Q&A With Home Designer Michael Anschel

Otogawa-Anschel's Michael Anschel has been fighting to make things better in Minneapolis housing since he was a teen. He offers insights on energy standards

Michael Anschel is the owner of award-winning O&A Design-Build, and CEO of Verified Green Inc. which consults with local government, product manufacturers, suppliers, builders, and architects on Green building. Michael is president of the national GreenStar Alliance.

Michael Anschel is the owner of award-winning Otogawa-Anschel Design+Build, and CEO of Verified Green Inc. which consults with local government, product manufacturers, suppliers, builders, and architects on Green building. He is president of the national GreenStar Alliance.

Minneapolis-based home designer Michael Anschel of Otogawa-Anschel Design+Build (aka OA) led the effort to develop The Minnesota GreenStar building standards, now used in a 7-state region. His has been a long-standing mission to strengthen local housing — starting with a city battle at age 16 around homelessness. Years ago, after being penalized by the city for his Victory neighborhood drought tolerant and native plantings, he helped rewrite a city ordinance that lets residents grow native yards without sticking to height parameters suited for less desirable turf grass.

Over his 21-year career, he has honed deeply held opinions about how homes should be designed with individual lifestyles as well as smart building science in mind.

“Your house is a system,” Anschel said. “Mechanical systems for heating and cooling, walls, roof, insulation, wallpaper, windows – they all have to work together if you want to avoid failure.”

He doesn’t consider his OA team to specialize in “sustainable design” so much as renovate, remodel and build with respect for health of occupants, durability, water management, social value, site strategy, embodied energy and energy efficiency. “It’s about building not for design elements and LEED points, but around individual people and how they live.”

He loves the work they’ve been able to do. He notes with a laugh that his team tends to hate kitchen islands and recessed can lights, but they’ve been able to create a whimsical blend of styles, with a respectful use of resources, in our unique neighborhoods — an arts-and-crafts bungalow Tudor? Why not?

Q: What concerns do you have about local green building concepts?

Although Anschel is enthused about changes that have happened in Minneapolis design over the past 10 years, he thinks residents are susceptible to greenwashing – adopting concepts that he doesn’t think are always ground in scientific best practices for their particular home. For example, he believes:

  • Cool roof products – which work to mitigate the heat island effect of urban areas – are not appropriate north of Chicago because of moisture accumulation that leads to structural failures.
  • Green roofs, like that of Target Field, are prone to leaks and require maintenance crews and funds not generally appropriate for individual homeowners.
  • Solar panels are a great renewable energy source – especially for outlying communities that lose much energy in the transmission of power — but also result in environmental damages from the toxic sludge created during the process of creating those panels, and the massive energy inputs required to grow the crystals.
  • Wind is cleaner. Nuclear-generated power is even cleaner, even if it developed a bad reputation from erroneous data that has been hard to correct in the public’s mind.
  • Passive solar housing isn’t durable.
  • Passive House (the standard) isn’t passive, and is more useful for climates that don’t get below 20 degrees, or climates that don’t get over 95 degrees, or have much humidity.
  • Ceramic paint does great things for a space shuttle, but nothing of value for a house. Foil Face bubble wrap (Fi-Foil) is even worse.

Q: What is the first step for a resident who wants to improve energy efficiency?

An audit by one of the utilities – Xcel Energy or Centerpoint – should be a first step, he says. And then a smart plan on air sealing/air exchange and heating/cooling solutions, including additional insulation, has to take into account the drying capability of the house structure – concrete vs. wood – in order to avoid mold and decay issues. An insulated house from the post-1940s needs to be remodeled differently than a turn-of-the-century Victorian.

“The goal – in our ever changing climate – is to drain water away from the house and the foundation, and keep the interior humidity levels of any family’s lifestyle under control and minimize its impact on the walls and windows of the home.”

In a house built in the past five decades — after we started insulating well, and thus is naturally tighter — Anschel said, it is easier to “smell your family’s lifestyle. Do you have five kids? Are you a family with a rice cooker boiling all day? Do you have dogs? In a younger, tighter home, it’s more critical that we get you fresh air and put systems in place to manage your humidity levels.”

A Quick Science Lesson

convectionHeat travels from one place to another in three ways: Conduction, Convection, Radiation. If there is a difference of temperature between two systems, heat will find a way to transfer to the cooler system; energy moves from more to less.

