Wanda and I designed SmartDwelling II for a competition recently that we never expected to win. The competition was sponsored by two very respectable organizations which will remain nameless, but the program really disturbed us. It purported to call for a home in a hot climate (north Texas) that was both highly affordable and sustainable, but it was classic Gizmo Green, focusing solely on better equipment and materials, and inexplicably banning several passive measures. For example, it required 8' ceilings throughout although tall ceilings are essential in the deep South because they let the heat rise away from you in the afternoon.
I was disgusted with the program and didn't want to participate, but Wanda kept pushing, saying "why don't you use our entry as an opportunity to show what they should have been looking for?" So we decided to do the competition as a critique of the program in order to call attention to this completely backwards but very common approach to sustainability.
The two biggest "game-changers" that affect many other sustainability measures are things we call "Conditioning People First" and "Smaller & Smarter." Here's how Wanda and I accomplished these things in SmartDwelling II:
Conditioning People First
I blogged a few years ago on the Original Green Blog about an idea I call Living in Season. Briefly, the idea is that if you entice people outside, they get more acclimated to the local environment, needing less heating or cooling when they return indoors. I've proven this personally since moving to South Beach nearly 9 years ago, and there are other benefits, as you'll see if you scroll down in this post.
We did several things in SmartDwelling II to entice both the occupants and the neighbors outside. First, we designed the entire site as either outdoor rooms or passages… there's no standard lawn anywhere on the site (the lawn outside the fence is public property.)
Each outdoor room and passage has distinct uses. The Inner Court just off the Keeping Room is the outdoor living room. The Master Garden is a small, very private outdoor room just off the master suite where the parents can have a bit of time to themselves.
The Outer Court (just visible above at the left end of the garage) is completely paved for shooting hoops and other activities requiring a solid surface. The Kitchen Garden at the rear of the site can replace a substantial amount of grocery budget with home-grown nourishment, helping make the neighborhood a Nourishable Place.
The edible landscape isn't confined to the Kitchen Garden, however. The Green Fence is similar in concept to the Green Wall in SmartDwelling I, and it runs all along the rear and right side of the lot has fruit trees espaliered on the top half and beans, peas, and other vegetables trained up below.
Edibles continue all around the house as well. The setbacks required by the city are narrow, and are often wasted because what can you do in a 5' strip of land except let the dogs run? Here, however, we use them as a linear orchard, with fruit trees all down the left side of the house. Oh, and that's the West side, so they also shade the house from the scorching Texas afternoon sun. The front yard is a bit of a flight of fancy. People rhapsodize about "amber waves of grain," so why not have a wheat lawn as shown here? If the residents would rather have vegetables, then we're beginning to learn how to grow them beautifully, so the neighbors won't mind.
We're not just trying to entice the residents outdoors, but the neighbors as well. If every home on a block gave some sort of Gift to the Street, then the street becomes a place more people want to walk. Anything we can do to enhance a neighborhood's walkability builds its overall sustainability as well. In this case, the Gift to the Street is built into a fence recess at the front gate. It houses a bench on one side, for a place to rest, and potted flowers to the right, for a bit of visual delight.
Smaller & Smarter
SmartDwelling II is only 1,043 square feet, substantially smaller than the 1,400 square foot program. It houses three bedrooms and two baths within this envelope by doing a number of innovative things. Clothes are stored in armoires rather than closets, saving roughly 4" per wall. It doesn't sound like much, but it really adds up. We carved into interior walls throughout the house, using the wall cavities as storage instead of wasting them. We used a dining booth rather than a dining room, saving a lot of square footage by seating people in a cozier setting. Go to a restaurant anywhere, and you can see how decisively people choose booths over open tables when given the choice.
Other Frugal Things
Building a smaller footprint starts many virtuous cycles. For example, smaller floor plans are much easier to cross-ventilate because they are small enough that you can give every room windows on at least two different walls, enhancing air flow. And light from two sides isn't just more beautiful, it helps to daylight the room so that you likely don't need to cut on the lights until evening. But we incorporated a number of other natural features as well:
The program required a front-facing garage, but we ignored this requirement for several reasons, chiefly because of the fact that buildings in temperate regions should be as long as possible East to West, reducing the length of the Western wall and increasing the Southern wall, where it's easier to admit the low winter sun while shading out the high summer sun. But a front-facing garage would force the house to be long North-to-South, dramatically lengthening the Western wall to the Texas sun. Front-facing garages also reduce the walkability of the street for several reasons, including the fact that houses with garage doors as major street features are notoriously less lovable. Because this house sat on a corner lot, we entered the garage from the side street. And as noted in a caption above, if this design is used in the middle of the block, a driveway can run down the right side to the Outer Court, which then doubles as a motor court.
The roofing is a major passive cooling device. Mill-finish 5V Crimp metal roofing was the predominant roofing material for many years in the South because it bounces roughly 90% of the sun's heat back up to the sky before it even gets into the building envelope. We've designed this vent hood similar to the Breeze Chimneys on SmartDwelling I: The fin turns the hood into the wind, so that the air flowing across it pulls warm air out of the house. It's sort of like a whole-house fan that doesn't need electricity.
There's more, of course. I'll have to do another blog post showing the interior innovations that haven't been mentioned here… there's some really cool stuff. But what about the competition? We were right: SmartDwelling II never stood a chance. The prime sponsoring organization apparently took offense at the number of program requirements we ignored, but I'm still happy Wanda talked me into doing it, because more of us have to start calling out the Gizmo Green for what it really is: a strategy that cannot deliver real sustainability on its own.