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[Table] IAMA architect who's main interest is high efficiency affordable homes - AMA.

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Date: 2013-07-10
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Questions Answers
As an adoring ice cream fan I naturally have three chest freezers large enough to hold a human body filled with ice cream. These cause large drains on my electricity bill and must be damaging my carbon footprint. Okay, so here's the deal. Those freezers are using the refrigeration cycle to cool off the inside of those chests. If you live in a cold environment then it heats up your house which is fine, but if you live in a warm climate then you're essentially heating up your home then using the same cycle (!) to then remove that heat given off again using your AC unit. Second fix - can these chests be located in an unconditioned area like a garage so that they don't heat up your house in the summer? Third (unrealistic) fix - you use hot water right? Why can't that hot coil (the condenser coil) on the back of your fridge be used to heat incoming water? It'd make the fridge more efficient and lower your cooling and water heating bills all in one. The problem is that marketable solutions for this sort of thing would be complex and you'd need skilled installers. All of which costs money, so typically we just plug stuff in and deal with it. EDIT: someone mentioned below that additional insualtion could cause a fire. If you can see the condensing coil then it shouldn't be a problem. If you have a chest freezer where the condensing coil is below the exterior sheathing then you can't add additional foam as it would cover the coils and keep the coils from dissipating heat. Basically, you'd have a bad time.
What can I do to more efficiently store my ice cream? Is there an easy solution or should I completely rebuild? I am happy to do either. Complete blue sky thinking. This is fantastic. Man, I wish there were more products out there to deal with this sort of thing. I mean, everyone owns a refrigerator right?
So what are some design elements that help to make a house more energy efficient. Assuming you are building a new house. What's the top there things that make a difference. And can they be implemented in existing homes (built 15-20 years ago)? Air sealing.
Properly insulated walls with minimal thermal bridging
Solar orientation in relation to location of windows.
Shape of building (long and thin vs. compact with no bump-outs)
Air sealing is probably the easiest way to retrofit older homes. Additional insulation can sometimes be added but it can be expensive if it's not in the attic or easily accessible. Upgrading your AC/heater is another good option (heat pumps, high efficiency water heaters, etc.).
Have you used non-conventional material like treated straw or mud for construction? I have not personally but I have seen successful projects from high design firms with those materials. Rural studio does some of this. It's possible, not really my cup of tea although I do like the look of rammed earth walls.
Are there any real energy savings from building a house out of poured concrete? It would be more airtight so yes.
When designing a new house, how do you find a good design firm? Any reliable rating/review systems out there? Ugh, it's difficult. Find recently built buildings in your area and find out who built them. I often find these people through blogs.
When building a house, how do you find good construction companies? Usually same deal but to a lesser extent on the blog front. Also, most architects have people they like to work with and trust.
Most importantly, how do you make a really energy efficient house that is also zombie proof. Note: Walking dead type zombies. Not the Running dead type zombies in World War Z. I would do an ICF wall house with additional exterior insulation, and if you're serious about the zombies just get impact resistant glazing (they make them for FL) make the openings high enough or narrow enough that they can't get through. Also, shotguns. Or just hire me. I used to shoot people professionally.
I've done that somewhat. I can find a lot of places that "look" good, but since I'm a computer geek, I don't know if it's built and designed well. Air tightness is really tricky to gauge and measure. There are standards (ACH50) but it's trickier than that. You can typically find before and after studies from retrofits though.
What is your opinion of ICF (insulated concrete form) homes? The cost to build seems to be about 15% higher in my area (US midwest), but the long term heating and cooling costs are really appealing. ICF's are great. I mentioned this elsewhere but my only beef with them is the interior foam. I want more foam on the exterior. ICF's typically do not have a higher R value than a typical stud wall. What they do is mitigate thermal bridges and leaky cavities. This combined with the reduced noise, won't rot, and increased protection (tornadoes, cars, bullets - I'm in Chicago) is what makes them better.
