The award winning firm of Johnsen Schmaling Architects clearly demonstrates how architectural innovations combined with lifestyle sacrifices can add up to contemporary, green living.
The OS House in Wisconsin is exalted for its genuine approach to environmental stewardship: a process that questions the conventional, right from choice of location and number of bathrooms to construction methods. The house was designed for a family of four who were keen to realise their vision of a green home in Racine.
Designed by Architects Brian Johnsen and Sebastian Schmaling, co-founders of the award-winning firm, Johnsen Schmaling Architects, the 1,948 sq. ft. three-bedroom house was built on a narrow infill lot that overlooks Lake Michigan, and is easily distinguished from the classic Victorian houses on the block by its modern, airy and cheerful design.
Since the site was partially filled with debris, the architects set to work starting with an extensive geotechnical analysis to understand the site’s drainage characteristics and ensure its long-term stability.
By restricting the built-up area to the upper plateau of the plot, Johnsen Schmaling presented the family with the concept of a compact house that would minimise its ecological impact.
To their credit, the family offered to reduce their living space even further with the suggestion of a common bathroom that they could all use in turns. It is often personal sacrifices like these and not just architectural or technological innovations alone that can make a genuine difference to the environment.
Nevertheless, the family did invest in green technology with the installation of photovoltaic system. The 4.2kw photovoltaic system made up of PV laminates adhered to the roofing membranes as well as a free-standing array. In summer, the excess power generated by the PV system is purchased at a premium by the utility company and fed back into the main grid.
Naturally irradiated, thanks to carefully sized windows that eliminate the need for artificial lighting during the day, OS House also harnesses solar energy to manage a portion of its hot water needs. The climate inside the house is maintained by a closed-loop geothermal system which is further enhanced by tightly-fitted doors through which no air can leak out or in.
Inside the house, sustainable bamboo flooring, locally fabricated casework with no added urea-formaldehyde, FSC certified engineered wood veneers, domestically-made wall and floor tiles, and VOC-free or low-VOC finishes keep up with the green theme.
What’s more, as part of LEED – the green certification program under which the building was designed, the contractors were required to follow certain building techniques – like collecting, sorting and shipping scrap material to a recycling yard in order to minimise construction waste.
No doubt, all of these measures added up nicely to make OS House a vision of the future, but at what cost?
Sebastian Schmaling acknowledges, “High-performance insulation materials, triple-glazed windows, recycled materials – all these add to the cost. Our experience is that a green home will cost about 20% more than a non-green one. That said the cost for green technology (like solar panels, etc.) has decreased dramatically over the last 5 years, so it will become increasingly more cost-effective to employ it in all of our future projects.”
Sensitivity to the environment was not restricted to nature alone; the community too benefited positively when the architects decided to go local for labour and construction by contracting neighbourhood firms. Since the local residential contractors had only marginal exposure to green technologies they took time to learn and adapt to the scrutiny of LEED standards.
On completion, the project was enrolled in the ‘LEED for Homes Pilot Program’ and subsequently earned a Platinum Certification. In 2011, it was picked as one of the top 10 green projects in the country by AIA and has since earned several other noteworthy awards.
Sebastian Schmaling summarises the project: “The house is built around a palette of sustainable and durable materials to make this a house for life.” In a subtle way, OS House demonstrates how the process of greening the planet really begins at home.
Text By Christabelle Athaide
Photographs Courtesy John J. Macaulay