It's Not Easy Being Green
 -by Lynn Becker

A new, AIA award-winning Chicago house brings sustainable design to the old neighborhood.

To paraphrase Monty Python's Dennis Moore,
"This whole green architecture thing is trickier than I thought!" (originally published in slightly different form under the title  "What's Red and White and Green All Over?" in the Chicago Reader, May 7, 2004)



Related Links

  American Institute of Architects
  Chicago Architecture Foundation

  Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis
  Factor 10 House

  Greencorps Chicago
  Green Homes for Chicago
    (Adobe Acrobat File)

  Krueck & Sexton 
  Neighborhood Housing Services

It's hard to put your finger on it, but there's definitely something a bit odd about that new red house. It works hard to fit in with its older Hermosa neighbors and is built to the usual scale - two stories and an attic. But where's the pitched roof? Where's the bay window? The shingled siding? And why's it painted red?

On April 22, the little red house was named one of the 2004 Top Ten Green Projects by the American Institute of Architects. The only Chicago entry on the list, it was designed by architect Marc L'Italien, of the Chicago office of Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis. (Local architects Krueck & Sexton were also cited, for their green renovation of a 1974 Herman Miller office building in Zeeland, Michigan.)

It's called the Factor 10 House, one of five winning designs in a national competition sponsored by Chicago's housing and environment departments in 2000 as part of the city's Green Homes for Chicago initiative. Three of the homes are in Englewood, two in Hermosa. To develop the properties and find buyers, the city turned to Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, whose mission is to replenish the city's stock of low-to-middle income housing. NHS held open houses last summer to allow potential buyers to tour the homes.
"I think there were over 50 applications," says Annette Conti, a construction specialist at NHS.

Since Green Homes for Chicago was also coupled to the Affordable Homes for
Chicago program, the most a house could be sold for was $145,000. That's substantially below the cost to build each house and doesn't even include the value of the lots, which were donated by the city. "The base house was a $115,000 house," says L'Italien. "As time went on, that number became very unrealistic-because the base price to do an affordable house in Chicago went up. To do a green affordable house, it became almost impossible. They wanted to include what they called the 'green upgrades package 'of an additional $10,000. Ours was in what they called the 'cutting-edge' category-that was an additional $50,000. So back in the year 2000 our budget was $175,000." Funding for the difference between the cost and the selling price came out of the money the city got after it sued Com Ed over the 1998 blackouts.

Plunking down sustainable architecture in a big city requires balancing cutting-edge technology with the visual traditions of a neighborhood, doing the right thing with living in the real world. "You don't look at this house and think, oh god, this is some weird house," says L'Italien. "It fits in, but it doesn't fit in by having to slavishly follow silly historic reproductions and ornamentations."

The "Factor 10" name derives from the fact that the house's environmental impact is a tenth that of a conventionally constructed new home. How do they pull it off?

Start with materials. The foundation and basement are made not from the usual Portland cement, but from a concrete that includes fly ash, a waste product from coal-fired power plants. The lumber comes from sustainable forests. The walls are superinsulated with cellulose made from recycled paper. The carpeting is made from recycled plastic.

Reducing operating costs also plays a big role in getting to the factor 10. Energy and water consumption is minimized There's no central air, which can be a big energy hog, especially when people leave it on even when they're not home to make sure the house is cool the moment they step into the door. Clerestory windows in the "attic" top off a solar chimney that channels natural light down into the living spaces, painted white for better reflection. In the winter the chimney collects warm air, which a fan blows back down to heat the rooms. In the summer a whole-house fan draws hot, stagnant air up and out of the house, helping to get the summer breezes flowing freely through the open plan first floor.

On the north wall, rows of sealed water bottles form a kind of heat sink, sucking up heat during the day and releasing it at night. Each bottle sit in its own aluminum bottle rack, like you'd find on a bicycle, individually screwed into the wall. "Our original intent was to use dark, recycled glass bottles," says L'Italien. "But we would have had to acquire the bottles, we would have had to put the water in them, and we were warned about the possibility of algae growth. So we were told to use a bottle that had been sealed in a factory controlled environment." The contractor got the job of steaming off all the labels.

The Chicago Greencorps, which operates out of the Center for Green Technology, did much of the landscaping. "Greencorps is a training program," says Conti. "They train people to do landscaping and then work on sites like ours and other sites throughout the city, developing vacant land into small neighborhood parks. In the case of the EHDD property, they requested fescue grass. A lot of people put in sod, but the fescue is hardy, and it doesn't require the watering that a Kentucky bluegrass would. They created a French drain for runoff. It's like a holding cage, so that we don't send that water to the sewer." The main roof is planted with sedum, a flowering plant; which with its soil insulates the roof, absorbing heat instead of pumping it into the interior, and retaining water that helps, as it evaporates, to cool the house. Inside, the plumbing fixtures are low-flow; the toilets dual-flush - half a flush for number one, full flush for number two.

Factor 10 was designed. less to meet the current appetites of the market, than to redefine them, even if that involves some gentle social engineering. It has only 1,200 square feet of finished space, plus an unfinished, 600-square foot basement. "We thought we could be much more efficient with the space by keeping it smaller," explains L'Italien. "We wanted it to be very small and compact, and it led us to a lot of things in the design that caused it to feel a lot bigger. People really don't need these big houses that they're building today. You can get by with a lot less." Building smaller also lets you fudge a bit when calculating that factor of ten in environmental savings. “When we compare it to the average house built in America today,” concedes L'Italien, “it’s not the average affordable house built in America today. It’s the average normal house. Way bigger.”

There's a "parking pad" in the backyard, but, unlike most of its neighbors, there's no garage, even though 80 percent of all new houses have at least a two-car garage. The central problem of the automobile has been sidestepped by pretending it doesn't exist.

"A lot of people would view it as a sacrifice," L'Italien says of the Factor 10 lifestyle (Just think of having to dust all those bottles.). "A lot of people are
willing to live like this, but for some people it would never be acceptable."

Factor 10 is the smallest of the five houses. Like the other four, it was intended for a family of up to five people, but it has only a single occupant. "We don't discriminate on family size," says Conti. The current owner was the first person to qualify, so he was first in line to buy the house. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but L'Italien recently talked to him, and reports he's quite happy with this choice.

And why is it red? "We figured that we needed a strong contrasting color to the white windows,” says L'Italien, “and because the house has such a small stature on the street, it needed a big presence with its color. It really relates to some of the darker, deeper red brick buildings that you see at Chicago street corners.”

If anything, Factor 10's exterior evokes the smaller, humbler cottages that preceded its gabled, bay-windowed, broad-porched neighbors. It's bracing simplicity stands in stark contrast to the "load-em-up-to the-lot-line" cinder-block battleships that are scarring gentrifying communities like East Village.

For some, however, the Factor 10 House may seem too plain, too neutral.
In a world in dire need of good green designs, its street presence is a little too staid and subtle to make it a forceful advertisement for the cause. Of the
thousands of new residential units projected to be completed in Chicago this year, five houses that took over three years to complete aren't even a drop in the bucket. The mass market is the real arena, and the green house is still trying to figure out how to get on the scorecard. Should it stand out or fit in? Meet halfway the American appetite for the ever bigger, the ever more mechanized, or press for a change in heart? Factor 10 is more an etude than a solution, but it's a big, graceful step in the right direction.

On June 5th, a tour of the Factor 10 House will be offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation as part of its Big & Green Chicago exhibition. $15.00 for CAF members and members of the Field Museum, $20.00 for the general public. C
all 312-922-3432 ex. 918 for information and reservations.


© Copyright 2004 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.