Wednesday, September 23, 2009

--Chain of Ecohomes Competition

A real opportunity is being missed as we speak. Greensburg, Kansas is rebuilding after a devastating tornado. The effort is striving toward making Greensburg the greenest city in America. Part of that effort involves a competition to design a new type of inexpensive housing for local residents. Here are two of my favorite entries:These two designs are relatively simple in origin. Indeed, they are classified as "rustic" on the competition's website. Predictably, however, they are being trounced in the competition. By this...thing:Why does this matter? Because the people who vote in this competition are architects, not regular people. People who know this competition is happening are subsets of architects who are interested in green architecture. Because this group of people has trained itself to see "green" not as an option for regular houses, but rather as a set of aesthetic choices all its own, "green architecure" ghettoizes itself into irrelevancy among a distinct and minor subset of the home building market. No. one. wants. these. houses.

Here are pictures of three houses that are roughly equal in their energy gains from emphasis on green design. But when asked to choose among hundreds of designs--designs that are submitted by a self-selecting group of eco-conscious architects--the larger green architecture community selects for homes that the market does not demand.

Why don't people want to buy green homes? Because "green" too often means a literally green travesty like you see above. Homebuyers are terrified of these monstrosities because they doubt they'll be able to resell them in the future. But if you were to construct those houses at the top of this post and en masse, then people will see their energy savings combined with the resale value...and you wouldn't be able to build enough of them.

Too bad, Greensburg, Kansas. Because of decisions like these, in fifty years you'll be an comical retrospective on stupid ideas from 2009 about what the future might look like.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

--From the WSJ: "Turf Wars"

Today's Wall Street Journal reports that a debate is raging between the EPA, state water control authorities, and businesses dependent upon the lawn maintenance industry. Many local municipalities are encouraging their residents to switch to low-water intensive landscaping by offering credits on their water bills for square footage of lawn eliminated. Companies that manufacture landscaping equipment and fertilizer fear this will lead to a label like "Energy Star" that homebuilders use and homebuyers demand. I, for one, certainly hope it does. (Unless people start paving their lawns like in the Bronx, which is just the worst idea ever.)

What interests me principally is why local authorities can make the connection between tailoring a lawn to the area's climate, but not tailoring the house to it as well.

Here's for tax credits and other incentives that reward homebuilders for such logical decisions as property orientation, design, and implementation of passive heating/cooling/lighting techniques appropriate to their region. (You'll save as much on electricity as you do on water...by far!)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

--Obama Admits: Cap and Trade Could Cost you $1761 annually

From, CBS News: a new White House memo suggests that Cap-and-Trade restrictions could cost the average American family up to $1761 in increased energy costs.

Will more expensive energy costs hamper your enjoyment of your home? Or is your home designed to naturally mitigate the effects of climate without recourse to expense energy?

Monday, September 14, 2009

--Jevons' Paradox and Your Home Bills

This post from Treehugger today got me interested in Jevons' paradox.

In his 1865 book The Coal Question, William Stanley Jevons noted that increases in the efficiency of coal-burning steam engines lead to an increase rather than a decrease in utilization of coal. This seems entirely logical, of course. If coal is an inefficient power source, demand for coal will be small. If demand is small, the price will be low. But if a means of increasing efficient utilization of coal is devised, then demand for the efficient but cheap fuel will skyrocket. Prices will also increase, but if increases in efficiency follow, then a cycle is created in which demand creates innovation creates demand.

Jevons' paradox governs the economic use of all fuel sources. Any innovation that makes utilization of a resource more efficient will result in increased rather than decreased utilization of that resource.

This effect is noteable also because of its inverse. Decrease in efficiency leads to decrease in utilization. When several highways were demolished in California, for instance, traffic jams ceased because fewer people tried to drive, assuming that driving would be impossible without the old highways. "If the roads were jammed before, just think how bad they'll be now!" Similarly, we see that congestion in Boston has increased following the Big Dig; Why? because availability of the resource "roads" has increased demand for the resource and therefore destroyed any gains by unleasing "latent demand."

