SmartDwelling Techniques

The Beginning


Eric and Steve worked independently for years to develop many of the core techniques of SmartDwellings, neither aware of what the other was doing (because Studio Sky hadn’t yet been founded). Steve’s first SmartDwelling precursor was Katrina Cottage VIII, designed less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. This is Eric’s 2002 Coastal Living Idea House, which preceded Katrina Cottage VIII by about four years. Many of their ideas were harvested from much older techniques practiced by our ancestors. There are quite a number of techniques shown here for making homes smaller, smarter, and more sustainable. SmartDwellings are not required to use every technique. They should use enough of them, however, to assure three things:

1. SmartDwellings should be smart enough about storage and future expansion to make a customer happier in a SmartDwelling than they would be in a conventional house twice as large.

2. SmartDwellings should consume no more than 40% of the energy of conventional houses for two reasons: they are only half the size, and they only consume 80% of the energy per square foot.

3. SmartDwellings should be designed to last for at least a hundred years. They should do so in three ways:

    a. SmartDwellings should be designed to be lovable. If a building cannot be loved, it will not last. Buildings achieve lovability by reflecting us, delighting us, and putting us in harmony with our surroundings. There are many ways of achieving these things, a few of which are illustrated below.

    b. SmartDwelling materials and construction techniques should be more durable than conventional construction by being repairable, patchable, and resistant to threats including rot, rust, mold & mildew, wind, fire, and flood, each calibrated to the region in which the SmartDwellings are built.

    c. SmartDwellings should be adaptable to changing needs over time by having simpler massing, simpler circulation, using more furniture and less closets and built-ins, and by organizing mechanical and electrical services in ways that are more likely to accommodate services that don’t exist yet.

Massing & Walls

Grow Zones


Perhaps the single most important aspect of making people happy in a house half the size is to make it obvious how the house can grow when needs arise. The space on the right side of this image is a “grow zone,” and will be furnished with a home office desk which can be moved if the house needs to grow by replacing either of the windows with a door to new space. It is essential to provide grow zones as the very first design move; if you don’t design them in at the very beginning, you’re unlikely to fit them in later on.

Growing Toward the Light


Whenever possible, SmartDwellings should be pulled close to the north side of the site, placing outdoor rooms to the sunny side of the house. People use outdoor space more that way; even if they’re going outside to sit under a shade tree, there’s something about the sparkle of sunlight on the porch edge or door threshold that entices people outdoors. Later, when it’s time for the SmartDwelling to grow, some of those outdoor rooms can become indoor rooms as the SmartDwelling, like a plant, grows toward the sunlight.

Outdoor Rooms vs. Lawns


A lawn is without doubt the least sustainable and highest-maintenance part of a typical suburban home. It requires weekly maintenance for much of the year; we don’t tolerate 5-year maintenance cycles for anything inside a home. It also requires lots of fertilizer and poisons to keep it as green as we expect. SmartDwellings surround themselves with outdoor rooms instead, only using grass in places where it’s really needed, such as in a room where you want to lay on the ground or under fruit trees you need to tend. Lawns = work. Outdoor rooms = enjoyment.

Doors & Windows

Targeted Cross-Ventilation


Cross-ventilation requires two open windows that are not on the same side of a building. This can work if they are on two sides of a corner, but often works better if they are on opposite sides of a building that is one room deep. The best condition is to align two opposite-wall windows on a place people occupy for extended times such as a kitchen sink, dining booth, or bed. A side-benefit of having windows on two or more sides of a room is that the light is diffused instead of glaring, rendering everything in the room in a more beautiful way (including the people).

Naturally Ventilating Windows


True double-hung windows can ventilate a SmartDwelling even when there is no breeze. In the cool of early evening, you can drop the top sash a few inches, raise the bottom sash a few inches, and warm air flows out at the top and is replaced by cool outside air coming in at the bottom. The taller the window, the more pronounced the effect, which explains why windows in the South are taller than those in the North, where ventilation is much less of an issue. Casement windows perform as well as double-hungs if opened wide enough.

Reflecting the Human Face


Lovable buildings find ways to reflect us. One of those reflections is the reflection of the horizontal arrangement of the human face. Lovable buildings can take all sorts of asymmetrical poses just as the human body can, but at face, we are bilaterally symmetrical. Sometimes this reflection of the human face occurs at the top of a building, such as in this gable. More often, it occurs at the main entry of the building, and does not have to be such a literal representation of the face as this example, but rather just a symmetry of door, sidelights, lighting, etc.

