SmartDwelling I

Steve never should have designed SmartDwelling I, for the Wall Street Journal’s "Green House of the Future" story in 2009. That honor should have gone to Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (the PZ of DPZ), but Lizz called Steve one early spring morning that year and with characteristic generosity said “Steve, you’re writing the Original Green right now; you really should do this design.” The New Urban Guild had just launched Project:SmartDwelling ten days into the new year, so it was natural that this design should become SmartDwelling I.

The Journal asked the four architects doing designs for the story to “design what you feel best illustrates what the best green houses will look like in the future. Don’t hold back.” But that was a trick question, because no sustainable design can even begin until the designer knows where it will be located. In other words, a green design in one place would look very different from a green design in another place. So Steve chose the New Orleans region because of having grown to love it so much, especially while assisting with the Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. The following are some of the details of SmartDwelling I:

Footprint of the Garden

front corner

True to the original mission of the SmartDwelling, this first design is exactly half the size of the median house size at the time. At precisely 1,200 square feet, it is home to parents and two children. The footprint of the garden rooms is almost twice as large, so there’s substantially more outdoor living space than indoor. This is really important because when people spend a lot of time outdoors, they get acclimated to the local environment, they may be able to throw open the windows and leave the equipment off when they return indoors… and there is no equipment so efficient as that which is off.

Hearth Garden

hearth garden

The hearth garden is the outdoor living room. The New Orleans region can get cold in the winter, so the ability to sit around a fire extends the use of the outdoors deep into autumn and early winter evenings. The tree in the center shades the room in summer, but when it drops its leaves in the fall, the sun is able to warm the room through the day. Outdoor rooms that are designed to be useful on all but the most extreme days of the year actually reduce the need for indoor living space. And at about 20% of the cost of indoor space, saving a little indoor space buys a lot of space in garden rooms.

Dinner Garden

dinner garden

Guests are entertained in the dinner garden, which is floored with pavers both to make cleanup of the inevitable food spills easy and also to soak up the sun’s warmth through the day once the harvest is past and the leaves are fallen, then release that warmth slowly to the dinner guests as the evening’s chill descends. Flooring material changes from room to room, in part to make it clear that you’ve passed from one room to the next. The blackberry passage on the left of the image leads from dinner garden to hearth garden and is formed with copper tubing and wire, on which the berry bushes are trained.

Breakfast Terrace

breakfast terrace

When it’s just the family eating, the breakfast terrace is the place to eat, just outside the kitchen door. There is a dining booth inside, but on all but the most extreme days of the year, it’s likely that the people who live here may choose to eat outdoors instead. Just out of view to the right is the outdoor kitchen. Because every bush and tree on the property can be edible, it’s possible that much of the food the family eats can be raised onsite. And because of the outdoor kitchen, it’s also possible that some of the fruits and vegetables might not even make it in the kitchen door, but go through the entire garden-to-table process outdoors.



You may have noticed something strange in the previous image. If not, look closely at the windows and you’ll see that the window and the shutter are not open to the same angle. The idea is to open them toward the prevailing breeze, but not parallel. Opening them a bit wider like this should funnel the breeze, intensifying it. Or if it’s a windy day, you can neck it down, letting in just a bit of breeze. The windows are one of only three things on the house that can’t be bought off the shelf right now; the others are the breeze chimneys and the wind generator.

Tower of Wind & Water


The wind generator atop the tower of wind & water is designed to generate electricity, but also to look fanciful because most wind generators today look like egg-beaters in the sky. If equipment is visible, it must be beautiful. The solar panels of the 1970s were ripped off in just a few years solely because they were ugly. The generator sits atop a rainwater cistern, which is elevated to create water pressure. All rainwater that falls on any part of the house is channeled to the rain pool, then pumped up to the cistern with a small pump in the base of the tower, which houses solar equipment and garden tools.

Kitchen Garden

kitchen garden

Fruit and vegetables grow throughout the site, but most intensely in the kitchen garden, which is all about food. The centerpiece of the garden is a tilapia tank; tilapia love tight quarters and are therefore good for urban gardens. Bio-intensive raised beds surround the tank, and a muscadine vine trains up the stairs to the bonus room over the garage. If you look closely, you’ll see two chickens; they can be a great benefit in a garden, eating pests and fertilizing the soil. But the absolutely must be hens, not roosters in an urban garden because nearby neighbors would be unlikly to tolerate the crowing at daybreak.

