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Eco-conscious home offers smart green features

News | January 1, 2009 | By:

Prefab green ‘smart home’ lets the sunshine in.

Most people would be hard-pressed to guess the inspiration behind the mkSolaire™, the sleek, eco-conscious home that was the center of attention at “Smart Home: Green + Wired,” a new exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry that ran through January 4, 2009. The mkSolaire’s modern design was informed by something unwired, centuries old and decidedly less chic.


“You really can’t find a badly designed barn,” says mkSolaire architect Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED® AP, of Michelle Kaufmann Designs. “A lot can be learned from studying barns in terms of understanding effective cross-ventilation and sun shading design. Because we have a lot of glass in the [mkSolaire] Smart Home, sun shading is important at different times of the day and different times of the year.

“Our low-tech version, which I love, is putting barn door tracks on the outside of the house and having sliding wood sunshades. They also lock into place to provide security. They’re such a simple, yet effective, solution.”

Despite drawing inspiration from a fixture of rural landscapes, Kaufmann designed the prefab mkSolaire for the city. (The company’s Web site describes it as “perfect for an urban-infill lot.”)

The model mkSolaire is 225m2. Among its smart green features:

  • Windows, skylights and glass doors positioned to optimize sunlight and air flow
  • Energy-efficient heated radiant subfloor
  • Dual or triple-pane windows with low-emissivity glazing
  • LED light fixtures
  • Spray-in insulation that doesn’t offgas VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
  • No or low-VOC interior materials
  • Sustainable interior finish options, such as recycled glass tile and low-flow plumbing
  • Home-automation system that automatically adjusts motorized skylight
  • A stormwater-absorbing, air-filtering, urban-heat-island-effect-mitigating green roof

Also on the roof: Photovoltaic film to absorb solar power.

The energy efficient design and construction works: the mkSolaire scored 51 on the HERS index. An ENERGY STAR home of similar size scored 85. (For both indexes, the lower the number the better.)

All six Michelle Kaufmann Designs preconfigured homes boast green features. Another common theme in Kaufmann’s work — even in the 65.25m2 mkLotus™ home — is a feeling of expansiveness, light and endless space. Considering that and the aforementioned barn admiration, it’s no surprise to learn that Kaufmann’s childhood was spent in Iowa.

“Growing up in Iowa gave me an innate sense of balance between the land, the climate, and the needs and demands of the people on both. That’s why I believe a home should sit lightly on the landscape and nestle into it rather than dominate it. I also believe a home should connect you to the surrounding environment rather than cut you off from it. So that’s how I design my homes: to create a connection between land, climate and people.”

Another non-surprise: Kaufmann’s favorite feature of the mkSolaire.

“I love the light,” she said. “The whole home is just infused with it from top to bottom. An abundance of natural light does more than increase a home’s energy efficiency – it make the home feel better and seem bigger. It makes life in that a home a joy.”

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Shelby Gonzalez is a freelance writer based in Bolinas, Calif. Her feature on Renzo Piano’s green-roofed California Academy of Sciences appeared in the Sept./Oct. 2008 issue.

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