Are green, architecturally designed developments the answer to the problem of affordable housing in Vermont? Members of Vermont CORA (Congress of Residential Architects) from across the state have spent the last two years collaborating on their own interpretations of that architectural Holy Grail: housing that is green and, yes, affordable.
Last Wednesday, Burlington's Mayor Kiss welcomed a crowd of builders, developers, architects and interested citizens to browse the fruits of the architectural teams' labors, and to kick off a panel discussion on the feasibility of building these designs in Vermont.
The walls of the Metropolitan Gallery in Burlington City Hall were lined with poster-sized boards depicting exterior and interior designs, elevations and landscape features for five different developments. The crowd consumed snacks and drinks while viewing the designs, and then assembled in a large conference room for discussion.
The architects on the panel - John Connell of 2Morrow Studio, Daniel Johnson of Watershed Studio, Frank Guillot of GVV Architects, Ramsay Gourd of Ramsay Gourd Architects, and Joseph Cincotta of LineSync Architecture - took turns introducing their designs and highlighting the unique features of their developments. "Initially, our challenge was to design a housing development that would be green, affordable and sustainable," began Connell, a founder of Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren. His 2Morrow Studio is also a founding member of CORA. "But after two meetings, we realized that affordability would require working with manufactured systems."
Representatives from several modular manufacturers chosen to partner with the architectural teams were also among the panelists, including Eric Tremblay from Demtech of Canada and Doug Hounsell from Customized Structures Incorporated (CSI) in New Hampshire.
The housing developments incorporated from 22 to 55 units, clustered on a 4-acre parcel of property. One prominent "green" feature in Guillot's design was a flat, vegetative roof. That led audience member Winthrop Smith Jr., president of Sugarbush Resort, to prod the architect gently: "I don't know about you, but we get a lot of snow down in the Mad River Valley. How does your flat roof handle the snow?"
"All of my buildings use vegetative roofs," answered Guillot. "They absorb 50 to 75 percent of rainfall, and delay water excess four to five hours. These roofs reduce the cooling load in the summer . . . and in winter, the snow just sits there . . . Indigenous plants line the roof, similar to what is growing at the top of Camel's Hump."
Another design centered on a glass-enclosed atrium filled with plants and trees that offered tenants a shared indoor/outdoor environment.
At a peer review board this past summer in Manchester, all five of these designs earned Gold certifications - and one earned Platinum - under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating. The peer board did express concern, however, about just how "affordable" the units actually were. That question came up at Wednesday's discussion as well.
"What is one of the biggest ways to lose money in construction?" posited Connell. "You're paying your crew to wait around for the plumber, or for the electrician. With modular housing, all that interior work is done. It's a contained cost."
"Doesn't the modular method do a disservice to Vermonters by cutting out local labor?" challenged another audience member.
"No," responded Connell. "The modular systems are built at their factories, but local labor is required to put it all together."
The architectural designs are on display through November 15 in Burlington City Hall, after which they will travel to other parts of the state.
And this Friday, November 16, City Hall builds on that exhibit by hosting a reception for another display of innovative architecture: the 2007 American Institute for Architects Vermont Design Competition. Aspiring architects from around the state will exhibit 51 proposals on boards. The public will have an opportunity to vote for the People's Choice Award - which, along with jury selections, will be presented at AIA Vermont's annual meeting on December 6. The designs can be seen in Burlington through the end of November. Visit www.aiavt.org for more info.