Posts Tagged ‘Energy Efficiency’

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Barns to Bauhaus: Aspen’s Significance in Architecture

April 29, 2011

I have moved from San Francisco to Carbondale, Colorado. As I have explained to my California friends, it’s not in a howling wilderness.

This fine Queen Anne style house, built in 1888, now houses the Wheeler / Stallard Museum and the Aspen Historical Society. Photo by Samantha Toberman.

It’s just down the road from Aspen, home of the famed Aspen Institute, Aspen Music Festival, Aspen’s International Design Conference and the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Once a silver mining town, Aspen was reborn after WWII as a retreat that sought to nurture mind, body and spirit. That’s the “Aspen idea,” and it made the little mountain town an international crossroads for ideas, arts and architecture. I have long felt called to come back here.

And so I returned to my home state just in time for Colorado Architecture Month.

I can almost hear my West Coast friends chuckling. Colorado architecture? What the heck is that?

I recently listened to some bright folks wrestling with that very question. The occasion was an American Institute of Architects (AIA) event called “Aspen’s Significant Architecture, Past, Present and Future.”

Aspen Interfaith Chapel, designed by architects George Edward Heneghan and Daniel Gale, pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright in its use of natural materials.

During the evening, Aspen architects Willis Pember, Suzannah Reid and Harry Teague gamely picked out a number of Aspen area buildings that could warrant that “significant” moniker. While applauding their choices, I also found myself fretting over a major omission. Since I couldn’t very well climb onto the stage and add my two cents, I will use this post to nominate a few buildings of my own – and to point out why Aspen and its little Colorado valley have a golden opportunity to play a significant, and even crucial role, in contemporary architecture.

But bit of background is in order first.

A Climate for Change

Christ Episcopal Church, designed by Francis Stanton. The church’s renovation, by Studio B, received three regional awards and will receive a fourth national award in May, 2011. Photo by Raul Garcia.

As Harry Teague told the AIA’s audience, a distinctive regional architectural style usually arises out a combination of cultural influences and climate. Traditional, pre-architectural buildings around the world provide plenty of examples.

For example, Islamic culture – specifically the Muslim prohibition against depicting the human form – influenced the handsome, geometric (and cooling!) tile that adorns homes in Morocco. A Zen aesthetic influences Japanese homes and temples.

Climate gave rise to New England’s salt box houses with their long, asymmetrical, wind-breaking roofs. It was also the impetus behind India’s bungalows. There, people do most of their living on deeply shaded porches that surround a central courtyard. The roofless courtyard creates a “stack effect” that allows sweltering heat to exhale upward and ventilate the home’s living quarters.

Back to the Future

Now, as human activities threaten to undermine the ecosystems that support us, architects who are interested in sustainable building have begun to plumb traditional, pre-architectural dwellings for inspiration. Before modern engineering harnessed fossil fuels and nuclear reactors, no one imagined creating buildings that would have to be scaled by elevators or lit by electric lights. Our ancestors couldn’t import exotic materials from afar, or fill their homes with electronic devices, or create landscapes that were alien to the local climate. With no option but to use local materials and to adapt to the weather, they built green and came up with some impressive passive heating and cooling strategies.

Amory Lovins’s energy-efficiency demonstration home at Snowmass. Photo courtesy of Judy Hill Lovins.

At the turn of the 20th century, cheap fuel transformed building technology and gave rise to modern architecture.

Today, residential and commercial buildings, taken together, use 76 percent of all electricity produced in the US. The architectural sector consumes “a whopping 48 percent of total US energy consumption,” according to architect Edward Mazria, author of a ground-breaking 2003 article called “It’s the Architecture, Stupid.” In that article, which was published in Solar Today, Mazria argued convincingly that it is architects who hold “the key to the lock on the global thermostat.”

Although still too few of them know this, one thing is certain: our use (and abuse) of energy will transform architecture all over again in the 21st century.

Considering the stakes involved in climate change, I was surprised that the Aspen architects neglected to include Amory Lovins’ green home at Snowmass in their survey of significant local buildings.

I was doubly surprised when the whole issue of sustainability – not just energy, but water, climate and air quality – rated scarcely a mention.

Aspen Influences: Buckminster, Barns and Bauhaus

As Willis Pember noted during the AIA event, Colorado’s vernacular buildings include mining structures, ranches and barns, log cabins, and the Victorians that were in vogue when the 1879 silver rush peopled the place with white folks. (Truth be told, Ute Indians settled the region eight centuries before all this happened. But the Utes lived a nomadic lifestyle and their wikiups weren’t meant to last.)

Given Institute. Photo: City of Aspen files.

Silver mining faded and Aspen, which was first called “Ute City”, struggled through the Great Depression. At the end of WWII, the town was a bit dilapidated, but it still had a newspaper, an opera house, a post office and the iconic Hotel Jerome. The west side was filled with Queen Anne and Victorian homes, and in 1941, a downhill and slalom championship breathed new life into the town. The east side and modern architecture got a big boost when architects Fritz Benedict and Bauhaus-trained Herbert Bayer arrived in the mid 1940s.

During the 1950s as the Aspen ski resort began to grow, a few Bauhaus-style modern residences were built. Among these avant garde structures were Frederick “Fritz” Benedict’s Hallam Lake residence, built for novelist John Marquand, and the “Waterfall” house he built for D. V. Edmundson. Both houses have been demolished.

Victor Lundy modern house. Photo by VRBO rentals.

A similar fate may soon befall another mid-century modern Aspen landmark, the Given Institute for Pathobiology, which was designed by distinguished Chicago modernist Harry Weese. (It’s owned by my alma mater, the University of Colorado, which wants to sell it – or more precisely, the land on which it stands – because CU is strapped for money.)

Aspen also felt the west wind blowing in from California, picking up influences that ranged from Yosemite’s famed 1927 Ahwahnee Lodge to Buckminster Fullerton’s geodesic domes, plus a dose of Haight-Ashbury-type weirdness in the form of buildings erected by Chip Lord’s Ant Farm avant-garde architectural and media group. They were the folks who planted all those Cadillacs in the ground. (Oh yeah, I’m right at home here!)

Aspen Music Festival tent designed by architect Harry Teague. Photo: Harry Teague Architects.

Among the modern buildings the panel named as being significant were architect Victor Lundy’s house (still standing and used as a vacation rental), the Aspen Interfaith Chapel, the Aspen Bank, the Institute for Physics and the Aspen Institute. The three tents used by the Aspen Music Festival, designed by Eero Saarinen, Herbert Bayer and Harry Teague, also merited nomination.

Among the as-yet-to-be-built modern buildings that promise to be significant is the new Aspen Art Museum. Plans for the 30,000 square foot building have been drawn up by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. (I’m happy to note that the new AAM will be built green, and it will exceed LEED standards.)

Nicolette’s Picks for Significant Architecture

No one asked me, but I’m going to nominate a few more buildings as being significant.

Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, designed by architect Jeff Dickinson.

The first, already mentioned, is the Amory Lovins home. Located in Snowmass, about nine miles from Aspen, the Lovins’ residence was built in 1983 to be an energy-saving showplace. Judy Hill Lovins, who I met at the AIA event, told me that the house recently received an award recognizing it as the spark that lit the international Passivhaus movement. (Lovins’ house is now being remodeled with the goal of burning no fossil fuels.)

Another of my favorite local buildings is the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, located about 25 miles from Aspen. As regular readers know, I’m a fan of straw bale building. The insulating quality of the walls creates a deep, contemplative hush inside the house while also providing thermal insulation. The walls can be shaped into curves or angles that hold deep-set windows, and they can be used to create stunningly handsome buildings. I love the Waldorf School’s roof line and the way its angles echo the mountains that surround it.

Rammed Earth house features zinc roofing atop the rammed earth structure, Japanese Zen gardens, eco fireplaces and gorgeous views. Photo via Huffington Post.

My third pick is a rammed earth solar house that captured my imagination when I read about it in a blog called Carrie’s Design Musings.  Designed by Studio B Architects and built by Quentin Branch, it’s the first – and only – rammed earth home in Aspen. Rammed earth building has been around for hundreds of years; to make rammed earth, the builder compresses a mixture of damp earth with sand, gravel, clay or cement.

The process was used to build the Great Wall of China and pyramids in Mexico, and this house is only slightly less humble. It has won three awards and has been featured in Elle Decor, as well as in Carrie’s blog. It’s for sale – for just $10.8 million. (Take a look at the photos in Carrie’s “My Aspen Love Affair” post; the interior by Larry Laslo is also stunning.)

My Own Love Affair with Aspen and her Valley

I have known and loved Aspen for decades. I grew up hiking and skiing in the area. In my teens, I graduated from the Outward Bound wilderness school in nearby Marble. After my first year at CU in Boulder, disillusioned and wondering what Beowulf had to do with the rest of my life, I dropped out to find meaning. I sought it in Aspen, and wound up living the Roaring Fork Valley for a year.

