by Brian Baughan –
Over the past several months, Philadelphia has witnessed the design and construction of modern homes pointing the way toward sustainable living. Through the convenient medium of the blog, readers have watched two buildings take shape from their own homes and offices.
Building Green on Montrose and the 100K House are blogs charting the weekly progress of two green homes, located respectively in South Philadelphia and Kensington. Southern Liberties, LLC, the design firm renovating the Montrose Street house, and Postgreen, the developers behind the 100K House, have registered for platinum status for Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED).
Both developers report that they made easy LEED gains by building on existing residential spaces (the Montrose project has renovated a 100-year-old row home, while the 100K house has built on an infill lot). Each project has several enticing features: the South Philadelphian home features a vegetated (“green”) roof and has used “reclaimed, recycled, and sustainably certified materials”; the 100K House achieved exceptional energy performance—bolstered in great part by its SIPs (Structurally Insulated Panels)—and has a hard construction budget of only $100,000 (amounting to $100 per square foot).
Blog posts for the 100K House go back to October 2007, while the Montrose site began posting in April of last year. Both developers expect to finish construction within the next two months. Such details of the project are already well known to many visitors to the blogs; so are the designs of the homes and the stories behind their innovative features.
Green building is a growing industry in the larger field of sustainability. Over the past decade more builders, architects, and developers are proactively seeking ways to lessen the environmental impacts of their structures. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is the most recognized national organization committed to sustainable practices in renovation and new construction. It also created the LEED standard, the widely accepted benchmark of green building that require professionals to meet a number of criteria including energy efficiency, limited water use, and conservation of materials and resources. The Delaware Valley Green Building Council, one of more than 70 USGBC chapters, promotes green building principles and practices in our region.
The Building Green on Montrose and the 100K House blogs are also helping to boost sustainable building practices. They also help dispel some of the mysteries and complications about green design and construction. For Christopher Stromberg, who publishes Building Green on Montrose and operates Southern Liberties, LLC, with his wife, Emily, the goal is not to make everyone architects, but to provide them with “a little ammunition” in the planning of their own projects. Nic Darling, who handles Postgreen’s marketing and PR and shares blogging duties with Postgreen president Chad Ludeman, explains that his web site helps readers “navigate the confusing maze of standards.”
Stromberg and Darling both concede that there is a lot of information to absorb and that the research can be overwhelming for the average home owner. “If you find a standard that is easy to understand, then it is probably skimming over some pretty important details,” says Darling. “The complexity is a necessity of sorts.”
Blogging has been an educational endeavor for the authors as well as for the general public. Stromberg takes satisfaction in knowing that his team has “a full journal of every decision we made,” because keeping a public record of the Montrose house’s journey has required carefully vetting decisions and justifying them to vigilant critics in cyberspace. Darling has the same conclusion about his company’s project, which has also drawn input from professional and amateur architects. “Every element of the design and build has been documented and commented upon by our readers,” he reports. The more insightful comments have led to “changes, adjustments and improvements” in many elements of the Postgreen design.
Faithful reading and regular commenting have given the 100k House site a feel that Darling describes as “open source.” For both blogs, readers have volunteered opinions on nuts-and-bolts decisions—like whether the bright red reclaimed bricks of the Montrose façade need to be painted over—and on deeper philosophical issues such as the number of square feet an average person needs or the ecological ramifications of suburban development. (In the latter post on the 100K House blog, Darling described the expensive process of adding green features to an energy-inefficient home as “polishing a turd.” Later in the debate, which spanned 42 comments yet maintained a civil tone, Darling explained that he doesn’t have a “blind prejudice against suburban development. I have a well-reasoned and extensively thought out prejudice against it.”)
Handling the dual responsibilities of project management and writing has not been easy for the bloggers. Challenges have included working with some subcontractors resistant to new procedures and filling out the paperwork required for LEED certification. Stromberg, however, says that the paperwork is not nearly as cumbersome as it is with commercial projects. Both firms actually believe that some LEED criteria could be even more stringent. “I think [LEED] does the best job of pointing in the right direction,” says Darling. “It is up to us to take it further.”
After these projects wrap up, there are more exciting developments on the horizon for both firms. This spring Stromberg will teach a design/build course at Philadelphia University that will bring local renovation projects into the studio and use them as case studies. Inspired by the large sources of reclaimed local materials uncovered during the Montrose project, Stromberg has also begun planning for a shop in Fishtown that will provide customers with a steady stream of reclaimed timber.
Darling reports that Postgreen has more home developments in the near future. Their next houses will use the “Passive House” design, a German building standard famous for its low energy performance. The firm is also exploring a web platform that will customize the design process and streamline home purchases.