Would you recommend ICF for a desert environment? I'm in Yuma, Arizona, where it'll climb over 115 degrees F in the summer. ICF's R ratings are very attractive, but will it do well in extreme sun and heat? Will the foam break down? ICF's should be fine in that environment. Actually, some types of insulation perform better at different temperatures so there may be some slight advantage or disadvantage. I can't remember off the top of my head which ones do which.
As to the breakdown. So long as you keep the UV off it with brick, stucco, a rainscreen, whatever - it should last far longer than either of us. The stuff they use, EPS, is the same stuff used to make styrofoam cups that environmentalists hate because they never break down...
I'm actually an architecture student going into my sophomore year (undergrad) and I was wondering what you might recommend doing to get maybe an advantage over my classmates? Or just planning for the future? (I.e. getting an internship) Talk to your professors and find the ones who you share an interest with. Offer to help them and work with them. You'll learn stuff and meet people. Same goes for your classmates. One day you'll be working with them and relying on one another. Meet people, talk to them, don't be shy. My whole class helps each other get jobs. I've gotten jobs for three people I went to school with and another one got me my current job. Document your work. Document your fucking work. Make your portfolio now. Carry a resume with you everywhere you go. Update your resume constantly. You're in the design world, your resume should look like it.
When designing a house, how much thought is given to the construction with regard to fire safety? From what I understand, modern construction techniques (using manufactured wood products, gusset plates, adhesives instead of 'real' wood, screws, nails) makes modern houses much more prone to catastrophic collapse during a fire. Do you have any insights as to how these problems may be solved while also keeping costs down, or is the only solution to throw more money into the build and use better materials? First off, buildings aren't designed to be fireproof. They're designed so that you have enough time to get out.
Fire safety is an issue that is addressed literally everyday where I work. All the codes are built around it, especially in commercial construction (which I work in). It's so pervasive that you really don't think about it because it's just built into everything.
2x material (2x4's, 2x6's) is combustible but the sheet rock (gypsum board, drywall) it's covered in has a fire rating of 1 hour. Gyp is really really cheap. Two layers gets you two hours, etc. This is the cheapest way to fireproof just about anything and a major reason why every house is drywalled in the US.
The manufactured timbers you're talking (TJI's, glulams, paralams, etc.) about are actually considered heavy timber*. Heavy timber is actually very fire resistant and all those products are tested extensively.
When they're at least 8x8 or bigger! Thanks nac126 for the reminder.
Edit: I misspoke.
I'm an architecture student in the UK who is 1 year away from finishing my university masters, with intention to come over to the US or Canada to see how the process and industry as a whole is different. All the firms I like are in the NW and NE US - Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Vermont, New Hampshire, etc. Canada is way ahead of us in general when it comes to quality energy efficient homes.
I'd love to get me a passivhaus. You and me both. None built in Chicago yet...would love to help someone out.
What's your opinion on the LEED system? I view it as something that makes buildings more habitable. As far an energy efficiency goes it's kind of a joke. I do have to give props to LEED for bringing awareness to the masses though. It's evolving so we'll see. Right now it seems like they just want my money. Fees, fees everywhere.
Do you trust the people building your house to properly install the resilient channels? From what I've heard, it's not hard to fuck up and when you're trying to get a house up quickly to stay on schedule, it might get forgotten. You have to explain what you're trying to accomplish and make them understand. Most people who are building things want it done right and if they understand the end goal they'll be more likely to accomplish it.
Why concrete floors? Acoustics? I like concrete and it has no maintenance. You could round the corners at the wall, use a reveal by setting the wall out and use light...or put a hose bib on the wall with a floor drain. Cleaning time just got fun.
That green roof idea looks badass. How exactly does it work? That is a really long conversation. Multiple layers of products.
Where would you construct something like this? I live in Nebraska, it would look really out of place in any of the neighborhoods around here I think. Yeah, that's a problem with modern design, but not insurmountable. Modern homes can have pitched roofs and what not. I feel like a building should reflect its time, place, and construction. Typical homes in the US fake it and add features that cause maintenance problems and add cost just so they can look like they were built is 1880. Why? What is the point? Is it aesthetically pleasing...I don't think so. It's just the way things are done.
