The main reason we ventured to Washington D.C. and the National Building Museum was the museum's nearly year-long Green House exhibit. The exhibit, which runs through June 3, 2007 is not large but is filled with information on green basics, energy-saving building techniques, and recycled or sustainable materials, and products.

The exhibit features five principles of sustainability and it is from these five principles that the information and displays radiate:

  • Optimizing Use of the Sun
  • Improving Indoor Air Quality
  • Using the Land Responsibly
  • Creating High-Performance and Moisture-Resistant Houses
  • Wisely Using the Earth's Natural Resources

The centerpiece of the Green House exhibit is the Glide House. Designed in 2004, 10 Glide Houses have been built throughout the country by Northern California architect Michelle Kaufman and her company. The houses range from one to four bedrooms and 672 to 1016 sq. ft. The National Building Museum features a full scale partial Glide House which includes a kitchen, bath, and a main living/sitting area.

Glide Houses are factory built and prices begin at $132 psf excluding the cost of solar panels and transportation to the building site. Glide Houses feature a narrow footprint which facilitates cross ventilation in all rooms and also allows natural light to penetrate further into the living spaces. The roof is sloped to receive solar panels and to accommodate clerestory windows that let in a great deal of natural light but the roof has an overhang to shade the windows from the summer sun.

The walls and roof are made of structurally insulated panels or SIPS which is a construction system composed of extra-thick airtight panels filled with foam. This construction method is known for its mold resistance and insulating characteristics.

The house features abundant glass but Ms. Kaufman also has designed a variation that is built around a courtyard for small lots where exterior glass would create privacy issues.

The Glide House's energy efficiency is dependent to a large degree on how the house is situated on its lot. To illustrate the importance of this concept the Green house displays a heliodon or "sun machine." Heliodons are devices used by architects to simulate the sun's movement in relation to a structure and measure the impact of sun and shade on heating and cooling. Heliodons can be configured to observe sunlight and shading patterns for a sunny day in any part of the world and this one is designed specifically for the Washington, D.C. area. Visitors can manipulate the position of a model Glide House on a lot and observe the effect the sun has the house during different hours of the day and times of the year.

Even though the model Glide House was located deep within the museum, it had an unmistakable sense of lightness in every sense of the word. Surfaces were uncluttered, storage was exceptional, and the interior materials which were almost universally recycled or renewable, had a feeling of airiness but did not feel at all insubstantial.

As a visitor walks through the Glide House signs on the walls, cabinets, appliances, and so forth explain features and credit the manufacturers, almost all of whom donated their products for display. Some were quite amazing although it was not always clear whether they are concepts or prototypes and how many are widely available. For example, lighting was with energy-efficient fluorescents but the wiring, and I hope I got this right, was through fiber optics which does not generate heat or ultra-violet light. It uses 25 percent less energy for lighting and lowers AC requirements.

This was an example of a product that may be a prototype. I visited the manufacturer's web sites and found no mention of whole-house wiring; the company specializes in museum displays. Still, it was pretty neat and clearly a possibility for the future.

Other systems utilized in the Glide House include a tankless water heater which heats water on demand rather than keeping a huge tank hot 24/7 and a high velocity HVAC system which allows gentle mixing of air in each room, eliminating hot and cold spots and increasing energy efficiency by 30 percent..

Appliances throughout the house were highly energy efficient and some of the statistics were startling. For example, energy smart clothes washers use 1/2 the water per load and can save consumers $110 per year. A spectacular four burner solid surface electric stove was said to be 98 percent composed of recycled materials. Our favorite little sign on a beautiful side-by-side refrigerator stated "Replacing a refrigerator purchased in 1990 with a new energy efficient model will save enough energy in a year to light a home for 4-1/2 months. New refrigerators take the same amount of energy to run as a 75 watt lamp." A 75 watt lamp!!!!

The kitchen countertops demanded to be touched, and felt and looked like leather. Instead they were concrete and recycled paper fiber composite. A phrase that kept running through my head was "doing good while looking fantastic." Sorry, this may not be the last time you hear it.

There were other neat things - some having little to do with green housing but showing the possibilities of recycling in all aspects of our lives. Visitors were invited to open the kitchen drawers and in each was a product such as a wastebasket and small art boxes made of recycled magazines. There was a multi-purpose radio with hand-cranked power generation (these are widely available), athletic shoes with coconut fiber insoles, and cooking utensils made with quick-growing bamboo. Lighting fixtures, dishes, and all of the floors in the Glide House are also bamboo.

Furniture and many accessories were upholstered with recycled polyester or made of organic cotton, or other sustainable materials. Most of the wooden furniture frames were assembled with water soluble glue for reasons to be explained later.

And in one kitchen drawer was a shiny and colorful evening clutch, made entirely out of recycled candy wrappers.

There was much more to the Green House exhibit than Glide House and we will review some of the other products and talk about some of the environmental concepts which are perhaps not as well known as solar heating in an upcoming article.