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The Pretty Good House

Finding the right balance between construction cost and energy performance

Posted on Feb 6 2012 by Michael Maines

Energy Star. LEED. Passivhaus. There are many programs with different metrics for determining how green your home is. But what elements of green building are important to you when designing and building a home?

This was the topic recently at our building science discussion group. (For more information on this group, see Dan Kolbert’s article in this month’s JLC, “Pros Benefit from Building Science Discussion Group,” and my blog, “Steve’s Garage.”) The topic is something Kolbert has been thinking about for some time. There are issues with any “official” program — many in the green building world believe that Energy Star requirements don’t go far enough; LEED is comprehensive but expensive to administer, run by a private company, and it seems to be possible to get around true sustainability in the pursuit of points; Passivhaus is the gold standard for energy use, but puts no weight on other aspects of green building, some consider it too extreme, and it is currently embroiled in political in-fighting.

So, along the lines of Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House,” Kolbert asks the group, “What would a Pretty Good House look like?”

Local materials, plenty of insulation, and not many square feet

The discussion group is a mix of people from many professions and backgrounds, so asking for consensus would normally be a joke. In this case, however, there seemed to be an unusual lack of argument that one could almost take for agreement.

In no particular order, we determined that a Pretty Good House should:

  • Support the local economy. That means building with local labor, with locally available and/or produced materials, as much as possible.
  • Be commissioned following construction, and be monitored on an ongoing basis. If you don’t know, and to me it’s a strange use of the word, commissioning means testing how the house performs after it’s built. There was some discussion about how effective an energy-use “dashboard” can be. (“What gets measured gets improved.”)
  • Have operating costs that are minimal or reasonable.
  • Have 10-20-40-60 insulation. Hopefully these numbers are obvious: they represent a “pretty good” level of insulation in a cold climate for sub-slab, foundation walls, framed walls, and roof or ceiling, respectively.
  • Measure 1000-1500-1750-1875. These number are probably not as obvious; they represent an allotment of square feet of living space for 1, 2, 3, and 4+ inhabitants, respectively. It could be less — the national average is much more — but as a group we thought this was… pretty good.

What's in and what's out?

We came up with a list of what is in versus what is out of a pretty good house. What's in:

  • Superinsulation.
  • 4 inches of rigid foam under the basement slab.
  • A service core for plumbing and wiring (à la Tedd Benson’s Bensonwood concept, also a feature of A Pattern Language (Alexandar, et. al.): keep services out of exterior walls, grouped for easy upgrades in the future.
  • Energy modeling (performed during the design process).
  • Adaptability/durability/recyclability. For more on this topic, see Alex Wilson’s blog, “Ensure Durability and Reuse Existing Buildings.”
  • An air leakage rate of no more than 2 ach50. Not exactly Passivhaus, but… pretty good.
  • Good design. I was surprised it took so long for someone to mention this. A good house has to look good and feel good, not just function well.
  • An owners’ manual. I know that Michael Chandler has written about this. You get an owners’ manual with your car, DVD player, and electric toothbrush. Shouldn’t the biggest, most expensive, most complicated thing you own have an owners’ manual too?
  • Universal Design. Our population is getting older, and people are realizing that having a disability does not mean one's lifestyle needs to be limited. For the most part, Universal Design is smart design.
  • Comfort. Recently I was at Chris Corson’s Passivhaus project on a cold day. There were no drafts, no cold spots in front of windows, and only a single Mr. Slim heat pumpHeating and cooling system in which specialized refrigerant fluid in a sealed system is alternately evaporated and condensed, changing its state from liquid to vapor by altering its pressure; this phase change allows heat to be transferred into or out of the house. See air-source heat pump and ground-source heat pump. for the whole house. It was comfortable. I’ve been in $20 million dollar houses that were not comfortable (and probably insulated with fiberglass batts).

