Turning a 55 year old suburban split-level into a LEED platinum home

A couple in Arlington Heights is committed to a green home for the upcoming decades of its lifespan:

Amy Myers and Mike Baker could have torn down their 1964 split-level home in Arlington Heights and replaced it with a McMansion…

It will be the first LEED Platinum home renovation in Arlington Heights. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is governed by the U.S. Green Building Council and serves as the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

The house has been designed with such features as net zero energy consumption, smart stormwater management and integrated rainwater storage. Plans include wrapping it in a tight thermal envelope and utilizing materials like airtight drywall to maximize the home’s energy efficiency…

“We’re really trying to do everything we can to make his a model of how you can recycle a 1960s home into something for the future,” Kollman said.

A Google Street View image of the home in question:

ArlingtonHeightsHome

This is a serious commitment to a fairly nondescript suburban single-family home. I would guess few suburbanites would make such an investment. At the same time, this does hint at possibilities for the many postwar suburban homes. Rather than being torn down for better homes, there might be relatively cost-effective ways to such homes operating as improved dwellings. (And this could apply to ranch homes as well as McMansions which are maligned early in this story.)

Does the green retrofitting of such homes help wipe out the more destructive aspects of suburban sprawl? Even if this house achieves LEED Platinum status, it is in a setting revolving around the car. The owners might have an electric or hybrid car – but driving is still required and making those vehicles is not all good for the environment. Would the reduced heating and energy costs be more efficient than living in a multifamily building? Do landscaping changes offset the changes subdivisions made to the landscape there beforehand?

I would be interested to see the possibilities of more LEED suburban homes, particularly if the costs are reasonable enough for homeowners to consider this as opposed to moving or tearing down the home. In the end, this would require more homeowners to think about keeping a home for a much longer scale and investing money in a way that might not lead to a huge return in their property values.

New Australian homes shrinking in size

Not too long ago, new Australian homes rivaled those of the United States. Times have changed:

The country’s homes — some of the biggest in the world — reached peak size in 2009 at an ­average of 222sq m for newly built houses and apartments combined, according to research under­taken exclusively for The Weekend ­Australian.

But the global financial crisis ­put paid to that. The average new home now stands at 192sq m, making it smaller than in 2001, senior KPMG analyst Simon Kuestenmacher found in an analysis of 15 years of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“Market pressures, a shift in values to ‘less is more’ and spending on experiences rather than material goods, especially among Gen Y, has put Australia on a trajectory towards smaller homes,” Kuestenmacher noted…

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Such trends regarding home sizes can fluctuate as economic conditions, local regulations, and cultural norms change. Now that the new home size has shrunk in Australia, will this continue for a long time? Hard to tell.

I also like the extra analysis that breaks down home size by location: there is not necessarily a singular trend in a country. While much analysis of home size in the United States relies on the single figure produced by the Census each year, I imagine there are some disparate trends across cities and regions in the U.S.

Cutting a suburban house in half for art

In 1974, artist Gordon Matta-Clark sought a suburban house to turn into art:

In the spring of 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark approached his dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, and asked whether they knew of a house that he could cut in half. As it happened, they had recently purchased an empty, soon to be demolished house, 322 Humphrey Street in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey – they were interested in the underlying lot rather than the building itself. As the house was going to be pulled down, the Solomons let Matta-Clark work on it for a few months prior to its destruction. [1] It was an ordinary balloon-framed, two-storey house, with a porch back and front and a base of cinder blocks. It was built during the 1930s when Englewood was expanding due to its proximity to New York City and its separation from the decay and lawlessness of the inner city. However, with the postwar economic downturn there had been a decrease in the number of households. [2] The house at 322 Humphrey Street would have been only one of a number of empty lots, and, like the apartment buildings that Matta-Clark had appropriated, was part of the larger system of profit and loss.

Having enlisted the knowledge and help of the German-born artist Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark jacked up one end of the frame, including one of the porches, removed a layer of cinder blocks, and cut through the entire side of the building – inside and out – with a chainsaw. Gradually he lowered the back of the building onto the remaining blocks, leaving a gap in the cut of about two-thirds of a metre at the top that tapered to a slit at the base. [3] He called this work Splitting, and part of the filmed record features Matta-Clark stripped to the waist, at different times pulling hard on the jacks, up a ladder directing the saw and manipulating the cuts; he appears to be as engrossed in his work as Jackson Pollock in the films that show him dripping paint onto canvas, or indeed Trisha Brown in films of dance performances in which she scales buildings and creates improvised urban encounters. All show the artists’ physical and mental engagement with their work and are performances of a type. When writing about Splitting, Matta-Clark also gave the house its performative role, saying that having made the cut there was a real moment of suspense about how the house would react, but that it responded ‘like a perfect dance partner’. [4] Matta-Clark wrote that the production of the work was not illusionistic, but that it was ‘all about a direct physical activity, and not about making associations with anything outside it.’ [5]…

Matta-Clark felt, like the Situationists, that this dream had been used as a political tool by the ruling classes through the provision of convenience and dwellings, in order to contain and control the masses. [10] It was also integral to the return to family values in America after the war, which were promoted in television programmes, films and magazines. While the home was seen as private, the family was also encouraged to be part of a network of neighbourhood relationships, where conformity was important, but these relationships were ‘sold’ as intrinsic to the ‘good life’. [11] Matta-Clark questioned the interests involved in developing this dream and then providing for it:

