Designing Your Home

John Connell founded the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in 1980 and the Yestermorrow Building Group Inc. (later to become 2morrow Studio in 1982.) He taught at Yale's school of architecture for five years after which he authored the book Homing Instinct: Using Your Lifestyle to Design & Build Your Own Home, McGraw Hill, 2000. Besides teaching he is currently designing green homes that tell "stories", design/building treehouses for handicapped children, and animating short films. 2morrow Studio puts into actual practice the design/build philosophy taught at the Yestermorrow School. A small design/build firm in Vermont, 2morrow Studio works with residential and small commercial clientele interested in integrated energy-efficient architecture using the latest green and sustainable methodologies. Besides architectural design, Connell is an experienced team builder, group facilitator and educational program designer. The Yestermorrow School teaches people how to plan, design, build or renovate their own homes. It is staffed by over 40 architects, builders and artisans from all over the United States who believe that the way to improve the built and natural environments is to re-involve people in vernacular architecture.

Questions and Answers

Q: We have purchased a 1.2 acre lot in Rochester. We purchased an online design of a wood frame cottage - very simple, hoping to utilize energy efficient and water efficient technologies. However, the house design is now posing problems for the piece of land, which is sloped and small. The builder we've been talking to really is a nice fellow but has no real experience with green building and his subcontractors seem very "old school." So, we're switching direction, reassessing the entire design and seeking a new builder.

We are open to multiple designs but still like the one we picked - a very traditional looking wood cottage with much open space. We plan to rent the cottage out for 10 years until we retire, so it needs to have enough conventional appeal to ensure a consistent rent fulfillment. We are, however, very open to new design approaches. I wonder if you could recommend my next step!

A: Your present situation is certainly not unusual. Stock plans rarely work where the terrain is rugged and site planning is all important. Indeed, any truly green and sustainable design approach starts with a full assessment of the site. After all, when we build we are insinuating ourselves into a pre-existing ecology. It takes a little study to figure out the best place to locate a house. It's not possible to accommodate specific view alignments, solar access, water drainage, and other site constraints when designing in a vacuum. Therefore, stock plans are best saved for sub-divisions where the building lots are reliably flat and the orientation is predictable. But what about all the people like yourself, who have a spot in the country and want to build something distinctive and sustainable? You are precisely the type of person for which the Yestermorrow School was created back in 1980. Even then there were growing numbers of would-be homeowners that were sensitive to design but either couldn't find or couldn't afford a green architect. I can think of no better "next step" for you than to visit their web site. They have one and two week design programs, customized to the needs of their students, and taught by green architects and builders. Ideally, I would suggest you enroll in one of these courses (at a fraction of the cost you would pay for an architect) and use your stock plans as a point of departure for designing really green. If that doesn't work, I would at least urge you to visit them. That school is a lightening rod for green designers and builders. And their so close! The web site is www.yestermorrow.org .

Q: I've got ten acres in the Chihuahuan Desert near the Big Bend area in Texas. I've been searching the 'net for close to a year, checking out cabin kits (log homes, panelized kits, portable buildings, etc.), and have decided the only way to get what I really want is to build it myself. Pier & beam foundation will be used, solar energy for power needs, and a windmill for water. Building restrictions are not a concern, other than for septic. I'd considered a wood-burning stove for heat and cooking, but, being in the desert, there's a serious shortage of wood. Looks like I'll be using a propane stove and heater. I've not much luck in finding websites detailing adobe structures, which would fit the desert landscape well (one reason for NOT choosing a log home!), and I want to make as little impact on the land as possible. I've drawn up plans for a 16' x 24' cabin, and plan to use a sloped flat roof (little chance of leaking, as the annual rainfall is like 10"). My goal is to be totally self-sustained, and not have to rely on outside sources for power and water. Are there any websites that deal strictly with desert living, home construction, and the such? Also information on gray-water systems, water conserving techniques, insulation tips, etc? Alternatives for heating/cooking? This is a high-temp, low-humidity area, wind speeds averaging about 10mph (which concerns me on the feasibility of a wind turbine). I wanna be green in the desert!

