One day, I’ll write one of these posts and not mention Tesla or Elon Musk. Today is not that day. Next one isn’t looking great either. Who knows, maybe 2018. Probably not.
For those looking at building green, become acquainted with Elon Musk and his company Tesla. They are doing for green technology what Google is doing for the internet, which isn’t to say they’re the only or best source, but that they’re the big kid on the block. They have the money and ability to make large steps forward, or test multiple new technologies that benefit several different fields.
Now, this Solar Roof isn’t the only solar option out there, but it might be the prettiest or at least the least obvious. Panasonic also offers panels that also output 325 watts, with an efficiency just over 20%. There’s also a crazy looking contraption that incorporates solar, wind, water and basically any other means to gather energy into a single roof, but that’s the subject of another entry.
Until then, you can go to tesla.com/energy to check out these Solar Roofs (roof has stopped looking like a real word now) and other energy goodies. I’d go over to the column here and subscribe to this blog so you can see the other fun toys I’ll be talking about later.
There’s a lot of go-to phrases attached to the word green. And as a writer, more specifically a writer who’s work is meant to grab a reader and link him or her to a topic they are interested in but may know little about, go-to phrases are the bread and butter, the workhorse, if you will, dragging the reader through the transition from enthusiast to know-it-all.
But back to my original point: the word green’s got a lot going for it. Color of money. The shade of envy and, by extension, the variance with which you judge the grass “on the other side.” The color you get “around the gills” when you’re not feeling well. Green thumbs. Greener pastures. Green light. Now, if I wanted to be cute, I could keep going, or I could promise how I could link all these into some article that essentially had nothing to do with any of the phrases themselves. But I’m just making a point. For such a small word, there’s quite a depth of content.
The concept of building green is just like that. People have been talking about green living or building green in some form or combination of the two since as long as I was old enough to care about the scientific mechanics of the world, the stuff that makes the wind blow, the complexity of purifying water and how all the junk we leave behind somehow makes its way into those same mechanics and gum up the works. The subject has only grown since then. Layers and layers of details, techniques, understanding and then research that clarifies or outright reverses that previous understanding. And it’s only getting crazier.
Stuff is getting sleek. Gone are the days of bulky solar panels thick as slabs of sidewalk cement. Living green now isn’t equal to being in a shack in the woods. Current homes are all but indistinguishable from their non-green counterparts, and when you can tell a difference, the look is classy, modern, at home in a swiftly changing, technology based society. And it’s only going to get better.Modular solar panels that basically install themselves and can be taken with you if you leave the house. Batteries to store all that solar power, not filled with lithium or lead, but salt water. Thin, light-weight insulation that offers better protection from the elements than stacks of the traditional variety. A power hub that helps regulate the transition from AC to DC current with the intent of being cheap, efficient and easy to use. Weird, bendy pipes that are super easy to install and don’t make your water taste like plastic. A self-cleaning roof that combines all sorts of different energy systems into one, providing enough power for six people, increasing ventilation and lighting, along with a number of other neat tricks. Hubs that control lighting, heat and cooling that can be controlled from your phone and monitor your habits to save you every penny possible. Even a solar powered riding lawnmower.
This is not the typical blog-in-three-parts. Going Green will offer snapshots into the constantly shifting world of energy efficient technology. When we find cool new ways to make your house do what it does, but better and safer, you’ll find them under this heading. When we hear of something that takes your house a step closer to being the starship Enterprise, you’ll get to read about me geeking out over it here.
Take a chance to hit the subscribe button over there in the column so you don’t miss when something new drops. As fast as this market is, if you don’t catch it right away, you’re likely to miss it.
Rockefeller. Vanderbilt. Rothschild. Basically all of Eastern Europe, minus the icy wasteland bits. What do they all have in common, other than dreams of world domination? Palaces. Castles. Summer homes. Estates. Power, creativity and the kind of wealth to construct giant monuments to symbolize them.
So we covered the tiny home aspect of living. The sort of artistic, condensed living that allows those with paychecks that don’t quite match their ambitions to make a space they can be happy to show off. And now we’re going to move to the other side of the street, or, well, to another planet, basically. Neither planets are bad, or even a little better than the other. But they are attractors to entirely different circles of people, or… space explorers, in this metaphor.
