Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Review: The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

The documentary The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil looks at how Cubans survived their "peak oil," i.e., when fuel oil imports were cut off after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

With no imports of fuel oil, power cuts lasted up to 16 hours a day, and they had no choice but to abruptly change. Power for everyday necessities like water pumping for indoor plumbing and refrigeration was at best non reliable and at worst non existent. They had a food scarcity, and the average Cuban lost 20 lbs by 1994.

Here are some inspiring ways Cuba dealt with their "peak oil" experience.

  • The government imported bicycles, which were not a part of the culture, and citizens had to learn how to use them. 
  • They developed mass transit service overnight with creative solutions like old trucks with covers acting as buses.
  • People in small towns turned to horses and mules for transportation.
  • In the early days while in crisis mode, they had to have food distribution so the wealthy did not just hoard what was for sale, and relied on “survival agriculture” using no chemical inputs (which were not available).
  • There was a drastic effort to convert every inch of arable land to agriculture. Therefore, urban gardening flourished. It's a growing sector of economy, creating jobs (organic farming is more labor intensive, therefore there are more jobs).
  • Farmers now among the highest paid professionals
  • Many kiosks are located throughout city that sell food grown using urban agriculture
  • 80-100% of food in smaller towns is provided by urban agriculture
  • Working against nature, in conventional agriculture, you have to use huge amounts of energy. They strive to create a “food forest”—self sustaining like a forest, and then you pick the produce as you would forage in the woods.
  • In some rural areas, it is less expensive to use solar panels than to connect to grid. More than 2,000 rural schools have supplied with solar panels. 
  • The use of solar hot water is an example of variety of small solutions used across the country.
  • Cuba imported fuel oil before the crisis, since the quality of their crude oil is poor. Now, crop waste like sugar is used to produce electricity. During harvest, 3-4 months out of the year, 30% of energy is from biomass sources.
The average Cuban consumes 1/8 of the energy of the average American, but their infant morality rate and lifespan are about equal. Obviously Cuba is very different from us, politically, geographically, culturally, and in the climate. But this movie provides great examples of baby steps and grassroots action, adding up and make a difference. Humans are extremely adaptable to change. Because of embargo, everything has to happen from the inside, making this a fascinating isolated, controlled experiment in how to survive peak oil, when it comes for the rest of us. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

urban | design.banter:: All I Want for Christmas is to Replace Sprawl with Infill

urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs ::  
why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

Not a very simple request, is it? But it seems that every time I go home for the holidays, the new "it" retail center is located farther away, as the newest neighborhoods are built farther and and farther out. I am well aware of the hypocrisy of lamenting lost nature adjacent to the suburb where I grew up. My parent's house, built in the early 80's, was once in someone's prairie. There are still plenty of acreage around us, with cows, horses, and even some emu happily roaming. What upsets me is the skipping over of large plots of land not being used by happy animals (and not designated parks and greenbelts, which are essential with increased density), abandoned strip malls, and underused parking lots in lieu of greenfield development many miles from nowhere.

I know that I risk sounding like a "no-growth-er." I'm not a no-growth-er, just a smart growth-er. The term smart growth is used a lot, but here I'll look at implementing a few smart growth principals in my beloved hometown, or should I say, home Metroplex of Dallas/Fort Worth, and similar cities with many miles of suburbs.  I believe we can maintain the positive quality of life aspects of suburbs that people love while reducing the aspects they don't love (namely traffic, long commutes and total dependence on a car).

Why not infill instead of sprawl?

"But, there will be so much more traffic." Yes, with any development comes more traffic. But building farther out decreases the density of an area, making everyone dependent on a car (or a ride from mom). In an already populated area, it may seem like the existing roads could not bear the traffic added by an infill development. But that is the point: transit, walking and biking are only more viable options when they are the easiest and most desirable. When you are stuck in traffic on the highway and watch six trains go by while you sit in the same place, that's when you will think about using transit. The more density in an area, the more efficient transit can become. More density can support more businesses per square mile, bringing things closer to you and therefore more walkable and bikeable. 

"But, the city says we need all that parking." Maybe on the three nights before Christmas Eve. But most of the vast seas of parking lots are rarely full, and as density with transit, walking and biking become more viable options, less parking will be needed. Northgate Mall, a somewhat sad, smaller, older city mall in north Seattle, was given new life with a suburban style lifestyle center face lift. Now, the parking that is remaining is always full due to the popularity of the new stores and restaurants, but a revival of the whole area has occurred, with an improved transit center and new multifamily development. If the mall was not located along a freeway (as most malls are), providing parking in the middle and the new shops along the exterior (with zero lot lines along sidewalks) would have been a even better "smart growth" design. I am encouraged by cities realizing how detrimental so much surface parking is to the urban landscape, and making exceptions to require less parking.

 The new lifestyle center exterior of Northgate Mall in Seattle. Photo Credit.

