26 September 2012

Detached Garages Are Green

Construction on the new house around the corner is starting to pick up.  Some of this has been going on:

And then this:

The garage foundation was poured yesterday, with the remainder of the foundation scheduled for the end of the week.  Why was the garage poured separately from the rest of the house?  Because they're on opposite sides of the lot (that's the garage at the top left of the Lego lot).  

And that leads us to a green building principle that we weren't able to implement at the Green House: the detached garage.

Detached garages are green for multiple reasons.  First, we tend to store chemicals (paint thinner, fertilizer, gasoline in a gas-powered lawnmower, etc.) in the garage, so it's good to keep them far away from where we live.  And then there are the cars themselves.  A surprising number of carbon monoxide poisoning cases (including deaths) result from cars being left on in garages.  Even a car that is turned off continues to emit fumes until it cools down.  Similarly, a gas water heater in an attached garage can send toxins into the house if it's not properly vented or if it malfunctions.  And although the wall between a house and the garage should be treated like an exterior wall, it's often the leakiest wall in a house, so when you turn on the range vent or a bath fan, the negative pressure created by the outflow of air will likely lead to that chemical-laden garage air being sucked into the house.  (Although we don't keep much in the way of chemicals in the garage, I still detect a faint odor of exhaust every time I open the door from the house to the garage.)

And then there's the risk of fire.  In the last few years, I've heard about two random car fires at workplaces (presumably from wiring issues).  There was also a tragic car fire in Austin recently due to a manufacturer's recall that wasn't addressed -- the fire took place at night, spread to the house, and killed some of the home's occupants.

Have I convinced you that garages are bad news?  And yet we still opted for one.  There were two reasons for that.  First, when we found these plans online, we were instantly sold on the aesthetic (we ended up buying the CAD files and hiring a local designer to change pretty much everything behind the front facade).  And second, once we dug into our deed restrictions, we discovered that detached garages, like garage apartments and duplexes, are forbidden.  Weird, I know.

Austin Energy's green building program will award a point for various venting systems in a garage to deal with the fumes, two points for thermally separating and sealing the garage from the living space (we did this), and three points for a detached garage.  My buddy Bubba (owner of the Lego Palace) and his wife will count those three points among many, many others on their way to a five-star rating.

All this talk about detached garages reminds me of a conversation I had early in our own design process.  I had called a well-known green architect (prior to meeting the designer we ended up hiring) and made the mistake of asking if he would be willing to work with those plans I had found online.  He was very clear about his feelings on stock plans, first telling me that attached garages aren't green.  When I informed him that our deed restrictions don't allow for a detached garage, he said that a two-story house would be greener than one story.  When I told him we also had a deed restriction against two stories, he shifted gears and mocked the concept of a mudroom, saying that we no longer need a room to take off our overalls when we come in from the fields.  I told him that, as triathletes, we were actually really looking forward to a place to store gear, rinse wetsuits, and take off wet/sweaty/muddy clothes.  It was clear that this was not an architect-client love connection.  Ironically, though, our builder has built houses designed by this architect's firm and incorporated some of his (very good and very green) specifications and building practices into our home.  So we ended up with the benefit of that architect's experience and knowledge without actually working with him.  Win, win.


  1. You think attached garages are bad news? You should see the attached barns they have on the old houses here in Switzerland. All of your cows just a few meters away. "Chemical-laden air"? Yes, and then some. (Of course, depending on what the cows eat, it might be *organic* chemical-laden air.)

    Even more exciting are the tiny, old Speicher buildings, where the upper floor would house the people and the ground floor would house . . . the pigs!

    However, Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel (fascinating book, by the way) points out that this close habitation between humans and animals over the centuries probably helped the humans build up resistance to some diseases. I'm grateful that my ancestors did it so that I don't have to.

  2. Fascinating!

    I'll have to check out Guns, Germs, and Steel.