January 13, 2005

CleverHomes - NowHouse Review

Yesterday I took a trip with Logan and Natalie to check out the CleverHomes SA1 model home sponsored by NowHouse. It's currently set up in next to the baseball park in downtown SF. (I'm hesitant to call it PacBell Park or whatever because, while companies come and go, baseball and San Francisco are forever.)

Overall I have to say the concept was interesting, the execution was professional, and the design beats the pants off a lot of the cookie-cutter suburban tract homes we see these days. However, there were some issues that stood out for me:

  • There were no living plants in this "green" house. (To be fair, there was one dead orchid in an upstairs bathroom. ) At first this might seem like simply a problem of staging-- the interior designer forgot to put plants in or chose not to because they take maintenance. However, I think the problem is more systemic than that. For a house that is supposed to espouse "green construction", "resource efficiency", and "healthy living", it's remarkable that the house design doesn't actually support life. There's no more integration of the architecture with living things than there was in the Disney/Monsanto House of the Future built in 1957. Surely if we're prefabricating big chunks of the house, we can find good ways to cleanly integrate inside and outside, bringing plants into our living space.
  • The acoustics were problematic. The overall sound insulation of the walls was good, and the sound insulation from the outside world was good, except where the doors and windows weren't weatherstripped.
    The Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) from which the walls are constructed consist of a thick layer of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam sandwiched between two layers of oriented strand board (OSB, similar to plywood, but made from chipped young trees). The EPS itself provides a good deal of acoustic absorption, but not as much as fiberglass batts, because the EPS board acts as a continuos acoustic medium, whereas the fiberglass acts as a discontinous medium with both reflection and absorption. On the other hand, because there are fewer wood studs connecting the two OSB panels, there are fewer direct paths for sound transmission.
    However, once noise of any kind penetrated into the house, or was created inside the house, the sound reflection was nasty. The inside wall surfaces were all painted gypsum (drywall) atop the inner layer of OSB, and they were all oriented at 90 degrees to each other-- not a single curved surface in the whole house, and no carpet other than throw-rugs. All the noise travelled everywhere. If you had to live in this house with kids or housemates, I doubt you would have much privacy. It has the kind of acoustics that work best for a single person living alone, or a couple, but not for people with different personalities trying to live together.
  • The orthogonality of the space is inherent in the modular nature of the SIPs from which the house is constructed. The SIPs achieve their best energy and so forth when you can line them up at ninety degree angles. However, I would have liked to see more intrusions and extrusions breaking up the space, mixing up what's hidden and what's shown, deflecting and absorbing noise, and creating a sense of privacy and mystery. The space as it is now feels like a stage, the kind of space that's great for a party, where everyone wants to see and be seen, but it doesn't feel like a home, where you want to live and relax. Part of that feeling might stem from the large number of windows, with zero window coverings, leading to a fishbowl sensation.
  • The SA1 is not as prefab as I'd like. Granted there are huge benefits to using the SIPs for the structure and laying everything out on a modular grid. However, once the SIPs are installed, there's still a huge amount of expensive finish work to be done:
    1. You need to lay drywall over the interior OSB on the SIPs because the OSB doesn't meet fire-retardant codes. Couldn't the panel come pre-finsihed with whitewashed drywall?
    2. You need to lay some kind of flooring over the OSB on the floor-- the model home had bamboo throughout most of the house, and cork in the bathrooms. Why couldn't this flooring be pre-installed at the factory?
    3. The SIPs include pre-drilled holes in the EPS for cable runs, at two standard electrical outlet heights. This makes running power fairly easy-- but you need to hire an electrician to do it. Why not have some "backbone" power and perhaps cat5 data cable factory installed?
    4. There was absolutely no integration between the windows and interior window shades/window coverings. Again, something that could be prebuilt at the factory: shades integral to the windows, blown EPS bead windows, etc.
  • Air flow and air quality is a concern, since the house is so tightly sealed. We asked the NowHouse docent about ventilation and she explained that you simpy "open a window" to ventilate. I really like the fact that all the windows open, but again, this doesn't achieve any improvement over what was available in 1957. Anyone who lives in car country knows that the moment you open your window, you're going to get a thin film of soot all over your beautiful Eames chair. What if you want fresh air on a cold day, and don't want to lose all your passive solar heat by opening a window?

Anyhow, I encourage anyone who's interested in green architecture to visit the NowHouse model home in person and give it your own evaluation. I think what CleverHomes and NowHouse are trying to do is admirable, and there are huge environmental benefits to building in this way. I hope that as this kind of building becomes more common, we'll continue to make progress on the issues I noted. Posted by todd at January 13, 2005 12:54 PM