The Holden/Marolt historic barn, owned and maintained by the Aspen Historical Society, houses a ranching and mining museum. It’s available for event rentals. Photo: Aspen Historical Society.

What appealed to me about Aspen years ago is what appeals to me again: the stunning setting, the town’s walkability, its sense of history, its artsy feel and its scale. (The AIA panelists, who included local entrepeneur George Stranahan, builder Steve Hansen, and Amy Guthrie of the Aspen Historic Preservation Commission, were chuckling over whether three stories would be too much on Main Street!)

In many ways, Aspen reminds me of Mendocino, California, a small town perched prettily above the Pacific. It’s similarly filled with artists, artisans, hippies and holiday makers, and it has taken similar pains to preserve its Victorian-era architecture. Like Mendocino, Aspen is filled with folks who love the setting, and who by extension, want to preserve the natural environment.

But arguably, what has set Aspen apart is its devotion to ideas. Aspen, and by extension much of the Roaring Fork Valley, is a place where leading thinkers come to converse and solve the vexing problems of our day. It’s a cultural crossroads, a place where Albert Schweitzer, Arthur Rubinstein, Mortimer Adler and Ansel Adams have all come to speak and perform. The place has attracted presidents, statesmen, diplomats, judges, ambassadors, and Nobel laureates.

That’s why I think that it’s not enough for Aspen’s architecture to be attractive or avant garde. This is a place that matters, a spot filled with people worthy of taking on a significant challenge. And heaven knows, we certainly have one before us.

Sketch of a historic barn on Four Mile Road in the Roaring Fork Valley. I sketched this during a snowy visit at Christmastime. I was wearing gloves at the time!

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Resource Links

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Of Green Lighting and Felonious Filaments

April 1, 2010

Prima Lighting's Titan Collection Mini-Pendant "Sahara." Dimensions Diameter: 5.61" Height: 5.26" 12 volt; light bulb is 50W T5 GY6.35 12v Xelogen. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

I have seen the light! Specifically, I saw quite a few beautiful and energy-efficient lights recently when I happened into Opus Lights, a new, green lighting boutique in San Francisco.

Energy-efficient lighting sure isn’t what it used to be. Fluorescent lights used to be ugly, noisy, harsh, and undimmable while LEDs were dim and homely. But no more!

Perhaps you want a beautiful, artisan-quality energy-efficient pendant light for your newly remodeled kitchen? That’s no problem. Need a dimmable CFL that doesn’t hum? Okey dokey!

Need a bright, white but low-voltage light to showcase diamonds in a store display? Got it! Want a CFL that will cast a rosy glow on customers in your cosmetics studio? Sure thing! Nowadays, low-energy lights come in different shades of white, and the color can vary over a wide range of possibilities.

As you might have guessed, this post will be devoted to beautiful, energy-efficient lighting, and I will be highlighting several suppliers.

Dim Bulbs and Bright Ideas

Prima Lighting's "Sinclair" in blue flake. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Prima Tublix low-energy mini-pendant lamp. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Trista Pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Clarity Zenon pendant from Pegasus. This 12-volt halogen quick connect mini pendant light includes glass shade, a quick connect canopy, and the bulb for about $185. Dimmer sold separately. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Ether halogen pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

I’m prompted to write about this topic not only because of the stunning lighting options I have recently seen, but also to mark two important dates:

  • Saturday, March 27, the third worldwide Earth Hour
  • July 1, 2010 – the day when California’s Title 24 energy legislation goes into effect, significantly changing how we in the Golden State light kitchens in both new and remodeled homes.

I also want to award an official Bronx Cheer to the dim bulbs who created the retro-lighting craze in New York restaurants. It seems that quite a few restaurants have made a point of installing energy-guzzling Edison bulbs as part of a design fad; supposedly they are sending a message about style and the old-fashioned goodness of their food.

According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, if every American home replaced just one Edison incandescent with a standard CFL, in just one year, the nation would:

  • Save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes,
  • Save over $600 million in annual energy costs, and
  • Prevent as much greenhouse gas as would be emitted by 800,000 cars.

What’s in California’s Title 24

The old-fashioned “Edison style” light bulb was banned in the European Union several years ago. The US federal government will mandate more efficient bulbs beginning in 2012. As of that date, all new bulbs will use 25 to 30 percent less energy to produce the same light output as today’s typical incandescent bulbs.

Compared to the EU, California has been slow off the mark when it comes to the push for energy-efficient lighting. Our Title 24, which will become the strictest state-enforced energy code in the US when it goes into effect, was first written in 1978 (!) in response to the energy crisis. California’s current standards went into effect in October, 2005, and the new ones were supposed to take effect last August. They were pushed back and will finally kick in on July 1 of this year (2010).

Here’s what they will require of home owners who are remodeling or buying new property:

  • “Edison bulbs” (incandescent lighting) will be allowed in most rooms, if the lights are controlled by a dimmer switch or a sensor that turns them off when no one is in the room.
  • Outdoor light fixtures will need to use energy efficient bulbs or to be controlled by light and motion sensors.
  • At least half of your kitchen lighting – as measured in Watts – will have to come from energy-efficient light fixtures (generally meaning those using CFL or LED bulbs).

Title 24: Tough in Kitchens?

California has a worksheet for evaluating whether the balance of energy-efficient versus old-fashioned, inefficient Watts in a kitchen meet Title 24 standards. The first time I tried to fill out the form, I found it surprisingly difficult! It’s not that the form is unclear, or that the math is difficult. It’s just that the new forms of lighting are so much more efficient, it’s hard to strike a 50/50 balance. To equal the energy consumption of three small of Edison pendants, you wind up lighting the rest of the room like the Eiffel Tower!

A compact fluorescent is roughly 75% more efficient than a Edison bulb that puts out the same amount of light. It’s a bit confusing to think about, mostly because we are accustomed to mentally weighing the amount of light in watts. I know, for example, that I need at least at 75 watts for reading, and that a 40-Watt bulb is too dim.

But that wattage scale is pretty much history now, because an 11-Watt CFL puts out almost as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent. To make a meaningful comparison, you need to look at the light measured in lumens. (I have included a handy table below that will help you do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s what California’s Title 24 requires for kitchens:

  • Kitchen lighting requirements remain much the same as current codes, with the added provision that internal cabinet lighting cannot exceed 20 watts per linear foot of cabinet space.
  • Your low-energy and incandescent lights must be wired on separate circuits.

These standards, by the way, apply to permanently installed fixtures and not to plug-in lamps.

It’s Easy to Do the Right Thing

The good news about the changing California, US, and European standards is how easy it is to comply. Since energy-efficient bulbs have a longer lifespan than Edison bulbs (if you don’t buy the cheap Chinese versions that sometimes get dumped on the US market), the long-term savings should more than make up for the short-term expense of upgrading your lighting.

Prima low-energy wall sconces

Low-energy wall sconce from Prima Lighting. Photo courtesy of Prima Lighting.

It’s even easy to retrofit those recessed, round, can-style lights in your ceiling without rewiring them. The good folks at Opus Lights showed me screw in adaptors that enable current can-style fixtures to use CFLs that look just like current flood-style light bulbs. In addition, you will find several helpful consumer guides to the best in low-energy light bulb options at the end of this post.

Bright and Beautiful

The best news is how beautifully the options for low-energy lighting have progressed in the past couple years. This is true for track and cable lighting systems, for fixtures, for bulbs, and also for the actual quality of the light they produce.

As mentioned earlier, the new energy-efficient lighting options – both LEDs and CFLs – come in different shades of white. The color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we use have a color temperature of up to 2800K, and they shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Designers draw upon an understanding of the color of different kinds of light, and choose lights that make furnishings, merchandise and people look most attractive.

Prima Lighting

Prima Lighting, which manufactures the great lights I saw at Opus Lights, manufactures  low-voltage lighting systems for commercial, residential, retail and restaurant applications. Their products include bendable monorail and cable lighting systems in sleek chrome and muted silver finishes, as well as chandelier and miniature recessed lighting systems. They also have an extensive collection of pendants, many of which are pictured here.

Prima Lighting Rail System in commercial installation. Photo credit: Prima Lighting

One of the brightest spots in Prima’s line is their vast, handsome collection of low-voltage interchangeable spot light track heads. Prima’s signature FIT system features dual slot openings, horizontal or vertical orientation, and multi-circuit operation. Their wide array of interchangeable pendants and trackheads can be mixed and matched with the various mounting systems.

Pegasus Lighting

Pegasus Associates Lighting, which is based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a nationally recognized e-commerce site that sells unique lighting products to a wide spectrum of customers. Judging from their fan club on Facebook, they’re folksy – a family-run company that prides itself on being friendly, helpful, efficient, and enlightening.

