LiveWork: The Eco-Development of the Future

According to the latest McGraw Hill Report, green home construction is on the upswing—it’s projected to receive a five-fold boost by 2016. However, there is debate as to how green these homes are. Surely, it’s more sustainable to buy an existing home and add green features to it (after recycling or reusing the items and materials replaced, of course). Additionally, many home developers are building these so-called sustainable homes and neighborhoods in suburban areas, much to the ire of many environmentalists—how green can it be if the owner still has to drive their vehicle everywhere?

Just when I was feeling a bit bummed about sustainable home building, I read this article in Fast Company, which profiles the LiveWork project, a sustainable housing plan out of Athens, Georgia that is the brainchild of two architectural students, Eric Laine and Suzanne Steelman. Taking into account the environment, economics and social factors, LiveWork consists of three single-family units that feature living spaces above commercial space. The family that lives on the second floor can choose to open their own business, lease the space to another business or let the Homeowner Association lease it to another business. With unemployment still high and many people foregoing the job hunt in favor of starting their own businesses, this is the ideal option. Additionally, since the business is so close to home, families with children may be able to save on childcare expenses as well as have the opportunity to use the time they would have spend commuting (an average of 30 minutes each way) with their kids instead.

LiveWork is intended to encourage sustainable living. The net-zero design is made of steel, which can be recycled, reclaimed or disassembled and used in another project. Additionally, it’s insulated with sheep’s wool, a material that features an R-value of a whopping 34.5! That’s a super tightly insulated home. Water is collected on the roof and stored underground for non-potable use, and a green screen encourages passive solar. Energy is derived from 95 photovoltaic panels, and is shared by all residents as well as sold back to the grid. Since the building is occupied, either by residents or businesses, 24-hours a day, energy is more efficiently used.

This is a great idea that really plays off traditional planning models. When the majority of people lived in cities, it wasn’t unusual for people to live above businesses, specifically their business. It makes sense and is a far easier commute than having to trudge along in traffic with thousands of other disgruntled and tired commuters who are sucking down coffee, McMuffins and Powerbars. I think as more people, especially the younger generation (who are essentially economically screwed, but also overflowing with confidence, bless their little hearts), reclaiming urban areas and looking to escape the monotony of the cubicle farm, the LiveWork concept will become a desirable solution and means of maintaining a sustainable economic and environmental existence without having to sacrifice relationships.

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Green Gains Ground for Recent Homebuyers

As the American housing market continues to recover, more buyers are interested in the green features a home offers. According to the most recent NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 6% of home buyers in 2010 cited green/environmentally friendly community features as one of the reasons they chose to purchase a home in the neighborhood they did. This was most commonly cited by buyers in urban areas and married couples, and is an increase from 5% in 2009. Although it’s a modest increase, it is an important one, one that may reflect increased knowledge of green solutions for the home or one that indicates a generational shift in priorities.

Or perhaps it shows recognition by homebuyers that long-term costs associated with green alternatives saves the other kind of green as well. The top three green features of importance include heating and cooling costs, energy efficient appliances and energy efficient lighting. While landscaping for energy conservation and eco-friendly community features were deemed “not important,” this may change in the future as energy costs increase. Buyers in the South were more likely to say that the top three green features were important, which may be surprising to some, until you realize that the costs associated with air conditioning—a necessity for many during the hot, sticky summer months—can drive up the monthly electric bill to several hundred dollars. That’s a huge bill to face each month.

While an energy efficient oven or clothes washer/dryer may have higher costs upfront, they have been shown to save the owner money over time…and decrease that hard-to-swallow electric bill. Similarly, conducting an energy audit, adding insulation, installing awnings or whole house fans, or upgrading to low-E windows may cause some homeowners to balk at the initial costs, the potential savings are huge and can make those high electric bills a distant bad memory.

For an overview of energy consumption in the home, and to find ways to reduce your footprint, go tohttp://www.energysavers.gov/pdfs/energy_savers.pdf

What We Can Learn from a Small German Village

To all the doubters who say that green technologies and ideas don’t create jobs, take a look at Feldheim, Germany, a rural village completely powered by renewable energy. The small village of 145 people has no unemployment; many of the residents work in the renewable sector, in the biogas plant or the wind and solar parks. It’s easy to dismiss this little tid-bit as an anomaly of a small town, but it’s hard to deny that the growth in the renewable energy sector translates to more jobs within this sector.

 

From beer to sustainable farming

Elsewhere in Germany, Frisch vom Dach, or Fresh from the Roof, is soliciting investors for an innovative aquaponic farm project for the roof of the Old Malthouse in Berlin. Beer and sustainable farming—I think I’m in love. Fish will live in the vats that once housed dry barley, while plants will grow in a greenhouse on the roof. While fish waste fertilizes the growing plants, the plants purify the water. In addition to growing fresh produce, fish will also grow and thrive. The harvest is intended for sale to a shop on-site as well as to local retailers. The first harvest is set for 2013.

 

Germany is making good on its promise to generate at least one-third of its power from wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy by 2020, and generate up to 80% of its power from these sources by 2050. In exchange for essentially funding R&D on renewable energy, homeowners that have installed solar panels and the like can sell the power they generate back to the grid. Because the country sees renewable energy and green technology as the future, they’re willing to set the bar for green investment, despite critics.

 

The U.S. should take a page from the Germans—we’re reaching a point where we have to either shit or get off the pot, and basically get onboard with the growth of the future renewable sector as that’s where the jobs are and will be in the future. Adopting green building and technology is not a partisan issue—it’s a logical solution for our changing times.

Finally, A Town for Bikers!

I’m a very lucky bike commuter—my little California beach town is full of 3-foot bike lanes on all of the major roads. The only hairy part of my commute is merging with traffic when the bike lane ends before the freeway on-ramp. Most bike commuters aren’t so lucky and have to deal with narrow streets, rude drivers and random idiocy.

 

Artist rendering of Bicycle City

However, a town in South Carolina is looking to change things and become a bike-only community (although cars are allowed to park on the outskirts of town). Bicycle City LLC has selected Gaston, South Carolina as the first car-free community. In addition to encouraging cycling and walking, all homes will be build in compliance with LEED standards and rely on clean energy. The community is located near the Three Rivers Greenway, an existing bike trail, and is close to Columbia, an established bicycle-friendly city. Situated between the mountains and the ocean, this Bicycle City boasts a myriad of amenities to its future residents.

 

Artist rendering of Bicycle City

Green features:

  • Multi-surface trails for walking, hiking and biking (oh my!)
  • Green homes
  • Recreational opportunities around the local lake
  • Access to a local organic market

 

Currently, only trail work is underway, but interested parties can reserve a home site in the community.

A Hobbit House in Wales

 

Throw in a hobbit house, like the sustainable one built in Wales, and consider me sold. Built by Simon Dale, the house was built with the environment in mind, touting straw bales for insulation, reclaimed and locally-sourced materials, natural ventilation, solar panels, gravity-fed water, compost toilet and a rainwater catchment system. Plus it took 1000-1500 man hours and £3,000 (about US$4,650). According to his website, Dale built the home for his family in order to live the life they wanted to lead, without the burdens of a mortgage payment or rent. He also did it to meet the challenges of sustainable land use issues and energy consumption. Armed with tools, motivation and a little help from his friends, he completed the home in four months. Since this project was a success, he’s in the process of building a home within an eco-village in Wales that is part of the Lammas Project.

Rendering of the Hobbit House

 

Rendering of Hobbit House