Green Wall

green wall

The 8 foot tall garden wall around the property is entirely harvestable, substantially expanding the growing space of the site. Why be limited to just the ground area? The lower half of the wall consists of beans, peas, and other vining vegetables trained on a lattice. Most of these vegetables would not reach the top of the wall in a growing season, so the darker green top half of the wall is reserved for espaliered fruit trees. The espalier is an ancient technique of training dwarf fruit trees against horizontal lattice members on a wall, and was developed for exactly this condition: an edible urban garden where space is limited.

Compost & Chickens


Every organic garden needs compost, but a gardener who isn’t yet a compost expert might create a stinky mess that would annoy the neighbors. So in an urban garden where neighbors live nearby, it is essential to compost in closed drums, not an open pile. Here, the drums are tucked under the stairs, with the chicken coop above. Not shown under the stair is the ramp whereby chickens climb to the coop at roosting time. Edible gardens (especially those with farm animals) got banned from cities in the early 20th century. If we hope to bring edible gardening back into town, it must be done on a neighborly basis.

Cool Dip

cool dip

The last garden room is the couple’s garden, and is invisible from everywhere except the couple’s realm, onto which it opens. The centerpiece of this couple’s garden is a small pool. These were designed in many of the courtyards of Alys Beach, on the Florida Design Coast, with the intent of providing the psychological cooling effect of a nearby body of water. But to the surprise of the architects, homeowners there later said “because these courtyards are so private, if we get a little too warm, we just take off our clothes and go for a dip.” This transforms the effect from psychological to actual thermal cooling.

Breeze Chimney

breeze chimney

The last of the three items not currently available off-the-shelf is the breeze chimney. Its shroud is designed to turn into the wind so that the passing air creates a vacuum on the back side, pulling warm air out of the house. The effect is compounded by the chimney, which not only raises the shroud to where the breezes are stronger, but also creates a heat chimney effect, exhausting warm air using no electricity. The shroud is designed to open or close via a pull-cord. It’s designed on the same principle as metal breeze chimneys, but in respect of the coastal region where it’s built, the shroud is made of sail cloth on small spars.

Meeting the Sky

sky items

Throughout history, architecture has celebrated how it meets the sky in countless beautiful ways, but during the 20th century we lost that ability as topless buildings that ended abruptly became all the rage for several decades. SmartDwelling I recovers that again with three types of elements that meet the sky in interesting ways: the two breeze chimneys, the chimney in the hearth garden, and the tower of wind & water. Some believe that people need to suffer to live sustainably. This design shows the exact opposite: that the artifacts of low consumption can certainly create delight as well as savings. 

Invisible Things

invisible things

There are some items, however, that need to either disappear or at least not draw our attention. The grey roof just to the left of the tower of wind & water is composed of hot water solar panels; the purple roof on the garden porch is composed of photovoltaic panels. No, they are not at the perfectly engineered angle for this latitude like the panels of the 1970s that were strut-mounted to roofs, earning the name “roof acne.” Instead, these panels quietly become the roof rather than sitting visibly on top of the roof. And that’s precisely why they’re likely to still be there so long as they last insted of getting ripped off because they’re ugly.

Laundry Eave

laundry eave

Air-dried clothes last longer than machine-dried clothes, and air-drying consumes no electricity at all. Europeans air-dry their clothes on pulleys hanging over the street, but knowing what kind of underwear your neighbor wears is a bit too much information. Also, it’s inconvenient if a rainstorm blows up and gets them wet all over again. The laundry eave solves these issues. The pulley is located on the back of the house, not over the street. Just inside the window is the washing machine. And the pulley is protected from rain by an unusually deep bracketed eave that runs the length of the pulley.

Side Yard Sail


SmartDwelling I’s side yard has great privacy because of its garden walls, but if the breeze isn’t blowing from one end to the other, it can get really warm in the summer. The side yard sail solves this problem by mounting to the top of the garden wall where it can pivot out over the sidewalk and catch a breeze when it’s blowing another direction. The breeze chimney is built of sail cloth and spars in respect of the coastal region in which the house is located. The side yard sail, on the other hand, is an actual sail that could likely be used with very little modification, and is therefore a pretty much off-the-shelf delightful element.

For larger views of these images, check out the SmartDwelling I slide show.

© Studio Sky 2014