For many people, the ideal home looks a lot like Daniel and Adele Hedges’ old house: a two-story vision of Georgian graciousness with brick walls and crown molding. But the Hedgeses have made it their mission to completely change that ideal, using the full force of modern architecture and technology. Their new home, dubbed Virginia Point and located in Houston, gleams with cobalt-blue solar panels, galvanized aluminum, and the force of their convictions. It is the first house in the city to receive LEED Platinum certification and is a net-zero consumer of energy. “It’s the most radical project we’ve done,” says architect Joe Adams of Adams Architects, a local firm.
The Hedgeses wanted to make a statement, not simply build a new house. “Houston is the energy capital of the U.S., so what better place to have a home that produces its own energy?” says Daniel Hedges. He and wife Adele are both part of the political establishmenthe’s a former U.S. attorney and she is a state judgeand they now consider themselves “environmental evangelists,” opening up their home for public tours. “It’s a very warm and comfortable house. You expect you’re going to come into a hard, cold place, but it’s anything but that,” Daniel Hedges says.
Joe and Gail Adams were family friends of the Hedgeses with a 30-year architecture practice and had built off-the-grid houses in remote locations. When the Hedgeses asked them to go all out on the sustainability front, the Adamses designed a house specifically to maximize solar collection. The process started with the site selection itself. The Adamses helped the Hedgeses pick a prominent corner lot, with its long side facing south. The two-story house’s form then followed suit: It is shaped like a simple shed, with a roof that is pitched south at the optimum angle for the region (30 degrees) and holds most of the home’s 140 170W solar panels (which generate a total output of 23.8 kW). The orientation also allows for a long row of north-facing clerestory windows, which bring soft, diffuse light into the house and minimize the need for artificial lighting. “Texas is graced with a lot of natural light, but most people don’t know what to do with it,” Joe Adams says. “We are taking the brunt of the hot sun and making power out of it, and using the cooler northern lighting for living.”
The Adamses also designed a second volume, enclosed in glass, to create a show-stopping double-height entryway. With its solar panels tilted west, toward the street, the architects made a point of showcasing these very unique roofing tiles.
“I believe that one of the biggest impediments to the green revolution is nostalgia and sentimentality in architecture,” Joe Adams says. “Once you tie your building to a preordained style, you’re going to cut yourself off from a lot of the most sustainable things you can do.”
The house is about 3,500 square feet, with an additional 1,500 square feet of shaded outdoor space. Because the Houston area is prone to flooding, the primary living spaces are on the second level, which features an open living and dining area, along with a master suite and a kitchen. The contemporary design also incorporates traditional passive cooling techniques. The upper floor has a long screened-in porch, built with decking fabricated from recycled plastics, where the Hedgeses frequently take their meals. “To engage the outdoors in Houston is really unheard of,” notes Adams. On the first level, a dogtrota covered breezewayseparates the garage from a wing of guest bedrooms. The shady spot is a favorite hangout of the Hedges family dogs.
Contributing to the home’s mechanical efficiency, a geothermal system (with four 2-ton heat pumps and 10 300-feet-deep wells that house cooling loops) takes care of the heating and cooling, contributing to a Home Energy Rating (HERS) index performance of negative 11. (The HERS index is a 100-point scale based off of a reference home built to the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code, where a score of zero equates to being net-zero energy.) A 7,000-gallon rainwater cistern stored underground supplies all of the house’s potable water needsthe stored water is purified using ultraviolet radiation before use. These measures also were financially efficient: The geothermal materials and system installation costs, along with the house’s solar system, inverters, and backup battery system, were eligible for federal tax credits. The rainwater system helps contribute to a near-net-zero water utility bill (not zero, as the Hedgeses still pay for a sewer connection).
The home’s architecture of efficiency also meant that building materials and finishes were picked for their extreme durability; in addition to floods, the area is regularly beset by hurricanes. The rooftop solar panels are integrated with the home’s steel framing and have withstood one hurricane already without incident. A battery backup system lets the home function free from the electrical grid in dramatic weather. When it came to the exterior, the Hedgeses were tired of having to repaint trim and replace windows on their Georgian, and the Adamses responded with a zero-maintenance structure that has exposed galvanized steel framing and galvanized aluminum siding in large, medium, and fine textures to distinguish the different volumes of the building. Inside, the first floor is covered with polished concrete, while the second floor features warm bamboo flooring and cabinetry. The interiors reveal the house’s structure, with framing and bracing clearly visible within the lofty spaces. “This building has a realness to it that even a lot of modernist architecture doesn’t have,” Joe Adams says. “It’s not a pristine white box, which you have to do a lot of shenanigans to achieve, by the way. But I think this house is beautiful in its own way.”
Lydia Lee writes about architecture and design from Menlo Park, Calif.