"But, we don't have the space we need for a proper development." Yes, master planned developments depend on economies of scale, and buyers have come to expect certain amenities. However, I believe that if subdivisions were not totally isolated, autonomous developments, residents wouldn't need these extra amenities. If new developments were built as infill, residents would already be close to schools, city parks with pools and sport fields, greenbelts, and places to walk and bike. Existing and new residents would not have to pay for the roads and infrastructure expansion (including new schools, as city schools are being closed due to under enrollment). Following smart growth principals, streets inside the developments can be thinner and more appropriate for low speeds (versus the freeway width curving streets found in new suburbs). 

As we begin to pull out of the current state of the economy, I hope that the decreased value of homes in places of unchecked sprawl and the hours spent in traffic commuting farther away will serve as reminders that we cannot afford to keep up the current pace of suburban green field development. I believe that smart growth will bring suburban commuters a higher quality of life, and the happy horses and cows will thank us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

urban | design.banter:: Book Review - Sprawl Repair Manual

Each Friday we bring you  urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?
"The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008." 

This Promise of Suburbia is given new hope in "Sprawl Repair Manual," by Galina Tachieva, a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, an architecture and planning firm in the enviable position on the front lines of New Urbanism and suburban redevelopment. 

Sprawl can be repaired by "building communities based on the neighborhood unit." Instead of building new developments in green fields (land that has never been built on), why not densify existing areas? Not only will this bring life and density to existing suburbs and create what the author refers to as "complete communities," new developments will be closer to existing infrastructure and transportation. Children can attend existing schools (which, if they are in the city, may be underutilized) and existing fire and police can be used and will benefit from the new influx of taxes. However, according to Tachieva, "Sprawl remains cheaper to plan, easier to finance, faster to permit, and less complicated to build."

The main problem with sprawl, in terms of cost to the government and citizens, health, community connectivity, and access is dependence on the car. Part of this is the use of outdated single use zone, which makes it illegal for dwelling units to be near everyday needs. Repairing sprawl and densifying existing neighborhoods would mean integrating commercial and civic buildings into residential areas, and adding dwelling units to commercial areas. 

Reduction of dependence on a car is then created two ways: things are closer together, allowing for walking, and people live closer together, allowing for effective mass transit.  It's a snowball effect from there: people can walk, bike or take transit to more places, cities can require less parking, with less parking lot area more density can happen, and so on. With less area to cover and more efficient delivery, infrastructure costs can be reduced. Tachieva hopes by repairing sprawl that a more connected, cohesive transportation network can be formed, and the open space provided in suburbs will be accessible.

The author presents specific methods of repair at different scales: regional, community, parking and roads, blocks, and individual buildings.The book contains a great mix of text, diagrams, drawings and before and after photos. This is a must read for anyone interested in sustainable communities.

More information:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday Cheer in Small Spaces

There will no doubt be no shortage of "green" holiday tips this time of year. We're expanding on that with some tips on how to celebrate within your green lifestyle--namely, a small living space. Living small doesn't mean you need to miss out on holiday celebrations.
  • Eating-You don't have to miss out on hosting that holiday meal just because you have a small space. Use a table with leaves, and store them when not in use. Use folding chairs and card tables that can be stored in clever places. Tables, chairs, and linens can also be rented. Nice linens, candles, and center pieces can dress up any room. If your kitchen is too small for preparations, you can always go the potluck route.
  • Your local Goodwill or thrift store is usually a treasure trove of fun china, serving dishes, and seasonal linens. Save money and go green by buying these rarely used items, well, used.
  • Even in my modestly sized condo, I have to have a tree, but like many multifamily buildings, we do not have yard waste pick up. Lucky for those of us in Seattle, you can take your tree to the transfer station free of charge, usually for about two weeks after Christmas. Or, look for tree-recycling events in your city. 
  • If you have a yard, another great option is a living tree, which is smaller (ranging in size from a potted plant to an actual tree). Since it's alive, you don't as much of that great smell, but you can replant it in your yard, so after a few years you have your own little tree farm. 
  • No room to decorate at all? Enjoy others decorations by visiting department stores, wineries, and hotel lobbies. 
  • There's no need for a permanent guest bedroom. Blow up queen sized air mattresses are a great alternative to a guest bedroom, and take up very little space when not in use. Consolidate kids in one space with a tent or sleeping bags for a fun slumber party. A sofa that folds down into a bed is a great modern alternative to the clunky sofa bed. Don't let the word "futon" give you a college apartment flashback--the fold down sofas available now are much classier.
  • As much as I love having everyone in one house, paying a higher mortgage or extra rent to have a guest bedroom can be much more expensive than a hotel room a few nights a year for your guests.
  • Short on storage space? Use those flat gift boxes to store lights and decorations in small spaces. Store seasonal items in matching bins above your cabinets or under furniture the rest of the year.
  • This is more along the lines of just a plain old green holiday tip, but I must admit that I am one of those picky people who saves wrapping and tissue paper, ribbons, and gift bags. I even reuse tinsel year after year (I like the old fashioned silver stringy kind, and you have to pick out every bit anyway if you are taking a tree to be recycled). It doesn't take much space to store these things, and it saves money and helps curb holiday waste.
  • To help others with small spaces, think twice before buying someone a holiday trinket. As the daughter of a preschool teacher, I have seen how many stuffed Santa's and wooden snowmen my mom gets each year. As thoughtful as they are, these items can be wasteful, have to be stored, and can just turn into clutter, especially if they are not someone's style. Opt for something like a gift card to a book store, spa or restaurant instead. 
  • It's a busy time of year for most, but do some last minute purging now, ahead of spring cleaning. Look for charities that need gently used items, or recycle your computer with a program like InterConnection in Seattle, and you can deduct those from your 2010 taxes if you itemize. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

