Plans take environment into consideration

Local architects and housing construction experts report new trends emerging in home design and building — trends that indicate Keys’ property owners are placing a high priority on efficiency.

And whether the home is constructed onsite or is a system-built modular, architects and builders are responding to their customers’ demands for cost-effective, healthy and earth-friendly housing.

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders, nearly two-thirds of survey respondents cited reduced energy costs as their most important consideration when planning their new home, followed by a healthier habitat and a desire to protect the environment.

All about ‘green’

Key West architect Michael Miller said that green construction is the most prevalent trend in home design not only across the country, but also in the Keys – and people are willing to pay some extra money up front to achieve it.

“As of now, [green construction] adds approximately 15-percent to the cost of construction, but that’s offset during the life of the house,” Miller said. “In fact, over the lifetime of the house, it’s cheaper.”

Miller said solar panels can power anything that uses electricity in and around the home, and more efficient air conditioning and ceiling fans are being manufactured and installed to keep houses cooler for less. But local architects like Miller are designing homes that take staying cool to an even higher level.

“We can design the house so we don’t need air conditioning at all,” Miller said. “Even in the Keys, it can be done.”

Miller suggests building houses under large evergreen trees – or at least planting some specimens around the perimeter for the future. He says trees alone can lower a home’s internal temperature by 10 degrees.

“This was something farmers did automatically — planting windbreaks and shade trees,” Miller said.

Miller said careful placement of windows and other openings can make a house cooler, too, so he tries to avoid placing a lot of openings on the south and west sides of Keys homes, where the sun’s heat is the most intense.

Other upgrades Miller recommends to conserve energy are insulated glass windows that reflect radiant heat, and thicker “double envelope” walls that provide insulation.

Watering your roof?

And Miller thinks one nationwide trend that has made an appearance in the Keys — the rooftop garden — is a wonderful way to protect the environment and also enhance the beauty and efficiency of a home.

Architect Laird Ueberroth installed such a garden on his Key West home’s roof.

“It’s perfect for Key West where we have such tiny yards with dense canopy,” Ueberroth said. “You can go up on the roof above the canopy and it’s quite appealing.”

Ueberroth had nine inches of soil situated atop his house, which insulates the home. His rooftop garden absorbs the sun’s heat, making his house cooler — and quieter — and making Key West’s air cleaner, since the plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.

Another trend in the great outdoors is kitchens, which Miller says are a popular feature in new home construction.

“I see people using fewer appliances. I know at my house we grill as much as we put in the oven,” Miller said. “So outdoor kitchens are a trend, and not just for throwing parties on the terrace but to save energy costs.”

Conserving space

Obviously, the larger a home is, the more it will cost to build, maintain and keep cool. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the size of homes has steadily increased nationwide since the 1970s, when the average finished area of new homes was around 1,500 square feet. In 2005, home size had increased to 2,434 square feet.

But Nancy Perez Miller, an architect in Islamorada, said she has begun to see an interesting trend emerging in the Keys – downsizing.

“The downsizing housing trend has made it to the Keys,” Perez Miller said. “Even though the square footage is less, we tend to provide the same number of spaces — for example, small bedrooms.”

Perez Miller said clients are constructing smaller homes because they cost less to build and maintain.

“(Downsizing) is also a green design strategy with a minimum footprint and less damage to the environment,” she said. “It’s all about balance.”