Award-winning house is architect's first foray into sustainable design

| by Teena Hammond
Award-winning house is architect's first foray into sustainable design

Steven Learner is now incorporating sustainable design into his projects, a major move for the noted New York architect.

Learner's desire to create more sustainable, energy-efficient buildings came about after he won a 2009 international competition to design a home for the town of Greensburg, Kan. The town was destroyed by a massive tornado in 2007 and town leaders decided to rebuild green, requiring every new public building to be at the Platinum level of LEED for Homes.

The resulting home, known as Meadowlark, is now in the midst of construction and will serve as a prototype for affordable housing to educate the public on the components of an affordable, sustainable home.

The goal of the competition was to create a sustainable design for a comfortable home. More than 250 teams submitted approximately 1,200 entries. It was the first design competition that Learner said he'd ever entered.

"I thought it was a joke when they called to say we were the grand prize winner," he said.

Learner is the founder of Steven Learner Studio in New York City.

When the contest was announced, Learner said, "it was a great opportunity for us to really design something we didn't know a lot about and something that was more theoretical in some respects. We learned about sustainable design in a way we hadn't before."

"In Kansas, the target was $110 a square foot for the cost of construction. We couldn't build it in New York for that. I can't anticipate what the cost would be in any other location," Learner said.

Passive House Institute U.S.

Meadowlark utilizes passive methods that promote solar heating and natural ventilation, along with innovative mechanical systems such as a ducted energy recovery ventilator. It is being built to Passive House Institute U.S. standards, a stringent energy standard in the United States that is modeled after Germany's Passivhaus. It is also being built to the Platinum level of LEED for Homes.

A passive house achieves overall energy savings of 60 percent to 70 percent and saves 90 percent on space heating without using other technologies such as photovoltaics or solar thermal hot water systems. Energy losses are minimized with super insulation and air-tight construction, while energy gains are maximized with a heat/energy recovery ventilator to keep energy that has already been generated inside the house instead of venting it out.

"We used materials we've never used before and we've certainly learned a lot from this process. We used everything from wheat board to ERV systems, a lot more work with photovoltaic systems, cork countertops and solar-powered lighting," Learner said. "We incorporated a lot of these sustainable ideas into other projects."

Greensburg rebuilding after tornado

The prototype design came about because a massive F5 tornado more than a mile and a half wide destroyed 95 percent of the town of Greensburg on May 4, 2007. After this tragedy, with 11 lives lost, the citizens took advantage of the blank slate before them to rebuild as "the greenest town in America." The plan was spearheaded by the non-profit organization Greensburg GreenTown.

The city's building code was revised after the tornado so that any public building constructed within city limits must be built to LEED Platinum specifications. Many residents also opted to rebuild their homes by including features that went well beyond basic energy savings.

Greensburg GreenTown facilitated the process of rebuilding to green standards. It held workshops so that residents would learn about energy-efficient homebuilding. And it oversaw the competition for a prototype house, working with FreeGreen, which offers free green home plans online.

Meadowlark construction begins

Construction recently began, and, once completed in the fall, Meadowlark will serve as a public structure to educate visitors and residents alike about the components of sustainable design, said Joah Bussert, project manager for Greensburg GreenTown.

"We're demonstrating two things — the passive house standard and the wood block wall construction," Bussert said.

The passive house is a "new way of thinking about buildings that a lot of people aren't familiar with," he said.

The HIB-System wood block wall construction is similar to Insulated Concrete Form, or ICF, except they are made out of wood. There are approximately 150 to 200 homes built with this material in Germany and the manufacturer wanted to test the American market and have an example of the product available for people to see in an actual home. The wood is 100 percent toxin free and is biodegradable, unlike ICF, which is foam insulation.

The wood is harvested in Germany in the Black Forest area. It is sustainably grown and is durable, with dovetail joints used in all connections.

While green homes aren't necessarily more durable from the forces of Mother Nature than their non-green counterparts, Meadowlark is.

"They've tested the HIB-System wood block wall in Germany to withstand over 180-mph winds and then earthquakes up to 8.0," Bussert said. "We always laugh about when we got to tour the facility and some of the homes in Germany. We asked them if they get earthquakes and tornados in Germany. They don't."

The base price for the home if others want to replicate it will be $230,000, but the actual demonstration home will include extra features, such as solar, that will increase the price of that particular structure, Bussert said.

The Meadowlark design can be adapted to other locations with natural disaster issues, such as Haiti, Learner said. The plans will be offered at no charge through in the next few months, although no specific date has been set.

A slideshow of Meadowlark images shows renderings and actual construction site photos.

Topics: Building Green, Certification / LEED, GREAT GREEN HOMES

Teena Hammond
Teena Hammond has published more than 2,000 articles in People and W magazines, Women's Wear Daily, and in dozens of newspapers and books. She also wrote a home improvement, remodeling and decor column that ran in Gannett newspapers nationwide. She's interested in all things green and would love to hear from you with your story ideas.

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