That’s what we’re going to focus on: creative ways to show off wealth. Castles, while up there, historically, with the concept of a leader’s palace, are more linked to defensive buildings. They took advantage of natural defenses (water, mountains, hills, cliffs), but then there were towers, curtain walls, arrow slits, moats, killing fields, etc. All of these things being less important, presumably, to what you need. If having a building designed that can withstand a medieval army is what you’re looking for, this is not really the type of blog for you, although I’m sure Home Designing Service can draw up plans for you, nonetheless. I suppose when you’re talking 30 ft. high walls and killing fields, zoning and building permits sort of go out the window.
So palaces, mansions, estates, villas, maybe the parts of a castle meant for entertainment and luxury and specifically not the parts designed to hold off and/or kill an invading army. Now, the Rothschilds alone provide enough material for me to write blog posts from now until whatever replaces the Internet is invented. They have had created enough of the buildings we’re going to be talking about to house the royalty and higher government officials of all but your largest countries. They have GIVEN AWAY no fewer than four of these buildings, structures that would look at home next to Buckingham Palace, or in a live action Disney movie. More than maybe any other family in history, they know what it is to be wealthy and powerful, and if you go by their property alone, they can prove it.
Despite the depth of material there, we’re gonna spread out to as many other families and cultures as we can. Like the Tiny House series, we’re going to review building materials, both old and new, style choices and the hurdles you might encounter, except monetary ones… I assume you to be more of an expert than I am for that (and, for a modest fee, I’ll be happy to write a blog post about you, your family, your pets, your celebrity toenail collection, whatever.)
Until then, your homework is to amass a million or so dollars. You’re going to need it.
No, no, come back! It’s ok, I promise. And, yeah, I know I promised the second part would be good times and it wasn’t, not entirely, but this one is totally a barefoot walk through soft grass and sweet-smelling wildflowers. Or whatever personal equivalent makes your day. When you get through all the flaming circus hoops (these aren’t in a field of flowers, that would be a fire hazard), the rest is a blast. It’s picking out just that right shade of [insert specific thing you want here] and being really, really picky about the kind of message your home says about you.
So it’s that time again. IRC revision time. Woooo! Break out the booze and the confetti, it’s gonna be a party. And, by “booze,” I mean air seals and, by “confetti,” I mean wind bracing. Of course. What else would I have meant?
You probably know what the IRC is, but maybe you don’t. It stands for International Residential Code, and it governs how one- and two-family houses should be put together. It basically makes sure designers and contractors are keeping up with current practices and the people who employ them are getting the best for their buck. Every few years, things get changed, everyone has a couple years to freak out and pretend there’s absolutely no way they can build a house under the tyrannical new guidelines. Then the changes go into effect, everyone settles down and it’s repeated a few years down the road. We builders are an exciting lot.
But honestly, as crazy as it can get when stuff gets technically more difficult, by the time a change is made, it’s often after that change has become common practice anyway and the technology is already there to facilitate an easy transition. It also shakes off those amateur crazies who are more interested in swindling customers than making a functional house. We here at Home Designing Service are not too keen on swindling, so we’re going to go ahead and talk about some of these IRC changes.
One of the biggies, and the subject of today’s post revolves around air sealing. Arguably more important than insulation, air sealing is a huge hurdle to jump when finishing off a house. Making sure there aren’t huge gaping holes in the walls is one thing, but keeping the air out from tiny cracks around windows and doors, or from pouring into the attic and then into the house, those are entirely different matters. For the IRC 2009, the magic number you’re looking for is 7.
End of blog. Everyone go home.
So, this blower door. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a door. With a blower in it. It depressurizes your house and then, using the kind of math where there are almost no numbers and it’s all funny symbols and letters, they determine how many times the fan and suction of the vacuum was able to replace the atmosphere within the house in an hour. Seven ACH, or air changes per hour, is the max. It’s also kind of a big number. Quality builders who trip and accidentally make a house are going to hit a 5, a 3 if they actually try a little. California’s code requires a 3. Energy Star Canada wants a 2-2.5. And then there’s PassivHaus. PassivHaus is, if the name didn’t tip you off, primarily a Swedish and German company, although they’ve been seeing a recent popularity surge internationally. PassivHaus requires a 0.6. Which basically means when you turn the blower door on, your house crushes like a tin can because there are no leaks. I’m pretty sure they use ancient technology dredged up from lost Atlantis to make this possible.