The very nature of my work with buildings takes issues with the functionalist attitude to the extent that this kind of self-conscious vocational responsibility has failed to question or re-examine the quality of life being served. [12]

The Whitney Museum of American Art describes the meaning of the project: “This splitting implied both a rupturing of the fabric of domestic space and a liberation of the individual from suburban isolation.” This is one way to cut through the suburban facade…

Six elements in a green home

In order to avoid a greenwashed home, here are some things to look for to identify a truly green home:

?Site planning for the house that is sensitive to the immediate environment, minimizes tree destruction and is strong on managing water runoff.

?Energy efficiency throughout, including high-performance HVAC, lighting, insulation and appliances.

?Exceptional interior air quality through the use of advanced air filtration and exchange systems.

?Extensive use of nontoxic building materials.

?Water conservation efficiencies, such as water-saving toilets and shower fixtures and possibly some reuse of waste water.

?Ease of long-term operation and management.

I would guess most buyers would first think of #2 on the list: efficient lightbulbs, a newer furnace, AC unit, and appliances, good insulation and no obvious drafts or leaks. But, some of these other things are much harder to find, particularly it is an older home. Nontoxic building materials? How many homes – even new ones – have this? And air quality – isn’t this something that is used in the rare passive home? And #6 is interesting: the green features should be relatively to utilize and maintain.

This leads me to several questions:

  1. How many green homes would meet all six of these?
  2. What is the added cost of meeting all 6?
  3. Presumably, some of these six are more important than others. Which ones make for a greener home if you could only have/afford a few?

Expect to see more listings in coming years that emphasize green features.

Bigger American houses limit energy efficiency

A new Pew report looks at how the growing size of American homes affects energy efficiency:

U.S. homes have become considerably more energy-efficient over the past four decades, according to government data. But homes also are a lot bigger than they used to be, and their growing girth wipes out nearly all the efficiency gains.

According to preliminary figures from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the average U.S. home used 101,800 British thermal units (Btu) of energy per square foot in 2012, the most recent year with available data. That’s 31% less than in 1970, after adjusting for weather effects and efficiency improvements in electricity generation…

While some homeowners do add onto their existing structures, the trend is driven largely by new construction. According to the Census Bureau, the average new single-family house completed last year was 2,657 square feet – 57% larger than four decades earlier. While the biggest new homes are being built in the South (an average of 2,711 square feet last year), home sizes have grown the most in the Northeast: a 64% increase in average new-home size over the past four decades…

What all of this means is that, after dropping sharply during the 1970s, the overall energy intensity of U.S. homes has changed little over the past three decades. Energy intensity is a metric that compares the amount of energy used against some unit of economic activity – households, in the case of the residential sector.

A logical question at the end of this is to ask what should be done in response. One line of argument would suggest Americans should cut their home size. When they build and purchase larger homes, they use more energy than they probably need to consume. (This is in addition to other arguments against building larger houses.) On the other hand, I imagine some would argue that we will continue to see gains in energy efficiency through technology and this will soon reduce energy use even in spite of larger homes. This second argument may be more appealing to many as then Americans could get even bigger homes and we get to utilize the benefits of technological progress.

Dunphy’s home from Modern Family isn’t exactly a middle-class home

The home used as the Phil and Claire Dunphy household on Modern Family is up for sale:

[G]et ready for a blast of memories from “Modern Family,” the Golden Globe & Emmy-winning ABC prime-time comedy that was filmed at 10336 Dunleer Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90064.

The price is $2.35 million, but listing agent Mitch Hagerman of Coldwell Banker Previews International said there’s decent income potential given the fact that TV producers have forked over generous fees for the right to film exterior shots of the property. He said it would be up to the new owners to negotiate with ABC Studios…

The home is a traditional, two-story style and has been impeccably remodeled, complete with crown molding, wood floors and upgraded appliances. It sits on a prime street in the coveted Cheviot Hills neighborhood. Hagerman says the home should sell pretty easily on its own merits.

“It’s a charming, gorgeous, cozy, family-oriented and classic-style home in a fantastic neighborhood where there’s very little inventory,” he said.

The home offers 4 bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, plus a powder room. The home last sold for $1.97 million in 2006.

A nice and expensive home. This is interesting because the Dunphy family is portrayed as being fairly middle-class. Phil is a realtor who is not the most successful or smart (these are running points throughout the shows). Claire recently returned to work, working for her father’s closet business, after not working. Where do they get all of their money? How do they afford such a nice house?

Sociologist Juliet Schor argued in The Overspent American that one problem of post-World War II television is that it showed an increasingly lavish middle-class lifestyle. The evolving image of the middle-class on television showed families with more money and possessions and not much discussion about how they could afford it all. The Dunphys are supposed to look like normal Americans yet their lifestyle is pretty wealthy with little concern about money and pretty nice possessions. Schor suggests portrayals like this pushed more Americans to consume more.

In other words, the show plays off the idea the extended family depicted is a “typical” American family yet its class status is far from what many American families experience.