CH should encourage sustainable housing


Recently a number of articles have come out protesting the teardown of the James H. Foster residence in Ambler Heights.

I know the property because I lived in Ambler Heights, and pass it nearly every day. It is one of the largest mansions in the neighborhood of historic homes.

I had the opportunity to tour the Foster home shortly after it sold. As I walked the three floors and basement, I wondered who would willingly take on the extraordinary repair and maintenance costs necessary to make it livable. The house has 8,500 square feet with little insulation and dozens of single-pane windows. The boiler generates one million BTU/hour. In worse shape are the servants’ quarters and basement, which are falling apart. The house leaks and the floors sag. While some of the rooms have a faded elegance, in my opinion the 1910 home is undistinguished compared to the architectural masterpieces Walker and Weeks later went on to create.

I know the people who bought the property. I considered it a point of pride when they chose my community as the place to live. They are thoughtful people whose commitment to community and environmental values would put most of us to shame. The new owners are working with Habitat for Humanity to salvage the original floors, woodwork, bathroom fixtures, radiators, kitchen appliances and cupboards so that homeowners throughout the region can use them.

According to conventional wisdom, the greenest house is the one that is already built. Sometimes conventional wisdom collides with common sense. Who can argue that the skeletal remains of this once lavish mansion are more sustainable than its highly energy-efficient replacement?

I find it ironic that we launch a Sustainable Heights movement and yet single out for criticism the pioneers who will build our community’s first passive solar energy home. The artists, architects and engineers involved in the project are creating a family dwelling of the future. The heating requirements will be 10,000 BTU/hour maximum, the equivalent of two hair dryers. The proposed dwelling will serve as a model for future housing with its miniscule energy needs.

Do we really want to drive away homeowners who bring new energy and new ideas to Cleveland Heights? Do we want solutions or do we just want to complain about our energy problem? Instead of recruiting families to live in Cleveland Heights, we risk leaving unoccupied an ossified housing stock that is little more than a museum to the way rich people used to live 100 years ago.

Within a block of this property are three beautiful contemporary homes, two designed by Cleveland architect Peter van Dijk. I asked one homeowner what she thought of the controversy about the teardown of the Foster home. “Who is going to come up with the million dollars it would take to restore that house?” she asked, then added, “In another 50 years, the new house will be considered a historic home.”

Jessica Schreiber

Shelburne Road

Cleveland Heights

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Volume 4, Issue 3, Posted 11:49 AM, 03.01.2011