Keep it simple

What's out:

  • Passivhaus under-slab insulation. 10 to 14 inches of foam? As great as many of us think the Passivhaus standard is, it’s still hard to imagine using that much foam under the slab.
  • Toxic/unhealthy materials. Duh.
  • Too much embodied energyEnergy that goes into making a product; includes energy required for growth, extraction, and transportation of the raw material as well as manufacture, packaging, and transportation of the finished product. Embodied energy is often used to measure ecological cost.. Spray foam is a great insulator, but it comes at a cost. VinylCommon term for polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In chemistry, vinyl refers to a carbon-and-hydrogen group (H2C=CH–) that attaches to another functional group, such as chlorine (vinyl chloride) or acetate (vinyl acetate). siding is cheap and (somewhat) effective, but it comes at a cost. Bamboo flooring comes at a (transportation) cost, and having installed quite a bit of it, I don’t think it’s all that great….
  • Diminished returns. The idea of the Pretty Good House is to find the sweet spot between expenditures and gains. When is enough insulation enough?
  • Complexity of structure. With modern living space “needs” and small lots come oversize houses. One way to reduce the apparent scale of the house is to chop up the roof with dormers, pepper the walls with bumpouts, and otherwise create places for ice dams, air leaks and extra construction labor and materials (see Martin’s blog, “Martin’s Ten Rules of Roof Design”). I’m guilty of frequently designing in dormers to the renovations and additions I work on, as a way to buy extra space while respecting the original architecture…but at least I’m aware that it’s a problem.

Sometime soon we'll revisit this at our discussion group. What would you include in a Pretty Good House?

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Image Credits:

  1. Diane Milliken

Feb 6, 2012 8:00 AM ET

Edited Feb 6, 2012 8:01 AM ET.

Comments welcome -- as well as regional alternatives
by Martin Holladay

As usual, GBA readers are invited to comment here. However, GBA proposes publishing one or more follow-up blogs on the topic of the "Pretty Good House." We'd like to see GBA readers propose their own regional versions of the PGH: For example, the Pretty Good Florida House, the Pretty Good Georgia House, the Pretty Good Texas House, and the Pretty Good Washington House.

So, if you'd like to participate, don't post all of your ideas here. Instead, e-mail your ideas (or blog proposals) to me directly:
martin [at] greenbuildingadvisor [dot] com.

Even if you don't want to write a whole blog -- only a paragraph -- we'll compile the best entries into a single blog, with each region of the country getting a separate paragraph.

We look forward to hearing from our readers.

Feb 6, 2012 8:26 AM ET

Embodied energy of Bamboo.
by shane claflin

Bamboo is a highly renewable resource. The yield is something like 40 times that of a tree. Logs and lumber also have high transportation costs, unfortunately. The advantage that Maine has, is that it has a thriving logging industry. Some states, i would gather, require more embodied energy for their construction materials.

Feb 6, 2012 8:32 AM ET

Edited Feb 6, 2012 9:02 AM ET.

Exterior wall penetrations
by John Caldwell

Eliminating electrical boxes on exterior walls is pretty easy to do
and really pays big air leakage dividends. Conventional outlet
boxes can be replaced with surface raceway for an outlet
every 1-2 feet (a little molding on the top makes it look like baseboard).
Exterior door switches can be moved to interior adjacent walls.
If no walls are near then a short stub wall near the door can be added..
Also- do away with recessed "can" type light fixtures everywhere!
They are little chimneys only good for wasting conditioned air.

Feb 6, 2012 8:59 AM ET

by Frank R.

Excellent topic. I am surprised that there is no mention of R-5 or better windows.

Feb 6, 2012 10:02 AM ET

Edited Feb 6, 2012 10:12 AM ET.

Windows, wood and walls
by Michael Maines

Francis, good point--I think there was brief mention of windows but we will be sure to revisit them tomorrow evening at our monthly discussion group. The topic will be The Pretty Good House, Part II. Anyone who wants to make the trek is welcome to attend--join the mailing list here:

John, I agree, recessed lights are usually not logical if the ceiling is also the attic floor. However, in a two-story house or any house with insulated sloped rafters, they are not as bad--they just don't give as much light as other types of fixtures.

