Tuesday, November 29, 2005

1st C2C house nears construction

By Matt Chittum
The Roanoke Times

ROANOKE, Va. - Building an environmentally friendly house has been an experiment in frustration.

C2C Home, Roanoke's effort to show that environmentally friendly building is practical and cost-effective, is poised to begin building one its green designs.

Blue Ridge Housing Development Corp. has acquired a lot in Northwest Roanoke, the construction documents are drawn up, and an application for a building permit is probably days away.

This tangible progress comes six months after the hoopla of May's ceremonial groundbreaking for the effort to build eight of the designs entered in the C2C home design contest, which was hosted by the Roanoke architectural firm of Smith-Lewis.

It also follows six months of frustration as the idealism of the C2C vision has slammed up against the real world: a hoped-for building material lacking a patent, a firm that created one of the designs disbanding, some designs proving too impractical to be built here, few of the designers having the skills to produce precise construction plans.

"Trailblazing is messy, but that's OK," said architect Gregg Lewis, who organized the contest and has carried it forward into an attempt to actually build some of the best designs.

This is an experiment after all, Lewis reminds, and for all the lessons success will teach, the more potent ones may come from failures.

Lewis and his firm orchestrated the contest to promote green building concepts championed by internationally known architect William McDonough in a book he co-authored, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things." The idea is to move toward building materials and methods that will do less harm to the environment, such as solar energy and synthetic and recycled materials.

The C2C principles have been used in furniture and in elements of houses, but no one has ever built a full-on C2C house, let alone eight.

"There are enough variables in the mix that it's going to keep this ultimately from going as fast and straightforward as some of us would have hoped," Lewis said. Most especially Lewis, who has become Roanoke's most visible advocate of green building.

"I've shot myself in the foot so many times now that it's starting to get a little sore," he said.

The learning curve has been steep.

To get a house from a design on paper to actual walls and a roof, you've got to have construction documents -- the precise plans that give the builder measurements, materials specifications and so on. No one accounted for the fact that most of the designers are students who lack the expertise to develop those documents.

One of the homes slated for construction was to be made of "rammed earth," a process of building walls by compressing a mixture of earth and concrete. Only it turns out that wouldn't be entirely practical in this climate, Lewis said.

Another design slated to be built on Day Avenue in Old Southwest was discovered to have a two-story glass front wall -- an aspect that was neither clear in the designs sent in, nor practical in a neighborhood.

To complicate matters, the firm that produced the design has since disbanded.

The bright spot of the last six months has been the Blue Ridge Housing Development Corp. project.

Blue Ridge has taken possession of a lot in the 400 block of Harrison Avenue from the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority, where it will construct a design called the "Nutrihouse." The house, designed by Jon and Kandy Brouchoud of Wisconsin, is intended to keep those living in it connected with the natural world. It features, among other things, an integrated birdhouse.

Lewis' wife, Jennifer Smith, drew up the construction documents in connection with the manufacturer of one of the primary building materials, structurally insulated panels.

But even those panels are not what C2C advocates would hope for. The wood skin that surrounds insulation material contains the same formaldehyde common in many wooden building materials. It's exactly the kind of chemical the C2C approach hopes to eliminate.

Lewis said that when he first proposed the C2C Home contest to McDonough, the University of Virginia architecture professor warned him that he wouldn't be able to build front-door-to-rooftop C2C houses.

Lewis says he knew that, but since May he's been learning the realities of why that's so.

"Every time we hit an obstacle, we've got to figure out a right way to proceed," he said. When a material isn't available, for example, they have to find an alternative, and too often it comes down to choosing from options that are both compromises and hoping for the one that is "less bad."

He comes back to the fact that the whole process is an experiment intended to start a conversation about the importance of environmentally friendly building. That means not only how and why it can be done, but also how and why it sometimes can't be.

"We want to talk about where the shortcomings are," he said. The effort is a bust if people fail to realize all that's left to do to make green building practical.

"This is all about failure," he said.


  1. Huh! All this taking place in lil' ole Roanoke, Va......... How cool is that?

  2. I was indirectly involved with C2C. My old boss and Gregg Lewis are friends, I did several low-income single-family housing projects with Blue Ridge Housing Development Corp. and one of the C2C competition winners, Sean Wheeler, helped design a house we worked on for BRHDC. Ours weren't as adventurous as the ones that they're trying to build now, though.