Monday, March 3, 2008

Smart Home: Green + Wired

By day, I write about the US housing crisis, investing and all things personal finance. It's a never-ending panopoly of dilemmas, exhortations and criticisms of our savings-challenged culture.

When the sun goes down, I wear my bright green fedora and explore the world of sustainability, which is a fuzzy concept that we need to define further. What is sustainability?

To me, it's pretty simple. It's living in a place without destroying yourself or the environment. Right now, we're pretty good at the destruction and consumption part. You already know the story: We're using up clean water, air, land and other resources like there's no tomorrow. And if we don't start understanding what it means to be sustainable, we'll be dealing with a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Take American housing. For more than two centuries, it's pretty much been the same principle: You get a piece of land, build a house or building on it and hope for the best. Our cultural psyche, based on optimism, was infused with this idea that we (European-based folks) were somehow chosen to succeed, that the land would be bountiful if we were good and our home was a sacred place. This was the core of the American dream. This twisted principle was taken to the extreme and pursued at the expense of Native Americans and Africans, but that's another polemic for another day.

Now with home prices in one of the biggest housing downturns in US history, more than 4 million houses sitting unsold and foreclosures hitting all-time highs, we need to re-examine the myth of the American home.

One of my candidates for de-constructing the "American Home is a Castle" fable is Michelle Kaufmann (see , an Oakland, California-based architect. She not only embodies the best and brighest of her generation, her willingness to buck conventional wisdom may well propel her into a league of her own.

Michelle's philosophy is rooted in smart design. This architectural ethos goes well beyond "good" design. It delves deep into the root of what's wrong with American architecture. First of all, conventional homebuilding costs too much. Builders are locked into the finest and latest in 19th-century technology. The balloon-frame house may have been a cost-saving innovation back in the middle of the 1800s, but it's like building a computer with vacuum tubes. It will take nearly six months to build the so-called modern home -- even longer if it's a McMansion. Why not factory-build it in modules? The construction would take days once the site is prepared. Homeowners can then save big on labor costs. Kaufmann's homes are manufactured in factories and shipped to the site. One of her models will be on display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry starting May 8. See it if you can.

Then there's the use of materials. Frank Lloyd Wright, for you archi-buffs out there, was obsessed with trying new materials and techniques. When he was designing his landmark Johnson Wax office building in Racine, Wisconsin, he designed elegant pillars to support the roof. They looked like Art Deco mushrooms. Local engineers refused to believe that they could adequately support much of anything, so he ordered a demonstration that piled tons of rocks on top of the columns. He easily won the test.

Like Wright, Kaufmann is trying to win over critics of her modular designs. After all, aren't modular homes really like trailers, critics retort? Nothing could be further from the truth. Modular design uses 50% to 75% materials and what's used is healthy, environmentally friendly and built to last.

Conventional building also has ignored energy-efficient design. As oil soars over the $100-a-barrel mark and all utility prices climb, this is an imperative issue in all buildings now. We can't afford to waste energy through buildings anymore. All of Kaufmann's homes employ efficient insulation, lighting, appliances, heating & cooling, energy monitoring, reduced/reused water systems and best of all, flexibility. Her houses can be designed on a website. Remember the Sears Craftsman homes that could be ordered by catalog and shipped to the site? Her homes are getting back to that concept, only the home is pre-assembled by module -- and then shipped.

There's a reason why the Kaufmann Smart Home is being assembled at the Museum of Science and Industry. The original building was once part of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (it was then an Arts Building), which heralded the dawn of the Second Industrial Age, ushering in electricity, motors and homes with incandescent lighting. On a small lagoon to the south of the museum was a Japanese temple on an island that inspired the fledgling architect Frank Lloyd Wright to re-invent architecture. Two of the other geniuses behind the great fair were Frederick Law Olmsted, the godfather of modern landscape architecture and Daniel Burnham, the legendary city planner and architect. All of these minds merged in this one place creating the foundation for our current built environment.

Now it's an innovative architect from Iowa who occupies the center stage of mold-breaking exhibition. And once again, I believe the world will pay attention in a big way.


Big Mike Glab said...

Does she account for asthetics? A certain portion of architecture is art - that is, the useless thing. Well, useless in a pragmatic, American way of thinking. Our minds and hearts desire beauty. So, will her homes be beautiful?

Unknown said...

John, Thanks much for sharing this very interesting information. I will surely go check out this model house. I'm a European transplant living in the US and I could never understand how it was possible that this kind of technology has not caught up yet... With the right sales volume, these houses could be selling for a very reasonable price and the quality would be much better than that of an average american carboard box which they call a "house". The "houses" that are being built in the US are probably the worst quality for the money that I have seen anywhere between North America and Europe (Western and Eastern). I hope this is new trend will catch up so that I would be able to buy an eco house in the near future... for now, I have to live with just my ecco shoes...