The Next Normal in Residential Construction

Thinking of building a Pandemic-Proof home? These five design principals can help.

The Next Normal in Residential Construction

As millions of people stay isolated many begin to scrutinize every cubic inch of their home, they start asking important questions. How healthy is my home? How airtight is it? If I can get a “Bio-Weapon Defense Mode” in my Tesla, why can’t I get something similar in the place where I now work *and* sleep?

The business as usual (BAU) paradigm around homebuilding has been to provide little more than basic shelter and a degree of comfort since the demise of most craft homebuilding shortly after WW2 (fodder for a future post). Today, people expect, and are learning more about, what makes a home healthy, efficient, resilient, sustainable and long lasting. These types of homes are now often referred to as “High Performance Homes” (HPH).

Dr. Joe Lstiburek — The Dean of building science said it best: “A high-performance home is a home where people don’t get sick, where they feel comfortable, a HPH lasts a very long time, has very low utility bills, and has a light touch on the environment.”

In the next normal we need to factor in several new variables such as food storage, decontamination zones or areas (for packages and people), office and play spaces that support multiple adults working from home, etc. It’s a difficult challenge considering what is “attainable” for most home buyers, but there is a desirable solution that will allow us to work, play and create in high-performance dwellings. That solution starts with design.

Paramount is the concept of human-centric design. Because human-centric design involves the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process, we can utilize this method to build homes that actually create new experiences and interactions. It’s a shift away from the status quo emphasis on look and function. By adopting this approach, design can help make the emotional parts of a space as important as the functional. Wait — my home can contribute to my emotional well-being? — Yes. Keep reading…

“What if there was a way to introduce prevention into people’s daily lives, that at the core didn’t require them to do anything differently?“ This quote by Paul Scialla, the CEO of Delos, describes one desirable end state: the indoor places we occupy actually become a part of our health regimen. They provide clean, fresh air and are free of the VOCs that can actually make us sick. We sleep better, suffer less from allergies, and live better in healthy high-performance dwellings.

There is a lot of detail and information that needs to be curated so that we can build high-performing and healthy homes at all price points and geographies, but the next normal demands that we look more closely at the ends described above and start to make that information easily available to all so that end buyers can make more informed decisions.

This is a tall task considering there are THOUSANDS of home builders in the U.S. and multiple home performance rating systems. Below, are five design principals that can help us get started. Because human-centric design uses a discover, ideate, then prototype process and these principles need to be addressed in the first steps of the build/remodel process, we will frame them as design challenges in the “Discover” phase.

Design challenge #1: Make the home Accessible. The home and all controls should be designed to be usable without modification, by as many people as possible (~1 billion people, or approximately 15% of the world population has some type of disability. Let’s include them in the high-performance home movement). Practical first step: Position controls and information so that seated and standing people can perceive & interact with equal ease.

Challenge #2: Make the home Adaptable. The home should be designed for and adjust to climate change, climate variability and climate extremes. Adaptable homes are resilient. — They help us prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events. — Adaptable homes, multi-family structures and neighborhoods enhance preparedness, and offer other economic, environmental and social co-benefits which supports the entire community. Practical first step: Don’t build in floodplains, protect the tree canopy, if building with timber utilize 2 x 6 walls and fill them with quality insulation. Feeling froggy? Look into Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) construction — Matt Risinger gives both pros and cons.

Challenge #3: Make the home embrace Biophilia. Biophilia is the term coined by the Harvard naturalist Dr. Edward O. Wilson to describe what he saw as humanity’s “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes,” and to be drawn toward nature, to feel an affinity for it, a love, a craving. A space with a good visual connection with Nature feels whole, it grabs one’s attention and can be stimulating or calming. It can convey a sense of time, weather and help us relate to our natural worlds. Practical first step: Design space for interior plants, and/or nature-based art. (Nature depicted in art and photographs as well as interior plants, can trigger the Biophilia Effect.)

Challenge #4: Make the home have at least one space with a cathedral ceiling. High ceilings promote abstract thinking and creativity (known as the Cathedral Effect). Low ceilings promote detail-oriented thinking. Larger rooms with high ceilings extend time in which visitors remain on site (or perhaps, may make isolation based gathering better). Practical first step: In smaller homes utilize a cathedral space for multiple purposes, like bike storage (see picture at top).

Challenge #5: Make the home’s mechanical system utilizing compact design. Compact design is an integrated approach where the mechanical system components are designed in conjunction with the building envelope and skeleton (This is not a common practice in homebuilding). Shorter HVAC duct runs require less material, which leads to less labor required in the field and a faster install. Practical first step: Hire a third-party engineering firm to design your mechanical system. This practice is not required in residential new construction but is one of the most important components in delivering a high-performance home. Getting this part right will tackle around 40% of your energy use concerns and about 100% of you air quality and comfort concerns.

The conclusion is a simple call to action: If you are thinking about building or remodeling your home in the >>> next normal >>> consult with an architect, builder, or design firm that is familiar with high-performance home construction. Begin the process early so that the trades can coordinate and plan from the start. This will allow you to define a scope of work that aligns with your budget, timeline and goals. Although times may be uncertain, lean on design. It’s a reliable way to establish new protocols and prototypes so that we can have safe and healthy places to live, work, sleep and play.

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