Porches & Balconies

Reflecting the Standing Human


We are all arranged vertically while standing with a top (head), middle (body) and bottom (feet). Lovable buildings around the world and throughout history have had many elements composed of three like parts, from the beam, column, and pedestal shown here to the capital, shaft, and base of the column to the head, jamb, and sill of a window to the base cap, base, and shoe mould of a baseboard. There are countless ways SmartDwelling elements can do this, undoubtedly including some which have not been invented yet.

Open Porch Construction


Two-story porches can have serious moisture problems. Conventional practice often uses a double-layer floor with a structural floor topped by a waterproof membrane, purlins, and finish flooring, but this is expensive and prone to failure. Opening the floor up from below is much simpler, with floorboards on purlins on timber joists. Yes, there are occasionally tiny leaks between the floorboards, but if the rain is blowing in on the upper porch, it’s doing so downstairs as well, and the open system leaves nowhere for mold and mildew to grow.

Eaves & Roofs

Reflective Roofing


The best passive cooling device for buildings in a climate warm enough to require air conditioning is reflective roofing material. Mill-finish metal roofing such as this 5-V crimp roofing is the most common reflective roofing today, but metal or other materials may also be finished white or near-white as well. A reflective roof can easily save hundreds if not thousands of dollars each year because it reflects close to 90% of the sun’s heat back up into the sky before it ever gets into the insulation envelope, whereas the much more common dark asphalt shingle roofing absorbs 70% - 90% of the heat.

Roof Shape


Roofs in places subject to hurricane-force winds are stronger if they are hipped rather than gabled for two reasons: each roof panel supports its neighbor, and they are all leaning back rather than facing the wind head-on as a gable does. Two building types can ignore this rule: Unusually small gabled buildings have such small gable areas that the wind has less effect. And unusually heavy buildings like loadbearing masonry buildings may be heavy enough to resist the winds as well. Yes, we can engineer anything with enough steel, but why not be naturally strong?

Attachments & Sitework

Gift to the Street


Every SmartDwelling should give a gift to the street because that helps the street become a more interesting place to walk. A gift to the street can be something that shelters people (like a gallery or awning downtown), refreshes them (like a sidewalk cafe or street fountain), delights them (like this frontage garden), directs them (like a goal in the middle distance), entertains them (like a good storefront), informs them (like a clock or sundial), helps them remember (like a memorial), or simply gives them a place to rest.



Most sitework is covered in the Outdoor Room Examples section because as much of a SmartDwelling’s site as possible should be occupied by outdoor rooms, not just lawns. But SmartDwelling sites use outbuildings like this potting shed at every opportunity not just for their stated use, but for two other reasons as well: Outbuildings are a great way of enclosing space, helping strengthen the boundaries of outdoor rooms. They can also, due to their small scale, be quite lovable due to a phenomenon known as the Teddy Bear Principle.

Foundations & Floors

Conditioned Crawl Space


If mold and mildew are a concern in a place where a SmartDwelling is built, then consideration should be given to building a conditioned crawl space. Floors are typically insulated with fiberglass batts, but this is susceptible to mold, mildew, and vermin. If parts of the crawl space is wet,  the insulation acts as a sponge, and holds the moisture next to the floor framing. A conditioned crawl space insulates the foundation wall, not the floor, and covers floor and wall with a heavy-duty vapor barrier. A small amount of conditioned air is added, keeping the space dry and useful.

Structural Finished Floor


Similar to the open porch construction above and open wall construction below, opening upper level floors has moisture protection benefits as well. Here, the large joists can be spaced further apart than normal floor framing because the tongue-and-groove structural floor deck is twice as thick as normal floor decking. Eric has been developing this system for nearly a decade and it is surprisingly little different in cost from a normal floor system, even in spite of its healthy benefits and its appearance, which is far more interesting than an ordinary drywall ceiling.

Walls & Frames

Open Walls & Moisture


Eric began developing the techniques of open wall construction with this house in 2002. Initially, he started in order to reduce the number of places in a house that could easily harbor mold and mildew. Every cavity that can be opened up allows the free flow of air, allowing moisture to dry quickly. It is also one less place for vermin to hide, both of which make for a healthier home. But it quickly became apparent that open walls were useful for other things as well. With shelving between the studs, every open wall becomes a shelving unit.

