Thursday, May 21, 2009

Green & Affordable May 21, 2009

Hans Fedderke and Aash Desai with their partners Joe and Andy Magliochetti of Helios Design + Build have an ambitious objective: take vacant lots in Chicago and build environmentally sustainable homes with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths all in 1,400 square feet. What makes that ambitious you say? The price tag! Hans and Aash are going to sell these homes to low-income individuals for a $195,000 each! Impossible you say? Not with these two. That’s why Sierra Club Green Home sat down with them recently to hear their story.SCGH: This project sounds amazing. Can you provide our readers some background as to how this got started?Hans: Of course. The project started almost 2 years ago. It came out of a desire to really do something green and affordable and to do it on a larger scale. The high-end custom build is almost unsustainable in a way if you think about it, and I got involved in this project by talking with another architect about how we could build a home that didn’t rely on really expensive technology to be sustainable but was built intelligently from the start. With that vision, we used our contacts with the City of Chicago to find a neighborhood where we could begin to construct homes and recognize our vision. Thankfully, the City of Chicago and Alderman Burnett have been very helpful and we hope to break ground in the Humboldt Park area in Spring 2009.SCGH: So, $195,000? Is that realistic? I think a lot of our readers would be shocked to learn that you can put up a green home for that little money. Tell us some of the secrets.
Aash: It starts with building smarter. Traditional stick-building has a lot of inefficiencies and we’re aiming to remove those inefficiencies in a couple of ways. First, we’re investing heavily in design. The actual design of the house and the layout of the rooms has a big impact on the cost to build and operate. For instance, we’ve designed the HVAC system to minimize the ductwork required. We’ve also taken as much advantage of natural light and passive solar heating as possible. In fact, we rejected many lots the City thought we could use because we only want to build on north/south streets to take full advantage of the sun. Second, we’ve moved some of the process off-site. When possible, we’re using pre-fabricated panels which are less expensive to build and allow us to build a much tighter envelope. This tighter envelope not only reduces ongoing HVAC costs, but allows us to install a smaller HVAC system on Day 1, further lowering costs. Finally, we’re going to replicate the same design multiple times. Just like Boeing can’t make money on the first 777 it produces, we can’t make money on the first home we produce, especially at a sales price of $195,000. However, by using the same design multiple times, we get some economies of scale and real learnings that will help us lower the costs of production over time. We really believe sustainability doesn’t have to be a higher cost product, just a better designed product.
SCGH: So, if I understand you right, you’re going to do some part of the building away from the actual construction site. Tell me about that? Why is that a benefit?

Hans Fedderke and Aash Desai onsite discussing the project.
Aash: A lot of things are still happening on-site but instead of building the actual frame on-site, we’re bringing in pre-insulated panels and erecting them on site. This allows us to get the home closed quickly, reducing our temporary heating needs and helping to keep the home secure. We’re still bringing in lots of materials for inside the house. This isn’t a modular home like at the Museum of Science and Industry. The mechanical and electrical systems will still be assembled on-site but we’re working with our vendors to limit the fittings, corners, attachments to help make the assembly as quick and easy as possible.
Hans: That brings up another great point. We’re very reliant on our vendors to give us advice. We don’t believe our way is the only way and many times our vendors can help us design a better solution. Our mechanical is a great example. We’re going to use a central trunk ductwork that branches out and opens up and down so we can use less material. This idea came from our suppliers and was clearly a better solution.
SCGH: So, a lot of what we talked about here was behind the scenes stuff. If I was going to live in the house, tell me the 3 cool things I’d immediately notice.
Aash: Well, first you’ll notice the house is going to be much brighter. We have a large solar chimney right in the middle of the home bringing in lots of daylights to every room in the house, not just those in the front and the back. It makes the house more pleasant to live in, and it also helps lower electrical bills. The second thing you’ll notice is how low your utility bills are. We’re targeting a house that is at least 30% more efficient than codes require.
Hans: The third thing would probably be the floor plan. We’ve designed the house to have maximum usable space. This keeps you from having to heat and cool hallways and it keeps construction costs down because the overall footprint of the house can be smaller.
SCGH: So, when all is said and done, just describe the house as I’ll see it.
Hans: The neat thing is the design starts on the outside. We’re minimizing storm runoff by using permeable pavement and installing a green roof. We wanted to keep the impermeable footprint to a minimum. Then, when you enter the home, you’ll feel like you immediately came into the middle of the house. There’s a big living room up front and the solar chimney is right there lighting up the room. The kitchen is then behind the chimney. Walking up the stairs, you’ll continue to get lots of natural light and once you’re upstairs, you’ll have 3 bedrooms. We worked hard to make sure the rooms could be as large and usable as possible.
We also invested a lot in the little things that make the home sustainable. We’re using bamboo flooring, low VOC paints, low-flow fixtures and high-efficiency lighting. Almost none of these components are an “upgrade” in the sense that they cost the same as traditional materials but they make a huge difference in the cost of maintaining the home, the health of the occupants, and the home’s overall impact on the environment.
SCGH: So, ultimately if you’re going to make this happen, you must be getting a lot of help from the City of Chicago. Tell us how the City has helped you in this endeavor and how other cities can think about copying the model.
Hans: The key to the whole thing has been getting community support from the beginning. When we first started, we were working with both the local development council and Alderman Burnett of the 27th Ward. With their help, we tweaked the home and the design a bit to make sure we were accommodating all of their concerns. We’re also working with the City Lots for City Living program. This program allows the City to provide us vacant parcels of land at no or limited costs in exchange for our commitment to build affordable housing on the site. And we’re working with the Building Employment and Entrepreneurial Partnerships (BEEP) committee of West Humboldt Park to help us find local employees to work on-site.
SCGH: What’s the timeline for this whole project? When can we come back for a tour of a completed home?
Hans: We’re looking to break ground on 2 units in April 2009 and deliver those in June 2009.
Aash: The initial allocation is for 14 lots and we hope to build 2 at a time and continuously learn from what we build. The nice part of having a standardized process is we can learn and improve the process with subsequent homes. This will help us ensure the sustainable housing isn’t just for the top of the market but can be accessible to everybody.

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