Historic Homes & More - 4/14 - Bob Vila

Category: Historic Homes & More

Earthbound: 5 “All Natural” House Styles

Around the world today, as in centuries past, homes are being built, not with traditional wood, stone, or brick, but with earthy materials like clay, sand, and straw.

This is nothing new: For thousands of years, people have been living in shelters made from earth-based building materials—that is, homes more or less made from dirt. As sustainable practices have surged into the mainstream, natural modes of construction have found (or returned to) popularity.

Related: 12 Hobbit Houses to Make You Consider Moving Underground

Featuring thick walls that absorb sunlight, earthen homes remain cool through summer and stay warm through winter. Since they are not built from wood, they are not as vulnerable to termites and fires, though in comparison to traditional stick-built structures, they are more prone to dampness.

Scroll down to read about five different earthy approaches to building eco-friendly homes for today.



Earth Homes - Cob

Photo: thiscobhouse.com

In Britain, there are some cob homes that have remained standing for hundreds of years. In 1997, the region welcomed the first new cob home to have been built in over 75 years. Though cob homes of old often included dung as a key ingredient, today’s iteration is built from clay, sand, straw and water. (The straw performs the same role that re-bar does in concrete.) That mixture is molded to create solid and smooth structures, which often have rounded corners.



Earthen Homes - Bermed

Photo: mazas.ca

An earth-bermed shelter is built into or against—you guessed it!—the earth. In essence, the topography of a building site, whether naturally formed or shaped by men and machines, allows for habitable space to be carved out in the creation of a semi-subterranean dwelling. Champions of earth-bermed construction praise the quality of insulation that soil provides.



Earthen Homes - Adobe

Photo: b-greendreamscape.com

If you’ve been to the Southwest, you’re familiar with the beauty of adobe architecture. Adobe, long used by indigenous groups like the Anasazi, is water, straw, sand, and clay, a mixture that is formed into bricks and then sun-dried. Adobe is particularly well suited to hot climates; the material absorbs heat from the sun, fostering a cool interior.



Earthen Homes - Rammed Earth

Photo: motherearthliving.com

The walls of rammed-earth homes are built from dirt that is packed (by hand or by tamper) into small blocks or bricks. It’s a “dirt cheap” material, provided that your building site makes available a sufficient amount of soil that is usable for the purpose.



Earthen Homes - Earthbag

Photo: akdn.org

Here’s another type of building that lives up to its name: Earthbag construction, a relatively recent technology, depends on polypropylene bags (or tubes) filled with dirt that is sourced either from the site or imported from elsewhere. No special binding or molds are required; each row of bags is laid, then compacted from above and left to cure to a hard finish.

FDR’s “Real” Springwood on the Hudson

The fabled home of an unforgettable political family, stately Springwood endures with vitality to match the Roosevelts' legacy.

FDR's Springwood


With the release of Hyde Park On Hudson, a Focus Features film starring Bill Murray as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—moviegoers are treated to a rare, albeit theatrical, glimpse of FDR’s life at Springwood, the Roosevelt family home in Duchess County, NY. While the movie was shot on location in England and not at the historic property, Springwood remains unique among presidential sites, as revealed in this excerpt from Houses of the Presidents (Little, Brown; November 2012) by author and historian Hugh Howard.


BY 1915, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT’S PUBLIC CAREER followed the path of his idolized cousin, Theodore. Both Roosevelts had been elected to serve in the New York State Senate and received appointments to be assistant secretary of the navy. Franklin’s private life was proving productive, too. In 1905, against his mother’s wishes, he married Teddy’s niece, Anne Eleanor, and she birthed five children in ten years. Another was expected.

With his large ambitions and growing family, the need became obvious: The house known as Springwood, located at Hyde Park, New York, simply had to be expanded.

His father had died almost fifteen years earlier, but his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, remained in charge at Springwood. Over the years minor changes had been made to the house (a staircase was shifted in 1892 and electricity arrived in 1908), but a more radical rethinking was required. Together, mother and son commissioned a respected New York architectural firm, Hoppin and Koen, to prepare a plan. The revamped house that resulted mingled the architects’ beaux arts training and Franklin’s fondness for elements of the Dutch colonial design native to the Hudson Valley.

The raising of the existing roof allowed for the construction of a large playroom. At either end of the original structure new fieldstone wings were added. The north addition contained a common room for the servants and a schoolroom on the first floor, along with five servant bedrooms and a bath above. The south wing enclosed a spacious library down, three bedrooms up. The new plan retained the old configuration of the principal rooms, but the house was doubled in size.

Roosevelt Springwood Office Roger Straus Iii Housesofthe Presidents

Sara Delano Roosevelt paid the bills and managed the year-long renovation, which saw removal of the old clapboard cladding and the application of gray stucco for a look more compatible with the coursed rubblestone of the new wings. Other decorative touches added formality to what became a more imposing house, with a columned portico and a fanlight over the door. A vernacular Victorian dwelling reemerged as an orderly and symmetrical statement that spoke for the means and expectations of the man of the house.

In the years that followed, Roosevelt’s rise seemed likely to continue. In 1920 the Democrats named him their vice-presidential candidate, though he and his running mate, Ohio Governor James M. Cox, lost by an overwhelming margin to the Republican pairing of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Roosevelt returned to his law practice but, less than a year later, on vacation at his cottage on Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine, he took to his bed. The diagnosis was polio and, for much of the next seven years, Roosevelt worked at his rehabilitation. He would never regain full use of his legs and, wary that people would think him unfit for public office, he attempted to appear more mobile than he was, delivering speeches while standing (he wore iron leg braces) and taking pains to avoid being photographed in his wheelchair.