Boarded Wall Character


For most SmartDwellings, it is important to not get too fussy with the finishing of the boarded walls. Insisting on cabinet-grade finishes can make boarded walls extremely expensive. Here, you can see a wall brace running through the upper left corner, shelf cleats at each end, and cracks between the boards. These things all work together to create a very charming character to which a boring drywall finish could never even begin to compare. The one case where joints should be sealed entirely is where privacy is needed, like in a bath or bedroom.

Boarded Wall Storage


Finishing walls with boards rather than drywall has benefits beyond reduction of opportunities for mold and mildew. It also means that you can attach storage devices anywhere along a wall without having to look for wall studs hidden behind the drywall or fuss with drywall anchoring devices, because ¾” wall boarding is strong enough to hold substantial loads if they are properly fastened to the walls. Storage devices include everything from cabinets and appliances to pegs, hooks, rods, and of course open shelves.

Material Sources


The millwork shown here is mahogany sustainably harvested only about a hundred miles away from the construction site. Locally-sourced materials, especially when they are heavy or bulky, has obvious fuel cost benefits over things shipped from half a world away, but there’s a hidden lovability benefit as well: When there is a plentiful local resource in a place, there is a good chance that a local craft tradition has grown up around that resource, and that the craftspeople have become really good at working the resource into finished products that people love.

Ceilings & Attics

Insulated Roofline


Insulating the roofline with spray foam insulation has several benefits over convenional ceiling batt insulation that far outweigh its cost. First, the attic requires no ventilation, so it stays within a few degrees of the temperature of conditioned spaces below instead of scorching in summer and freezing in winter, and rainstorms don’t blow into the attic, leaving water to cause mold, mildew, and rot. In a coastal environment, that’s saltwater as well, which rusts. So not only does this protect ductwork and water lines, but it also protects anything stored there as well.

Stairs & Railings

Capturing Hidden Space


This “night nook” is just off the couple’s bedroom, where if either wants to stay up and read, they can sneak away and let the other sleep peacefully. In this case, it occupies space that is almost always wasted, underneath a stair and its landing. The headroom in the far corner is so low that most adults can’t stand up there, which is why it is occupied by a writing desk… so they don’t need to. SmartDwellings have other clever ways of using space around stairs and elsewhere that is normally lost, and many of those methods are quite charming.

Cabinets & Furniture

Armoires vs. Closets


Steve discovered back in the 1990s that by the time you add up all the costs of a drywall closet, you can build an armoire instead that stores the same amount of clothes and that costs slightly less money. There is no shred of lovability in a drywall closet, but there easily can be with an armoire. And the armoires save space as well. Every closet wall is approximately 4” thicker than an armoire wall. This doesn’t sound like much, but using all armoires can save close to 200 square feet of floor space in a medium-size house.

Dining Booth


A dining room that seats six people takes up about five times as much space as a dining booth that seats the same people because you need room to get around the table, whereas the booth is served from one end. We all know that the booth are the first seats to fill up on a restaurant, not the open tables. So why not save 80% of the space and give people what they prefer? It’s not possible to make everything in a SmartDwelling half the size it would be in a conventional house, so when there’s an opportunity to save a huge percentage like this, be sure to take advantage of it.

Pull-Out Base


Standard kitchen base cabinets are some of the most useless and space-wasting parts of a house. because they typically contain a single 12” shelf at the back, so people fill them up with things they forget about and then can’t find when they need them. Every single base cabinet should be furnished with drawers or pull-out shelves. Designed this way, base cabinets alone can store more stuff than a complete conventional kitchen. So if some wall cabinets are used, the entire kitchen can be smaller. In any case, reducing wall cabinets can bring more daylight into the kitchen.

Curtained Bed Alcove


The curtained bed alcove is an update of the ancient canopy bed technique, and it has two special abilities that go beyond its typical lovable appearance: A "children’s realm” houses multiple kids in a single room more efficiently than putting them each in separate bedrooms. Curtaining the bed alcoves gives each child visual privacy. If every bed in a SmartDwelling is curtained, you can set the thermostat unusually low on a winter night and body heat will keep everyone warm because the volume of air to be warmed in each bed is so low.

Under-Bed Storage


People often store things under beds, but those things that are randomly shoved under beds are forgotten and then hard to find when someone is looking for them on their hands and knees with a flashlight. And if something else is pushed under the bed later, it can completely hid the first item that was placed there. Using pull-outs is much more efficient, and also much easier to use. The pull-out can be either a basket as shown here, or can also be a drawer unit upon which the bed is situated. If a basket, tie-on cloth tops like this one protect the contents from dust.

© Studio Sky 2014