Shane, true, Maine does have an advantage in terms of locally available wood flooring. There are other options, such as finished concrete slabs-on-grade, tiles and reclaimed wood flooring, to name a few. Not only do I not like the idea of shipping glued-together grass flooring across the ocean, or trust that they were produced in a socially and environmentally responsible manner, but I have had several bad experiences actually installing it--cracks and splits from it being brittle, yet is prone to dents and scratches (more of a finishing problem). I also just don't like how it looks, but that's another story.

Edit to add: these items may all be different depending on your location, and good fodder for Martin's idea of different regional PGH's.

Feb 6, 2012 11:09 AM ET

Edited Feb 6, 2012 11:11 AM ET.

Diminished Returns
by Peter Hastings 4C

These need to be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis. A couple entering retirement may have capital but very little income. A couple starting out may have little capital but a reasonable income. So the best balance between initial expenditure and running costs will be very different for these two couples. I guess a truly smart design would be sufficiently adaptable to allow infrastructure upgrades which reduce running costs - as and when they can be afforded. This may mean an 'excessive' initial under-floor insulation since this will be a real bear to retrofit.

Feb 6, 2012 11:21 AM ET

Southern Design criteria
by Armando Cobo

I’ll start a list for Southern Design criteria:
1. Passive Solar Design should be 1st priority
2. Larger overhangs and porches
3. Insulation levels can be lower
4. Triple glazing is not needed
5. Install reflective roofs
6. Select light color material

Feb 6, 2012 11:22 AM ET

Electrical boxes on exterior walls..
by Dick Russell

..are OK, provided they are designed to enable airtightness. I used the Airfoil boxes on my house and found them easy to seal up tightly. However, the criticism of having outlets on outside walls is valid if one anticipates later alteration of that wiring, although any type of alteration of an exterior wall would pose the same problem.

Feb 6, 2012 11:39 AM ET

Regional superinsulation levels
by Doug McEvers

10-20-40-60 is regionally specific, better to use heating degree days as a guide. Harold Orr says divide hdd by 180 for wall R-value, you could then apply the 10-20-40-60 R-value percentage ratio for what most of us agree is an efficient and workable balance. If your goal is superinsulation, 2 ach50 is a bit weak, you have left something on the table, 1 ach50 would be a better target.

Feb 6, 2012 12:02 PM ET

Advantage to the "Pretty Good" concept
by Lucy Foxworth

I think one major advantage of the idea of a pretty good house is that it can appeal to anyone building a house. It is lenient enough that contractors who have no interest in building a green home can see the benefits. It elevates their game with no upfront cost, no classes to attend, etc. The idea actually draws them in.

That is, until you guys decide to charge "Pretty Good House" certification fees.

Feb 6, 2012 12:10 PM ET

Edited Feb 6, 2012 12:11 PM ET.

Thinking ahead
by Eric Sandeen

I'd suggest thinking ahead about roof pitch & orientation to facilitate solar down the road - and maybe thinking ahead about access for wiring or plumbing for solar, as well. Solar probably doesn't belong on a "pretty good" house for cost reasons, I imagine, but a design which doesn't preclude a retrofit would be good.

Feb 6, 2012 12:31 PM ET

windows and can lights
by Jesse Lizer

I too would be interested in seeing the feedback on windows, especially when you factor in the cost/pay back. Most tri plane windows vs a good Pella or Marvin window rarely seems to pay off (especially with Pella's high gain sun glass), however there are other comforts tri pane can give you that needs a value to them as well.

Also on can lighting....I personally dislike most surface mount options, and would be curious to see what people are recommending/using instead of can lights. However if they are used, are you apposed to either air tight cans or building a sealed gyp box around them in the attic space?

Feb 6, 2012 1:07 PM ET

Air tight cans
by Michael Maines

Jesse, have you ever looked closely at air tight cans? They are anything but airtight, I don't know how they can advertise them like that. We usually make our own foam boxes to cover them but I understand that there is a manufactured version that works well.

