Over the past 10 years I’ve seen a lot of mistakes in home design in both urban and rural properties. Over the next few blog posts, I want to look at some of those blunders and point to possible solutions. I’m writing this partly for myself and partly for all the folks out there who want to build their own homes right. But before I begin, let me tell you my biases so that it will help you understand how I critique design:
- I believe the next 20 years will be fundamentally different than the past 20.
- Energy for transportation and heating will become a lot more scarce.
- Our ability to thrive in a northern climate is going to be based on the decisions we make on shelter, food production, and storage.
- Choosing or building a home is one of the largest and most important investments of time and money anyone can make.
- Since it’s a place we will spend a lot of time in, it’s crucial to get it right the first time.
As a consultant, I see all too often people rushing through the design phase only to make a ton of changes during construction. This adds time and cost to the endeavour, along with frustration and strains on relationships. This piece will look at the top 8 basic home design flaws I’ve come across. The first piece of advice I’ll start with is to take your time. Read some books. Tour some homes. You’ll thank me later.
Home Design Flaw #1: Too Big
Cheap natural gas, propane, and electricity have fooled people into thinking they can build massive without consequences. Many cities, counties and small towns feed into this mentality by having minimum building size requirements – the larger the home, the more taxes they can collect. But big homes cost a lot more to build, maintain and heat. So don’t build a home based on 2013 natural gas prices. Instead, build one that can be heated by an assortment of fuels.
I’ve lived in a 1,000 square-foot bungalow for almost 10 years now, with my wife, mother-in-law, two kids and two staff. While it can be hectic at times, this is more due to a lack of outdoor space than indoor space. Design your home with lots of outdoor living space. Plan to have an outdoor kitchen, deck or greenhouse. It’s healthier to be outside anyways and you will enjoy it a lot more.
Home Design Flaw #2: Building for a View
People naturally want to build their home in places with great views. But often these locations are situated in high-energy environments: beside a river, on a flood plain, on top of a hill or mountain. With climate change increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, do a disaster assessment before choosing or building a home. Is the house in a place prone to forest fires or mud slides? Is it on a hill with extreme winds both hot and cold? (High wind exposure can increase energy consumption by up to 50%) Is it located in a place that gets regularly flooded? You’ll eventually get tired of the view, but you’ll be grateful for not being stuck with an uninsurable home in a disaster-prone area.
Home Design Flaw #3: Basements and Sump Pumps
I cannot count the number of homes with basements in areas completely unsuitable for them. In order to even have them, sump pumps must run constantly to dewater the groundwater table. But this is an impossible task. Flooding is bound to occur whenever there is a power outage, and with seepage comes mold. Sump pumps are also hard on the local ecology because a depressed water table limits life around the home. I personally dislike basements – they are unpleasant to live in and most people just use them for storage anyways.
If you need more space, build up or out unless you are sure there will be no problems going down. Walk-out basements are the exception – Usually built into hills, they work because groundwater is able to run out.
Home Design Flaw #4: Poor Rainwater Management
Time and again, I see people letting their downspout drain around their foundations and then hear them complaining about basement water issues. Rainwater must be managed, either by directing it away from the house, or better yet, by storing and using it on-site to hydrate the landscape in the dry season.
Home Design Flaw #5: Complicated Shapes
Modern architecture works constantly to create new and exciting home shapes. But while these designs are eye-catching, more edges, surface area and complexity adds cost, energy loss and discomfort, especially to those living of us in northern climates.
I sincerely hope we can progress towards a culture that relishes simplicity, performance and health. Apple has built their brand through their emphasis on simplicity, and I think we can take their design philosophy into the way we build houses, to create high-quality, performance-based and healthy designs that are both subtle and purposeful.
Home Design Flaw #6: Wrong Solar Orientation
If engineers and architects knew where south was, an estimated 50% could be saved off our annual heating bill. I live in a home that’s oriented incorrectly: It overheats in the summer and can’t take advantage of the winter sun. A properly oriented house has its long axis on the east/west and its short axis on the north/south. This allows maximum solar access, optimizing heat gain in the winter and minimizing it in the summer. Generally the best place to build is mid-slope with the main exposure facing south.
The Passive House Institute has gotten so good at this that they can design homes that use 90% less energy than a conventionally-designed home. To put this into perspective: A 1,000 square-foot house can be heated by a hair dryer! Solar photovoltaics can economically heat the home without the need for natural gas. The Institute has a highly versatile design tool that can be used to optimize any building – Check it out here.
Home Design Flaw #7: Under-insulated Homes
There are few things more uncomfortable than living in a poorly insulated home in a northern climate. Up until recently our homes have been build with the same amount of insulation as a home in California. Cheap heating costs (natural gas is around $3-$4 per GJ right now) have allowed engineers, architects and planners to be lazy, but the fossil fuel bonanza is not going to last forever. My advice: Insulate now or freeze later.
Home Design Flaw #8: Poor Tree Selection and Placement
So many homes have useless landscapes, with trees located in random spots. I love a spruce as much as the next person, but 9 times out of 10, the trees I see planted around Calgary do not provide yields to either the homeowner or the city dweller. Trees NEED to be included in home and urban design.
We should be more discerning about what we plant, where we plant, and the service trees can provide. Deciduous trees are great on the south side of homes because their leaves provide shade in the summer and their bare branches allow the warmth of the winter sun to pass through. Conifers work on the north side as windbreaks from cold northerlies. How great would it be if the conifers provided pine nuts (Korean Stone Pine, Swiss Stone Pine) and the deciduous trees provided fruits and nuts (Apple, apricot, plum, pear, walnut, butternut, hazelnuts trees)? Think of the possibilities!
Next up: More Bad Home Design Decisions