You can’t learn much in the dark.

I learned this lesson once again at the International Builders Show in Orlando last month when I visited the New American Home for the second time in broad daylight. When I saw it the night before, I could discern a highly unusual exterior, a stark aesthetic and an unconventional floor plan. But all the things that make this house a winner — its colors, materials, details and the salubrious effect of interiors drenched in daylight — were invisible.

As was the charming neighborhood.

It is an historic district where many of the houses are more than 100 years old. The streets are lined with ancient-looking trees draped in Spanish moss and an eclectic mix of charming Craftsman-styled bungalows, nondescript cottages and surreal, small-scale Tara wannabes with towering columns and Canary Island date palms. The area is close to Lake Eola and a 10-minute walk from downtown Orlando, itself a startling surprise with many high-rise condos and office towers. Who knew that there was so much more to this town than Disney World and Universal Studios?

The New American Home is located on the edge of this historic district, across the street from two nondescript, 25-year-old buildings, one a seven-story condo and the other an eight-story office block. Sandwiched between the very old and the barely old, the site presented the architect, Ed Binkley of BSB Design in Oviedo, Fla., with an unusual challenge. To satisfy the local historic preservation committee, the design had to speak to the past. To look fit into the neighborhood, the design had to acknowledge the newer structures.

Binkley did both and produced an unexpected result. The nod to the nearby bungalow-styled houses passed muster with the historic preservation police. But this design has a stronger historic connection to two American giants of the last century who were always pushing the envelope — Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Rudolph. Like them, Binkley used traditional materials — clapboard siding, brick, stucco and wood — to create a new look. But where Wright’s houses tended to emphasize the horizontal and hug the earth, this one reaches upward.

With Rudolph’s Sarasota houses that were built from the 1940s to the 1960s, he often showcased the supports for the roof on the exterior. Binkley does the same thing here with his enormous exterior cedar brackets that appear to support the upper stories.

Segueing to the specific, the long, narrow, 4,700-square-foot, three-story house sits on a corner lot. The most prominent features are three wide green bands that run around three sides of the building, marking each floor level, and the very large, exposed cedar brackets on the two sides that face the intersection. A brick retaining wall that meets the sidewalk raises the house and yard about 4 feet, high enough to say “this house is different” but low enough to also say “the people who live here are friendly.” The decorative green bands are functional — they’re actually cantilevered planter boxes that shade the windows below and form part of an elaborate stormwater management system. But, I later learned, the prominent cedar brackets are a decorative flourish, not a structural necessity. Adding an edgy urban touch, the balcony railings are stainless steel cables.

With such an unusual exterior, visitors expect an unusual interior, and they won’t be disappointed. For starters, the floor plan is organized in reverse. The eat-in kitchen/family room is on the top floor; the second floor is entirely given over to a master suite; and the ground floor includes a home theater, two bedrooms and an entry foyer that does double duty as a home office.

Recognizing that no homeowner will want to carry groceries up two flights of stairs to the third-floor kitchen, Binkley included an elevator.

The interior finishes are also unexpected. The interior walls are exposed concrete with a water-based, vertical drip mural in the entry foyer and stairwell (imagine Jackson Pollack painting on a wall — all the lines of color would flow downward). A bridge in the two-story foyer that connects the second floor hall to a small balcony is made of glass block.

The eat-in kitchen/family room is a big concrete box ringed with windows on four sides that drench it in natural light and soften its industrial look.

Other notable details include a 4-foot door in the master suite that does double duty. In one position it closes off the bedroom from the bathroom; in the other, it closes the toilet compartment. The master bathroom soaking tub area has two windows. One is a conventional opening, the other a flowing “water wall.”

The look and layout is so different that most visitors will not focus on any other aspects, but this house makes an equally bold statement in its construction, energy efficiency and stormwater management.

As a demonstration project, the entire building frame is made of precast concrete panels, rather than the wood stud and concrete block construction that is nearly universal in this area. For Central Florida, concrete has distinct advantages, as Jim Niehoff of the Portland Cement Association explained in an e-mail message. Concrete’s impressive impact resistance is a plus in this hurricane and tornado zone. Unbeknownst to non-Floridians, the state gets more tornadoes than any other, though they are generally less severe than those in the Midwest.

Concrete is impervious to termites, always an issue in Florida’s subtropical climate.

Concrete wall panels that are cast with insulation, as is the case here, are also energy savers. And because concrete pieces fit together much more precisely than conventional wood framing, this house does not have air leaks and drafts. It’s so airtight, in fact, that fresh air must be brought in mechanically.

The windows are another energy saving feature. In addition to their low e-coating, they have a low solar heat gain rating, which significantly reduces the amount of heat coming in through the windows in the hot season, said John Broniek, an energy consultant with the IBACOS firm in Pittsburgh, who built an energy model of the house and forecast its energy use.

Photovoltaic panels that occupy about a third of the roof area convert solar energy into electricity, providing about 16 percent of the household’s electricity needs.  

Combining the energy savings obtained by the use of the insulated, precast concrete panels, the windows, the PVs on the roof, and an unusually efficient heating and air-conditioning system, the house is 49 percent more energy efficient than a house of the same size built to the standard building code in Orlando, Broniek said.

The stormwater management in this house is elaborate and effective — about 95 percent of the rainwater will be contained on the site, compared with only 10 percent to 15 percent for the other houses in the neighborhood, said Mike Hardin of the Stormwater Management Academy at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Of the 50 inches of rain that will fall onto the house and its tiny yard each year, only about 2.5 inches will end up in the city storm sewer system. The rest will be collected and recirculated.

All the rain that hits the house is channeled to the planter boxes. These are lined up so that the water that collects in each box is filtered and dripped onto the box below. When the water eventually reaches the ground level, it is pumped into a 7,000-gallon cistern under the detached garage.

From there, the water is pumped back to the roof twice a week to irrigate the planter boxes, insuring that they are regularly watered without using the municipal drinking water.

This rainwater system has additional advantages for land developers. If each house in a new development could contain its stormwater runoff, less land would be needed for stormwater retention ponds, and more building lots could be sold, Hardin said. “In areas with high land costs, this system would be a no-brainer,” he added.

Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be reached at www.katherinesalant.com.

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