Donald Watson's ,000 "Ecology House," seen here in model form, is a passive solar "starter" design with cathedral ceilings.
With a post-and-beam framework of recycled steel, the house uses various materials for walls, depending on regional availability. The first prototypes have walls of pressed straw paneling, widely available in Texas. In other ecological and industrial zones, different recycled-content, pressed-panel materials such as sawdust/cement composites and nontoxic, recycled styrofoam might be used, says Fisk. All elements of the house, he adds, can be assembled with simple hand tools.
At 256 square feet, the “core” of the GreenForms house is Lilliputian, but rooms can be added as the homeowner saves money. It includes a solar hot-water heater and air collector for passive heating, a radiant barrier system in the roof for venting of summer heat, and high re-radiating roof paints. Also for heating and cooling, a pipe snakes underneath a “very good looking” earthen floor of soil stabilized with cement, explains Fisk. It connects to a ground-source heat pump system buried, together with the waste-water system, in the yard.
The house has one very unusual but startlingly logical feature: a completely mobile kitchen—including the stove, sink cabinets, serving cart and roller cabinets. On hot summer days, the whole kitchen can be brought outside onto a breezeway. The estimated building cost, including the adaptable kitchen, dinette, loft, porch, bathroom, waste-water system and non-toxic interior finishes, is $8,000 to $10,000. Additional bedrooms are estimated at $4,000 each. The design offers freedom from a punishing mortgage, allowing for financing “in a very incremental way,” says Fisk.
Although some consider the design futuristic—unlikely to transform America’s conventional housing stock any time soon—it is intended to be accessible to individuals of modest means who want to build an affordable eco-home today. By year’s end, Fisk hopes to offer a basic plan series for approximately $45 and an optional starter kit for $2,000 to $3,000.
Just a Little Green
An equally insurgent design with a more traditional look is the ECCO House, offered by Tim Maloney of Kentucky-based One Design, Inc. At 580 square feet, it’s billed as “the world’s smallest luxury home,” sporting an 18-foot cathedral ceiling in the kitchen/living room and a whirlpool bath in the master suite.
At about $69 per square foot (not including land) the ECCO House is far from dirt cheap. But the idea of the compact design is for gracefulness to squeeze the highest quality out of each square foot and for compactness to keep the mortgage, maintenance and energy bills down. The price falls into Marinelli and Bierman-Lytle’s “tight budget” category, but still allows for some of the environmental features they reserve for “moderate” budgets.
The appealing wee home offers a 34-foot line of sight from any spot, for instance, giving it a spacious feel. Ecological elements include solar preheated water, a built-in commode sink for recycling hand-wash water, ample natural light, color-balanced fluorescent artificial lighting, non-toxic paints and floor coverings, and recycled plastic and wood deck lumber, counter tops and mantel. Heating and cooling is a bargain (about $100 a year in the Virginia climate), with passive solar heating supplemented by a gas-log fireplace.
The DOE, which chose the ECCO House in its Exemplary Buildings Program, conducted a numerical simulation, walking the design through a typical weather-year in Richmond, Virginia and Pittsburgh. “The nice thing about this one is that we came up with a 60 percent savings when compared to the Model Energy Code house,” says Paul Tosselini, engineer at the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. “Few houses meet the Model Energy Code, so that is already a very good house.”
Other yacht-like features include a bedroom door that disappears into the wall, a slide-out ironing board, a combined washer/dryer, furniture-like kitchen cabinets, and a courtyard with a moveable shade and 54 feet of storage space.
According to Maloney, who spent 17 years developing the design with a group of “far-sighted” investors, the ECCO House fits on one-tenth of an acre, can be built on any type of foundation anywhere in the country, and is easy to mortgage. “One of the last things you learn in a career in alternative housing is that it better use utterly conventional trade tools or it ain’t gonna happen,” he says.
The walls can be made of stressed skin foam panels (rigid foam sandwiched between oriented strand board, known as OSB and increasingly popular among environmentalists). But most people choose less-expensive “stick-built” walls, which Maloney insulates with recycled newspaper.
The only unusual construction feature is an eccentric-looking compact staircase leading to the upstairs bedroom. Trademarked by One Design as the “CabinetStair,” it has alternating steps and was inspired by Thomas Jefferson, who thought stairs take up too much space.
The estimated construction cost (in Virginia) of the ECCO House is $40,000, including appliances, floor covering, landscaping and contracted labor. Maloney sells three sets of blueprints for $395, including a standard expansion of 240 square feet that adds a dining room and an extra bedroom and bathroom. An optional kit of pre-cut panels is available for approximately $14,000. But the house is “like a living language,” says Maloney; most people build a variation on the blueprints’ theme.
The “Ecology House”
While the country has a shortage of compact eco-home designs, the good news is that a lot of thought went into the ones that do exist.
