Tag: Allison Ewing


In pursuit of happiness – the question of size and architecture

In November of 2014 I wrote about the Not so Big Apartment and of Gary Chang’s clever Swiss army knife style apartment that transforms into 24 different spaces.   I admired the inventiveness of Cheng’s project and the notion of living well in a small setting.

The topic of size comes up a lot at architectural conferences. The issue is an important one for obvious reasons – bigger homes require more energy to heat and cool and more energy goes into the construction materials. Clients however aren’t always so interested in the notion of doing with less. That’s not surprising in the US, home to the super-sized Big Mac and it’s cousin the McMansion.

At HEDS we think big, from the perspective of living well, is beside the point –size has very little to do with the qualities that foster a sense of well-being and happiness. Size is what builders promote in the absence of good design. This is size over substance thinking – size is a false prize.

We share our clients’ goal that our designs should contribute to their happiness and well-being. In pursuit of their happiness, we promote more substantive qualities such as homes that bring richness through CLEVER ideas. Other qualities we pursue in our designs: FUN, COMMUNITY at all levels (between siblings, within the family, with neighbors and the larger community), a connection with NATURE, and last but not least, COOL.

In pursuit of COOL: The Exbury Egg by Pad Studio, Spud Group and Stephen Turner.

In pursuit of COOL: The Exbury Egg by Pad Studio, Spud Group and Stephen Turner.

Children's room

In pursuit of FUN and COMMUNITY. This kids room has a shared loft. An art wall exhibits the children’s masks. A window between the children’s rooms fosters community between siblings. When small these children held hands between the window and have grown up to be close friends. Woolen Mills House by HEDS.

Dogtrot House

In Pursuit of Nature: A captured outdoor space brings nature into the daily living for this home’s occupants. The space is used for sitting and dining during the spring, summer and fall. Dogtrot House by HEDS. Photo by Prakash Patel.


Allison Ewing shares her green design expertise at Hanley Wood’s Vision 2020 Symposium

Allison Ewing shares her expertise on green design at the Hanley Wood Vision 2020 Video Symposium. She discusses why the building is at a Darwinian crossroads and it’s time to evolve an Architecture of the Fittest. Architects must find solutions that are attractive to home developers who will build 75% of new housing in the coming decades. Nature, with 3.8 billion years of R&D has a lot to teach us about adaptive — and cost effective — strategies in a changing environment. Ms. Ewing discusses how bigger is not better, rather connecting people with the landscape is fulfilling, and how creative designers are finding clever solutions to living richly in a small setting. She tackles creating the zero energy home, the use of low-embodied energy materials and new technologies such as 3D printed buildings which will transform how we build. Some researchers are even exploring buildings which are self-assembling, patterning processes on nature.
https://twitter.com/Ewing_Allison, https://www.facebook.com/HaysEwingDesignStudio, https://www.linkedin.com/pub/allison-ewing/b/929/710


ECOBUILDING Pulse: Building Design + Performance

The building industry is at a Darwinian crossroads. It’s time to evolve.


Allison Ewing, AIA, is a principal of Hays + Ewing Design Studio in Charlottesville, Va., and is this year’s Vision 2020 co-chair for Building Design + Performance. Credit: Stephen Voss

In response to new environmental pressures, nature adapts rapidly, often within several generations. We humans now find ourselves in a similar predicament. Confronted by a changing environment, we also must adapt, and we must do so quickly in order to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2030. Those of us committed to changing the business-as-usual aspect of the industry must define a new species of building, one that operates at a scale large enough to affect real change. We are Team 2020—ecohome-reading, LEED AP-ing, GreenSpec-toting, xeriscaping, carbon-sequestering Biomimiacs—and we must act now.


ECOBUILDING Pulse: Do You Know What’s Really In Your Products?

If we are to become carbon neutral, we need consider not only the energy performance of a home or structure, but also the embodied energy of the materials that go into construction of the dwelling—the cumulative embodied energy. The average home has 300 mWh hours of embodied energy, roughly 25 percent of the total energy used over the lifetime of the building. While the operational usage outstrips the embodied energy in the long term, if we are to truly talk about net-zero energy, embodied energy needs to fit into the equation.

But how should we choose the best materials? Should we focus on renewable, recycled, low-maintenance, local, or a combination of all of these attributes? Embodied energy takes into account the total energy used throughout a material’s lifecycle—not only the energy used to extract the raw material, but also the energy used for the transportation involved along the production chain, processing and manufacturing, construction, and maintenance over the years, as well as disposal and recycling. The full path is often called “Cradle to Grave.”

It can be complicated. While the embodied energy of one recycled product might look promising, when you consider that material might travel from a factory in China to a construction site in the U.S, the embodied energy literally becomes a moving target. In an effort to disentangle these complex issues, we at Hays Ewing initiated a materials mapping project, called SpecLocal.

We decided to initially focus on mapping bio-based materials in the United States. Bio-composites are either plant-derived fibers, or crop-derived plastics. Our idea was to build a database of bio-based construction materials that will eventually be available to the construction industry. The goal is to increase the market accessibility of locally extracted and produced materials, while helping to expand manufacturing jobs in rural America. An embodied energy calculator will also be incorporated in the database to assist the user in determining the energy inputs for transportation.