What's your opinion on autoclaved aerated concrete blocks? They're fantastic. I wish they sold them in the US.
They're pretty decent on R-value. A little bit of foam and stucco and you have a fantastic easy to build wall.
Yup, you definitely went to IIT. I was like this before I went there. FWIW.
How do you feel about "earthships"? Do you think it would ever be possible for these to become commercial homes? I realize some commercial prefab "tiny houses" have already adapted some principles but most use new and synthetic materials. Link to en.wikipedia.org. This was really the first wave of buildings that attempted to be more energy conscious, so I see them as sort of a V1.0 of green buildings. I've personally learned a lot by the mistakes and failures of these types of buildings.
In the US we're on something like V2.0 now whereas in Germany, Austria, etc. they're on V3.0.
As far as commercially viability - probably not as they're portrayed in the given link. In function, yes. Labor is the biggest factor in a buildings construction cost. Odd angles, curves, anything not standard and square adds cost. It may sound boring but shaving 1% or 2% off a construction budget can be a few thousand dollars. Also, the general public has a certain reticence to anything that looks different.
How hard is the maintenance if this houses? I once killed a cactus for not caring it enough. If designed well they should require less maintenance than a typical home.
Also, is it a good idea to live underground? Living underground poses a lot of challenges. For starters banks often hate the idea because of resale. There's also the fact that moving earth is very expensive. Foundations are typically the largest cost associated with a home her in the Midwestern US. There's also moisture issue. All of this can be dealt with if you find someone who knows their stuff. Instead of going that route I would opt for ICF walls (concrete walls with rigid insulation on both sides) with additional insulation on the outside.
Do ICF walls make sense in seismically active areas, like California? If not, what's the best alternative? I'm probably not qualified to answer this, but lighter buildings perform better in seismic areas. Wood framed structures tend to be better than concrete, but the scale/size of the building is going to make a huge difference too. If it's only 1-2 stories ICF's are probably fine.
You also want a structure that can deflect and bend a bit while keeping itself laterally stable. Concrete tends to be rather rigid whereas steel and concrete can both be designed to give a bit more. Anyways, yeah, question for a structural engineer.
What do you see are the trends for the green building movement? So far it's market dominated. Businesses and people are doing it for the financial incentives more than anything. It seems like a fairly logical path. I think the increase in comfort and other aspects are being undervalued though. Am I right to guess that your house never feels drafty? What's that worth? How does a contractobank/real estate agent quantify that?
Is it ramping up quickly? Kind of. It's becoming more integrated and standard. More or less all government buildings are required to be LEED certified now and while I take issue with LEED it is a step in the right direction.
What do you think is the future of the Passive House standard in particular? I don't want to speculate too much. It took off in Europe but they have a more temperate climate with less variability than the US and North America. I think Passive House will remain somewhat of a niche for a while. The people who seem to be adopting it are builders and one day I think a few bigger builders are going to get a hold of it and figure out how to make the energy savings work for their bottom line. After that? Who knows. I've heard of talk that PH would become the energy part of the requirement for LEED.
EDIT: I want to hear more about your house.
Do you find that people who are looking for small affordable houses turn to an architect when a general contractor can design homes himself? To be honest I'm not really sure. I feel like it's an unmet need. I work for a medium formerly large firm so the only houses we deal with are large and high end.
Most homes are built without an architect and I can't say I blame anyone for the situation. The vast majority of homes are very formulaic and often times an architect's ideas are shot down by the contractor because of cost. To add to this a contractor typically knows where to cut costs and what to include to hit a certain price point in that market. It really comes down to a financial equation. The average price for a home in the US is about $200,000. A typical architects fee is about 10%, so $20,000 on a project of this size. A licensed architect with 20-30 years experience is going to be charging something like $100-$200/hour (for billable work). Let's use $150/hour. That's 133 hours, so about 4 weeks of billable time. For anyone who's ever designed and built a house that's not much. Basically, it's too small of a job for most architects to tackle. The way to get around this is to make the design over and over, refine it, build a relationship with a contractor, etc. I'm still trying to figure this out myself as it's what I, one day, would like to do. You need to be able to offer something they can't otherwise get like accurate energy modeling, finding the rights products, convincing the bank it will work, etc.
