Green Design for the Future? Or Reinventing the Past?

Growing up in Florida I spent several summers with a friend’s family in an old house on Sarasota bay. The house was built around the 1920’s and was a comfortable five bedroom two-story with front and rear porches and a detached garage. The sound your feet made as you walked on wood floors, glass door knobs, how cool it was even in the heat of a Floridian summer for there was no central HVAC. The separate garage was around backed and also doubled for grandpa’s workshop. A large eat in kitchen that included a set of back stairs to the bedroom level. Many years later I still remember that house fondly.

You can travel around here in Florida as I expect you can in many parts of the country and see first-hand the changes in building design and know just from the style whether the house was a custom design or not, even to a large extent what decade it was built-in. Flat roofs and conventional roof framing have given over to pitched roofs and trusses. Generally because of curb appeal, a more efficient use of materials, and cost.

Old “Cracker Box” houses with their thick stucco walls, metal roofs, and gable ends, are very Spartan by today’s standard of space and comfort. Most were considerably smaller than the homes of today, and were built without thought to central heat and air conditioning. The Cracker Box style was usually a single story wood structure built on a stem wall with wood floors and plaster walls. Not nearly as large as the two-story of my summer’s on Sarasota bay but highly functional. The ceiling was usually the underside of the roof with a door on each gable that could be opened to allow air flow. Discounting the bugs and the occasional bird flying in I always marveled at this simple technique to cool the home in the age before modern air conditioning.

Being that the Cracker Box house was built on a stem wall with a wood floor allowed for an air space below the home as it did for access to plumbing when necessary. Though I used to hate having to crawl under any home looking for a problem or a creature of some sort I have come to appreciate the design advantages. Though I been in several Cracker Box homes that still do not have central heat and air, I have been in others that have retro-fit central HVAC systems by running the duct work under the house.

While in school for HVAC it suddenly dawned on me just how smart and “green” these old Cracker Boxes were. Living in Florida one typically spends most of the time cooling rather than heating but the effect is the same. Most modern homes are built running insulated duct work through the hottest part of the home, an enclosed attic area with insulation on top of the ceiling and the duct work on top of that. I had never questioned this before but while studying refrigeration the thought occurred to me just how absurd this design is. But when you build on a concrete slab you do not have the option of running your duct work through the floors. Having been a construction manager for a nation wide home builder I have even put the air handler in what would be by far the hottest part of the home the ceiling of the uninsulated garage. This had more to do with theft of the unit than how efficient the refrigeration unit was. The home owner did not gain anything but a shorter unit life expectancy and higher energy costs.

It has always intrigued me how many “spec” homes are built with the least expensive single pane windows installed. Roofing is generally fiberglass shingles and felt though in the more expensive neighborhoods it might be some type of concrete tile. Growing up there were awning style windows in our home that allowed air flow even when it rained. When my parents first bought the home I grew up in it had a built up roof with tar and gravel. I still live in that same neighborhood and there are no longer built up roofs here, and many home owners have replaced their windows with single hung insulated windows. Things change with the times, don‘t they?

The harsh Florida sun limit’s the life expectancy of a fiberglass shingle roof, fewer windows limit air flow, and enclosing the attic area creates what to my mind is a pocket of hot air above a conditioned space. But who wants to see trusses, duct work, and framing when they are eating dinner? Not to mention that without adequate attic venting and air flow the living environment would be less comfortable. Volume ceilings would seem to me to trap hot air and add increased cost in materials and labor without providing any additional living space but just the illusion of it. Drywall acts like a wick to water though is vastly less labor intensive than plaster. At various times I have asked about the logic in building homes with fiberglass shingles and single pane windows and the response has always been the same, cost. The same response is given when why use a concrete slab. My question is now what about value?

In 2004 I went to Punta Gorda, Florida to help after hurricane Charlie had blown through. While driving through the area I noticed that almost every building with a shingle roof had some type of damage. The buildings with metal roofing had faired far better. 2004 was an unusual year for hurricanes in Florida with no less than four blowing through and causing much damage. Homes were not blown down but shingle roofing failed in many cases and water intrusion caused massive problems. Many of my neighbors were without power for over a month and a half. We were luckier than the New England area and did not suffer storm surge on the main land.

In 1992 hurricane Andrew devastated south Florida and forced sweeping changes to the building code. While many changes to the building code were in my opinion necessary as a result of hurricane Andrew the building code itself is still just the minimum standard. Since the time of Hammurabi build codes have existed in one form or another. Just building to code in a day of green awareness and a recovering real estate market should not be the way we move forward in this new millennium. I have seen what are called value added homes that showcase cabinetry and flooring but still use out dated concepts or rather misguided concepts when it comes to the design and materials used.

Why put such emphasis on energy efficiency? There is much talk about smart electrical grids and energy-saving appliances but when it comes to the home building industry costs and curb appeal are the driving forces. But are they really? Where is the choice? Homes designed and built with thought to the environment that they are built-in and the cost of maintaining those homes could and in my opinion should be the driving forces. Options that range from prefabricated wall systems to solar panels could be offered to allow the future home owner to decide what value is and determine what designer, builder, and materials are used.

striking-green-home-designs

Geodesic domes and adobe construction maybe a bit extreme and not  what the average home owner might have in mind, but building a home on a stem wall with a wood floor and running the HVAC duct work in the floor might. Using metal roofing versus fiberglass shingles and offering quality insulated windows versus less expensive single pane windows, or using a concrete board for the ceiling and wall bottoms instead of dry wall might be an acceptable cost increase.

Design for the future or reinventing the past? Or maybe just a combination of the two. A home is more than just refuge from the elements, but in today’s society being able produce comfort by limiting outside agencies from controlling how much electrical, water, and natural gas a home owner has access to and at what cost should be considered in the way homes are designed and built. The curb appeal remains the same but the functionality could be dramatically increased. Since all the costs associated are passed to the home owner in any event what not allow the home owner to decide how much value might be derived from any of the many innovations of today or practices of the past? In an industry and time of stiff competition might this not given your company an advantage?

Bill Tucker

Gould Design, Inc.