Row homes could be greatly improved to address climate change.

Row homes could be greatly improved to address climate change.

by Diane M. Fiske

A monthly column about architecture, planning, and urban design.

The row house was front and center last month as part of the myriad discussions about building design at the Pennsylvania Convention Center when about 10,000 architects came to town for the annual three-day American Institute of Architects national convention, which was held in Philadelphia this year.

A Philadelphia staple, from the elegant in Chestnut Hill to the trinities in other neighborhoods, the row house and how it would stand up to the increased temperatures of global warming was discussed by two Philadelphia architects in a presentation offering different views of the role of sustainable design in the battle against the planet’s increasing temperature.

Standing in front of a screen display of an aerial view of Philadelphia showing hundreds of three-story row houses, Mt. Airy resident Tim McDonald, a principal of the architectural firm Onion Flats, which specializes in sustainable design, said, row homes can be much more sustainable.

“Even existing homes can go from 98,000 energy consumption to zero,” he said.

McDonald said this could be accomplished by taking the existing homes, even those built as much as 100 years ago, and applying today’s technology

“There has been a terrific response,” McDonald said. “We tighten insulation to keep heat in and ventilate to allow fresh air in. Adding a green roof does a lot to increase energy conservation.”

He said “there is a target of 10 years” to increase awareness while hopefully something can be done to alleviate some of the consequences of global warming.

“We need radical rethinking of the role of buildings and their density in places like Philadelphia,” McDonald said, “The row house is about 1,900 square feet, and the typical one uses 39,000 kilowatt hours a year. With insulation, ventilation and a green roof it could be converted to a passive house using much less energy.”

He added that the immediate result could be very low utility bills. A problem, of course, is making the conversion affordable for lower income homeowners.

Architect Brian Phillips, of Interface Architects, another specialist in sustainable design, disagreed with McDonald on any immediate remedy for global warming.

“Converting our houses will make us more comfortable and a sustainable or high performing house will make us happier and reduce the cost of heating and cooling our homes, he said. “But the thing about global warming is that it takes place very slowly, and what we are experiencing is the result of wood and coal burning of generations ago. We are bringing Fort Lauderdale weather up here.

“It makes good economic sense to try to correct the problem and make existing houses more sustainable, but the problem was created slowly and won’t be cured quickly.”

He added that Philadelphia is filled with three-story row houses, which were cost effective to build, but it would make more sense now to build more high rises. According to the AIA, there are a few signs that help might be coming. More than 1,000 architects, builders and consultants have received what is called passive house training in the United States and hundreds of houses or multifamily projects with an eye towards sustainability are in the works.

The passive house concept was developed in 1990 based on research by the U.S. Department of Energy, which said that good passive design could reduce the thermal load of a building by 90 percent through an airtight envelope, thick pane windows and heat recovery ventilation.

The basic idea is that these houses are so airtight that warm air does not leak out in the winter and cool air does not escape in the summer. Windows are three panes thick. Stale indoor air is exchanged for outdoor air without altering the indoor temperature.

“This will help our grandchildren and great grandchildren,” Phillips said of passive design. “We have to rethink our moves and realize that sustainable design will work in the future to help correct global warming.”

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