This is how we anticipate SpecLocal working: Say an architect is exploring rigid board insulation options. Rigid board is typically a petroleum-based product—not preferable. What are the bio-based options? The SpecLocal search would come up with a mushroom-based insulation made by Ecovative (currently in the testing phase). Using a patented technology, this bio-based material converts agricultural waste such as corn stalks and cotton burrs into a variety of products such as acoustic panels, insulation, packing material—all of which are low-cost, renewable, and low in embodied energy. The transport calculator would then assist the architect in determining whether the material is a preferable alternative to conventional rigid board if it would need to travel from Green Island, N.Y., to Greenville, Texas.

Others are also at work on bio-based material mapping and cataloging efforts. A bio-preferred program was established in the Farm Security Acts of 2002 and 2008, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture hasestablished the USDA Certified Biobased Product label. Currently there are 900 products certified. It’s our goal that our database would include both certified and non-certified products.  We are currently seeking grant funding to carry the project forward and anticipate completion of the database in 2014.

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ECOBUILDING Pulse: Integrative Design and the Laws of Attraction

Vision 2020 chair Allison Ewing on the softer side of performance and the need to step away from additive design.


As a child, Allison Ewing developed an early interest in architecture, but a friend of the family was discouraging. “At the time, I didn’t understand, but the implication was ‘You’re a girl, you can’t do that.’ And I believed him,” says Ewing, with more humor than resentment. Putting aside architecture, Ewing eventually obtained a degree in psychology, which may have added another dimension in the circuitous route that led to her successful and innovative architectural career.

She blames it on Paris. During an extended study tour in the French capital, the rich architectural environment rekindled Ewing’s desire to design, and she made the decision to return to the United States and study at the Parsons the New School for Design in New York City. “The program focus changed from interior design to environmental design somewhere on my flight between Paris and New York,” she recalls. “The architectural focus turned out to be perfect for me. I finally realized I could do this, and perhaps do it well.”

She eventually did her graduate work in architecture at Yale University, and once more traveled abroad, winning a Monbusho Scholarship to study Japanese architecture. She later worked in Genoa for Renzo Piano, and eventually returned to the U.S. where she and her husband became partners at William McDonough and Partners in Charlottesville, Va. In 2006, Ewing joined her husband to form Hays + Ewing Design Studio, a practice focused on merging contemporary design with a core belief in the importance of environmental responsibility. Projects they led both in their own firm and at William McDonough + Partners have garnered two dozen prestigious architectural awards.

I began by asking Ewing about her approach to design.
We see ourselves as having a strong focus in marrying landscape, architecture, and the environment with an interest in a fresh and integrative approach. While we are naturally drawn to a modern aesthetic, we honor the climate-specific solutions of traditional models. We remain process-oriented rather than approaching projects with a preconception of what a building will look like. I believe that the true potential of sustainability is to create a new architectural language where an aesthetic evolves from the pragmatic.

So function dictates form?
I don’t like clichés. The design process is much more complex, unless you’re designing a purely utilitarian object such as a chair. It’s a lot more like solving a Rubik’s cube, there are so many considerations to weigh and balance that the process involves integrating all of them while teasing out an aesthetic that celebrates the practical, performance, and ethical elements. I have to make the case for beauty because beauty inspires hope. Beauty is survival, it leads to procreation. Flowers attract bees, light attracts moths, and there are so many examples where the law of attraction—which is beauty—is at the root of sustainability.

Can you successfully create beauty out of building science? 
Yes and no. Simply following the laundry list of LEED credits won’t produce good design. A practical philosophy alone cannot produce a livable habitat. Consider the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, where the building was demolished because it had no soul. It was practical, but not beautiful. I’m very interested in the potential to merge science and art to create an aesthetic language, but efficiency alone won’t yield buildings of lasting beauty.

What process do you use to blend building science with beauty?
The process always begins with research. We start by developing a response to the site, looking at hydrological, topographical, solar, and wind characteristics, and social studies as well. We ask what the key sustainability concerns are. The project is a product of those studies. The Japanese concept of Shakkei, of borrowed landscape, informed one project I led while at William McDonough’s. Located in Banff, Alberta, Canada, we created an abstract play of roofs that mimic the mountain landscape: The roofs frame the mountains and draw your attention to them. Water quality was a major concern and became the practical aspect we used to inform the building design. Just as the water from the mountains goes to Bow River, our roofs spill onto balconies and courtyards; the project represents the aesthetic of water. So, getting back to style, it’s not out of preconception, such as modern or neo-traditional architecture, that we seek to develop a new architectural language for each specific site. It’s architecture with a sense of place, but not an attempt to recreate the vernacular; rather an innovative response to the environment.

Looking through your portfolio, your projects seem to respond to social needs, as well.
We see community as one of the criteria of sustainability and as fundamental to the success of a project. This is where design separates itself from the laundry list approach. Getting LEED points for good indoor air quality and daylight are not enough to create a healthy building. This is why I believe the additive approach to design is insufficient. Absolutely the building must have daylight and access to fresh air, yet that is not enough. Promoting a vibrant community, at all scales, is fundamental to happiness, I believe.

That’s where an integrative approach is key. The Japanese concept of Ma is something that fascinates us and it is one approach to promoting community. It translates roughly as “gap,” “space,” or “pause.” It’s the space between structural parts, the pregnant void. Perhaps this goes back to my psychology degree, but I am keenly interested in how to handle the spaces that allow for human interactions, the spaces that create a transition between inside and out, public and private, intimate and social. In architecture I often find it is the void between spaces where the consciousness is excited and interaction the richest.

