Sustainability requires Disentanglement

There’s nothing more important in homebuilding than finding the solution to making sustainable, affordable, high performance homes the norm. If we’re ever going to get there, we need to recognize the inherent tensions and conflicts, and then overcome those obstacles by developing new strategies in design, building and financing. To put it simply, if we really want a better result, we need to do a whole lot of things differently.

These following two slides are intended to illustrate how some of those differences might be put in perspective in order to implement new approaches. In the first one, you will see the Open Building concept, with the separation of the shell (Green) from the Infill (Blue).

The shell has its own separated layers that also must be taken into account, but the important consideration is that its performance requirements must be matched by longevity. Better buildings consume more energy and resources in their construction and therefore need a longer period to account for the embodied energy and resource use. I see no reason why 250 years shouldn’t be a normal goal and expectation for the average home. Right here in New England, we have tens of thousands of examples that prove such a time period is reasonable.

The shell has public aspects that are often controlled by public or community agencies for multiple reasons. Its energy consumption has public and environmental impacts, the structural qualities are a matter of public safety (need we be reminded by the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile?), and even exterior style and material selections are often controlled to maintain local character.

The infill elements should be much more controllable by the occupants during the multi-generational life span of the building. Because of this, the most important short and long term consideration becomes two-fold:

1. That the infill layers should be executed in such a way to give the occupants the flexibility to fit the interior out to suit their needs and desires, both initially and through the decades and centuries.
2. That the initial infill needs don’t unduly compromise the quality of the shell.

OB LayersThat leads to the second slide.

Here you will see some of the Miyasaka-san’s ideas as referenced in my earlier post. Again, green is the shell; blue is the infill. The entire length of the bar is the whole cost of the completed building with all its amenities and finishes–that is, fully “tricked out.”

The shell should have very little variation in quality and therefore its relative requirements and budget can’t easily be compromised. These needs ought to be supported by tax incentives and a completely different financing program.
Parts of Europe have long had these kinds of incentive programs. My friend Stephen Kendall, who is a leading scholar and advocate of Open Building strategies, pointed out to me that Japan now has a “long building life” program to develop residential buildings with a 200 year standard. The new law was passed in the Upper House of the Japanese Parliament in October 2008. According to Minami Kazunobu of the Shibaura Institute of Technology, the incentive works this way:

“The client can apply for tax reductions and can receive subsidies by designing and building a house which complies with the new law and technical guidelines. Specific incentive measures have been implemented. 1) When a person has purchased or constructed and occupied long life-span superior housing from 2009 to 2011, the person is exempt from income tax up to a maximum value of 6 million yen over a ten year period according to the balance of the person’s housing loan at the end of each year. 2) When a person has purchased or constructed and occupied long life-span superior housing, the person receives an income tax exemption equal to 10% of the construction cost which exceeds that of ordinary housing (limited to 10 million yen). 3) The fixed asset tax on long life-span superior housing is reduced by 1/2 for two years longer than in the case of ordinary housing.”

high performance strategyIt can be done!

Along with a new approach to achieve the “long life” shell, we need a new approach to develop the systems and approaches for the ever-changing infill elements in order to accommodate the lives of the generations of inhabitants. It’s on this side of the bar where budget flexibility and inhabitant participation are critical. The blue side should not require expensive specialists. Instead DIY systems, para-professional designers and installers, and new infill system companies should control the fast-churn side of the bar. I also envision an active second-hand market for infill elements, including modular partitions and other demountable elements.

If we’re going to achieve any of this, disentanglement must be one of the New House Rules. The shell (theater) must be disentangled from the infill (stage); the structure must be disentangled from the space plan; the space plan must be disentangled from the mechanical systems; the mechanical systems must be disentangled from each other; and each of newly disentangled layer must have access and demountability in relation to its expected life span or need for change.

–21st century homes should be durable to the tune of multiple centuries.
–21st century homes should not chew up energy; they should require little and make what they need.
–21st century homes should adapt to the lives of their occupants, continuously.

Such homes are possible right now.

Our own Open-Builtsystems, strategies and philosophy are intended to lead the way and prove that the future of homebuilding can be brought to the present.

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