urban | design.banter :: More Guidelines for ADU's-North Puget Sound

Each Friday we bring you  urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

In this series, we are giving you a brief overview of what some jurisdictions allow. Not all of them allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's) in single family zones. If you would like to build one, or just advocate for the cause of affordable housing, mixed income neighborhoods, density, accountable tenant-landlord relationships (landlord lives in the house, so he is not absentee, renter lives right there, so is held accountable), and allowing families to provide shelter for other family members on their land, talk to your local government. Many jurisdictions are realizing that allowing ADU's can help us reach many of the goals mentioned above and are changing their zoning codes to allow them. Here are some results of a questionnaire for the City of Seattle from our first article on ADU's:

Among those aware of a backyard cottage in their neighborhood:
• 71% said that the backyard cottage in their neighborhood fit in with the surrounding homes.
• 84% noticed no impacts on parking or traffic directly related to the backyard cottage.
• 83% were supportive or strongly supportive of backyard cottage policy.

  • Medium Density Residential zones: "caretaker's cottage" up to 140 SF. May need to fight for ADU. Attached ADU would be no problem in this zone as duplexes are allowed.
  • Single Family Residential zones:  No ADU's allowed currently


The city allows attached ADUs only (for instance, in a basement, as a flat on the second floor, or in addition), unless you want to renovate and existing detached unit. Here are some of their guidelines:
  • The floor area of ADU must not exceed 40% of the area of the primary residence, with a maximum area of 800 square feet (for both attached and detached), two bedrooms, three people
  • Only one entrance can be visible from the street, and any off street parking displaced by the new building must be replaced. Parking for the ADU should preferably be off the alley, if possible.
  • One of the building must be owner occupied. 
  • More information here
  • Here is some information on the code requirements in regard to construction, including creating a one hour fire separation between the units
Island County (Oak Harbor, Camano, Whidbey Island)
  • ADU's (in this code referred to as detached accessory Dwelling Unit or Guest Cottage) are allowed in most zones (Rural Residential zones must have a lot size of at least 1 acre). 
  • Must not exceed 1,000 square feet or 20% of floor area of the primary residence, whichever is larger (Max 2,500 square feet)
  • ADU and primary residence must share a driveway
  • Thirty five ADU's may be permitted each year in the county
Let us know if you are curious about ADU's and your city or county has not been covered.

Other blog entries about ADU's: ADU 101 with rules for Seattle/King County and San Juan Islands

Monday, December 6, 2010

LEED in trouble?

Henry Gifford of Gifford Fuel Saving Inc filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Here is a summary of the complaint from and Harvey Berman's article, "Federal lawsuit attacks LEED building rating system"

"At the heart of the 24-page complaint are claims by Gifford that the USGBC has deceived consumers and others by misrepresenting the benefits of LEED certification relating to energy efficiency and savings and attributes of the LEED rating system.

Some of Gifford’s criticisms of LEED include that it:
• is not based on objective scientific criteria.
• is not based on actual building performance data but rather on projected energy use.
• does not require verification of data submitted in certification applications and does not require actual energy use data.
• is not based on actual measurements but rather computer modeling of anticipated energy use levels."

The $100-million lawsuit alleges fraud, unfair competition, deceptive trade practices, and false advertising, among other things, reports TreeHugger.

The [alleged] problems with LEED wouldn't be such an issue if the program was totally voluntary. In the marketplace, problems would be identified, and other programs would be developed to compete, which is what has happened in the residential market. But many cities require civic buildings to earn LEED certification. See a brief list here [PDF]. This means that taxpayers are being forced to pay a specific third party--as opposed to say, a contractor or consultant, who have to present bids and proposals, and the most qualified candidate and/or lowest bid is chosen.

