Category: Historic Homes & More

Brad Pitt’s MAKE IT RIGHT Homes

The actor's Make It Right Foundation continues to rebuild homes—and a sense of community—in New Orleans Lower 9th Ward.

Photo: Make It Right

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, bringing category-3 winds and tidal surges that devastated scores of Delta communities, including New Orleans, where levee breaches resulted in historic flooding across 80% of the city. The now infamous Lower 9th Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, absorbed the lion’s share of the damage. Floodwaters destroyed more than 4,000 homes, and close to 15,000 residents found themselves homeless.

Related: Make It Right: 6 Years After Katrina

Two years later, FEMA trailers housed entire families and block after block of the Lower 9th Ward still had not been rebuilt, which is why architecture enthusiast and part-time NOLA resident Brad Pitt stepped in. Discouraged by the lack of progress in the wake of the disaster, the actor created the nonprofit Make it Right, pledging to rebuild 150 affordable, green, and storm-resistant LEED-certified houses for working families who had resided in the neighborhood when Katrina hit. “These people did everything right,” said Pitt, when introducing the project. “They went to school, they got jobs, they bought their own homes, and suddenly all that was wiped out.”

Pushing Green Forward
Since its inception, Make It Right has functioned as a huge laboratory for sustainable, eco-friendly building innovations. “We had no idea we’d get such positive reception to the project,” says Tom Darden, Make It Right’s executive director. “We basically set out to build the best houses that we could build, with Brad Pitt asking some architects he respected to participate and design houses for us on a pro-bono basis. As a result, Make It Right’s become an initiative that a lot of people are watching in terms of disaster recovery and sustainable building.”

Indeed, the US Green Building Council calls the 16-block area where Make It Right has focused its revitalization efforts America’s largest green neighborhood of single-family homes, with all of the organization’s dwellings qualifying for LEED platinum certification—the highest designation for energy efficiency and sustainability awarded by the Council.

In 2008, Make It Right finished construction on its first six houses on August 29—the very day an evacuation notice for Hurricane Gustav, another category-3 storm, was issued by the city of New Orleans. “We got to see the durability of the designs tested in the real world,” says Darden. Happily, the houses survived unscathed, a confidence builder for the first families to move into the residences.

Photo: Make It Right

As the nonprofit completes its third full year of building, 75 single-family residences and duplexes have been completed. The structures, which feature jutting rooflines, elevated porches, and bright tropical colors, have been built from plans submitted by 21 high-profile design firms run by such notable architects as Frank Gehry, William McDonough, and Hitoshi Abe. All of the products used in the construction of the houses are analyzed using the holistic cradle-to-cradle philosophy, which basically means that all building materials meet strict green standards and are healthy for the people who dwell there. The affordable homes, which cost $150,000 each, currently shelter more than 300 Lower 9th Ward residents displaced from the storm.

Building Smart, for the Next Storm
While no one would wish another Katrina-like disaster on the city, making sure the new houses can weather the next big storm has always been an overriding objective of the Make It Right design process. Since the Lower 9th Ward experienced sustained flood levels of four feet in the wake of Katrina, Make It Right residences are built at an elevation of five to eight feet, a full two to five feet above the FEMA recommendation. “Every time it rains in New Orleans, it floods to some degree,” says Cesar Rodriguez, the organization Construction Service Manager. “So we wanted to help change how people managed water.”

One way is to collect rainwater in 300-gallon cement cisterns (outfitted with filters and pressure pumps), which homeowners can use to irrigate gardens, wash cars—and ultimately reduce their water bills. Capturing the storm water also reduces topsoil erosion on the properties, all of which are landscaped with hardy, native trees, shrubs, and perennials that require minimal to no maintenance. To control localized flooding, Make It Right’s houses also feature highly porous pervious concrete driveways and sidewalks, which reduce storm runoff by allowing rainwater to seep back into the ground.

Recently, the nonprofit has also partnered with the city of New Orleans on an innovative pilot program to evaluate pervious concrete as a possible replacement for major portions of traditional roadways. “We’re in the testing phase right now, but the Lower 9th Ward could have one of America’s first zero-runoff streets,” states Rodriguez. “We get 60 inches of rain a year in New Orleans and it costs the city about two cents per gallon to pump the water over the levee. Pervious concrete roads cost more upfront, but they could potentially save the city 20 to 25 million dollars a year.”

All Make It Right homes are extremely energy efficient, eco-friendly and are produced using environmentally sensitive construction methods. Photo: Charlie Varley

Home Eco-nomics
Besides being good for the planet, Make It Right’s super-efficient houses save homeowners money, sometimes shaving as much as 80% off the pre-Katrina energy bills Lower 9th Ward residents paid. The homes feature maintenance-free 266-gauge metal roofs that absorb less heat (and cut cooling costs) as well as 4-killowatt photovoltaic solar panels, which harness Louisiana’s bright sunlight to generate electricity for the homes. Some residents, according to Rodriguez, pay as little as $12 a month for utilities on a roughly 1,200-square-foot home—all in a city where the average monthly electric bill runs anywhere from $150 to $200.

Inside the houses, close-cell spray-foam insulation ensures a tight seal against the elements, tankless water heaters cut heating bills by half, and low-flow plumbing fixtures and stream-lined Energy Star dishwashers, washing machines, and fridges conserve water as well as energy. Benjamin Moore’s zero-VOC Natura and Aura paints improve indoor air quality, while formaldehyde-free plywood cabinets from Armstrong and Cosentino’s ECO countertops—made from 75% post-consumer glass, porcelain, and stone scraps—come standard in kitchens and baths. And, in true cradle-to-cradle fashion, the recycled Green Edge carpeting that softens the floors can be recycled yet again when it’s in need of replacement. (Shaw, Green Edge’s manufacturer, even retrieves the old carpets at no additional cost to the customer.)

75 Houses Built—75 to Go
As he looks to the future, Tom Darden hopes Make It Right will become a national model as well as a resource for other groups and communities considering low-income green building and cradle-to-cradle sourcing. While it’s a common assumption that homeowners need deep pockets to build green, Make It Right has proven that adaptable, durable, high-quality LEED-platinum houses can be constructed at a competitive, market-rate price point. “We think the principles we’ve applied to drive down the cost of our houses can be implemented everywhere, not just in communities that have experienced a natural disaster,” Darden says. “If all goes as planned, we’ll work ourselves out of a job at some point and everyone will start designing homes that reach Make It Right’s level of green and sustainability.”

Nevertheless, the human quotient remains the true bottom line for Darden and Make It Right. “The real success story as far as I’m concerned,” notes Darden, “is seeing these families move into an affordable green home that will shelter them safely through the next storm.”

To learn more about Make It Right, visit

The Handmade House

Handmade House


In architectural history, there is one major dividing line that separates the hand­made house from all those that came later. It is, of course, the arrival of the machine.

In America, the effects of the Industrial Revolution trickled down to almost every stratum of the building business by 1830. The advent of the circular saw— which came into general use about that time—made wood cutting more efficient and economical. Machine planers were patented as early as 1828, meaning that for the first time boards arrived at building sites having already been planed smooth. Machine-made nails superceded handmade nails shortly after 1800. And all these materials began arriving from considerable distances, pulled by the newfangled Iron Horse. Thus, circa 1830 can be seen as the boundary between the Victorian House and the earlier Handmade House.

