"We've spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand how people live in their homes," says Glenn. "As a result, we include a number of features that make it easy for homeowners to change and grow in their space." In the model house, these features include movable walls and a structural system that allows for an additional room to be added on the second level.
Every LivingHomes aims for at least a LEED-Silver rating. But a particularly effective combination of environmental systems pushed this first model house to the platinum level by scoring 91 out of a possible 109 points.
For starters, most of the electricity used in the house is produced by photovoltaic cells on the roof, while an active solar system heats the water. Inside, a radiant heating system in the concrete floor warms the space without needing a forced-air system that can spew dust and an assortment of contaminants.
Rainwater is collected and held in a 3,500-gallon (13,000-liter) cistern along with "gray water" from sinks and showers. It is then used to irrigate the patio and rooftop gardens and perimeter plantings of drought-tolerant plants and trees.
Attention to Materials
While over 70 percent of the exterior in this two-story house is glazed, Glenn says it stays remarkably cool during the summer. The trick is to provide overhangs for shading and plenty of openings for cross ventilation.
Polycarbonate, with three times the insulating properties of glass, and double-paned glass are used throughout the house. A "green roof" garden insulates the house in the winter and absorbs solar radiation to reduce the heat island effect during the hottest months of the year.
"The house is designed in a way so that lots of air can get through and shaded in ways so the sun doesn't wreak havoc on interior spaces," says Glenn. He should know having spent the entire summer working and living in the house. "The house fared much better than I expected. I never was hot if the windows were open."
LivingHomes installs only energy-efficient appliances and lights, uses low-emission finish materials, paints and stains that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and a steel structure that doesn't support mold growth. Only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council is used for millwork, ceilings, siding, and framing.
There are also a variety of interesting recycled materials including a countertop made from 100-percent postconsumer recycled paper. Luxury items, such as a built-in espresso maker, are optional.
Efficiency in Construction
According to LivingHomes, their prefabrication process is remarkably efficient in reducing waste. Only two percent ends up in landfills in contrast to the 40 percent for conventional construction. Factory assembly is also an excellent way to manage quality and streamline production.
The long-range plan for LivingHomes is that, as volume increases, prefabrication will also greatly reduce costs per unit. But for now the houses will sell for approximately $250 per square foot ($2690 per square meter) not including foundation, transportation, and installation, which can add about $70-90 per square foot ($755-970 per square meter). This totals less than the price of a custom-designed, sustainable, site-built house for this region but is not considered affordable for middle-income Americans.
Glenn acknowledges the LivingHomes price tag is above the median, but he predicts that the cost will go down as the demand for sustainable houses goes up. "We're starting by focusing on an extremely comprehensive environmental program, and taking the design to a level typically not seen in a prefab home," he says. "As we get better at this process, and as the cost of materials goes down, our costs will go down. We will absolutely be able to create a more affordable home and take it nationally."
Currently, LivingHomes has four configurations designed by Kappe with future plans created by respected green architect, David Hertz. There is also a small LivingHomes community being built on a 20-acre (8-hectare) desert site near Joshua Tree National Park.
Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...
Allison Milionis is a downtown Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering architecture and design, politics, and other goings-on around L.A.