Roosevelt Springwood Bedroom Roger Straus Iii Homesofthe PresidentEventually, he reentered politics, and, in 1928, was elected governor of New York. After two terms in Albany, the fifty-year-old Roosevelt pledged at the Democratic convention in 1932 that, if elected president, he would deliver “a new deal for the American people.” That November he won a national mandate, carrying forty-two of the forty-eight states. He would win a total of four presidential elections as he sought to lead the nation out of the Great Depression and, eventually, to victory in war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which he described as “a date that will live in infamy.”

Historians and biographers have wrestled with the popularity of the politician and the complex personality of the man. Franklin Roosevelt was raised an eastern aristocrat but seemed genuinely to like everybody, regardless of class or region. When he addressed people as “my friends,” whether among a small group, in a public speech, or over the radio waves in one of his periodic “fireside chats” (many of which were broadcast from Springwood), all kinds of people were drawn to the man with the welcoming manner and a passion for conversation and company. The American people not only accepted his friendship, but they admired his implacability and the seemingly bottomless optimism that had been in evidence since childhood. Everyone felt they knew this man, and most people liked him.

Roosevelt Springwood Elevator Roger Straus Iii Housesofthe PresidentsAlthough Springwood offers a superb vantage from which to consider Roosevelt and his many facets, the home never actually belonged to its most famous occupant. At his death in 1900, Franklin’s father, James, left it not to his son (then newly enrolled at Harvard) but to his widow, Sara; prior to her death in 1941, Franklin had asked his mother to deed the estate to the federal government. Yet Springwood remains unique among presidential sites, as the property at Hyde Park was Roosevelt’s principal home throughout his life; even as president he traveled there often, making almost two hundred trips to Springwood in the course of his thirteen-year presidency.

President Roosevelt spent languid summer days in the house that overlooked the Hudson; he ritually returned home at Christmas for his hearthside reading of A Christmas Carol to the children and grandchildren; he planned war strategies with Churchill there. After his death on April 12, 1945, his remains made one last pilgrimage to Hyde Park, traveling through the night past thousands of Americans who gathered to watch and grieve as the funeral train passed. He was bound for the resting place he had chosen, his mother’s rose garden at Springwood.

Color photos courtesy of Roger Straus III; B&W image courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

An 18th-Century Stone Farmhouse Reborn

Thanks to thoughtful material choices and a spacious contemporary design, a streamlined addition to an 18th-century farmhouse stylishly connects the old and new.

Farmhouse Reborn

Photo: Jeffrey Totaro

Over the past 20 years, Jeffery Wyant and Maria Keares Wyant of Wyant Architecture in Philadelphia have become known for their clean, uncomplicated solutions to tricky design dilemmas.

Not long ago, the enterprising team put their skills to the test, when new clients asked them to enlarge the footprint of their 18th-century farmhouse in Elverson, Pennsylvania. “The couple wanted an addition sympathetic to the original architecture, but they didn’t just want to replicate what they already had,” says Jeffrey.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Addition Original HouseBuilt in the late 1700s, the two-story stone farmhouse had a cramped, compartmentalized layout with six-over-six double-hung windows that didn’t let in much light. While the architects tried to honor the provenance of the existing structure, they also wanted to create a new space for the family that was bright, spacious, and contemporary.

Slideshow: Tour the Farmhouse Addition

“We ultimately decided to make only minor modifications to the original living space and instead open it onto the new addition,” says Maria. Because the low ceilings of the existing house didn’t lend themselves to large, gracious spaces, the couple lowered the ground floor of the new addition to gain a more generous ceiling height on the first floor, and also opted for vaulted ceilings on the second level. The addition, which features a sleek master suite and a light-filled great room, expanded the family’s living space by roughly 2,000 square feet.

Besides creating more expansive common areas, one of the architects’ main goals was to redesign and re-orient the entryway. As it was, the front entrance faced out toward the road, but the driveway led straight to the back door, which, by default, had become the family’s primary entrance. To remedy this, Jeffrey and Maria sited the new addition at a perpendicular angle to the back of the farmhouse, thus creating a front entrance the family could access from the existing driveway.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Entry 05

The reconfigured entrance serves to tie the old and new structures together. “When we drafted the plans for the new entryway,” Maria says, “we wanted the connection between the addition and the original structure to be very thin and glassy, with the glass itself becoming a design element that served as a separator.”

This transparency was achieved by flanking the door with fixed casement windows from Pella’s Architect Series. The aluminum-clad windows rise to the second floor, forming a clerestory beneath the roofline, then wrap around the side of the house to fill in the master bedroom gable. “When we first described our idea about the windows to the owners, we used the analogy of a baseball,” remembers Jeffrey, who likens the flow of the glass across the addition to how the leather of a baseball is bound together by one continuous stitch of thread. “All in all, Maria and I felt the windows made the whole composition feel lighter, like the roof was almost floating on top of the stone wall,” Jeffrey says.

In terms of materials, the husband-and-wife team united the exterior of the structures by sheathing the new addition with nearly identical stones purchased from a neighboring farm. Riffing off the house’s original copper downspouts, the Wyants chose a standing-seam copper roof, which they extended down to create the wall at the rear elevation of the addition. “The copper will age and patina,” says Jeffrey. “It was shiny and bright when we first installed it, but it oxidized right away to this warm, bronze color.”

Instead of wood, a Burlington Stone from Stone Source was used on the ground level and the terrace beyond the great room’s glass wall. “The terrace flows out of the family room and is protected on three sides—by the addition, a wing off the 18th-century structure, and the stone guest house—so it feels very intimate, which is nice, since the farmland beyond it is so open and vast,” notes Maria.

