Modern Construction Technology:
The NowHouse Project –
... For the past four and a half years, I've been reporting from the land of Surreal Estate -- covering everything from San Francisco's homelessness battles to staging for billionaires to your average first-time buyer who bought an S/M-dungeon fixer-upper -- exclusively for SFGate.com. This week, the column debuts in print for the first time in an abbreviated form in The Chronicle's Sunday real estate section and changes its online publication date from Tuesdays to Fridays. As always, I invite your comments, criticism and crackpot theories to add to my own.
For decades, San Francisco has been a hub of high-tech innovation and the spinning wheel of lifestyle mania. (Unabashed Foodie-ism? Sexual liberation? Cultural creativity? We've got it all.) Given this plethora of "living styles" and our abundance of engineerial spirit, you would think Bay Area would be a center of housing inventiveness.
But it isn't. On the edges of the Bay Area, suburban sprawl is replicating with the same generic monotony as in San Fernando Valley. In the inner cities, the citizenry has generally opposed new housing ideas in an attempt to preserve the historicity of old neighborhoods. The result is that while there are a few eco-friendly developments with solar roofs, and an occasional architectural wonder, our built environment doesn't generally reflect the Bay Area's reputation for visionary thinking.
But if the NowHouse, a high-tech, green and affordable demonstration home that opens today in an SBC Park parking lot, offers any indication, the Bay Area may be finally growing a residential-design and -construction movement worthy of its utopian denizens.
The brainchild of technology wunderkind Scott Redmond, the NowHouse brings together more than a hundred corporate sponsors and several government agencies eager to educate the public and the construction industry about a safer and greener -- and, yes, cheaper -- way of building new homes. Redmond, a graduate of San Francisco State University in sociology and cultural anthropology, has been kicking around the Bay Area for decades, tinkering in everything from material science to avionics, from electromechanics to broadcast technologies. Among his many patents is a virtual-reality product, a consumer hydrogen-based energy system and some of the first wearable computers. But he turned his attention to home building when he finally felt the nesting urge himself.
"I wanted to build a house," said the whiz kid, whose life as a tenant stretched to more than a quarter century while, he admitted, he was "waiting for the market to drop."
Over the years, he ferreted away ideas he wanted to incorporate into what he called the "ultimate house." When he heard Allison Arieff, editor of San Francisco-based Dwell magazine, speak at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on the need for a system to create an affordable green home-building industry, he decided this would be his next project. So, in 2002, with partners Kirk McAfee and Toby Long, he founded CleverHomes -- a home-design/construction-systems company that delivers eco-friendly, modernist homes precut and ready for assemblage.
After running an ad in Dwell, the young company was besieged with calls and began catering to wealthy clients with custom-designed homes that ran more than $600,000, minus the land. But insofar as its initial impetus was concerned, the company had not yet succeeded. Redmond himself could not afford these prices.
"The only way to bring the price down was to fix the floor plan," he explained one bright morning on the construction site last week. "Then we asked all the manufacturers to price their products as if they were selling 1,000 homes."
The result is the NowHouse, an elegant, modernist, 2,400-square-foot eco-invention designed by Long, an architect, with two stories, new-growth bamboo floors, solar panels, wind energy, cork floors and, as Redmond puts it, "150 cool, neat or amazing things."
Co-sponsored with CNET, which has furnished the home with enough high-tech gizmos and gadgets to babysit Bill Gates on speed, the NowHouse is also a quintessential smart house, in which all the digital appliances and computers and media are wired into an integrated system. It is also an "open home," in the sense that Redmond hopes to sell the NowHouse and 999 clones for $116,000 for the core kit or $200,000 including all interior finishes. (Neither price includes labor.)
But the most novel feature of the NowHouse is its designed flexibility. It can be "grown" in stages, following the needs of the residents. A small single-story house can be later turned into a two-story dwelling with a loft-ceiled living room using the reattachable roof and moveable walls. (To watch a virtual simulation, go to http://www.nowhouse.org/.) "You can order the second story and go away to Europe for a week and a half and come back and have this," Redmond said, walking through the spacious upper level, with its loft family room and master suite.
Redmond managed this versatility through the use of factory-built walls made of recycled wood and eco-friendly steam-expanded foam insulation. According to Redmond, the insulated panels (precut by enormous robots) are strong enough to withstand 160-mile-an-hour winds and far more fire and earthquake resistant than stick-frame buildings. Requiring no drywall and no expert carpentry crew, they offer a quicker, greener and cheaper solution to traditional building.
Redmond's promotion of the NowHouse as an affordable option, however, doesn't so much elide the truth as bend it. If one were to go out and build this home from scratch and add his rather high-quality interior finishes (with fine bamboo cabinets and KitchenAid appliances), the end result would be affordable only for the very affluent. Through quantity discounts, a fixed floor plan and Redmond's patent-pending wall system, though, the NowHouse brings the price of this higher-quality home within the reach of a more middle-class home buyer. Whereas most new construction in the Bay Area begins at about $200 per square foot, the equivalent price for a NowHouse is about $150. If home buyers are willing to buy cheaper appliances and finishes or to do some of the assemblage themselves (a prospect Redmond says is possible because of the wall system), they can bring the price down even farther.
Even at these prices, though, building a new home on a piece of land is a daunting task that usually requires three kinds of loans and a lot of financial gymnastics. To alleviate these woes, McAfee, the company's CFO, created CleverFinance, which offers all-in-one loans that include preconstruction and construction financing and mortgage loans for a new NowHouse construction.
In a sense, the multifarious NowHouse is trying to be all things to all people. For the luxury builder or customer, the home is thoroughly smart, wired throughout for security and digital systems. For the impassioned environmentalist, the house will provide all the components of a pioneering eco-friendly living. For the modernist aesthete, it will sate the appetite for open rooms and sleek lines. Even the social activist can admire it: in coordination with San Francisco's Program for Environmental Justice, the house was built as part of a job-training program for low-income residents, and proceeds (from the entrance fee) will benefit Friends of the Urban Forest, which is landscaping the site.
But for middle-class tenants who yearn to make their first home fulfill their creative and political ideals while still not breaking their bank, the NowHouse may be more of a NotQuiteNowHouse. Why? The thing that makes housing so outrageous in the Bay Area is the price of land, not of buildings. To illustrate the point, there's a century-old garage -- no plumbing, no electricity -- for sale a block away from my home for $395,000. Yes, that's the price of a very small lot in Bernal Heights.
Even so, there is still a lot about the NowHouse that is in synch with the larger vision of San Francisco becoming a breeding ground for visionary building. Just this week, the San Francisco Department of the Environment announced the City's commitment that all municipal buildings consisting of more than 5,000 square feet of floor space incorporate renewable energy, water conservation and green building materials. According to Mark Palmer, the city's Green Building coordinator, Treasure Island is shaping up to become a green model city, with 2,800 residential units (934 of them slated to be affordable). And plans are afoot to build 1,600 homes with solar panels in Hunters Point.
If the NowHouse is more like a NeverlandHouse for most of us, so be it. Its power will be to catch the city technocrats' imagination, to push the average home remodeler to reconsider his or her sprinkler system and to challenge the suburban builder to learn that old-growth lumber and toxic carpets are not the only path to profit. And for those of you who can manage to buy a NowHouse now, keep me on your invite list. The place will make the biggest cocktail-party conversation piece ever invented.