Innovation is the wellspring of success in every American industry, and residential construction is no different. Earlier this year, Builder invited you, our readers, to send in your best new ideas, and tell us how those ideas are helping you turn a new page in your own stories. We received far more entries than we expected, proof that innovative thinking is alive and well in home building.
From reinventing the home building process, to rethinking small-footprint development and design, to making the home into a producer of energy, not just a consumer, builders and designers have sent us ideas with the potential to transform the way houses are sited, built, and lived in. Here, we present some of our selections from the best of the submissions we received; the rest of our picks can be found on our website at www.builderonline.com/innovation2010.
Traditional Style Meets Factory Construction
As the population ages, as buyers increasingly prefer smaller homes to the extravagant super-sized homes of recent decades, and as urban planners increasingly favor neighborhood infill to commuter-based sprawl, the building industry must evolve new systems that can support affordable construction of small homes on scattered sites. In answer to that challenge, Yale- and University of Pennsylvania–educated architect Russell Versaci offers a fusion of traditional architectural styles with advanced factory housing production methods: the “Pennywise” portfolio of modular homes. In partnership with modular manufacturer Haven Homes, Versaci has created a palette of houses based on vernacular patterns from American history, starting with mini-footprint cottages such as a 721-square-foot gambrel-roofed “Hudson Valley Cottage” and a 748-square-foot shotgun-style “Florida Keys Cottage.” Along with the flexibility to deliver standard homes to scattered sites with comprehensive cost control, the biggest advantage to builders may be a drastic reduction in cycle times: Versaci estimates that schedules can be trimmed by five months.
Advanced Multifamily for the New Urban Fringe
Winchester Homes’ and Camberley Homes’ entry is a sophisticated, nuanced extension of the traditional multi-unit townhouse concept, pushing the boundaries of design to achieve a creative match with an evolving urban/suburban site. With mass transit extending urban access into a suburban location, Winchester needed to create dense housing that would appeal to urban-dwellers’ sense of style, at an affordable price point. The design team used an advanced building information management (BIM) computer modeling application from Argos Systems, “Vertex BD,” to visualize successive iterations of the design concept, collecting input from design, purchasing, production, sales, and marketing members of the team throughout the process, as the design went from raw concept to full visualization. The result is a unique building floor plan that, among other things, results in four end-unit homes in each building, rather than the traditional two—maximizing the high-value, attractive potential of the building while maintaining a compact, efficient footprint. Extra points to the Winchester team for using BIM not just to get from point A to point B, but to extend the envelope for where point B can be: They leveraged the best design technology to create a project that goes beyond what’s already been done.
Low Profile, Earth-Bermed Multifamily Plan
California designer G. Karen Sutton has evolved an interesting new take on the standard multifamily recipe, creating a low-profile elevation that incorporates two interesting twists. At the base of the building, Sutton includes a bermed perimeter with plantings that provides partial earth sheltering to the lower wall. Atop the building, she calls for a flat roof area, disguised with dormers and gables to present the street with a traditional façade. The flat roof allows for solar panels and easy deployment of rooftop HVAC equipment, minimizing the building’s intrusion on the landscape surrounding the home; the perimeter berm integrates the structure nicely into the surrounding landscape, while boosting the energy efficiency of the envelope.
Steel and Plastic: The Basement of the Future?
Let’s face it, concrete foundations haven’t advanced very far since the days of Julius Caesar. Cement is good stuff, but is it really the last word? Not if you ask David Zuppan, developer of a plastic-and-steel foundation concept he calls “Hydrolock.” A basement for the Space Age, Hydrolock is a frame made of steel web trusses, with a sandwich skin composed of layers of high-density, high molecular-weight polyethylene (HMWPE) surrounding an insulating core of extruded polystyrene (XPS). Engineered to support building loads and the pressure of soil, the system is also moisture- and radon-proof, Zuppan says. It’s made of recycled material, and it’s quick to install. And for sites with soft soils, it’s lightweight. What’s not to love?