Wyant Architecture Pa Farmhouse Addition Master BathThe couple also installed a traditional Japanese-style rain chain on the terrace. “The chain hangs away from the building and becomes a water feature in stormy weather. The water’s both visible and audible, as it travels down the chain into the stone drainage bed below,” says Maria.

Besides the spacious master bedroom and its 400-square-foot deck, the second level of the addition includes a home office and a wide stair hall that connects the original and new portions of the house. Sustainable palm wood paves the floors. And the striking staircase features reclaimed lumber for the treads and a custom-designed railing made from plate steel.

Outfitted with a freestanding soaking tub, the open-design master bath pairs standard-issue white tiles with Erin Adams’ Zen Weave graphic tiles from Anne Sacks, not to mention 12-by-24-inch porcelain tiles with a copper patina, installed horizontally.

“We’re fortunate our clients were so open-minded. They gave us the freedom to design something modern and contemporary and in contrast to the historic structure,” says Jeffrey. “I think everyone was proud of the outcome.”

For a virtual house tour, click here. To learn more about the architects and other projects, visit Wyant Architecture.

Mobile Homes: Then and Now

From their travel trailer beginnings, mobile homes have evolved into finely tuned—and in some cases rather luxurious—permanent, full-time abodes.

Mobile Home Design

Photo: JDagmi

In Elkhart, IN, at the Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Housing (RV/MH) Hall of Fame, resident historian Al Hesselbart has created a library dedicated to the evolution of the mobile home. Having begun the job with no prior knowledge of the subject, Hesselbart read all of the books before putting them on the shelves. Now the self-taught authority makes frequent public appearances, has been inducted into the Tin Can Tourists Hall of Fame, and will be giving a keynote speech at China’s first national RV conference in Beijing.

Hesselbart is good for a dynamic industry that still suffers from stigma (“trailer trash”), myth (“factory-built homes are not as strong as traditional homes”), and general confusion—is a manufactured home a vehicle or a house?

Though the metal trailers of yore bear little resemblance to the energy-efficient open-floor-plan manufactured homes of today, outdated attitudes and judgments remain. Hesselbart and industry executives, passionate architects and designers, the Manufactured Housing Industry (MHI) and state-level trade organizations are all on a collaborative mission to inform about the past, present, and future value of manufactured housing.

Mobile Home Design - Continental Trailer

Photo: Portable Levittown

In the beginning, trailer travel was primarily recreational, as vacationers realized that it was a fun, budget-friendly way to tour the country. When the Depression hit, however, families who had lost jobs and homes packed their lives into these crowded campers. Though originally never intended as full-time dwellings, manufacturers identified this as a new trend.

The trailer home rose to the occasion during WWII as emergency housing on military bases and employee lodging near factories engaged in war production. With hundreds of manufacturers dispersed throughout the country, portable trailers were conveniently and quickly wheeled to locations, and over time, average square footage increased and livability improved.

Related: Manufactured Housing Through the Years

By the 50s and 60s, trailers were viable domiciles and mobile home ‘parks’ had sprouted up along the outskirts of thousands of towns. A typical park had a central shower and laundry facility with outhouses placed between every two units. The mobile home offered modest, affordable housing for young and old alike in all regions of the country.

In June 1976, the term “mobile” was officially set aside and replaced with “manufactured”, as The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) set national standards to improve the quality and safety of these homes. Bruce Savage, industry veteran and consultant to the Manufactured Housing Institute (MHI) explains, “The HUD code has evolved, and the guidelines are fairly strict, but how they are achieved is up to the manufacturer.” A certification tag attached to each transportable section verifies inspection to this standard. Since 1976, the HUD Code has been updated several times.

Building homes in a factory makes sense. Joe Stegmayer, CEO of Cavco, says the factory construction process is “efficient and consistent.” At Cavco, it takes on average 7-10 days to complete a solid, system-tested home with a relatively high degree of finishing (painted dry wall, appliances installed, window treatments hung). In a controlled environment, homes are built by the same skilled workers every day, no matter the weather; materials are purchased in large quantities and delivered hassle-free; and precise measurements translate into reduced waste and a tight build.

Once delivered, a manufactured home can be hard to distinguish from a traditional site-built one. Savage says, “The enhanced aesthetics make these homes easy to place in traditional communities, both suburban and urban.”

Tony Lucas, Cavco senior architect/designer, works with developers around the country designing regionally styled elevations. He welcomes the challenges—designing profiles for challenging sites, for example, or utilizing materials that are attractive but also high-performing. One example of mobile home design ingenuity: Hinged roofs enable homes to be elevated at installation while still managing to meet transport requirements. Siding options, once aluminum and vinyl only, now include stucco, brick, and rock.

Inside of a manufactured home, architect Tony Lucas says the greatest stride has been the transition to sheetrock. Suzanne Felber, a.k.a. The Lifestylist, stages model homes and loves the mainstream fixtures, fittings, and decorative options now available. Concrete countertops, tiled backsplashes, and large kitchen islands are increasingly common. As Felber says, “The industry is incorporating trends that we see everywhere.”

Despite all the style changes, the tell-tale sign of a manufactured home is the permanent chassis. At Paradise Cove and Point Dume Club, two mobile home parks in Malibu, CA, David Carter sells million-dollar trailers. “Buyers strip the old mobile homes down to the metal chassis, build out to the maximum allowed, and then put a regular stick building on top,” Carter says. People own the homes and lease the land (for up to $3,000 per month, depending on the lot’s size and location).