Pegasus’ products are extensive. They include barbecue lights, cabinet lighting, cove lighting, desk lamps, display lights, exit signs, fiber optic lighting, light filters, fluorescent fixtures, light bulbs, LED fixtures, lenses, light boxes, louvers, mini pendant lights, night lights, over cabinet lighting, picture lights, reading lights, recessed downlights, rope lights, shelf lights, showcase lighting, step lights, track lighting, transformers, under cabinet lighting, UV filters, wall sconces, work lights, and xenon light fixtures!

Begun in 1993, Pegasus Associates Lighting is a division of the now-anachronistically-named Edison Lighting Systems, Inc., which has been in business since 1987. On their helpful and information-rich website, Pegasus takes pains to communicate their willingness to help you find and use unique and technologically-superior lighting products. Here’s what they have to say:

We consider a lighting product to be unique or, at least, somewhat unique if it is difficult to find, is contemporary or avant-garde in styling, is unusual in some fashion, uses a state-of-the-art light source or optical design, is custom-made, or is energy-efficient… we prefer to offer our customers lighting products that use LED, fluorescent, halogen, or xenon light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs, and we prefer to offer our customers fluorescent lighting products that use quiet, energy-efficient electronic ballasts instead of magnetic ballasts.

Type
Wattage
Lumens
Lifespan Hrs.
Annual
Energy Cost
5-Year Cost
Incandescent 60W 840 1,000 $8.00 $1,200.00
CFL 11W 770 8,000 $1.45 $217.50
LED 5W 625 50,000 $0.40 $60.00

Getting Creative with LEDs

While researching this post, I found several artistically notable light fixtures built around CFLs or LEDs, and I thought I would close by sharing some of those visual delights.

Behar LED Lamp

The first is Cloud Softlights, which was created by the Molo design studio. Cloud Softlights are made from paper, and they are lit from within by LED lights. They are luminous and abstract, and indeed cloud-like. They can be hung in clusters and shaped to fit the space they are lighting.

The second is a designer-style LED lamp from Yves Behar and EcoCentric. To operate the Leaf Lamp, shown at right, you touch it. It responds to touch to turn on and off, and also to alter the brightness level and color temperature. You can adjust its angle  as well. It’s a low-energy lamp that is made from 95% recycled materials. I found it on a United Kingdom-based website, and I don’t know if it’s available in the US. (But I’m sure if you just have to have it, you can talk them into shipping it to you.)

"Fragile Future" LED installation created by Lonneke Gordijn. Photo credit: Wired Magazine website.

The third is “Fragile Future,” the ethereal LED installation shown at left. Begun as  designer Lonneke Gordijn’s graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2005, the sculptural installation pairs the fluff from dandelions with LED lights and wires.

Resource Links

Those who are shopping for stylish, energy-efficient lighting would also do well to visit Gold Notes, the blog written by my friend and fellow designer Jamie Goldberg. I didn’t know that Jamie was writing about lighting, and vice versa, but when her RSS feed popped into my mailbox, I was delighted by the lighting she had found. I’m sure you will be too.

Last Saturday, in the biggest (and possibly most beautiful) demonstration in the world’s history, lights all over the earth were dimmed in honor of Earth Hour – an event designed to raise consciousness about energy consumption and global warming.
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Composition by Four Women in White

March 23, 2010

For this post, my designer friend Wendy sent me this white blossom. It's wonderful for two reasons: 1) When Wendy came over for Thanksgiving dinner, she contributed a stunning bouquet of white roses. 2) Whisper, an ARS All-America rose from 2003, was the first rose to bloom in my garden this spring.

I have heard people say “it’s just plain white” – but I beg to differ! As anyone who has ever tried to paint a white flower knows, there’s nothing plain about this sophisticated and nuanced hue. It’s wonderful in interiors.

White comes in many tones and shades. It can take on a wide range of personalities: White adopts pastels into its family, relating in a gentle and romantic manner. With black and deeply hued colors, it can be bold and dramatic. Paired with primary red or blue, or an intense apple green, it can become modern and playful. When used as a backdrop for natural materials and contrasting textures – warm woods, shiny metals, stone and glass – it becomes emblematic of the International style.

You might also be surprised to learn that white – yes, the color white – has environmental advantages as well.

Many of my fellow designers share my enthusiasm for white, and I will be drawing on their wisdom in this post. (Coincidentally, all of the designers featured here today –  Laurie Burke, Jamie Goldberg, and Wendy Hoechstetter – are California white girls like me.)

White Heath Dimensional tile in kitchen installation. Photos courtesy of Heath Ceramics.

Oval dimensional tile from Heath Ceramics

Daltile's Stone a la Mod, random brick-joint 3/8" split face tile. Photographed by the author at Keane Kitchen Showroom.

Why White is “Green”

The reflectivity of a surface, a color, or a material can be calibrated by instruments that measure its “albedo.”  When no light is reflected, a surface looks black and has an albedo of zero. When all of the available light is reflected, the surface looks white and has an albedo of one.

Understanding how albedo works turns out to be important in managing heat and light, and hence, the energy that is used to produce them. For example, when I was redesigning an overly dark dining room, I discovered that painting all of the walls white would brighten the room more than placing an enormous mirror on the room’s largest wall! The reason: both mirrors and white walls have albedos that are near one, but I wouldn’t want mirrors on every surface. An all-white room would be vastly more appealing!

Similarly, white and light-colored roofs deliver huge environmental advantages. A black tar roof can reach 150 degrees F in the summer, and dark roofs in cities collectively create an environmental problem called “urban heat island effect.” The heat generated by the buildings can not only make  a city 3° to 8° warmer than nearby vegetated areas, it also damages air quality.

Three scientists affiliated with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – Hashem Akbari, Arthur Rosenfeld, and Surabi Menon – spent nearly 20 years studying how white roofs and surfaces contribute to urban heat islands. In 2004, they investigated the impact that white roofs could have on climate change.

They were stunned by what they found. “‘When we did the calculations, initially we couldn’t believe the results,” Akbari said.  “So we re-checked the numbers in different ways.” The result: Every 100 square feet of roof area that was changed from a dark color to white would be the equivalent to offsetting the emission of one ton of heat-trapping, atmospheric CO2!

Designer Favorites in White

One of my own favorite decorating items is the Barcelona chair in white. I have a special fondness for this chair in part because it was created by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was the founder of the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, where I received my first design education. Of course, the chair was designed in 1929, long before my time.

Barcelona chair

I believe that Mies designed the chair in black – not the white pictured here – for the German Pavilion at the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. It has been produced by the famed furniture manufacturer Knoll ever since. The Barcelona chair has a pure composition and sleek lines that epitomize modern architecture, and I think that white emphasizes the purity of its design.

Laurie Burke of Los Angeles is a wonderful designer and the author of the Kitchen Design Notes blog. In response to my question about favorite designs in white, she writes:

I love the use of dimensional white tile. Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, produces some of the interesting shapes and patterns in tile. The 3 x 9 oval pattern is one of my favorites. Simply by varying the pattern – staggered or straight, horizontal or vertical – the look changes with each new design. It is really visually pleasing.

Another beautiful use in shades of white is Artistic Tile’s Effervescence Collection. The round shapes and shades of white bianco carrara marble or calacatta gold marble paired with glass is a texturally sophisticated use of white.

Jamie Goldberg, a new San Diego resident, a kitchen design specialist, and the author of Gold Notes, has written a whole blog post – The White Album – about this wonderful color. Here’s some of Jamie’s advice about decorating with white:

Smith and Noble Roman shades in black and white. Photo courtesy of Smith and Noble.

White is a wonderful hue for a kitchen or bath, lending a crisp brightness to those spaces. It’s also a perfect color – and commonly used – for moldings, window trim, shutters and fireplace mantels. White enhances whatever color is put next to it, as sparkling teeth enhance a gloss-lipped smile.

I try to avoid white in kitchen tile grout, as it can be a maintenance headache. I also like to see ceilings painted something other than white, as they so commonly are, so that the room looks more finished, and the crown molding stands out against it better. There are many, many wonderful all-white bedrooms and living rooms. What makes those succeed as welcoming havens, rather than feeling institutional or sterile, is a warm blending of textures and tints.

The Practicality of White

Currently, on weekends, I’m staffing the Keane Kitchen Design Showroom in San Carlos, and I frequently find myself talking to customers about the practicality of white kitchens.

Elemental Spa fixtures from Sieger Design combines with Ritual Architecture by Mike Meiré to give a spa-like ambience to a bathroom in the International Style.

Although you can re-do a kitchen nicely for between $30,000 and $40,000, it’s not at all hard to spend $80,000-plus on a total kitchen remodel. That figure would include appliances, cabinets, counter tops, flooring, tile, lights, plumbing and electrical upgrades.

If you’re laying out that kind of money, you want a kitchen that’s going to last. On that count, white is a good choice, both because of its adaptability (simply by repainting the walls you can entirely change its mood and appearance) and its classic good looks.