See-Through Concrete Forms: New Versatility
When you pour concrete walls, you’re working blind. Strip the forms, and you may find voids or other defects you didn’t expect—and don’t want. Builder Louis Joe Lanc, founder of CPU Construction, has invented a solution he calls Concrete Plastic Units, modular, stackable clear PVC forms that let you see what’s going on while you work. But the benefits don’t stop there, says Lanc. The snap-together system’s inner wall dividers let the builder create vertical layers of different kinds of concrete, so your wall could be a layered system that pairs structural components with insulating light-weight concrete elements. Plus, the PVC skin stays in place to supply the structure with added flexural strength—and, according to preliminary computer simulation studies, even a measure of blast resistance for high-security applications.
Durability Meets Strength: Making the Brick Better
Masonry’s durability is legendary. But traditional brick construction has a couple of key drawbacks: It’s unstable against wind or earthquake, and bricks are porous—so porous that they require a water-shedding drainage plane behind the brick, when used as a modern wall cladding. But that’s all changed now, says Don Blalock of Aeonian Brick Homes. Aeonian has developed a new type of compressed earth brick that is waterproof and requires no firing. The bricks have virtually no expansion or contraction, which is a first for building materials. Manufactured to close tolerances, the bricks are designed with keys and grooves for interlocking stacked assembly using adhesive, rather than mortar—for a wall system engineered to withstand 240-mph winds. The inventors intend the product to be used for interior as well as exterior walls; with spray insulation and the benefit of thermal mass, they’re aiming at LEED Platinum energy and environmental performance. And as for longevity, that’s why they chose the name “Aeonian”—it means, “to last an eon or an unspecified long period of time.”
Process Transformation: Design-Build Brings Economy of Effort to Custom Building
In theory, having a home custom built is the best way for buyers to get exactly what they want. But that benefit comes at a cost: the multitude of false starts, missed expectations, and unexpected costs that dog so many custom projects in the real world. Robert Kleiman and Mark Sapiro, founders of Woodland Hills, Calif., home building company Structure Home, tackled that problem head-on. As former production builders, they started with a systems approach: “We have taken every last aspect of design and construction into account, considered every possible feature, assigned dollar amounts, and placed all this information into our system,” says Kleiman. Then they spent a year interviewing clients and trade partners about what they liked and didn’t like in the home building process. “We looked at all the steps needed to get from the first client meeting to an approved set of plans and a construction schedule, and identified about 100 specific milestones.” That created the basis for a critical path schedule that Structure Home calls “The Journey.” When clients know what to expect when, and when the company delivers on that promise, says Kleiman, they’re happy. “We take The Journey very seriously,” he says, “and it is the reason why 95 percent of our new business comes from referral by previous clients.” Website: www.structurehome.com
Continuous Improvement Handbook
With five decades of experience in process improvement, and a decade under his belt applying management theory to home building, Jack B. ReVelle could write the encyclopedia on high-performance business systems for builders—and he has. If you’re looking to put continuous improvement theory into practice, ReVelle’s book, co-authored with home building data-cruncher Derek Margetts, is a good place to start.
Heritage Scores With Woman-Centric Marketing
Here’s a marketing breakthrough for you: Give the ladies what they want. “Woman-Centric” design and marketing has transformed Heritage Homes’ business in the Fargo/Morehead market, helping the company post a 30 percent increase in home sales from 2008 to 2009—with another 40 percent jump in first-quarter 2010 over first-quarter 2009. Partnering with Omaha, Neb.–based Design Basics, Heritage learned and applied a new design ethos around the four “lenses,” identified by Design Basics, that women use to engage with the way a home “lives”—entertaining, de-stressing, storing, and flexible living. At home shows, Heritage set up a personality profiling station for women home buyers, with four demonstration living rooms set up to match the profiles of passers-by who took the test. The result: a big jump in floor traffic, with plenty of chatting to sales reps among people waiting in line to take the test. Any marketing makeover is all well and good, but Heritage’s effort is keyed to a fundamental realization: Women make the final decision in the vast majority of home purchases. Companies that get it are one innovation ahead of the pack.
Websites: www.heritagefargo.com, www.designbasics.com
Sustainable Suburbia: All the Development That Fits
In his recently completed doctoral dissertation, LEED-accredited Doctor of Architecture Mark Di Cecco tackled the top big-picture problem facing the entire home building sector: how to adapt our hand-me-down development concepts to the pressing needs of a living planet in the context of scarce resources. In contrast to the standard developer approach, Di Cecco offers a new model: mixed-use, dense communities that include walkable public ways, multifamily and single-family housing, commercial and office space, and lots of green space. For communities, Di Cecco argues, this new vision lets them offer more amenities to more citizens—with less impact on tight budgets or vulnerable ecosystems. Best of all, he points out, we could start this today, as the industry gets back to work on existing idle developments across the nation.
