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Q&A Spotlight

Can a High-Performance House be Livable, Too?

A comfortable floor plan and energy efficiency aren’t mutually exclusive

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What do you think? When a GBA reader posted a question about this energy-efficient house plan, the discussion turned to livability and layout rather than the technical merits of the design.
What do you think? When a GBA reader posted a question about this energy-efficient house plan, the discussion turned to livability and layout rather than the technical merits of the design.

An alternate floor plan

James Morgan was so frustrated with floor plan he found in a Q&A post that he proposed his own in an attempt to show that a small, high-efficiency house also can be livable.

Readers who post a question in GreenBuildingAdvisor’s Q&A forum typically look for advice on very specific building problems. Whether the challenge is detailing a rainscreen, selecting windows with the right solar heat-gain coefficient, or using thermal mass to store solar energy, the focus is usually narrow and technical.

And that appeared to be the intent of John and Rebecca’s recent post asking for comments on a set of house plans. “In terms of thermal bridging, heating, etc., is there anything you would do to improve them?” John asks. “Because my wife and I are thinking of building, and we like the ideas presented in these plans.”

But the conversation quickly takes a different turn, veering into unfamiliar territory and becoming a discussion of much more esoteric concerns. What makes a house comfortable? When should livability trump energy efficiency? How small is too small?

None of those questions has a yes-or-no answer, but their complexity goes to the heart of a fundamental dilemma about green building: Will we actually like living in the house we’ve worked so hard to create?

Practical, maybe, but not livable

David McNeely bores right into the basic layout of this 1,250-sq.-ft., three-bedroom house. “In terms of living,” he says, “the placement of the one bathroom requires every bedroom occupant to traverse the most public spaces, then walk past exposed utilities! The reward is a tiny bathroom. Reminds me of houses that were first converted to indoor plumbing, where the only comparison was an outhouse in the back.

“One of the greenest things a builder can do is create a building that will live a long time,” he adds. “Designing a livable space is fundamental. Creating a space that makes people feel good to live in has a payback that is different from energy calcs, but is possibly more important to a long-term energy efficient future. The two must not be mutually exclusive!”

James Morgan isn’t far behind. “The un-greenest aspect of this house is not the slab but the awful, awful layout,” he says, “a prime example of a ‘technical’ house designed around a set of abstract engineering ideas at the expense of any concept of living quality.

“This,” he adds, “is a home to get tired of really, really quickly, resulting in a lot of good materials simply wasted.”

Forget thermal bridging and heating. Morgan wants to know why the utilities are located in a main traffic area of the house? Why is there such a huge kitchen but no place for a dining table? Where’s the expansion potential when John and Rebecca get sick of living in a too-small space?

Isn’t that a little harsh?

Don’t be too quick to judge, suggests GBA senior editor Martin Holladay.

There actually is a place for a sofa and chairs as well as a small dining table, he says, even if they’re not shown on the plans, and maybe the kitchen is large because John and Rebecca like to cook. As to the locating the utilities in the mudroom instead of the passage to the only bathroom, Holladay says, “the mudroom is subject to occasional freezing, so the water heater is right where it should be.

“Many Europeans live in spaces much smaller than this, and it behooves Americans to be a little less quick to condemn a compact plan like this.”

Exactly, says David Meiland: “Our house is circa 1923 and 1,120 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath. Over the years I have run into a fair number of people in the community who have lived in the house. One of them remarked to me, ‘I raised my three sons in that house.’ Go to any working-class neighborhood built in the ‘50s or earlier, and you see a lot of 1,000-sq.-ft. family homes.

“I agree the layout is not ideal, but that was not part of the [original post].”

No, Morgan admits, a broadside on the floor plans wasn’t part of the original question, but so what? “Fitness for purpose is central to durability and performance and deserves to be considered as critical to building green as any part of the mechanical system or the enclosure strategy — perhaps more so, as it’s so much harder to upgrade after the fact,” he says. “Why would you accept incompetent space planning (yes, it IS that bad) when the carpenter, the engineer, the plumber and all the other participants in the process are expected to be at the top of their game? Harsh if you like, but you guys would never accept a bad flashing detail. Why is this any different?”

Let’s make a few changes

It is Keith Gustafson who is first to come up with some concrete ideas “for these poor souls.” With some rearranging, the house could handle three bedrooms and still leave a wide open 18 ft. by 24 ft. living space.

Morgan is next, and it’s with more than verbiage. He proposes a house with exactly the same footprint, but designed so the mudroom is part of the house proper, with more room for furniture as well as a full-sized dining table (see the second image below). The conditioned area of the house has been increased by 96 sq. ft., but the energy penalty should be minimal, and the design changes should lower construction costs.

“Which house would you rather live in?” he asks.

Our expert’s opinion

GBA advisor Ann Edminster had this to say:

The design critics are right on the mark. It isn’t that livability trumps energy performance; rather, it’s that livability is a necessary precondition for any good home.

