Lean, green lodgings

Winston-Salem resident David Brown might seem an unlikely candidate to lead a revolution. But as the director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s HOME House Project, Brown is looking to do just that. “Our overall aim,” he proclaims, “is to establish a new national housing model in terms of design, energy efficiency, environmental consciousness, sustainability and cost-effectiveness.”

Since World War II, American architecture has been a house divided. Its respective wings — on one side, the modern theorists beloved of design competitions and architecture schools, and on the other, the mass-market builders — have often seemed so estranged from each other that they might as well be living in alternate universes. And the chasm between them gapes widest when it comes to the single-family suburban home, which most contemporary architects address only when commissioned by affluent clients.

That, Brown maintains, is precisely the problem: Today’s residential architects apply their talents almost exclusively to houses designed for the wealthiest 2 percent of the population. Middle-income Americans may experience award-winning contemporary architecture at the office, at the airport, or when attending a concert or exhibition. But when they go home, it’s most likely to the kind of “traditional” tract houses — with immovable, undersized plastic “shutters” bolted to vinyl “clapboard” siding — that evoke mostly scorn from contemporary architects, who tend to see such designs as uninspired, inauthentic and out of step with the times. As the celebrated contemporary architect Frank Gehry puts it, they “make ersatz out of heritage.”

And most single-family homes aimed at limited-income buyers get even less respect, being seen as cheap, cookie-cutter imitations of an already lackluster middle-class model.

Environmentalists and sustainability advocates, meanwhile, point to the waste and energy inefficiency that often characterize conventional home construction.

But if Brown has his way, all that is about to change. SECCA’s HOME House Project — featured in an exhibit that opens Friday, Sept. 17 in Asheville (see box) — is the opening salvo in a campaign to bring the innovations of contemporary architecture to affordable housing.

The project began as a modest competition. In September 2002, SECCA announced a $15,000 prize for the winning design for affordable housing that was both innovative and “green,” taking the basic three- or four-bedroom Habitat for Humanity House as a point of departure. But the response was astonishing — and when more than 440 submissions streamed in from around the world, the Bank of America agreed to underwrite 24 additional prizes.

From the very start, however, the HOME House Project viewed itself as a movement, rather than just another design competition. To that end, an exhibit highlighting 100 of the top designs, including the 25 winners, is now on tour, with stops at universities and design museums across the country. In addition to drawings, the exhibit features 3-D computer animation for 13 of the entries. The Asheville show will also include scale models of four designs built by carpentry and construction-management students at A-B Tech.

A host of related activities — a lecture series, a film series, and a tour of homes — will accompany the exhibit (see box).

Many hands, many visions

Neighborhood Housing Services, an Asheville-based nonprofit that builds affordable housing, is SECCA’s chief local partner in the project, but several other local institutions — including A-B Tech, the Asheville Art Museum, the city government and the Green Building Council — are also involved. About a dozen area residents are lending a hand as well.

The involvement of a broad range of institutions seems fitting, given the HOME House Project’s broader aim of breaking down the divide between theory and practice. “Typically the arts are wonderful for dialogue,” Brown explains, “but rarely do we take the next step and offer solutions.” Back in Winston-Salem, SECCA has taken that next step by working with Forsyth Technical Community College to build one of the designs, S. Flavio Espinoza‘s “Suburban Loft,” for a local affordable-housing group. In that same spirit, the Asheville’s exhibit is being shown in the very building where construction permits are issued.

The designs themselves show a remarkable variety. “They exhibit the full range of possibilities,” says Chris Slusher, the executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services, which plans to build some “SECCA-inspired” contemporary homes on a several-acre site off State Street in West Asheville. “Some are practical, and some are more imaginative and not so practical.”

Beth Blostein‘s “Gradient House” is one of five designs from the show that private developers are considering offering as market-rate housing in the Winston-Salem area. A two-story greenhouse frame is sheathed with transparent polycarbonate siding; shade cloths keep the structure cool in summer. Blostein proposes using a prefabricated “molded system wall” containing all “the plumbing … ventilation ducts, electrical runs, closets and other built-in cabinetry — even sinks!” Besides reducing labor costs, the innovation will allow a three-bedroom house of less than 1,100 square feet to feel uncharacteristically spacious, she suggests. Blostein estimates that the house could be built for $42,758 (excluding land and site-preparation costs).