There is an argument that sustainable building should be codified (so that it is required just like life safety, accessibility, energy efficiency, and fire protection). Sustainability and green building could be seen as just as important as life safety, considering the impact of building on the environment and the damage to natural resources, pollution of air and water, production and release of carcinogens in the manufacture of products. From experience, a project can have the best green intentions, but the numbers just don't work. The more green building flourishes (or, in the case of this argument, is required) more products and competition could bring down the cost.

But codifying green building is a slippery slope, as present day conventional wisdom is often later proved incorrect or incomplete. For instance, there is legislation to eventually outlaw incandescent light bulbs. As I noted in an earlier blog post, there is research out there that suggests that Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFL's) contribute to the carcinogenic "electro smog." I don't think there is enough research out there on the effects of CFL's to completely outlaw incandescent lights. I may be one of those crazy people loading up on incandescents like it's Y2K before they are outlawed, though there is hope with other technologies, like Light Emitting Diode (LED). 

The business of certification of green buildings is in its infancy, relatively speaking, and no organization can expect to get it all right in the first few rounds. This is especially the case in post-construction building performance, which will naturally take time to test and allow for trial and error.  Hopefully, this lawsuit and the attention surrounding it will serve to improve existing guidelines, and perhaps open the door for other nonresidential certifications to compete with LEED.

Full disclosure: I am LEED certified, but we have never worked on a LEED certified building. I would venture to guess that this is mainly about the cost of certification, not a lack of interest in green building. We have certified a Built Green home, and are currently working on Built Green, Energy Star, NAHB Green and Builder's Challenge certifications.

Friday, December 3, 2010

urban | design.banter :: More Guidelines for ADU's

Each Friday we bring you  urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

This summer we posted a summary on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's): a brief explanation, some benefits, and regulations for Seattle and King County. Below we will outline the regulations for the San Juan Islands.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's) have become more popular and acceptable in the past few years. The City of Seattle began allowing for ADU's in all residential zones (it had previously been only some south Seattle neighborhoods) in 2009. San Juan County allows for a limited number of permits for ADU's each year.

An ADU can be attached, as in a basement apartment, or detached, as in a backyard cottage, carriage house, or alley flat. The implementation of ADU's can fulfill many goals of sustainable development, including density, affordable housing, and smaller house sizes. As our urban fabric is "re-knit", neighborhoods can become more dense, creating more demand for services, therefore creating more opportunities for walkable neighborhoods and less dependence on a car.

Truly sustainable development also includes social goals, many of which are also met by integrating ADU's: a way for homeowners to have a separate income stream, a mix of income and ages; the ability to stay in one neighborhood through varying phases of life, therefore creating lasting community: kids can live in a backyard cottage as they start on their career path, elderly parents or relatives can live in smaller spaces that require less upkeep and be close to their children and grandchildren. The term "mixed income" may be worrisome, but from a social standpoint, renting out an ADU can more successful than an absentee landlord renting a house, in that owners are close to the rental unit, tenants are close to their landlord, so each keeps an eye on each other. The Kentlands Development in Maryland (designed by New Urbanism pioneers DPZ)  is a neighborhood that has successfully integrated market rate, large suburban housing with backyard rental units. An often cited example is of a woman who lived in her ADU and rented out her large house in order to save money and pay off her mortgage.

Anna spoke to BUILDERnews magazine about the benefits of building an ADU or guest apartment. See the article, including photos of two of our projects that include these structures here.

Hare House in Friday Harbor, Second Floor Plan: an apartment over an office and garage can be used for family, or rented out for extra income.
San Juan County:
San Juan County defines an ADU as "a living area that is accessory to the principal residence, located on the same lot, and that provides for sleeping quarters, kitchen, and sanitation facilities. An ADU may be internal, attached or detached."
  • The distinguishing characteristic signifying an ADU for the county is a kitchen, even without an oven or stove. A guest or mother in law suite with just a bedroom and bathroom may not be subject to the same restrictions.
  • An ADU must not exceed 1,000 square feet 
  • There is a limit on the number of ADU permits available, so check with county before moving ahead. The number of detached ADU permits in any calendar year shall not exceed 12 percent of the total number of building permits for new principal residences issued for the previous calendar year. 
  • In order to reduce impact, ADU's must be located within 100 feet of the principal residence. 
  • Urban Growth Areas and Activities centers generally allow ADU's with less restrictions than rural zones
  • A detached ADU is not permitted on parcels less than five acres in size in any rural district, 10 acres in size in the agricultural district, and 20 acres in size in the forest district. Visit the Assessor's Site to find out what zone you are in. 
  • Within the Town of Friday Harbor, a detached guesthouse is not a permitted
    accessory structure in Single Family Zones. The Hare House, which is in town and includes a guest house, is in a Multifamily Zone.
 Example home plan, the Pearl Cottage, under 1,000 square feet
Our Home Plan Collection has some great floor plans and designs under 1,000 square feet. View the collection for ideas and inspiration-plans can be customized to meet your needs. 