Mobile Home Design - Briny Breezes

Photo: JDagmi

Across the country, in Palm Beach County, FL, Mayor Roger Bennet presides over the town of Briny Breezes, a 488-home mobile park community. Tin Can Tourists from the North started to stake out Briny in the 30s, back when it was little more than farmland. The community later thrived as a tropical paradise for snowbirds, or “Whiny Geezers” as Mayor Bennet’s daughter teasingly dubbed them.

Briny residents own their homes and have shares in the co-op that owns the land. In 2007, developers sought to buy out the Briny-ites. Mayor Bennet laughs, “We used to be a trailer park, and then all of a sudden we’re a quaint seaside village.” The deal fell through along with the economy.

While the desire to live beach-front has led some to places like Briny Breezes and Paradise Cove, the typical park dweller has other priorities. Kevin Flaherty, VP marketing at Champion says, “In the family communities, people are looking for an affordable home with security. In the adult community, they are often driven by a desire to minimize their housing investment so they can protect their savings.” Flaherty adds, “Buyers appreciate that they can purchase just the home and not have to liquidate as much money, since they are renting the lot.”

Mobile Home Design - Champion Homes

Photo: Champion Homes

While the construction of manufactured homes has gotten more solid, Toni Gump, former editor of Upwardly Mobile magazine, believes the future of mobile home communities is getting shaky. Speaking about the situation in California, Gump says, “Many of the oldies are disappearing, since the county or city doesn’t get enough tax money from them and doesn’t care about protecting our most vulnerable.” She has also witnessed bullying by management companies. On the flip side, Gump says, “The majority of today’s manufactured homes are ‘in set.’ When they’re placed on regular lots in cities and counties, they avoid a lot of bureaucracy, plus you get a nice home for less.”

For more on the evolution of factory-built homes, don’t miss our Mobile Homes Timeline

Photo credits: Photos credits: Vintage ad courtesy of Portable Levittown; Escape Series Log Cabin, bottom, Champion

Vacation in a National Park

Consider these seven National Parks every American should visit, plus recommendations on great places to stay once you decide to go.

National Park Vacations

Photo: National Park Guidebook

Nearly 140 years ago, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the act that made Yellowstone the first national park in America. Since then 58 of the country’s most spectacular natural spaces have been safeguarded for future generations to enjoy. Each year, tens of millions of Americans visit the parks, all of which are overseen by the National Park Service.

While the majority of the nation’s best-known national parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Olympic Zion, Rocky Mountain—can be found in the western United States, the most popular park in terms of visitation is Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee and welcomes nine million guests each year.

The 58 National Parks in America range in size from the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska—which at 13.2 million acres is bigger than Switzerland!—to Hot Springs National Park, a bucolic 5,500-acre Arkansas park, whose thermal waters and wooded hiking trails attracted nearly 1.4 million visitors in 2011. To learn more about visiting America’s National Parks, visit the National Park Service website.

1.  YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK (Wyoming/Montana/Idaho)
Why go? Besides being one the most beautiful spots on the planet, its nearly 3,500 square miles of wilderness are home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of free-ranging bison and elk. And don’t miss seeing Old Faithful, a spectacular thermal geyser that erupts once every 45 to 90 minutes.

Where to stay? Overnight at Old Faithful Inn, a rustic log hotel with an 85-foot-high stone fireplace in the lobby (from $98 for room w/out bath to $217 for a 2-room suite with bath), or Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the oldest lodging in any national park (from $139). For more information on Yellowstone National Park, click here.

Yellowstone Old Faithful Inn

Why go? It is 1,200 square miles of wilderness right in the middle of California! There’s Half Dome, a towering granite peak that sits 8,800 feet above sea level; the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias (the Grizzly Giant is 2,700 years old); and the stunning Yosemite Valley.

Where to stay? Overnight at the laid-back Wawona (rooms start at around $150), an old-fashioned family-style hotel nestled under the pines and aspens. For more information on Yosemite National Park, click here.

Grand Canyon National Park Bright Angel Cabin3.  GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK (Arizona)
Why go? It’s the only official “natural wonder” in the U.S. Best known for its painted desert and sandstone canyon—and the Colorado River, which surges through the valley.

Where to Stay?  Overnight at Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, a popular South Rim hotel designed in 1935 by noted architect Mary E.J. Colter. The check-in point for the park’s famous mule rides, the lodge charges $94 for a standard room with bath and $183 for a cabin with fireplace. For more information on Grand Canyon National Park, click here.

Why go? You can explore the rugged coast of Maine, climb Cadillac Mountain (the highest peak on the Atlantic Coast), and hike the park’s historic stone carriage roads.

Where to stay? Overnight at one of two campgrounds, including Seawall, rated one of the coolest spots to camp in America (from $14 to $20). For more information on Acadia National Park, click here.

Why go? You can straddle the Continental Divide, hike more than 300 miles of trails, and see some of the most majestic mountain peaks in North America, including at least 60 peaks that reach an astounding 12,000 feet.

Where to stay? Overnight at one of five campgrounds in the park, including beautiful Moraine Park ($20 per night), or book a room at the 1909 Stanley Hotel, a Colorado landmark in nearby Estes Park and the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining. For more information on Rocky Mountain National Park, click here.

6.  GREAT SMOKY NATIONAL PARK (North Carolina and Tennessee)
Why go? For the sunsets on Clingmans Dome Road, the wildflowers, the 19th-century Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill, and the chance to cruise along what some consider America’s most scenic byways. It’s also the nation’s most visited national park.

Where to stay? Overnight at LeConte Lodge. The only hotel in the park, it’s located at 6,360 feet near the summit of Mt. LeConte (depending on the trail, you may need to hike five to eight miles to get there!) A rustic, hand-hewn lodge room or cabin (plus dinner and breakfast) costs $121 per adult per night and $85 for kids. Two- and three-bedroom cabins that sleep eight to 13 are also available. For more information on Great Smoky National Park, click here.

