In 2015, the DC Living Building Challenge Collaborative sponsored the Affordable Living Design Competition (ALDC). Over 20 teams from the DC area and beyond worked to design a small community (10-15 units) of single family dwellings capable of meeting the Imperatives of the Living Building Challenge without resorting to currently allowed Exceptions under that rating system.
In seeking to create a built environment based on regenerative principles, one goal often cited is to create closed loop systems of water and waste. Net-positive Water is the sole Imperative for the Living Building Challenge’s Water Petal, for instance. The idea is that we ought to be able to supply all our potable water needs using filtered and sterilized rainwater that falls on the site; wastewater recycling is another option but using it for drinking water complicates matters even more.
In our pursuit of lower construction costs and greater efficiency in energy, materials and land use, we often work very hard to reduce the geographic footprint of the project. This is especially true in the residential sector, and doubly so in affordable housing projects. Greater density is often heralded as a basic groundrule of sustainable design (at least in urban settings).
But as we will discuss, density also presents serious challenges to developing projects that are net-zero in energy and water.
After a long and iterative design process, we finally have a plan for the house, with buy in from the clients. This preliminary design is a modern variation on the classic center entrance colonial that is found throughout the neighborhood. Many different organizations of the interior spaces were considered, including different arrangements of stairs. In the end, though, putting the stairs in the center front of the plan not only helps create architectural continuity with the surrounding context but also provides the best access to light and air for the spaces on both occupied floors.
In previous posts, we have talked about the best layout for the house, base on its solar orientation, opportunities for natural ventilation, privacy considerations, engagement of the landscape and relation to the surrounding architectural context. This exploration led to the conclusion that an L-shaped floorplan ‘pointing’ South was the best suited overall.
There are many massing considerations to explore in three-dimensions – an we will start with the roof. A good place to start because the shape of the roof definitely helps determine the architectural character of the building AND because the roof is generally a good place to mount solar panels for generation of electricity and hot water. The roof is high enough to avoid being shaded by the landscape and other buildings (at least in a residential neighborhood), and this space is often unused for other functions (except where green roofs and terraces are part of the program). The panels are also relatively protected from vandalism and theft, which unfortunately can be a consideration even in relatively safe urban neighborhoods. Finally, the panels CAN help shade the roof, reducing the cooling load on the house in the summer (depending on the details of the panel mounting). We shouldn’t rule out some wall-mounted solar panels either, but we’ll get to that later.
The Kitchen is a room in the house that is commonly remodeled, usually every 20 years, or when you first move in, or when you are planning to move out and want to sell the place. Most people spend a fair amount of time in their kitchen and it get’s a lot of wear and tear. Appliances break down or go out of style. Cooks have different needs and habits and want a space that works well for them. We want our kitchens to be functional and beautiful. When my wife and I moved to DC, we had just gone through a kitchen remodel in Cleveland (not realizing that we’d be moving), and we were in no mood to do that again, at least not right away. Our DC kitchen was actually brand new, having been installed to flip the house. It was serviceable (the layout was OK and the appliances worked), but that was all that could be said for it.
The cabinets were white thermofoil over particle board, and the finish carpentry was crap (the sole purpose of adding trim is generally to cover gaps and mistakes, but at even this modest task, the installers had failed). The doors were too small but the fascia was extra wide, so while there was plenty of room in the cabinets, you had to turn your plates sideways to get them in (which bugged my wife something fierce). Eleven years later, we decided it was time for an upgrade, and we wanted to get a few years of use out of it before we had to move again.
In previous posts, we have talked about the clients and their goals, the site and the genius loci. Now we are ready to start designing. Our goal is obviously to meet the clients’ goals, but also to integrate with the site ecosystem.
Rather than listing the full-program, I am going to condense it to the critical spaces and relationships as shown here in the connections diagram. Compost requires treatment and transportation (not generally piped), suggesting the spaces connected by compost be relatively close to each other, for example. The yellow lines (relaxation and meditation) suggest a visual connection. Water (blue) can be piped as needed, and so on.
The ‘thermal character’ of each space suggests whether the space should be on the south or the north side of the house, but this is not a hard requirement.
Regnerative Design and Permaculture are a blend of art and science. When beginning the regenerative design for a community, the design team is often encouraged to create a vision statement in the form of a story, tracing the origins of the site, its evolution and ultimately what it CAN be.
In a previous post, we looked at site analysis. In this post, we’ll wax more philosophic, historic and poetic (if I can manage that – writing poetry was never my thing, I prefer to put my poetic instincts into the design).
History of the Place
Before settlement by Europeans, this land was probably mostly forested. It is the high-ground of Washington DC and therefore unlikely to have been part of the river or marsh ecosystems. Up until the late 1800’s, this area was farmland, and it grew only slowly during the first decades of the 20th century. Only since around the time of the second World War has the neighborhood really take shape, and it has a rich cultural heritage including strong Jewish and African American communities. The project site is at the edge of the neighborhood, where it quickly transitions to multifamily housing and then commercial development. Houses here are set further back from the street, which is, in turn, wider than typical for the neighborhood. As a result, the street feels a little like an orphan, detached from the rest of the community. One of the client’s hopes for the new site design is that it will serve as an inspiration for other residents of the neighborhood. Creating a local network (perhaps even a small cooperative) of amateur gardeners could help bring the street’s residents closer together.
Regenerative design, and indeed the best architectural designs in general, spring from a deep understanding of the site and a sense of place. In a previous post, we talked about the Regenerative City House site location, the clients and their goals for the project. Here, we’ll talk about site analysis. You can use a similar process to analyze your own site.
It is common practice to analyze a site to determine the best building location and orientation based on views, proximity to the road, parking, local zoning, soil conditions (ground water and bearing capacity) and so on.
It is also not unusual to map existing vegetation in order to avoid unnecessary site preparation and to preserve specimen trees (those that inspire poetic outbursts).
For a large part of the 20th century, that was all the site analysis you needed; mechanical heating and cooling and electric lighting took care of the rest. Landscaping was intended to serve the building (generally as decoration); designers rarely asked themselves how the building could improve the on-site ecology.
In regenerative design (which is an extension of sustainable design), site analysis is more comprehensive. The goals here include taking advantage of natural light, air and water flows, and to promote cooperation between the building and landscape (rather than the landscape* serving the building alone). Lyle (ref.1), Yang (ref.2) and Mollison (ref.3) each include some great thoughts on comprehensive site analysis.
* In the context of regenerative design, the term “landscape” should be interpreted not merely as decorative trees and bushes, lawns and follies, but as a healthy functioning ecosystem supporting wildlife as well as the human community.
In this project, we are going to document the design process for a Single Family detached dwelling located in NW Washington DC. What is different about this project is the client’s interest in regenerative design. As 0ur website explains, the intent of regenerative building design is to make interventions that actually improve the environmental quality of the site, not just buildings that are ‘less bad’ for the environment.