Perhaps you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, which, if you’re reading this, means the home you’ve made for yourself under this rock has internet, which is almost never a bad thing. But if you haven’t been living under a rock, you may or may not have noticed it’s winter.
Now, as a home design business, you might expect us to offer advice on how to winterize your home before it actually gets cold, but you can get that sort of information anywhere. Instead, we decided it would be funnier better to remind you of things after the fact. I won’t be going over the big stuff. Obviously, if you were so inclined, you’d get new windows, or insulate your house or set fire to your furniture to stay warm through the winter months. Instead, we’re going to look at some easy stuff you may have simply forgotten.
Right off the bat, I’m going to deviate from my expressed purpose. This tip isn’t going to make you warmer so much as it’ll save some money. Maybe my focus group had the wrong people in it, but it’s my understanding that people don’t get excited about their thermostat. I have never personally heard two guys discussing the latest model over cold beers, but there’s so much more to them than leaving it somewhere between 68 and 72. New thermostats can be programmed to lower the heat during certain parts of the day, say, when you’re at work or in bed, and raise it so it’s warm when you’re up and about. Most studies have savings between 6 and 12%, which can end up being several hundred dollars. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how many trips to Starbucks that is.
This next one’s even easier. Do you have a ceiling fan? If you answered no, skip this paragraph. If you said yes, go find it and bring a step stool or something with you. Somewhere around the base, there’ll be a switch. Flip it. During the summer, you have your fan set to pull up hot air, which cools the room. In the winter, though, by flipping this switch, you’ll push the hot air back down into the room. It’s like having another heater in the house. You’re welcome.
Here’s one I’m personally guilty of forgetting. Throughout the year, the filter on your furnace… uh… filters out icky stuff from the air so you don’t breathe it in. But that gunk slowly reduces the air transfer rate. And like a vacuum doesn’t suck stuff up when the filter is covered in dust and hair (I’m looking at you, ladies), a furnace doesn’t do a great job circulating warm air when the filter is covered in a nice, thick layer of… whatever it is it traps. I tried to make a habit of changing the filter on the first day I needed to turn the furnace on. Sometimes I even remembered. It was great. But the difference is pretty incredible.
Another way to keep your rooms warm is to close off the ones you don’t use and make sure your ducts are nice and sealed. Spare bedrooms, random extra bathrooms, libraries, that exercise room that’s already doing nothing more than collecting dust? Shut the vent and close the door. By reducing the amount of space your furnace has to heat, it makes it easier to warm the ones you want, and cheaper too. Just make sure there are no leaks in your ducts. Warm air shooting into your basement is not a good way to heat your living room.
This last tip won’t be for everyone. But the ones who respond well to it, I feel like it will change their lives forever. It’s the thing that, up till now, they’ve been seeking without success. To those people, you owe me nothing. I’m just here to help.
Build a greenhouse around your existing house.
That’s a geodesic dome. They’re super cheap and easy to build. And they can turn any area into an immediate greenhouse. Just like that. Don’t like the winter? Reject the season and make your property live in perpetual summer. All year round! And with my very inconclusive search on the internet, I can tell you with a minimal amount of certainty that you can cover your house in one of these babies for as little as a thousand dollars. Then you’d never have to turn your furnace on again. Windows open in the middle of January. Flowers blooming all the time.
For those who’d like help building their geodesic dome, or for those who’d like to build a house from the ground up that’s built to be very efficient with its heating and cooling, give us a ring. We’d be more than happy to help.
Good things come in small packages. You hear this randomly throughout life, mostly from guys, short people and cheapskates. But in some cases, it really is true, especially when it concerns houses. And today we’re going to go over some of the best examples.
