You never know what you’ll come across in a Capitol Hill alley. A discarded chair that’s perfect for your living room, a community garden ‒ and now sustainable housing and a whiff of root beer.
One-hundred years ago, alley houses were common across DC, providing homes for some 20,000 people, most of whom were African American. But in the 1930s the Alley Dwelling Authority began removing these homes, based on concerns for health and overcrowding. Flash forward 90 years, and in 2016 the chronic housing shortage spurred the DC Council to pass zoning changes that allow new construction in alley lots across the District.
Architects Andrew Linn and Jack Becker had established the architectural firm BLDUS (https://bld.us/) in 2013 and saw this zoning change as an opportunity to create sustainable and climate-friendly housing in the District. “Jack and I met on the first day of architecture school at Cornell,” explains Linn. “We both wanted to design healthy houses that reconsidered traditional, natural materials in innovative ways.”
After graduation they moved to DC to make their dream houses a reality. Linn and his wife Hannah needed a place to live, and a 1,900-square-foot alley lot near Congressional Cemetery came up for sale. The lot provided an ideal setting for BLDUS to showcase its vision while providing the Linns with a home for their growing family.
Sustainability was an overarching priority. “Buildings are a leading cause of climate change,” says Linn, “and houses are likely a leading cause of cancer. Since so many cheap building materials are unhealthy, it’s easy to build an unhealthy house without even realizing it.” He continues, “A healthy house doesn’t have to be more expensive than a conventional house, but it does require a concerted effort to find the materials and convince people to allow you to use them.”
Linn and Becker’s vision came together in a two-story house that is the ﬁrst residence on the East Coast with a bamboo wall system with wool insulation. The exterior bamboo walls are covered in poplar bark panels, while the interior walls are ﬁnished in nontoxic coatings such as milk paint and hemp oil. A central skylight admits light, while a sassafras fence provides privacy and the unforeseen benefit of making the whole house smell like root beer when it rains. Almost all materials are sourced in the US, reducing the carbon footprint incurred through transportation. And the design is easy on the pocketbook. The Linn’s August electric bill was only $30 – and they don’t even have solar panels on the roof.
To say that BLDUS’s homes aren’t your typical Capitol Hill house would be an understatement. According to Linn, “People’s responses to our houses can generally be categorized as either ‘interesting’ or ‘weird’ ‒ and that doesn’t necessarily mean they like them or dislike them.” As he notes, “If someone understands the magnitude of the housing crisis in DC and America and/or the environmental damage caused by the production of gypsum or the damage that fiberglass insulation can cause to someone’s lungs, they are generally supportive of our designs.” Without considering the context of climate crisis, the housing crisis and potential health impacts, Linn adds, “our more natural-looking houses certainly can look weird. Our wood (and bamboo) houses have a traditional DC precedent, but there is no precedent in the District or even in the country for houses as healthy as these.”
As part of the commitment to thinking outside the box, BLDUS located its office in Anacostia. “We saw that most District architects were clustered in a few wealthy neighborhoods,” Linn explains, while Anacostia’s residents “wage an admirable battle for the integrity of their historic district as developers propose projects that overlook its intimate, village-like scale.” The BLDUS office is in the Grass House, a carriage house next to the Frederick Douglass House. “We are thankful that we have opportunities to contribute to the preservation of the neighborhood’s existing historic fabric through new contextual houses,” says Linn. “We also feel better equipped to design for such a complex area because we are based there.”
BLDUS is building sustainable and healthy homes across the District, and not all of them are in alleys. In addition to collaborating on construction projects in Anacostia and the Linns’ alley home, they’ve built an alley home in Capitol Hill’s Overbeck Alley, are completing an alley house in Parkview’s Lois Mailou Jones Alley NW and are working on a pair of alley houses in Petworth. Linn and Becker also teach at Virginia Tech’s Washington Alexandria Architecture Center, training architects in sustainability concepts.
As Becker notes, “We’re constantly exploring opportunities to add new alley houses where they make sense. DC is in dire need of new housing, in all shapes and sizes, so we are happy to add high-quality units wherever possible.” And possibly add an aroma of root beer to the DC air!
Catherine Plume is a lifelong environmentalist, a writer and an active member of the Sierra Club DC Chapter. The perspectives expressed are her own and do not necessarily represent the positions of that organization.