Zion National Park Lodge

Why go? Everyone should see the park’s magnificent 15-mile-long Zion Canyon and Checkerboard Mesas at least once.

Where to stay? Overnight at Zion Lodge (from $159) or Flanigan’s Inn (from $129), a great small hotel with standard rooms and efficiencies that is within walking distance of the visitors’ center. For more information on Zion National Park, click here.

Chicago’s First Prefab Modular House

This is the story of the C3—a trailblazing modern prefab home that ushers in a new approach to city dwellings.

Chicago's First Prefab Modular House

Photo: Square Root Architecture + Design

One unusually warm and sunny November day, a giant 225-ton crane deposited five prefab house modules onto a 25’ x 125’ plot of land in Chicago. Many people came to watch this unprecedented show, including Kathy and Michael Caisley, the couple who had bought the house. Also in attendance was Jeffrey Sommers, the architect who had designed it. This is the story of the C3—a trailblazing modern prefab modular home.


Jeffrey Sommers started thinking about prefab modular building roughly eight years ago. The C3 was four years in the making. C3 stands for Cube, Cut, Copy. The name—which has a math vibe consistent with Sommers’ Square Root Architecture + Design firm—describes the steps taken to conceive the original prototype. “It also has references to modular construction and the repetitive assembly line process,” Sommers says. Designed initially without a client, Sommers incorporated “all of the knowledge of previous clients’ requests for what they wanted in a dream home.” Words and phrases that kept coming up were “modern”, “energy efficient”, “sustainable”, and “affordable”.

The C3 is Sommers’ architectural translation of this conscientious vocabulary. Kathy and Michael Caisely knew the language well, yet it took four years for Chicago city officials to understand its meaning. “We were repeatedly told that no one would ever be able to build a prefab modular home in Chicago,” said Kathy Caisely, “and thus a challenge ensued.” John Gueguierre, senior VP of Hi-Tech Housing, the Indiana company that built the C3 modules, says, “The intense work on design and accommodating Chicago requirements stretched over 2009 and the first half of 2010.”

C3 Prefab Floor Plan

Once green-lighted, Sommers rallied the players. The project demanded energy and landscape consultants, a green rater, solar specialists, and other LEED-minded professionals. With project radar set on LEED Platinum certification, Hans Fedderke, Helios Design Build’s project manager, prepared the underground utility work and the foundation. Hi-Tech Housing gathered LEED-appropriate construction materials and built the C3 modules inside its warehouse. From the first nail to shipment of the modules was about 15 days.

C3 Prefab Containers

It was an industrious endeavor, which involved routing the 20,000-40,000 ton modules through urban streets. “The actual distance would only require about a four-hour drive,” Gueguierre notes, “but we needed to make sure we could work within the eight-hour time span of the street closure permit.” Naturally, prior to installation day, there was a dry run to verify overhead clearances. Caisley says, “If we just wanted a ‘house’, the C3 wouldn’t have made sense. This was a ‘project’ for us in partnership with Jeff—to build the first LEED Platinum prefab modular house in Chicago. It was bigger than us.”

The original prototype first had to be scaled down to fit the lot size. Then Sommers and the Caisleys tweaked the 2,039 square-foot interior. Whereas the original floor plan proposed 1.5 baths, Sommers maneuvered the plan and plumbing to reap 2.5 baths including one en suite bath in the master bedroom. They modified the original four-bedroom plan into a three, simply by ripping out a closet and turning that 4th bedroom into a den. The staircase was revisited too. Caisley says, “We wanted a floating staircase. Well, floating staircases are expensive. Jeff was able to provide a beautiful, very open staircase that fits our needs, and we don’t miss the alternative!”

C3 Prefab Kitchen

The C3 has a HERS rating of 46. While it still awaits LEED certification, here are some of the energy-saving features that contribute to its high rating and level of sustainability.
– solar thermal panels and on-demand water heating
– exterior siding that is both low maintenance (Galvalume corrugated and fiber cement boards) and reclaimed (barnwood).
– Mostly LED and compact fluorescent lighting
– Ductless heating and air conditioning system with zone controls
– Low VOC water-based sealants and finishes
– Water conserving plumbing fixtures and energy star appliances

The Caisleys have lived in the house for 15 months, and their utility bills are sizably lower than the 1,200 square foot, two-bed and two-bath condo from whence they came. The water bill maxes out at $20. Because of the great insulation and ample natural light, the Caisleys don’t often use heat or A/C. Beyond super low utility bills, the smart configuration includes a backyard, a second floor deck, and a one-car garage. To Caisley, the house, rich with amenities, looks much more expensive than it is.

C3 Prefab Outdoor

Jeffrey Sommers wants to see more prefab housing in his city, and after enlightening the Department of Buildings and working through the kinks with the Caisleys, his vision appears more do-able than ever. Through Living Room Realty in Chicago, a company that specializes in “mindful, urban living,” Sommers is now able to offer customizable green homes priced at $150 – $250 per square foot. To increase its marketability, C3 has taken on new meaning: Create, Customize, and Conserve—which any potential homeowner can certainly comprehend. Since the Caisleys kind of co-pioneered this prefab possibility, perhaps there should be an honorary “C” for Caisley.

Check out the time-lapse video below to see how the modular components were delivered and installed at the site:


Photos courtesy of Mike Schwartz Photography

The Container House

California architect Peter DeMaria transforms surplus cargo containers into modern homes that are stylish, affordable, and good for the planet.