Buildings, too, offer opportunities for community at many levels. In the home, community happens at the family level. We never have the traditional dinning, living, and kitchen separately in our projects. We always design this space together with the kitchen at the hub of the house. And happily, community and energy efficiency go hand in hand because, by combining the family gathering spaces in an open plan, we can reduce the overall building area and only heat and cool the spaces the family inhabits.

If you were invited to give a commencement address, what would you tell the new graduates at Yale?
Go forth and be responsible. Design is intentional and good design must be judged on both aesthetic and moral terms. Understand building science, know your climate and site, and work with these elements to develop your design aesthetic. Think of it as cooking: A master chef looking into your larder of sustainable strategies would create an amazing dish, and not just a nourishing one. Eschew the additive approach for one that is truly integrative and beautiful.

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Residential Architect: the home team

for better and worse: how architect spouses cope with a crushing economy.


Credit: Mark McGinnis

Things are a little scary for architects these days. Hammered by a deep, long downturn, firm principals have trimmed staff, moved to less expensive office space, and deferred equipment upgrades—and often their own salaries. More than three years after the housing collapse, the recovery seems less precarious, but maddening slow. It’s a long time to be scraping courage together.

Consider, though, what it’s like to be in this business with your spouse. Couples who’ve tied the knot professionally face obvious risks. It can be dangerous to have the same source of income. When recession strikes a shared job sector hard, as it has architecture, there’s no safety net. And even the most successful couples-run practices often are built on convenience rather than strategic and complementary capabilities. That can make it tougher to retrench when the pressure is on.

Nonetheless, family-run businesses have natural advantages. There’s a built-in trust that comes from sharing traditions and values. Also, it’s hard to overrate autonomy. You can make important business decisions quickly. Your partner understands when you work late or clock out early to coach softball. If you’re going to be working hard, you may as well be doing it together.

But how do couples power through a prolonged bad patch? “A good rule of thumb is you want to increase your communication in proportion to the severity of the downturn,” says Joseph Astrachan, executive director of the Cox Family Enterprise Center at Kennesaw State University (KSU) Coles College of Business, Kennesaw, Ga. We spoke to a number of spouses around the country about how they’re handling the recession and making sense of what’s ahead.


slow dancing

“Family businesses have generally weathered economic downturns such as the current one better than non-family businesses,” Astrachan wrote on KSU’s website. “Family businesses are focused on their long-term performance and not on quarterly returns, so they can sort of buckle down in a tough economy.”

One mark of a healthy partnership, he says, is the ability to adjust living expenses when business conditions change. In Berkeley, Calif., Arkin Tilt Architect’s scrappy ethic—they’re experts at using salvaged materials—applies to how they live their lives. “We try not to be super-exuberant when we’re flush because we know other things come down the pike,” says Anni Tilt, AIA.

“We can work with very few expenses if we need to for a bit of time,” agrees Tilt’s husband, David Arkin, AIA, LEED AP. In addition to sharing the office lease with a structural engineer, they bike to work, and their conference table is a chunk of bowling alley on a base of old plumbing parts. “We haven’t borrowed money to make things happen,” Arkin says. Throughout the recession, the pair was able to hang onto their six employees because they had a financial and client reserve.

The premise shifts when only one partner contributes to a firm’s billable structure. David Webber, AIA, runs Austin, Texas–based Webber + Studio with his partner, Ransom Baldasare, who oversees administration. “He was highly paid in the high-tech sector, so we probably could be bringing in a better income if he was in a different job,” Webber says. However, Baldasare’s expertise in marketing, directing photo shoots, and designing ads allows Webber to focus exclusively on billable hours.

“We both have too much invested not to be determined to make this a success,” Webber says. “If I found someone as skilled as he, the person wouldn’t have that sense of ownership.”

The flexibility inherent in many couples-run practices helps to even out economic swings. At Zack | de Vito Architecture in San Francisco, Lise de Vito, Assoc. AIA, acts as a pressure valve of sorts by drumming up projects when the design/build firm needs billable work, and backing off to concentrate on marketing and family life during flush periods. “When times are good, it’s easy to generate an adequate income with one of us working full time,” says Jim Zack, AIA. “And by having Lise, we don’t have to hire right away when things get busy.”

In Chicago, Tigerman McCurry Architects is set up differently than most firms, which may have contributed to its longevity. Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, and Margaret McCurry, FAIA, both had successful practices before joining forces in 1984, and they’ve continued to work independently on different project types. “Up until now it’s been one of us carrying the other through as the pendulum swings back and forth,” Tigerman says.

That’s McCurry’s role right now. With enough billings to cover five employees and two years of work in the pipeline—nearly all residential—they’re in enviable shape. Still, they’ve renegotiated the office rent and trimmed their own salaries, determined not to repeat past mistakes. “Thirty years ago, Stanley took out a loan against the furniture to keep people who were loyal,” McCurry says. “It took years to pay off, and when we paid it off those people left anyway.” And two years ago Tigerman gave up a percentage of ownership so the firm could compete as a woman-owned business, a strategy they say has yet to pay off.

filling the void

Many firms are scrambling sideways these days, couples included. With the family nest egg at stake, there’s more pressure to create secondary income streams as commissions shrivel. One example is Stefanie Brechbuehler and Robert Andrew Highsmith, a married couple who met as architecture students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and launched Workstead in 2009, of all years. During slow times, the pair designed a series of light fixtures, which they assemble in their Brooklyn studio/storefront. That first year, Highsmith says, they sold more than 50 chandeliers at $1,800 apiece.

