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A Tale of Two Houses

Two single-family homes in this year’s AIA COTE Top Ten show off two very different faces of contemporary sustainability

By Kim A. O'Connell

Although all of this year's AIA COTE Top Ten winners are exemplars of sustainable design, two projects that take divergent but similarly idealistic approaches are pointing the way forward for sustainable residential design. In terms of geography, style, and budget, the houses could not be more different: One is rooted in New Deal–era collectivism, thrift, and modesty; and the other is based on high technology, stylish luxury, and aspirational design pedigrees. Yet they can be viewed as two sides of the same sustainability coin.

Both the New Norris House and the Yin Yang House will be part of the discussion at Saturday’s AIA Convention session “2013 COTE Top Ten Eco-Buildings and Communities” and at the Committee on the Environment awards celebration tonight.

The New Norris House, designed by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville College of Architecture and Design, is a modest structure that pays homage to the historic houses built in the 1930s for the Norris Dam construction project. Originally developed in 1933 by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the village of Norris, Tenn., was a proto–New Urbanist place created around dense, walkable streets and modestly-sized, affordable homes. Like its predecessors, the LEED Platinum New Norris House is a paragon of affordable, modern, "right-sized" living. With just a $180,000 budget (which does not account for free student labor), the 1,000-square-foot house reduced material and operational loads and costs by relying on modular construction, high-efficiency systems, and passive solar design and ventilation. Its flexible floor plan contains up to three bedrooms and a sizable deck.

The Yin Yang House in Venice, Calif., designed by Los Angeles–based Brooks + Scarpa, is bigger in every sense—budget, formal ambition, and square footage. The $1.7 million, 3,800-square-foot home is a cool, classic, California Modern structure that combines home and office space in a way that honors both. Its rectangular “glass house” effect is distinguished by a large cantilever that becomes the house's main formal design move, while providing passive shading and serving as the infrastructure for a 12 kilowatt photovoltaic solar array.

Next generation of Norris

Despite their outward differences, what the houses do have in common is exceptionally high performance. The pitched-roof design of the New Norris House is simple and fits into the local gabled roof vernacular. But it also belies its incredible efficiency, which includes a 51 percent reduction in energy use over comparable homes, and a 97 percent reduction in water use (compared to nationwide averages), through the use of rainwater collection cisterns.

UT Knoxville architecture professor Robert French, a lead faculty advisor on the house along with professor Tricia Stuth, AIA, noticed that students tended to linger at the job site at the end of each workday. “The sunlight in this part of the country can be sublime, and that western light was coming into the house with that warm, warm glow,” he recalls. He points out that all rooms are daylit, but that the house's dormers and skylights are placed so that the light is reflected and diffused. “I knew at that point that this house was something special. The students began to touch and handle things there in an entirely different manner.”

The COTE jury praised the Norris team for taking a holistic view of the manufacturing process, and demonstrating how a residence could be delivered on site in an economical and energy-efficient way. They appreciated the prefabrication dimension of the project, and the historical references to the older Norris houses, which make it a prime candidate for replication in other places and sites.

“There was a fair amount of criticism when we started,” says Samuel Mortimer, who began working on the house as a student and is now employed by the architecture school as a lecturer, researcher, and project manager. At first, students had to reassure the local community, startled by the experimental nature of the design and the novelty of the sustainable features. “It was interesting to see how the community came around. Community members see that the house is on the same scale [as the existing Norris houses], and yet we have this soaring interior, where their homes are dark and cramped. It's a small house but there's a lot of space.”

Since its completion, the New Norris House has undergone regular monitoring and evaluation, with the full participation of its current resident Valerie Friedmann, a lecturer in the university’s landscape architecture program. (She blogs about the house regularly at the New Norris House website.) University officials are now discussing the possibility of auctioning off the house later this year, to provide future seed funding for similar projects.

“Good passive design is free”

The driving design concept behind the Yin Yang House, according to Scarpa, was “proper orientation first.” Everything else, he says, is just “icing on the cake.” Through the solar array, the house is performing at nearly net-zero energy use and has the best energy profile of any of this year's COTE Top Ten projects, according to the jury: It has never received an electric bill. The house also has a green roof that funnels water to a subsurface infiltration system that retains 95 percent of runoff on-site.

The jury took care to note that the price tag, while steep compared to the New Norris House, was actually affordable when compared to similar architect-designed custom homes. “The cost of this home was 25 to 50 percent less than the cost of similar custom homes being built in the area,” Scarpa says. “Good passive design is free. All other items, such as green roofs, solar panels, radiant heating, etc., can be evaluated as options based on the client’s budget.”

In addition to their integrated approaches to design and sustainability, the two houses will have another connection beginning next year, when Scarpa will come to the University of Tennessee as a visiting professor. “The Norris House is a fabulous little house, and shows the ingenuity of students, in a lot of cases more so than professionals,” Scarpa says. “The future looks bright for our upcoming generation of architects. That is why I teach.”

As contemporary notions of sustainability have evolved, a tension has developed (that has been exacerbated by the Great Recession’s pummeling of the design and construction industry) between the desire to reach the highest rung of sustainability achievement with expensive, almost inaccessible technology and building materials, and the more current—and also timeless—need to consider economic and social sustainability through affordability and passive design. This is the divide between the Yin Yang House and the New Norris House. But, ideally, each approach to sustainable design can play a complementary role for the other. Developments like the New Norris House need houses similar to the Yin Yang House to test and perfect tomorrow’s shelf-ready sustainable building systems. Meanwhile, the Yin Yang House and its ilk need developments like the New Norris House to bring its green building systems and practices to a wide market with a low price point.


The New Norris House, in Norris, Tenn. Image courtesy of Ken McCown.

Skylights bring abundant natural daylight into the small house. Image courtesy of Ken McCown.

The flexible floor plan means that the house can remain in an open loft-like configuration, or can have as many as two ground-level bedrooms. Image courtesy of Ken McCown.

A large cantilever is the Yin Yang House’s main formal design move, providing passive shading and serving as the infrastructure for a photovoltaic solar array. Image courtesy of Brooks + Scarpa.

The Yin Yang House also contains a green roof. Image courtesy of Brooks + Scarpa.

The Ying Yang House’s main living space. Image courtesy of Brooks + Scarpa.


Recent Related:

At Home with Architecture: The Best of Residential Design

Affordable Housing: Design for All

New COTE Top 10 Plus Proves What it Preaches

2013 AIA COTE Top 10 Green Projects

2010 AIA Architecture Firm Award Goes to Pugh + Scarpa

Larry Scarpa: Earnestness and Irreverence Meet in Southern California

Read ECOSTRUCTURE Magazine’s 2013 AIA COTE Top Ten Coverage


Visit the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) website on AIA KnowledgeNet.

Visit the AIA Housing Knowledge Community website on AIA KnowledgeNet.


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