When I visit clients, the quickest giveaways to the age of their homes are the kitchens and baths, and it’s usually the color of the flooring, tile, and cabinetry that communicates the loudest. (Espresso colored cabinets? That started in about 2003 and is still going strong.  Ginger-colored, Shaker style cabinets like those in my house are late 1990’s.  Oak is very 1970’s. Then there are those apple green countertops that are so popular now. In a couple of years, they will be screaming, “I’m from 2009! Boy, did we cheer people up during that mean ol’ recession.” ) But white? That could date from anywhere between 1810 and 2010! It’s timeless.

Ektorp slipcovers. Photo courtesy of Ikea.

While it’s obvious that white is a poor choice for couches and carpeting if you happen to have small children, muddy dogs, or cats with hairballs, in some respect, it’s a very practical choice. It can even make for easy clean-up.

After fretting over the fading of numerous darkly colored bathroom rugs, I finally discovered that pure white rugs were both a beautiful and an easy-to-maintain choice. Unlike a deep chocolate rug, a white cotton rug can be tossed into the washer and quickly returned to its pristine original condition. Fading is not a problem.

Ditto with white slipcovers. You may never be able to get that pink marker stain off your pale green couch, but it’s easy to launder a white slipcover. (The instructions usually say “no bleach,” but if it’s white and mostly cotton – and ruined anyway if the stain isn’t removed – I often find that a dab of bleach applied with a Q-Tip and then quickly flushed with cold water can work wonders. ) The cool elegance of a white room and the noisy exuberance of children need not be mutually exclusive. If you buy Ikea’s Ektorp sofa, shown at right, you will find that  crisp white slipcovers for it run less than $200.

Symbolism of White

Although the meaning of white varies with culture, for Americans and Europeans it is associated peace, purity, innocence, cleanliness and simplicity.

It can also connote  clinical coldness, winter, sterility, loneliness or isolation, especially when presented in unbroken expanses. In China, it is the color used for mourning and funerals.

White roses, like the ones Wendy gave me at Thanksgiving,  are also traditional in wedding bouquets because  the white rose symbolizes virtue, unity, reverence, and love. I am dedicating this post, and a virtual bouquet of white roses, to the three wonderful designer colleagues who contributed to it. Thank you Laurie, Jamie, and Wendy.


Laurie Burke,
author of
Kitchen
Design Notes
Jamie Goldberg,
author of

Gold Notes
Wendy Hoechstetter, author of Hoechstetter
Interiors
Nicolette Toussaint, author of Living in
Comfort & Joy

Resource Links

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Diego Rivera mural: Nude with Calla Lilies

As regular readers know, I have been posting a series of odes to colors in this blog. After talking about designing with green, I decided that the next color I honored would be the hue of the first flower to open in my garden.


The first bloomers turned out to be a white rose and a white calla lily, hence this ode to white.

White … is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black….

God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.”

- Gilbert Keith Chesterton
British author, 1874–1936
“A Piece of Chalk”
Tremendous Trifles (1909)
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1 Rump or 2 and Other Kitchen Conundrums

October 28, 2009

“Please take our guests to the living room. This is strictly a one-rump kitchen!”  I used to often hear that memorable phrase when my husband and I lived in a small apartment. Mason and I now have a two-cook kitchen, but the practice of asking “one rump or two” is one that’s very useful to anyone considering the redesign of a kitchen.

Remodeled kitchen from Keane Kitchen showrooms.

A well-designed, two-rump kitchen offers separate counter spaces for two cooks: one area should be adjacent to the range and another for salad and drink preparation. A kitchen designed for two cooks usually has two sinks, and often more than one oven, as is the case with the beautifully designed kitchen here, the work of my friend and fellow designer, Jamie Goldberg.

But with kitchens, bigger does not necessarily mean better!

A few years ago, a relative – I will call her Antoinette – excitedly invited me over to see her new multimillion dollar home. My immediate  reaction to her “dream kitchen” — it’s a nightmare!

I immediately saw that it was the kind of kitchen that David L. Brooks skewered in his book Bobos in Paradise as “an airplane hangar with plumbing”. Antoinette’s kitchen island looked about the size of Maui!

In reality, the island was around 10 feet square. If the surface had been a bit higher, the outer edge could have been used as a stand-up bar  – if you happened to be serving ors d’oeuvres for 30 or so people! But its depth and circumference were bad news when it came to food preparation. It was so wide no one could reach the center, and to use the appliances, one would need track shoes. Since the appliances were scattered in a ring facing the island, reaching them would be like training for a track meet.

Kitchen at Monticello Monticello’s kitchen was among the best equipped in Virginia. While serving as U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson purchased a large number of cooking utensils for his residence in Paris. In the early 1790s, as part of an 86-crate shipment of goods, he had them shipped back to America and eventually to Monticello. While the cellar of the South Pavilion housed Monticello’s first, relatively small kitchen, a second kitchen was constructed during the expansion of the house. Completed by 1809, the newer, much larger work space featured a bake oven, a fireplace, and an eight-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. A tall case clock also stood in the kitchen: Isaac Jefferson, one of Monticello’s former slaves, recalled that the only time Jefferson went into the kitchen was to wind the clock.  The kitchen's brick floor, bake oven, fireplace, stew stove, and the tall case clock seen at Monticello today are part of a restoration and re-interpretation effort that culminated in the summer of 2004 with the opening of the space to visitors.

Thomas Jefferson's kitchen at Monticello’s was among the best equipped in Virginia, thanks to all the utensils he picked up while serving as US Minister to France. This is Monticello's second kitchen, an 1809 upgrade that featured a larger work space with bake oven, fireplace, and 8-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. The restored kitchen is open to visitors.

Although I was kind enough to keep my thoughts to myself, mumbling something about the kitchen being “impressive”, I knew that Antoinette was going to come to loathe the kitchen. It had been designed to impress, and the design was about conspicuous consumption more than about food consumption. (The message in the design, I believe, was “let them eat cake.”)

Over the centuries, our kitchens have come full circle from being the center of family life, to being galleys intended for food preparation to again becoming a gathering place for family and friends. Since the 1950’s, multiple trends have bulked up our kitchens, tripling its size. June Cleaver’s kitchen, seen on the 1957-63 TV show “Leave It to Beaver,”  was less than 100  square feet. The average American kitchen is now around 225 square feet!

This increase does not reflect bigger families. During the same time, the size of the American family has shrunk. While some of the changes are driven by technology, the big drivers for kitchen remodeling have been social, related to both to changes in how we really live and how we want to live.

Reasons to Remodel Your Kitchen

While there’s always a bit of “keeping up with Joneses” that figures into remodeling plans, there are also some green and family-affirming reasons to remodel.  The schedules of two-career families demand that we be able to cook quickly, and they may also prompt us to do more business entertaining at home. Couples often want to be able to invite friends to have a drink in the kitchen or help with salad prep while a convivial meal is being prepared.

Parents need a convenient place to feed the kids, to keep an eye on them while cooking, and also to enable the kids to make their own snacks. Safety can also be an issue.

Dish drawers are an energy saving alternative to the standard dishwasher.

"Dish drawers" are an energy-saving alternative to the standard dishwasher. They can handle as much as a traditional 24-inch dishwasher, but because each drawer runs independently, you can wash small loads as economically as large ones. The model pictured is from Fisher-Paykel.

In addition, some people also want to reduce their energy bills and lower emissions that drive climate change. In addition to replacing old, inefficient appliances with new “Energy Star” models, eco-conscious homeowners can offset the use of artificial lighting by increasing “daylighting”. Improved window placement, insulated frames, and low-emissions glass can improve the color and quality of interior light while significantly cutting drafts, winter heat loss, and summer overheating.

A remodel also provides an opportunity to replace old incandescent light fixtures with energy-efficient compact fluorescent, LED, and halogen lighting. (Incandescent light bulbs have actually been banned in Ireland, and Title 24, the California energy bill that goes into effect in January 2010, will require that half of kitchen light in newly built homes comes from energy efficient light fixtures.)

All in all, the kitchen is one the two most-often remodeled rooms in the house. (The bathroom is the other.) In this first post, I will look at changes in how we configure and use our kitchens, and I will also include some tips and tool for thinking about ways to improve your kitchen. In later posts, I will return to the topic of kitchens, exploring small kitchens, wheelchair accessible kitchens and other kitchen topics.

It’s best to start with a plan. That seems obvious to me, but apparently not to everyone. I recently heard a story about a woman who simply went out and bought all new appliances without having a plan in place. Because most of them wouldn’t fit, they wound up sitting in her garage for over a year while she backtracked, trying to decide whether to sell the appliances or to ask a contractor to enlarge her kitchen. Who knows, those appliances might still be in the garage had she not met a designer in a tennis class!

I suggest that you start planning for a kitchen remodel not by looking at new appliances – you will get to that – but by first looking at how you use your kitchen now and how the changes you can anticipate over the next ten years will change your needs.

What’s the Best Size for My Kitchen?

