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C H A P T E R

General Issues
in House Design

NE OF THE MISTAKES that home designers yes, even green home


designers make is failing to step back and look at the big picture. Instead, they quickly get into specifics about materials,
construction details, and which appliances to buy. A better idea is to
begin your design process by considering a number of broad, overarching issues. Whether you have hired a designer or are designing your
home yourself, begin with the big issues, then zero in on the details.
This chapter examines a few of these general issues, focusing on those
that can help to make your home environmentally friendly.

IS A STAND-ALONE, SINGLE-FAMILY
HOUSE WHAT YOU REALLY WANT?
Since the 1940s, the American dream has been the single-family home.
Billions of dollars in advertising, countless television shows, and a wide
range of government policies have fueled our desire for that brandspanking-new, single-family suburban home. For many, this image is
rounded out by a shiny SUV parked in the driveway out front, a Sunday
afternoon on the riding lawnmower, and a backyard deck looking out
on their own little piece of paradise. Indeed, there is much to be said
for owning a single-family home on its own lot. You have privacy. You
and your family make the decisions about how your house looks, how
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its landscaped, and the protection provided by your little oasis. Youre
in charge.
But lets take a look at some of the alternatives. As was noted in the
last chapter, green building is partly about building strong, vibrant
communities. We are seeing more and more housing projects today in
which the goal is not the single-family, stand-alone home located as far
away as possible from neighboring homes. Were rediscovering that
closer association with neighbors can be a good thing. Were hearing
about cohousing and other developments where homes, or multi-family housing units, are clustered together on just a small portion of the
site, and most of the land is kept as open, undisturbed land.
Clustering buildings is environmentally beneficial for many reasons. More land can be kept open and available for natural vegetation
and wildlife, the area devoted to driveways can be reduced, less disturbance is required for buried utilities (sewer pipes, underground cables,
etc.), and direct site impacts during construction can be reduced
because a single staging area can serve a number of houses. With more
people living closer together, public transit and shared transit are more
feasible. As you begin to think about your dream home, at least give
some thought to whether you really want a house all by itself, or
FIGURE 4.1The American image of an ideal suburban home is quite different than the
ideal green home.

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FIGURE 4.2By clustering houses, driveways can be shared, excavation costs for utilities
can be reduced, and open space can be protected.

whether a house that creates or contributes to a sense of community


might be part of your vision.

HOW BIG A HOUSE DO YOU NEED?


The bigger the better, right? Isnt that a part of the American dream?
The average US home has more than doubled in size since 1950, growing from about 1,000 square feet to 2,340 square feet in 2004. This has
happened even as the average family size has shrunk by one-fourth,
from about 3.4 in 1950 to 2.6 in 2004. Todays homes provide, on average, three times as much square footage per family member (290 in
1950, 900 in 2004). In fact, some of the largest homes being built today
are for empty nesters, couples whose children have left the home and
who are at the top of their money-earning potential.
Whats wrong with this picture? Plenty. The bigger a house, the bigger its environmental impacts. Almost all building materials, even those
we call green, have environmental costs associated with manufacture and
shipping. And energy consumption is, to a significant extent, proportional to house size. So building smaller is better.

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Early in the design process, carefully consider how big a house you
need. Try to design the house to use space efficiently. This may mean
investing more money in design, since its a challenge to create smaller spaces that work well. Chances are, however, that any extra
investment you make in design to optimize space in your house will
more than pay for itself, since a smaller, more compact house usually
costs less to build and operate. Downsizing the house allows you to
incorporate higher-quality products, additional amenities, and a higher level of craftsmanship. Wouldnt you rather have hardwood flooring
with natural finish instead of plywood subflooring and petroleum-based
wall-to-wall carpeting, or ceramic tile flooring in the bathroom instead
of sheet vinyl?
Some people decide to build a large house to provide for future
expansion: in-laws moving in, for example, or a home office. While it
certainly makes sense to design for planned family expansion (a recently married couple planning for children, say), when it comes to
unplanned but possible down-the-road space needs, it usually makes
more sense to keep the house smaller sized to your current needs
but design it to facilitate easy expansion.

DESIGN FOR DURABILITY


No matter what type of house you build, there will be substantial environmental impacts associated with its construction from the
embodied energy in the materials, to the solid waste generated on the
construction site. The longer your house lasts, the longer the period of
time over which those impacts will be amortized, or spread out.
How do you design a house to be durable? First and foremost, the
house should hold up well to the elements. This means choosing designs
and construction details that are resistant to rainfall, humidity, heavy
snowfall, flooding, intense sunshine, or other conditions that may be
experienced in your climate. In climates with more than 20 inches of
rainfall annually, it means designing with special attention to water
management for example, sizeable roof overhangs; ground sloping
away from the house; and capillary breaks on the foundation footings
and exterior foundation walls, and beneath floor slabs. It means choosing materials that will hold up for a long time, sometimes even if those
materials arent what would be considered the greenest (see Chapter 8).
Another requisite for a durable house is a durable design the
idea of timeless architecture. Try to create a house whose style will

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hold up well over the decades, or even centuries. Avoid trendy styles
that are likely to lose popularity when the next fad comes along. Some
of the trendy designs from the 1960s, for example, did poorly on several counts when it came to durability. You wont find many 30-year-old
geodesic domes or yurts; most of those that didnt rot out due to poor
detailing have been torn down to make way for more traditional
durable designs.