Redondo Beach, CA container house. Photo: DeMaria Design

Drive past any port in America today and you’re bound to see row upon row of empty shipping containers stacked, like so many colorful building blocks, one atop the other. Due to the United State’s ongoing trade imbalance with countries like China, roughly half of the shipping containers that enter our ports never make it back to their points of origin. Not surprisingly, this growing glut of steel cargo containers has prompted more than a few creative minds to start thinking outside the box. One of them is Peter DeMaria, an innovative California architect who has spent the last decade exploring the potential of these retired containers as affordable building materials.

Weburbanist Cargo Shipping Containers 2

Getting Started
“For me as an architect, the challenge had always been how to give my clients the highest level of design while still keeping the projects on budget,” say DeMaria, one of the country’s first architects to incorporate steel cargo containers into residential designs. Indeed, soon after he built his own home in 2003 (and saw firsthand how even a small change in the cost of materials can wreak havoc on the bottom line), DeMaria took a year-long sabbatical and started searching for alternative building materials that could add value to his projects while helping to reduce costs. Shipping containers showed exciting potential. “They’re widely available, inherently strong, and inexpensive when compared with more conventional building materials like steel and concrete,” says the architect. They’re also resistant to fire, mold, and termites, and made of heavy-gauge steel, a material meant to last centuries. Plus, DeMaria adds, the containers’ uniform sizes (they come standard in 20- and 40-foot-long sizes) lend a level of predictability to projects that are usually anything but predictable.

Building Blocks: The Redondo Beach House
In 2006, DeMaria got his chance to build his first container house in Redondo Beach, California. “We were lucky to find clients like Sven and Anna Pirkl. They not only wanted a residence made out of containers but they were creative and bold enough to push the envelope with me,” notes DeMaria. “It was a match made in heaven,” concurs Sven Pirkl, who along with his wife, an artist, envisioned a modern, loft-style house that was both eco-friendly and budget-minded.

Redondo Beach Container House SlideshowIn DeMaria’s hybrid design for the Redondo Beach House, conventional stick-frame construction combines with eight repurposed steel shipping containers to form the two-story home. The contemporary house sports four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, and a soaring 20-foot-high living room outfitted with glass-panel airplane hangar doors that fold out to create a seamless indoor-outdoor living space. To play up the industrial good looks of the containers in their new home, the Pirkls chose not to cover-up the corrugated steel walls with siding or to replace the sturdy maritime wood floors that come standard in cargo boxes.

For long-term energy savings, low-flow plumbing fixtures, LED lights, and Energy Star appliances were installed throughout the house. Stick-frame walls were insulated with UltraTouch, a recycled denim material, and the rooftops and walls of the containers were painted with a thick coat of white ceramic insulating paint originally developed by NASA. And thanks to simple passive solar techniques, like orienting the building to catch the prevailing breeze, the house remains cool and comfortable year-round.

Once all the bills were tallied, using steel containers for more than half of the Redondo Beach House’s 3,500 square feet equaled big savings. At a time when the average price of building a custom home in their area was upwards of $250 a square foot, the container project cost roughly $135 a square foot to build. Best of all, says Sven Pirkl, “We’ve been living in the house for five years, and we’re still very happy.”

Redondo Beach, CA container house.. Photo: DeMaria Design

The Future of Containers
Since the Redondo Beach House, DeMaria has built nearly a dozen container buildings, including a residence and gallery in Venice Beach and a community center in East Los Angeles. He’s also working on affordable housing projects in the U.S. as well as the Middle East, and just breaking ground on a custom family residence in Mar Vista, California “We’ve streamlined the process and learned more about what the containers can hold up to and how we can modify them,” notes DeMaria.

Most containers come in 20- and 40-foot models and generally cost between $1,650 and $3,000 each, depending on size and wear and tear. One-way containers that have only made one passage are usually in the best shape and demand a premium. For residential projects, DeMaria prefers High Cube models, which have a taller 9’6” ceiling.

Another thing he’s learned is that there’s a whole contingent of design-minded home builders who’d love to live in a container home but can’t necessarily afford to commission an architect. To address this groundswell of interest, DeMaria created Logical Homes (logicalhomes.com), a web-based portfolio of seven affordable model container homes. “We don’t believe good architecture is something that should only be experienced by the wealthy,” says DeMaria, “so we changed the way we deliver our product.” The model homes, which DeMaria refers to as “next-generation prefab,” come in 16 different configurations, all of which are available as is or tweaked to the buyer’s specifications.

Logical Homes contemporary designs range from the compact 320-square-foot Kara (pictured below), which features a roll-up garage door that opens onto a 270-square-foot porch, to the 1,692-square-foot Seto, a three-bedroom family home, which can be affordably expanded to five bedrooms by simply taking off the prefabricated Techno roof, adding more containers on top, then putting the roof back on—no moving out required! “We never want anyone who moves into a container house to feel like they’ve had to make compromises,” says DeMaria. As such, customers can customize the seven basic models, including sheathing the corrugated steel walls in siding to camouflage their industrial pedigree. The models range in price from $49,000 for the smallest unit to $449,000 for the supersized 3,560-square-foot version of the Seto, which includes five bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths, a great room, second-floor deck, twin garages, and a covered front-porch with a built-in fireplace.

Logical Homes De Maria Container House Kara 320 800w

It’s just a matter of time before people become comfortable with the idea of building with containers and start embracing the technology, says DeMaria. “We’ve got a lot of things in the works, and once the projects all kicks in, container architecture is going to blossom. There’s no doubt.”

To see more of the Redondo Beach container house, take our House Tour slide show.