Latent demand is the enemy of efficiency gains. We overlook latent demand when we assume that demand is internally rather than externally constrained. Do people on budgets take lightening fast showers because they hate the warm cascade of water or because they can't afford to drain the water heater every morning? If the cost of heating that water plummets, will they continue their miserly habits, or begin to allow themselves the pleasure of a morning shower?

Most of our hopes for saving energy expenditure in home building rest on the assumption that innovations will keep pace with increases in cost. If electricity rates rise, compact fluorescent bulbs and high efficiency washer/dyers will step in to make those new rates affordable.

But at some point, logically, we reach the plateau where innovation no longer surpasses cost increases. The American consumer is certainly capable of self-regulation (within the constraints placed upon him...credit cards being the means most recently responsible for loosening our collective belts). The fact is, though, that no one enjoys self-regulation. Discipline is just plain no fun. So if your budget allows for $200 a month in electricity expense, and new bulbs or appliances shave $20 off that expense, you're likely to kick the heat up a degree or two. Why not? You would have spent the money anyway! Go ahead! Treat yourself! Jevons knew you would!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

--How Much Will Your Climate Change?

How much will the temperatures escalate where you live? Look here. (Hope you don't live in Kansas...)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

--Restating the Thesis

Science has taught us to view all things through the lens of Darwinian evolution. That is to say, nothing in its present form got to where it is without a long process of adaptation to its immediate environment. We tend to think of human inventions as distinct and separate from this process, but architecture is a field in which one can recognize the gradual development of style through regular, minute innovation as each new building in a location takes shape. Unfortunately, the homogenization of American culture following WWII meant that the natural development taking place in distinct regions of the country were largely halted in favor of identical boxes that could be transplanted from one location to another and "acclimated' via an adjustment to the thermostat. As energy prices continue to rise unpredictably, however, the freedom to make those adjustments is increasingly limited. In this case, Americans--indeed, all people--do well to retrace the historical architectural developments of their region, garnering insights and learning lessons to help them live with greater freedom from fluctuating fuel prices.

As examples, let's look at a few thought experiments where innovations in architecture have clearly followed realizations about environment. Many of the wealthy merchants in American Southern and Western cities came from East-coast locations where Europeans had been settled since the seventeenth century. Space in these areas comes at a premium, of course. Houses in New York, for instance, were cramped and crowded--though stately!--to take advantage of the limited space. And don't forget that New York was founded by settlers from Amsterdam, where compact houses were a necessity:
So imagine that wealthy merchant has made his fortune in Chicago. Would he not wish to build a similarly styled mansion in this city?
You of course see architectural progress. The New York brownstone is plainer, closer to Federalist in style. The Chicago brownstone is more ornate; I can't help but be reminded of Romanesque form. But both houses have a similar footprint. Not until Frank Lloyd Wright did Chicago discover its own native form, however. Wright called this "Prairie Style," inasmuch as the design was meant for the wide, open spaces of the American west. The home's primary axis is no longer vertical as in New York, but rather horizontal, like the great expanse of the Great Plains.
In this example, we see three homes from three distinct periods of time. The design of these homes is altered over time to reflect a more direct interaction with the immediate environment. Literally, the homes are more "fit" to their surroundings.

We see the same effect when a style of architecture is so suited to its environment that it can't be improved upon. Pueblo and adobe construction in the American Southwest is a perfect example. The material availability and temperature-mitigating effects of mud-brick construction define the style of the region.
As you read other posts in this blog, you'll find that every region of the world has these locally perfect forms. You'll also see properties that were determined to be wise in one home that were repeated in future homes.

The achetypical Cape Cod house, for instance:
What do you notice? Here are three prominent features immediately obvious: (1) a central chimney. (2) A low, broad roof. And (3) Shutters. Here are two more pictures of the same style in which the same features are prominent. (Google "Cape Cod" and you'll find these houses are the rule, not the exception).

So why do these features repeat? Because they make the house livable during the Northeasters of Massachusetts lore. No heat escapes the house as when the chimney is stuck on the outside. The windows can be locked tight against flying debris. The roof does not present itself to be torn off by heavy winds. Wind, rain, and cold are the principle components of a New England winter. Obviously a New England house would be designed to combat them.

