JZMK Partners executive discusses the challenge in designing green homes
Builder and Developer: Tell us about JZMK Partners and their philosophy.
Eric Zuziak: JZMK Partners was founded on a belief that great design and planning, well executed, will provide long term value to the user as well as contribute strongly to the quality of the public realm. These are not mutually exclusive goals. We strive to balance the design quality of the private and public realms. When we succeed, our communities become timeless, not trendy. This takes discipline, dedication and focus. Especially when crafting a design solution that needs to be sustainable and meet budget demands while also creating a place with true soul. It’s a critical balance.
B&D: What are some challenges in designing green homes?
EZ: The biggest challenge in designing a green home is finding materials and systems that are both green and affordable. The cost of building materials has risen so much with recent inflation increases, this issue has been exacerbated greatly. We try to focus on two specific areas for maximum value in sustainability, Building Envelope & Energy Reduction.
The biggest “green return” for your construction dollar is to design an exterior wall system that increases the R values in foundations, walls, and roofs well beyond the required state mandated minimums. This includes creating a tight envelope to eliminate air infiltration everywhere possible. A well-insulated building envelope will save significant costs on Heating and AC.
Once you have designed a high R-Value building envelope, The second “green return” for you construction dollar is to specify, high efficiency HVAC systems with a high SEER rating. Then commission those systems to test their actual performance to quantify and demonstrate actual cost savings that will translate directly to a lower cost of ownership for the home buyer. Adding a HEPA air filter system with a high MERV score that removes 99.97 of particulates, including allergens and viruses can also be a strong motivator for a home buyer. Again, performance metrics must be demonstrated to the buyer in order to motivate the buyer to recognize the value.
If these energy cost savings can effectively be quantified and demonstrated to the home buyer, that buyer is more likely to pay more in initial cost to save more over the life of their mortgage payment, in a “Total Cost of Ownership” comparison. This is critical to selling any green system to the home buyer. They MUST save significant cost on energy bills, and it MUST be demonstrated to them in a way they will understand as a value proposition.
Jim Heid: Green homes in California are largely Code homes. So, while there was a time when you might have been able to differentiate your product by showcasing green, in California it is a given and expectation of buyers. That’s not a bad thing, just a reality.
If there is a challenge, it is the industry’s (labor and suppliers) inability to keep up with rapidly changing requirements for green. Especially in market like Sonoma County where the bench depth of builders is not equipped to scale up or learn the increasing technical requirements of building green.
There also is a cost challenge. I spent years preaching the gospel of green building, and still believe is it critical to our industry and our children’s future. But the technology, the extra care that goes into construction, the learning curve to install – all costs more. And at a time when costs of homes are such a critical issue you have to begin to ask what is the priority – homes a larger share of the market can afford, or homes that provide state of the art ‘green’? Put another way – have we reached diminishing returns? Are the extra dollars going into higher levels of theoretical green, producing smaller and smaller environmental returns while pricing more people out of the market?
All of this assumes we are just talking about ‘the box’. It’s been proven time and again, a conventional home in an infill location, in a more compact form is more environmentally responsible than an uber green home in the Greenfields. So at what point do we focus more on land use and community form as an alternative path to environmental responsibility?
B&D: What were some of the unique aspects of RiverHouse that you enjoyed working on?
EZ: The most unique aspect of the project was the raw beauty of the site itself. It is located along the Russian River within the charming wine country town of Healdsburg. The large existing trees were both a challenge and an opportunity. The site itself spoke to what needed to be there. The existing trees created an opportunity to have a focal green space that organized the arrangement of the homes around its perimeter, moving the garages to the site perimeter. This created such a unique opportunity to create human scaled gathering areas and pathways that reinforced the cottage scale. This was the big idea. I must give Jim Heid of Craft Development, and Opticos Design the credit for the initial site plan concept. They had a fantastic concept to start with. We just fine tuned that approach, and wove in the architecture, taking cues from the site, the trees and the views.
Another unique aspect that we felt important to reinforce the small scale of this enclave was the use of roof forms that allowed us to tuck second floor space within the gable volume. This brought down the perceived scale of the homes to a welcoming level. Wrapped with porches that oriented to green and street anchored the homes to the landscape and created wonderful lounging areas. We purposely left off porch railings to get the homes to feel more “included” in the landscape, rather than delineated from the landscape.
And lastly the most unique aspect about RiverHouse that I thoroughly enjoyed was the quality of the team that Jim Heid assembled to create this community. Jim assembled a team that was truly dedicated to the “craft” of creating unique place. As a Landscape Architect himself, he is rooted in design, and he appreciates and values the craft of placemaking. Simple building forms were preferred over complex geometries. Every proportion and detail was studied for its proportion and simplicity, contributing effectively to the soul of the place. Whether it was Planning, Architecture, Landscape, or Engineering, every discipline was dedicated to creating a seamless solution. As an architect, it was and is a joy to work with such a dedicated and talented team.
B&D: Where do you see the future of green homebuilding going given the current state of post-pandemic housing and climate change?
JH: Climate change – which is manifested in northern California through increased number of hot days, increasing water restrictions, and wildfire risks – has buyers considering sustainability, and resilience as an important feature that needs to be explained by their developers and builders. The pandemic was one of those events that few had predicted but changed everyone’s life. So as much as I believe buyers want to ‘return to the way things once were’, they HAVE to consider what other events, outlier actions or changes could occur – and what do they need in their new homes to live comfortably, regardless of what the world throws at them. They might not call it ‘future proofing’, but buyers are starting to put that concept on their purchase checklist. How can this house adapt? What if such and such happens – how will we respond? Does the floor plan and site plan allow the flexibility to adapt to changes that we can’t foresee but are likely to happen?
B&D: What do the Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU’s) of RiverHouse bring to the table?
EZ: The ADU’s at RiverHouse are a very important part of the development program. They provide many benefits to the community. They allow the homebuyer to supplement their income by renting out the ADU, in turn providing a level of housing attainability to both the owner and the renter. This attainability contributes positively to economic sustainability within the community of Healdsburg. The ADU’s also allow us to create a variety of building form within the community that addresses the internal drive and external streets. This creates aesthetic variety critical to a sense of timelessness.
B&D: Do you have anything you want to share that we didn’t talk about?
EZ: No discussion would be complete without describing the tremendous effort required to save the trees. The site’s vast array of heritage redwoods and citrus trees were carefully documented and evaluated. Home siting and extensive horticultural efforts, including the surgical use of piling foundation systems were used to minimize root impacts. This helped us to achieve our goal to preserve as many trees as possible so new homes would be comfortably ‘settled’ into the existing landscape from Day 1, giving the project an immediate sense of timelessness. Preserving the trees also gave us the ability to sequester carbon and provide shade, in turn keeping the homes passively cool and comfortable while lightening the mechanical cooling load.
Another very important design move was to aggregate and segregate the garages to the North and South edges of the property, thus minimizing the use of impervious paving and minimizing the impact of the car upon the site plan. This singular move allowed us the opportunity to preserve the trees, while creating wonderful pedestrian scaled amenity spaces that the homes could focus upon. The design prioritization of pedestrian space for people, rather than cars allowed us to craft some amazing outdoor amenity spaces and walkways that became the stitching that sewed the fabric of the site together seamlessly and timelessly.