Whatever Happened to the Ecohouse?

Whatever Happened to the Ecohouse?

By Sam Lubell
First profiled a decade ago, we checked back in with the adventurous architect of Biosphere 2 and his plans for his massive, sustainable prefab.

In Dwell's Dec/Jan 2010 issue, which tackled all manner of speculations about the future of design, former Editor-in-Chief Sam Grawe's story, "Piece by Pearce", introduced readers to the Pearce Ecohouse, a mountaintop residence in Malibu proposed by designer Peter Pearce. The idea behind the project was that, when built, it could become "a prototype for a fully sustainable prefab home."

Pearce, who trained as a product designer, had worked for the Eames Office and Buckminster Fuller before launching Pearce Structures (one of several ambitious Pearce ventures), where he helped develop steel space frame structures that included Biosphere 2 in Arizona, the Navy Pier Winter Garden in Chicago, and American Airlines corporate headquarters in Dallas.

Montage of computer rendering of Ecohouse superimposed in a photograph of the actual project site in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles County, above Malibu.

He brought that experience to the Ecohouse, the "culmination of a lifelong quest to home in on the basic principles that drive good design," wrote Grawe. The crystalline, prefabricated steel frame structure, floating on tall piers, resembled a spaceship landing among the peaks of Malibu. Its lightweight frame—inspired by Pearce’s extensive research on patterns of structure in nature—would provide maximum stability and volume (3,138 square feet of column-free space) while employing a minimum of materials.

The home would also maximize space, light, and natural ventilation while minimizing energy consumption. It would be covered with 96 insulated and operable exterior windows and 48 operable ceiling windows (all would be cleaned by an integrated sprinkler system). A louver-based "climate management canopy" would minimize thermal gain in summer while opening the home up to the sun in the winter. The house’s temperature would be further controlled by radiant heating and cooling, through a floor-mounted system of hydronic tubing. Energy would be provided primarily via photovoltaic solar panels, with heating and cooling augmented via geothermal and heat exchange systems.

View from the east/southeast showing Ecohouse positioning on site.

Ten years later, Pearce’s dream—the home’s proposed form and structure remain the same, except it would now sit lighter on the land atop several more piers—has not come true, for myriad reasons. Among other things, Pearce, now 84, has endured a number of health issues, his wife of 47 years passed away, and an abrupt move from Malibu to Ojai. While he continues to refine plans and seek permits for the ambitious structure (he still owns the property on which the Ecohouse would sit), the main obstacle is money. Pearce estimates the project will cost $5 to $7 million, with much of the cost going into extensive site work. He’s now seeking funds via foundations and companies looking to promote sustainable design, and via sales of a new chair prototype he is developing. (Pearce still receives royalties from his popular molded polypropene Cachet Chair, which he designed for Steelcase in 2001.)

View from the east/southeast of the residence.

Pearce still sees the house as a viable prototype for sustainable residential design. "I don’t presume that all future houses should be built this way, but I see this is as one way to demonstrate fundamental principles about managing climate and creating temperate environments for people to live in with minimal energy consumption," he says.

Grawe, who first discovered Pearce while deep-diving into sustainable building practices on the internet years ago, admires the project's level of ambition and rigor; elements he often sees lacking in new sustainable residential projects. Pearce, who has studied and taught high-performance building since the 1960s, is particularly well-known for his book Structure in Nature Is a Strategy for Design (MIT Press), which is still popular more than 30 years after publication.

Interior of upper level of the residence.

Grawe sees the Pearce EcoHouse, like so many potential prefab prototypes, as a victim of a market that hasn’t fully embraced the building technique. "Maybe it comes down to the willingness of both people and financial institutions to get behind a different idea of what home could be," he says.

Wes Sullens, director of materials and resources with the U.S. Green Building Council, sees prefab homes as the next frontier in sustainable and affordable housing. He, too, admires Pearce’s rigor, but like Grawe, points to a few instances where Pearce’s idea doesn’t hold up as well in today’s sustainability conversation. These include its heavy use of glass and steel (creating high levels of embodied carbon and a high carbon footprint), its high cost, its large size (about 5,000 square feet), and a site not anywhere near public transit.

Looking underneath the garage and access deck toward the lower level of the residence.

Sullens also sympathizes with the struggle of visionary green and prefab designers to develop new models, given the weights of strict codes, tight financing, and high construction costs. "I think there is some reality check in this environment; nobody wants to be first," he says.

Cutaway view of the residence from the east.

Pearce says that the Ecohouse (and others like it, particularly those on flatter sites) would only cost about $150 to $200 per square foot to build. Labor costs would be minimized thanks to a system of parts that could be welded together on site like an erector set. The Ecohouse, he says, would incorporate steel with very high recycled content. He doesn’t feel comfortable using untested biomaterials, like mass timber, on such a complex and novel project. "My philosophy of building is to use materials that have a real solid history and for which there are well-known properties. We know how steel works, and how it fails. A newer material might break down or fail or not block enough sun."

Pearce remains discouraged by the waste and timidity that he associates with most housing today. "In our culture you can pick any topic, any built object, whether it’s a modern stove or refrigerator, and they all exhibit this inexorable move towards higher and higher performance at lower and lower cost. The only domain that doesn’t reflect that is building, especially housing." 

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