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Living Homes: The Greenest of Them All

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The green building boom has players in the commercial sector racing to outdo one another with cutting edge environmental features. Architecture and design firms, construction and development, hospitality, and other service providers have learned that boasting an awareness of sustainable building practices is critical to marketability. The residential sector, however, has lagged behind in developing exemplary models for green homes – perhaps partially as a result of being a late recipient of the incentive of LEED standards, which were initially applicable exclusively to commercial buildings. But if incentive was the missing link, home builders have it now, and just one company has gotten the platinum stamp.

Living Homes aims to revolutionize the homebuilding market. We mentioned them when the design was just an early concept, and later when the prototype was under construction. Now the model home is complete and ready to defend its rank as the greenest home on earth.

lhkitchen.jpg Founded by serial entrepreneur Steve Glenn, the venture breaks more than a few molds. You could call it a big zero – a building that yields zero impact on all dimensions: water, energy, etc. I would say that it is a harbinger of things to come in the residential real estate market.

First, its product is a prefab home, a unit whose parts are manufactured via a mass assembly process and snapped together almost like legos at the construction site. This is far more efficient than new manufacture: construction-related detritus constitutes 40 percent of the waste in landfills. Its modular nature also facilitates the process of adding rooms and living space with little to no waste so that the home can adjust to the changing needs of its owners without sacrificing its sustainable nature.

Don’t be fooled by the term ‘prefab.’ This isn’t one of those shoeboxes you might see riding down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck. Living Homes’ first unit – essentially a demo product that Glenn himself lives in – was designed by pioneering architect Ray Kappe. The aesthetic is breathtaking, something that you might expect to grace the cover of Dwell Magazine rather than the catalog of a typical homebuilder.

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Despite the design and efficiency of Living Homes, it's most notable for an unrelenting commitment to sustainability. The 4BR/3BA 2480 sq ft Kappe home was the first residence in the country to receive LEED for Homes platinum, the highest level of certification from the United States Green Building Council. Not bad for their very first product out of the gate.

Living Homes applies this sustainability ethos to almost every aspect of the home. The company exhibits its dizzying array of green features in a slick Flash media tour (complete with voiceover narration by CEO and chief homeowner Glenn) on their site. Some notable elements:


  • A greywater system that reclaims nearly all water used in the home and drives a complex predictive irrigation system that uses moisture controls and Internet-based weather telemetry to minimize the amount of water used on the drought tolerant plants that decorate the landscaping;
  • A Photovoltaic system mounted on a McDonough-style living roof that provides 75 percent of the power needs of the home, plus provides shade so you sit back and can admire the nifty rooftop garden of your favorite fruits and vegetables
  • An environmental monitoring system that constantly measures household water and electricity usage, enabling a real-time environmental scorecard

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As we green our lives, the home is a natural place for innovation. There will be lots of players in this space, but Living Homes has set the bar with its extraordinary product. Nevertheless, the home has received its share of criticism, largely for it luxurious, high-end package, which knocks affordability off the list of features to boast about. The expense irks critics for two reasons: One, the original mid-20th century prefabs were fundamentally about affordability and access to the average consumer, so for prefab purists, Living Homes betrays the founding mission. Perhaps more importantly, though, many sustainable building devotees believe that affordability is an indispensable element of being truly "green." In other words, if you are pricing out a huge segment of the market, you're not really sustainable. Both of these arguments are debatable, to be sure, and at Worldchanging we often justify pricey green design by reminding people that most innovative products hit the market at a price-point well outside most people's budget, and eventually demand drives down cost.

Hopefully this will be the case for Living Homes, because surely the rest of their sustainability agenda is a model to be replicated widely in residential housing. And no doubt everyone deserves to live in a home this green.

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Comments

Zero impact isn't quite the case with the home above. It may have lowered considerably the energy use of itself, but what of the energy use to source and refine all the materials that went into making it? The energy cost of manufacture needs to be taken into account. While it is not medium density -- necessary I would think in a sustainable world -- it is certainly better than a conventional suburban home.


Posted by: Barry Healey on 23 Feb 07

Barry, I wonder if this is a gap in the approach of these folks or first and foremost a gap in LEED. I am only now becoming familiar with the standard, so I am not sure yet how fully the impacts of manufacturing factor into its ranking system.

Perhaps someone else can shed light on this question? Would, for instance, a home which utilized the same footprint-minimizing technologies as this home (ie, the roof photovoltaic, the greywater system, etc) but utilized a system like PerformPanel (which blends concrete with postconsumer recycled styrofoam for injection into wall molds) beat out this house? Or would LEED even measure the foamcrete technology (aside from its insulative factors)?

- Heath


Posted by: Heath M Rezabek on 23 Feb 07

I can't help but wonder what the investment is in this home?


Posted by: Jude on 23 Feb 07

This is a great idea! However, for even more LEED credits, the Developer may want to think "outside" the box. There are LEED credits available to home builders that construct their driveways from pervious concrete, a non-proprietary material. If the design is properly done, many more credits are available.


Posted by: Don Wade on 24 Feb 07

This house is beautiful, no question. I think that it is safe to hope that the price will come down; for one thing, the house quickly gets more expensive as you add features like PV, the costs of which are beyond the company's control.
It's also worth noting that - sad to say - a house that starts at $250/ sq. ft. is not that extreme in Los Angeles.
The most significant criticism I have is that for a housing system designed to be flexible (isn't that the point of prefab/ modular?), there is no flexibility, at least on the website, for footprint. I personally don't want a 3,000+ square foot house. Can I pay half the price for half the size? Then we'd be getting somewhere...

I also agree with Barry - though certified sustainably grown is good, and makes a difference in far away economies where it is sourced, tropical hardwood decking (for example) has a looong carbon footprint.


Posted by: justus on 24 Feb 07

You know there is a competition where you could receive $19,000 to improve your ecological living. If you divide $19,000 by $250 those money would pay for 76 sq. fts. It's not a lot but better than nothing.
For those who are interested. It runs on ourecohouse.info and the rules are here


Posted by: Bobek on 28 Feb 07

I appreciate your comments about the Living Home. It works well in the climate it was designed for but I would suggest the design would run into considerable problems with our Canadian winters. I also want to remind readers that Canada is a global leader in building construction and some of the most innovative building research is happening right here in Canada. We are also developing a number of quality environmental building criteria tools in Canada which are excellent.We have options that are equal to or better than building criteria such as LEED Home. One of them is Built Green.

This is an environmental building standard making good headway in Western Canada. There are now in excess of 3,000 homes registered as Built Green - many to a Gold standard. To qualify for Built Green certification requires a third party audit. As a tool for builders Built Green offers flexibility of choice. Energy is reduced, water conserved, indoor health quality addressed, construction waste managed, and innovation encouraged. In Alberta it is managed by Enervision which is the non profit arm of the Alberta Home Builders Association. Calgary and Lethbridge have now endorsed the program. In the former, builders are offered a reduction on their building permits for using Built Green or an equivalent tool.

Built Green has now been aligned with EnerGuide and R2000 and is rapidly becoming the first potential Canadian standard as it has expanded into BC and has a constant stream of builders from across Canada coming to learn more. It is the objective of Built Green that one day the Equilibrium home standard might be aligned with Built Green as the highest designation possible.

Checkout www.builtgreencanada.ca

Tim


Posted by: Tim McLeod on 9 Mar 07



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