Depending on the style our clients want, we often have them go here or here, or if they really want to see some option, here A regular fixture with a CFL is "Pretty Good."

One technique is to avoid ceiling lights and use wall sconces and table lamps. Monopoints (track lights without the track) also work well in certain situations.

Eric, good point about roof pitch and orientation. I would argue that solar thermal could make sense on a PGH, and there's no reason an off-the-grid house couldn't be Pretty Good with PV panels.

Feb 6, 2012 2:11 PM ET

by Frank R.

To bad the meeting isn't Thursday! I am going to be Oxford Maine for a job site walkthrough. I would have gone to the meeting. I can't say that I could offer anything intellegent to say, but I am sure I could drink Dan and Michaels beer...

I have read alot about the triple pane/double pane/heat mirror arguements on this and other web sites, but I have not read about leakage rates. I am curious about is the impact that the styles of widows have on leakage rates. Should a "pretty good house" have casement/tilt-turn windows or are high quality double hung windows acceptable? How important are the seals? what is the best pratice for the average homeowner? I would think leakage rates could have a bigger impact on energy that U-Values.

Feb 6, 2012 2:47 PM ET

in a recent audit for a
by mike eliason

in a recent audit for a project, i was shocked to learn that the CO2 of transporting products to site outweighed construction embodied CO2 by a significant factor.

there are alternatives to the 10-14" of sub-slab foam in a passivhaus! better or more climate-optimized design, perlite, foamglas granulate...

Feb 6, 2012 2:53 PM ET

Edited Feb 6, 2012 3:10 PM ET.

Transportation energy
by Martin Holladay

Just because the transportation energy required to get building materials to the job site exceeds the embodied energy of the materials, doesn't mean something is wrong with the specifications.

I built my chimneys out of stone. Embodied energy: zero. Cost of materials: zero. However, it took energy to get the stones in position. At first I used a wheelbarrow; that took energy. (Oatmeal for breakfast.) Eventually I hauled some of the stones from a source about a mile away in the back of my 1971 Pinto station wagon; that took some gasoline.

Then I had to lift the stones up the ladder as I placed them -- that took more energy.

However, none of this analysis leads me to the conclusion that building a stone chimney was a bad idea.

(In fact, building a stone chimney may have been a bad idea. But the factors entering into that analysis are different ones: the condition of my aching back, for instance, or whether atmospherically vented appliances make sense.)

Feb 6, 2012 3:29 PM ET

Suggested PGH Retrofit
by William Rau

I have a suggestion: a Pretty Good House Retrofit of the Robert Hartford residence in Dixfield, ME. The story of Mr. Hartford is found at the New York Times at

I think a green building response to Mr Hartford's plight would represent a teachable moment for this country on the crucial role green building retrofits can play in (1) reducing fuel or energy poverty and (2) weaning this country from its addiction to fossil fuels.

It would also show that green build guys have red blood. And it might also lead to some pretty good publicity in the New York Times.

Would it not be a good idea for the PGH Movement to have its first demonstration project in the state in which it began?

I am not wealthy, but I would be willing to donate to such a worthy cause.

Sincerely yours,

Bill Rau

Feb 6, 2012 3:48 PM ET

Response to William Rau
by Eric Sandeen

It may not get all the way to a PGH, but some energy pros are on it already:

Feb 6, 2012 4:17 PM ET

Eric, good news
by William Rau

But why not move this into true green territory: Larson trusses that allow ~R-40 wall insulation, R-20 for the basement walls, R-5 wind0w replacements, as much insulation as their attic will take, and a minisplit air-source heat pump, or a good wood furnace, that extracts them from the cruel vicissitudes of the oil economy.?

Trost is doing yeoman work and deserves a medal of honor, but why not take this to the next step, i.e, 5-(10)-20-40-60? To reiterate, this is a teachable moment on cost-optimal insulation levels..


