In recent years, green building techniques have turned the worlds of traditional architecture and construction on their heads. A boom in sustainable building products as well as sustainable building practices have changed the way many see the future of home building. 

Here in Oak Park, where many homes are over 100 years old, it might seem that the most efficient thing going is energy-efficient light bulbs. But a home going up on the 600 block of Marion Street proves that Oak Park may be the perfect place for a sustainable new home. 

Located on a block of brick four-squares and tidy bungalows, this rising structure illustrates a number of trends in both construction and consumer demand. The work of Oak Park architect John Schiess and Michigan-based sub-contractor Rick Rottschafer points to a world that is changing rapidly.

Turning a new leaf

Not only does green building represent a changing industry, it also represents a new direction for Schiess. His name may be familiar to many in Oak Park. Before the real estate recession, he was a prominent developer in the area, and designed such buildings as the Opera Club at Marion Street and South Boulevard (where the Marion Street Cheese Market is located). But his career took quite a turn during the Great Recession. 

“In our micro-world, 2008 was the bottom of the bottom,” Schiess recalls. “The slide had started in 2006, and 2008 was when we said we had to do work differently. We met with all of our contacts in the industry, and we all came to the conclusion that sustainable, energy-efficient homes were the new market. We even came up with a profile of the kind of home buyer who would be interested in these kinds of homes.”

Imagine Schiess’ surprise when a client from his own neighborhood walked in and fit the profile. 

“With our first clients, we hit the bullseye,” he said. We learned early on that they were very engaged and knowledgeable in materials selection, room design, building systems and the exterior of green homes. They were very, very specific, and that’s fairly rare. In that sense, it was exciting and extremely fun to work on this project.”

A different design process

Schiess notes that one of the keys to building a greener home is the use of structural, insulated panels (SIPS) which take the place of the traditional framing process, plus a geothermal heating and cooling system instead of a traditional HVAC system. The use of these necessitated an entirely different kind of architectural process from the get-go.

“Before the drawings were even finished,” he recalls, “we had to engage the SIPS manufacturers to make sure they had the exact measurements of our designs. We also had to engage the geothermal system installers beforehand. They drive pipes about 100 feet into the ground on a diagonal, so we had to make sure we planned around that.”

All of this planning makes for a high-quality process says Schiess. “One feature that really stands out is the quality control. You take the architectural drawings, render them into a computer, and the technology makes very precise cuts in a factory setting. You cut out a lot of human error.”

The SIPS process

Sub-contractor Rottschafer of Rick Rottschafer Building LLC in Zeeland, Mich., who installed the SIPS panels on the home, likens the design to that of an insulated cooler. “SIPS are basically two layers of oriented strand board (OSB) with a solid, expanded polystyrene core in between — basically what coffee cups are made of. The foam is laminated to the OSB with industrial strength adhesive. What makes them so efficient is that you have no thermal breaks for studs. You can have up to 4-foot openings and incorporate them into a panel without losing the thermal qualities.”

Rottschafer has been using SIPS, manufactured by the Michigan-based Porter Corporation, for over 18 years, since his local lumber yard learned about the product. “My wife and I love timber frame houses built like old barns, and a lot of those are wrapped in these. That’s what got me started in this.”

While the Marion Street house is a contemporary design, Rottschafer says the panels can be used in any type of home. “I can take any house plan, whether its contemporary or traditional, take the plans to Porter, and they design the panels to accommodate the house plan.”

He touts the ease of assembly once the panels are made to specification. 

“It’s like putting together Lincoln Logs or following a puzzle,” he says. “It’s all numbered. One of the benefits is how speedy it is. It can take about one-third the total time of traditional construction.”

Rottschafer adds that once general contractor Mike Carey put the sub-floor system in, he was able to put up the home’s main floor in two and a half days. Carey then put in the home’s second floor, and he returned to put on the second floor’s walls and roof in four and a half days.

There are cost benefits as well, though they may not be apparent initially. According to Rottschafer, “on average, using SIPS costs about 8 to 10 percent more upfront, but because you save on construction time and because you eventually save on utility costs, it only takes about two years to make money back. After that, you’re putting money in your pocket.”

What’s next

With the panels in place and the finishing left to do, Schiess says that in its current state, “The house is like a big, white box.” It won’t stay that way for long. Schiess’ plan was inspired by the simplicity of architecture and integrity of materials, and he aimed to blend the interior and exterior. To that end, the home is U-shaped and faces south to get as much natural light as possible. Through exterior treatments and sustainable landscaping, the home will be integrated, indoors and out.

Schiess believes Oak Park is the perfect place for homes of this nature, given its population of educated and involved residents. While the contemporary style may be something new for this block, Schiess thinks it will be a part of the architectural vernacular for years to come. 

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