Rethinking the Roof—As a Solar Collector
Traditionally, roofs have been a part of the house that the builder wants to finish, then forget about—for at least 20 years, if not longer. So far, the roof has served one purpose only: protection against the weather. But in the 21st century, roofs are taking on a new role: “Living roofs” are becoming part of the ecosystem; rain catchment and storage roofs are helping manage stormwater and meet the home’s water needs; and solar roofs are providing energy for the home. In that context, Greenward Alternatives has an innovation that is so simple, it’s brilliant. The company takes the worst characteristic of an old-fashioned attic roof—its tendency to overheat—and transforms that into an asset in a revolutionary attic design it calls the Greenward Dual Zone Attic. The design uses the Greenward Ridge Vent to turn part of the traditional attic—the zone nearest the ridge—into the Greenward Upper Heat Recovery Zone, creating a solar oven that captures heat for preheating the home’s domestic hot water supply. The rest of the roof plane is sectioned off into the Greenward Lower Heat Reduction Zone using Greenward radiant barrier or other attic heat reduction products, easing the load on the house’s cooling system for additional energy savings. The result is an almost completely passive solar hot water system, with a comfortable room-temperature attic. It’s an elegant solution, and one with big potential for a nationwide energy payoff: As the company points out, water heating is the second biggest energy consumer in American homes, behind heating and cooling. And, as anyone with teenage children knows, the need to heat water is one household load that’s not going away on its own. If just 1 percent of American homes added the Greenward system, the company figures, the energy produced would exceed the energy output of the proposed Cape Wind wind farm off the shores of Cape Cod (slated to cost one to two billion dollars). And that’s not just hot air.
Deep Solar: Buried Geothermal Heat Pump Systems
Ground-source heat pump equipment is usually located in a basement or mechanical room, but that can limit the application of the technique. Deep Solar’s innovation, the brainchild of engineer and company founder Michael McCaughan, is to locate the machinery in a below-ground chamber outside the home, making it more practical to use in houses with no basement, or as a retrofit where outdoor, above-ground air-source equipment is already in place. Deep Solar also claims industry-leading heating and cooling efficiency.
Keeping Cool, Harvesting Heat: Solar Awnings
Solar heating through windows, in the wrong season, imposes a big energy penalty on houses. Eliosolar Thermal Shade Structures are solar window awnings that block the incident sunshine, shade the windows, and capture the heat for domestic hot water and pool heating. They’re eligible for energy-efficient tax incentives, too.
Remote Security: A Networked Lockset
Schlage breaks new ground in keyless security with an Internet-enabled, entry-door lockset. As with everything Internet related, the potential is extensive. Homeowners can monitor the house from their work computer or their Web-enabled cell phone (the iPhone and Blackberry apps are free). You can lock and unlock doors over the Web; find out by automatic e-mail or text message when your kids come home; and enable temporary access codes for the keypad lock as needed for day workers or other one-time visitors. The greatest benefit, however, might be to builders, not homeowners—this technology makes it easy for businesses to manage subcontractor access, to keep logs of entry and access, and to pass on control to the buyer when the property changes hands.
BIG PICTURE THINKING
A Futuristic Vision: Cradle-to-Cradle Livability
“Imagine,” suggests visionary thinker James Crowell, “a floating factory sailing into port to process local waste into heat and co-generated energy, then process raw materials for the production of affordable housing and the other structures of the future.” Crowell is just getting started on the alternative world-view he calls “e~TECH.” The full Monty involves a transformation of the home building process in the image of Henry Ford’s revolutionary transformation of auto manufacturing, enabling a reinvention of the family house as a self-contained, self-sustaining, and energy-producing habitat where people even grow their own food. With the factory in the background, the houses would snap together on site using unskilled labor. (“What if,” asks Crowell, “your solar roof was in place and producing electricity while protecting the workers by the end of the third day after first breaking ground?”) Whole houses and even whole cities, Crowell promises, could be disassembled and moved at will—“with barely a loss of a single component.” It’s an inspiring vision; full details, says Crowley, “are available to serious qualified entities.”