My firm is actually kind of dying right now so I doubt we'll be hiring any more interns. Sorry.
Would you say this "dying" is typical of Chicago firms, besides the never die mega firms? I'm looking to relocate to a large city in the next few years. Not really, firms come and go. I am noticing that medium sized firms are going away. Get big or stay small - there isn't much in between.
What is the typical budget for a home? Sometimes high efficiency doesn't mean cheap. It depends mostly on the area of the country you live in (I'm assuming US). A typical residential construction budget is around $140-160/square foot (SF). $200/SF is a nice home with better finishes (FFE) and $250/SF is premium. Here's a cheat sheet from one of my favorite blogs.
High efficiency certainly doesn't mean cheap. However, I have seen it done. Advanced framing to minimize thermal bridging, 2x6 studs on 24" centers to deepen the insulation cavity, cellulose insulation because it's cheap and stops air infiltration and installation issues, frost protected shallow foundations, compact home designs without bump-outs, and solar orientation are all ways to maximize thermal efficiency that actually save money.
Many of the methods contractors employ are utilized because they're methods that have worked for decades. The more thermally efficient you make a building the more potential problems you run into. Basically, if you don't know your shit you're going to have some seriously expensive failures, and this happens a lot. I think that's where a lot of the fear surrounding a change in construction methods comes from.
I'm an Architect in Los Angeles. I have a fair amount of experience with residential design. In my experience, new, high-end modern homes are usually in the $400-600/sf range. I have a hard time finding contractors to build simple additions for under $200/sf. Woah! The last hospital my firm built was $410/SF. A hospital built with union labor.
LA is more expensive but damn. That's... I need to be a builder in LA. What are you designing? Ebony inlaid mahogany?
Also, don't forget that you have to deal with earthquake stuff whereas we don't (for a few more years, they're changing seismic codes) and we have a favorable shipping location in the center of the country with lots of manufacturing.
That's actually not that bad of a price. I was expecting more. That's construction budget too. You still need land, architects fees is you go that route, etc.
The most expensive solution to any problem is generally to build a building.
You are an architect (ok, intern). Architects work 5 typical work days a week. You are responding to these items in the middle of the day. Shouldn't you be working? Maybe if architects worked more and billed more hours they would make more money? Or is that not how fee is generated? Jim <3. This is either my coworking trolling me or really bad. I showed him /dataisbeautiful yesterday...
Since we're also in the realm of energy efficiency, do you incorporate solar water heating in the homes you design? The MEP firm I worked at did. It can make sense in some applications but the main problem is, as usual, money. The systems required to do it right are fairly complex. I think photovoltaics will slowly displace the need for solar hot water systems over time.
What are some improvements you'd recommend for improving the efficiency of existing houses? I'm talking "best bang for your buck" kind of improvements. Typically it's air sealing. It solves so many problems for almost nothing. If you want to do it really well you can do a blower door smoke test and find the leaks then plug them up.
I realize this depends on the age of the house and the quality of the build, so it may be better to ask what the biggest variables in efficiency would be in an existing house. Your next best bet is efficient appliances.
What is a common thing that home owners can do/buy to make their homes more efficient? Air sealing is #1 followed by thick well designed walls. Efficient appliances and HVAC equipment is up there too. Minimizing thermal bridging is often overlooked by just about everyone. Also, most insulation (batt in particular) is installed improperly.
How much should this cost, but also how much is this saving me over time?? Depends if you hire someone or do it yourself, how old your house is, how big your house is, what area of the country you're in, how in depth you go, etc. so I feel like any numbers I throw out would be at best a guess. At the very low end you can walk around your house on a cold/hot day and check for drafts and seal them. At the other end you can hire a professional to do a thorough inspection and do all necessary work. The first one might cost $30 while the second could be a few thousand dollars.
