High Performance Jewel Box: Overlooking Lake Michigan, the OS House finds balance in sustainability and modern design.
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When it comes to Johnsen Schmaling Architects’ OS House, the LEED Platinum moniker comes as a surprise. Its cool cubist form belies a sustainable agenda that is all but invisible. Sebastian Schmaling, AIA, and Brian Johnsen, AIA, meant it that way, concurring that the goal was to avoid green pronouncements, which “allowed us total control over the aesthetics and architecture, instead of being controlled by green technologies,” Schmaling explains.
Located in industrial Racine, Wisconsin, the 1,948-square-foot, three-bedroom primary residence for couple Robert Osborne and Vera Scekic and their twins occupies a small lot overlooking Lake Michigan. Scekic’s mother lives in town and, wishing to be near her, the family relocated their primary residence here from Chicago, 75 miles south. The owners planned the house to reflect an ideology of environmental stewardship, where performance, good or bad, could be tested and shared with others. “We are keeping the utility bills and plan on publishing a Web site about the house that includes updated information on energy usage and generation,” explains Osborne.
Their interest in sustainability did not keep them from wholeheartedly embracing modern design in the house, which, surprisingly, is very much alive in Racine. Right down the road is Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1936 Johnson’s Wax Administrative building and a handful of other Wright projects are located in town. Not everyone in Racine appreciates modernism, however, and some locals feel the house stands out awkwardly in the historic district it occupies. But design is expressed in many ways, Schmaling points out: “The OS House is part of a neighborhood encompassing a variety of architectural periods: mid-19th-century Italianate, French Second Empire, Tudor Revival, Queen Anne, Arts and Crafts, Prairie School. The argument that a new building should be a stylistic echo of some elusive predominant neighborhood style is flawed.”
Design drama is nothing new to Johnsen and Schmaling. Their Downtown Bar in Milwaukee was featured on the cover of Architectural Record (September 2008), and their Camouflage and Ferrous houses have won awards. This is in fact what got the owners’ attention. “We found the architects through their prior Wisconsin AIA awards. We felt they could design the type of home we were looking for,” comments Scekic.
The house’s numerous sustainable features include one PV panel in the backyard and one mounted on the roof, laid flat, tucked low beneath the parapet, hidden from view. Together, they supply electricity back to the grid. Due to an incentive by the local utility, “every kilowatt the PVs produce provides the owners twice the value,” explains Dean Wolff, Milwaukee Solar. Also in the yard is a solar-thermal panel “supplying about half the family’s needs, while an on-demand tankless water heater provides the rest,” continues Wolff.
The house has a closed-loop geothermal system, which brings 55 degree temperatures from the Earth inside to warm or cool fluid that circulates to a heat pump. Insulation with an R-value of 35 contributes to comfort levels. “The spray foam insulation is so thorough, it fills any crack sheathing the house,” remarks Johnsen. Air tightness was confirmed by the blower door test, which showed “an impressive 298 CFM50 of air leakage (the maximum target for this size house is 1983 CFM50). One sees from the numbers the tight construction,” explains Jim Maletta of North Star Energy Consulting.
From the beginning the owners and architects wanted high performance in a light-filled box. While “it’s not the Farnsworth house (the top floor is mostly opaque),” says Johnsen, it still appears like “a transparent plinth that opens up to views of the lake,” continues Schmaling. We all know that glazing can be an enemy of efficiency, especially in the cold climate of Wisconsin. Performance rater Maletta admitted to participating in a friendly debate about the glass when planning the house with the team, but “when I did the initial computer modeling, the numbers looked good, so I didn’t give them too much grief about it,” he jokes. While triple glazing would have helped performance, it doubled the cost of the windows. There were other issues with triple glazing including “the noticeable decrease in transparency as well as size limitations since triple glazing weighs more,” Schmaling added. Ultimately, the team used Energy Star-rated low-e, argon-filled double-glazed windows.
Bright colors on the window frames contrast with the white and gray facade. Two voided volumes upstairs accommodate porches with screens made from thin metal rods that move in the breeze “like a Bertola sculpture,” describes Schmaling.
The house’s success in harmonizing design with functionality is augmented by its liveability and comfort. “The house is quieter [than a typical house], and there are fewer drafts,” Osborne relates. While green technologies are many, its humble size and careful siting are a testament to the successful balance of architectural control with prescriptive performance design.