Now, this is not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list. It’s not even meant to be all that detailed. It’s simply meant to show that dream homes don’t have to be castles or gigantic, sprawling mansions and some of the coolest, most famous people in history agree with this philosophy. Architects, queens, samurai, presidents, etc. Not a single cheapskate in that list, is there?
Take Frank Lloyd Wright’s home of Taliesin. Nevermind the fact that it’s situated at the peak of a hill, in a beautiful valley and the property also includes his large architecture studio and a school. The part of the house that was actually the living quarters was just a simple, if beautiful, home, built in Wright’s unique Prairie Style. It burned down twice, though and had to be rebuilt. Frank lived a pretty crazy life.
Or perhaps the home of Isamu Noguchi, the famous Japanese American sculptor, who had a 200-year old samurai home moved to the village of Mure and restored. And while the property later turned into a well-appointed compound with all manner of areas for art and reflection, the house itself was a clean, simple, traditional Japanese home. If Apple started designing houses, I feel like they’d look like these historical Japanese houses. They have such a simple, modern feel, despite being so old.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous home, Monticello, might be pushing the upper limits of “small home,” but when put up against what is typically considered a mansion, I think it fits, if just barely. Jefferson, who was an avid architect, made sure his home was in a constant state of redesign, but mostly kept it within Neoclassical boundaries. But when he saw an element he liked, or had an idea, it didn’t stop him from experimenting. What resulted is one of the most famous houses in America.
A house in California, owned by Gisela Bennati and built by Rudolf Schindler, started off as a rustic, mountainside home, but because of local regulations had to, for whatever reason, be changed to a more formal Normandy style home. Zagging when most might zig, Schindler preempted a lot of design elements that would later become extremely popular: expansive windows, locally obtained materials, exposed rafters and large, open living areas. It was also one of the first a-frame houses. It’s also incredibly beautiful.
But, really, why stop at a single building when you could just as easily (not really as easily) build an entire little town for yourself. Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine (Queen’s Hamlet, for our non French reading audience), was just such a place. Ms. Antoinette, unhappy with her posh lifestyle, decided to build a hamlet so she could pretend every once in awhile that she was actually just an average citizen. There was a dairy, a farmhouse, a mill, a barn, some other buildings, then about five or so buildings designed for the Queen’s comfort. All constructed in such a way as to make them look rundown and rustic, to the point that she requested the builders put in imitation cracks and fissures, rotting timbers and moss. If you want to pretend you’re a peasant, I guess the best way to do so is to construct an entire little city built around your comfort and delusions. Rich people confuse me.
We’ve looked at just a handful of houses, all of them famous in one way or another, but the point is… there are countless small, amazing homes owned by less-than-famous people all over the world. And you can be one of them. Call us, we’ll hook you up.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken a look at the history of housing, where it originated, the path it took through the centuries and where it is, more or less, today. It’s been a long, bumpy ride with many cool discoveries (like indoor plumbing, that was neat), but the houses being built now, some of them on the very edge of new technology, are the craziest things yet.
But before we get into that, how about a look at slightly more regular improvements with today’s houses. Sustainable and zero energy houses are becoming more and more popular, with systems like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and Energy Star in place to rate how effective they are.
The most used process is good insulation, or building in a way that maximizes surrounding features to hold onto or shed heat faster, such as wind currents, positioning of the sun and shade and building layout that either increases or minimizes surface area. Past that, though, is energy reclamation, passive and active solar power, wind turbines and heat pumps among other things.
Existing homes can be modified to function at or near sustainable levels, but zero energy or energy-plus houses depart significantly from traditional construction practice, so must be created new. Zero energy homes use all the features previously mentioned but to a higher degree and contain superinsulation techniques. Energy-plus homes are actually constructed in such a way that they generate more energy than they use, benefitting the local community.
But who cares about all that, right? Bring on the high-tech gadgets. Like that $13 million home in Telluride where you can control temp and humidity, multi-room audio-visual systems, alarms and outdoor video monitoring from an iPad. Or the house in Portugal that makes the most out of its smaller space by being able to actually move its walls and produce hideaway flatscreen tvs with a touch of a button. Better yet is a Los Angeles home that incorporates the iPad control from the first home with the ability to also use it to change the colors of interior and exterior walls.