Handmade houses gradually became a thing of the past, but their very obso­lescence is essential to what has made them so cherished. Before the railroad system developed, builders had to rely almost exclusively upon local materials (typically, the exceptions were hardware and glass, which continued to be imported from England into the Victorian era). The frame of an early house was made of wood felled on the owner’s property. On the house site itself, trees would be hewn (squared oft using a hewing axe or adze) into beams and posts for the structure. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century the smaller lumber, too, would be cut on site, though by the time of the American Revolution, felled trees would usually be delivered to the town sawmill to be cut into boards. In fact, the standard pattern of development in the northeast was for a mill to be established on a natural watercourse—and a commu­nity to develop nearby. The process of building was very localized.

Boards cut at a sawmill had a rough surface, scarred by the up-and-down cut­ting motion of the reciprocating saw blade. Smoothing them for use as finished sur­faces involved an investment of time and skilled labor by the builder himself. In a two-step process, the rough-cut board had to be planed by hand. A large plane called a jack plane flattened out the roughest spots and eliminated the evidence of saw cuts. Next a smoothing plane was used to give the boards a smooth appearance.

Notice the verbal distinction: the boards were made smooth to the eye rather than to the touch. In fact, a slight arc on the blade of the smoothing plane meant that hand-planed stock was not perfectly flat like those produced later by machine plan­ers. If you run your fingers across the grain of a hand-planed board, you can feel its contours. This is an invaluable trick for identifying early planed paneling, floorboards, door panels, and other wooden elements, and you can master it in a matter of sec­onds. Find an old dresser that you think dates from the mid-nineteenth century or earlier. Open a drawer and slide your fingers across the grain of the underside of the drawer bottom. If it’s smooth and flat, it’s probably a later dresser made with machine-planed boards or even plywood. But if you feel a perceptible hill-and-valley texture, that’s a hand-planed surface. A flashlight held at an acute angle to the board will make the rippling texture visible to the eye.

The appeal of a handmade house always comes down to one thing: The hand of the workman. In a way that later houses do not, homes built before 1830 are the product of a craftsman who truly shaped the elements of the house. There are virtues to be admired in houses from all periods—the typical Victorian house will be larger and more elaborately decorated, the twentieth-century house will contain more creature comforts—but craftsmen are a living presence in an early house. Before the turn of the eighteenth century, the nails were made by a blacksmith, the moldings shaped by the builder, the bricks individually molded in wooden forms then fired in a nearby brick kiln, and the windows and doors were made by joiners with planes and chisels. All of the wooden pieces were fitted together individually by the car­penter, one painstaking joint at a time.

While handmade houses have much in common, they are still a diverse lot. Much of their individuality results from the building traditions within which the builders worked. Most carpenter-joiners were English, but Dutch and Spanish tradi­tions also left their marks on American housing stock. And later, the American Federal Style assumed an important place. In the pages that follow, we’ll look at each of those.

The Language of Design

Language of Design


We’ll begin by considering a handful of words that are especially useful when the talk turns to buildings.

In the last chapter, the word symmetry seemed unavoidable. The Geor­gian House was strictly symmetrical; later, the Gothic Revival House was consis­tently asymmetrical. But let’s go back to basics.

The dictionary tells us that the word symmetry describes a “correspon­dence in size, form and the arrangement of parts on opposite sides of a line or plane.” In practice, that means that if you draw a horizontal line and then a verti­cal one that intersects the first at its center point, you will have a symmetrical fig­ure, with one side that balances the other. In the same way, if you begin with a rectangle and bisect it, it too is symmetrical. Let’s add some openings to a four- sided box—windows on either side of the central axis, perhaps a door at the cen­ter. All in a rush, a house begins to emerge. All we need to do is add a roof, and a couple of chimneys and we have a two-dimensional representation, an elevation they call it in drafting class, of a recognizable Georgian House (or the Classic Colonial, as this configuration can also be described). Needless to say, the place is symmetrical.

Again, we start with a line, but this time we consciously divide it into two asymmetrical (uneven) parts. We make it a box, add a couple of openings, then put on a gable end (centered on our perpendicular). After adding a few details, we have a Gothic Revival Cottage.

This talk of symmetry may seem to imply that houses exist only in two dimensions and that, by looking at an elevation drawing of a structure, we can understand it. In fact, thinking how the facade of a house appears on a piece of paper is helpful, but other angles of approach are essential, too.

Instead of a piece of paper, think about a small waxed cardboard milk or juice carton, the kind that holds a  ½ pint of liquid. It’s a three-dimensional object, mean­ing it has width, height, and depth. It takes up space, just as people, books, and bricks do. And, for that matter, just like buildings.

Unless you stand very far away and align yourself precisely with the center of a building (or a milk carton), you will see it as a three-dimensional object. From an angled view, represented here by an isometric sketch, a simple, shoebox shape is recognizable as a three-dimensional mass and, in short order, it becomes a house.

A one-and-a-half story house has a full ceiling on the first level and enough height on the upper floor that portions of it can be used as living space. Lower the pitch of the roof and you have a ranch house, a one-story home, in which living areas are found only on one level. The Cape Cod is a popular compromise because living quarters on the upper floor are to be had for virtually no additional expense over the cost of a one-story house. To some, however, the built-in limitations on ventilation, light, and head room make it less of a bargain than at first it seems. For them, per­haps the two-story house is the answer. In this configuration, the roof stands a story higher, atop a full second story.

Thus, the same footprint can accommodate houses of radically different mass. In order to have a ranch house with an equivalent amount of interior space to a two- story house, however, the ranch will need to have a footprint twice as large as the two-story house. That makes the ranch best suited to larger lots, while two-story homes are well adapted to in-town plots or small suburban settings.

On much the same footprint, one story, one and a half story, and two-story houses offer very different amounts of living space.

Thus far, we’ve talked about houses in the shape of a box. Some are taller or wider or deeper than others, but they’re basic boxes with four sides and a top and a bottom. In the past, consolidating the living space around a chimney and within such a regular form made good sense. But changing needs, advances in heating technology, and evolving tastes led to what architectural historians often call “break­ing the box.”

The devolution of the box took time. Early houses often had ells added off their rear elevations, resulting in T-shaped plans. As asymmetry became acceptable with the Greek and Gothic Revival Styles, wings appeared on the sides of new houses, resulting in L-shaped homes. In some instances two or more secondary structures were grafted on. Many houses had bay windows, towers, turrets, porches, or other elements that broke the planes of the box. When a number of different masses are combined (think about the way some great Victorian houses seem to ramble), the term massing is applied to describe the assemblage of the various three- dimensional elements.

For a moment, though, let’s return again to the box house. After all this talk T-shapes and L-shapes and the rest, you may be surprised to find what a dif­ference a simple change in roof design can make.

Certain roof shapes—the Mansard being the best example—telegraph the style of the house (a Mansard roof means the dwelling is a Second Empire House). Some roofs are tall in order to maximize the living areas beneath them (like the gambrel or the Mansard), while others are lower and enclose little more than storage space. Some are simple, others require complex carpentry full of compound angles. The roof of a house may seem like little more than necessary weather pro­tection, but it also communicates much about the design of a house.