Highsmith, who has a freelance gig, also designs furniture. Brechbuehler studied interior architecture and learned about business strategy while working at Michael Graves & Associates. “Michael Graves’ practice includes architecture, interiors, and products, and I always understood that interiors were very profitable, products were extremely profitable, and architecture was not,” she says. “It was clear you had to combine those areas.” Adds Highsmith: “It’s been wonderful to have this balanced business model from the beginning. We’ve never had a period where we’ve had to rely solely on design billing.”

With two children at home, Katherine Chia, AIA, and Arjun Desai also are looking harder at product design. The married principals of Desai/Chia Architecture, New York City, spent a year and a half prototyping Recess Lav, a slim sink distributed by AF New York. A second one, Surface Lav, is in the works. “To make it through this rocky period we’re examining the types of projects we’re pursuing and making the product section more prominent on our website,” Chia says. “It’s a challenging time in terms of figuring out how to be nimble, and our conversations are pretty fluid because we can talk about these things at home.”

Sometimes family life spurs creativity. Not long ago, Charlottesville, Va.–based architects Christopher Hays and Allison Ewing made Christmas gifts for their friends: a boxed set of bookmarks crafted from architectural photos that Hays snapped during a family trip to Paris and the south of France. From that experiment they’ve spun off a fledgling wholesale business called BookofMarks.

“We thought about it and came up with this notion of a book of bookmarks with historical and cultural descriptions that create a portrait or tell a story about a place,” says Hays, AIA, LEED AP. Just before Christmas 2011, they developed bookmarks about Charlottesville and did a test run with local retailers. Now they’re eying urban destinations in the U.S. and Europe and looking into coordinating with art museum exhibits—the fingertip version of a catalog. “It’s instant gratification compared to doing architecture,” says Ewing, AIA, LEED AP.

Teaching is a fallback for some, and not just as a recession strategy. Hansy L. Better Barraza, AIA, LEED AP, splits her time between teaching at RISD and practice at Studio Luz, the Boston firm she runs with her husband, Anthony J. Piermarini, AIA. “Creativity comes before profit for us—it’s a hard thing to swallow,” Barraza says. “That’s why we’re privileged to have academia to support us.”

Talk about splitting your time. Phoenix architects Matthew and Maria Salenger, AIA, formed colab studio in 2007 to pursue their interest in merging architecture and art. But Maria kept her day job at Jones Studio, a local firm where Matthew also once worked. “It seems like a bad decision in these economic times, particularly here in Arizona, to leave a paying job,” Matthew says. Aside from him, colab has one full-time employee, and Maria clocks in evenings and weekends.

Admitting that it’s a “messy” arrangement, especially while raising a 4-year-old, Maria relishes the alternate reality of working on large-scale commissions with a firm that’s been around for a long time. “It’s an interesting challenge to swing from the very practical when you’re developing concepts for big projects, to being way out and thinking theoretically on a more intricate scale,” she says.

As the Salengers suggest, the recession has forced many couples, especially those supporting children and staff, to ask the hard question: Is architecture a sustainable family business? The answer isn’t always yes. “We realized in 2007 that it wasn’t feasible to continue to try to have 100 percent of our income be dependent on residential work, at the mercy of individuals who might suddenly decide to drop the project,” says Linda Taalman, co-owner, with husband, Alan Koch, of Taalman Koch Architecture in Los Angeles.

Ironically, she says, commissions have been plentiful in the past few years. Yet she’s double-booked to make the math work. Taalman’s full-time teaching position at Woodbury University pays for her own salary, since her income from the business is needed to support its three full-time employees. Now Koch is pursuing a new business opportunity unrelated to architecture, and Taalman hopes to devote more time to design.

“We realized over time that we love doing architecture, but it’s very difficult to make it work” together, Taalman says. “Most architect couples I know have another source of income—maybe a trust fund or funds in the stock market or real estate—and often don’t tell you. I think you have to be really open to change; nothing is permanent.”

eggs in a basket

The recession was a moment of shock that caused many spouse-led firms, subsidized or not, to reflect on where they’ve been and where they’re going. It helps to take the long view, if you can. “We’re both 41, and understand that economic cycles are quicker than the motion of our career, so we’re not in it for the immediate reward,” says Luke Ogrydziak, who runs Ogrydziak/Prillinger Architects in San Francisco with his partner, Zoë Prillinger. “We have a live/work situation, and it’s exciting for our two children to witness architecture peripherally and understand that it is work. It’s a horrible profession but also very rewarding.”

McCurry and Tigerman are 69 and 81 years old, respectively. It takes their kind of experience to put the low points in perspective. “There’s a friend there for a hug if something goes awry,” McCurry says. “We’re extremely different in many ways—I love the outdoors; he’s an indoor type. But not in the way we approach aesthetics and values. We’re both strong-willed so things can get a little gritty, but others in the office know it’s just us being edgy and it won’t turn into a collapse.”