Do you think grey water reclamation and other water waste features should be part of future energy and sustainability standards? I think its silly and wasteful that so many people are flushing toilets with potable water. However, dealing with waste water is very expensive and moving water around is somewhat energy intensive. A lot of the cost of water is subsidized through sewage fees and other municipal taxes. It's the same issue that stands out with so many issues with our built environment - unaligned incentives. Those who pay the money have little incentive because they do not personally stand to realize the positive benefits of their expenditures. Builders don't put extra insulation on a house for the same reason that people don't install gray water systems in their house. Who benefits? Someone else. To me, this is something that needs to be addressed legally with building codes. If everyone did it it could save your water reclamation district a lot of money which may have a positive ROI. I think with time and more evidence this sort of thing will become quite common. In Chicago we already have retention codes that make buildings store a certain amount of water after a rain event so as not to flood our (combined, ugh) sewage system.
ps. I have got an idea stuck in my mind; could you use the excess heat produced by cooking in restaurants in an mall to circulate air through the building. Is this a stupid idea? The issue is smell and grease. You could run a closed loop system though with a heat exchanger...
, why on earth aren't these things more common? Money, maintainability, finding people who can install them, ownecontractoarchitect/engineer's ignorance.
Our current western building standards are abysmal More or less yeah. They are fairly safe and affordable though. I have to give them that.
Would you ever build a home using vacuum insulation panels? When the price comes down yes.
I've heard you mention bump-outs as no-gos multiple times. What makes them so bad? It's fundamental. More surface area means more contact with outside air with means more energy transfer. It also makes construction more complex with leads to increased costs and more problematic details. If you have air and water leaks they tend to occur at corners and joints.
How do you like to solve household water heating requirements? Solar thermal + a heatpump water heater? Good question. This is evolving a lot right now. Point of source water heaters, heat pump water heaters, etc. I think the future (10 or 20 years from now) will be dominated by photovoltaic, so electric powered water heaters will be the way to go. That said, natural gas is cheap in the US and is generally the best bang for your buck.
Thoughts on using alternative energy sources like wood pellets for heating? If you live in a wooded area with access to firewood it's one of the most sustainable things you can do. I've seen some really promising products come out in that area in the last few years. If you're buyng firewood somewhere then it makes a lot less sense.
Are you looking to get LEED certified at all? Are these the types of building you are looking to design? I will probably get LEED certified in the future. I have issues with LEED though.
What about Passive Homes? Passivhaus/Passive House US is an extreme interest of mine, yes. Even if the homes I eventually build aren't passive house certified I will bring the lessons learned from studying them will me. Tight wall assemblies, deep insulation, controlled ventilation, solar orientation, etc.
What are your thoughts about Rammed Earth buildings? (I was going to work for a company that does this in Canada at one point, but I wasn't going to be moving soon enough to get the job) Rammed earth is interesting but its labor intensive and thus expensive. It makes more sense in arid climates with DIY labor.
are you content with your salary, if you don't mind my asking? No not at all, but it's early in my career. The thing that bothers me more is that you're expected to work yourself to the bone and job security is completely remiss.
Have you ever thought about going into any of the IT architectural professions To add to this schooling is long and expensive. You more or less need a masters if you're just starting out now so that's 4+2 or 5+1 years or 4+3 in my case since I went to undergrad for econ and psych.
I got to work on a project for Jeanne Gang. I did the geothermal system and some of the mechanicals for her upcoming Clark Park Boat House in Chicago. It's been fun to watch it all come together. Public buildings are very gratifying.
The least would be high end commercial stuff. A mall in Qatar. Not fixing anything but renovating it to make it more blingy. What a waste of my life.
Like what? Information architecture, etc.? Is there really much crossover? Or do you mean Revit techs who sit on jobsites?