A: It seems there is plenty of information on the web for the project you propose. I "googled" desert architecture and received numerous hits. There is an enjoyable site called Desert Architecture for the New Millennium - (ag.arizona.edu/OALS/ALN/aln47/toc47.html) I think your roof might better be designed as a rain catcher. Cisterns are the rule in the desert and you'll want as much of your 10" per year as possible. It might make sense for your roof to be much larger than the house footprint in order to catch more water and add significant shaded area around the entire house. A larger roof will also afford you a larger area for PVs and thus a larger source of electricity. Don't forget to provide storage for your battery banks. A central courtyard is also a smart design configuration as evidenced by their prevalence in all arid countries. Generally, you can learn a lot by studying the vernacular and sustainable architecture in hot arid lands like Central America, the Middle East, India, Australia, etc. etc. As for gray-water systems, water conserving techniques, insulation tips, etc. I must humbly suggest that you start with my book, Homing Instinct. It also offers a primer in adobe and rammed earth. But that's just a beginning. Check out the bibliography and you will find a host of other timeless resources for your design.

Q: Is there a figure of merit, based on analysis (and/or tests), that would provide a figure of merit for the "Green-ness" of a design (i.e. SEER rating in air conditioners). For example, the heated floor space per human occupant, ease of natural cooling/heating, use of solar panel, in floor heating..... etc.

A: Wow, this is an easy one.  There are two national standards most widely accepted - Energy Star and LEED. The first is a national program funded by the utilities and ranges from none to five stars.  It's a pretty crude metric but very widely applied.  The later - LEED - stands for leadership in energy and environmental design.  It's a national program run by the U.S. Green Building Council. Both are well explained and explored on the web.  For you, I suggest the LEED.

Q: I am 25 years old and will hopefully be building a house within the next 1-3 years. I have no idea where to start as far as planning. But I know planning is crucial in things of this size. I have done a lot of carpentry and construction so I plan on having friends help me lay the foundation and frame the house. I plan on doing everything else after that. I want to build this thing from the ground up. I also want it to be good for the environment and easy on the resources (water, energy, etc). All of this is pretty overwhelming and I didn't know if you knew of any good books to read or places to start.

A: This is a no-brainer. You are the poster student for a school called Yestermorrow in Warren, VT. Go to their website and learn everything you need to know - www.yestermorrow.org Your building experience will soon be much more personal and expressive. And, much less overwhelming.

Q: I am stuck in the design phase of building our green home and thought you might be able to help me. Let me explain what we are up to and why I am stuck. We live on the Big Island of Hawaii, where our family grows Guava, and I supplement the farm income by doing residential construction. So yes I know how to pound nails, and pour a little cement. I also know how to draw basic floor plan layouts. I feel confident that I could build almost any thing out of all most any thing. The problem here is that in order to build any thing (legally) you need to get a permit and to do that you need to have a professional quality drawing stamped by a Hawaii-licensed Engineer. While I can draw basic floor plans and have drawn a few plans for decks and small conventional additions to pull permits back in VA I have never drawn a complete home, and never drawn Nonconventional constructions plans. This is where I am stuck. I am trying to develop plans for a home built from with lightweight concrete either by filling earthbags with it or wiring up a shell and pumping it on in a ferrocement style. The problem I have is that I am not sure how to draw the walls and show the technical detail so I can sit down with an engineer and have him understand what I am building, so he will bless it and stamp it so I can get the building permits. Please help my wife and four children have been living in a old guava storage shed I fixed up a little with no running water, bath, etc for three years because I can not get past this hurdle.

A: (Kelly) I have communicated with other folks in Hawaii facing the same constraints, and it is difficult to know how best to approach your dilemma. My suggestion would be for you to draw up what you really want, as best you can, even though it might be rough or incomplete in various ways. You need to be clear about what you really want, and also where you are willing to make compromises if necessary to please the authorities. Take these sketches around to some local architects or engineers who are qualified to sign off on plans and see if you can find one who is sympathetic to your interest in doing alternative construction. Hopefully, you will find such a person, and then you can enter into an arrangement where he (or she) is willing to make the final drawings and sign them. This may cost more than you want, but it will get the job done! You need to get over this hurdle to get on with your life there.

Q: I'm a twenty one year old mother of three (1-4yrs) and I am also a college student here in South Texas. I have two hundred acres of beautiful land out here but I am living in a trailer that is falling apart. I have three years left in college and I don't think that this house will last much longer (It already has holes in the floor that I cannot afford to fix and has honestly become a bit of a health risk to my babies) I stumbled onto this website a few days ago and thought, "Some one here has an answer!" I would love to build a home, partially underground, that would be environmentally friendly and can be left to my children when I eventually pass on. I have an idea for a home built into a hill (Man made or existing) in the shape of a snail shell (if you were looking down into it from the sky) and I want the entrance to be almost hidden and a garden on my roof. Here's my question: HOW? I can do the work but I don't even know if I could build a snail shell shaped home. I know nothing about architecture at all but I just know I can do this. I also have no idea what to build it out of. I have lots of red clay so naturally I thought, Adobe, but then I saw that there would probably be a lot of structural maintenance if I wanted my garden on top of it. I guess I just need to know where to start.

