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 12:54 PM

January 11, 2005

Residential Neeeeeds Survey now online

So I finally finished writing the Residential Needs Survey as part of my latest invention project. The idea is to ask people about their homes, what problems they encounter, and hopefully that will lead to the discovery of common problems, and in turn to inventing products that help with those problems.
If you have a moment, please take the survey, and pass along the link to friends and family. It only takes a few minutes to complete, and having numerous responses would be really helpful to me. Thanks in advance for spreading the word!
Posted by todd at 08:13 PM

January 07, 2005

Build your own PC case

I've been reading a lot lately about "modders": people who modify industrially-produced objects such as cars, bikes, clothes, and now PC cases. One of my favorites is a PC case build from an IKEA trash can:

It's interesting that places like Central Computer, that have been nerd-havens for so long, are now catering to a new kind of nerdism. What's next? Knitted computer cases?
Posted by todd at 10:46 AM

January 03, 2005

2005 Uberlist

Inspired by Meriko, who always seems to pack a lot more fun into a year than should be humanly possible, and Jen, who exudes the calm and serenity that comes with making plans and writing them down, I've decided to make my very own Uberlist for 2005. If I can get to about half these things in 2005, I think it'll be a great year.
  1. See at least six live bands with friends
  2. See two live plays with friends
  3. Go to NowHouse with Logan
  4. Go see crazy Napa garden show
  5. See movies twice a month with Carrie & Fej
  6. Visit Oakland Museum
  7. Visit Oakland Zoo
  8. Pick a show at SFMOMA and don't miss it
  9. Read one contemporary novel or nonfiction book a month
  10. Subscribe to Harper's
  11. Run, Swim, or Bike four times a week
  12. Exercise at least 20 minutes a day
  13. Run Bay to Breakers in May
  14. Run at least one Triathlon
  15. Eat your greens
  16. Potatoes twice/month max
  17. Go to the dentist for cleaning & checkup
  18. Brush and floss like you mean it!
  19. Confidential: Behavior
  20. Get new improved eyeglasses
  21. Confidential: Planning
  22. Invent every day
  23. Set up new studio space at Workspace
  24. Move prototyping stuff to Workspace, organize storage unit for storage
  25. Set up online design portfolio
  26. Execute on multipronged approach to reaching escape velocity
  27. Set up online store for simple direct-sale products
  28. Design a simple lighting product for sale via Zinc Details &c.
  29. Take Rapid Viz class through City College
  30. Design/Build tree protector planter box in front
  31. Believe
  32. Perservere
  33. Cook dinner with Tammy at least once a week
  34. Host a dinner party with Tammy
  35. Host an oyster tasting party with Meriko's help
  36. Learn to roast the perfect organic chicken
  37. Learn Gma Kay's recipe for avgolemono soup
  38. Learn Gma Kay's and Mom's recipe for Pumpkin pie
  39. Learn to make Perfect meringues
  40. Attend the mix-your-own Bordeaux workshop with friends
  41. Food tour of Ferry Bldg with Meriko
  42. Learn how to flip an omelette properly
  43. Learn how to make Pasta Pollaio
  44. Figure out which wines give me a headache, and why
  45. Go to dinner with Gma Kay at least twice
  46. Summertime visit to Fillmore compound
  47. Xmas with the family
  48. Check out the mine, maybe go visit
  49. Build something for Dan's farm
  50. Attend Greek Festival with the Perakis clan
  51. Visit or host Debbie
  52. Have Cindy out for a visit (or visit her)
  53. Make wedding photo albums for Mom, Gma Kay, Debbie
  54. Visit the Jones farm in Oakdale
  55. Call everyone on their birthdays, mother's day, etc.
  56. Make at least two seasonal thank-you cards, and use them. (gocco!)
  57. Make Nose Lamp
  58. Make a self-portrait in color lino cut
  59. Take Printmaking class through City College
  60. Make a two-color holiday card with Tammy
  61. Participate in Spring and Fall Open Studios, Holiday trunk show
  62. Finish detailing on dining room table
  63. Finish Honeycomb lamp & sell
  64. Build floor plant lamp
  65. Learn formal matting
  66. Help Forrest figure out new photo mount techniques
  67. Volunteer for nonprofit (FUF?)
  68. Donate to nonprofit
  69. Create a design for annual Arch. for Humanity event
  70. Attend O2 / EcoArch event
  71. Reconnect with Andy
  72. Reconnect with Derek
  73. Collaborate with Joe Sparks somehow
  74. Use them thank-you cards
  75. Take a weekend class with friends
  76. Make a new friend
  77. Make someone's day when they need it most
  78. Visit Steve in San Diego
  79. Visit Lori in LA
  80. Check into seaplane flying lessons: price and time
  81. Instead of watching TV, go to public places and watch people
  82. Go diving in Monterey with Bob
  83. Short, cheap trip to warm place with Tammy: Mexico? Arizona? Oahu?
  84. Picnic in the Marin Headlands
  85. Eastern Sierra trip with Jen: July 4th?
  86. Visit that Julia Morgan chapel in the Oakland Hills
  87. Wander around Treasure Island with map of 1939 Golden Gate International Exhibition
  88. See Rivera's Pan-American Unity Mural at CCSF
  89. Map out two Secret Government Installations: send data to CLUI
  90. Enter condo lottery
  91. Fixing wiring in Living Room
  92. Install overhead lights in kitchen
  93. Lay insulation over kitchen
  94. Tile WC
  95. DIY install new windows in Living Room
  96. Use gift cards to fill in missing housewares
  97. Knock out old vent pipe space
  98. Check out tankless water heater options
  99. Seal attic over pocket doors
  100. Plant another fruit tree in the backyard
Posted by todd at 10:42 AM