The overall shape and mass of a house convey a great deal about the place. Consider the contrast between two different houses that date from the same era. A Foursquare has a boxy, two-story mass with a tall roof; the Prairie Style home is low- slung, consisting of only one story with a flattened roof and broad overhangs. While the Foursquare and the Prairie Style House share similar origins, one is essentially vertical, the other horizontal. One seems to have been wiped across the landscape, the other to have grown out of it. One sits atop the landscape, hunched as if to con­front the challenges of Mother Nature; the other rests more easily, going with the flow of the terrain. In the examples here, however, they contain the same amount of living space.

All right, let’s take a short break from talking about shapes and masses, sym­metrical or otherwise. Remember that the shape of every house—whether it resem­bles a single milk carton or a dozen cartons that collided—tells a story of whence it came. Understanding the geometry of your house, even in such broad strokes as these, can help you think about changing it.

You can visualize your house in geometric terms, considering its shapes, massing, and symmetry. These characteristics can be considered from afar but, as you get closer, finer distinctions become more important. Among them are scale, proportion, texture, and pattern.

I’m a man of average height. However, a couple of the members of my tele­vision crew are quite tall. I can go into a room of modest scale and feel right at home, but they have to duck their heads going through the door and then the ceiling seems to be encroaching on their headroom. It’s all a matter of scale, what’s in scale for a 5-foot-something person isn’t for someone who’s a foot taller.

Scale is about relative heights, widths, and sizes. In house design, windows and doors, room dimensions, furniture, and other elements are usually of recogniz­ably human scale. Buildings adjacent to one another on the same streetscape gen­erally look better if they have the same scale—were the Empire State Building adjacent to a picturesque Cape Cod House, the juxtaposition would be odd indeed. In contrast, a row of Victorian brownstones with neatly aligned cornices looks very much of a piece. Buildings don’t have to be the same size but they should relate to one another.

Scale and proportion work together. Proportion refers to the rela­tionship of elements to one another. Thus, a giant window that dominates the facade of a small house with other smaller windows looks disproportionately large. A gra­cious room with a vaulted ceiling 20 feet tall may look wonderful and feel very grand indeed. As an individual space, it may be very satisfying, but if it’s been shoe-homed into a small house, it may also be asking the question, Why am I here?

As you plan your remodeling project, consider how the various new elements relate to the old. Do they share the same scale? Are they in proportion to one another? Sometimes a surprising contrast in scale or proportion is very effective, but make sure you think it through. More often disproportionate elements that are out of scale just look as if somebody wasn’t really thinking.

When you look at any symmetrical house, the pattern of its basic ele­ments probably calls out to you. Most obvious are the openings, the windows and doors. Are they evenly spaced across the facade or is there a dot-dash-dot quality to their positioning? Notice whether the openings on the house are aligned. Or do they have a zigzag quality with some higher than others? The way the openings are set into the elevation gives it its own rhythm. Often subtle variations in spacing add visual appeal.

The siding also adds to the patterning of a house. Clapboards give a house a horizontal feeling; board-and-batten siding adds vertically. Shingles add shading, while brick has its own unique patterning.

Trim can add to the pattern, as in the case of houses where trim boards frame and accentuate the clapboarded areas. Trim around windows also adds emphasis, enlarging the wall area devoted to the windows, which can affect the proportion and rhythm. Mixing different patterns can be very effective (see The Stick Style House), adding texture and interest to the surface of a house. But different elements on the same house must be handled with great care.

A common strategy these days is to use shingles for an addition to a clap­board house as a kind of acknowledgment, an honest statement that yes, this sec­tion is indeed new. It can work very well. But in general using more patterns requires more design skill if you want to avoid a too-busy look.

Another consideration from outside your house is its rela­tionship to the sun. Unless you’re planning on moving your house, its solar orienta­tion isn’t going to change. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west and, depending upon the season, brightens certain rooms at certain times of day. But if you are planning an addition, its location can have an impact on existing spaces (cre­ating new openings or closing off old ones). And where you put the addition will also determine how much sunlight it gets. A kitchen/breakfast room addition is best located on the east side of the house to gather morning light, a new dining room probably belongs on the west side to take advantage of late afternoon and early evening light.

That’s a fancy word, volume. In an architectural context volume describes space, specifically interior space. While the exterior of a structure appears to be a solid mass, it actually encloses a three-dimensional space. Consider it another way, thinking back to our waxed cardboard carton. Empty the carton of its contents and the space that once held milk or juice inside is its volume.

When thinking about the volumes of the house, most of those words we talked about earlier come into play once again. You probably want a house that has good proportions, that is human in scale, and that has attractive patterns of materi­als.

But let’s begin with proportion.Proportion can be a slippery concept. Consider a square room. It would seem perfectly proportioned, with its identical length and width. Yet as living spaces, square rooms tend to be static while rectangular rooms seem to suggest movement. That’s probably because they’re more easily subdivided into different areas, encouraging flow. So matching dimensions don’t automatically make for good proportions.

Like facades, interior spaces and elevations can be symmetrical, with bal­anced windows and doors. Shapes have an important impact, too, though the shapes and masses within the volumes of the house tend to be movable elements like pieces furniture. Concerns like light and ventilation become much more important inside than out. But perhaps most important of all is the interior layout.

Earlier in this chapter, I made a point of recommending you remain true to your original floor plan. That’s because traditional plans often make a lot of sense. There’s a basic organizing philosophy that works for most traditional families, in which the home is divided into three main areas. These include the private areas of the house (the bedrooms and attendant bathrooms and dressing areas); the working zone of the house (the kitchen, a utility room, secondary entry area, etc.); and the relaxation spaces, perhaps a living room, dining room, and/or a family room.

As you think about your renovation, keep in mind the invisible lines of demar­cation between each area. That new dining room you’ve been pining for probably doesn’t belong immediately beneath the new bedroom for the baby—the two activ­ities are at odds with each other, as happy talk and laughter are great at the dinner table but not so wonderful when you want your child to drift gently off to dreamland.

Another consideration in thinking about your house is harder to quantify than more traditional design factors. But I think it’s important for a home to satisfy the normal human desire to entertain and be entertained. There’s no one way that the theatrical can be incorporated into a house, but domestic stagecraft can include color, contrast, decoration, and other elements.

One of the favorite dramatic devices of Frank Lloyd Wright was to shift ceiling heights. The visitor to many Wright houses is ushered into a low, dark hall. Moments later, upon moving to another space, the ceiling rises, often dramatically. Cove light­ing high on the wall, clerestory windows, vaulted ceilings, or other elements add to the drama. Wright was a master at using the tools of design to add excitement to the experience of a house.

Combining the Old with the New

Modern Home Addition


Restoration, Preservation. Renovation. Rehabilitation. Remodeling. They don’t all mean the same thing. But let’s consider some formal definitions, according to the Standards of the Secre­tary of the Interior, under whose auspices are the National Park Service, the Preser­vation Assistance Division, and the Historic American Buildings Survey:

“The act or process of applying measures to sustain the existing form, integrity, and material of a building or structure, and the existing form and veg­etative cover of a site. It may include stabilization work, where necessary, as well as ongoing maintenance of the historic building material.” Loosely translated? The task is to save—to preserve—the existing bits and pieces (fabric) that survive from ear­lier eras.

