02 June 2011

Green House(s), Good Tour

This Sunday is the Cool House Tour, the green building tour to which we applied and that rejected us earlier this year. (It was for the best, though, as it bought us the luxury of time to do the landscaping ourselves instead of paying a landscaper a small fortune to do it for us.) But on the bright side, we received free tickets as a thank-you for applying, and we're happy to be attending the tour for our third year. (Two years ago, we were knee-deep in our own design process, and we got tons of green inspiration from the houses we saw.) This year's tour features sixteen green homes in and around Austin, and I want to share some of the highlights.

First, the cover of the tour booklet (which doubles as your ticket):

(All pictures by Andrew Pogue Photography and used with permission
from Austin Energy Green Building. The poor photo quality, however,
is mine alone, as I took pictures of the pictures to post here.)

This is the back courtyard area of a house with such features as high efficiency windows, low-flow plumbing fixtures, low-VOC paint, and a 525-gallon rainwater collection system (all fairly typical features among the houses on the tour). But my favorite features (and the reason I'm sharing the back of the house instead of the front) are that neat slab walkway across the courtyard (very similar to what we have in mind for our front walkway) and the rain chains, which have given me a kick in the pants to finally figure out what we're going to do with our gutters.

Next, a house that I can't help thinking of as our house's suburban cousin:

It's way outside of Austin, and of course I don't think it's anywhere near as beautiful as our house, but between the color, the stone wainscot, the tapered columns, and its geothermal heat pump, it sure has a lot in common with ours, so we're looking forward to checking it out.

This house is made of autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC). I confess that I don't know exactly what AAC is, but it's a fancy way of making well-insulated walls (which they then insulated with spray foam and cellulose insulation). It also has solar panels that provide both electricity and hot water, among many other green features.

Then there's this modest garage apartment:

In addition to a list of features that rivals any of the houses on the tour, this house earned green building points for being a second residence on an urban property, which reduces urban sprawl, traffic, etc.

It is said that the greenest house is the one that's already built. The theory is that, even if it's not terribly efficient, it's better to work with what you have than to send an entire house to the landfill and manufacturer all new materials for its replacement (even if it's more efficient). But sometimes it isn't possible to remodel, as in the case of this house that replaced one that burned down (which is also how we ended up building new).

It is so well-built that each ton of air conditioning serves an amazing 909 square feet (I'm no expert, but 500 square feet per ton is probably pretty average; our house comes in a little under 800 square feet per ton). And the backyard is put to productive use with a vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens, rainwater collection, and composting.

But the tour isn't just about pragmatic use of space. There is also some noteworthy architecture on display, such as this house that seems to be perched on a cliff:

And this one that makes me want to go to Miami:

Can you believe this is a remodeled 1950s house? Every space was updated with modern architectural interest:

And on the other end of the spectrum, here's a house that proves that green can be simple and affordable:

It was built through an American YouthWorks program that provides job training while creating houses that are affordable both to buy/rent and to live in (critical in Austin, where the least expensive housing frequently has the highest utility costs). Last year's tour featured a Habitat for Humanity house that also showed how green building principles could be incorporated into all housing, regardless of budget. Although the house above has some pricey features like solar panels and a metal roof, it also takes advantage of no-cost features like careful orientation on the lot and thoughtful placement of overhangs to minimize the effects of the sun during the summer (known as passive heating). See how the overhangs are blocking all of the windows in the picture above?

If you're interested in the tour, it's this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are $15 per person, available at any of the homes. For more information, including a PDF of the tour booklet and information on each of the houses, go to www.txses.org.

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