Kermit was right.  It is not easy being green.

It’s hard for homes to be green. Despite the long-term energy savings, it’s even harder for low-income families to afford the upfront costs of some high-tech sustainable materials. But environmentally conscious design doesn’t have to mean more “green” from your wallet. In fact using recycled and sustainable material, as one local project has shown, can be economically viable and environmentally friendly at the same time.

The San Antonio Alternative Housing Corporation (SAAHC) is a nonprofit organization that provides housing and support services for low and moderate income communities in the central Texas area.  When they construct new housing units, they want to minimize up-front construction costs as well as long-term operational expenses.  They were open to exploring alternate construction techniques, but wanted an opportunity to test the viability of these options.

Three of the 1,050 sq. ft. homes incorporate experimental construction systems designed to maximize their thermal performance while he fourth is a "control" project built using more typical methods. Photos courtesy Corey Leamon.
Three of the 1,050 sq. ft. homes incorporate experimental construction systems designed to maximize their thermal performance while the fourth, bottom photo, is a “control project” built using standard methods. Photos courtesy Corey Leamon.

As it happened, Taeg Nishimoto, Associate Dean of the UTSA College of Architecture, had been working for several years to develop a program that would give architecture students experience throughout the entire process of realizing a project from conception through construction.

Nishimoto’s solution was to propose a project that would test emerging systems of construction for low-income housing.  It would be conducted as a collaborative effort between the College of Architecture and the SAAHC along with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which together funded the construction of four homes of similar size and layout.

Three of these would be designed by UTSA students to utilize a different construction system that promised significant energy savings.  The fourth would use industry standard construction techniques and act as the experiment’s control (hence the project name “Three+1“).  Monitors were designed into each of the homes so that the energy performance of each house could be observed over time.

“For us, it aligned three aspects of our school’s curriculum: research, outreach and professional development,” Nishimoto said.  It offered students an excellent opportunity to “learn by doing.”

Nishimoto ultimately recruited 12 graduate students who took on the multi-year effort as an extracurricular independent study.  To make comparisons as scientific as possible, each of the three bedroom/two bathroom houses had identical floor plans of 1,050 square feet.  Each also had a minimal budget of $69,000.

But that is where the similarities ended.  The three designs made use of radically different construction systems.  One used structural insulated panels (SIPs), another used autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) blocks and the third used a recycled shipping container for its base structure.

The three experimental houses, along with the fourth “control” model, were subsequently constructed on a plot of land on the west side of San Antonio.  They were then rented out as any other SAAHC property.  Although the project is ongoing and it is still too early to form conclusions based on the first few months of data, the effort is already generating praise.  In December of 2012, Build San Antonio Green – a local nonprofit that promotes resource-efficient building methods, materials, and technologies – recognized the project for Innovation in Affordable Green Building.

The interior of a UTSA architecture three+1 project home.
All of the student designs, including the green SIP home, have interiors that are light-filled and efficient. Photo courtesy Corey Leamon.

In addition to the information the monitors will in time provide the SAAHC and similar organizations, the project will be of lasting value to the students who participated in it.  Brett Davidson, one of the student team members, graduated in 2011 and has worked at Sprinkle & Co. Architects since 2005.  For him, the value of the project was in its potential to influence the wider public.

“If home builders and the public understood that with a small budget you can easily increase the efficiencies of the standard home (we could) potentially cut the energy demand for housing in half,”  said Davidson, who worked on the green-colored “SIP House.”

Terms such as “sustainable” and “green” are often used to describe buildings that take steps to minimize their impact on the environment. Saying a bathroom cleaner is “green”, for example, is a relative statement.  It may be less toxic than other options, but no one would recommend drinking it.

UTSA Architecture recycled shipping container home. Part of the Three+1 project.
The Shipping Container House was the first of its kind to be permitted in San Antonio. Photo courtesy Joel James.

This language problem plagues architecture.  Terms such as “green” and “sustainable” are often used to describe buildings that take steps to minimize their impact on the environment.  This can be accomplished through the use of recycled building materials, the incorporation of energy-efficient mechanical systems and envelope assemblies, or by taking advantage existing sun and wind patterns.

However, unlike cars or refrigerators whose efficiency is an easily measured parameter, individual buildings vary radically from one another in terms of function and location.  It is difficult to know if building A is “greener” than building B, especially if building A is a house in San Antonio and building B is a convention center in Syracuse.

There is more at stake here than mere bragging rights.  For architects and owners to make informed decisions about what to build, they need to know what works and what does not.  Lacking hard evidence on how one system performs relative to another, it can be difficult to convince owners to take an unconventional approach.

Indeed, houses today are built essentially the same way they were more than a century ago: wood studs are assembled to create a frame to which finishing materials are attached.  Alternate approaches do exist, but there have been few opportunities to scientifically test their real-world constructability and performance. The Three+1 project is a significant step towards testing and understanding unconventional approaches to sustainable and affordable home design.

AAC home, part of the UTSA Three+1 project, under construction.
Dan Cancilla inside the AAC home while it was still under construction and the concrete blocks were still exposed. Photo courtesy of Dan Cancilla.

Dan Cancilla worked on the orange “AAC House” and graduated in May of 2012.  He is now at Richard Mogas & Associates and found this project to be an excellent bridge between the academic and professional worlds.

“I worked with a real client with a real budget,” Cancilla said. “Many times in school, especially design studio, projects are fictitious with an assumed client and an unlimited budget.”

UTSA three plus one project location.
The Three+1 project homes are located at 1006 S. Smith St (recently changed to Guadalupe Ybarra) just west of downtown. Image from Google Maps.

The AAC blocks used by his team are made of a different concrete mixture than standard concrete blocks, providing them with better thermal properties and allowing them to be handled more easily.  AAC blocks are assembled much like a giant LEGO set, the prefabricated bricks stack to form walls.

Joel James worked on the design of the red “Shipping Container House” before graduating in May of 2011.  As luck would have it, he ended up working as a project manager at Camilo Garcia Construction, the firm responsible for building the four test houses.  Shifting his perspective from design to construction was an interesting change for James.

“I was once on the side of the students wanting to make these homes cool and modern with nice finishes,” James said.”But now I was on the other side of the table having to offer compromises to make sure that the houses were kept under budget so they could actually be built.”

The shipping containers his team’s design employed are the heavy-gauge steel boxes used to transport goods internationally.  Because of the current trade deficit, shipping containers are stacking up at ports across the United States, making them an inexpensive and readily available resource.

The three experimental projects continue to be improved by the current residents as they transform the houses into homes. Photo courtesy of Brantley Hightower.
The three experimental projects continue to be improved by the current residents as they transform the houses into homes. Photo courtesy of Brantley Hightower.

Visitors to the four houses today will find that the process of design does not end once a project has been constructed.  The current residents have made small modifications to the original designs to meet their individual needs.  Awnings have been added and landscape has been planted to make these experimental housing prototypes into homes.

Although their bright colors may seem jarring in isolation, they are in fact contextual within their particular neighborhood.  What is more, they prove that even if a home is painted bright orange or red, if it is designed intelligently, it can always be green.

Brantley Hightower is the founder of HiWorks, an architecture firm located in the Pearl Brewery

Related stories on the Rivard Report:

Central Library: A Homage to Art, Burdened by its own Plaza November 2012

Alamo Plaza: A View From the 1909 Bar December 2012

Whistle Stop Corner to Bring “Retrotech Residences” to Dignowity Hill August 2012

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Brantley Hightower

Brantley Hightower is an architect at HiWorks. He also teaches at San Antonio College and is the interim editor of Texas Architect magazine.