“The act or process of accurately recovering the form and details of a property and its setting as it appeared at a particular period of time by means of the removal of later work or by the replacement of missing earlier work.” In other words, the restorer turns back the clock and attempts to replicate what was origi­nally in place but subsequently removed or destroyed.

“The act or process of returning a property to a state of utility through repair or alteration which makes possible an efficient contemporary use while preserving those portions or features of the property which are significant to its historical, architectural and cultural values.” Translation, please?

The rehaber ren­ovates a place the way he or she chooses without going to great lengths to preserve or restore elements exactly as they were. Rehabilitation is used more or less inter­changeably with remodeling and renovation.

Curators of historic houses rarely rehabilitate—they might adapt an old dependency or basement space for a contemporary use, but they’re more likely to be concerned with preserving what survives and, in some instances, restoring what doesn’t. Living History museums have traditionally identified a single point in the past that becomes the target date, and then restored the buildings on the grounds consistent with that historical moment (which often implies removing later work that would appear anachronistic, out of sync with the established moment when the calendar is said to have stopped). Increasingly, however, there is a trend among amateurs and professionals alike to save good old work, whatever its era.

How do you, as a homeowner, translate these var­ious approaches into action? I recommend you begin by establishing what you won’t be changing. The following should probably be on your preservation list.

In older houses, the flow between the principal living spaces is usually quite logical. The interrelationship between the main entrance, the parlor, the kitchen, and the secondary entrance typically is prac­tical and workable. In some homes, later additions changed the patterns of use (often confusing rather than clarifying things). If possible, retain the floor plan at least in the original portion of the house.

In some cases, that may even mean restoring elements removed by previous remodelers. In just the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen the trend for opening up spaces arrive and then go. In the early seventies, no one wanted a dining room, so the trend was to open them up to adjoining food preparation areas in order to create “country kitchens” or other multiple-use spaces in an open plan. Today the dining back relaxing with friends, food, and wine is high on my list of activities. In general, the trend seems to be to more purpose-specific spaces (offices, children’s play spaces, breakfast rooms) and fewer open, multiple-use areas.

Perhaps you’re thinking about enlarging the kitchen or adding a downstairs bathroom. At first, an older floor plan may not seem flexible enough to allow for such renovations and a wholesale rearrangement may seem necessary. Try looking again.

Think about the traffic flow and how the spaces are used: Can you keep the main arteries the same but add peripheral circulation? At our house, for example, we changed the kitchen radically, but kept its relationship to the other rooms the same. Often existing subsidiary spaces can be opened up, since many Victorian houses have maid’s rooms or butler’s pantries and even modest houses until quite recently often had storage pantries.
Bathrooms, especially half-baths, can be secreted in sur­prisingly small places, such as converted closets, back halls, and beneath stairs. Again, start by thinking how little you can change the floor plan rather than how much. You’ll save money as well as respect the integrity of the original design.

Up until the years after World War II, moldings remained important design elements even in unassuming houses. Baseboards and casings around the win­dows and doors were made of wide stock, often with applied moldings to add shadow lines and a bolder, three-dimensional effect. Particularly in the late nineteenth century, cornices were heavy and dramatic. Save all that you can of the original woodwork, including any early paneling, built-in casework, spindle work, and other decorative wood treatments.

Think of such wooden elements as worthy of restoration, but also as a source of inspiration. If your plan involves new elements such as win­dows, doors, or cabinets, try to replicate existing details. Using existing quality work as a source for new detailing will help give the new space a feel­ing that it is of-a-piece with the existing house.

As the cost of quality craftsmanship has soared, the quality and char­acter of the typical staircase have plummeted. If your stairway(s) have original balus­ters, rails, and newel posts, restore them. Strip them if they’re of hardwoods or so coated with paint that turnings, panels, or other details are no longer crisp. Find ways to stabilize them (if necessary) that don’t detract from their appearance.
Badly worn treads can usually be replaced with­out too much difficulty, but be sure the details are restored, too, such as the nosing returns (that’s where the rounded edge continues around the open end of the tread). New balusters to replace broken or missing ones can be milled surprisingly inexpensively if you shop around. Stair­cases are key design elements in a house, and well worth extra dollars to conserve and restore them.

Save original plaster where possible. New drywall lacks the strength, durability, soundproofing, and character of traditional plaster. Many techniques have been developed to preserve old plaster walls and ceilings, including special plaster washers that can reattach and stabilize loose and cracking plaster. When an existing partition is to remain in place, try to retain its plaster surface.

The history of change in a house is often to be read most easily in its floors. One with wide, hand-planed pine boards upstairs and machine-planed oak strip flooring down has been visited by remodelers, probably in the last few decades. A series of joints that form a line across the floor in the middle of a room for no appar­ent reason can indicate the shifting of a partition or the removal of a chimney. Unless your floors are both uniform and consistent with the style and vintage of your home, they probably can tell you something about the house.

When you select flooring for new work, whether it’s to be an addition to the house or a remodeling of existing space, consider how the new surfaces will suit sur­viving older flooring. Should you consider trying to find salvaged materials that will make the transition from the old to the new seamless? Do you wish to resurface much of the old flooring to match the new? Is there something in an original wood floor you can echo without copying its every detail—perhaps a border design, the board width, or the species and color of the wood? Or do you want to use an entirely different surface, like wall-to-wall carpeting in a new family room or tile in the new kitchen that coordinates with the old while not copying it? There’s no one answer but ask yourself the question: Will the new suit the old?

In houses with wavy old glass, windows seem to offer a view of the past. From the exterior, multiple small lights provide texture, adding to the timelessness of a period house. From the interior looking out the muntins divide and frame the view.

There are many window configurations, including awning and casement win­dows, both of which break the plane of the wall. Awnings swing open from hinges at their tops, casements from hinged sides. Less usual are fixed windows, while by far the most common is the double-hung sash window. These are the traditional slid­ing variety that, within the plane of the wall, travel up and down in their frames.

Double-hung windows also come in many varieties. These are distinguished not only by their overall size but by the number of panes of glass or lights. In the eighteenth century, windows with twelve lights in each sash (called twelve-over- twelve’s or 12/12s) were common, as were 12/8,9/9, and 9/6 windows. In the first half of the nineteenth century, 6/6 windows were the rule, before 2/2 windows took over.

There are four basic window configurations. Double-hung windows are the most common, followed in no particular order by sliding, casement, and awning win­dows. Most of the windows in a typical house will be of the same type, though other designs may be used in certain applications such as bathrooms, porches, or other spaces.

Wavy glass with bubbles and other imperfections was all that was available until about 1880 when large, optically perfect, factory-made sheets of glass became generally available. At about the same time, panes of colored glass became afford­able. Thus was born what was then known as the “picture window.” In the late nine­teenth century, the term identified a window with panes of colored glass. Only after World War II did the term “picture window” come to refer to enormous, single-pane windows.

Today, talk of windows usually focuses first on R-factor, a measure of the insu­lating capability of the windows. A single-glazed window has an R-factor of about one; double-glazed windows have an R-factor of roughly two. Storm windows and other innovations like argon gas sealed in the insulating cushion of air between the layers of glass in a thermal pane window can bring the R-factor up still higher.

