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I Wish Houses Like This Wouldn’t Make the News

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We don’t need to see where some rich guy spends $1.6 million on a 2700 square-foot, green, energy efficient house. We can do nearly as well (if we are just counting BTUs and kWhs a lot better) for a whole lot less money – house like these is what should be in news. $592/SF come on, what were they thinking?

Shame on me, I’m going to put the house in the news again, but just so you can see what I’m talking about. You decide, where should our priorities be? What should we be  promoting in the press?

Yes, it is beautiful, if you like that style. And I have no objection to people spending as much of their money on a house as they want. I’m glad the house built uses a lot less energy than a lot more. I applaud the modest footprint! And, I’ll take their word for it that it is green. But greenest house in America? Are we judging based on dollars spent on materials manufacturers label as green? Are we basing that statement on some organizations assessment? Or does green mean minimal impact on the environment - building and operation?

For greenest house in America, I'll bet on Jim and Laurie’s beautiful timber-fram, staw-bale home – a work of art and passion – on a mountainside in Meco, NY.

How did all those exotic green products get to Chicago? Was all that glass reused or specially manufactured with a lot of embedded energy? Jim and Laurie and friends dragged their materials to the building site by hand and foot! They bought local straw and shunned most manufactured building materials. And, the glass was collected locally from earlier homes and reused! I’m not recommending everyone build a house like this, but this house is what should be in the news, an icon to be admired with lessons on living and priority setting.

The impression the Ravenswood, IL house gives is that it is very costly to be super green and super energy efficient. That just isn’t so!

Carl McDaniel showed that you can build a beautiful, very green (certification politics aside), positive energy home for $146/SF (or even less with fewer upscale features) in his book “Trail Magic: Creating a Positive Energy Home.” And quite frankly, I’d much rather live in McDaniel’s home than Yarnell’s. This is the kind of green, energy efficient house we should be building! This is the kind of house that should be in the news!  

Let’s talk about worthy goals. Positive Energy or even Net Zero Energy are probably not what we should “generally” be aiming at. Minimum Energy Star (you get the label for just 15% better than 2004 Residential Energy Code) is way too low. For a small premium, with a few energy conscious tradeoffs, and a little better city planning (take advantage of the sun - duh!) houses can easily beat that dated energy code by 75% or more. Why not?

Well now that you asked, why aren’t most homes much more energy efficient? They are not because builders build what people say they want with their checkbooks. Most people just don’t care about energy all that much – we have lived all our lives in the age of cheap energy. Now people prefer granite counter tops to solar access. They prefer bigger to smaller, Jacuzzis to SDHW, and fancy to functional. Again, I am not here to tell people how to spend their money, but I will say that heating those bigger energy guzzlers will cost a lot more in the future. When energy costs more, maybe the market will appreciate energy conservation and look to build smart, green, energy efficient, cost-effective homes.   

There is a small beginning of a market in net-zero and near-net-zero homes. As builders become more savvy about home design and energy efficiency and prices fall on solar electric (PV), the premium between these houses and code-built houses will shrink. See this promising article.

So, how do you feel about home energy? What do you think our energy code should be? Do you think town planning should require (where possible) the use of the sun?

Dan Gibson is the Reporter and Chief Coordinator of Our Energy Independence Community ( Previously he was a participating contractor in NYSERDA’s Home Performance program and a rater in the New York ENERGY STAR Home program. He is currently building a 100% Solar Home. He can be reached at


Comments on "I Wish Houses Like This Wouldn’t Make the News"

  1. OEIC default avatar Simon BL March 04, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Dan, I couldn’t agree more. I read about this house in some book or another on “green” building, but the amount embedded energy in the home is many, many times more than Jim and Laurie’s house. And of course this leads people to think of green homes as something for the ultra-rich rather than a contimuim balancing energy use, practicality, budget, and design. I have seen a number of case studies of net-zero or near net-zero homes that have cost only 10% more than a typical custom build home. It just requires the design to take the surroundings into account.

  2. OEIC default avatar David Hauber March 14, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    I couldn’t agree more either.  I don’t grasp why McMansions or monster trucks (giant SUVs)are fashionable.  I suspect that they won’t be as fashionable as energy costs continue to rise. Some simple steps could be taken, as Dan says, to greatly improve effiency.  I was in a normal size home in Maine recently with 5 zones in their hot water heat.  They didn’t heat rooms they didn’t use, imagine that!

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