Feb 6, 2012 5:16 PM ET

More value placed on existing buildings
by Joe Schmo

I am surprised that more emphasis was not placed on the inherent "goodness" of existing buildings and adaptive reuses or perhaps this discussion only pertains to a pretty good NEW house?

Also, a somewhat off topic note of caution; consider hazards introduced when specifying alternative methods such as certain types of insulation or manufactured structural members that might use glues and resins with regard to fire hazards. Filling voids with insulation can over insulate conductors/cables ( and structural members can delaminate or fail when exposed to heat or moisture. Obviously a large fire might be an extreme occurrence but the two examples I gave represent an initiator and an Achilles heal resulting in major damage or failure.

Feb 6, 2012 6:03 PM ET

Pretty Good House - window info
by Jason Peacock

I love the PGH topic, because I've recently built one.

ACH 50 1.0
I've added 3.6 kw of PV and hope to be close to Net Zero with no fossil fuels.

Wanted to let everyone know that Intus windows are breaking the mold for U-values and price.
They are offering a triple pane 0.1 U-value with a SHGC of 0.62

Feb 6, 2012 6:05 PM ET

ventilate right
by Jack Barnes

With a target of 2 ach50 I'd like to see filtered mechanical ventilation added to the list of 'what's in'.

Feb 6, 2012 6:13 PM ET

U-factor and SHGC
by Martin Holladay

I'm assuming that the U-factor and SHGC numbers you quoted are center-of-glass values, not NFRC values -- so the NFRC numbers will be less impressive.

I'm also skeptical about the reported U-factor of 0.10 -- that sounds unlikely. Do you have a link to a spec sheet?

Feb 6, 2012 6:14 PM ET

Our Recent Audit ... and... embodied energy?
by Luke Morton

We recently analyzed one of our projects, and we found something different than Mike Eliason. When we input our construction into the Athena LCA estimator, we found our project to have very little transportation impact. Granted, these were based on industry averages and not locally derived life cycle inventories, but this data seems to be reflected in the little bit of academic literature that I've heard my friends talk about. Transportation energy, while not unimportant, tends not to be the most significant factor in many products.
--For food-- it's fertilizer and anaerobic methanogens,
--For our project, it was the large amount of concrete we poured for the basement (and the calcining, not transportation that dominates that footprint)
--For shipping fresh water to/from dessicated Pacific Islands such as Nauru via jet-airline, then you're talking about a significant transportation footprint. But energy ain't free, even if it's subsidized.

Perhaps our results differed solely because we tend to be involved in massive (meaning, a lot of mass, not necessarily big, though often that too) homes. Heavy things tend to come from more local sources and might involve more processing energy.

Separate Point:
Just for the sake of discussion here, or perhaps elsewhere: do you really care about embodied energy? Isn't it really fossil carbon emissions that we're mostly concerned about? Or perhaps it's simply exergy that we should be talking about and a futile attempt to slow the ineluctable heat death of the universe. ;)
Maybe embodied energy is the best proxy metric to use instead of trying to disentangle the myriad impacts that exploitation of fossil or natural energy sources have on the environment (whether it's climate change or massive ecological destruction of relatively carbon-free hydroelectric projects). I just thought I would throw out that question and see if there was any thoughts around this metric.

Regardless-- I love the intent behind low-embodied energy projects, but there isn't an actual metric or benchmark specified, so I'm not sure how meaningful it is in practice (yet).

Anyone out there have THE answer?

Feb 6, 2012 6:51 PM ET

I second the previous
by Aaron Vander Meulen

I second the previous comments on existing homes. Perhaps a pretty good retrofit is possible in the future?

Feb 6, 2012 8:52 PM ET

U-factor & SHGC
by Nate Campbell, Fenestrations Plus

Martin & Jason,
I too can provide windows with Ug .106 & SHGC .62. Yes, Martin, these are Euro numbers.
Something to watch in spec'ing this glazing: can your window company provide high SHGC/low U glazing in tempered glass for the doors and any other windows on the project? Usually not...I can with laminated glazing.

