What Green Means for 2011

Rhode Island Home & Design Magazine

February 2011

What Green Means for 2011

by Ivor Hanson

Flip through a newspaper, listen to the radio, scan the tv or the web, and being “green” has seemingly become the de rigeur mantra of late — if not marketing tool, trend, bragging right, and jargon.

Green, ecology-friendly, sustainable products abound: cars, clothes, food, paper, laundry detergent, jewelry, the list goes on.

But in regards to designing and building these days, what does it mean to be green in 2011?

Sure, there’s recycling and compact florescent lights, but what’s happening on a larger, more adventurous scale?

Joe Haskett and Maura MacCarthy are two individuals whose respective companies – the two-year-old Distill Studio, and the three-year-old Blu Homes — work at the forefront of “green” techniques.

Haskett, a Providence-based architect for fifteen years, collaborated with Peter Case of the fellow Providence-based architecture and development firm Truth Box Inc., to build in Rhode Island’s capital city the eye-catching Box Office: a 10,000-square-foot complex featuring 12 office/studios made from 32 former shipping containers.

Situated on a former lumber yard, abreast of Amtrak train tracks and overlooking Huntington Expressway (a.k.a 6 West), the bright blue, green, and yellow, three-story Box Office – the only such office structure in the United States — opened last August and is already seventy percent leased.

Yes, a “wow” factor is in play here. The novelty, even allure, of shipping containers “upcycled” to their new purpose is undeniable, helped in large part by Haskett’s and Case’s decision to retain plenty of their past life details throughout.

The containers still have their doors and locking mechanisms, with the cantilevered units’ doors opened wide to reveal a wall of glass. And despite the pretty colors, the units’ exteriors still sport plenty of dings and dents to attest to their world travels. Similarly, inside, the corrugated grooves of the office/container ceilings subtly remind you of what used to be.

“One of our first tenants put it this way,” says Haskett, as he walks up one of the many outside near-nautical steel staircases that link the Lego-like stacked containers. “He saw a picture of the place, called me, and said, ‘I have to be a part of this.’”

But the Box Office backs up its off-beat dazzle with plenty of high-end technology throughout these formerly downscale structures, with Haskett stressing the “envelope”, the “systems”, and the “comparable costs” that were meticulously worked over.

The envelope, what surrounds the container, features the passive green measures of spray foam and Batt insulation in the ceilings and walls, along with six inches of recycled floor insulation. Depending on each unit’s placement, solar tubes that carry sunlight to otherwise dark areas, along with triple-paned Marvin windows have been installed to take advantage of the day’s sunlight. Apart from making the most of the sun, it also allowed Haskett to make each office have its own unique look.

As for active green measures, the offices – which are two-, three-, and five-units wide – come equipped with Fujitsu high-efficiency heating/cooling units, energy recovery ventilation units, electrostatic air filters, and a lighting system that dims when no one is working beneath it.

And while the cost of these systems does add up, the overall budget for the project was $1.8 million. No doubt, the ten-year-old containers’ price of just $2,400 each helped keep the overall budget reasonably low.

Low, too, is the Box Office’s energy consumption. Though Haskett guarantees tenants savings of between 25% and 30% compared to typical New England office buildings, he wouldn’t be surprised if, once he has a year’s worth of energy-tracking “metrics,” the figure turns out to be closer to fifty percent.

“There were a lot of head-scratching moments that were challenging but fun,” says Haskett, of all the planning and preparation. “But that’s why you become a designer and architect.”

Blu Homes’ Martha MacCarthy’s challenging fun involves convincing homebuyers to bid farewell to their super-sized “McMansion fortresses,” those featuring, as she describes them, foyers with 30-foot ceilings, “man rooms,” four-car garages, and unimaginable energy bills. They should instead opt for a smaller, smarter modular home.

As MacCarthy, a former venture capitalist who co-founded the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company with long-time entrepreneur Bill Haney, points out, too many homeowners know too little on how their homes consume energy. Blu Homes, therefore, stresses “transparency of information,” so that all their homes feature energy monitors.

And since Blu Homes emphasizes the use of lots of glass – apart from “washing the ceilings and floors with light,” the panes allow the rooms to feel bigger than they are – a different kind of transparency is also at work.

“We want people to go from living inward,” McCarthy says, “to living outward.”

To encourage such a shift, Blu offers four models of homes, all LEED-certified, all super-functional, all striking: the one-story Element (starting at $125,000), the one-story Balanced (starting at $2770,000), the two-story Evolution (starting at $260,000), and the Origin (starting at $82,000), a beautiful one-story box that recalls Bauhaus simplicity and purpose; in addition, Blu sells the higher-end Michelle Kaufman-designed “mkDesign” line featuring three even more dramatic models: Glidehouse, Breezehouse, and Solaire.

Blu homes feature steel shells, steel roofs, clapboard siding, Andersen windows, Eco Batt insulation, bamboo floors, and radiant heating, with such options as solar panels, a planted roof, and rainwater collection, with Blu contending that their structures typically cost half what it does to operate compared to even new, energy-compliant houses.

Currently Blu sells most of its homes in New England (with sales thus far in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island; one of their first was in Charlestown, R.I.) and California (the Bay Area, followed by Los Angeles), along with a few in the Caribbean and Canada, and expects to sell between 60 and 80 homes this year.

Otherwise, in 2011, Blu will be working to expand its current three-person sales force, and, come September, will introduce its first gable-style model.

What’s it mean it be green nowadays?

“Making people realize,” MacCarthy says, “that we simply can’t keep on living in homes that are energy hogs.”

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