J. Michael Welton -- Interior Design, 6/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
No one ever accused Omaha of being a hotbed of green design, but a sustainable housing development by Randy Brown Architects is quietly heating up a market no one even knew existed. With 14 lots clustered on a cul-de-sac, the 2-plus-acre Hidden Creek is definitely a high-density development. "We're hoping to set an example for suburbia," Brown says, "spending money in a way that's different from a McMansion."
This "circle the wagons" approach respects the wide-open space surrounding the neighborhood-in-progress as well as minimizing costs for utilities. To reduce the amount of impervious area, and therefore storm-water runoff, the development has no sidewalks. Street and turnaround widths are the environmentally friendly minimums recommended by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Association of Home Builders: 18 and 30 feet, respectively.
Brown is currently renovating a 1990's neo-Tudor that came with the parcel, replacing a pitched, shingled roof with a flat version lined with recycled rubber—perfect for collecting rainwater to irrigate the lawn. And he's already built two spec houses, Elm and Crabapple. During construction, he sorted all waste, recycling 50 percent. After completion, he offered them at $325,000 and $390,000, prices comparable to those for conventional spec houses in the area.
Each of the 3,000-square-foot residences has three bedrooms, three baths, and a three-car garage. If that garage seems counterintuitive for a green initiative, Brown imagines those bays storing bikes, toys, and canoes for use on the park's 60-acre lake. Besides, he says, "We see electric cars now in Omaha. Why not have three of them?"
The houses' front facades are virtually windowless. Rear elevations are designed for vistas of forest and wildlife, with floor-to-ceiling windows. Because the structures are rectangular, with a 20-foot width, Brown could take advantage of off-the-shelf materials.
Roofing is, again, recycled rubber, insulated with rigid polystyrene. Exposed roof joists are Douglas fir certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Siding is painted cement-board. Inside, appliances are Energy Star–rated, as are heat pumps backed by gas furnaces. Freestanding wood-burning fireplaces with direct-vent gas ignition are designed to heat up rapidly and radiate efficiently in all directions, as opposed to traditional brick, which takes hours to warm up.
Windows are 1-inch insulated low-E glass. South-facing ones provide passive solar energy. Others, at the ends of the houses, promote cross ventilation. To shelter all that glass from summer's high sun, Brown installed steel canopies with polycarbonate tops. During the day, natural light suffices; at night, compact fluorescents kick in.
Brown used only sustainably harvested, reclaimed, or renewable Douglas fir, spruce, and pine, all FSC-certified. Flooring is bamboo or polished concrete. Countertops' granite came from local quarries. In addition to the granite, materials such as aluminum, plastic, and porcelain are either sustainable or cradle-to-cradle recyclable. Decking, made primarily from recycled plastic bags, can be recycled again, should that ever be necessary. Paint and caulk, inside and out, are low-VOC.
The Elm has already attracted buyers Brown describes as "early adopters, people who value walking lightly on the earth." The Crabapple has had nibbles, too, and a custom house is now in the design phase, all of which bodes well. Brown predicts the subdivision is on track to be built out by 2010. "This is a stepping stone, a way to evolve," he says. For his next project, he's eyeing land closer to downtown.