To learn more about Peter DeMaria’s work, visit DeMaria Design. To price containers in your area, click here.

Hudson Passive Project

New York State's first Certified Passive House sets the benchmark for energy efficiency.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

For Dennis Wedlick, the conservation-minded architect who masterminded the Hudson Passive Project—New York State’s first certified passive house—passive building is nothing short of revolutionary. Based on design models established by Germany’s Passivhaus Institut, passive dwellings basically heat and cool themselves, often slashing typical heating bills by upwards of 90%. Although more than 30,000 of these ‘zero-energy’ buildings have been erected in countries like Austria and Germany, passive houses remain rare in the United States, says Wedlick, whose residence in Claverack, New York, is one of only 11 U.S. projects to be awarded certification from the Passive House Institute, the American arm of Passivhaus Institut.

Not to be confused with passive solar, which requires architects to calibrate their designs to maximize solar energy, passive houses focus on minimizing the amount of energy used to heat, cool, and operate a dwelling. Unlike more traditional green residential designs, which often rely on technologies like solar panels and wind turbines, passive houses come close to achieving near-zero energy consumption by being super-insulated and airtight. To achieve this, builders insulate the entire envelope, including the walls, roof, even the foundation, and meticulously caulk, seal, and tape every possible gap or opening in the house so that the structure is so airtight it could literally hold water.

Related: House Tour—Hudson Passive Project

In addition to eschewing structural elements that might serve as thermal bridges (allowing hot or cold air to escape), passive design also relies on strategically placed windows to ensure the home gains more heat than it loses. Last but not least, passive houses tap into the energy and residual heat (from, say, a clothes dryer or a pot of pasta cooking on the stove) that exist in the house through an advanced heat-recovery system. “I call it a magic box,” says Wedlick. “It’s the only mechanical equipment required in a passive house. It brings fresh air in and exhausts stale air and brings fresh air in, all the while transferring the heat to the new air coming in.” And ‘airtight’ doesn’t mean you can’t open the windows, notes the architect. “Passive houses operate like any other house. They’re just a lot more efficient.”

Photo: Elliott Kaufman

Although Wedlick spent several years refining the eco-specifications of his design using thermal modeling and precise climatic information provided by Passivhaus Institut, the Hudson Passive Project took only about six months to construct once actual building got underway. Wedlick received grant money from the New York State Energy Research Development Authority, and tapped Chatham, New York, custom builder Bill Stratton to oversee construction.

Although high performance and energy efficiency motivated the project, Wedlick was equally attentive to the look and feel of the three-bedroom, two-bath home. With its exterior stonework, timber frame, and pitched roof, the house, which is situated on seven acres in the Hudson River Valley, pays tribute to the Dutch barns that were once common in the region. “The aesthetics of the structure have a lot to do with the message of the house,” says Wedlick, who wanted the residence to have a strong connection to nature and give the impression that the house is as healthy indoors as out. To this end, Wedlick opted for a striking two-story wall of triple-paned windows on the structure’s southern exposure as well as soaring, cathedral-like ceilings with bow-arch beams, which give the open, loft-like interior a roominess that belies its compact 1,650 footprint.

Hudson Passive Project

Photo: Peter Aaron

When it came time to outfit the interior, Wedlick cleverly proved that energy efficiency and luxury aren’t mutually exclusive. He relied on eco-friendly lines from companies such as Baldwin Hardware and Waterworks, focusing on products made to last (yet another important measure of sustainability). In the kitchen, Wedlick installed beechwood cabinets, marble countertops, and premium, energy-efficient GE appliances suited for a passive house. “We wanted to reduce penetration and the number of openings we’d need to make airtight, so we opted for an induction range with no hood,” notes Wedlick. Any exhaust fumes get funneled through the ventilation system.

Hudson Passive House Air Flow System Dennis WedlickThe bathrooms, which feature low-flow Waterworks faucets and fixtures, are outfitted in marble and recycled glass tiles. For increased energy efficiency, the bathrooms and kitchen were ganged together, back-to-back, in order to share the hot water provided by the home’s single on-demand water heater. Situated on the north end of the ground floor, the master bedroom features sliding barn doors that can be pulled shut for privacy. Tucked under the eaves on the second level, two bedrooms and a study occupy the open loft; skylight windows let in sunlight and provide a sense of spaciousness.

Passive house technology isn’t just for new construction, says Wedlick. “If you’re remodeling to the point that you’re working on the foundation, insulate it. You’ll see a big difference in energy usage.” Replacing windows? Consider high-performance models that eliminate thermal bridging. And if you feel a draft, do something about it. “If you had a leaky faucet in the bathroom, it would be foolish not to fix it, right? It’s the same thing with drafts,” says Wedlick. “It’s a shame that energy-efficient homes have this geeky, hard-to-maintain reputation because they’re actually easy to manage. Any good hardware store can show you what to do to make your house more airtight.”

If the house’s first winter is any indication, the Hudson Passive Project is working exactly as planned. The current owners of the home never turned the heat on last winter, says Wedlick. “In my mind this is a true breakthrough. It reminds us that good building techniques can really be the answer.”

©Elliott Kaufman

For more images of the project, check out our House Tour slideshow. For additional information on the standards and techniques used to build passive houses, visit Passive House Institute US. To learn more about the Hudson Passive Project, click here.

The Bungalow

From California to Maine, the bungalow has long been an American favorite.


Photo: Flickr

The name is Indian, adapted by the British in India to describe a one-story house with a porch. The Bungalow may have begun as an unpretentious house for travelers in India, but in America it swept across the suburban landscape, reaching from California to the New England seacoast with a Prairie-style variation found in between.