DESIGN FOR ACCESSIBILITY AND ADAPTABILITY


Like it or not, most of us are getting older. In designing houses for the
long term, consider providing handicapped accessibility. Creating
entries, kitchens, bathrooms, and other spaces that can be used by
wheelchair-bound individuals is referred to as universal design. If the
home youre planning is likely to be the one you retire in, universal
design is a high priority.
Needs change in other ways, too. Families grow larger, or the kids
may grow up and leave the nest. You might start a home business that
requires significant space. Houses that are designed to be adaptable to
the evolving needs of their occupants are likely to be around longer.
FIGURE 4.3Accessible design calls for wider doors, a way to get into the house without
stairs, key services on the first floor, and sinks that can be used by someone in a wheelchair.

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If interior spaces can be reconfigured easily with little actual construction, youll save money, and environmental burdens will be lower.
Perhaps a less-used part of the house can be closed off and require less
heating and air conditioning. Some houses are being built today with
moveable partitions or room dividers, so that some reconfiguring of
spaces can be done with almost no effort. Providing a moveable partition between a small dining room and a family room, for example,
might allow the space to be opened up on those rare occasions when
large family gatherings or neighborhood get-togethers are held.
If an addition is likely down the road, pay special attention to the
layout of the kitchen and other key rooms. Some starter homes are
designed so that they can be added onto very easily with only minimal
disruption to the house layout.
To reduce the cost and impacts of future additions or modifications,
have your builder keep careful photographic records as construction
proceeds. If your builder doesnt want to do this, bring a camera yourself during construction. Take photos, for example, of open wall cavities
after plumbing and wiring have been run, but before drywall has been
installed. Key all of the photos to specific locations on the house plans
so that you will know exactly what youre looking at. Keep the photos,
photo key, and house plans together in a binder. Down the road, when
you need to cut an opening through a wall or modify the plumbing for
a new bathroom, you can refer to these photos and figure out exactly
where you need to open up the wall with minimal disturbance. If a leak
develops in a wall, such photos can be invaluable in finding and repairing it.

HOUSE CONFIGURATION
What should the basic shape of your house be? Should it be tall and
boxy? Low and spread out? Long and narrow, or roughly square? These
are fundamental questions that will have very significant ramifications
as to how your house is designed, what resources go into building it,
how well it fits into its site, whether passive solar heating can play an
important role in heating it, and how easy it will be to keep cool.
Thinking about the house configuration early in the design process
makes a lot of sense.
As the examples in Figure 4.4 demonstrate, a fairly tall, boxy house
has less surface area for a given volume of space and thus wont lose
heat as quickly in cold weather since there is less wall area to lose

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that heat through. A tall, boxy house also has less roof area to absorb
sunlight, leading to savings in air conditioning bills. The boxy house
will also use less material in its construction.
FIGURE 4.4 A tall, boxy house has less surface area relative to the square footage of floor,
so it will require less heating and air conditioning.

FIGURE 4.5 To optimize passive solar heating, the longer axis of the house should be oriented east-west, providing more area for south-facing windows.

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On the other hand, the low house with more complex geometry
may be better suited to passive solar heating and natural daylighting,
and it may be a more interesting house visually. It can also lend itself
better to outdoor living space (patios, decks, porches), thus providing
inexpensive additional living area, especially in temperate climates
where such spaces can be enjoyed over a long season. In the American
Great Plains, a low house also has the advantage of being more protected from heavy winds and tornadoes.
From a solar heating standpoint, a long, narrow house, with the
long dimension running east-west, usually makes the most sense. This
way, there is more room to put windows on the south side of the house,
to help heat it during the winter months. And because east and west
windows transmit significantly more solar gain (net heat from sunlight)
during the summer months than south-facing windows, they contribute more to overheating. Thus, having less east- and west-facing
wall area can help to control air conditioning costs. (See Chapters 6 and
7 for more on energy design.)

WHAT ABOUT AN ATTACHED GARAGE?


If you plan to build a garage, should it be an integral part of the
house, as is the case with most suburban houses? Should it be attached
but with just one common wall? Or should it be kept totally separate?
FIGURE 4.6From an indoor air quality standpoint, a garage should be separate from the
house; if thats not possible, the common walls must be extremely well-sealed.

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This is one of the many areas where green building requires a careful trade-off between conflicting issues. The integral garage is the most
resource-efficient choice, since it requires the least additional material to
build, but it also results in the greatest risk to homeowners from an air
quality standpoint. Automobile exhaust leaking into the house from an
attached garage is one of the most significant indoor air quality problems in many homes.
If the site allows it, a totally detached garage is usually the best
option. In a climate with inclement weather, consider an open, covered
walkway between the house and garage, but try to keep the garage separate. If that just isnt possible, try to have just a single common wall
between the house and garage, and provide a very tight air seal in this
wall. Avoid designs in which the house surrounds the garage, as it will
be much harder to keep fumes out of the house. (See Chapter 9.)

OTHER DESIGN ISSUES


Some general design issues that should be considered early in the
design process are not covered in this book, for example, the style of
house. Many of these issues relate to personal tastes and the local real
estate market. Your Green Home will not debate the relative merits of
a raised-ranch vs. a Prairie style vs. a New England saltbox. Thats up
to you and your designer.
Other broad design issues will be covered in other chapters of this
book, particularly Chapters 5, 6, and 7, which address the structural
building system, energy-efficient design, and renewable energy.
As you begin getting into the more detailed design strategies in
the following chapters, keep in mind the broad issues covered in this
chapter. By controlling the overall house size, for example, you may be
able to pay for higher-cost green features such as solar power. By thinking about the relationship between the house and garage early on, you
can save a lot of time further along in the design process. Start with
the big-picture issues, then move to the specifics.

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