“I agree with that,” Tigerman says. “Architecture is a field you have to love, because you do it day and night for 50 years. The upside is that architect couples understand what the other is going through with a bad client or situation. You have someone to console you when things don’t go well, and I think that’s important.”

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USA Today: Make your house more green

And spend less green doing it!

Written by Natalie Ermann Russell

bildeBuilding an eco-friendly house that doesn’t cost a fortune is something architect Allison Ewing knows a lot about. She and husband Christopher Hays run Hays & Ewing Design Studio in Charlottesville, Va. They created several sustainable houses for low-income residents through the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity, which provides affordable housing to families in need. And because these homes are designed with efficiency in mind, utility bills are much lower, making them economical, too.

We asked Ewing to share practical, budget-friendly ways to improve your home’s efficiency and carbon footprint:

Caulk your windows.

By preventing your house from letting air get in and out (aka “improving your envelope”), you can make a huge difference in electricity bills — by at least 10%. All you need is a $5 tube of caulk to seal siding cracks and fill in around windows and any other spots where air is escaping. Look for a type that’s suited to the materials you’ll be applying it to (vinyl, wood) as well as your climate (humid, dry), and opt for a formulation low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which means it’ll emit fewer potentially harmful chemicals.

Insulate your basement properly.

If you are building a new house, you can employ the latest techniques and technologies to improve the structure’s energy efficiency. For example, Ewing persuaded Habitat for Humanity to install a Superior Walls foundation system (made of precast concrete) in the basement to keep out moisture, lower energy bills and maintain good air quality. “The Superior Walls system is only marginally more expensive than a poured foundation wall system but provides insulation integral to the system,” she says. “This all falls under good envelope design.”

Plant a rain garden.

Wetland plants such as cattails and irises, which cost less than $10, actually filter out pollutants from rainwater, keeping those toxins from making the journey into local waterways. These plants also reduce erosion by slowing down the rainwater as it travels through the ground. However, this type of garden isn’t appropriate for arid environments, where rainfall totals are low. Instead, opt to xeriscape, a water-conserving landscape technique that relies on native and drought-tolerant plants that don’t require irrigation.

Buy wood “shorts.”

Reclaimed wood flooring can be costly. But you can save a bundle if you buy “shorts,” which are cheaper because they’re shorter than the standard length and often are discarded. You also could choose “character-grade” wood. “It’s knotty, with a lot more variation in color,” Ewing says. Another option: Use pieces in random widths and lengths. Once they are stained the same color, they will have a nice, cohesive look.

Use trees strategically.

Plant deciduous trees or large bushes on the south side of your home to provide shade in the summer (cutting your air-conditioning bill) and to let in sun during the winter (cutting your heating bill). Although the cost depends on the types and quality of trees or bushes you plant, you can expect to spend at least $100 for each. The south side is key because that’s where most of the sunlight comes in during the day.

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Residential Architect: Is Graywater Harvesting Worth the Effort and Expense?

Though many homeowners are still leery of greywater systems or simply do not feel the urgency, the technology’s potential water-, energy-, and cost-savings have spawned widespread interest.

Mark Larson, AIA, looks forward to the day when a client gives the green light on greywater harvesting, a system that allows homeowners to capture and reuse wastewater. So far the co-principal of Minneapolis-based Rehkamp Larson Architects hasn’t had any takers. “Most clients are leery of it,” he says. “Plus, in the Midwest, water availability isn’t a crisis, so there’s no [sense of] urgency.”

Allison Ewing, AIA, LEED AP, feels Larson’s pain. Though Ewing’s firm, Charlottesville, Va.-based Hays + Ewing Design Studio, incorporates water conservation in all of its projects, it hasn’t yet found a client willing to do greywater collection. “We’ve tried to put greywater systems into multiple projects, but they’ve always been cut during the ‘value engineering’ phase,” she explains. Like Larson, Ewing attributes part of the reluctance to her location. Water supply issues aren’t as grave a concern on the East Coast as they are in other regions of the country. Still, increasing drought conditions in unexpected places are slowly changing perceptions, she says.

Greywater is generated from typical household activities such as shaving, showering, and laundering. Because greywater accounts for 50 percent to 80 percent of a typical household’s wastewater volume, environmentalists say letting it flow into the sewer is, well, a waste—and a missed opportunity. It can easily be captured, treated on site, and reused in toilets or landscaping, which would obviate the need to use potable water. “There is so much wastewater generated from a house, so we love the idea” of reusing it, Larson says. “It’s back to basics.”

The benefits of greywater reuse extend far beyond individual households, though. “If you think about it, using greywater means city wastewater treatment plants are using less energy and less chemicals, which is good for the community,” says Pete Muñoz, P.E., LEED AP, senior engineer with Natural Systems International, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based water infrastructure engineering firm. Plus, homeowners who recycle their greywater will save significant amounts of water and money over time.

Muñoz says it’s this long view that has spawned widespread interest in greywater harvesting, particularly for moderate- to large-scale commercial, industrial, and residential buildings. The Resource Access Center, a low-income, mixed-use building by Portland, Ore.-based Holst Architecture, is one such project. “It’s the first time our firm is using a greywater system, and it’s the first time greywater is being used on a commercial scale in Portland,” says architect Dave Otte, AIA, LEED AP, a project manager at Holst. “Only recently did the city allow it in commercial projects.”

