Thursday, May 8, 2008

Smart Home: Green + Wired Revisited

Up for some real, world class green homebuilding?

Head on down to the Museum and Science and Industry to see the Smart Home, which was designed by Michelle Kaufmann. Not only is every detail green, but it's modular. I saw them bring it up on flatbed trucks and install it with cranes.

This is my second visit to the home. When I was out two months ago, I saw a crew hoist the five modules onto the foundation. It only took a few hours. The finished product is a cubist interpretation of a two-story city home. It feels much larger than its 2,000-odd square feet. While exquisitely modern, it's not a post-industrial eyesore. "Nanowalls" are accordian doors that open up the home to exterior courtyards and patios. The outside is embraced in this light and airy manufactured home, yet it doesn't sacrifice any intimacy.

Ironically, the home stands in the footprint of a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian Home. The house itself is nestled in a courtyard of burr oaks that Frederick Law Olmsted himself must have seen and left alone when he was planning the World's Columbian Exposition -- in 1893. Landscape designers have built in bioswales and permeable paver bricks to let the water seep into the soil. Having seen the "before" and "after," I can tell you this is a remarkable project.

A lot of what is being done in this home can be done anywhere. A big exception is that all of the lighting is LED-based. While that's extremely expensive now ($90 a bulb!), the power consumption was such that the home's thin-film Unisolar panels were generating more power than the house was consuming -- and this was during a downpour! New PV technologies create electricity from several spectrums of light, even during an overcast day.

How do I know how much power was being generated? I saw the whole-house energy monitor on a big-screen TV in the living room. The home's Lutron energy system was so comprehensive, it was able to automatically open and close shades and turn off HVAC in rooms that weren't being occupied. The actual high-velocity air ducts, by the way, were roughly the diameter of jelly jar lids. The higher speed air reduces the need for air conditioning. The energy monitor will tell you when ComEd is producing cheaper, off-peak power, so you can program your appliances to run at 3am, when juice is less dear. (A ComEd representative was only too happy to point this out, although the vast majority of homes they serve can't do this now, but should).

I know Michelle spent incredible attention to the materials she used in this home. There were no VOCs in any of the coatings, so the house lacked that "new house" smell of volatile chemicals (really bad for asthma sufferers). The kitchen countertops were bamboo and recycled chardonnay bottles were used in the glass bathroom tiles.

In every space, there was some green element. The green roof was growing chives and sedum and the cistern in the crawl space was storing 5,000 gallons of water for irrigation. The garage had glass doors on either end and was as tightly insulated as the house, so you could convert it to living space at some future point, "when you don't need that second car," Michelle told me.

Such an elegant house also hummed with low-tech ideas that have been around for millenia. A stairwell served as a chimney stack because windows could pull up hot air using the Venturi effect. Chairs were made of recycled plywood. Gutters drained into the water holding tank. A graywater reservoir collected dishwater.

The only drawback is that admission is $23 for adults, $22 for seniors and $14 for kids age 3-11. Nevertheless, if you're serious about major innovations in green building, this is a must-see. The house itself is a major revolution waiting to happen not so much because of its green features, but because it's built in a factory and will be mass produced some day, bringing an eco-conscious, energy-stingy home to the masses.

I think Michelle is the Henry Ford of home designers. She will do more to restore the American Dream once we get out of this housing crisis than a capitol dome full of politicians. And you can step inside her solution to global warming and resource gluttony. That's more than I can say about the hollow talk coming out of Washington these days.

If you don't want to see the home, then partake of the many pleasures of one of world's greatest and most interesting museums. The farm exhibit has been totally revamped and is really kid friendly. A new genetics exhibit is first rate and hands on. Old chestnuts like Moore's Fairy Castle, the coal mine, the Zephyr, circus section and Crown Space Center (you can play with the Mars Rover!) are still enthralling. If you're really, really bored, there's always the IMAX movie and countless smaller exhibits. Currently there's a glass-blowing special exhibit where you can see a wide variety of glass from tiffany windows to art glass. As Walt Disney would say, "there's something for the entire family," but MSI is much more of a bargain. The u-505 submarine alone is worth the price of admission. You can also see a lunar module, Apollo and Gemini spacecraft.

Here's the press release for the Smart Home for more details. If you see it, let me know what you think. Enjoy!