The basic Bungalow is a one-story house with a broad gently sloping hip or gable roof, often with rafter tails at the eave that are left exposed and decorated. Dormers are common. Typically there’s a porch at the front or back supported by square posts that taper to the top. The walling may be clapboard, shingles, brick, or stucco.

Casements are common, but so are double-hung windows. Decorative windows with stained glass lights are often found in earlier examples; doorways typically have small openings for glass.

Entering the home, the open floor plan is usually evident the moment you step in the front door. It looks directly into the living room in most Bungalows. The main design element is a fireplace, typically of rough brick or stone, or even cobblestone. Unpainted wood trim was the rule at time of construction, though many Bungalows have had their trim painted in the intervening years.

The Bungalow has proved to be a rugged, adaptable, and economical design. Many early twentieth-century suburbs, from Washington to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Florida, derive much of their character from these houses, which settle nicely into narrow suburban lots.

In California, there’s an upscale variation of this house, with the somewhat misleading name of “Western Stick.” Typically it presents a pair of gables to the street, one offset to one side and to the rear of the first, which usually has a porch across the front gable. In other regional variations, the Bungalow is found with Colonial, Swiss Chalet, or Tudor detailing while retaining its basic shape. The earliest Bungalows were built before the turn of the century, and the years before World War I were the heyday for the style. It went out of vogue during the years of the Depression.

REMODELER’S NOTES. Like the Cape Cod House, many Bungalows were constructed with unfinished attic spaces. These were typically low-ceiling spaces wedged into the eaves and lit by a dormer or gable windows. They may (or may not) have been finished as well as the spaces on the main floor. Renovation possibilities often offer themselves there, especially with the addition of more dormers (shed dormers being an especially practical approach to add space and light).

Many homeowners have found it rewarding to invest their own time in stripping and restoring the original unpainted surfaces of interior woodwork, but precautions should be taken to ensure that any lead paint is properly handled. Your local health department can provide guidance for testing and disposal procedures.

The Twentieth-Century House

Drawing from the past and looking to the future.


Frank Lloyd Wright

Looking back a hundred years, we can see the magnitude of the changes that occurred in the opening decades of the twentieth century. In 1900, few houses had electricity; twenty-five years later, nearly two-thirds of all homes were illuminated by electric light. The horseless carriage was merely a rumor to most people in 1900; by the mid-1920s, Henry Ford had sold fifteen million Model Ts. With the growth of the industrial economy, Americans had more money and became increasingly concentrated in urban centers—by the 1920s, the majority of Americans lived in cities for the first time.

Given the rate of change, it’s hardly surprising that so many Americans embraced an eclectic variety of homes that shared a common theme: They indulged in a bit of nostalgia, looking backward to the pre-machine age.

The Arts and Crafts movement actually began in England, initiated by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris as a reaction to an increasingly mechanized world. In the building arts, the traditional joiner-builder no longer had to shape or make anything on site—he assembled parts that had come off the end of a production line. And much of that was surface ornament, such as gingerbread, brackets, and other decorations that had no structural purpose. They were, in a favored term of the day, “dishonest.”

In contrast, the Arts and Crafts movement put the emphasis on goods that were simple, inexpensive, comfortable, and produced by hand. Two gifted California builders, the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene, were present at the creation of the Craftsman-style house, building beautifully detailed bungalows of large scale in and around Pasadena. The movement in America was also led by Gustav Stickley, a furniture maker who published an influential magazine called The Craftsman. In its pages, he promoted his philosophy of using natural materials, like unpainted wood, ceramic tile, and wrought iron. He himself made furniture, much of it oak, that today is highly prized. But The Craftsman also featured simple houses like the Bungalow that reflected his philosophy.

Stanford White also helped initiate another historicist movement that has ever since played an important role in American house design. White and some of his colleagues examined a number of important early American houses along the New England coast. Some of the flavor of those dwellings informed the Shingle Style, but there was a larger cultural phenomenon that resulted from the work at McKim, Mead, and White and a confluence of other events. Called the Colonial Revival, this movement reinvigorated the taste for things colonial. The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia helped build interest; the growing economic health and power of the country gave Americans the luxury to look back into the country’s past. Furniture, household goods, clothing, and houses in early American styles became broadly popular in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Consider the Cape Cod house—it’s a Basic House of the sort we talked about earlier but during the Colonial Revival it was reborn. The same is true with the Classic Colonial: In its original guise it was Georgian, later Federal, and still later was decorated with a range of Victorian details, but it, too, had a new incarnation during the Colonial Revival. While the Cape and the Classic Colonial have remained popular ever since, two other revivals, the Spanish Colonial and the Dutch Revival Styles, found a briefer popularity at the turn of the twentieth century and after; all are manifestations of the Colonial Revival. Still more revival styles, like the Tudor Revival of the twenties with its English precedents and half-timbered exterior, had important periods of popularity, too.

Not all new houses in our century looked backward. Thanks in part to Frank Lloyd Wright, a style evolved in the Midwest called the Prairie School. The lines of these houses paralleled the prairie itself, sitting long and low with broad roof overhangs and horizontal bands of windows. Wright, like Stickley, decried the de-humanizing effects of the machine age, but he recognized its inevitable importance.

The Prairie Style house is truly American and truly original. Yet perhaps the most popular house design to emerge from drafting boards of the Prairie Style designers was the Foursquare. Unlike many of Wright’s inimitable Prairie School houses, this was hardly a revolutionary house. It’s a cube with wide eaves and dormers that peer out of a pyramidal roof. But it’s a very efficient design whose simplicity, honesty, and practicality helped it make its way into the pages of Stickley’s magazine, The Craftsman.