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Building on History
Look at the homes on your block, in your neighborhood or pretty much anywhere else around the world today, and chances are they all are the same basic shape. Sure, you might notice a few A-frames here and there, or perhaps a postmodern architectural wonder that breaks the design mold. But pretty much every home you’ll see, whether it’s a ranch, cape, Colonial, Victorian, log cabin, bungalow, cottage or whatever, is essentially a box — that is, a box-like dwelling either square or rectangular in shape, or some combination of the form.
But is that boxy design as green as possible? Eli Attia thinks not. An internationally recognized architect known primarily for designing modern skyscrapers in New York, San Francisco and Houston, as well as in South America and Israel, Attia has recently turned his attention to green residential design.
When designing skyscrapers, Attia focused on the environmental impact of those buildings as well as their shape, breaking out of the shoebox form that had dominated tall-building design for much of the second half of the 20th century. He has approached residential design in the same way.
The result is the Roundhouse, which he adamantly believes is a better model for creating an eco-friendly, energy-efficient home. And he’s out to prove it.
Building on History
“Look at the dwellings [that were being built] 20,000 years ago,” says Attia, who is based in Santa Monica, Calif. “They were round — the igloo, the teepee and the yurt.” In fact, a number of famous buildings constructed throughout history were built in the round, Attia notes, including the Globe Theatre in London, the Coliseum and Pantheon in Rome, the Temple of Heaven in China, plus any number of round barns in upstate New York and throughout the Midwest.
There is nothing new about the round form. In nature, there are no single linear forms. In functionality and strength, the roundhouse has passed the test of time in most civilizations on earth.
Certainly, what we know about circular structures is this: They are inherently more energy-efficient than square or rectangular shapes, and it’s easy to understand why — compared to a square, there is approximately 15 percent less outside wall area required with a circle to enclose the same amount of space. And, subsequently, there is 15 percent less area through which a structure can gain or lose heated or cooled air.
“The square came into existence when we needed close, compact houses that butted up against each other [in cities],” Attia explains. “Round forms can’t be put together.” As a result, the way we build homes has remained unchanged for more than a millennium. And that’s the problem.
“Construction is an antiquated and broken process,” Attia asserts. “Home construction is too costly and time consuming. It takes about the same amount of time to build a 2,000-square-foot home as it takes to build a skyscraper 50 stories high.”
So what’s the solution? “We need only to look to nature and history for building lessons,” Attia explains.
The first architect to design a modern commercial building that employed a round footprint, Attia has experience on his side. Among other structures, he designed 101 California Street, a 48-story office building that soars above pedestrian traffic in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown financial district.
In the 1970s, while serving as the right-hand man for architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005), designer of the famous Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., Attia built magnificent high-rise structures that included Pennzoil Place in Houston, the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and the Millennium Hilton Hotel at the Trade
Center in New York.
Translating what he’d learned over a 40-year architectural career designing commercial buildings to the field of residential design, Attia has created the first-of-its-kind, all-glass Roundhouse, scheduled to break ground in Beverly Hills, Calif., in February 2008.
The Roundhouse site is located on tree-lined, narrow and twisting Benedict Canyon Drive, on a flat 3.25-acre parcel of land. Upon completion, the home will be 15,000 square feet in size, and will serve as a representation of a new way to think about both design and construction.
If this obviously large house is beyond the pocketbook of most, Attia has an answer for that, too. “One of the beauties of this design is that it is scalable,” he notes. “This house can be built in any size.”
The Ultimate Green Machine
This first Roundhouse will be a three-story structure, with two main floors and a basement, and will be built using glass, steel and concrete. Balconies will be located on the south side of the structure to take advantage of panoramic sunrise-to-sunset views.
Attia will incorporate green features and design throughout the structure. Typically, when building green, “almost everyone has a tendency to think in immediate terms, such as harvested woods or recycled materials,” says project developer Uri Attia, who is Attia’s son. However, there are other green factors that will not be so easily noticeable in the Roundhouse.
For example, the structure will be easily adaptable, so owners can make necessary changes to the home in the future. “By thinking ahead, you can reduce life-cycle materials usage and also minimize the hassle of future repairs and renovations,” Uri explains. Once the house is complete, Uri notes that it will “get a very high score from the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] rating system,” attesting to the home’s green pedigree.
To maintain the home’s exterior, all it will take is the ability to handle a water hose. “Glass is the ultimate durable material,” says Eli. “It doesn’t absorb dirt, you don’t have to paint it, it doesn’t rot like wood and won’t crack like vinyl.” The inside, he notes, will be just as easy to maintain. When a child “decorates” an interior wall with a crayon, for instance, a homeowner typically has to repaint the wall. However, with the Roundhouse, you simply wipe the crayon marks off the glass.
Beyond that, the Roundhouse will feature a long list of innovative features designed to improve the home’s efficiency, flexibility and durability, including:
• An interior core for mechanical and electrical services, which will leave the living spaces free of structures or
services that can interrupt the design
• A live green roof, which will help insulate the home as well as add 5,000 square feet of walkable space
• A rainwater collection system, which will be used to cool the home as well as irrigate the surrounding landscape
• Recycled glass throughout the home
• A solar photovoltaic system to generate electricity
• Smart windows that manage how much light, solar energy and outside air are captured and allowed inside
• A climate management system that will maintain the proper flow of air throughout the house.
In addition, the home’s design will result in a strong indoor-outdoor connection, with plenty of daylight throughout the home, which will help reduce electrical bills.
A New Methodology
All major components used to construct the home will be manufactured in a factory and trucked to the site for assembly. This will provide a number of benefits, notes Attia. For instance, by creating the components in a controlled environment, they will not be affected by rain, snow and other weather elements. It also will reduce waste, since scrap materials at the manufacturing plant can be retained and recycled, instead of tossed onto the discard pile. In addition, says Attia, “It cuts down the time it takes to put the house together.”
Perhaps most importantly, it’s expected that the Roundhouse will require about 50 percent fewer building materials, when compared to typical home construction. It’s estimated that a typical box-style house requires the lumber provided by an entire acre of land. But the Roundhouse will be framed with recycled steel, which requires fewer resources to manufacture. In addition, the steel frame will be less susceptible to water damage, won’t burn and will be much more resilient and durable than wood. And at the end of the house’s lifecycle, the steel can once again be recycled.
It all results in a home that seeks to change the way we build, using what Attia calls “a new methodology.” In designing the Roundhouse, Attia set out to create a structure that is more durable and more efficient to build, with a minimized carbon footprint and minimal energy requirements, wrapped in an aesthetically pleasing design — and a structure that can easily be adapted to just about any size, budget requirement or personal taste. It seems clear that Eli Attia’s Roundhouse is destined to make green living easy, comfortable and definitely less boxy for many years to come.
Judith Stock writes frequently for Smart HomeOwner. She’s based in Los Angeles.