When I first ran the numbers on the new Title 24 project from Klopf Architecture, the numbers were so high – 50% over compliance – that I immediately assumed that I had made a mistake somewhere in the calculations. After an internal review, however, we realized that it really was one of the most efficient projects we had ever taken through the energy compliance process. How did they do it?
Turns out that John Klopf, whom I’ve known through the AIA-SF Small Business Committee, is a huge fan of Eichler homes, and so were the clients who commissioned this new home in Cupertino, CA. They found Klopf through the Eichler Network, which is an online community “dedicated to supporting the lifestyle of the nearly 11,000 homeowners in Northern and Southern California who own an ‘Eichler’ home.”
Eichler homes, which were mass-produced tract homes designed by top-flight Modern architects, are highly prized today among fans of Midcentury Modern and California Modern architecture for their distinctively contemporary features – spartan simplicity, clean lines, open floor plans, post-and-beam construction, concrete slab floors with integral radiant heating, and integrated outdoor and indoor spaces.
“Eichler homes are fun to renovate,” says Klopf. Eichler was unusually egalitarian for his time – non-discriminatory housing policies weren’t the norm at that time – and he made quality California Mid-Century Modern designs accessible to people of relatively modest means. “The homes employ limited technology, but are still relatively comfortable. Today, Eichler homes offer tons of potential as green projects, because their energy performance can be easily improved by affordable measures such as improved insulation and replacing the original clear glass with high-performing windows in the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.”
The owners are a high-energy couple with two young children who needed more space, more flexibility, and to remain in the highly-ranked Cupertino school district. Their desire to continue the Eichler aesthetic in their new home led them to John Klopf, who is widely known for his respectful work with Eichler homes.
However, the new home would be situated in an area of midsized 1960s ranch homes, on a small cul-de-sac where at least half the residents are retirees. They didn’t want it to stick out. So, the front aims for a “typical” suburban ranch feel with only a bit of modernizing. The client selected a cement fiberboard siding in horizontal planks, Artisan from Hardie, that is energy efficient and termite-resistant but which nonetheless blends well into the neighborhood. Then, as the view moves towards the rear, the Modern portions shine forth with a wall of glass at the rear. All that glass makes the home’s efficiency all the more amazing.
How did you design this home to be so efficient?
John Klopf responded, “We started off with a proper solar orientation. The home is designed to stay as cool as possible without A/C, because the client did not want A/C. Then we made the west wall mostly solid, without windows, with the exception of one portion of the western wall that featured spectrally selective, ultra high performing glass.”
“On the north wall, we used floor to ceiling windows to let in lots of light. This helped with stack-effect cooling as well. We kept the south facade relatively closed, with punched windows. This was not only for energy performance, but also to keep the front of the house in keeping with the ranch-style homes that surrounded it.”
Other basic energy design measures included 2×6 studs instead of the standard 2×4, in order to fit more insulation into the walls. “A lot of it is just using good quality construction, which should be what we’re doing anyway,” said Klopf.
Solar features include a giant sloping roof to the south, always intended for a big solar array, using solar hot water for radiant heating, and solar thermal. “We haven’t gotten to the interiors yet, so interior air quality is still ‘up in the air’. There’s no carpeting, which will do a lot to improve indoor air quality, and heat recovery ventilation systems will also help with air quality.”
Geoff Campen, another designer at Klopf Architecture, added, “Our contractor Phil is very into sustainability. He really helped us out a lot.” This was Phil Carey at Starburst Construction, a Certified Green Builder who’s well-known in the Cupertino area.
“Also, the client is VERY interested in sustainability, very adventurous. He likes to try out things that could work, even if they don’t have much precedent. He’s willing to take risks and make sacrifices. He’s open to the possibility of it not working quite as expected,” observed Geoff. “He asked us to look into SIPs and ICFs, was interested in solar PVs and water heating. We even considered gray water at one point. What we did was we walked through the GreenPoint Rating system with him, with the idea of doing everything possible.”
How does the client feel about the design?
“The house will be more than triple the size of the previous structure,” the client says, “yet it will use far less energy and it will not be a looming monster home out of character with the area. The beautiful modern design and advanced technology are well integrated into the neighborhood. We’re very happy with the plans.”
The client confirms that “the neighbors are very pleased with the look”. “In fact,” he says, “it seems the only comment the planning department received was an email that said “I approve!”. That was sent by a neighbor who is a big supporter of PV, hybrid cars and social change. But the more conservative neighbors seem impressed as well, and may for the first time believe a greener lifestyle could be a reasonable and practical choice.”
How did the contractor influence the design?
Did he advise you on things like window placement? “It wasn’t so much about design as working out the mechanical equipment. Phil is actually a Certified Green Builder, with a lot of experience. He advised us on what was possible or not possible. Some of the GreenPoints are for use of certain materials, some of which are harder to obtain in California,” said Geoff.