Next Friday, we'll look at regulations for Bellingham, Anacortes, and Island County. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

New Guidance on Cradle to Cradle

There is now a booklet to follow up the popular book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Criteria for the Built Environment is available as a booklet and an eBook.

Cradle to Cradle is a process developed by the authors, an architect and a chemist, in the 1990's. It is, of course, a twist on the 'Cradle to Grave' status quo. If you haven't read the book, published in 2002, I would definitely recommend it. I read a lot of "pop ecology" books, and this one is different in that it presents a positive, can-do outlook for the future, and spends more time presenting solutions to a problem than complaining about the problem. You will leave this book believing that our innovative thinking can get us out of our environmental crisis, just like it got us into it. Even the book itself is an experience and a testament. The pages are printing on waterproof, recyclable plastic resin and organic fillers, which are smooth to the touch. The booklet is a follow up providing more specific detail in how to achieve Cradle to Cradle. The original book, though inspiring, does not include many specific how-to's.

Here is William McDonough speaking about Cradle to Cradle:

EcoHome magazine article.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

10 Surprising Ways a Small Home Saves You Money

This article has some great insight into "the surprising ways a small house saves you money". I think its quite helpful for anyone looking to design a new home, trade in their large home for a smaller one or looking to simplify. From energy savings, cleaning costs and medical bills, the following link provides a new perspective for building smaller.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Top-10 Green Products

Building Green has announced its annual top 10 list of Green Products.
I am describing the 3 products that caught my eye, but please follow the links for more information and the complete listing of all 10 products.

1. First on the list is Nylodeck: a moisture, mold and termite proof decking material that is made from 100% recycled carpet fibers with a 30 year warranty. I have not personally used this material but am very interested in how it prices out compared to traditional wood decking. I will keep you informed.

2. Foamglas Closed Cell Board Insulation eliminates the concept of swelling and moisture problems typical of building insulation. It is non-combusible, impervious to water vapor, no warping or buckling of the insulation boards and it is easy to cut and shape.

3. Bensonwood OB Plus Wall System: This 12-3/4" thick superinsulated wall system allows your house to achieve near net zero performance. They are marketed at a "fraction of the cost of a conventionally built home" and I am anxious for more specific pricing information. They sell standard wall systems as well as custom wall panels for any home design. I don't know the system details such as the air barrier system and construction integration, but I will post more as I learn.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Some things we are thankful for....

A few things we are thankful for here at D+A Studio
  • Great clients. Period.
  • The fact that our already great clients are interested in things that really excite us, like ruthlessly seeking the most sustainable solution. These include shopping for salvaged mill work at Second Use and working with us to balance natural materials with energy efficiency and indoor air quality.
  • Stores like Second Use, the REstore, and of course Craigslist for satisfying the bargain hunter in all of us, while helping do our little part to create less waste.
  • That the interior finishes are coming together on the Hare House in Friday Harbor, which we designed and are building.
  • Great partners in the building industry: consultants like PAO Structural, contractors like KDL Builders and On-Site Builders, green building partners like Green Dog Enterprises, and suppliers like Island Glass Services in Friday Harbor.
  • That our subcontractors (Guard Electric, Gordon Elliot, KDL Builders and MEM Enterprise) still show up in 20 degree weather with snow on the ground.
  • That Dan Brown hooked up the in-floor heat in the Hare House a week before the freezing weather.
  • The fact that though Dr. Hacker (yes, that's really what he calls himself) may have temporarily crippled our website, we can still design.banter. Thank you to our readers!
  • And, last but certainly not least, that each of our teams are in the top 25 this year, at least until our big Thanksgiving holiday games.
Happy Thanksgiving from D+A Studio!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Green Building of The Week 11.24.2010

Truro Residence by Zero Energy Design and Silvia and Silvia Builders

[photo credits: Eric Roth]

This residence, located in Massachusetts, bears the same mindset and desire of many of our San Juan Island projects: an urban dwelling, professional couple with grown children that wants to create a comfortable, inviting atmosphere for the entire family to gather during extended holidays. This programmatic need brings many environmental challenges to the table, such as energy efficiency while vacant, flexible use of space and low maintenance materials. The waterfront location also brings an environmentally sensitive site to the forefront of the design process.

The programmatic needs combined with the desire for sustainability created two wings for the structure; a main living wing with the dining, living and master suite and a sleeping wing for visitors which can be shut down for most of the year and limit the house’s energy consumption. The open, light-filled house was built from two narrow wings allowing for shorter joists/rafters thus keeping the lumber sizes to a minimum. I continually admire well designed, narrow buildings that achieve grand spaces where ventilation is better, light fully penetrates the house, heating is easier, spans are shorter and wasted space as hallways disappear completely.

