Home AEC Align Project Offers New Perspective on Scaling Down the American Dream

Align Project Offers New Perspective on Scaling Down the American Dream

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Image courtesy of Green Builder Media

By Jack Stubbs

At a time when intense urban growth and densification, housing affordability and sustainable design become increasingly pressing issues in the built environment, organizations are looking for ways to bring new ideas to the table.

National legislative priorities around homebuilding and subsequent zoning issues, spearheaded in part by organizations like the Homeowner’s Association, are causing people to think differently about the homes that they occupy—and the financial implications of acquiring these homes, given the rapidly rising prices of property and land—in the broader social and cultural context.

Green Builder Media, a Denver, Colorado-based company that focuses on emphasizing sustainability in the built environment has a new project in the works: The Align Project, a one-year demonstration designed to challenge ingrained ideas about how we live in the U.S., offers new ideas about how individuals can align their lifestyles with the changing socio-economic and environmental realities of the time.

The centerpiece of the Align project is a 408 square foot, small-footprint, dwelling unit designed by Austin-based modular construction company Kasita. The building is net zero—meaning that the total amount of energy used by the building on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of renewable energy created on the site—and also features Kasita’s smart home technology platform, which integrates devices, appliances, lighting and mechanical systems in the home.

The Align project will be shown at a Solar Power International event held in Anaheim, California in September 2018, at a Consumer Electronics Convention in Las Vegas in January 2019 and at the Design and Construction Week in Las Vegas in February 2019.

More broadly, the hope is that the modular construction precision-engineered home in particular—and the Align project in general—will bring people to think differently about issues around energy efficiency and infrastructure in the built environment, building efficiency and environmental sustainability and the financial implications of home-buying and homebuilding. CEO of Green Builder Media Sarah Gutterman thinks that all of the issues are intertwined, and the root of these problems often begins in how the built environment is conceptualized. “There’s no way we can address climate changes and carbon emissions without dealing with efficiency in the built environment. The project is meant to address that concept,” she said. The Align project will showcase a wide variety of high-performance energy-saving products and technologies including photovoltaic solar panels created by Jinko Solar; a fully-integrated smart-home automation system from Loxone; stone wool insulation from Rockwool; and clean mobility solutions from Toyota.

From a programming perspective, the objective with the project is not to reflect the belief that Americans should necessarily be living in a smaller footprint, but rather to show that such an option is possible, according to Gutterman. “We’re not advocating that people should live in 408 square feet because we understand the reality and challenges of that; we only want to demonstrate that you could live in [that footprint],” she said. The Kasita units allow for an infinite amount of configurations and looks to maximize the available footprint.

The project also taps into trends around oversized living on a national scale, and looks to realign the way that people perceived their lived reality with the physical spaces that they occupy, according to Matt Power, editor in chief of the Green Builder Magazine. “We’re calling the project a rendezvous with reality, because so much of the American Dream has been dictated to us, rather than something that’s evolved from our actual life experiences. Oversized living is just one component of the many illusionary benchmarks that actually curtail, rather than reinforce, our happiness,” he said. The project offers a bird’s eye view of how we tend to self-limit our lives with wasteful and unnecessary living situations that require more of our life energy, money time than they actually give back.”

Accordingly, Green Builder Media is also looking at other examples within the built environment with which to contrast the Align project. In mid-May 2018, the National Association of Homebuilders announced its plans for the New American Home for 2019, a five-bedroom, five-bathroom 7,900 square-foot home with a four-car garage that will be showcased at an event in Las Vegas in February 2019. According to Power, projects like the New American Home—and oversized living in general—reflect a fundamental discrepancy between how people actually live versus how they would like to be seen to live. “You almost never hear a disparaging word about the excessive size of our homes or our vehicles. But when you start crunching the actual numbers, and correlate that data with what people say is important to them, there’s a massive disconnect,” he said. One study by UCLA, titled “Life at Home in the 21st Century,” looked at how 32 California middle-class families utilized their living spaces over a 10-year period. The study found that the majority of the families used about 5 percent of their homes, translating to approximately 360 square feet of the 7,900 square foot 2019 New American Home.

Among other objectives, the hope is that the Align project will encourage clients to think differently about their priorities when looking at new homes in the broader social context. Green Builder Media’s Green Building Pyramid emphasizes how, while homebuilders often would like to build more high-performance homes with more sustainable design features, clients often first prioritize the internal amenities such as excessively large floor plans. “What’s key is to start at the bottom of the pyramid and address the big stuff first, like where you live, how close you are to amenities and the size of the home,” he said. “These [factors] have a major impact on your life, both financially and in terms of your long-term happiness.”

Power thinks that there are significant challenges involved when it comes to changing people’s mindset—on the local and regional scale—about living more efficiently in the current cultural context. “It’s going to be a fight between those who have deeply invested in the current set of illusions, and those who dare to challenge the cultural zeitgeist,” he said. “Neighbors are usually the biggest pushback, as are our Home Owners Associations, which I personally see as petty fiefdoms. They’re a way of slamming the gate shut on progress. Many HOAs exist not to increase diversity and inspire creativity, but to do just the opposite—crush every divergent impulse.”