Otte says greywater harvesting makes sense for this building because the Portland area gets more rain than it can use in the winter but experiences water shortages in the summer. With a system in place, water from the showers and washers will be filtered for large particles and collected in a tank before it goes into a second tank with a UV filter for finer contaminants. The water that emerges will then be used to flush the toilets year-round.

The product Holst is using, from Montreal-based Brac Systems, accounts for roughly $300,000 of the overall $27.5 million budget, but Otte says the project will reap significant savings because of it. “Right now we’re trying to negotiate lower service-development fees with the city,” he says. “We’re also likely to get a reduced rate on our water-use fees, so the developer is anticipating a 10-year to 15-year payback on the system.” The financial risks seem reasonable, Otte says, since the Housing Authority of Portland will likely operate the building for a long time.

Dennis S. Yasar, president of Brac Systems, says his company offers a number of systems—including tanks, filters, and pumps—in various sizes to meet the needs of both commercial and residential markets. The products collect water from sinks, baths, and even air conditioners, making them highly versatile. “An air-conditioning unit can generate as much as 15 gallons of water per day,” he explains. “That water can be put to good use.”

According to Yasar, greywater systems are becoming more commonplace in the residential space as well. His company has sold more than 1,300 residential systems in the last three years alone.

John Quale, LEED AP, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is interested in greywater harvesting and a fan of the process, but his take on the system’s prospects in the single-family house is less enthusiastic. To investigate its effectiveness, Quale—who also directs the university’s ecoMOD research and design/build project—is installing a modest system on one of his houses. “It’s a small-scale tank system for a sink and a shower,” he explains. “The technology is perfect for this type of domestic application, because it’s only five gallons.” Homeowners can fairly easily manage systems of this size, he continues, but once you get into more complex whole-house systems, the questions begin. Will homeowners change the filter on a regular basis? Will they perform the routine maintenance? Will they be careful about what goes down the drain?

“I’m a little worried about many people doing this in their homes, because there are legitimate health concerns,” Quale continues. “For a homeowner, it’s one extra thing to think about, whereas in a large-scale apartment building, these things would be taken care of by an engineer.” Still, he adds, “If the technology continues to evolve, it could become more feasible.”

Fortunately, greywater harvesting systems can be simple affairs or complex setups. They can be as basic as a pipe that drains underground to a mulch basin for irrigation, for example. “That’s the low-tech solution,” Muñoz says, and it would essentially cost the same as “putting in an extra pipe—possibly as little as $20 or $30. Packaged systems with all the bells and whistles,” on the other hand, “can go as high as $4,000 to $5,000.”

In either case, greywater must be treated with care. Though it comes from non-sewage sources, it can contain significant amounts of bacteria and contaminants. “Greywater breaks down very fast,” Muñoz explains. “It can smell bad pretty quickly, so it shouldn’t stand around for more than 24 hours.” Homeowners must also be mindful of what goes down the drain.

What’s more, many city codes don’t allow water from kitchen sinks to be reused, because of potential contamination from certain food particles or high concentrations of household cleaners. And in some jurisdictions, water from washing machines is prohibited, because homeowners may wash cotton diapers, which can compromise water integrity.

Perhaps the most crucial thing to remember about greywater harvesting is that acceptance of the practice varies by region and even municipality. “We’ve found over the last 10 years that it’s less a problem of selling it to clients and more about the regulatory agencies,” Muñoz admits.

In the end, Muñoz says greywater harvesting is a viable water-saving strategy that can contribute to LEED points in multiple ways. Architects interested in pursuing the practice should begin by conducting a water audit to see where their area’s water comes from and where its wastewater goes. In many cases, they’ll discover methods far superior to the conventional treatment process.

Nigel F. Maynard is Senior Editor for residential architect magazine. This article appeared in the May/June issue of residential architect.

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Salon: Great big green monster mansions

Environmentally correct housing has never been more popular. But even the most eco-friendly home may do more harm than good when it is super-sized.

En route to a Vancouver, B.C., conference on recycled products a couple of years ago, green-building consultant Kathleen O’Brien struck up a conversation with her Bangladeshi cab driver, who wanted to know what kind of green features to incorporate into his house. “He asked, ‘Should it be wood, should it be steel?’” said O’Brien, who helped create Built Green, a landmark residential green-building program in Washington state. “I said: ‘If you do one thing, build it small.’”

Green building is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the exploding market for environmentally friendly materials and technologies. According to the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), in 2002, programs such as Built Green certified more than 13,000 homes in the United States. Next year, the U.S. Green Building Council will pilot its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Homes program, certifying state-of-the-art green residences. States and municipalities also continue to strengthen residential codes for energy efficiency, indoor air quality and water use.

But there’s an elephant in the living room of most of these green homes. Call it square footage — lots and lots of it. Fifty years ago, the average house size was 1,100 square feet, and the average household size was 4.2 people. Today, the average house size has increased to 2,150 square feet, while the average household size has declined to 2.3 people.

“That’s a killer combination,” said Mike O’Brien, a program manager in the Portland, Ore., Office of Sustainable Development. “In the space of 50 years, we’ve reversed the equation completely.”

