High-Performance and Net-Zero Homes — Part 2
Why simple building geometry beats elaborate ornamentation or curb appeal
Welcome back to the rant! (This is an extended, multi-month rant, in case you were wondering.)
Last month I introduced the “Change Toolkit,” a hierarchy of interventions with Mindset at the top (most effective type of intervention), followed by Processes, then Tools; Technologies (the perennial favorite) resides at the bottom – i.e., it is the least effective change lever in our toolkit for creating higher-performing homes.
A design rant
This month’s installment in the rant is all about design. If you’re an architect, this is probably stuff you know, but that may not get your attention very often (or you’re diverted from it by those pesky clients).
If you’re a building science geek, this is right up your alley – warm up your vocal chords for a great big Yeah! If you’re a builder, you may be ambivalent about it. We’ll see.
Characteristics of traditional homes
First I’d like to draw your attention to several types of what I’ll call “traditional homes,” shown in the image collage.
These homes share some important characteristics. They are made:
These are all excellent guidelines for the creation of high-performance and net-zero energyProducing as much energy on an annual basis as one consumes on site, usually with renewable energy sources such as photovoltaics or small-scale wind turbines. homes.
Characteristics of traditional homes
Even so, much of the U.S. landscape is populated by homes that are absent these principles, such as those pictured below.
While I fully understand that “curb appeal” is a dominant driver in home design, I believe that production homes in particular fall prey to design clichés, too often relying on surface ornamentation and geometric complexity in their quest for appeal.
However, appeal more readily emanates from careful proportioning and quality materials, paired with simple, efficient building geometry. I highly recommend The Old Way of Seeing, by Jonathan Hale, in which he makes a compelling and scholarly case for this philosophy.
Homes with simple shapes are less expensive and perform better
Ironically, simple building geometry has significant other benefits, not least of which is economy: simpler homes are less costly to build. Simpler homes also are much easier (and less expensive) to effectively insulate, air seal, and heat, and represent reduced likelihood of durability challenges such as moisture intrusion.
Some of our most successful designers and builders of high-performance homes – unsurprisingly – embody these principles of simplicity and economy in their projects. The photos below show examples from South Mountain Company, ZETA Communities, and architect Steve Baczek.
Taste, of course, is personal, and some may find these designs too simple. And yet there is a market for these homes, all of which are speculative projects. In our quest for high performance we should not lose sight of the fact that “simple” doesn’t mean “ugly” or “boring,” and it’s an enormously powerful design strategy with multiple performance dividends.
The appeal of a home, for some, may rely on elaborate ornamentation, but for many others rests in a sense of comfort and welcoming or spare elegance, either of which may be successfully executed in a simple building volume.
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