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Intelligent Design

The New Urban Guild's SmartDwelling initiative proposes smaller and smarter housing types.
By Stephen A. Mouzon, AIA CNU LEED

New American homes are brewing. A number of architects are using the slack time of the downturn to propose new types of American homes. Russell Versaci's Pennywise Homes will be built in modular fashion by Haven Homes. Marianne Cusato's New Economy Home is a 1,676-sq.ft., four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house that "addresses the impact that the current economy is having on how we build for today and in the future." Others certainly are working on their own designs, both within the New Urbanism and elsewhere.

None, however, hopes to have a more ambitious scope than the New Urban Guild's SmartDwelling project. The guild is a group of 65 (at this time) architects from around the U.S. and abroad who are well known for their New Urbanist work. The most prolific New Urbanist home-plan designers – Bill Allison, Cooter Ramsey, Eric Moser, Jim Strickland, Donald Powers, John Reagan and Bud Lawrence – are included, as are stalwarts of New Urbanist custom design like Julie Sanford, Gary Justiss and Eric Watson and noted town-center architects Maricé Chael, David Day and Eric Brown. In good New Urbanist fashion, all of these designers do a bit of everything, not just what they're noted for. Some are more noted for their New Urbanist planning work, such as Bill Dennis, Mike Watkins, Tom Low, Marina Khoury, Chris Ritter, Keith Covington and Susan Henderson. Many are noted New Urbanist town architects, including Mike Watkins, Frank Greene, Erik Vogt, Marieanne Khoury-Vogt and Leo Casas.

Leading Classicists in the guild include Alvin Holm, Anne Fairfax, Richard Sammons, Milton Grenfell, John Massengale, Steve Semes, Victor Deupi, Dino Marcantonio and Christine Franck. The works of many, including Mike Waller, Derrick Smith and Ken Pursley, span the Classical/vernacular spectrum. Walter Chatham is a noted Modernist; others like Randall Imai, Jeff Dungan, Louis Nequette, Frank Martinez and Joel Barkley have portfolios that range from the Classical to the Modernist. Robert Orr, Pat Pinnell, Milosav Cekic, Lew Oliver, Steve Oubre, Dan Parolek, Kevin Klinkenberg and Brian Hendrickson exemplify those who are equally notable for numerous things. Several are noted authors, including Russell Versaci.

And they're a highly decorated crowd, too. Michael Imber, for example, is the first architect, to my knowledge, to win an Arthur Ross Award at less than 50 years of age. He is joined by several winners of Palladio Awards, CNU Charter Awards and other national honors. Their record of service is exemplary. Michael Barranco was responsible for beginning the massive New Urbanist Katrina recovery effort; Bruce Tolar is the epicenter of its continuation at Cottage Square. Many have taught, including Michael Mehaffy, Andrew von Maur, David Mayernik and Matt Lister. International guild members include Doug Luke and Andrew Martschenko.

New American Homes
Why do we need new American homes? Let's follow the evolution of the American home since 1945. A typical household in the U.S. at that time comprised about four-and-a-half people; now it's down to around two and a half. Yet our homes have swelled from around 1,100 sq.ft. at the end of World War II to around 2,400 sq.ft. today. So we have about half as many people living in over double the space. One might think, with four times as much area per person, that our homes might look like the homes in the Modernist magazines: great expanses of space with very little furniture. The truth, as we know, is quite the opposite; even with half the people in double the space, we have so much extra stuff that won't fit into our homes that in 2005, according to Daniel Pink, we had propelled self-storage into a $17-billion-a-year industry.

So our homes have been ballooning, our possessions have been ballooning, and if that weren't enough, even our bodies have been ballooning as we've consumed more and more. And while it was fun for a while, it's been terrifically unhealthy. The news is full of the consequences of our obesity epidemic, and the financial burdens we've taken on to finance our ballooning homes and possessions that allowed the meltdown to occur. These burdens have all become too great for America to bear.