If your home is a century or more old and its windows are original, the best approach almost always is to conserve rather than replace them. New weather-stripping can be added quite inexpensively, as can storms (sometimes on the inside, especially on historic houses). Old glazing compound can be repaired and even rot­ted elements can be replaced or the wood stabilized with epoxy or other consolidants. On newer houses, good copies of the original windows may well be available inexpensively.

Whether you choose to replace or restore, do try to retain the original config­uration. A homeowner who replaces the original multilight windows with single- pane sash (substituting, say, 1/ls for 6/6s) will change the appearance of a house, rather in the way that a pencil drawing is transformed when someone erases some of the shading. It’s probably a bad idea.

In the eighteenth century, doors typically had six panels; early in the nine­teenth century, four-panel doors became the rule. One-panel doors, hollow-core veneer doors, and reproduction doors are common to our time. Batten doors—which are made of vertical boards fastened together with horizontal boards nailed across them—are commonly used as secondary doors in homes and in outbuildings.

Rail-and-stile or panel doors have long been popular. They consist of vertical boards (the stiles) and horizontal boards (the rails) with panels inset between them. These doors are traditionally held together with mortise-and-tenon joints, in which tongue-shaped projec­tions slide into cavities cut into the sides of the stiles and then are fastened with wooden pins.

As with windows and other details, try to save original doors. Doors removed in one part of the house can be recycled elsewhere. Find similar style doors at architectural sal­vage—they don’t have to be identical, but if they resemble the originals, they won’t seem out of place.

The hold-on-to-the-original notion applies to exte­rior doors, too. Replacing a paneled front door that shows the wear and tear of many years may seem like just the right thing to do to save energy and tighten up the house. Yet many replacement doors today—sometimes of steel, often with faux graining stamped into the sheet metal— look like the architectural equivalent of a black eye. Think first about restoring the original door or, at least, finding a replacement in the same spirit as the original.

Most vintage houses have been altered over the years and, typically, hardware is among the first ele­ments to be changed. Hardware can wear out or break. Changing tastes may make a different style of doorknob desirable. Added security may call for updated locks. As a result, many houses have a range of hardware.

Past remodelers may also have skimped on hardware. In new construction, most contractors specify inexpensive hinges and lock sets—and they look cheap, too, as the plating scrapes off. Often the quality of hardware changes from the public sections of the house to the private—expensive mortise locks in a high-style

Victorian house often give way to simple latches in upstairs bedrooms.

Know what your house has for hardware. Make sure you recognize the evolution of locks, latches, hinges, door knockers and bells, hooks, and the rest. Hardware is too often overlooked, both as a source of style ideas and for the clues it can offer about how the house was changed over time. A simple latch from an upstairs cupboard can prove to be the inspiration for the closure on the cabinets in your new kitchen or, when removed from a door, may reveal unpainted wood beneath, indicating it is original.

The skeleton of the house—its wooden frame, usu­ally visible in the cellar and attic—may also give you some ideas Solid old beam? have been revealed in many old houses, though they often look like what they are rough structural elements that the builders never for a moment intended visitors to see

Old masonry is to be regarded with the same wary eye: always conserve what you can, but don’t be tempted to reveal surfaces if you believe that was never the mason’s intention. Sloppy, untooled mortar joints and broken brick pieces that are just packed at random into openings are signs of masonry work that was to be cov­ered up, perhaps by plaster or other surfaces.

Rehabilitating a house requires more than satisfying your own desires. The best remodeling work on old houses almost invariably involves preserving some original elements, restoring others, and identifying how the new work can augment the old.

The Federal House

After the Revolution, Americans began to change the style of their buildings to reflect their change of allegiance. While the houses were not radically different—and still drew upon British sources—the high-style buildings of the new era bore a new and Am

Federal Houses


After the Revolution, Americans wanted cultural as well as political indepen­dence, and they began to change the style of their buildings to reflect their change of allegiance. While the houses were not radically different—and still drew upon British sources—the high-style buildings of the new era bore a new and Ameri­can name.

The Federalist party which, ironically, tended to favor British interests in for­eign affairs, was the party of the merchants and landowners. These were the people with the means to build important houses—houses that came to be known as having been built in the Federal Style. Like “Georgian,” the name “Federal” has more to do with who was giving orders than with who was designing the buildings, but somehow the name has stayed with us. It’s a catch-all for buildings that date from the close of the Revolution (1783) until the first great machine-age style, the Greek Revival, became popular in the 1820s and 1830s. Other terms used for buildings of the Federal decades are Adamesque and Neo-Classical.

A trio of Scots brothers named Adam developed a distinct decorative style that became widely popular in England. In particular, Robert Adam brought to British architecture a first-hand knowledge of antiquity. He had visited the recently discov­ered ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and he shifted the emphasis from columns and other echoes of classical elements to applied decorations, like urns and swags. The exteriors of his buildings tended to be less decorated than earlier Georgian Houses but his interiors were practically encrusted with neoclassical details. The Federal House looks much less like a temple than the Georgian designs that came before or the Greek houses that were to follow. None of the Adamses ever worked in America, but through their publications and other authors’ builders’ books, their style reached the United States.

In Massachusetts, two architects named Charles Bulfinch and Asher Ben jamin took the Adamesque style and helped make it more American. Bulfinch’s fame is tied to his important Boston buildings, in particular the Massachusetts State House. But Benjamin is best remembered for his pattern books. He adapted the Fed eral Style to the predominantly wooden American house. Since he was working with boards rather than blocks of stone, his details tended to be thinner and more atten uated than his British antecedents’. Benjamin also believed that there should be a trickle-down of the neoclassical style of fine houses to rural farmhouses and more modest urban buildings, too. If the Georgian Style was primarily an aristocratic style, then the Federal had democratic aspirations appropriate to the politics of the new country.

The typical Federal house shared the same basic configuration as the Georgian House, the form real estate agents today are fond of calling “colonial”—again, the Classic Colonial is a double-pile structure (that is, two rooms deep, front to back), with a street facade on the long side that features a center entrance in the third of the five bays. The Classic Colonial is two stories tall, and in its Federal form typically had at least two and often four chimneys arranged symmetrically on either side of the house. Hip or gable roofs were usual, though with a pitch that was typically flat ter than on the Georgian House. The first floor plan of the Georgian House, with four rooms, two on either side of the main hall, remained the norm, but often the rooms themselves assumed a greater variety of shapes and sizes.

In the northeast, most Federal Houses were wood; in the south, brick was more common. The exteriors generally had fewer moldings though many examples took their cue from the Adams and featured carved decorations, like urns, swags, elliptical motifs called patera, and other elements borrowed from ancient Roman buildings. The windows were taller and narrower than in the Georgian House, the sticking between the individual panes of glass much thinner. Sidelights appeared on either side of the front door.

The tradition of the fan sash over the entrance continued from the Georgian Style but with an important difference: In the Federal House, the fan sash is elliptical, rather than circular. While the comers of a Federal house are less likely to have pilasters than their Georgian predecessors (or the Greek Revival homes that would succeed them), the front doorways typically had flattened columns, usually in pairs on either side of the entry. The tradition of the entrance as statement, as “frontispiece,” continued. Inside, classical details adorned window and door architraves, mantels, cornices, and ceilings. Plaster and wood ornamentation tended to be graceful and delicate.

