Park House: Sustainable and comfortable living in a small space

Monday, June 21st, 2010

Owner: Doug Sandberg

Architect: Sandberg Architecture, http://parkhouseconstruction.blogspot.com

Building Use: Single-family home

Floor Area: 2600 square feet, including basement & garage

Number of Floors: 2 + basement/garage split level

6728 North Seeley Avenue, Chicago, IL 60645

By Katherine Darnstadt

“No way!”

That was the initial response from architect Doug Sandberg when his wife Catherine first mentioned an available 18-foot-wide infill lot as the site of their future single family home. However, upon visiting the corner lot adjacent to the Robert Black golf course and a Chicago Park District playground, the opportunities became apparent to create a home with accessible sustainable features and everyday affordability.

Doug started on what would be a year-long process of negotiations with the City of Chicago and the Park District to determine the appropriate building setback. During this process, Doug started on designs for a 15-foot-wide home, assuming the lot would be treated as a corner lot against an alley and would not need setbacks on both sides of the home. But the Park District wanted a setback and the building department wanted the exterior wall adjacent to the park to have a three hour fire rating; most single family homes have exterior walls that are rated for only two hours. The three hour wall would have eliminated many of the ample north facing windows overlooking the park that the home enjoys. Windows of that type are also not commercially available for residential use, which would have increased construction costs. The decision to incorporate setbacks on both sides of the home appeased the parties involved and became the driving force behind a design that could accommodate a family of four in now 12 ½ feet.

The construction process included using FSC-certified lumber, which was difficult to find locally when the project started as many suppliers were not familiar with the standard or program requirements. Vegetable oil form liners were used for the foundation and then a latex-based waterproofing was applied, which was a first for the contractors. The use of fiber cement as the exterior cladding reduced overall wall thickness, which helped save inches on the interior. The factory-painted cement board creates an extremely flush and tight exterior façade, but at times this confused neighbors who would ask when siding was going to be added. Working closely with the contractor, construction waste was minimized through efficient framing techniques and materials were reused throughout the project as needed including urea-formaldehyde-free plywood. Recycled cellulose insulations are used throughout and a low-albedo roof was designed to support a future green roof tray system to take advantage of the warm weather months while a geothermal heat pump was installed to manage the cold weather.

The split level home is organized around a central stair clad in recycled rubber that allows for spaces to take full advantage of the available width while being surrounded by windows on all sides. Healthy materials are incorporated throughout the home from cork carpet pads for the recycled nylon carpet to low or no-VOC paints, adhesives and sealants. The rooms are deceivingly spacious for their 12 foot width and no amenity is sacrificed, including the kitchen furnished with sleek Energy Star appliances and a low-flow faucet. Emphasis on water efficiency is apparent from the exterior rain barrels to three different brands of dual flush toilets so the family can test which performs the best.

The home ultimately achieved a three star rating under the Chicago Green Homes program though the process proved to be more difficult than expected. Doug originally started the certification process with Eric Olsen (founder of this web site and formerly with the City of Chicago) before his departure. The subsequent transition process had Doug filtering through four project managers before final review and certification could be completed. The family enjoys an easy and unobtrusive sustainable lifestyle, and their children can grow in a healthy home surrounded by nature in a dense urban environment. Catherine does say that living adjacent to two major neighborhood public amenities has a “fishbowl effect” but people approve of what they have done and are genuinely interested in home.

“They wave at us from the walking paths when we are having dinner,” Catherine said.

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