The Truro residence is by no means a small house, at nearly 6400 square feet, it misses the simplest method of green design: less square feet. However, given the neighboring mansions of Cape Cod, the designers created a well zoned, energy efficient and flexible vacation home that pays back the energy usage it consumes.

Green Techniques:

  • Durable Materials. Metal Roofing, Concrete Slab Floors, Slate Floors, Solid cabinetry, hardwood decking and a structural system built to withstand hurricane force winds .
  • Natural Light and Ventilation. High clerestory windows allow soft natural light in the bathrooms and bedrooms lessening the need for artificial lights.
  • Zoning of Spaces. Isolation of limited use guest rooms from high functioning living spaces minimizes wasteful heating and energy usage.
  • HVAC. A Geothermal system (six 300 ft. deep wells) coupled with in-floor hydronic heat reduces energy use by up to 50% and improves indoor air quality by eliminating ductwork that attracts dust.
  • Alternative Energy. 11.7 KW photovoltaic system placed on the roof to offset energy consumption and create net metering. The panels are connected to a gas generator to keep the house functioning in the event of a power outage.
  • No Carpet. Minimizes the settling of dust thus improving the indoor air quality. Flooring was limited to slate, bamboo and polished concrete eliminated the use of toxic finishes.
  • Super Insulation. Icynene open cell insulation was sprayed into the wall and roof cavities. It is supplemented with rigid and closed cell insulation to create a “super insulated” building.
  • Certifications. Energy Star Certified.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Save the Windows

The virtues of replacement windows are reinforced all around us--in the building codes, in commercials, by the IRS and the federal tax credit. But if you live in a pre-war house, the saying really is true: "They just don't make them like they used to." Save the Windows, brought to you by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, wants to get the word out that making some upgrades to your existing windows can also be energy efficient. 

By keeping and maintaining original windows, you are preserving a time when building was not just about efficiency. The greenest house is an existing house, and although new replacement windows may keep your house warm, most of these are vinyl, which are extremely toxic to manufacture and are not recyclable (unfortunately, most storm windows are also vinyl). My husband has argued with me many times that most people don't notice the materials of windows, and that I am just being an architecture snob. But I challenge anyone not to appreciate original wood windows in a historic house, especially when compared with vinyl windows.

Historic wood windows with true divided lites. Photo credit.

Here are some tips from Save the Windows:
  • Learn how to fix your windows yourself! With just a little guidance and a few small tools, you can make repairs and retrofit your windows on your own. Look through our list of workshops nationwide and our online training videos.
  • Improve the performance of your existing windows,
    • Caulk around window openings on the exterior to stop air from coming in.
    • Caulk around the window trim on the inside to block drafts.
    • Add weather stripping to the window sash. There are many types of weather stripping to suit various window types, budgets, and needs, from simple "rope" caulk to bronze.
    • Use a storm window or thermal panel. These can be placed on the interior or exterior and are available in a variety of styles. They may also qualify for a tax credit.
    • Install insulated shades or blinds—some of these qualify for tax credits.
    • Use insulated curtains or drapes to block cold air and to keep the hot sun out.
    • For more information, visit our windows page on PreservationNation.
  • Find the right contractor to fix your windows for you. We'll help you find a dependable and qualified contractor in your local community. Check out our contractor guide today.
Storm windows can be added each winter. Operable storm windows, like double hung, can be permanently installed and can be opened to not interfere with operations of the original window.
More References:

Friday, November 19, 2010

urban | design.banter :: Respecting Historical Guidelines Means Designing for the Pedestrian

The Historic Friday Harbor website ( is currently being updated to show more of the recent new construction in downtown that follows the
Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) Guidelines. This recent construction includes our Churchill Corner Building, completed in 2008.

 View of Churchill Corner from the approaching ferry.

Our Churchill Corner Project, perched atop the ferry parking lot in downtown Friday Harbor, was completed two years ago. Though not required for its exact location, the owner chose to be mandated by the HPRB Guidelines, in order to gain certain siting advantages, like fewer parking spaces. This is a personal bone of contention with me--cities talk about wanting to be more pedestrian friendly, they want businesses to flourish, they want their downtown centers to be alive and vibrant--but then they require insane amounts of parking, which either destroys the downtown village feel they are trying to create if it's on the surface, or is prohibitively expensive.

In the case of Churchill Corner, we did provide an underground parking garage with spaces for the homeowners which is essential, in addition to spots for each commercial space. But less spaces were required because of the historic district. To me, this makes sense for the remaining eight commercial spaces, since two hour free parking abounds, and time-limit-free free parking is also in abundance in the adjacent residential neighborhoods.

A goal of fitting into any historic guidelines is to do justice to the historic character of a town without looking too themed, like Main Street in Disneyland. One of the ways this can be accomplished is to look at the design intent, not just copy the look of a facade. Turn of the century buildings were designed for the pedestrian experience, not the car (window shopping as opposed to the biggest signs competing for the driver's attention, while a large parking lot separates said building from the street).