How can SmartDwellings help? Architecture can't solve everything, to be sure, and the solution the guild is proposing doesn't even start with architecture. It starts with neighborhoods. Specifically, the SmartDwellings are calibrated to neighborhoods that are compact, walkable and contain a mix of uses so that you might walk to work, walk to school, walk to the grocery store, walk to the park or walk to any of the other essentials of everyday life. I can personally attest to the benefits of walking, as I lost 60 pounds after moving several years ago from a completely unwalkable place that was 95% suburban to South Beach, where I crank the car only a couple of times a week.

After calibrating to compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, the SmartDwelling project will put the American home on a diet. But belt-tightening only goes so far; you can't just cram the same stuff into a smaller box; most Americans aren't into overly-tight belts or any other forms of suffering anymore. And being smaller and cuter might work for a guest, but the cuteness quickly wears off for those who live there each day if the basics of the home aren't working for them. So how can we do this?

The SmartDwelling project doesn't just make homes smaller; it also makes them smarter. It does so by a variety of means. Take, for example, the dining room. Go to a restaurant and you'll notice that people strongly prefer booths to tables, and by a large margin. Six people can sit comfortably in a 36-sq.ft. booth, whereas a comfortable dining room for six people is closer to 180 sq.ft. – five times as large. Why not give people what they'd rather have anyway, and do it in one-fifth the space? Booths won't replace dining rooms in every SmartDwelling, of course – none of the items mentioned here will occur in every plan. SmartDwellings will encompass a number of plan types and sizes, but the average size will be about half of last year's bloated American house.

Saving 50% of the size means saving about 40% of the cost, we believe, because SmartDwellings will cost more per square foot than bloated houses. It is important that the savings be significant, not just incremental. During the Great Depression, banks had no money. Today, they have money, but they have no confidence. But if the same customers want to borrow 40% less money than they would need for a bloated house, a significant number of those deals will be approved. The guild believes this approach can be instrumental in restarting construction in compact, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods.

Tools and Techniques
To build smaller and smarter, the guild is loading its toolbox with numerous techniques. Double- and triple-duty (or more) elements, for instance, are highly helpful when building smaller and smarter. "If a home has a garage, why must it be the same old dumb prosthesis it has always been, stuck onto the front (or back) of the house?" asks Geoffrey Mouen. "Why not build a livable garage, where cars can stay when you're sleeping, but then pull out so that it can be an art studio, potting shed, workshop, cabana or rainy-day play space for the kids?" People occasionally do some of these things in their garages already, but if they were designed intelligently, they could do them easily and regularly.

David Rau advocates for sofa dining. "It can be very practical to dine in the living room with a 30-in.-high drop-leaf table in front of the sofa, with small chairs around the outside," he says. "In fact, this is my favorite way to eat with my family – we stay put for hours." David and several others also use bookshelves instead of walls to divide many rooms because they provide storage and create character.

An easy and obvious expansion path is also a useful feature, because many people will buy smaller homes if it's clear how they can easily expand them as their family grows. Grow zones are areas in a floor plan from which additions can sprout through windows that turn into doors. Grow zones might contain furniture that can be moved, but never cabinets, closets or bathrooms, because these things move only with great expense. How about guest rooms that sit empty almost all the time? SmartDwellings don't have space to waste on things that are almost never used. Michael Imber and Robert Orr are both well known for tucking bed and bunk alcoves into their plans for the children of guests. If you're really looking to save space, then you could let your kids "camp out" in the bed alcoves and let your guests use your kids' rooms. Giving the guests the kids' rooms was once common practice in America, so this isn't something we've never done before. And Thomas Jefferson slept in a bed alcove at Monticello, so why can't we?

How about having a kids' realm, where one big room is surrounded by bed alcoves? Each alcove should be curtained, so going to bed each night would be a lot like closing a tent door – a perpetual camping trip. (Marieanne Khoury-Vogt and Erik Vogt use curtains rather than doors in many other places, too, saving both space and money.) For mid-teen years just before they leave home, a garçonnière is a tiny cottage in the yard that's not much more than a bedroom and bath that offers the privacy that soon-to-be adults crave. Later, the garçonnière can become a home office, studio, workshop or granny cottage.