More broadly, cities across the country are facing deeply-embedded cultural mindsets, too, when it comes to considering a change in strategy in living sustainably. “To be fair, cities are up against intractable NIMBYism when they attempt even the most benign changes to improve the lives of the less fortunate, open up transportation to alternative, greener modes such as bicycles, or reduce energy use,” Power said, also emphasizing how he thinks that part of the problem is rooted in a deeply-ingrained cultural mindset. “Every change is a fight. Americans, for all their defense of private property rights, liberty and so on, really only become loud and public when a neighbor wants to put in solar panels, drop a tiny house on the lot, or put a garden in place of a lawn.”

Along these lines, the Align project is working to encourage a change in mindset, according to Power. “We [should] offer would-be home owners a much more broad and diverse set of options for creating the kind of life they want on a small piece of land and zoning should work to foster affordability and diversity, not just to protect the resale value of existing homes.”

In the wider national context, strides are still being made when it comes to aligning people’s lifestyle goals with sustainability issues in the built environment, according to Gutterman. “I think we’re starting to see states and municipalities move in the direction of setting mandates and requirements and ratcheting codes so that we can shift our lifestyles,” she said, also highlighting the recent progress made in California. “California just took a big step, relatively speaking, with the passing of the solar mandate, which is a step in the right direction,” she said.

In early May 2018, California became the first state in the country to require that new homes have solar panels on their roofs. The mandate—which won unanimous approval from the California Energy Commission and will take effect in 2020—will apply to new single-family homes and new multi-family housing comprising three stories or fewer. As part of California’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emotions and make new homes more energy-efficient, home builders who obtain construction permits on or after January 1st must comply with the mandate.

In spite of the progress made when it comes to incorporating sustainable design features into in-the-works projects in the built environments—with California’s solar mandate as one notable example—cities across the nation are experiencing prolonged issues around urban growth and densification, some more so than others, according to Power. “I would say almost every thriving city is having growth issues. Portland, Oregon is at least trying to make positive changes to become more flexible, as is Austin, Texas. But really, few cities are actually really progressive in the kind of radical way we need.”

However, several national trends gaining momentum mean that some individuals are beginning to think differently about what it means to own a home in America—and the Align project hopes to highlight that fact. “The Align Project is significant precisely because it’s saying what no one will admit, that the American dream of a big home in the country is no longer relevant,” Poewr said. “Look around at the trends that are rising: the tiny house movement, the aging and downsizing of the boomer generation, the rise of multi-generational families and the wage slavery of young people who are forced to shack up with several friends just to make rent,” he said.

Additionally, there are various pressing financial implications involved in a rethinking of home ownership in America. “At the same time you have this exorbitant and unethical hoarding of wealth at the top, the increasing power of property managers that control thousands of units in cities. People are looking for an out, a way to buck the current system,” Power said. Rising home costs are becoming increasingly tied to rising land costs. “Land is crushingly expensive now. Rising home costs are really a direct result of land costs, and land costs are not necessarily correlated with land scarcity,” he said, adding that some of these cost-related issues stem from city-specific, zoning-related policies limiting new development. “In Portland, Maine, for example, we have perhaps 1,000-plus buildable lots that are essentially locked out of development because of rules requiring the development of infrastructure before any construction can begin, [but] neither citizens nor the city can afford the immense costs of upgrading non-compliant roads to codified levels.”

In the longer-term, the increasingly pressing financial implications of rising home-value and land costs mean that a change in mindset might be needed, according to Gutterman. “We believe that we’re using the wrong evaluation metrics when we look at price-per-square-foot, which honors first cost but doesn’t recognize full cost,” she said. “We’ve not only got to change that incorrect metric in the housing industry, but we’ve also got to create other tools and integrate the entire process to address this piece,” she said.

As far as the housing industry is concerned, Gutterman thinks that newer financial tools—which take into account the bigger picture, in terms of a home’s appraisal—are needed. “At the end of the day, buyers will purchase best-value from their prospective. I think we need more responsible financial tools that allow realtors, appraisers and underwriters to comprehensively evaluate the full value of a home,” she said, adding that the perceived energy efficiency of homes will increasingly play a role in this evaluative process. “We need to start including performance analyses into the appraisal process so that homes that are more energy efficient can be more accurately evaluated. Only when we start to see the nexus of these things in place will we really see homes at their true value.”

More broadly, the evolution of projects like Align roughly map onto changes in the building industry, one that has been changing, especially over the last decade or so as energy efficiency has become a bigger target of focus for all involved, according to Gutterman. “We’ve been doing demonstration projects for about 12 years, and over that time-frame, the building industry, the market and consumer demand has really evolved,” she said. “In 2006, energy efficiency was really just emerging on the scene as something that progressive builders understood could help them add value to their customers in the form of comfort and resale value.”

The building industry has evolved significantly over the last decade and is undoubtedly set for changes ahead. Since 2009, and following the economic recession, when the International Conservation Code—along with various other codes and mandates—started gaining traction, the building industry has been in a state of transition, with concerns around energy efficiency at the forefront of that change, according to Gutterman. “In some ways, the recession brought energy to the forefront of people’s consciousness and awareness, and transformed energy efficiency from a nice-to-have feature to a baseline of the building industry,” she said.