Do you need to enlarge your kitchen, adding on or borrowing space from another room? Maybe, maybe not. The optimum size is based first and foremost on how many people will be cooking, and how many will be visiting the kitchen. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Is a one-cook kitchen sufficient?
  • Does your family have a main cook and a sous-chef who does the chopping and prep work?
  • Do you want a kitchen where multiple family members or friends can join in, helping with salad making, table setting and other dinnertime activities?
  • Does your kitchen need a family activity area where children can do homework or color near mom while she’s cooking?
  • Do you pay bills or use a computer in the kitchen? If so, you might want to add a small desk or a convertible work area.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), a respected trade industry group, offers some great guidelines for figuring out the best size for your kitchen. Here are a few:

Kitchen layout

There's a sequence to kitchen work - first the cooking and serving, and later, the dishes! In this floor plan, the orange triangle connecting the sink, stove and refrigerator shows the work area for the main cook while the yellow triangle demarcates her helper. If these triangles cross, traffic problems ensue. The yellow triangle does cross the green clean-up triangle, this probably won't cause a problem since prep and clean up don't happen at the same time.

Countertops – You need at least 158 linear inches of counter. The surface  should be 24″ deep with at least 15″ of clearance between the counter and the upper cabinets. (But a wheelchair user needs 18″ deep counters because she cannot reach the back of a 24″ counter.)

Loading and prep areas - You need about 2 feet of space next to your fridge, sink, and stove to load, unload, and prepare food.

Opening doors and appliances - All doors should swing freely; your dishwasher door should not catch on the pull for the adjacent cabinet, and your stove door should open without causing a trip hazard. (Having enough room for door swings is partly a function of space planning, and partly a function of room size. Small rooms may require different types of doors and some other ingenious solutions.)

Aisles – A working aisle should be at least 42″ for one cook and at least 48″ for multiple cooks. (But one cook doesn’t need more than 60″ either!)

Measuring Kitchen Efficiency

In a kitchen, the “primary work triangle” is formed by lines drawn from the kitchen sink to the refrigerator and stove. For efficiency’s sake, each side of that triangle should be no less than 4 feet long and no more than 9 feet long. The total of the lengths of the three legs should be no more than 26 feet long.

Galley kitchen

Be it ever so humble, the galley kitchen layout is among the most efficient kitchen arrangements.

It can be a challenge to keep within that limit in today’s large kitchens. For example, the kitchen shown above is 13.5 feet wide and 22 feet long; the sides of the sous chef’s triangle add up to nearly 26 feet. That makes for a lot of walking back and forth!

The most efficient kitchen is probably the galley kitchen; it’s basically two counters with a working aisle in the center. The galley’s small size limits walking distances, and if there’s enough counter space, it can be a delight. Indeed, a caterer we hired to put together a buffet in our  “one-rump” kitchen told me that it was the most efficient kitchen in which she had ever worked.

I was very pleased, having laid it out myself. Although I knew nothing about kitchen triangles at that point, I had argued with our contractor about the kitchen layout. He wanted at 6-foot wide center aisle. That convinced me that he didn’t cook much! If he had, he would have known that an aisle that wide would force the cook to take 2 or 3 extra steps every time s/he went from the stove to the sink.

Kitchen layout by Nicolette Toussaint

Better! I revised the kitchen above so that the two cook's triangles and the clean-up triangle don't cross. This involved downsizing the main refrigerator slightly and adding a set of refrigerator drawers in the sous chef's salad prep area. Because this kitchen is designed to also be wheelchair accessible, the aisles are fairly wide (all doorways are 36") and the counters in one area are set at 33" above the floor - easier to reach from seated position that the standard 36" counter height. These lower counters also enable kids to make their own snacks more easily.

All of those extra steps add up to what’s called a “travel penalty.” In the two-cook layout above, both chefs – or rather their feet – are going to be paying that penalty.

The goal in kitchen planning is to have the triangles as compact as possible, but to also ensure that work triangles  don’t cross so that kitchen workers don’t bump into one another.

There are multiple types of travel patterns in a kitchen: movements of the main and sous-chefs, of table setting and serving, of clean-up, of unpacking groceries and unloading the dishwasher, to name a few. The simplified kitchen layouts here show just three of the most-used patterns: the chef, the sous chef, and clean-up. Because the main chef will be preparing the entree at the same time the sous chef is making the salad, it’s important that the two cooking triangles (red and yellow in the big layouts) don’t cross.

In practice, and in smaller kitchens, it’s likely that some of the triangles will cross, so while minimizing them, it’s also important to consider the sequence of traffic patterns. Some of us do clean up while cooking, but most of the clean-up traffic (indicated by the green triangles) will occur after the cooking is done. In most cases, our kitchens involve some trade offs, and it’s best to make them consciously – and before the appliances are purchased.

Other Kitchen Conundrums

Here, in no particular order, are a few useful planning tips to keep in mind if you’re thinking of remodeling your kitchen:

  • Consider the next buyer. Unless you and your house have a until-death-do-us-part arrangement, you should consider the next owner’s likely needs as well as your own desires. You may love that Wolf professional-style range, but the person who buys your house might consider it a problem that detracts from the value of the house.
  • Don’t get too trendy. Similarly, it’s a good idea to consider how the durable parts of your design – such as tile, flooring and appliances – are going to look in 5 or 10 years. For example, right now a retro-1960’s palette is very much au courant. It seems like every interior design magazine I see features several interiors in the same baby blue and brown combo, as well as lime green and orange. If you paint your walls in trendy colors like those, they can be easily changed, but counter tops will cost thousands, not hundreds, to replace. And I can guarantee you, that in 10 years, we will be looking at brown-and-blue rooms and yawning “that’s just so 2009.”
  • Don’t overspend. Once you get to looking at high-end appliances, counter tops and flooring, it’s really easy to drop $150,000 on a kitchen.  The cost of the design shouldn’t exceed 20 percent of your home’s value. You can typically recover up to 8 percent of that cost when you sell your place.
  • Watch for “bad adjacency“. If you live in an old house or apartment, you have probably inherited some old-fashioned design trends. One of the worst is having a bathroom that opens from the kitchen, something considered very undesirable, even tasteless, by modern buyers. It’s well worth correcting this during a kitchen remodel, as well as finding ways to enclose or otherwise hide laundry appliances. Among other bad, but common adjacency problems are noisy kitchens that neighbor sleeping or study rooms.
  • Fix the lighting. You’ve probably had the annoying experience of having your own shadow fall across the vegetables you’re chopping, making it hard to see. This happens when kitchens are designed with just one or two central ceiling lights; those fixtures may create adequate “ambient” light, but don’t do a good job of lighting counters.  When your central lighting is supplemented with proper task lighting – for example, fluorescent panels tucked away under the skirts of your upper cabinets – it  can greatly decrease your chance of injury while preparing a meal. In addition, you will want to ensure that your light does not produce glare on work surfaces.
  • Cork is a great choice for the kitchen floor. Naturally resilient and forgiving to both the cook's back and dropped dishes, it also quiets the room by absorbing noise. This handsome floor is from WoodFloors Online.

  • Reduce the noise level. Today’s dishwashers are much better insulated, and thus quieter, than those of a decade past, but they’re still noisy enough to interfere with conversation. Ditto for range hood fans and washers and dryers. If you add to that the noise produced by your refrigerator, plus the echos of footfalls on stone or tile flooring, the kitchen can be a noisy place. Pay attention not only to the energy ratings of your appliances, but also to the specifications on how much noise they produce. You might also want to consider putting some sound-absorbing surfaces, such as fabric or wood, somewhere in the kitchen, and perhaps even adding some sound proofing to the walls if sleeping or study rooms are next to your kitchen.
  • Consider what’s underfoot. Marble is beautiful, but it can be slippery, as can other kinds of polished stone. If you choose a slip-resistant flooring –  a matte-finished wood, bamboo or laminate; cork, or textured or a soft-glazed ceramic tile – you may prevent a fall. (If you’re holding a hot casserole or a knife when you fall, you could be in for a trip to the ER.)  If you select tile, you should also place a throw rug with a non-skid backing in areas that get wet.
  • Think safety. Your kitchen layout should enable you to locate the range and cook top away from doorways and passages, and it’s also a good idea for parents to opt for rounded corners on counter tops. In addition, consider the heights of the adults: the NKBA’s Kitchen Planning Guidelines say that microwaves should be installed 3″ below the principal user’s shoulder but no more than 54″ above the floor to avoid accidents.

Resource Links

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Tea“One Lump or Two, Dear?”

The work triangles I discussed in this post were developed back in 1944 after the University of Illinois conducted a number of studies of kitchen design, and they gained wide adherence in the US in the 1950’s.

I was tickled to learn that our British cousins have quite a different tool for measuring kitchen efficiency. They count the number of steps the cook has to take to prepare a cuppa tea, English style.  That’s not just a matter of dunking a tea bag in hot water, the way the Yanks do it.

