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Solution of the Month

Blue’s Clues: A Seattle architect pursues a cheap-and-green philosophy—with the help of vinyl windows and Hardiplank.

Joseph Hurley Architects
December 2010

By David Sokol

The Lehman Brothers collapse did well by Joseph Hurley, AIA, in his search for a new family home. A week after the 2008 debacle Hurley snatched up a 103-year-old house on 44th Street in Seattle with no competition to speak of; previously speculative developers had outbid all his full-price offers. Although Hurley was looking at a crumbling foundation and had only so much financial wherewithal, he rejected the notion that he could only shelter his brood sustainably at a premium.

44th Street home in Seattle
Photo © Martin Paul Photography
44th Street home in Seattle
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“Most people think a green home costs more, because media coverage of green homes has been cutting-edge and high-end. I had a seriously limited budget like most people, but also a core belief in sustainable construction,” Hurley says. His goal, then, was to create the most ecologically responsible replacement for the neglected property, largely by combining off-the-shelf materials and builder-grade construction with passive strategies and intelligent design in general.

Hurley’s first task was to dispose of the existing 550 square feet. The architectural salvage company Second Use cherry-picked the old building’s fir floors, cabinets, fixtures, doors and hardware, cabinets, and several windows before the remainder was carted away. “I think it’s preferable to expend the time and energy saving those things with a higher potential for economical reuse,” says Hurley, who had, in the gut renovation he previously completed for his family, hand-applied all demolished material to the redesigned space.

Surrounded by early-20th-century bungalows, Hurley also sought to balance contemporary expression with respect for context. So for the new 2,500-square-foot house he retained the slightly elevated entry porch sported by neighboring residences. Yet, responding to a 10-foot grade change on site, “the porch enters at a mezzanine level and descends into a double-height kitchen/dining/living space,” Hurley explains. “This main space faces south at grade and opens to the backyard through a continuous bank of six French doors.” A sextet of windows is installed immediately above these doors, and the large expanse of glass lets in low winter sun and warms the concrete slab-on-grade floor. Exterior screening reduces solar thermal gain in summer. All parts fell within the bounds of traditional carpentry.

In that same vein, Hurley reduced material usage by exposing construction. Floor joists and beams are in plain view, wiring runs through galvanized conduit and plumbing in black ductile iron, the south-facing windows sport no trim other than glazing stops, stair treads are 2-by-12-inch LVLs partly covered in rubber, and the hydronic heating system’s manifolds sit within an open frame in the stairwell.

To prove that prosaic builder materials may be reconceived sustainably, Hurley offers this mini-manifesto: “Vinyl windows are ubiquitous because of their perfect storm of features: They are dead-cheap, easy to install, and energy-efficient. They are also ugly. But why? Usually, the reason is that they are used in a way that is meant to mimic wood windows, which doesn’t work chiefly because these nail-flange windows are applied to the sheathing; this puts the plane of the glass in the same plane as the siding rather than within the wall, and it looks tacky in a faux Craftsman house. What to do? How about more modern houses where a taut skin would be an asset rather than a liability?” In the case of the new 44th Street residence, Hurley took full advantage of the affordable double-glazed windows, which are low-e coated and argon-filled. Again he paid homage to neighborhood context by arranging the fenestration in a traditional pattern, and insetting the windows 2 inches into the framing—with the siding 2 inches offset from that—to evoke thicker, older walls.

And what about that striped siding? The Hardiplank cladding, whose variation was inspired by traditionally laid brick, certainly meets the durability requirements of a sustainable home. Hurley adds, “It is part of a larger effort on my part to use builder-grade materials in a way that reflects their true strengths, rather than trying to pass them off as more expensive materials.” The duotone strategy, in other words, is a more honest portrayal of the material, which should aesthetically convince the Hurleys’ successors to keep the siding for its full lifespan. More obviously sustainable: The Hardiplank skin is a rainscreen, as well as part of a super-insulated building envelope.

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