One of the most important design and historic preservation aspects of the Churchill Corner Building is the deference to the pedestrian, demonstrated in the interior pedestrian street, providing access to commercial spaces from two levels, the zero lot lines, and the unobtrusive underground parking.

The importance of keeping a human scale is also demonstrated in the variable massing of the 26,000 square foot building. The facade is broken up into manageable lengths, with recessed entries, varied materials, and abundant storefront windows, so that a passerby may feel like they are experiencing different buildings.

 Pedestrians may feel like they are passing multiple buildings as they stroll past the various storefronts. Signage for the commercial spaces also has to meet HPRB guidelines.

The gabled roofs and yellow siding of the residences at the top pay tribute to the original Churchill House, which was preserved and relocated to another site in town. Roof deck and flat roof areas feature a distinct, continuous cornice. The five residences on top of the two floors of commercial spaces reflect the historic tradition of apartments above storefronts in downtown areas.

 The gable roof lines and yellow siding pay tribute to the Churchill House, relocated to another site intact.

The Preservation Guidelines has great illustrations, maps, and references for new construction.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Green Building of The Week

Completed in 1999, this house was what most would say, ahead of its time through its use of green design techniques. However, the passive solar design, rain water collection and material re-use are age-old historic practices of vernacular design. Once again, America is returning to the correct and historic design methods of optimum site orientation to make use of the sun for heat and wind for cooling. Rather than simply adding a large and commonly oversized HVAC system, designers and homeowners are rethinking where to spend the money. In this home, the home owners splurged on high operable windows to allow the collected heat to naturally exhaust the house rather than beefing up the air conditioning system and energy cost. 10 years later, they are still happy with this decision.

Along with natural ventilation, the floor of the house was treated as a large thermal mass to collect heat throughout the day which releases during the cool night. Structural Insulated Panels replaced typical wood framing techniques and improve the air sealing of the house tremendously. SIPS panels can reduce energy consumption up to 50%, according to Energy Star.



 [photo credits]

Green Techniques:

  • Durable Materials. Fiber Cement Siding (30 yr warranty)
  • Less and Better Wood Use. The use of SIPS panels reduce the amount of lumber and increase the area of insulation. Framing lumber was sustainably harvested by the FSC.
  • Natural Light and Ventilation. Hlgh Operable windows allow captured heat, in the vaulted ceiling, to escape the house naturally.
  • Zoning of Spaces. Mechanical rooms, Utility, Bath and Service rooms were gathered to the street side of the house, allowing bedrooms and common areas to capture the warmth and daylight of the South Sun.
  • Water Collection. Roof water is collected for irrigation.
  • Recycled Materials. Reclaimed Decking.
  • Indoor Air Quality. No VOC Paint used throughout the interior of the residence to reduce off-gassing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Temporary Portfolio on Facebook

We are working to repair our website after we were hacked this weekend. To view our portfolio and learn more about us, please visit our Facebook Page.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Website was Hacked

We apologize for any confusion. Our website,, has been hacked. We are working to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.

Friday, November 12, 2010

urban | design.banter :: Lessons in Density: Silver Lake, LA, CA

Each Friday we bring you   
urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

My favorite tourist activity in any city is exploring neighborhoods. I have been to LA a hand full of times, but had only explored the more glamorous neighborhoods. Not that Silver Lake isn't glamorous (ask your Realtor), but I'm not sure how well known it is outside of the Dwell Magazine crowd, compared to say, Beverly Hills. It's a very hip neighborhood between downtown and Hollywood, snaking up in to the hills, known for its modern architecture (see Barbara Bestor's Bohemian Modern: Living in Silver Lake).

Silver Lake's residential areas have everything that I find interesting in neighborhoods: density, controlled chaos, nooks and crannies, diversity in housing types, abundant and varied landscaping. Silver Lake was designed for the house and the person, not the fire truck. I'm not trying to dismiss the importance of the fire department, I just think the fire truck should be designed for the neighborhood (i.e., smaller trucks), not the other way around, which is typical and one of the reasons for many of our freeway-width suburban streets.


Outdoor space is programmed. No space is wasted or taken for granted. There is no room for rarely if ever used lawn-and because of the area, drought tolerant native plants must be used. 

Driveway, yard, entry, fence--all in less space than the average great room

Privacy is created not by shear space but by creative landscaping, fencing, focusing on views, and placing living areas on upper floors.

The zero lot lines, Feng Shui appropriate tucked entries, and creative jumble of small houses reminded me of homes in Tokyo, though it is relatively flat there.

Cars can park on the street. The world will not end if a car has to wait 10 seconds for a car coming the opposite way to pass. This is also common in many dense Seattle neighborhoods: short blocks punctuated by roundabouts, two-way streets with cars parked on both sides leaving room for only one car to pass through.