Several years ago, the now-defunct New Alchemy Institute commissioned Trumbull, Connecticut-based arch
itect Donald Watson to create an eco-house with deliberate concern for what it would cost the average person to build. The resulting “Ecology House” is an attractive passive solar “starter” home with cathedral ceilings and an open floor plan.
Rammed earth homes offer low heating and cooling costs.
To design the house, which was a winner in the 1990 Compact House Design competition, Watson pored over blueprints of a hundred existing solar home plans, and studied the results of his survey of 150 solar homes in Connecticut. “All of that [knowledge], I attempted to put in this house,” says Watson.
The two-bedroom house is suitable for northern climates at 40 degrees latitude and northward, encompassing areas such as New York and Denver. It has about 1,400 square feet of living space, including a solar-heated basement which is earth-bermed on sides not facing south, and an optional 162-square-foot greenhouse. “In a small footprint, every square inch is used,” says Watson.
Like Maloney’s design, these plans suggest using structural stressed skin foam paneling for the walls, because it’s easy to work with, uses minimal wood and achieves a reasonable level of insulation and air-tightness. The approximate all-in building cost (based on 1990 prices) for the Ecology House is $96,000. Heating and cooling costs are estimated at $100 per year. Watson sells the plans at cost, for $99.
In the early 80s, Watson was one of several architects commissioned by Berlin, Connecticut-based Northeast Utilities to produce the Solar Home Planbook, which features energy-efficient New England-style house plans, several of them inexpensive. Northeast Utilities’ program, Operation Solar, is now defunct, but the book was updated last year and is available for $25. Complete construction plans can be ordered from the book.
The least-expensive model featured is a compact passive-solar ranch home. The conventional-looking two-bedroom, 1,100 square-foot home would complement any American neighborhood. It has a two-car garage and a cathedral ceiling with skylights—“giving the feeling of a house larger than it is,” says former Operation Solar director Jan Sayko. It costs approximately $82,000 to build and in Hartford, Connecticut-type weather runs about $248 to $335 per year to heat, depending on the system used.
House plans brokered through national magazines, some of which feature compact, affordable designs, can also be used to create eco-homes. “There are a number of plans out there you can convert very easily,” says Michael Meyers, a DOE program manager and former director of the Austin Green Building program. “For many of the [common] building materials we use, there are renewable, recycle-based materials that can be used in the same fashion.”
Whether one starts with green or conventional blueprints, architect Peter Pfeiffer suggests reading up on “site specificness”—how to orient the house for best solar gain and prevailing winds. “The window orientation and wind are crucial,” says Pfeiffer.
The Ecology House “probably has 24 ways to respond to climate,” says Watson. “You cannot fine-tune a house unless you understand its local situation.” Toward this end, Watson’s book, Climatic Design: Energy-Efficient Building Principles and Practices (McGraw Hill, $29.95), along with a computer program, allows individuals to fine-tune a house to climatic conditions registered at any local airport.
Pfeiffer recommends hiring an architect for $200 to $300 to review the plans and the building site. The architect might help reduce building costs by, for example, pointing out that in a certain climate and building site, simple overhangs could replace exotic low-E windows called for in the plans. “People think they have to be building a quarter-million-dollar home to make it worth hiring an architect. It’s not true,” says Pfeiffer. “Get some good consultation and maybe save a few thousand in construction.”
The Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, author of Primer on Sustainable Building, put together this Earth-friendly kitchen.
The more compact, well-insulated and air-tight the house, meanwhile, the bigger the margin of error in orientation. After years of trying to crack the nut of affordable sustainable housing, says designer Maloney, “We decided to make a house that even if you do everything wrong, it still works.” By virtue of its smallness, the house remains extremely inexpensive to heat, for instance, even if not perfectly positioned for solar gain.
And affordable eco-homes won’t have all the bells and whistles of their opulent counterparts. “There’s a line between what’s environmental and what’s affordable,” points out Margo Burnham, development chair of GreenHome, a coalition of architects and environmental professionals building a Habitat townhouse in Washington, D.C. “We need to make it not only affordable but easily replicable—which means we can’t do everything perfectly up to top environmental standards.”
Modular Eco-Homes for the Masses
Today’s mainstream developers could be tomorrow’s environmental leaders, especially if they follow The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Primer on Sustainable Building, which notes that a sustainable building should be “economical to build and operate.”
“Because architects are only interested in the high end, a lot of the new innovation is coming from builders,” say George James of the Department of Energy (DOE)‘s Building America Program. “What I would love to see is a development of hundreds of affordable houses.”
The Hickory Consortium, a group of Boston developers, builders, architects and manufacturers, is working with the DOE to design “Eco-Dynamic” housing. Using a modular approach (factory-built pieces shipped for on-site assembly), two recently completed energy-efficient and nontoxic homes were approximately 20 percent less expensive to build than comparable conventional ones.