A: What a very beautiful and reasonable goal - an earth sheltered, snail shaped, green home!  But is it realistic to think you could build a house while attending school and raising three babies?!  I've heard about the Texan spirit but that's quite a load. Still, if there's anywhere in this country that can help you get started it's the Yestermorrow D/B School in Warren, VT.  Are you ready for a fun summer break in the north?  Go to their web site ( www.yestermorrow.org ) and check out the course offerings.  It will cost a little money but not nearly what it would to have two weeks with architects and builders holding your hand as you chart every step of the process for your custom home.  And after you graduate, they will still be but a phone call away should you run into problems.  The only things they can't do is add more hours to the day and get your financing for you.

Me, personally, I would consider a green, custom designed, prefab.  It's the fastest sustainable way to get a new foothold on your land.  As the kiddies grow up you can modify and expand it to meet the growing family needs.  This will be a challenge in an earth sheltered snail, no? In any event, may the wind be at your back.

Q: I am trying to buy an old building in a small city and all that it left are the four brick and concrete walls. It was a 3-story bank with a basement. I would have to rebuild and replace everything because it was burned to the ground other than the walls. It is in the middle of town just off the square, wiith connected buildings on each side. My question is how can I rebuild this building in a green way, and not cost me more to do it? I would like this building to be healthy and energy wise. I want to build an apartment for myself and my wife on the upper floors and a space on the first floor for a business to rent from me. Anyway how do I get green products and how do I build green? My budget is very small.

A; (Kelly) The question that you ask is really a hugely complicated one, that requires knowledge of the specifics of the site and the general location, as well as aesthetics. All I can suggest is that you study the material available at my website and try to incorporate as many of the principles of green building described there as you can.

Q: I am wanting to build a single story cottage with corrugated iron cladding.What would you recommend for the structure to form the base for the internal and external walls? Can you give any references for building techniques for such a cottage.

A: I would suggest you look at farm buildings in the mid-West. They have been using corrugated steel sheathing for years. Personally, I'm not a big fan of repurposing this approach for residential use unless you have solved the thermal bridging problems. This is perfectly possible, mind you, but it involves a constellation of details that occur all over the house. So you need to decide on a framing material (wood, steel, other?) and then a wall section that takes into account all the different expansion and contraction characteristics. As I say, this is not only possible but likely a fascinating endeavor.

Q: I am on a mission to build a sustainable and energy efficient home. I am trying to accomplish this in expensive NY with a limited budget. I am trying to find a reputable modular company or builder to see if this might be more affordable for me. Do you know of any here on the East Coast. I already have Go Solar for my PVC and their pricing lined up. I also need any info on the best rated Geo-thermal systems for my zone (bad winters) and what I should expect to pay to install this for my heating & cooling.

A: There are three reputable prefab companies that are very committed to building sustainably - two are modular companies and one manufacturers "smart panels". In order of average cost/sq.ft.:

Preferred Building Systems out of Claredon, New Hampshire makes a very nice super-insulated module. They are a tremendous value but you will need an architect or designer if you're hoping for anything other than a plain pedestrian design (see our contact numbers at www.2morrowstudio.com).

Epoch Homes, also in New Hampshire, is an older module manufacturer but about six years ago it was purchased by a Green Zealot named John Ela. John has completely reformatted Epoch and it now has a great reputation for green building. They give presentations regularly in Greenwich, CT where they have built a lot of homes. Epoch is a little pricier than PBS but they have been around longer. Here again I would suggest an architect but Epoch has been working with architects long enough to have pretty good instincts.

Finally, Bensonwood in Walpole, NH is the most advanced of the lot. This product is a bit more money but worth every penny. They are on a mission to build affordable green homes and they're getting better all the time.

We design and build all over the region and I always give the same advice about GeoThermal - use the best installers in your area and use the brand of equipment they're most used to servicing. It doesn't matter if you have the latest development in geothermal if your installer can't service it. GoSolar is a fine organization. Can't see you doing better there.

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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the advisor/consultants associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks LLC.