The interior details of a Federal house are important attributes to be conserved. Ceiling medallions came into vogue at this time, many of them of plaster. Mantels had elaborate moldings, pilasters, and characteristic carving work and sometimes applied decorations. The front door and the stair case were two other elements of the house where the builder was likely to lav ish much energy and skill. A good rule to follow in your Federal house is to respect the original symmetry of the house and, as always, be on the lookout for original work.

The Georgian House

The emergence of the Georgian House was a water-shed moment in the history of American domestic architecture.

Georgian Houses


If the ups and downs of architectural history were to be represented by a line graph, there’d be a tall spike at the time the Georgian House came into existence.  It didn’t happen all at once, of course, but the emergence of the Georgian House was a water-shed moment in the history of American domestic architecture.

The floor plan of the Georgian House is actually two hall-and-parlor houses turned sideways and connected by a central hall.  The result is a two-room wide, two-room deep (double pile) house, with two chimneys, one on either side of the house.  The Georgian House is also a full two stories tall, an imposing presence on any street-scape with its broad facade that is also five openings (five bays) wide.  With this design, American builders transcended the humble Medieval origins of the Basic House and went upscale.  The name Georgian comes from the kings who held the English throne for more than a century starting in 1714.  Georgian Houses are commonly found in old trading towns along the eastern seaboard, early inland villages, and on southern plantations.

Once again, the inspiration came from Europe. But this time the line of trans­mission reaches back to classical antiquity. The front door assumed new promi­nence, sometimes with a front portico supported by columns. Flattened columns or pilasters became standard on each side of the front door and on the corners of the building. The projecting cornice line of the roof was elaborated with moldings. The sources for such detailing were the monuments of ancient Rome and Renaissance architects like Andrea Palladio, the great sixteenth-century Italian designer who had established the appropriateness of using elements from the temples of antiquity on domestic architecture. His Palladian window often appears in Georgian Houses, with its arched central opening flanked by two flat-topped windows.

If plainness was the most obvious characteristic of the Cape and other early houses, in the Georgian House the keynote became stylishness. Most of the early settlers in America had been poor and all of them had been concerned with shelter first and style later. Only after they could be assured of surviving in the North American wilderness did they shift their attention to elegance and decorative detail. In that sense, the Georgian House was an expression of the advance of American civilization.

The open central hallway meant there was space for a generous staircase which quickly became a design statement, an opportunity for the householder to proclaim his wealth and status. The ceilings in Georgian houses are taller, the rooms decorated with bolder moldings. Window technology had advanced, and the double- hung sash window became standard in the Georgian house. Georgian houses were symmetrical to a fault—many of the great surviving Georgian houses have false inte rior doors to maintain the illusion that each room was carefully balanced.

One key precept to follow is Respect the symmetry of the house. That’s especially true on the facade where even a small change can scar the appearance of the house.

Cherish and, if necessary, restore the front entrance. Carpenter books of the time referred to the doorway as the “frontispiece” of the house and indeed it is. All of the details are important: the pilasters, the decorative cornice, a fan sash over the door if there is one, and even the door itself. Entrance ways are the hallmarks of the Georgian House.

As with any house of a certain age, a key guideline is to save the good old work. In a Georgian House, this may include six-panel doors, multipaned windows (12/12s in the north were usual, 9/9s in the south), raised paneling, the staircase, early flooring, and other details.

Downsizing Your Home

Downsizing Home


New Philosophy
The average American house has more than doubled in size since the 1950s, standing at more than 2,300 square feet. But there is a growing sentiment that bigger is not better.

Of course, size is relative. A space might be called home by one family, while another would consider it only large enough for a guest bedroom. But the sustainable, simpler, and smaller idea has its supporters. Whatever space you have, it seems, living well in it is possible. It all begins with a bit of creativity, a few design essentials, and taking advantage of what the marketplace has to offer.

Several factors may be fueling an increased interest in smaller spaces. Worries about rising utility and other bills, concern for the environment, more single heads of households, retiring Baby Boomers not wanting excess room, and the growing desire to have more free time to pursue interests and spend less time maintaining a home.

Marcia Gamble-Hadley of Gamble Hadley LLC in Seattle, WA, is a longtime advocate for socially responsible housing development. A housing consultant, she was involved in that city’s Pine Street Cottages condominium project. It revitalized 10 cottages, each about 500 square feet, into a successful example of an alternative residential form.

When people think of living in a small space, she says, “there’s the element that you are doing without or deprivation, thinking of it as sacrificing their daily enjoyment. That is a misconception.”

Instead, living in a small space is an opportunity to rethink life’s priorities, she says. It becomes “a process of distilling out for yourself those activities or qualities that bring you the most pleasure and satisfaction—then supporting those and letting go of the complications that go with ‘stuff,’ caring for it, tripping over it, constantly accumulating things that don’t really add to our daily enjoyment and satisfaction.”

Dan Rockhill, founder of Studio 804, a not-for-profit design-build program, and professor of architecture at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, KA., says the “tendency to look toward more efficient living and general disdain for ‘McMansions’ is particularly evident in younger people who see their footprint as having some consequence.”

He suggests that living in small spaces is made easier by open designs that embrace technology. Those types of homes allow people to create rooms, move walls around as needed and build in as much flexibility as possible.

A Place for Everything
When living in small spaces, that old parental guideline—“A place for everything and everything in its place”—really holds true. Dirty dinnerware, opened mail, business paperwork—it’s all out there. So, a first rule for living well in small spaces might well be to develop the “pick up after yourself” habit.

But stuff can’t be put away if there is no place to put it. A next step might be to honestly look at this real baggage we carry with us and see how much we still want to own. Boxes of stuff often are rearranged, moved with us, rarely opened, and even less frequently used. Examine it. Make the truly prized pieces part of your life. Donate the good stuff you don’t need. Recycle the rest.

Next, evaluate your space or space-to-be. Be open to possibilities. Plan kitchen cabinets to the ceiling or discover another use for this often-wasted top space. Think vertically. Seek possible areas for storage racks or wall-mounts. Televisions, for example, don’t always have to take up floor space. Look under furniture and cabinetry. Spaces under beds or under sinks can often be put to better use. Consider spaces between interior wall studs for built-ins, unused spaces under stairways for storage, pocket doors to eliminate swing space needs and varying ceiling heights to add spatial interest.

Look critically at furniture. Some furniture might offer extra uses such as a bed that converts to a sleeper for guests, an ottoman or bench that opens for storage, and tables that contain drawers or have extensions available.

Part of living well in a small space also means not feeling cramped, which means paying attention to details. If building new or remodeling, look where windows or half-doors might “extend” the eye’s views beyond a room. Plan skylights for added volume and light. Vary ceiling heights to add interest and volume.

Perfect Fit
Once you’ve culled your stuff and identified the spaces within your space, you’re ready to personalize. Small spaces no longer necessitate having to use products that sacrifice quality, style, or features to accommodate size. Today’s marketplace offers a wide range of high-end compact products.

“High-quality appliances make life a lot easier,” says Angela Warner, a third-generation veteran salesperson at the family-owned Warners’ Stellian appliance stores in St. Paul, MN. Today’s compact appliances, particularly the European brands, have all the modern conveniences but are just smaller, she says. Homeowners are limited only by their budgets. Some examples include: 24-inch-wide, professional-style gas ranges; two-foot-wide, all-stainless refrigerators; convenient dishwasher drawers; four-burner cooktops and compact washer-dryers.