“Habitat House,” designed by a group of architecture students and instructors at the University of New Mexico, turns America’s surplus of shipping containers — a byproduct of the bloated U.S. trade deficit — into a building resource. Two of these containers, laid parallel to each other, serve as the wings of a house. The space between them, enclosed by sliding glass doors, serves as the central living space. A flat roof covers the whole structure, and its substantial overhang — sheltering an equally large deck — creates a veranda around the house. Although the proposal cites the dogtrot of traditional Southern cabins as an inspiration, Brown observes that the flat roof might make the design better suited to the desert climate where its designers live.

Meanwhile, “Fab Tree Hab,” a design from Team H.E.D. at MIT’s architecture school, tends more toward the imaginative end of the spectrum. It proposes weaving branches in a grove of elms to create a structural framework around which volunteers would train vines and pack clay to create the walls of a living house. The design board shows a domed residence studded with “flexible bioplastic windows” under towering trees. Think Buckminster Fuller meets Winnie the Pooh.

Real-estate ads — the texts of mass-market architecture — often read like hungry-for-love personals (“adorable,” “cute as a button,” “needs TLC”). But the blurbs on these avant-garde design boards sound more like a cross between a building manual and a sociology thesis.

Then again, some are merely puzzling. “Program within the house is not only displaced sectionally by impending stacks of hay, but also becomes deployable,” report the designers of “Hay Bale House,” another of the more imaginative winners. The proposal calls for stacking insulating bales of hay around a simple, partially enclosed concrete frame in the fall and then starting to feed the hay to livestock once spring approaches. The idea is that the occupants have a hand in shaping their house through the seasons.

How green was my subdivision?

The designers of these houses take various tacks to make their houses green. Some strategies are as simple as installing energy-efficient appliances. Quite a few proposals call for recycling materials — using shipping containers as structural elements, for example, or reusing old gym floors. The designers of “Gambion House” envision using wire-mesh baskets — filled with rubble from residential renovations, insulated and then sprayed with shotcrete — as their basic building material. Some stress conserving energy or materials, such as by exposing structural materials rather than covering them with gypsum, or by locating kitchens near bathrooms so as to minimize pipe lengths and water-heating costs. And many propose natural cross-ventilation to cool their houses in summer and passive-solar techniques to help warm them in the winter.

Peter Calthorpe, one of the co-founders of the Congress for New Urbanism, used to design passive-solar houses too — until he realized that simply housing people in a conventional townhouse, which has less exposed wall per square foot, would produce much greater energy savings. Whereas his new-urbanist compatriots in the Southeast tend to build nostalgic “traditional neighborhood developments” of mostly single-family homes at the suburban/rural fringe (such as Biltmore Park), Calthorpe and other West Coast new-urban planners focus more on infill development and working to achieve densities that can support viable mass transit.

Their work is bolstered by studies from the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups suggesting that North American patterns of development are the single biggest reason we consume so much more than our per capita share of the world’s natural resources. And a salient feature of those sprawling, gas-guzzling patterns of growth is the prevalence of neighborhoods devoted exclusively to detached single-family houses. Which begs the question: Is the HOME House Project really a potential cure for our root environmental ills or merely a clever reflection of them?

“Probably a little of both,” Brown answers candidly. And Slusher similarly concedes, “In the best of all worlds, we would build as densely as possible.” But like it or not, he continues, the single-family house is part and parcel of the American dream.

Of course, a skeptic might ask if the house in that dream isn’t more likely to be a traditional one. You know, the kind second-graders draw, with a steep roof sloping from a central ridgeline, shutters flanking the windows, and a great big tree in the yard. Maybe real-estate ads read like personal ads because loving a house is a lot like loving a person — an instinctive reaction. And maybe mass-market builders make ticky-tacky references to colonials, Victorians and arts-and-crafts bungalows because those are exactly what people desire. SECCA and local sponsors of the HOME House Project maintain that good contemporary design would reduce NIMBY resistance to affordable housing, but one wonders if it wouldn’t simply add another strike against it.

Yet it’s true, as Brown points out, that the various styles of traditional architecture were all revolutionary in their day. And it’s also true that ours is an era of exciting diversity in contemporary architecture — a trend well reflected in the HOME House selections. The profession is no longer ruled, as it was in the 1960s, by the monotony of glass and steel and gratuitous exposed I-beams (think the BB&T Building). Gone, too, are the kitschy, postmodern gestures of the ’80s — neoclassical elements placed cartoonishly out of context, such as the Roman arches employed as dormers atop the Grove Park Inn’s added wings.

Like most cities, Asheville has its share of ugly, expensive postwar buildings. Now it may be getting some beautiful and inexpensive ones — or at least getting a look at them.

[Jonathan Barnard, a freelance translator and writer, lives in West Asheville.]

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