Instead, it requires taking down and pre-heating the cup with tap water, filling the kettle, heating the tea water, gathering the tea, fetching the milk from the refrigerator and the sugar from the cupboard, replacing the tap water with boiling water, steeping the tea, and finally serving it. Those tasks take the cook to each end of the triangle, and possibly then some.

Because one the nicest rituals in my life is awakening to a cup of British-style tea with milk, served in bed by my loving husband, I was delighted to share this piece of design trivia with him. Mason is retired, and he wakes up hours before I do. He says he finds the tea-making process pleasant, and we both enjoy our pre-dawn tea and conversation. While writing this post, I asked him to count the number of steps he walked while making our tea in our current two-rump kitchen.

The total came out to 25.  I was asleep so I don’t know whether they were sleepy, mincing steps, or big, bold strides.

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To Arms! Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate!

October 15, 2009

Today is international Blog Action Day – a day when boodles of bloggers team up to write about various social problems. In solidarity of spirit, I’m issuing a call to arms on climate change and asking my loyal readers to “pack some heat” – literally.

we-can-caulk
Not long ago, I wrote Saving My Energy for a Greener Tomorrow, a post about how I harnessed the firepower of the lowly caulk gun to dramatically warm my house and cut my energy bill. I spent about $500 on the whole household warming-and-efficiency process, including the purchase of a low-power convection heater. I saved around $40 per month on my utility bill. Best yet, my humble caulking and sealing efforts added up to something very tangible that I could do to fight global warming.

Best Investment Around – Energy Efficiency!

Recently, I heard Panama Bartholomy, who works for the California Energy Commission, when he spoke at the West Coast Green building conference. Panama said something very witty and quite profound: he compared our attitudes about how to “green up” our energy use — and cut down on what we add to global warming — to the attitudes of teenage males looking at two teenage sisters. We focus on solar technology, the glamorous sister, he said, but don’t spend much time looking at energy efficiency, the smart sister!

The humble but powerful caulk gun

The humble but powerful caulk gun

The bottom line on Panama’s presentation was this: when it comes to curbing climate-changing energy emissions over the next twenty years, caulking and weather sealing will save $40 per ton and solar panels will cost $24 a ton!

To underscore the point, Panama whipped out a slide that showed the “McKenzie Curve,” an economic analysis of the costs of a whole passel of energy-greening measures. (That’s where the figures cited above come from.) The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article about all this. It was provocatively entitled Packing Heat: The Firepower of the Lowly Caulk Gun. That article included a chart version of the McKenzie Curve; I encourage you to click this link and take a look at the price tags attached to our energy choices.

Act Locally: Start with Your Windows!

While thinking globally about the problem of global warming, I also encourage you to act locally – maybe in your bedroom. You could start by improving the performance of your windows. Most of the windows in our California homes were installed long before energy was an issue. They hold single (rather than double or triple) panes of glass. The glass is not coated for energy efficiency, and it has been stuck into the frame with no thought of sealing the drafts that come in around or through the frame. If those same windows were to be specified now, for a new building, the local housing officials would tell you that they are illegal under Title 24, the California energy efficiency act that applies to new construction.

Infrared image of a house leaking energy

Infrared image of a house leaking energy

As the image at left shows, most homes bleed energy. You can see the heat leaking around the windows here; it’s orange. There’s also a lot of heat leaking out of the attic, and that’s common too.

Federal figures show that US homes consume 21% of all energy used by the whole country — more than cars,  planes, or even offices — and they waste around 30 percent of that energy.

About one-third of that loss could be stopped by caulking and insulating! In addition, you can cut a good bit of the heat that is lost through window glass by adding an energy efficiency film to the window. These films are actually plastic  covered with a very thin, invisible layer of metal; it’s metal that causes the reflection of heat that gives newly manufactured glass for windows its energy efficiency quality. Here, instead of having the metal added at the factory, you smooth it onto the window yourself after the fact.

I did this myself recently. It was easy and fun. The process involved cutting a sheet of plastic so that it was about 1 inch bigger than my window (which is about 3 feet square), then wetting the window and applying the film with a squeegee. I used a laundry spritzer to apply the water, which was lubricated with a drop of dish detergent. The film slid right on, and I carefully squeegeed out the bubbles, then trimmed the margins with a very sharp Exacto knife.

A day later, when the film was dry,  the film was truly invisible. (I called in my neighbor Alexei, had her look at my filmed window and a twin window nearby, and then asked her if she could see any difference. She couldn’t even figure out why I was asking!) While the visual difference was imperceptible, there was a noticeable tactile difference – an absence of the customary blanket of cold air that hung around the inside of the window.  I could feel quite a difference when I did an unscientific test by placing my cheek about an inch from both the treated and untreated windows.

Ways to Warm Your Fanny, Not the Climate

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

NASA photo - the earth at night showing artificial lights in the USA

There are, of course, sophisticated tools that can be used to find energy leaks in buildings: infrared “guns” and heat sensitive meters that measure drafts. When energy “commissioning” is done on commercial buildings, an engineer runs the HVAC systems with the windows all closed and then measures how and where the pressure changes, and s/he uses a truckload of gadgets to do it.

You’re not likely to try that at home, but I know of some simple low-tech ways to find leaks too. The most interesting one I have heard of was a fellow who rented a fog machine – the kind used in theatrical productions – and then used it to fog up the inside of his house. He kept the windows closed, and after an hour or so, he walked around outside and looked for the escaping clouds.

If you have bigger leaks, you may find them by walking around your house carrying a lit candle, standing here and there, and watching how the movement of air bends the flame. You can also hang lightweight gift wrapping ribbons over doorways and watch which way they bend, then track the breeze back to its source. You can track the breeze by licking your finger, the same way people do to determine which way the outdoor wind is blowing, and then walk toward the cool side of your finger. Not very scientific, but it all works.

Then again, you might just go to the likeliest leakage spots and start plugging away. Your local hardware store will have a variety of weatherstripping and insulation products. I suggest that after you’ve found the holes, you go ask your helpful hardware man (or woman) to tell you the best way to plug them. Here are half a dozen likely places to look for leaks:

Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco

Alexei and Nicolette model the ultimate in Eco winter fashion. Snuggies are in - there are big Snuggie parties and pub crawls here in San Francisco

  1. Around drafty windows
  2. Drafts around and under the doors to outside (seal and weatherstrip)
  3. Through internal doors from rooms you’re currently not heating or using (Use one of those little “draft dodger” cloth blocking devices and close the door!)
  4. Around plumbing penetrations (the holes where pipes go in and out of the house)
  5. The attic – it may be easy to blow in some insulation there
  6. Uninsulated walls  (it’s hard to add insulation to finished walls, but there are some insulating paints. Putting cork “paneling” on the wall can help. There are even insulated tapestries that you can hang on the wall in the winter; that’s something that was commonly done by people who lived in cold climates centuries back. It’s ancestral wisdom that we have forgotten.

Resource Links

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Meet the World’s Energy Hogs

Among the world’s nations, the United States uses by far the most energy per person. You’re not surprised to learn that, and neither was I when I first heard it.

Top Ten Nations:
Population v. Fuel Consumption

World rank & percentage of total

Country Population
Fuel Use
China 1 (20%) 2 (14%)
India 2 (18%) 5 (4%)
USA 3 (5%) 1 (22%)
Indonesia 4 (3%)
Brazil 5 (3%)
Pakistan 6 (2%)
Bangladesh 7 (2%)
Nigeria 8 (2%)
Russia 9 (2%) 3 (7%)
Japan 9 (2%) 4 (5%)
Germany 6 (3%)
Canada 7 (3%)
France 8 (2%)
UK 9 (2%)
Brazil 10 (2%)

But I was gob-smacked to learn that our nation, which holds just 5% of the world’s population, is using 22% of the world’s fuel.

The nations most prone to hog a disproportionate share of energy are the industrial nations. Populous developing nations that want to emulate the Euro-American lifestyle are crowding into the trough right behind them. The chart at right, which compares the world’s top ten fuel-consuming nations with the ten having the largest populations, clearly reveals these trends.

How do we in the US use all that fuel? Here are the top ten ways:

  1. Space heating 25%
  2. Lighting 14%
  3. Water heating 12%
  4. Space cooling 11%
  5. Refrigeration 6%
  6. Electronics 5%
  7. Wet cleaning 3%
  8. Cooking 3%
  9. Computers 2%
  10. Ventilation 2%

Adding up the subtotals, it turns out that our buildings are gobbling up 38.9% of America’s total fuel. That’s more than industry (32.7%) and more than transportation (28.4%)!

Grab your caulk gun and start packin’ some heat!

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Spinning Straw into Gold: Straw Bale Houses

October 9, 2009

The Three Little Pigs got it all wrong! Turns out that it was the straw house – not the one of sticks or the one of bricks – that could stand up to all that huffing and puffing. Not only do straw bale houses provide excellent insulation from wind and extremes of temperature, they’re also proving to be surprisingly stable in earthquake country.