Even tools for working around the home pack quality in a small size. Milwaukee Electric Tool out of Brookfield, WI, has long been known for its tools for professionals. One of its latest products is a powerful yet lightweight 12-volt subcompact driver. Ideal for all kinds of home repair projects, it weights only two pounds and uses a lithium-ion battery so there are no cords to clutter a tight workspace.

Build your space to meet your needs with today’s many storage systems. A variety of shelving and drawer systems can be affixed to walls and set up quickly. For those who can’t drill into walls, there are other options such as elfa® freestanding™, a shelving and drawer system from The Container Store.

Keeping the light and openness of a small space is important but privacy is needed as well. RAYDOOR®, based in New York, is one of many companies that manufactures panels that allow light to travel through the space while dampening sound transmission. Other RAYDOOR products include a telescoping sliding wall without floor tracks, as well as pivoting, folding, and fixed panels.

Selecting Modular Home Builders and Manufacturers

How to buy, and build, prefab

Photo: Flickr

Modular homes are constructed in a factory and assembled on site. Since modular homes are factory-built to exacting standards, it is the work of the builder to marry the component parts and complete any remaining finishes.

How to Find a Builder
The process of building a modular home starts with the builder. “Consumers are either going to look for a manufacturer, or they are going to look for a builder who deals with modular homes,” says Steve Snyder, executive director of the Modular Building Systems Association (MBSA). If they start with the house, homebuyers can scan manufacturers’ websites, look at model floor plans, and review a list of certified builders in their area.

Once a manufacturer is chosen, the road leads back to the builder. “When a buyer gets in touch with a manufacturer, he or she will be referred back to a builder in their area who has a relationship with the manufacturer,” says Snyder. The consumer then buys the modular home through the builder, not the manufacturer.

“Modular home manufacturers are suppliers of modules to a builder, much like a lumber yard supplies the site-built homebuilder with supplies,” says Thayer Long, vice president of public affairs for the National Modular Housing Council (NMHC). The builder represents the company and will be responsible for callbacks or complaints.

Some consumers wish to start with a builder who deals with modular homes. Modular home associations like the MBSA feature online resources to help consumers learn more about the product and the process, or check out a directory of builders, vendors, and suppliers. “Our site has a map of the U.S. — you can click on a state and find manufacturers who ship to and deal with builders in that state,” says Snyder.

Modular Additions
Modular additions are growing in popularity as homeowners choose to improve their present homes rather than move. “People are looking to add space to their homes,” says Andy Gianino, founder and president of The Home Store, an organization that acts as both dealer and builder of modular homes. “In-law additions are popular for aging parents who need more support, or families who need the extra help with the grandchildren.”

“Homeowners can add a modular addition to the side of their home, or they can add to the top of the home, creating a second story,” Gianino says. Adding a modular addition is like any addition to a stick-built home — permits and site preparation are required. A builder who works with modular homes should be contracted to do the work and assist the homeowner in selecting a design.

Adding a modular addition to create a second level requires an engineer to assess the strength of the first floor and determine what will need to be done to the existing structure to ensure that it will support the weight of the addition. “The engineer will tell the general contractor what will need to be done to beef up the first floor,” says Gianino.

To install a modular addition, there must be adequate access to the home. Modules are shipped on trucks and not all homes can handle a large truck on site. Modules are hoisted into place by crane, which also requires adequate space on site.

There are potential cost-saving benefits to adding a modular addition. As with all modular construction, the cost of labor is significantly less than for a site-built addition. Modular additions are fast, reducing the headaches and confusion of construction. The addition will also be ready to close in and move into much faster. “For the homeowner adding a second story, the amount of time that the home is exposed to the elements is much less with a modular addition than with a stick-built addition,” says Gianino.

Energy Efficiency and Green Building
By nature, modular homes are built tough. The added materials used to construct modules strong enough to withstand the rigors of travel from factory to building site often result in a tighter structure. This can mean a more energy-efficient home, right out of the factory. “The tighter seal of a modular home means less heat lost in the winter, and less cool air lost in the summer,” says Mike Younus, general manager of New England Homes, a modular-home manufacturer in New Hampshire.

Homeowners can often specify certain products and additions that bolster a home’s energy efficiency. Adding blown-in insulation in the attic or walls is one upgrade, as are low-emissivity windows. Homeowners interested in enhanced energy savings should choose a manufacturer who offers the option to add energy-saving materials to their modules.

Building a modular home is a green process because the modules are constructed in factories, meaning less material is wasted or discarded during the construction process. “In many factories, they use very big precision equipment to cut materials the right way the first time,” says Gianino. “Since the manufacturers are building in volume, they will find uses for all the scraps and extra materials.”

“The green building concept is starting to catch hold, and the market is starting to change,” says Younus, whose company, New England Homes, is already exploring the use of mold-resistant drywall, blue-treated lumber, and other products aimed at improving the indoor air quality of the modular home. Younus adds that consumer interest in green building and energy efficiency will determine how quickly the modular industry moves to add more energy-efficient options.

Modular Homes Go Greener

As builders focus more on sustainability, modular homes present new opportunities to go green.

Modular Homes


Modular homes are built to the same local and state codes as traditional stick-built homes. The way they differ is how and where they are built, with some builders going well beyond eco-friendliness to new levels of sustainability.

Modular homes are constructed as three-dimensional “modules,” or boxes. Each module is fully complete with electrical, plumbing, drywall, and some fixtures. The modules are built to design specifications. Instead of being “stick-built” on a home site, up to 90 percent of a modular home might be “systems-built” in a factory, then transported to the site, assembled, and finished.

A modular home has few, if any, design limitations. The average modular home contains three or more modules, but many contain five to ten modules. Modular homes can be built and configured to meet nearly any shape and size, at all price points, from entry-level and multifamily housing up to million-dollar mansions.

Because they are factory-built, modular homes have several eco-friendly advantages over site-built homes. Factories provide a secure and dry construction environment. Computer-assisted drawings and the efficiencies of the production line allow for more precise access to and use of materials. Because everything is based at one site, certain materials can be purchased in bulk and any excess materials can be reused onsite. When modules are transported to the site to be assembled on a permanent foundation and completed, there is less environmental disturbance.

Stick-built construction must deal with problems associated with an outdoor site. There may be a large amount of waste as materials left unused are often disposed of instead of recycled. Inclement weather and inadequate storage can damage materials. Lumber and other supplies must be dealt with where they are dropped off by supply trucks. Open sites are vulnerable to theft and vandalism. Also, those working on the house must deal with inclement weather, such as cold, high heat, high humidity, and rain.

New Certification Process
“The new green aspect to consider is that the industry is working closely in developing the only green certification process for manufactured and modular homes,” says Thayer Long, executive vice president of the Manufactured Housing Institute in Arlington, VA.

“These homes will be built to the National Association of Home Builders green building standard that site-built homes also will meet,” Long says. “In addition, the new industry process will include certifying that the home meets Energy Star requirements.”

LEED Verification
Some modular home companies are already pushing the green envelope. One company is LivingHomes of Santa Monica, Calif. It distinguishes itself from traditional modular builders by integrating a comprehensive environmental program in all of its homes, says CEO Steve Glenn.