Feb 6, 2012 10:24 PM ET

Square Footage of the PGH
by Rachel White

I'm curious to know how you came up with your numbers (1000-1500-1750-1875 square feet for 1, 2, 3 or 4 occupants respectively). Are they based on design judgment: that it's possible to keep to these limits and still create homes that meet the lifestyle needs of a moderately environmentally sensitive American homeowner? Or do you also have implied performance targets (however fuzzy) in mind... say for operational energy use?

Feb 6, 2012 10:53 PM ET

Size matters
by Dan Kolbert

Rachel - I think one of the frustrations many of us in the group shared was the general tip-toing around the size issue with many of the rating systems (although LEED for Homes somewhat addresses it) in general and the green building world in particular.

I can't remember precisely how we came up with those numbers - I think various people made proposals and we settled on those. We're meeting again tomorrow night for Part 2 and will undoubtedly bring up the size issue again.

But I think it's safe to say we agreed with your sentiments re: reasonable size and lifestyles.

Feb 6, 2012 10:53 PM ET

Why are you shorting the 4th occupant?
by Doug McEvers

To follow up on Rachel's question. Why does occupant #3 get 250 sf and #4 only 125? 125 square feet is not even a decent sized bedroom.

Feb 6, 2012 10:54 PM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 3:11 PM ET.

by Dan Kolbert

The logic is of course not that everyone gets dedicated square footage but that there is a certain amount of infrastructure required for 1 or 5 or 10 people; that presumably the addition of the 4th person doesn't necessitate a 2nd kitchen.

Feb 7, 2012 7:24 AM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 7:26 AM ET.

Big bedrooms
by Michael Maines

Doug, I would disagree with you-- I think that 125 square feet is a decent sized bedroom. That's the size of the master bedroom in my 1978 ranch house and it's fine for my wife and I; it's certainly enough space for a second or third kid. When did it become necessary for each child to have their own 200+ sq ft bedroom? Does anyone recall the days when kids (of the same gender) could share a bedroom?

Feb 7, 2012 9:52 AM ET

room sizes
by Jesse Lizer

I too think 1875 is getting pretty tight for 4+ people. I come from a rather large family, and for everyone to gather, comfortably, together in a space...I find it hard to see all of the requirements for a family of 4+ in that size of a home. But do the numbers mean total square footage, such as including basements? I am personally a big fan of day-lit basements as they are fairly cheap to build (especially if you are building for 4' frost foundation anyway) and add very efficient space. The home we are getting ready to build this spring is about 2700 total, but that is split between main level and the basement, with 3 bedrooms in the walkout basement.

Feb 7, 2012 10:34 AM ET

Sub-slab insulation contradiction
by Martin Holladay

Mike and Dan,
Can you resolve the apparent contradiction in your recommendations concerning sub-slab foam? At one point you recommend “10-20-40-60 insulation for ... sub-slab, foundation walls, framed walls, and roof or ceiling, respectively.”

Later on, you recommend “4 inches of rigid foam under the basement slab.” But 4 inches of EPS is R-16, while 4 inches of XPS is R-20. Both numbers are higher than the R-10 recommendation.

Feb 7, 2012 10:37 AM ET

More on size
by Rachel White

Dan, I'll be really curious to see the results of your follow up discussion on size. If we're going to commit to hard and fast numbers then we want to have good reasons for them. When someone asks us to justify the choice of these particular measurements and not others, we want to be able to say why in as much detail as possible. I think it could be very interesting and useful for someone (other than me) to crunch some numbers (I'm not a numbers person) and quantify correlations between additional square footage and operational energy use.

Feb 7, 2012 10:57 AM ET

Personal preference
by Michael Maines

The contradiction can explained simply by the fact that the discussion group is a loosely organized free-for-all. Early on somebody suggested the 10-20-40-60 numbers. As a recall there was some discussion about Passivhaus levels of sub-slab insulation, and later in the conversation somebody suggested that 4" is a pretty reasonable amount of insulation (EPS or XPS was not specified).

This is a work-in-progress, a brainstorm, not a fully thought out prescriptive measure.

