders increasingly will allow home buyers to fold the cost of photovoltaics into the mortgage, making it easier to commit to incorporating PV units with a new home. PV's look more attractive, too. Silicone wafer panels are slimming down. Still less obtrusive is the newer "thin film" technology that can be applied to the home's skin and even windows and skylights so that the entire structure is available to generate power.
The new generation of "smart" appliances is communicating with the world outside the household. The home's electrical feed transmits information as well as kilowatts, alerting air conditioners of an impending heat wave so that they could
pre-cool at night. Appliances might be able to search for cheap electrical energy during off hours and then store it for later use in your electric vehicle.
Neighborhoods for the new millennium
Sustainable houses will flourish only in sustainable communities. And our suburbs have failed to provide the services and the neighborliness that many homeowners are looking for. The boomtown approach to development, practiced by builders since the close of World War II, has got to go. That's clear to people both within the industry and those taking a critical look at it from other fields.
The community of Amelia Park, Fla., sprang up just a few years ago, yet it looks almost eerily
well established, with mature trees shading front porches and even alleys that serve the garages in the backyard. There is a mix of houses, big and modest; cottages; row houses; and in a throwback to small-town America, apartments above shops.
Amelia Park is one of the new communities laid out according to the tenets of what has been called the new urbanism and traditional neighborhood development. These large-scale developments attempt to counter suburban sprawl. Housing is clustered, which serves both to allow setting aside open space and to make it possible to reach neighbors, parks, shops, and work places on foot. The quiet, leaf shaded streets serve as social spaces, having been planned in a way that prevents cars from threatening pedestrians and bicyclists. New urbanist communities are exploring "traffic-calming" strategies such as speed bumps, rumble strips, narrowed sections of road, and gateways.
We stand to gain "much better access to services and much higher densities of daily life needs within easy reach. If you look at places like Seaside, Fla. [the first
new urbanist community], you realize that people are willing to pay a very high price to live in very small places." Compactness involves more than scaling down rooms. Good design is critical: "Americans will have to become much more knowledgeable about the basics of good design. It will be a good time for architects and homebuilders who have these skills."
Densely settled, well-planned towns will be easier to serve with new public-transit lines, which tend to be unfeasible when people are scattered thinly and randomly over a wide area. Just as bungalows sprang up along trolley routes a hundred years ago, tomorrow's communities can be fostered by the speedy light-rail networks now making a comeback in a number of metropolitan areas. Alternatives to cars will become especially crucial to the aging baby-boomer generation, who may be isolated in their homes if they no longer are able to negotiate high-speed freeways safely (or legally). A lack of transportation options has been found to cause older people to drop out of community life.
Another variation on urbanism is cohousing, which combines the appeal of traditional homeownership with the advantages of living in a shared community. Although cohousing communities can be started by a developer, true cohousing is designed with the involvement of the future residents.
Housing and the law
Thomas Jefferson believed that homeownership was key to the health
and wealth of the nation. Two centuries later, the laws of the land
continue to ensure that homes will be safer, more efficient, and affordable
for most Americans. After World War II,
the first flush of suburbs
was stimulated in large part from FHA and VA loans. The current tax
exemption on the interest portion of home mortgages has been called
the biggest federal housing subsidy of all.
The future will hold other incentives and types of aid as well. By requiring a certain percentage of lower-priced properties, new laws will guarantee that buyers with modest incomes won't be shut out of communities in which builders might offer only high end homes. As this lower-income incentive acts as a "subsidy" that builders have to provide to be allowed to sell especially profitable mini-mansions.
After a lapse of 20 years, the recently passed federal energy bill offers tax credits for domestic solar applications. It's predicted that states will follow with similar incentives. But laws also can slow the rate of positive change. Architects and builders may run into restrictive codes as they pursue new methods and technologies. Similarly, mortgages either can fund innovation or frustrate it. Recently, the lender Fannie Mae began offering energy-efficient mortgages to coax people into frugal energy habits. Energy sparing options can be financed up to 5% of the home's overall value.
Community statutes often state a minimum square footage for houses. In an interesting reversal, some jurisdictions have begun setting a maximum square footage. This restriction helps to ensure that a community won't exclude buyers with lower incomes, and it also avoids what has been called the "mansioning" of a streetscape with homes that overwhelm their dinky lots. Also, most communities have zoning laws that segregate residential neighborhoods from commercial centers, increasing reliance on the automobile. These laws will have to be amended if new
neighborhoods are to be pedestrian friendly.
Typically, each household has its own living room, dining room, and kitchen, and shares a common lounge, meeting rooms, recreational facilities, and play spaces for kids. There also is likely to be a shared commitment to green values. "Most communities have some level of sustainable living written into their mission statements.
Future Forward Designs