“LivingHomes include sustainable building materials, technologies and fixtures that minimize energy and water use and that generate energy from renewable resources, as well as materials that reduce indoor air pollution,” he says. “We also design our homes to maximize natural light and ventilation. All LivingHomes are built to receive a U.S. Green Building Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating of Silver or above to verify that they are built in a sustainable way.”

Taking eco-friendliness to new levels, these modular homes use sustainable materials for framing, exterior or interior cladding, floors, cabinets, and countertops. They are even built with greywater-ready plumbing, which means there is separate plumbing from sinks, showers and laundry that can be filtered and reused to irrigate landscaping.

There are also other green options available. Homeowners can consider a home resource monitor to track energy savings, an automatic kitchen composter to process food scraps, moveable walls to create flexible living spaces, a solar water heater, a rainwater collection system, and geothermal heating and cooling.

Construction costs vary. Glenn says customers should expect to see cost savings if they compare prices with stick-built homes of comparable design and quality. The LivingHomes web site notes that its homes range from $180 to $250 per square foot not including design costs, which are 10 to 15 percent of the budget, or permit fees, engineering, transport, installation or foundation.

Green Convergence
One cutting-edge modular home company is merging traditional design with state-of-the-art green elements: New World Home, which was co-founded in 2007 by Tyler Schmetterer and Mark Jupiter and is based in New York City with an office in Atlanta.

Schmetterer, now chief marketing officer, says there are two primary differences between the company’s New Old Green Modular® (NOGM®) home and an ordinary modular home. “First, a NOGM is based on a historically inspired traditional design that evokes the spirit of the past while respectfully integrating all of the modern conveniences and amenities afforded by the 21st century,” he says. “Second, a NOGM home utilizes a whole-systems approach to design, incorporating the most stringent green standards, products and practices in the industry. As a result, a New Old Green Modular home approaches USGBC LEED for Home Platinum certification directly out of the factory.”

Schmetterer says NOGM homes are specifically designed on a regional basis and incorporate climate-specific energy requirements that exceed local energy code requirements. In addition, the design fits in naturally with its surrounding landscape and community. “It is a home that pays homage to the local architectural vernacular instead of contradicting or ignoring history as is so often the case with new construction, modular or otherwise,” he says.

Among the fundamental green aspects the homes incorporate are being USGBC LEED for Home certifiable in Silver, Gold, or Platinum, optimal-value engineering to reduce lumber usage by 15 to 20 percent, 90-plus percent of lumber sourced from sustainably harvested forests and third-party verified, an advanced metering system that monitors resource consumption on a real-time basis, and integrated water collection systems for irrigation.  The company has produced LEED Platinum-certified homes in New York and Georgia.

Schmetterer says one company objective is to develop housing solutions with a 0 percent upfront premium for green products and features. “Customers are then able to fully realize the many cost and maintenance advantages of owning a NOGM-certified home, starting with a minimum 50 percent energy consumption savings starting from day one. Any premium associated with our homes is directly correlated to design-related options and not the many green features.,” he says.

Another innovative modular manufacturer, Boston-based Ecohealth Homes, a division of Chatham Hill Residential Design and Build, LLC, focuses on producing environmentally friendly and healthy homes with a historic New England aesthetic.

Ecohealth Homes’ creator, Michelle Roberts, worked with the nonprofit National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) to specify materials and products for the homes. Specifications address occupant safety, such as single-lever faucets, double-hung windows for upper floors, and built-in escape ladders — things many green building programs ignore, says Roberts. Each home will be inspected throughout the modular manufacturing process by a third-party to ensure all specifications are met. “Building homes that are both sustainable and healthy requires a new way of thinking,” Roberts says.

Modular Homes: A Rising Industry

The modular home industry continues growth as a green alternative to traditional construction.

Modular Homes


Whether it’s called a modular home, a systems-built home, or a factory-built home, the modular home is a misunderstood product. Despite a steady growth in sales, the modular home industry still battles public misconception. The move towards green modular homes and a continued commitment to consumer education are helping to raise the public’s perception of this promising housing alternative.

Continuing Education
The modular home industry is still struggling to shake comparisons to mobile homes (or homes with axles and a chassis) and is equally confronted by misinformed consumers who perceive the modular product to be “cheap.” Although the modular home-building process does produce less construction waste, takes less time, and can be a little easier on the budget, the end product is anything but cheap — and industry proponents are eager to spread the word.

“The truth is modular homes appraise at the same, if not more, than a stick-built home,” insists David Cooper, president of Modular Homes, Inc. of Edison, NJ. “They are built with more materials, they are constructed in factories that have it down to a science and are built sturdy enough to sustain the hurricane-force winds of being driven down the highway.”

Through efforts led mainly by manufacturers and builders, misconceptions are methodically being transformed into greater awareness. “We have classes and seminars to teach the benefits of modular homes, as well as green homes,” says Cooper. These educational opportunities, which exist for builders, consumers, and real estate professionals, teach about the economical and environmental benefits to building modular as well as an all-important notion that “the modular house isn’t going to look any different than a traditional home,” Cooper adds.

Green Modular Homes
It’s fairly well-established that the modular home industry is inherently green. Factory building produces far less waste, keeps lumber dry (and thus free of mold), and guarantees precision cuts that result in a tighter-fitting, more energy-efficient home. This “green by nature” quality is helping modular builders promote their products to the growing ranks of green-savvy prospective home buyers. “Just out of the factory a modular home can be 15 percent of the way towards LEED certification,” says Cooper, referring to the United States Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED-H) certification program for residential structures.

Modular Homes, Inc. (MHI), acts as general contractor to the homebuyer, from finalizing floor plans to on-site construction of the shipped modules. The company’s “Building Green. Living Green” motto speaks to an industry-wide trend of building upon the green qualities imbued by the factory-built process. To achieve the LEED certification, Cooper hires a LEED-certified consultant to advise on the project, and a LEED-certified inspector is brought into the factory to oversee and sign off on the various steps of the construction process, just as would be done on a site-built home.

Although not every homebuyer has the budget for a site-built home that is designated Platinum, the highest LEED-H certification, meeting some reasonable green goals for a home might be more readily accomplished by going modular.

For instance, manufacturers use 2x6s for framing modular homes, rather than the 2x4s used in most site-built homes, so that the modules are sturdy for transport to the site. What happens with the extra two inches? “It’s filled with additional insulation,” which contributes to higher energy efficiency, says Chad Harvey, Deputy Director for the Modular Building Systems Association (MSBA). According to Harvey, there are countless nuanced factory construction techniques that result in a greener product, from tightly sealed outlets  to extensive material recycling programs.

Like traditional site-built green homes, green modular builders rely on educated subcontractors who understand the green industry. This can be a particular challenge to modular builders, who are often shipping the home from one state to another, sometimes to an unfamiliar area.

The Best of Both Worlds
One inaccurate criticism of modular homes paints them as “cookie-cutter” or generic, but nothing could be farther from the truth. “People still have this image of a double-wide mobile home when you say modular,” says Harvey. In reality, the modular home industry allows for more customization than ever before.

Higher-end modular homes, like many of the ones MHI are responsible for, are being built through a happy marriage of systems-built and site-built techniques, enabling customization options that can only further drive homebuyers toward modular homes as an attractive—and green—solution.