Review of Sustainable Homes for the 21st Century by Richard Benner and Michael Royce
As many of us grow older, we dream of ways to make our own lives simpler while conserving resources for future generations. Ideally, we would love to be among friends who share these values. Richard Benner and Michael Royce have managed to achieve these goals and best of all, their recently published book, Sustainable Homes for the 21st Century, shares their experiences along the way with insight and humor. Their journey led them, their wives and friends, to the creation of Ankeny Row, comprised of six energy-efficient units–five townhouses and a loft over the community room–planned and built to foster resource sustainability, encourage community interaction and allow for aging in place.
Sustainable Homes for the 21st Century tells the story of what the authors learned in the process. Their book provides practical guidance, resources, and good-natured encouragement to the reader who may be considering turning similar dreams into reality, while at the same time offering the casual reader an informative and enjoyable journey through the challenges and benefits of thoughtful living.
An example is the following section from the book on getting to net zero energy consumption (meaning the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site) by relying upon siting to take full advantage of solar energy and employing the German concept of the “passive house,” designed to maximize sustainability through heavily insulated, airtight construction and a set of interconnected systems (heat-recovery ventilation, solar panels, etc.) to maximize energy efficiency and healthy air flow. These homes would have just thirty percent of the carbon footprint of other new houses. The authors write:
“We had stumbled onto “passivhaus” (PH) on the internet while searching for energy-efficient construction materials. The essence of PH is a tight, well-insulated building envelope. It was developed in Germany in the last quarter of the 20th century to reduce energy demand. At the time we initiated our project, it was the fastest growing energy-efficient housing construction technique. There are now hundreds of thousands of passive houses in Europe. Those built to standards have proven good on the promise: a 90 percent reduction in heating and cooling electricity.
We imagined small houses built like bunkers with which older Europeans are quite familiar. We contemplated privations – small windows and Jimmy Carter cardigans. But further research turned up a PH website that featured a 2,400 square foot craftsman bungalow with a hair dryer superimposed. The message was not subtle: ‘You can heat this baby with an appliance.’ Another site suggested reliance upon body heat from regular dinner parties.”
In addition to the overall concept, this project required many small decisions along the way. An example of one of them follows:
“For the envelope to be thermally tight, there could not be too many doors, windows or vents, especially on the north side. There would have to be an opening for the Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV), of course, to ensure introduction of fresh air and venting of stale air from the airtight living space; but any others were frowned upon.
We saw where this was going. Gas stovetops vent to the outside. So do clothes dryers, gas fireplaces, and hood vents over stovetops. What of these “essential” openings?
We took a stand: “No condensing dryers!” We’d experienced those ‘dryers’ in Europe. A three-hour cycle resulted in laundry only 80 percent dry. Never again would we don damp clothing!
Architect Dylan Lamar flashed us an unsympathetic grin. “How about the time-honored drying technique of southern Europe: hang the laundry across the courtyard!” He invoked mothers leaning out of third-story windows to drape clothes from lines stretching across the piazza. The notion was more pleasant than memories of French condensing dryers. But that image faded quickly; we live in the rainy Northwest. Dylan had another idea. “We can build you a small shed in the courtyard for a washer and conventional dryer that partners could share!” That idea inspired no favorable images. We refused to yield courtyard space.
Dylan offered up one additional thought, to install condensing dryers and devote a little interior floor space to a “drying room” where we could hang near-dry laundry for finishing. But that floor space would take a chunk from our coveted great rooms.
Further research revealed condensing dryer technology had improved. Green Hammer owner Stephen Aiguier installed one in his home and reported fully-dry clothes. Reluctantly, we embraced condensing dryers.”
The authors carefully selected their location. Ankeny Row is located in the midst of a thriving neighborhood within walkable and bikeable distance to restaurants, coffee shops, a movie theater, a grocery, and numerous other shops and services with good transit to other areas of the city.
Their houses were also constructed with an eye toward the future and never having to move again. With master bedrooms and baths with walk-in showers on the main floors of their units and all doors and pathways wheelchair accessible, these houses are conducive to aging in place. Though each home offers a complete range of facilities, they are supplemented by a common room for communal gatherings for meals, conversation, dancing and other shared activities. A courtyard garden and patio provide pleasant spaces for people to come together and socialize.
The authors have taken an open and honest approach to explain how they planned and created this unique community as they share the adventures they experienced along their path from dream through the realities of development, community building and custom construction. We highly recommend this book for anyone interested in innovative green building projects and/or how to create an active and thoughtful community to retire in and thrive.
Richard Benner served in the Office of Metro Attorney 2001-12 advising Metro on growth management. From 1991 to 2001 he was Director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, managing the statewide land use planning program. He was Executive Director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission during the time it developed a management plan for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. He spent 12 years as staff attorney with 1000 Friends of Oregon. His recently published book, Into the Wind: Tales and Poetry of the Memaloose Hills, is available in Oregon at Klindt’s Booksellers & Stationers in The Dalles, Waucoma Bookstore in Hood River (re-opening February 3, 2023), Brenna’s Mosier Market in Mosier, and at Broadway Books and the Audubon Nature Store in Portland.
Michael Royce was a trial attorney from 1979-1995. In 1997 he, along with others, founded Green Empowerment and was Executive Director from 1997 until 2006, later serving as Chair of the Board. Over the years, he has led or participated in human rights delegations and in international development projects in several countries around the world.
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