An off-the-grid straw bale house

An off-the-grid straw bale house. Photo by David Bainbridge.

That’s one of the curious facts I learned from Jack Ruskey, one of the co-founders of Oryzatech, a start-up that was showing its wares at the recent West Coast Green building conference.  Ruskey, a retired lawyer, grins and says that the day back in 2001, when Oryzatech won a $300,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, was one of the worst days of his life.

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Jack Ruskey of Oryzatech

Ruskey’s a folksy kind of guy with a laid-back country style that’s common to several straw bale builders I have met. His bio says that he’s a farmer as well as a retired attorney, so I suspect that this bluff statement is just his way of joshing with the city girl. I take it to mean that the grant opened to door to veritable haystack of work, and closed it on any notion of restful retirement that Ruskey might have been entertaining. For the past nine years, Ruskey and his colleagues have been up to their collective armpits in research about the effectiveness of the funny-looking straw bale block you see here. That research has resulted in the company winning the first US patent protection for Oryzatech’s bale-making advance.

Oryzatech's patented straw bale. The bales stack together like Lego blocks, and then a column is inserted through the holes to further secure them.

Oryzatech's patented straw bale. The bales stack together like Lego blocks, and then a column is inserted through the holes to further secure them. The block measures 12”x12”x24” and dovetails with other common construction modules. Each block weighs 30 lbs.

It also turns out the Three Little Pigs story was both right and wrong in saying that the reason the first pig built the straw house was that “it was the easiest thing to do.” Straw houses are easy to construct. The hard part comes when it’s time to invite the building inspector over for a look-see (more about that later, though).

On his fun and informative Straw Bale Trail website, David Bainbridge, a prof who teaches sustainability at the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management in San Diego, notes that straw bale buildings are “are friendly to build… Families can work together and even small children can participate.”

“People like these buildings because they are very quiet, fire resistant, energy efficient, strong, durable and attractive,” says David. Another folksy guy, Bainbridge is a friend and colleague of mine at Alliant International University. A founding member of CASBA, the California Straw Building Association, David has been building straw bale houses for many years. He has built them all over the world, including in earthquake-prone China. (Not coincidentally, David is a member of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program Coalition.)

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1929

Fawn Lake straw bale house, built in 1914

Straw bale houses have a true-blue American heritage. They were born on the treeless plains of Nebraska in the 1800’s, but they now are being built around the world, springing up from France and Germany to Australia, Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. They’ve spread fast because they can be built cheaply, for just about $2 per square foot. What’s more, they make use of resources that renew quickly (grains grow in a single season whereas trees take decades), and they reuse material that would otherwise have to be managed as waste.

Straw is what’s left after a grain, such as wheat and rice, has been harvested. Oryzatech’s Stak Blocks, for example, are made from rice straw. The company’s odd name comes from the Greek word “oryza” meaning rice.

Before straw bundles can be stacked to make walls, the straw must be compressed into bales. At West Coast Green, Ruskey showed me how the inside of one of Orzyatech’s Stak Bloks looks. It’s not at all what I would have expected. Instead of looking like a bale of hay, the block looks and feels like the surface of a plywood sheet. It’s surprisingly dense, almost like a piece of woostbaleRatPalLR(2)d cut across the grain. Oryzatech makes the block using what it calls a “scalable, low-energy production process.” That means that they do more than stomp on the straw, but the process is proprietary and Ruskey wasn’t talking about it. He did say that the blocks have undergone extensive, independent testing at California Polytechnic University, and test results show that Stak Blocks offer more than three times the thermal value of an insulated 2×6 stud wall. In addition, in an earthquake, they perform better than either wood framing or brittle concrete walls.

Straw bales are usually laid in straight runs, like big bricks. But they can also be bent to create curves and interesting forms. Walls are usually wire meshed or pinned together; Orzyatech has designed a whole system of connectors. Once the bales are stacked, they are often plastered with lime, earth, or cement plasters. The results can be surprisingly beautiful.

Green Benefits of Straw Bale Buildings

David Bainbridge recently joined builder Ken Haggard in publishing a research paper that quantifies the huge impact that straw bale building can make in reducing global warming by “sequestering” carbon. In the newsletter of CASBA, a California non-profit organization whose members are designers, contractors, owner-builders, and people interested in straw building, Bainbridge and Haggard report that carbon can be safely locked up in straw bale buildings for far less than it costs to otherwise dispose of waste straw. Dumping straw bales at sea, for example, would cost around $340 per ton!

BainbridgeGrassGrowing

Author, educator, and straw bale builder David Bainbridge

Bainbridge and Haggard report that in the US, more than 100 million tons of straw a year could be used to build homes. Because the straw in each house would lock up 40 tons of carbon, those houses could capture and annually sequester up to 40 million tons of carbon across the nation. Moreover, each house could reduce CO2 emissions by 500 to 1000 tons over its lifetime.

In addition, Bainbridge and Haggard note that increased straw bale construction will reduce field burning of straw, in turn reducing the production of global-warming gases and reducing smoke-related health costs.

Energy Savings:
How to Spin Straw into Gold

When you factor in the energy savings that owners get from their straw bale houses, it begins to look as though the advocates of straw bale house have indeed found a way to spin straw into gold. Bainbridge’s research shows that well-designed straw bale buildings — that optimize, shape, insulation, thermal mass, ventilation, shade and orientation toward the sun to take advantage of solar heating and climatic cooling — owners can cut energy demand dramatically.

San Luis Obispo synagog

Congregation Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo. Photo by David Bainbridge.

The Congregation Beth David Synagogue in San Luis Obispo, for example, reduced its energy use 82%! Near cold, snowy Aspen, Colorado, there’s a 6,000 square foot Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork that was built on time and under budget by volunteers and contractors. A passive solar, daylit building, this straw bale building has reduced heating costs by 60% for the school.

Other contemporary, energy-saving, commercial straw bale buildings here in California include the Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, the Schwaesdall Winery visitor’s center in Ramona, and the Woken Center at Hidden Villa in Los Altos.

Straw bale house in Maine

Straw bale house in Maine

There are also high-end, architecturally designed straw bale houses being built by specialty firms; given all the classy interior features, costs run up to $200 a square foot. You can find haute couture urban homes in places like Oakland, California and Washington DC, as well as striking do-it-yourself projects out in rural areas of Arizona and Texas.

One of the most engaging of the do-it-yourself projects is the home of Carolyn Roberts,  who wrote about being “a petite, forty-something single Mom with two teenage sons” who found herself unemployed and in need of a place to live. Roberts has written  A House of Straw, a book about her journey to bring her life into line with her green values. On her website, Roberts says that although she dreamed of a simple house in harmony with nature, she had “no carpentry experience, no directly relevant skills… no time, no money, no experience…”  Nonetheless, she managed to erect “an incredibly sturdy, beautiful and well-insulated house that will last for many years.” Not counting the land, her house cost only $50,000 to build.

“I’ll Huff and I’ll Puff”

To finish it, however, Roberts had to pass 23 county inspections! That astonishing number points up the other big reason the story of the Three Little Pigs was wrong about straw building being the “easiest thing to do.” Two of the major hurdles that straw bale builders have faced have been: 1) building codes that have been developed for other, dissimilar materials and technology, and 2) officials who may be thoroughly versed in the codes and regulations, but who have no background in straw bale building.

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Straw bale pioneer David Eisenberg

Bainbridge says that although “a few people have been discouraged and given up, sustainability and straw bale enthusiasts are a determined lot.” They have put nearly as much effort into educating building inspectors and code staffers as they have into building houses. Straw bale advocate David Eisenberg gave a big push to the much-needed education process when he wrote a series of columns for ‘Building Codes for a Small Planet“, a magazine read by code officials. The two Davids, Bainbridge and Eisenberg, also teamed up to offer a continuing education program for building code officials a few years ago.

“Thanks to the work of hundreds of unnamed builders, to early work by Matts Myhrman and Judy Knox, and The Last Straw magazine, the codes have rarely been a stopper,” says Bainbridge. “The straw bale building response to codes has been helped along by many people  – and thanks to all of them – but David Eisenberg, the founder of DCAT (Development Center for Appropriate Technology) and a former builder, and Bruce King, an engineer, have both been instrumental.”

Bainbridge adds, “Several code officials quickly saw the value of straw bale building; they aided the process and provided support by talking to other jurisdictions and code organizations. Building code officials with a farm background usually saw it right away.”

Resource Links

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I Can See Clearly Now: Daylighting II

August 25, 2009

Want to see how the light will look before you spend money on remodeling windows, adding skylights, or repainting a room? If the answer is yes, have I got a story for you!

RoomBefore

The room has a nice warm quality when lit with two different sources of artificial light. This is at 4:30 on a summer afternoon. (Note the yellow wood stairs that cover and shade much of the left side of the south-facing window.)

RoomDark

Here's how it looks at noon with the lights off. OK for computer work, but it's hard to read a book. Light comes from the south-facing window and an east-facing door that leads to the kitchen and living room.