Refreshing: treating cars as second class citizens, almost an afterthought to the design of the house and neighborhood.

The road can be the driveway and the alley. We even saw someone with all of their wood working tools set out in their barely 100 square foot driveway, less than a foot from the road.  

All of this is a cause and a result of cars driving slower. The zero lot lines and street enclosure that is therefore formed, thin streets, and cars parked on the streets create an atmosphere where motorists slow down and are very aware of their texting while driving here. The non-gridded streets add to this: streets twist and turn with the natural topography. 

We should not fear density, though so many do.  On paper, the stats of Silver Lake might be scary to those who see density as a four letter word: no driveways? No lawns? Thin, old streets? Houses practically stacked on top of each other? But the most dense neighborhoods in this country are consistently the most desirable. One look at housing pricing in the area show that we need more neighborhoods like this.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

In the City or Off the Grid: Which is Greener?

This is a great debate on, available on the website or a podcast. Lloyd Alter and Nick Rosen debate which is greener: living in a dense city, or living off of the grid. 

We probably won't ever solve this debate, if only because there will always be people who want/need to live in the city or the country. Even if one was found to be infinitely more environmentally friendly, people would most likely stay put, because of personal preference, where their family is, not to mention the fact that there will always be economic opportunities that are unique to both. 

 Depressing but interesting: how we stack up. From Treehugger.

Of course, the way to make living off the grid the most green is to not drive (or have deliveries made), and not have any infrastructure running to your house, which may be nearly impossible and not appealing to most people. I touched on this subject earlier this year in my review of David Owen's Green Metropolis, which is mentioned in the article.

For me, the takeaway from this debate comes from this statement from Nick: 
"To say that it's more ecological to live in the city is telling urban dwellers what they want to hear, which is that it's okay. They can feel good about living in the city if they just compost a little bit and walk a little bit. In fact, by living in the city, you're subscribing to the great consumer society. The idea that you can somehow subscribe to part of it and not all of it and not be blamed for the vast, embodied energy and the huge transport system and the vast number of roads is trying to make yourself feel good, and no more than that."

The statement "if they just compost a little bit and walk a little bit" can be applied widely over every lifestyle. Just because we are doing one thing well does not mean we should not be going all things well. We may not ever, but we can strive towards it. On positive note, which I think is always needed in debates like these, I am so inspired by how we have taken green living into our own hands--because it makes sense, because it is the right thing to do, and in spite of the infrastructure that has set us up to fail--not because of a mandate, the lack of which the US has received plenty of heat for internationally.

Nick's Website:

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Understanding the Passivhaus Standard

GreenBuildingAdvisor.Com recently posted an interview with Passivhaus founder Dr. Wolfgang Feist. In Musings of an Energy Nerd, writer Martin Holladay conducts a long, in-depth interview.

The 2010 Passive House Conference starts today in Portland and runs through the 7th.

Dr. Feist said that there are five basic elements of Passivhaus, including:
● High levels of insulation
● Reduction of thermal bridges
● Attention to airtightness
● The use of “energy-gain” windows
● Heat-recovery ventilation 

There has been debate about whether or not the standard can become standard in North America, due to our climate. There are great examples of passive solar houses in places like Colorado, but there is no doubt that these are passive solar homes, as the form definitely follows function. There is a beauty in this, but the large bank of sloped southern windows, lack of windows on other sides, stone floor and solar mass walls may not be a very pleasing aesthetic to all. There are variations, though this is probably the most efficient way to build a passive solar house. The owners aesthetic might dictate that some of the elements be left out--this would just mean that they may need to depend on back-up heat more. is packed with photos and information about passive solar. Here is a typical passive solar home under construction.

To build a Passivhaus, you first must purchase the software for $225. A trial version can be viewed here.  In the software you calculate u-values, shading, energy demand, ground characteristics, etc. It's similar to the Washington State Energy Code sheets we are currently using, but much more in depth. It's a very scientific way to design a home, literally designing around the climate and elements of the site, so the design of the house grows from inside out (which is very exciting for us design nerds). 

This may result in more front-end costs for the homeowner, but the environmental benefits help us all. Usually a spec home has absolutely no context to the site or the climate, and styles are borrowed from another vernacular that make no sense in a different place. For instance, charming steep-pitched roofs in the south. The purpose of a steep pitched roof is to shed snow, and the extra heat gain from the surface area makes sense in a cooler climate. They may look great, but in a warm climate the cost (environmentally and on a utility bill) of reducing the heat gain in all those cubic feet of attic under dark shingles is ridiculous.

Not everyone can build their very own custom Passivhaus. But even small tweaks to a design to respond the climate and direction can make a big difference for the environment and your utility bill. For example, spec home developers could have different plans for different street orientations.

Last week we discussed the Living Building Challenge, a very different type of certification.