What is loved, endures. Thermal comfort alone might be enough to inspire house-love, if the occupants have been accustomed to a notable lack thereof. However, after the novelty fades, what’s left must be lovable from the perspective of daily living.

Notwithstanding the facts that (a) design is highly personal and (b) some people are more affected by their surroundings than others, the original design is (ahem) notably unlovable. That said, we don’t know what attracted John & Rebecca to this plan. It could be what they look out at from the kitchen window, or perhaps the separation of the master from the other two bedrooms.

Morgan’s solution may not be the right one. However, I can say with complete confidence that a competent architect or interior designer charged with creating a thermally and functionally comfortable 3-bedroom home within a ~1200-sq. ft. footprint, and addressing the couple’s other design drivers, could do better than this, by far.

That’s the real rant, folks: designers are skilled professionals, not just people who draw pretty pictures. We actually understand how buildings work. (Well, OK, maybe not all design professionals, but those of us you’re likely to encounter on this site … let’s hope!)

I once had a client who was big on DIY – who home-schooled four extremely intelligent children through junior high, grew her own food, had an in-house science lab, baked, repaired appliances, you name it. When a tree fell through her house, signaling the opportunity to remodel, she struggled with developing a design for months before finally calling me, and told me she felt so stupid that she couldn’t come up with one herself. I very gently asked, “Would you do brain surgery on yourself, Elizabeth?” Her response, of course, was “No.”

And so I explained that her problem had more in common with brain surgery than she might suppose. There are a lot of factors to be considered and successfully integrated to meet her family’s multiple objectives. It takes both training and skill to design well. This plan bespeaks a lack of one or (probably) both.

One last comment: size doesn’t even come into this. This house is modest, not really small. I live in a community that’s dominated by subdivisions of 3-bedroom homes between 1,100 and 1,200 sq. ft., built post-WW2. Capacious? No. Would the owners like to enlarge? Undoubtedly, and many of them do. But there are plenty of those homes that remain fundamentally unaltered after more than 60 years, because they’re perfectly adequate. Really.

4 Comments

  1. User avater
    Robert Swinburne | | #1

    Green Design and house size
    @ Ann: "like"
    As an architect I get to see the non-green ramifications of poor design. many if not most of my clients in recent years come to me with an existing house, usually in the 1500 to 2000 square foot range and complain bitterly about how they are expecting their first child and how can they possibly fit into this house? Usually it is more a problem of the design of the original floor plan rather than actual square footage. I do a lot of biting my tongue. I suppose that being an architect, I should get used to dealing with a class of people who require big houses as well as the societal expectation of a big house. Rant aside, my point is that the actual size of a house is, in the long run, secondary to the livability, not just of the current users but for many generations.

  2. John Klingel | | #2

    Claustrophobia and what you do
    Surely people can live in very small houses; look at the log cabins used for centuries and still in use. Tiny, by today's American middle class standards. But, you can only pack so many rats into a cage and tempers start to flare, especially if the winters are long and dark. People need to consider their temperament and what they'll do in the house, too. Does the thought of splunking make you cringe? What kind of hobbies do you have? Will your significant other like your recumbent bike, weights, and punching bag in the living room? Where are the reloading table and supplies going to go? The gun safe? The inflatable raft? The tools? If you're a passive group, the place can be small and still tidy. But if you are a very active group in a 1200 sf house, you'll have to have small, multi-purpose rooms and/or agree to live in clutter. (I get to see our dining room table at holidays; the rest of the time it is covered w/ fabric and assorted tools.... or beads....) "Stuff" takes up room. A one-man tent is fine for sleeping, but what if it rains or blows hard day after day and day? Can you deal with that?

  3. Ed Dunn | | #3

    Right on the money
    This article hits a point most folks have been missing when it comes to sustainable design. It is all about the book I have intended to write for years but have not got around to. A house must be wanted to be sustainable. Crappy architecture does not stand the test of time and sustainability is all about durability. If a house is decorated and space planned to the current fad, it will go through a costly (in both economic terms and waste stream) remodels in the future.

    Design and build a comfortable, beautiful, timeless home from the beginning and it will be sustainable. Simplicity is the key, use the sun for heating and cooling, simple, local materials, make it a work of art. The Navajo say, "walk in beauty".

  4. Joaquin Erazo, Jr. | | #4

    Home Remodeling Information
    Thanks for a very thought provoking article. Green remodeling, as well as green building, focuses on ways to improve energy efficiency, repurpose and maximize space, and using environmentally friendly materials, but as you point out, there is more to it than that. People don’t want to be the poster children for “green living” so much as they want a greener home to live in without sacrificing what they also want in a modern home: convenience. This often means two or more bathrooms, plenty of closets, and rooms designed for family living. Good design in green remodeling or construction can give people what they want in a smaller, efficient space.

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