The homes are spacious and somewhat expensive, but exemplary in cost per square foot. Modular construction conserves building materials and bolsters quality control. “The energy-efficiency of those buildings is probably going to be top end,” notes Pliny Fisk, a Consortium member. The idea is to eventually implement modular construction on a mass scale—and for modest homes.
David Easton's rammed earth designs are award-winning and affordable.
Some low-cost green housing developments are sprouting up across the country. Austin probably leads, with its progressive Green Builder program, but projects also are gaining momentum in Boulder, Chicago, Florida and California.
In Dallas, architect Betsy Pettit and engineer Joe Lstiburek designed a 12-house development, “Esperanza del Sol,” with 1,270-square-foot, three-bedroom homes that maximize winter solar gain and natural lighting, shading and ventilation. The $80,000 homes are heavily insulated and have controlled ventilators to ensure circulation of fresh air. In Chicago, Shaw Homes is experimenting with a resource-efficient inner city development with 1,670-square-foot homes for about $90,000.
ECO-House is a modular, passive solar house designed by Pennsylvania State University graduate student James Rioux that, he says, will cost only $130 a year to heat. The home’s construction
was funded by the Department of Energy (DOE) as part of a program to encourage solar homes in the U.S.
Penn State architect George James says that ECO-House stands out among the current projects in the DOE Industrial Energy-Efficient Housing Program because it’s both affordable and flexible enough to be built to the owner’s specifications.
ECO-House air quality is monitored to prevent allergens and radon gases from entering. Rioux predicts that the house will retain heat well because of its thick walls, bank of windows on the south side and draft resistance (some $2,000 was spent on insulation). “The three-bedroom dwelling has an electric backup, but most of the time it will not need heating,” Rioux says. “The heat generated by the stove, showers, lights and the occupants themselves will be enough.”
Rioux says that the ECO-House (now occupied by a Penn State professor) uses conventional construction technology and could easily be mass-produced. “I feel that this project is a good first step,” he says. “I can only hope that others will follow
While such projects may help to transform the building industry, their blueprints aren’t necessarily available to individuals. The Esperanza del Sol plans aren’t being marketed because they’re tailored specifically to the Dallas site, says Pettit. The designs of Shaw Homes are proprietary and available to people only as fast as the private developer can build them. The modular Eco-Dynamic homes designed thus far are large and pricey, and marketed to developers. Still, the designs offer hope for affordable eco-homes being mass-produced in the near future.
Many eco-homes made of alternative construction materials are cheaper—although controversy rages over exactly which materials are best in both quality and cost-effectiveness.
David Easton, the principal designer at Rammed Earth Works in Napa, California, has created a relatively low-end, 1,241 square-foot home of “rammed” earth—massive walls of compacted soil—for $80,000 ($64 per square foot). The handsome two-bedroom home was another winner in the 1990 Compact House Design competition. It includes active and passive solar systems, radiant “terra-tile” flooring (of earth and cement) and alcoves and bookcases carved from 24-inch-thick walls. In Napa, California, heating and cooling costs are estimated at $150 per year.
Easton is the author of The Rammed Earth House, and is perhaps the country’s most vocal proponent of rammed earth construction: “There’s one way to build your walls, and you’re standing on it,” he proclaims. He says construction costs can be cut nearly in half if the owner helps build the house. “The key to affordability is owner involvement,” he says. Easton sells the design’s blueprints for $250.
Pliny Fisk's "GreenForms" house can cost as little as ,000 to build and features an "indoor/outdoor" kitchen.
In The Straw Bale House, authors Steen et.al. suggest that a “moderate” budget for a straw home, completely contractor built, is $50 to $80 per square foot, and the total “life cycle” cost (over 30 years, including construction, finance and energy) saves thousands over conventional designs. Climate, local building permit requirements and regional availability of baled straw all affect the price.
In Pueblo, Colorado, Tierra Homes is building “tilt-up concrete” houses that are extremely energy-efficient and cheaper to construct than stick-built homes.
Books abound on using alternative materials, but some argue that the further one gets away from standard building techniques, the more problematic it is to build and maintain an eco-home. “No system is as easy to build, fix, and change as the ordinary stick-built system,” argues Sam Clark, author of The Real Goods Independent Builder: Designing & Building A House Your Own Way.
It’s still not easy finding an affordable eco-home, but things are getting easier, as innovative designs are slowly being transformed from sketches on paper to fully-framed, occupied buildings, complete down to the snoozing cat on the hearth.
ALICE HORRIGAN is a Connecticut-based freelance writer; her most recent piece for E was “Talking Trash” in the March/April 1997 issue. VERA KLINKOWSKY contributed research material.