Here’s what the green residential landscape looks like in the 21st century. In the United States, advances in green-building technologies have to compete with the proliferation of 3,000-square-foot-plus homes — simultaneous trends that underscore one of the key paradoxes of sustainable development in the United States.

“In spite of everything we’ve done to make the building envelope more efficient,” O’Brien said, “we’re still using more energy in our homes.” Nadav Malin, the editor of the monthly newsletter Environmental Building News, agrees. Most of the green features people are incorporating into their homes represent ecological improvements in the 10 to 50 percent range, he said via e-mail. But even a 50 percent reduction in the ecological footprint, Malin noted, “would be totally offset by a doubling of the house size.”

The American proclivity for living large does more than raise questions about whether a 4,000-square-foot single family home should ever qualify as a “green” residence. It also calls into question one of the fundamental tenets of sustainability — that market demand for green products and technologies will save us from environmental apocalypse. If we all go solar, if we install rainwater catchment systems and use sustainably harvested lumber, so the logic goes, then there’s no need to deprive ourselves of the luxuries that space — and the furniture and accessories to fill it — affords. But the issue of consumption, not to mention overconsumption, is curiously absent from the sustainability discourse. And in an era characterized by unprecedented consumer wealth, this could be the movement’s fatal flaw.

Within the green home market, there does exist a niche for small houses, fueled largely by the runaway success of “The Not So Big House” book series by Minnesota architect Sarah Susanka and, to a lesser extent, an emerging trend toward sleek, efficient — and affordable — modular housing. But for the most part, the green housing market mirrors the megahouse trends in the conventional homebuilding market.

“My clients want to build green, but they want to build bigger,” says George Ostrow, principal of Velocipede Architects, a leading sustainable design firm in Seattle. Ostrow links big green houses to fuel-efficient SUVs and other green-living oxymorons. “It’s a contradiction of our culture,” he said.

Whether it’s a McMansion or an architect-designed estate, big green homes offer a recognizably American take on eco-friendly trends sweeping the country.

There’s the 4,200-square-foot solar-powered home featured in Salon last month — a house “so spacious it includes an entire guest wing the couple never uses.” Rob Harrison, another Seattle architect who specializes in sustainable design, cites a 4,100-square-foot home — including garage and attached greeenhouse — he recently designed for a single family household in Redmond, Wash. Among other features, the house will incorporate advanced framing, Forest Stewardship Council-certified lumber, hardwood floors and plywood, as well as sustainably harvested cork floors. The main roof slopes south for future photovoltaic panels, and there is porous paving on the driveway.

“We had many green features,” Harrison said. “But ultimately, because of the size, we are still using more resources.” The client’s personal requirements, including room for a regulation-size pool table and a music performance atrium for 30 people, made it impossible to reduce the footprint of the house, Harrison said.

“House size,” he says, “is probably the most important criterion and often the most difficult one for us to meet.”

Not all green designers and builders hew to the notion that less is more. Take William McDonough, the visionary green architect who likes to invoke the cherry tree — in which thousands of blossoms provide fruit so that one pit might take root and grow — as a model for sustainable production.

“No one would ever look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and say ‘how inefficient how wasteful,’” writes McDonough in his book, “Cradle to Cradle.” Instead, he observes, the blossoms decompose and provide nutrients for soil, plants and other organisms. Nature, in his view, is both abundant and productive — qualities that “eco-effective” design (a McDonough alternative to “eco-efficient” design) can and should emulate.

Allison Ewing, a residential architect at McDonough’s Charlottesville, Va., firm, applies this theory to the 4,000-square-foot-plus green homes she designs. “Our belief is that if it’s solar powered, you can have all the hot water you want,” she said. “As long as you have cradle-to-cradle design, we say, celebrate abundance.” Responding to a question about house size and ecological footprint, Ewing reiterates another favorite McDonough saying: “We’re not in the business of telling people to be less bad,” she said. “We’re about 100 percent more good.” Ewing cites a recently designed 4,500-square-foot residence that incorporates geothermal energy sources, radiant floor heating and sustainably harvested wood — a house that apparently catalyzed a local market for sustainably harvested lumber. A smaller residence, she said, would not have had the same impact on the local green economy.

As a metaphor, design principle and incubator for sustainable markets, the idea of productive abundance is compelling. It’s much less compelling when viewed in context of American consumption habits. Is nature abundant? Or is it frugal? When it comes to picking design metaphors, the natural world is, conveniently, a free market. And as Ostrow and Harrison point out, the trend toward large green houses is driven in large part by the lack of awareness surrounding square footage and ecological footprint, not because of any lofty ideas about nature’s fecundity.

A reflection of American priorities and lifestyles, the march toward bigger homes also gets a push from complex zoning regulations and real estate and banking practices. Mortgage banks lock in large house sizes by requiring the value of the home to be three times the value of the land, said Art Castle, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Kitsap County, Wash. “If you put a house outside of these perimeters, you create a market aberration,” he said. “A lot of lenders are unwilling to support smaller houses.”

The bias toward large homes has even penetrated green-building rating programs, according to an analysis performed last year by the Pittsburgh-based Integrated Building and Construction Solutions (IBACOS). The study found that the Home Energy Rating System, a federal program that rates energy efficiency performance for new and existing homes, requires smaller houses to incorporate more advanced energy features than larger houses, assuming a given occupancy. “The whole motivation for doing the analysis was that house size is not being taken as seriously as it should be, ” said Eric Newhouse, an IBACOS systems integration designer and the coauthor of the report, “Analysis of Energy Consumption, Rating Score and House Size.” The paper was presented at the U.S. Green Building Conference last year.