“We started working with the subs like Solar City early on, and they provided the schematics for their systems.” These consultants included the solar, mechanical, and the landscape architect – and you guys [Green Compliance Plus] for the Title 24. There was no need for a lighting consultant, because the Eichler style calls for simpler lighting.”
Our discussion veered into what green building meant. I mentioned Green Compliance Plus’ recent Jeff King interview, and Geoff agreed. “Green Building is about living simpler, really, and less being more. But the flashier side can serve more as a mechanism for social change.“
John Klopf was more emphatic. “Sustainability is not a part of architecture. Architecture is a part of sustainability.” So what does this mean?
Even the experts don’t always agree on what “sustainability” itself really means. Klopf actually has several definitions of sustainability on pages 9 and 10 (PDF 17 and 18) of his report on sustainability for the University of California Merced Campus, available on his web site under “Research”.
Most “green” practices today are focused on mitigating degradation by incremental measures: slowing pollution, reducing toxins, increasing reuse. More ambitious approaches to sustainability actually seek to enhance the Earth’s carrying capacity by eliminating the concept of “waste” altogether.
But then there’s the practical side of what actually gets built, how it gets built, and with which materials.
When researching new materials like Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) or Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs), Geoff stressed the importance of selecting vendors with some financial stability. And, the best people to provide practical, useful information about these things are not the vendors – it’s the contractors.
“For one thing, not all SIPs are seismically approved for California. For another, it changes some of your construction methods for the trades. How the subs cut into the material to lay their systems is different with SIPs. When you install them, you have to cut every piece by hand.”
ICFs – Insulated concrete forms – are cast in place concrete, but the forms are left on. They have rigid insulation inside and out. The builder can attach sheetrock to the inside insulation, and apply a special waterproofing treatment to the outside. Do ICFs cost more than conventional building materials? “Well sometimes. But you might save on labor because these products are modular, pre-manufactured, and quicker to install.”
When’s the project going to be completed?
“Assuming the permitting goes smoothly, it should be done by the end of 2010”.
How are Planning and Building officials responding to the project?
“They’ve been very helpful, because they see that we’re serious,” said Geoff. “They’ve supported the project by making it easier to get variances on roof heights (for the solar), and they’ve moved everything very quickly.”
How does Cupertino feel about GreenPoints?
“In Cupertino, a GreenPoint checklist may be required, but you can hit the 60-point minimum without even trying. We’re at about 270 points right now,” Geoff responded. Klopf mentioned that Cupertino will pay for a GreenPoint rater to come out, as long as the home scores at least 75 GreenPoints. Since all submittals now need to include a GreenPoint checklist (not the same as an actual GreenPoint rating, which takes place after the house is built), theoretically the owner would know in advance how their GreenPoint rating was likely to pan out.
Are the clients doing home automation?
The clients didn’t want a fully integrated home automation system, but they are doing interesting things such integrating spectrally selective “smart glass” into the extensive glass walls along the rear of the home. Geoff adds, “They focused more on the relationships between spaces. One of them is an artist with a home studio, and she wanted to be able to watch the kids as they played or did homework in other parts of the home.” The other client requested more isolated spaces for a media room and a quiet but sunny home office. Klopf’s design team was able to meet all of their goals.
“This process has been as good for us as for the client,” Geoff continued. “At my last firm, we designed $10-$15M homes, but those clients were just not as committed. They’d say, ‘Oh, can it be green? We want solar’ without really understanding what that means. And, when they realize that sustainability means they can’t have those exotic finishes that have to be shipped from across the world, they abandon the green. It’s just not that important to them.”
By contrast, in this project, the clients’ commitment to green was the vital enabling factor in this project. “He’s a marketing consultant for high-tech companies. He’s also very into ham radio, has huge antennas at his home. He has a good grasp of engineering, knows a lot about building… this client was willing make sacrifices that in turn helped us get more into the project. We’ve never been able to engross ourselves in a project to this extent. With this experience, and the added credibility, we’ll be better prepared to push it in other projects.”
The client agreed, adding, “I think with this design we’ve managed to prove that a highly efficient, very green home can fit into an average suburban neighborhood quite well, requiring no uncomfortable sacrifices or anything that might seem like an eccentric lifestyle to the average neighbor.
“As the authors of Break Through argue, long-term environmental goals are more easily achieved when you can appeal to practical and immediate concerns like people’s wallets and their country’s energy independence, not by asking them to give up their lifestyle and get all crunchy just for the sake of the polar bears.”
“We’re very lucky that the client shared our passion for green design,” Geoff said emphatically. “The client’s commitment was the key. And, he’s savvy. We don’t have to teach him, we just have to meet and work things out.”
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.