But let's say the son of that New Englander moves to Alabama to start a farm. Does he build the same house in Montgomery as in Massachusetts? The first few people likely did, for lack of a reason not to. But look at this picture of a typical Alabama dogtrot house:
What do you notice first? Two chimneys on the exterior walls instead of one chimney in middle. Why? Because Alabama is a lot hotter than Massachusetts, and trapping extra heat simply isn't necessary. Historians will tell you that a house like this was likely built in two stages. The first cabin was constructed, then the second, and then a roof stretched over both. Ample opportunity existed to build both cabins around the single fireplace, but trapping that much heat would be miserable most of the time in Alabama! Instead, the middle of this house features a tremendous breezeway to promote air circulation, just as the off-the-ground conventional foundation helps to keep the home cool. Here are two more pictures to show that we're dealing with core styles here and not outliers:What I hope is evident in these illustrations is the way in which historic homes were constructed to mitigate environmental effects.

Modern homes are also constructed to mitigate climate. But homes today do so in enery-intensive ways. This might allow you to construct a Cape Cod in Alabama or a dogtrot in Massachusetts if you happen to like the style, but you do so by paying a hefty energy bill every month.

This blog exists for one reason: to encourage home-builders to look at these insights from the past. As energy prices continue their upward trend, everyone can benefit from the "free" energy efficiency of historical regional architecture.

--From the NYTimes "The Unchilled Life"

A 2005 article from the Brookings Institute suggested that the so-called "Sun Belt" will grow at ten times the rate of the so-called "Snow Belt" as early as 2020. Already, the disparity is close to four times. That means more and more Americans live in areas that, until the advent of air conditioning, were considered practically uninhabitable. So as more and more Americans more into these steamy hot spots, and as rising energy costs threaten the ability of the average American to keep the thermostat as low as he or she might like, what will people do to beat the heat?

According to a recent article from the New York Times, they'll more or less have to rearrange their entire lives and suffer miserably through the summer.

Can nothing be done to prevent this from being a part of your future? Everyone should plan now for even the possibility of life without climate control. If you live in the South, I can't recommend highly enough looking at the innovations featured in the older homes of the region. The world may know the South as one big Front Porch, but that architectural feature is certainly no joke when cooling air and giving homeowners a shady--and cheap!--place to sit while the heat pump sits idly by.

--Treehugger asks, "Why are Old Buildings Like Green Gadgets?"

Treehugger recently asked why old buildings are like green gadgets. They spell out three main reasons, but the basic argument seems to be that the front-end interjection of power and materials required for new construction means anything new will always be less energy intensive than anything old.

There's absolutely sound logic to that argument. But here's a better point, and one that this blog seeks to emphasize: older buildings were constructed at a time when dramatic energy-add in the form of materials transport and climate control simply were not options. There was no air conditioning. There was no shipping lumber from Canada. A tree cut down in Alabama was used to build a house in Alabama, and the builder was damn sure he built a house that could cope with the heat as well as possible.

Old buildings are greener because they were loaded with technologies that mitigated environmental factors without the use of unavailable means. That means low-energy-add innovations like transoms, large windows, deep porches, heavy planting, and logical site placement for homes in the South. We think of these features as characteristically "Southern" because we're accustomed to seeing them across the South. But no one ever met in a conference room in Atlanta to establish architectural standards for an entire region. What we see regularly is a natural by-product of evolution. Of survival of the fittest.

Scarlett O'Hara goes to the plantation down the lane and notices that when the transoms are open, the parlor is cooler than at Tara. So you'd better believe she's going to insist on transoms when Rhett Butler builds a mansion for her later on. Bit by bit by bit, accidental discoveries accumulate into marked differences in quality of life until finally everyone sees the benefits of a certain feature and only the fools exclude them.

Here's a little experiment. Drive through the oldest neighborhoods in your city today. Determine what features seem to "define" the houses. Next, drive through the newest "subdivision." Are those innovations present?

Will the homeowners regret the absence as energy prices continue to climb?

Which of these houses will be more enjoyable if paying for air conditioning becomes an almost impossible burden on your budget?