I recently built a scale model of my dining room and tested eight ways to increase the room’s natural light. My tests yielded some surprises – insights that I will share in this post.

As you can see from my photos, it’s so dark that, without artificial light, the pink walls in my dining room/office look smoky gray. When the room was occupied only at night, this wasn’t much of a problem. However, as I have moved my design practice into the room, the lack of natural light has become an issue. There are multiple reasons for that:

  • Human beings need full spectrum light for accurate color perception – a fact that makes natural light particularly important for visual designers.
  • Humans also perform better in natural light. Studies show that adequate daylighting can increase building lease rates, reduce worker absenteeism and sick leave, increase production, result in higher sales, and speed patient recovery times in hospitals. It has even been shown to help raise student test scores and reduce tooth decay.
  • Lack of natural light can impact mood. Like many other people, I suffer from SADS, or Seasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome, and natural light helps combat these blues.
  • We waste a shocking amount of electricity lighting our buildings during hours when sunlight is readily available. I find this reprehensible for both environmental and economic reasons.

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I wrote about the first version of this model in A Light at the End of the Tunnel, Daylighting. That post contains much more information about the health and energy benefits of daylighting, as well as summaries of some daylighting strategies that I decided not to test on my model. For that reason, I don’t talk about them here, but you might find them of interest if you’re trying to lighten up your own dark room.

Match Wits with My Model

Before I share the results of my experiments with the daylighting model, I invite you to test your best guesses about what would most help to lighten the room.

Below, I have listed, in alphabetical order, the eight alterations I made to the model, giving each a two-letter mnemonic code. Take a moment to rank these options so that you can compare your predictions with the results of my experiments. (Put the number and code for the strategy you think would make the most difference first, the second-most effective strategy second, and continue until you have ranked all eight alterations in order of expected effectiveness.) You may be as surprised as I was by what worked, and what didn’t add much light to the room.

Here's where the window and stairs are located on the actual house.

Here's where the window and stairs are on my house.

Here are the alterations I tested:

  1. AW – All white - Painting the entire dining room white
  2. CL – Clerestory windows. Cutting clerestory windows through the east wall of the room to admit more light from the living room (wide, short windows located up near the roof where you can’t see through them are called “clear story” windows)
  3. MI – Mirror inside. Mounting a mirror on the sunny, west wall within the room
  4. MO – Mirror outside. Mounting a mirror on the outside wall that reflects the most light in through the window
  5. OS – Open Stairs. Replacing the solid wood stairs with openwork metal stairs that allow light to shine through
  6. WE – Window Extension. Extending the dining room window up to the ceiling
  7. WI -White inside wall. Painting the sunniest wall, the one that reflects the most light inside the room – white instead of pink
  8. WS – White stairs and stairwell. Painting the outside stairs and stairwell white, leaving the room pink

My test results will be revealed at the end of this blog. In the meantime, here’s a bit more information about the model, and some photos of the changes in light produced by various alterations.

The Second Daylight Model

Model

The daylight model; this is the same side of the house that is shown in the photo above.

To make the light in my daylighting model accurately show the changes I wanted to test, I expanded my original one-room model so that it would show both the main sources of light and the features that obstruct it. The expanded test model, the second daylight model, is shown at right. It includes:

  • Yellow painted stairs that block much of window – they can be seen on the left side of the model and also in the dark photo at the top of this post.
  • Door to kitchen – the door is at the center of the model. Here the kitchen is represented only by the tile placed outside the model. This is the same tile that is installed in the real kitchen, and it reflects a surprising amount of light.
  • Living room – the space to the left of the door is the dining room. The main sources of living room light are the  window at the right side of the model and the door into the kitchen. Light from the living room enters the dining room through the door on its east side.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.

Adding a mirror inside the room reflects light, but not as much as I expected.

Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!

Here's a surprise - look at how much more light the room gets when the mirror is placed OUTSIDE on the landing!

YellowWhiteLanding

Painting the wall outside the window white reflects about the same amount of light as a mirror in the same spot.

A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.

A white wall, white stairs and whitewashing the black tar roof (unseen from this angle) reflects the most light of any of these options.

At the outset, I thought that placing a mirror to catch and reflect sunlight falling on the room’s west wall (right side of the photo) would brighten the room a great deal. One of my fellow designers suggested this idea, and I was eager to try it.

The prof in my Building Envelope class, however, was unenthusiastic. He noted, rather disdainfully, that this smoke-and-mirrors trick would make my room look like every third restaurant in downtown San Francisco!

I was surprised to discover that placing a mirror outside the window – as the photo at far right shows – brightened the room far more than a mirror inside the window.

What startled me even more, however, was the discovery that white painted walls, both inside and outside the window, reflected more light than mirrors in either position! This seemed counter-intuitive, but both experiments with the model and a review of ASHRAE tables confirm it.

ASHRAE is the acronym for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers, and they have published extensive tables that list the reflectance of dozens of types of building materials and finishes. The reflectance standard for a perfect mirror is 100% (meaning that it reflects all of the available light) and is referenced as a value of 1.0. The aluminum foil I used in the model as a “mirror” is not perfect, but polished aluminum has a reflectance – or “R value” – of .8 to .9, and many mirrors are actually in that range too. So the foil probably gives us a good idea of how much light a real mirror would reflect.

A white masonry wall, according to the ASHRAE charts, also has an R-value in the range of .8 and should reflect about as well as the mirror. My model experiment not only confirms this, it also reveals that the reflectivity from white walls provides a much more even wash of light than the mirrors do. Look carefully at the light on the floor and ceilings in third photo at right and you will see this. In addition, you will see that the painted wall actually reflects light back into the depths of the room better than any of the mirrored options.

The fourth photo in this series shows that the room is significantly brightened when the outside wall, the bottom of the staircase, and the black tar roof outside the window (unseen in the photos here, but visible in the model above) are all painted white. The amount of light reflected onto the ceiling is substantially greater than in any of the preceding photos, and the wash of light to the right of the window reaches deeply into the room.

More Light from the Adjacent Room?

Clerestory windows were invented to let light into Gothic churches on the level above the stained glass windows that line the nave, and today, clerestory windows are often used in green buildings because they offer a great way to get to light travel from perimeter rooms into windowless interiors.

ClerestoryAs you can see from the photos in this post, my room receives a lot of light from the east wall’s door that opens to the living room and kitchen. I had hoped that installing clerestory windows in that same wall would add light to my dark dining room – but it was definitely an option I would want to test before trying it in real life. While it was easy to add the little windows shown at left to my model, adding them to the house might be quite an expensive option. To add them, my contractor would need to pierce a load-bearing wall that provides support to the building’s upper floor. That’s not impossible, but it would necessitate reinforcing the wall, and that would add to the cost of the project. Unless the clerestory windows added a lot of light to the room, they wouldn’t be worth the expenditure.

That’s exactly what the model showed. The amount of light the clerestory windows added to the room was negligible – much less of an improvement than I would get from simply painting the east interior wall of the room a lighter color! (You can see the model’s clerestory windows in the photo at the bottom of this post.) So that’s a neat $5000 or so the model has saved me. Painting all of the walls white of course increased this effect.

Buying a Stairway to Heaven

StairsOldNew

The old, solid wood stairs at left. New, pierced metal version at right.

The most obvious barrier to daylighting in this room, of course, is those darn stairs. They not only block the view, but they also shade the window from the wonderful south light that comes into the kitchen and living room, and from light that would fall from the sky directly above the stairs.

Those stairs need to be rebuilt, and I have wondered whether leaving the risers open at the back of the stairs (or alternatively, putting a transparent material at the back of the riser) would significantly lighten the room.  Ryan Stroupe, from whom I was taking a green building course, suggested something even better: what if the stairs were made from a pierced or open metal grating? I tested that option by building a set of stairs for the model out of metal window screen; you can see the old and new stairs in the model photos above.

FullMonty

Here's the model after all eight alterations have been made. The best improvements came from painting the light well's surfaces white, raising the top of the window, exchanging the solid wood stairs for metal stairs that admit light, and painting the interior walls white. You can see that the clerestory windows, at top left side, don't add much light to the room.

My last change was to further open the room by extending the room’s window up as far as possible toward the ceiling. Obviously, this strategy would work best with open stairs and an open top landing.

Grand Finale

Drumroll, please! After all this testing and photo-taking, I can clearly see what’s going to work best, and you can compare your predictions to the results. Here’s how the eight possible improvements stacked up:

  1. Open Stairs
  2. Window Extension
  3. White stairs and stairwell
  4. White outside wall
  5. Mirror outside
  6. White inside wall
  7. Mirror inside wall
  8. Clerestory windows

Interesting, eh? How well did your predictions turn out?

If you’re thinking about improving the daylight in a room, here are some resources that you might find useful:

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

NicoLadder

I Can See Clearly Now

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin’ for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

-Johnny Nash

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