Recently, I interviewed Sheri Koones, author of the new book titled Prefabulous World: Energy-Efficient and Sustainable Homes Around the Globe, which features sophisticated examples of eco-friendly home design in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, the United States, England, Germany, South Africa, and beyond. An in-depth discussion about her journey and work are below.
Rahim Kanani: What was the moment or experience that first drew you to environmental issues and challenges?
Sheri Koones: While I was researching and writing one of my earlier books on home construction, I watched a modular house being set and was impressed by the speed of construction, efficiency and beauty of the house. When I talked with friends about modular construction, they all assumed I was talking about trailers! I became fascinated with the possibilities offered by prefabricated homes and was determined to demonstrate that almost any style of home could be built with modular construction—and that these houses are indistinguishable from site-built homes. My recent books have focused entirely on prefabricated houses, because I see no sense in saving energy and water, yet wasting materials, which happens with on-site construction. Houses built in a factory create minimal waste, use minimal materials and are not compromised by weather conditions.
Innovative methods and materials are being used in countries around the world, and Prefabulous World is an opportunity for architects, builders and homeowners to share this information. The 50 houses profiled in this book, from 19 countries worldwide, are efficient, environmentally friendly, diverse in style, and downright beautiful.
Kanani: How has that interest evolved over the years and for this book, how did you go about researching the most energy-efficient, sustainable homes around the world?
Koones: The U.S. and other countries around the world are becoming increasingly conscious of saving energy and using more environmentally friendly materials and systems. Each time I write another book I find the bar has been raised higher, as houses are built with less waste and more efficiency.
Considerable research is required to find the most energy efficient houses in the U.S., although I’m already familiar with many of the manufacturers, architects and builders working in this arena. Sourcing houses around the world to feature in Prefabulous World was much more challenging. I worked through foreign embassies, web sites, various organizations and word-of-mouth. It was exciting to find the variety of design, methods and materials that are being used today in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Germany, Switzerland and beyond. There are also some wonderful North American examples in the United States and Canada. With each book my criteria for inclusion gets more rigid. I always try to find diversity in location, style, method of prefab construction and materials and I’m delighted when I find these houses, which are built so impressively and are so attractive. With each book the houses continue to be more and more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
Kanani: What were some of the properties in particular that stood out to you in terms of technology, eco-friendly design or otherwise?
Koones: All of the houses included in this book are impressive. I was particularly fascinated with a house in the Netherlands in which a tree trunk that needed to be cut down by the local municipality was used to hold up the mezzanine. The architect used many interesting new materials including cross-laminated timber (CLT) and Aerogel insulation that was developed for NASA.
Houses in the U.S. are getting increasingly efficient. A wonderful example is the Laurel Hollow house in East Hampton, New York, built by Yankee Barn Homes. The company has developed a panelized system using polyisocyanurate insulation that makes their homes extremely energy efficient, limiting the cost of energy required to heat and cool them.
There is a trend towards building to Passive House (or Passivhaus) standards, which use a minimum of energy and are extremely efficient. Several houses in the book were built to this standard and are located in Austria, Denmark, England, France, Netherlands, Spain and the U.S. These houses all have impressive designs and technology.
Kanani: Around the world, are architectural firms, designers, engineers and others starting to build more sustainable properties because of their own values, or are consumers slowly beginning to demand more eco-friendly accommodations?
Koones: Many countries, particularly those in the European Union, are working to meet their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997. This means a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 percent increase in renewable energy and a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. It is becoming the norm for houses to be built that will meet these standards. In addition, the rising cost of fuel in many countries motivates homeowners to build houses that are less reliant on fossil fuel. Several of the houses in this book were built in locations where there is no access to fossil fuel, which necessitated their being built to use less energy to operate, and being self-sufficient in creating energy.
Motivation to build more efficiently appears to come from the homeowners. If they demand efficient houses, they will find the architects and builders able to design and construct them. Architects built several of the houses in this book for themselves, not only to set an example for their future clients but also because of their desire to live in a more comfortable, efficient home. I include a resource list of the professionals and suppliers who built the featured houses in each book, which should help homeowners build more efficient homes, themselves.
Kanani: What do you want readers to ultimately takeaway from Prefabulous World?
Koones: I hope that readers see how easy it is to build a beautiful house that requires less energy to operate and uses fewer resources. The world has a limited amount of resources available to us. If we squander them, we are hurting our children and our children’s children.
About 40 percent of the energy consumed in this country goes towards heating and cooling our buildings. Reducing energy consumption in construction can have a significant effect on overall energy usage in this country. We have the knowledge and ability to reduce this number substantially. I hope anyone considering building a house in the future will use prefabricated methods and techniques and materials that reduce wastage and energy.
People often believe that it is costly to build a more efficient house, but there are many techniques that cost very little, such as larger overhangs, well placed windows, and optimal solar orientation, that make a big difference. Homeowners should also consider the savings that accumulate over time due to reduced energy costs.
I have been so inspired by the houses in Prefabulous World. I hope readers will also be inspired to consider some of the methods, materials and systems in this book for their own homes.