Conduction transfers heat between substances that are in direct contact. Metal is a good conductor, like a pan on a stove. Convection occurs when warmer areas move to cooler areas, creating a circulatory pattern, like water boiling in a pan. Radiation does not rely on contact between source and object, but can be transmitted through empty space – such as heat from the sun, heat from a light bulb, heat through your windows.

Our homes are impacted by radiant gain and loss, but in Minnesota it is a nominal amount. It is convection and conduction that we most need to concern ourselves with.

“When the doors and windows are not shut tight in an old house,” Anschel said, “there is loss from convection due to uncorrected gaps of air rushing around everywhere.” So, your first step should always be to stop the air from leaking out or in.

While wood, water, and metal are good conductors, air is a good insulator. Insulation generally relies on trapped air (gas) to reduce energy loss via conduction.

Anschel’s Views on Insulation Options

  • Blown in fiberglas insulation has the lowest environmental impact with a decent insulating value.
  • Spray Polyurethane Foam (open or closed cel) is both an air barrier and an insulator, which makes it my all around favorite.
  • Cellulose is cheap but problematic, and is best used in tandem with something like spray foam where it is kept far away from the condensing part of the system.
  • The absolute worst insulation is batt insulation, of any kind. It is almost impossible to install properly, and loses it’s value if it is compressed or if there are any gaps in the system. Blue Jean insulation is the absolute worst.
Preparing For The Next Winter
For improved energy efficiency, Anschel indicates most residents should have five priorities:
1. Verify with an audit your air sealing weaknesses to address.
2. Be sure your attic is insulated.
3. Make sure your outlets have gaskets.
4. Use adequate weather-stripping.
5. Spray foam your rim joist – the membrane of wood that separates inside from outside near the ground – to protect your block of thermal mass.

Q: What are your frustrations with local building?

  • Anschel says he wishes a few more architects designed based on the science of how buildings work, not simply making things pretty. “Measure inputs and outputs. We’ve had to fix residences with flat roofs terminating with only one drainage point, and others with no overhangs. That’s just bad building science. Even worse, we see architecture firms publish drawings with reversed insulation, assemblies that are no longer code compliant, are designed to the code minimums — which is like getting a D on a test — or are rooted in opinion rather than science.”
  • Too many interior designers still are resistant to the idea that green can be beautiful. “A home can be healthy and durable and beautiful. That doesn’t have to be in conflict.”
  • He wishes homeowners would focus less on creating open floor plans, because invariably they end up creating smaller spaces. “It’s instinctive. We quickly assess a room and want to know where we are, where the escape route is. In an open space, we get nothing – we read it so fast. So we find ways to turn those open spaces into something smaller. Instead, we should look to the crafty Victorians, who knew how to carve space up into a maze of smaller spaces that resulted in a home that felt large.”
  • Especially at the city level, Anschel misses the recent past when the building review and zoning departments were filled with thinkers who interpreted code and wanted to help make the best decisions for constituents. “Now, you take a number, hand off your plans, and wait two or three or four weeks – instead of 30 minutes – for decisions. It is worse than the DMV!” He believes the city could have invested more time in having building inspectors out enforcing rules, rather than rewriting how the department does business. Currently, Anschel says, inspectors have about 5 minutes per job site, which is not nearly enough. And he thinks resources should be spent on training more inspectors, reviewers, zoning officials. Similar to St. Paul, Minneapolis now has a measurable system – but he doesn’t think it’s as good as it once was.

Q: What strengths do you see in the local building community?

Anschel says the general culture of Twin City building has evolved a lot since 2005. After the GreenStar program launched, he helped train 500 professionals in three years. As a result, local builders understand the value of stormwater management, erosion mediation, recycling, low-VOC materials. [For more on this, see the GreenStar website].

“We went through a huge leap,” he said. “Now every paint manufacturer has a more durable low-VOC formula, like Benjamin Moore’s Aura. It’s $60, but is paint and primer in one, applied in one step, ultra durable, and ultra low VOC. It’s now common to have dual-flush toilets, which used to sound strange to people. We have faucets on timers. Tankless water heaters. We’ve moved to natural materials. In past decades it was about carpet, cultured marble, corian, vinyl wallpaper. Now there is a heavy demand for wood. Maple. Alder, Walnut. Trim is getting bigger. We want more light. We prefer drought-tolerant gardens not grass.

“And the color,” he added. “When we started out, we were winning awards for our use of five-color schemes. There has been a good shift away from the vinyl interiors of beige, grey and taupe.”

See the OA website for more.