There’s definitely something odd about the new house in the Hermosa neighborhood. It works hard to fit in with the older houses on the block and is built on the usual scale–two stories and an attic. But where’s the pitched roof? Where’s the bay window? The shingled siding? The garage? And why’s it painted red?

On April 22 this little red house, known as the Factor 10 House, was named one of 2004’s Top Ten Green Projects by the American Institute of Architects. The only Chicago entry on the list, it was designed by architect Marc L’Italien of the Chicago office of Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis (EHDD). (Local architects Krueck & Sexton were also cited, for their green renovation of a 1974 Herman Miller office building in Zeeland, Michigan.)

The house is one of five winning designs in a national competition sponsored by Chicago’s housing and environment departments in 2000 as part of the city’s Green Homes for Chicago initiative. Three of the homes are in Englewood, two in Hermosa, just west of Logan Square. To develop the properties and find buyers, the city turned to Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago, whose mission is to replenish the city’s stock of low- to middle-income housing. NHS held open houses last summer so that potential buyers could tour the homes. “I think there were over 50 applications,” says Annette Conti, a construction specialist at NHS.

Green Homes for Chicago was also coupled with the Affordable Homes for Chicago program, so the most a house could be sold for was $145,000. That’s substantially below what it cost to build the houses and doesn’t even include the value of the lots, which were donated by the city. “The base house was a $115,000 house,” says L’Italien. “As time went on, that number became very unrealistic–because the base price to do an affordable house in Chicago went up. To do a green affordable house became almost impossible. They wanted to include what they called the ‘green upgrades package’ of an additional $10,000. Ours was in what they called the ‘cutting-edge’ category–that was an additional $50,000. So back in the year 2000 our budget was $175,000.” Funding for the difference between the cost and the selling price came out of the money the city got after it sued ComEd for the 1998 blackouts.

Plunking down sustainable architecture in a big city requires balancing cutting-edge technology and the visual traditions of a neighborhood, doing the right thing by the environment and living in the real world. “You don’t look at this house and think, oh god, this is some weird house,” says L’Italien. “It fits in, but it doesn’t fit in by having to slavishly follow silly historic reproductions and ornamentations.”

It’s called the Factor 10 House because its environmental impact is a tenth of that of a conventionally constructed new home. How does one do that? Start with materials. The foundation and basement are made not from the usual Portland cement but from a concrete that includes fly ash, a waste product from coal-fired power plants. The lumber comes from sustainable forests. The walls are superinsulated with cellulose made from recycled paper. The carpeting is made from recycled plastic.

Then reduce long-term operating costs. There’s no central air-conditioning–a huge energy hog. Clerestory windows in the “attic” are part of a solar chimney that channels natural light down into the living spaces, painted white for better reflection. In the winter the chimney collects warm air, which a fan blows back down to heat the rooms. In the summer another fan draws hot air up and out of the house. The open layout of the rooms allows summer breezes to flow freely through the house.

Rows of sealed bottles of Glaceau water on the north wall of the solar chimney act as a heat sink, sucking up heat during the day and releasing it at night. “Our original intent was to use dark recycled glass bottles,” says L’Italien. “But we would have had to acquire the bottles, we would have had to put the water in them, and we were warned about the possibility of algae growth. So we were told to use a bottle that had been sealed in a factory-controlled environment.” The contractor got the job of steaming off all the labels.

The Chicago Green Corps, which operates out of the Center for Green Technology, did much of the landscaping. “Green Corps is a training program,” says Conti. “They train people to do landscaping and then work on sites like ours and other sites throughout the city, developing vacant land into small neighborhood parks. In the case of the EHDD property, they requested fescue grass. A lot of people put in sod, but the fescue is hardy, and it doesn’t require the watering that a Kentucky bluegrass would. They created a French drain for runoff. It’s like a holding cage, so that we don’t send that water to the sewer.” The main roof of the house is planted with sedum, a flowering plant; the plants and soil insulate the roof, absorbing heat instead of pumping it into the interior, and retain water that as it evaporates helps cool the house. Inside are dual-flush toilets–half flush for number one, full flush for number two.

Factor 10 was designed less to meet the current appetites of the market than to redefine them, even if that involved some gentle social engineering. It has only 1,200 square feet of finished space, though there’s an unfinished 600-square-foot basement. “We thought we could be much more efficient with the space by keeping it smaller,” explains L’Italien. “We wanted it to be very small and compact, and it led us to a lot of things in the design that caused it to feel a lot bigger. People really don’t need these big houses that they’re building today. You can get by with a lot less.” Building smaller also lets you fudge a bit when calculating that factor of ten in environmental savings. L’Italien admits that they figured the savings by comparing the house not to the “average affordable house” built today but to the much bigger “average normal house.”

There’s a “parking pad” in the backyard, but no garage, even though 80 percent of all new houses have at least a two-car garage. The central problem of the automobile has been sidestepped by pretending it doesn’t exist.

L’Italien knows that living in a relatively small space without a garage or air-conditioning won’t appeal to everyone. “A lot of people would view it as a sacrifice,” he says. “A lot of people are willing to live like this, but for some people it would never be acceptable.”

Factor 10 is the smallest of the five Green Homes for Chicago houses. Like the other four, it was intended for a family of up to five people, but it has only a single occupant. “We don’t discriminate on family size,” says Conti. The man who now owns it was the first person to qualify, so he was first in line to buy the house. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but L’Italien recently talked to him and says he seemed happy.

And why is the house red? “We figured that we needed a strong contrasting color to the white windows, and because the house has such a small stature on the street, it needed a big presence with its color,” says L’Italien. “It really relates to some of the darker, deeper red brick buildings that you see at Chicago street corners.”

If anything, Factor 10’s exterior evokes the smaller, humbler cottages that preceded its gabled, bay-windowed, broad-porched neighbors. And its bracing simplicity stands in stark contrast to the load-em-up-to-the-lot-line concrete-block battleships that are scarring so many gentrifying communities.

For some, however, it’s too plain, too neutral. In a world in dire need of good green designs, its street presence is a little too staid and subtle to make it a forceful advertisement for the cause. Of the thousands of new residential units projected to be completed in Chicago this year, five houses that took over three years to complete aren’t even a drop in the bucket. The mass market is the real arena, and the question is how a green house can compete in it. Should it stand out or fit in? Meet halfway the American appetite for the ever bigger, the ever more mechanized, or hold out for a change in heart? Factor 10 is more an exercise than a solution, but it’s a big, graceful step in the right direction.

The Factor 10 House will be on the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s June 5 Big and Green Tour; call 312-922-3432, ext. 918, for information and reservations.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.