Feb 7, 2012 11:12 AM ET

Thanks, Michael
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for the explanation. And after all, I'm the editor who should have caught the contradiction (and asked the question) before your blog was published...

Feb 7, 2012 11:22 AM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 11:24 AM ET.

Bedroom Size
by Doug McEvers

A 125 square foot allocation for a bedroom will also have walls and the closet as part of the total. Now you are in the 10' x 10' range and homes with bedrooms this small will be passed over. Same with small dining rooms, a 10' x 10' dining room will send prospective buyers out the door.
Kitchen size is an epic discussion.

Feb 7, 2012 11:26 AM ET

Who needs a dining room?
by Martin Holladay

I think dining rooms are obsolete. If the dining table is in the kitchen, you don't need partitions to separate it from the rest of the house -- so you use space more efficiently.

Feb 7, 2012 11:55 AM ET

Foam again
by Michael Maines

I'll suggest that for our climate, R-10 is Pretty Good under a basement slab, but if you have a slab-on-grade you would want at least R-20 (4 inches of XPS).

Feb 7, 2012 12:15 PM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 12:16 PM ET.

re sizes
by Keith Gustafson

I mentally call a 12x12 bedroom my minimum, or nominally 140 sq ft. I would think you could easily package 2 140 sq ft bedrooms, a 200 sq ft master br 2 full baths closets and a hallway in less than 850 square feet, leaving 1000 square feet for living/dining/kitchen. If one was designing with efficiency as a primary goal. Storage is always a big consideration. Living in a house with no attic and no basement one becomes acutely aware of how much stuff one has

If one were developing a specification, I would think flexibility would be key.

What if you assigned an energy number to occupants? For instance, if you assigned 1840 sq ft as a baseline, and if you wanted more space than that you would have to trade up to a higher r value to get back in energy balance. At some point you could not do it,

Or perhaps you grew up in a Manhattan walk up and 1850 sq ft sounds lavish, you could actually save on the triple pane if you chose.

Feb 7, 2012 3:06 PM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 5:44 PM ET.

Two incomes, 80k and 90k.
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Two incomes, 80k and 90k. They buy in a nice suburban NG subdivision.... In the US this is the norm of home purchasers. An extra thousand sqft is not expensive per sqft and is not expensive to heat and cool in much of the country.

But PGH is perfect for my Adirondack granola crowd.

I like PGH. My conribution would be that in the opening statement it is emphasized to use the material as a guide. It is your home. If you want to slide one of the specs one way or another, have at it. We want you to. It is.... Your home.

And I really like your get together idea. Super. Definitely should be copied everywhere. Look foreward to more blogs.

Feb 7, 2012 5:32 PM ET

the realities of small houses
by mike eliason

the realities of small houses and the 'american dream' once again collide.

does every bedroom need to fit a queen?!? at some point, maybe getting creative instead of larger is the 'greener' solution?

Feb 7, 2012 6:19 PM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 6:19 PM ET.

by Keith Gustafson

Call me warped, but growing up in a 9'9" x9'9" I can tell you it is too small!

Feb 7, 2012 11:26 PM ET

Incremental SF
by TJ Elder

Keith, you are warped. But yeah, that's pretty small. How about this: 150 SF as the increment to add a bedroom, including closet and wall thickness. The 3rd (or 4th or 5th) bedroom need not be sized like a master.

Feb 7, 2012 11:30 PM ET

Edited Feb 7, 2012 11:47 PM ET.

3 Things to a pretty good home, and more bla bla
by deniz bilge

1: Just keeping things simple and functional should make the home--if it serves no purpose, don't bother with it. 2: Knowing what the weak spots are in your house is half the battle. The other half is figuring out how to either avoid them, or if impossible, how to counter-balance these weaknesses. Finally, 3: Do some homework and harness as many relevant resources as you can. Everyone needs water regardless of the heating zone. Clever institutions in place which filter, capture, and distribute water effectively can save a bundle... solar heat gain for winter climates, etc...