And let’s not leave out the possibility of living off-earth. In a few years, maybe the cutting edge of housing includes geodesic domes on the moon or Mars, maybe they’re little space stations orbiting Earth or large ships making use of breakthroughs in physics to seek out other planets like ours. Seems pretty hard to believe, but fifty years ago, changing the colors of all the walls in your house with a magic sheet of metal and plastic probably seemed far-fetched too.
So if you’re looking for something, whether it’s a well-appointed tent in up-state New York or a gigantic mansion that runs on classified technology and doubles as a generator for the surrounding city, Home Designing Service is where it’s at. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we are no longer able to design space ships. We offer our sincere apologies.
As you could see toward the end of last week’s blog post, the idea of class played a big part in where you lived. Obviously, this is a concept that has always been – even when people were fighting over trees and caves, the stronger or smarter would have prevailed. But as the level of talent surrounding architecture rose, the distinction of class became more and more apparent.
Class was the difference between living in a townhouse or a hovel. A villa or a hut. But even as the gulf between social tiers widened, the living conditions of everyone rose collectively. As it, in general, became easier to make houses, it also became cheaper, which allowed more and more people to jump on the bandwagon. So to speak.
During the medieval era of architecture, timber framing became a thing. And, by thing, I mean it had been around almost since forever, but was finally coupled with a level of skill that made it easy to produce. Early houses during this period were basically just big communal rooms and a few side rooms. Even the manor houses of the more affluent weren’t very intricate. Cross the class gap, however, and you were up against castles and whatnot.
Swiss homes in particular had a very interesting design. Two story, cabin-like homes, home owners housed the animals on the lower level and lived in the upper. It seems pretty rustic by our standards today, but at the time, they had separate rooms for cooking, dining and enjoying each other’s company, which was a pretty big deal. These Swiss homes universally used the timber design, but also used brick and stone for the lower levels.
Fast forward a few (hundred) years and you’re smack dab in the middle of the Romanesque period, and while this moment in architectural history is most known for the construction of castles and abbeys, it also was a time of improvement of inner-city living. The tower house and town house entered the scene, both under heavy constraints of space due to the packed nature of walled cities of that time.
Tower cities rose like, well, like towers, often only having a single, small room for each floor. Town houses, in contrast, allowed the fairly rich a place to stay close to all the action in the city. Unlike the sprawling domus of Rome, town houses looked like proper houses. Two story, stone or half-timber, etc. Despite being primarily for the well-to-do, they were a statement for what would come.
What followed over the next handful of (again, hundreds) years, were a collection of “Revival” styles. It’s like how 80s clothes are becoming popular again, except for houses. As architectural techniques began to solidify, older styles were revisited and given a new treatment. Classical and gothic elements were introduced into domestic homes, homes that were steadily becoming affordable to the very people who had to fight for a thatch-roofed hovel in previous eras. These styles have been highlighted in previous articles, so I won’t bother going into them.
A standout style, however, was found in Japan, during a little period of change. Much like the European countries, Japanese homes were becoming more and more decadent. I wouldn’t put it as equal to the Victorian-era houses, but for the Japanese, it was becoming a serious problem. When the Zen masters introduced the Tea Ceremony, the resultant Tea Houses changed residential styles to a more modest, simple design. The interesting part of Japanese housing is the changeable nature. Walls were made of sliding panels, which could be changed with ease. So rooms could be joined for entertaining a large number of guests, or closed for privacy. Nevermind the fact that they had to practically set themselves on fire to stay warm in the winter, you can’t really put a price on that kind of convenience.
Then the Americas happened and ugly little colonial buildings became the norm for awhile. Without the infrastructure of an established country like England, the American colonies just weren’t capable of producing bigger, more intricate houses. But within a short time, they would catch up and even invent a few styles of their own, as evidenced in the Frank Lloyd Wright post.
Housing has come a long way from trees, caves and tents. A lot of styles have come and gone, but the concepts of style, protection and comfort have been around since the beginning. We’ve taken a brief look at where we came from. Stay tuned next week and we’ll discuss where we’re going.