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Whole House Design

It's the newest buzz in homebuilding, though it's nothing new to the most innovative builders, who have been practicing it quietly for years.

When all the upgrades have been exhausted, when all the homes in the neighborhood are perfectly big, or perfectly not-so-big, when all the lawns are creatively manicured...what's really left to keep a body ahead of the Joneses? More importantly, to look a whole lot smarter -- and be a whole lot more comfortable -- than the Joneses?

It's a beautiful thing called whole house design. Think of it as the "gestalt" of homebuilding. It's the ultimate upgrade.

Standard homebuilding and remodeling is to whole house design as leftovers night is to a six course gourmet meal. We all understand leftovers night. It's about getting everyone fed and using what's on the shelf. It gets the job done.

Food on the table imageBut that gourmet meal is something else all together. It's the work of a master who understands how flavors layer upon each other for an effect that is greater than the sum of its parts. It reflects an understanding of how to complement a good structure with all the right components to bring out the very best. Gourmet meals aren't about getting fed. They're about good living.

Taking it out of the kitchen: whole house design is seeing the forest for the trees. Without it, we float along oblivious of the principle of unintended consequences.

As science journalist Edward Tenner has observed, the endless pursuit of a more comfortable living environment carries with it "revenge effects." Simply put: Tinkering with the system over here can have consequences over there that we never even thought of.

What does this mean for our homes? First, we have to start by understanding that a house is a system: a change in one part of the house system will impact other parts. So while it's important to practice good air sealing, for example, it should be done with a thorough understanding of the impact it will have on the size of the HVAC system needed for the home. Otherwise, that laudable instinct to maximize energy efficiency could become tomorrow's mold problem. If we apply the principles of whole house design, we strategically select a handful of small upgrades to achieve results beyond the benefits of the component parts. So we end up with more than just a well-sealed home; we've cut costs by optimizing the size of our HVAC system, removed the risk of a mold problem and made the ambient temperature of the home more comfortable. (Smell that boeuf bourguignon?)

It means building science is nothing to sneeze at. It's the discipline of envisioning all the working parts reacting with each other, and understanding their interdependencies, subsystems, and the larger implications of every choice.

Find a builder or remodeler who takes it seriously--and you'll take yourself out of the pack.

Content updated on 5/8/2006

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