In 1998, Environmental Building News published an article comparing energy and materials use in large and small houses. Using data compiled by the NAHB and Energy Balance, the article showed that a 1,500-square-foot home with low energy performance standards will use less energy for heating and cooling than a 3,000-square-foot house with high energy performance standards. Because big houses tend to have more design features, the NAHB also estimated that large homes consume proportionately more materials. Thus a 5,000-square-foot house will consume three times as many resources as a 2,085- square-foot house, even though its square footage is only 2.4 times greater.

Six years later, experts say the correlation between square footage and resource and energy use is still valid. Size matters even if a residence incorporates solar power, rainwater catchment and other “off the grid” technologies, says Newhouse. “Bigger houses use more materials,” he said. “and there’s no perfectly environmentally friendly material.”

Acknowledging the issue, some green-building rating programs have started to incorporate a matrix for house size. Like many green residential programs, PGE’s Earth Advantage certification in Portland, Ore., is based on a combination of required measures and additional points that can be earned for a home’s green features. Last summer, Earth Advantage created four advanced levels of certification, two of which incorporate a matrix for house size. For example, under the new Earth Advantage Gold Environmental and Water Efficiency package, a 2,500-square-foot home needs to earn 50 more environmental responsibility or resource efficiency points than a 1,999-square-foot home in order to earn the same ranking.

The Vermont Built Green (VBG) program, which piloted last year and is recognized as the most comprehensive program in the country, takes this idea one step further. To earn VGB certification, a home must meet 54 requirements and earn at least 100 points. Under this system, the easiest way to earn certification is to meet the minimum requirements and build a very small house. For example, a two-bedroom house earns 100 points if it’s 1,000 square feet; 25 points at 1,500 square feet. By contrast, a four-bedroom house at 5,200 square feet loses 100 points, meaning that the house will have to earn 200 points — twice as many — for VBG certification.

“House size is the centerpiece,” said Richard Faesy, project manager of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., which administers the VGB. “We hope to spur education and discussion to get people to acknowledge size is a significant factor in green homes.”

Building small isn’t nearly as sexy as installing photovoltaic panels for solar power. But there is a niche for small green homes, especially among young families in search of affordable housing. Kristin Bacon-Brenes, who shares a 1,550-square-foot, three-bedroom home in Portland, Ore., with her husband and two young children, is one such convert. Boasting a rainwater catchment system, solar and radiant heating, reclaimed lumber from a dismantled granary, bamboo flooring, and reclaimed sinks, toilets and marble, the house won the 2003 National Green Custom Project award from the NHBA Research Center. “We had 18 people here for Thanksgiving,” said Bacon-Brenes. “Everyone was so surprised at how good it felt.”

To create a feeling of spaciousness, Bacon-Brenes and Portland architect Andre DeBar said they incorporated principles from Susanka’s “Not So Big” books: an open floor plan with modular spaces, definition between the entryways and rooms, and diagonal lines of sight.

A surprisingly chi-chi source of small green homes can be found in contemporary modular housing — a 21st century incarnation of modernist, mass-production architecture that bears little relation to the fake Tudors or trailer parks most people associate with prefabricated construction. One example is the “Q series” of modular homes, designed by Kohn Shnier architects and manufactured by Royal Homes in Toronto. A sleek, wedge-shaped structure with floor-to-ceiling windows and simple plywood interiors, the Q comes in variable sizes up to 850 square feet, with a price tag around $150,000. Lloyd Alter, managing director of the Toronto Site for Royal Homes, calls the Q the “anti-monster home.” With good design, you don’t need a lot of space, says Alter, who advocates for what he calls the housing equivalent of IKEA furniture: “good affordable design you can get off the rack.”

Other players in the modernist prefab movement include 33-year-old Missouri architect Rocio Romero, whose stylish, light-filled 1,150-square-foot “LV House” comes in panels of corrugated aluminum. The basic LV kit costs $29,000 plus shipping, around $3,000 — but doesn’t include electrical or plumbing systems.

Whether or not modular housing evolves into the next big thing, prefabrication reduces construction-related waste and square footage, and tends to privilege flexible spaces and plenty of light. And the efficiencies inherent in modular construction are intriguing. Alter cites a Danish design called “flip spaces,” in which bedrooms span two units in a condo or apartment building. When the kids in one family move out, the bedroom “flips” to the other unit. “There are a lot of flexible design ideas that can be done if the house isn’t sitting alone on a lot,” Alter said.

In the meantime, families who are content with smaller-than-average houses are still the exception. As for big green houses, well, they evoke the parable about boys who will turn any toy — blocks, balls, stuffed animals — into a war game. Give Americans sustainable technology, and we’ll super-size it beyond recognition.

“If we wanted to sell our home, who would we sell it to?” asked Kathleen O’Brien, who lives in a 1,650-square-foot, two-bedroom Built Green house on Bainbridge Island, Wash. “Maybe another couple or family with one child, with our same philosophy.” Other than that, O’Brien said, the possibilities are limited. “Resale value is another market constraint on small homes.”


Linda Baker is a journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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