I think we need to separate our energy consumption needs in two parts: physical and mental. Television, computers, video games, music, etc.-- are all things which aren't based on how our bodies are feeling. I'll bet that more energy than we give credit for gets wasted here. The rest-- light, heat, water, etc.-- is based on physical comfort. Unfortunately, it is what it is and we need what we need. On the other hand, canceling one's cable TV account requires no physical sacrifice.

One more thing... Adaptability. For example, some technologies are timeless, like concrete and steel. Others, such as windows, are advancing so quickly in terms of performance specs, that it is possble that a fiberglass window with U-factor of .08, VT of .60, might exist for the same or less $ as today's middle of the road vinyls. Designing a house to upgrade emerging technologies with minimum impact on the rest of the house seems only logical. In the case of windows, using replacement instead of new construction windows, and without fastners, for example, can make replacement easy down the road. the owner's manual idea...the troubleshooting and maintenance section sounds like a fun chapter..

Feb 8, 2012 12:01 AM ET

the bedroom size debate
by deniz bilge

Get back to lifestyle.....if you use the room to simply sit, sleep, pile laundry in, yes, a 9 x 9 is ample. If you have a drum kit, a Radio Shack 120-in 1 kit on a table, and an easel with oil paints, a 12 x 12 may not even cut it. This stuff depends on lifestyle--1875 square feet sounds like a great starting point. I think that a house that size will work for just as many families as it wouldn't work for.
I mean, in today's family of four, chances are that the house will not have more than 3 people in it 90% of the time, or more than 2 people more than 50% of the time. With 2 incomes necessary to scrape by, who has time to "live" at home anyway--let alone have time to cook a comprehensive meal (requiring extra kitchen space) and to set a formal table in a formal room with forks, knives, and glassware....The house will be used by all 4 members just to eat and sleep and to get ready for another day at the rat race, earning not enough money to pay the ever increasing taxes and unemployment insurances and for more staffing of politicians to create more laws that allow more police officers to give us more tickets.

Feb 8, 2012 12:44 AM ET

Owner's Manual
by Russ Hellem

We have found that this item is usually either left out or simply a bunch of manufacturers installation instructions inserted into a 3 ring binder. As a consultant that comes in when buildings are failing, and a contractor who performs services in homes, we have found extreme value in providing customers with a great owner's manual. We believe in sharing so we posted a template that anyone can use on our website. You are welcome to download it and use it.

Feb 8, 2012 5:39 AM ET

Recommended Reading
by Peter Hastings 4C

Adaptability, upgrade paths and owner's manuals are all dealt with in detail in "How Buildings Learn" by Stewart Brand. He would classify the PGH as a 'low road' concept. Mike Eliason is right on the money - the Western lifestyle is going to crash head-on into the need to live within our means. Happiness with less is going to be the look for the 21st century.

Feb 8, 2012 9:30 AM ET

by Keith Gustafson

Again, as a kid, your room is your world. Especially in a small house, where your train tracks or doll house cannot be left set up for weeks at a time, no a 9x9 does not work. A twin bed, side table and the door take up one wall. Closet doors half of another, dresser and then maybe a small table or desk. The rest is walkway. Where does one play? Where does one keep stuff? In a larger house with a separate 'playroom' 'family room' this may work. As adults the entire house is ours, a kid has just their room.

All that said, as I stated before. you can have 12x12 bedrooms and a 12x16 master and 2 full baths and closets and still easily meet the 1850 Sq Ft It pretty much describes a New England center door colonial, which is a pretty efficient package too.

Feb 8, 2012 12:01 PM ET

we just put together a 3
by mike eliason

we just put together a 3 bedroom proposal for under 1400sf with generous sized rooms - so it is definitely possible to get 4 bedrooms in under 1800sf.

as a kid, my favorite bedroom growing up was a 9'x13' room in a belgian farmhouse.

and you can set aside 'kid spaces' in a small house... i abhor hallways - and tend to turn them into naturally lit spaces where kids can play, or studies - like these:

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