Sustainability and Resiliency Meet in Eco-Homes of the FutureMar 31, 2021 ● By Sue Markgraf
Photo by James Caulfield Studio ©2021
Nathan Kipnis has been designing sustainable homes with an eye on the future since he built his first solar house at age 22. But it is his dedication to the symbiotic relationship between residential sustainability and environmental resiliency that now defines his work as an architectural pioneer. “We know the climate is changing. We want to make sure we are designing sustainable homes that can withstand the current environment, but are also designed to manage future weather extremes,” he says.
This is Kipnis’ mantra and his success. As principal of Kipnis Architecture + Planning and a founding member of NextHaus Alliance, both in Evanston, he coined and trademarked the term “High Design/Low Carbon”. That philosophy qualifies him to predict what the future of eco-homes may look like.
Kipnis is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a past national co-chair of the AIA 2030 Commitment Working Group, which helps architectural firms evaluate the environmental impact of their design decisions on energy performance. He currently serves on the AIA Committee on Climate Action and Design Excellence.
The sober reality of what resiliency in home architecture is and why it matters is played out regularly in news broadcasts and weather reports, locally and around the world. Tornados, hurricanes, blizzards, ice storms, wildfires, droughts—natural disasters are exacerbated by weather and have very real effects on built environments.
“In the Chicago area, we know climate change includes heavy rain and high wind events, big snowstorms, drought and flooding situations,” Kipnis says. “We want homes to have what we call ‘passive survivability’ designed into them, so if the power goes out, for example, the house will still be able to function and keep its inhabitants safe, well and comfortable.”
Ideally, sustainably designed homes do not harm the environment and use materials and resources in a responsible manner. Resiliency in residential architectural design is about understanding current and future weather patterns, Kipnis says, but it is primarily about anticipating the changes those weather patterns may create. It is also about complementing the lifestyle needs of the occupants with the ability of their home to react and perform sustainably.
This includes keeping homes running on battery backup systems, but is also about designing passive strategies into them, including natural ventilation and daylighting, proper overhangs above windows to manage the sun coming into the house during different times of the year and designing a tight perimeter shell.
“We designed an ‘attainable and sustainable’ house in the area that integrates all of the key features we think should be included in a resiliently designed home,” Kipnis says. “It is ‘right-sized’, meaning it’s not too large. Many of the key features are electric, which is what we prefer for reducing a home’s carbon footprint. It has great natural daylighting and ventilation. Fresh air is brought in with an air heat exchanger that functions extremely efficiently.”
Kipnis recently designed a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum home in Evanston that is also all electric. “There isn’t a natural gas line connecting to the house,” he says. “It has a large solar photovoltaic array on the roof to provide a substantial percentage of the home’s energy use. The mechanical room is pre-wired for a battery backup system that stores excess solar power generated during the day for use at night and during power outages.”
The roof under the shingles is covered with an ice and water shield—a waterproof membrane that protects vulnerable areas from leakage even if the roof is damaged during high winds or excessively heavy rains. “There are a series of clerestory windows that operate with remotes,” Kipnis says. “These can be opened when weather is good to provide natural cooling. The house is well insulated, so it does not take much energy to fully heat the home in winter.”
Both projects embody what Kipnis believes is the eco-home of the future. “Houses will be right sized and likely smaller than what we are currently designing,” he says. “There will be more multi-family dwellings and homes that are inter-generational, but designed for privacy. More homes will be oriented with their roofs to the south to incorporate onsite renewable energy from solar photovoltaic panels. We will likely see other buildings with south-facing roofs without dormers, angled optimally to maximize solar panel efficiency for the specific site.”
Kipnis predicts that sustainably reusing materials and incorporating recycled materials into home designs will continue to be big trends. “An important one will be adaptive use—reusing existing buildings and not building new, such as renovating a shopping center into a housing project,” he says.
Builders will also rely more on locally sourced materials and materials that sequester carbon or have low-embodied carbon materials, which includes emissions required to mine, transport and install materials. Sequestered carbon in natural materials captures carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere.
“Live/work arrangements will accommodate separate offices for professionals and dedicated learning spaces for students,” Kipnis says. “We’re seeing more people growing their own food and investing in backyard firepits, pergolas with outdoor lighting and recreation ponds. Vehicles will be all electric, with dedicated garage space, even as ride-share programs begin to eliminate the need for personal cars. Mass transit and human-powered vehicles like bicycles with aerodynamic shells will become more popular.”
Homes that contain a pantry off the garage will enable residents to unpack their groceries, wipe them down and safely store them. Bathrooms, also near garages, will allow first-responders to change before entering the house. Home entertainment rooms will continue to expand with an increase in streaming music and cable choices.
“The pandemic brought into focus how we
live our lives and interact with the environment. Every decision we make about
our home and purchases, about what we eat and about what we use for
transportation should be viewed through the lens of what is best for the
environment,” Kipnis says. “What the 2020 experience suggests is that if
society can turn on a dime to confront COVID-19, we can turn on a dime to
combat climate change. I believe that begins at home.”
Sue Markgraf covers the sustainable industry and consults with Kipnis Architecture + Planning through her work at GreenMark Media.