A Shortcut To Sustainable Living: Downsize!
A high-rise condo usually has a smaller carbon footprint than a single-family house
The purpose of sustainable design and green building is to achieve sustainable living. To do this, we attempt to make best possible use of the assets at hand. That could mean designing and building from scratch. It could also mean taking an existing dwelling and nudging it in the direction of sustainability.
It’s an imperfect process and takes time. It’s only natural that we look for shortcuts to living green. Here’s one: downsize and move into a condo.
Do what our clients did. When the time was right, they sold their single-family detached house. They kissed their lovable, drafty old Victorian goodbye. With the kids fledged and their careers on cruise control, they didn’t need it anymore. So they bought a dowdy condo on the upper floors of Parkside Plaza in Silver Spring, Maryland, and transformed it into their own cool, colorful, light-filled living space.
What’s sustainable or green about living in a high-rise, you say? Read on.
A lazy man’s way to living green
Depending on the year it was built, a condominium building may be burdened by outdated or inefficient systems. And yet, these buildings start out with two big gold stars on the list of sustainable design features: energy efficiency and sustainable land use.
Energy efficiency. A free-standing house is exposed to the elements on all sides plus the roof. The typical apartment shares three of its walls (plus floor and ceiling) with other units or common areas. So, right there without lifting a finger you’ve just become 80% more energy efficient because only one wall has to face the elements.
Sustainable land use. The other big painless step toward sustainability has to do with land conservation. A single-family house occupies at least 5,000 or 6,000 square feet of land. In a multifamily building like Parkside Plaza, 250 families occupy about four acres. That’s an average of less than 700 square feet per family.
So, if you were a complete deadbeat and did nothing else to ease your footprint on our tender Earth, you’d be ahead of the game with this one simple move. And why stop when you’ve started out so far ahead?
That brings us to our green remodeling story. Our clients found a bleak, worn-out wreck of a place and loved it into a work of lifestyle art.
To see what they walked into, check out Image #2, below. Where others may have flinched and fled, they saw potential. Image #3 shows the same view after renovation: partition walls have moved and been shaped to allow light from the floor-to-ceiling glass doors to reach the back wall of the condo unit.
One plus one makes one big one
When the Parkside Plaza building converted to condominiums around 1988, several pairs of one-bedroom apartments on the top floors were combined to create spacious luxury units.
The apartments had been stuck simply (and oddly) together, the possibilities of the combined spaces left unexplored. As a result, the space lacked definition or any unifying themes. Closets and storage spaces were haphazard. Nothing related to anything else.
The original single-glazed windows and doors leaked, rattled, and whistled in the wind. The heating/cooling units were choked with crud and they leaked, ruining the floors.
And, finally ...
The kitchen. It was one of those kitchens made so long before we learned how to “do” kitchens that it doesn’t seem fair to criticize. Boxed off from the main living area, it cried out to be set free of confining partitions. It is enough to say it was intolerable to our empty-nesters.
Accentuate the positive
Was there anything good about the place? Yes! It was luxuriously spacious. Truly splendid, however, were the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors framing a wall of sky beyond twin over-sized balconies. This! This was worth the work. And work there was.
Even with so much wrong, the renovation relied more on the scalpel than the wrecking ball. As shown in the detail below (see Image #5), partitions and doorways were reshaped and finessed.
The redesign would focus on defining functional spaces for work, hobbies, and overnight guests. It would bring order and reason to bear upon unreasonably bad feng shui.
Making sense of space: interior realignment
Transitions were clarified. Storage was optimized. What had been a dark and creepy passageway to the second bedroom was illuminated by interior windows and divided-lightTrue divided light sash have small panes of glass separated by muntins. Because large pieces of glass used to be difficult (or expensive) to make, older houses have windows with two, four, or six small lights per sash. These multiple-light sash are also called "divided-light sash" or sometimes "divided-light windows." bedroom doors.
The kitchen was fully integrated into the adjacent living areas (see Image #8, below).
Repurposing found materials
Materials were selected with sustainability in mind. These included wood counters and shelves crafted from urban harvest walnut and cherry (see Image #9).
Patrick Sells of Salvaging Creativity, York, Pennsylvania, fabricated the range hood with stainless steel from a local scrapyard (see Image #10). It was a thrill to be able to work with these artists to incorporate reused and recycled materials in the project.
To ensure healthful indoor air quality, cabinets were made with zero-formaldehydeChemical found in many building products; most binders used for manufactured wood products are formaldehyde compounds. Reclassified by the United Nations International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2004 as a “known human carcinogen." materials and finished with no-VOCVolatile organic compound. An organic compound that evaporates readily into the atmosphere; as defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic compounds that volatize and then become involved in photochemical smog production. coatings.
One of the huge successes in this green living project is the use of color (see Image #12, below, showing the master bedroom). The owner, an artist in her own right, created the palette.
Living sustainably is living well
Sustainable design elements included in this green remodeling project feature the usual cast of characters: LED lighting, Water Sense fixtures, Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. appliances, and energy-saving doors and windows insulated with low-eLow-emissivity coating. Very thin metallic coating on glass or plastic window glazing that permits most of the sun’s short-wave (light) radiation to enter, while blocking up to 90% of the long-wave (heat) radiation. Low-e coatings boost a window’s R-value and reduce its U-factor., argonInert (chemically stable) gas, which, because of its low thermal conductivity, is often used as gas fill between the panes of energy-efficient windows. -filled double glazingWhen referring to windows or doors, the transparent or translucent layer that transmits light. High-performance glazing may include multiple layers of glass or plastic, low-e coatings, and low-conductivity gas fill..
But the most sustainable aspect of this green living project is downsizing. It proves that it is possible to do much more with much less than we think we may need.
Alan Abrams is a Certified Passive HouseA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. Consultant, a Certified Passive House Builder, a
Certified Green Professional (NAHBNational Association of Home Builders, which awards a Model Green Home Certification.), and a Certified Professional Building Designer (American Institute of Building Designers). He is also the owner of Abrams Design Build in Takoma Park, Maryland.
- All photos: Ken Wyner
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