No one mentioned steel container homes yet. What do you think ? My case; Northern California, been welding a long time, could add one every other year, some partially in the earth, they're cheap, and the "cool" factor seems high for my opinion. What do you know or think of making one of these ? What or how would you do it ? Do's and dont's ? I'm actually making a woodshop right now out of a container. There are some photos of it on my blog and Tumblr.
Otherwise, I'm not entirely sure. They're cheap, but not by much compared to 2x4's. If you weld then great, but the moment you start cutting holes in them they lose a lot of their strength, so you have to reinforce.
Overall, if it's DIY and you're a welder it's far more viable than most people. Just make sure you insulate it properly. I'd use the exterior of container as the exterior skin then make a stud wall of 2x3's or steel channel held back from the wall and sprayed with open cell spray foam (icynene). Also, try to get containers that are made of cor-ten so you don't have to grind and paint all the time - if you can.
I could go on about this for hours, but since I'm late to the party (and I'll probably get buried), I'll cut it off here. My question to you: have you noticed much of an actual change in sustainable initiatives here in the US, or am I the only one that feels like it's still just used for marketing? Sometimes it makes financial sense. When it's obvious owners go for it.
Sorry for the vagueness but I once read about an architect that in the ?70s? came up with some affordable home designs but was plagued by the inability for the homes to be altered. Even the furniture was "static." Do you know who I am talking about? Have you address some of the reasons his ideas did not take off? Thanks! I don't know whom you speak of, but the other commentor was actually on to something. It's the Usonian Homes by Wright. They were meant to be inexpensive and afforable but they always went over budget. They are some of his more interesting designs though and I commend him on his efforts. I've studied those houses quite a bit and most of them have had additions in years that followed.
FWIW well built affordable housing is elusive. More or less everyone who tries fails. The lower middle class and poor have few advocates so it's hard to really get stuff done.
Sorry I couldn't be of more help.
1) What are your thoughts on methane digestors for creating usable methane for heating/cooking? (Will this be viable in the near future, or is it here?) 2) Do you have any means like earthships (www.earthship.com) to help with cutting down on water consumption? 3) Have you found it easier to have on-site electrical storage(like a battery bank) or trying to sell back to the utility companies? 4) Why aren't people using the waste heat from the attic on summer days to vent through the clothes dryer, to help dry clothes instead of using the heating element from the drier? It would reduce costs in two different ways wouldn't it? I've built these when I worked with my dad. They're entirely viable but only at large scales. People make them all the time.
I view earthships as a useful first step in energy efficient/green construction that taught us a lot of lessons. I believe there are better ways to proceed now.
It's all about net metering unless you're off grid. Batteries are expensive and have a rather short life span. Not to mention hydrogen off gassing.
Sure, but then you'd need a fan and an insulated duct and a way of switching it over in winter and summer. Conversely you could just hang dry your clothes outside and use the sun directly.
What is the most important aspect of energy-efficient or 'green' home? This is a bit of a loaded question since all the systems have to work together and be designed for your climate, but I would say the enclosure system. Your walls, roof, and foundation all need to work together to keep heat in/out while also staying dry and still being relatively inexpensive to construct. The enclosure needs to be as airtight as possible and as thermally non-conductive as possible (high R value) while reducing thermal bridges. Most walls and roofs in the US are actually insulated fairly okay, but they tend to be leaky and have thermal bridges everywhere. Taping or caulking all the seams plus a layer of exterior insulation would help to mitigate this. For some reason lots of foundations aren't insulated or it's done poorly. Which is strange because concrete is about the worst insulator on earth (aerated concrete is a different story).
Given your position as an "Intern Architect", do you usually adapt existing building designs to your more energy efficient criteria, or do you design from scratch more? Both really. Now that I think of it the buildings we retrofit are generally in some sort of moisture decay, hence requiring our work, so energy efficient upgrades are almost always part of the package. Vapor barrier issues and drying out of wall assemblies leads to almost every retrofit we get. Of course building new offers much better opportunities for sitting, orientation, etc. which is huge. Retrofitting may be "greener" but building new makes for more efficient buildings (assuming you do it right).
Last updated: 2013-07-14 12:47 UTC
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