Alex Latham is one of many guild architects who advocate tucking bedrooms and baths into an attic rather than building another full floor – not like most do now, where the lowest walls are five or six feet high, but rather the way we once did them, where you use space all the way down to where the walls are only 30 inches tall or less. David Rau is one of the architects that has rediscovered the frieze window of 190 years ago that cross-ventilates these rooms beautifully. Half-story designs not only save tens of thousands of dollars in construction costs, but also tend to be more charming, and subsequently more lovable. If a building cannot be loved, it will not last, and is therefore not sustainable – so SmartDwellings focus strongly on patterns that are lovable to non-architects.

Smart and Sustainable
Sustainability is the other half of the SmartDwelling equation. The guild is proposing a series of regional design charrettes that will calibrate SmartDwelling plans to the most sustainable architecture of each region. American architects have, almost since the founding of our republic, been looking for a decidedly American architecture. Greek Revival architecture was the first foray, tying the fledgling American democracy to the world's first democracy in Athens. Other excursions, such as Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style, have been regional in nature. Others, such as the Spanish Colonial architecture of San Diego, the Pueblo Revival architecture of Santa Fe and the Mediterranean Revival architecture of Coral Gables, were more local. Occasionally, this search for an appropriate architecture was high-minded; in other cases, it was not much more than a real estate marketing scheme.

The SmartDwelling project continues this search for a truly American architecture. Our touchstone is sustainability. What makes more sense today than an architecture attuned to the conditions, climate and culture of a region? An architecture of this people, and of this place? So the American architecture of the SmartDwelling project is actually a collection of regional languages of architecture.

One of the most important SmartDwelling sustainability features isn't in the house at all. Rather, it's the design of the landscaping into something that isn't just landscaping anymore. If, instead, every available foot of exterior space is properly designed into a series of garden rooms, then people are enticed outdoors during all but the most extreme weather conditions. If you're regularly enticed outdoors by beautiful outdoor rooms, then you become acclimated to the local environment and need less full-body refrigeration (or heating) once you return indoors. This accomplishes several good things. First, it expands the usability of outdoor rooms to more months of the year. This means that you can actually build a smaller house because you're living outdoors and indoors. So you're saving on construction costs – probably more than enough to build and furnish the outdoor rooms because they can be built for one-sixth to one-eighth the cost of conditioned interior spaces. And you're saving energy every month because the house you're heating and cooling is smaller. Marieanne Khoury-Vogt and Erik Vogt's work at Alys Beach exemplifies these principles. Julie Sanford is one of many guild masters of the reclaimed porch in its many forms, from the screened sleeping porch to the freestanding screened dining room.

Leo Casas is one of many guild members advocating the use of the landscaping of outdoor rooms for another purpose: making it edible. Local food is far more sustainable than food that needs a passport to get to your table. Food cannot be any more local than that which you grow in your outdoor garden rooms. Whether or not you currently have a green thumb, many of the SmartDwellings will set the stage so you can try your hand in the future.

SmartDwellings do the normal passive stuff, of course, like cross-ventilation in warmer climates, extra thermal mass in cooler ones, and daylighting everywhere. They may also involve a number of things that aren't so normal today, like sideyard sails, wind flaps, breeze chimneys and wall gardens. They also involve insulating bed alcoves, cool dips, green sheds and laundry eaves. The list of cool SmartDwelling patterns is long and growing.

If you think this sounds like an ambitious agenda, then we agree with you. But it's a necessary agenda. Attempting less is unlikely to generate the sort of critical mass necessary to change the way America builds. SmartDwellings must be rational enough, compelling enough and inspiring enough that appraisers, bankers, builders and homeowners make substantive changes in what has heretofore been business as usual. Because business as usual is now out of business. It's time for something better.  



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