Michelle Kaufmann Unveils First mkSolaire™
at the Museum of Science and Industry’s Smart Home: Green + Wired Exhibit

Chicago Exhibit Showcases the Best in Green Living and Technology

Chicago, IL—May 8, 2008--- Today Michelle Kaufmann, award-winning architect and green living expert focused on thoughtful, sustainable design, opens the doors to the first mkSolaire™ home ever built as part of the original Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) exhibit Smart Home: Green + Wired, Powered by ComEd and Warmed by Peoples Gas. The exhibit will feature a fully functioning version of the mkSolaire, the latest prefabricated, modular home configuration from Michelle Kaufmann Designs (MKD). With the help of key partner Wired magazine, the home will incorporate “smart” technologies, with a focus on energy efficiency, making greener choices and homeowner awareness. Visitors to the 2,500 sq. ft. home, will have the opportunity to learn about the future of innovative, environmentally focused architectural designs and lifestyle solutions.

“The Smart Home is an educational experience that shows visitors, adults and children alike, that an eco-friendly lifestyle is not only good for the environment, but also good for you. I hope that visitors to the Museum and residents of the city will take with them these lessons about sustainable lifestyle choices and adopt them as their own,” said Michelle Kaufmann on the goal of the Smart Home.

“To celebrate the Museum’s 75th anniversary, we brought together a world-class team to create a fully functioning home to explored the promises of green building and technology while honoring the past,” said Anne Rashford, director of temporary exhibits and events for MSI. “We chose Michelle to design the Smart Home because of her exceptional talent and tireless commitment to building and living green.”

5 EcoPrinciples: Unique Solutions for a Healthy Home + Lifestyle

When designing any space, including the Smart Home, MKD thinks of and creates sustainable design based on 5 EcoPrinciples ( smart design, eco materials, energy efficiency, water conservation, and healthy environment. “We believe so strongly in each of these principles that we implement every one of them into our designs,” explained Michelle.

Revolutionary Building Techniques

Construction of the Smart Home began in December 2007 with the groundbreaking and laying of the foundation at MSI. Concurrently, the home’s various modules were constructed by All American Homes at the company’s factory in Decatur, Indiana. Within the factory the home’s entire infrastructure was built before being transported and set on the completed foundation located on the East side of the Museum. The University of Illinois Extension partnered with the team to develop the home’s native site landscape.

MKD employs prefabricated, modular building techniques in all their homes, which reduce resource consumption, waste, costs, and building time by up to 50%-75% over conventional building methods. In addition to the mkSolaire, which was designed specifically for healthy living within an urban environment, MKD offers four other prefab, modular configurations: Sunset BreezehouseTM, mkLotusTM, mkLoftTM, and GlidehouseTM, as well as custom homes and larger multi-family and community developments.

Anyone can visit Michelle’s blog ( to get an insider’s perspective on the entire building process with insightful entries, detailed images, and engaging videos.

The Smart Home: Green + Wired exhibit is a true celebration of the future of architecture, design, and technology. This is a must-see exhibit for anyone who is interested in learning about how to incorporate smart and simple solutions to create a healthier and more environmentally friendly lifestyle. The exhibit is open to the public beginning May 8, 2008 through January 4, 2009. Tickets are available at

Smart Home: Green + Wired, powered by ComEd and warmed by Peoples Gas, is also sponsored by American Honda Motor Co., Inc.; Dominick’s; and the Motorola Foundation as part of the Museum’s 75th Anniversary.

About Michelle Kaufmann Designs

Michelle Kaufmann Designs (MKD) is a full service design/build architectural firm that specializes in sustainable, innovative, high-quality modular architecture. The goal of her company is to make it easier for people to build green and live a more sustainable lifestyle. MKD was founded in 2002 and is headquartered in Oakland, CA. MKD owns and operates its own factory, mkConstructs, located just outside Seattle, WA. mkConstructs builds homes for California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii. Michelle Kaufmann Designs works with key factory partners to handle increasing volume and expanded territories. More information can be found at

About the Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry’s mission is to inspire the inventive genius in everyone by presenting captivating and compelling experiences that are real and educational. The Museum first opened its doors on June 19, 1933.

In 2008—more than 175 million guests later—the Museum commemorates its 75th Anniversary with a year-long celebration. Located at 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, the Museum is open every day of the year except December 25. Regular Museum hours are 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday. Extended summer hours, until 5:30 p.m. each day, will be offered from May 24 to Sept. 1. The Museum offers indoor parking and is accessible by CTA and Metra. The Museum is supported in part through the generosity of the people of Chicago through the Chicago Park District. For more information, visit the Museum’s Web site at or call (773) 684-1414 or (800) GO-TO-MSI outside of the Chicago.

No comments: