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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 8, 2012 12:37 PM ET

Thanks for the homeowner's manual
by Lucy Foxworth

I really like the idea of a homeowner's manual. The template from energystechs
is very helpful. Thank you.

Feb 8, 2012 5:53 PM ET

I think in order to
by Roger Lin

I think in order to appreciate what a PGH would be in a climate zone and be functionally effective, people need to throw those conventional notions of a good house out of the window. People who read this blog are not your conventional builders and homeowners. Most of us have done some homework and research and are here to learn more.

I think while none of the certification standards offer the one solution people are looking for, but without them, we wouldn't know where the extremes are. It's always easier to cling onto a standard until you can learn to develop your personal notion of a PGH.

Now how do we get those big builders to have that notion too? Perhaps they need to be forced via the power of building code. I noticed the IRC is requiring tighter homes in its 2009 edition and even tighter in 2012. Perhaps if we can get these PGH ideas into code, then builders will need to come up with specific air-tightness and insulation strategies that are achieveable in their production volume. I guess what I am saying is perhaps the people who revise the codes should no longer consider the code as a minimum standard but instead start with a PGH notion.

Finally, I think the Pretty Good House is a very nice idea but can't we up it a notch and call it a Really Good House?

Also, Martin, I enjoyed your descriptions of energy use in building your chimney.

Feb 8, 2012 6:19 PM ET

tighter houses, better buildings
by floris keverling buisman

if you want to build a "pretty" good house - and one free of moisture issues in your walls and roofs - tighter is always better. The tighter you get, the less bulk vapor moves into your insulation and you minimize the infiltration/stack effect+ associated energy losses too.

In Germany if you have an HRV they used to require 1.5ACH50 - it being improved to 1.0ACH50 - the IECC 2012 is going in the right direction but a "P"GH should be a good bit better than code no? So 2.0ACH50 seems a little weak.

Would also like to suggest to lose gas dryers (oh no!) and kitchen exhaust fans...heating the outdoors is never a pretty good idea.

Feb 8, 2012 11:33 PM ET

Different Life Styles
by Elizabeth Kormos

We are just starting to plan our next home. The nest is empty but both of us are self employed consultants and work from our home so we need to add 2 offices to our plan. Does that make us 4 people?

The other issue is that we want universal design which means wide doors, bigger bathrooms and wider hallways (just in case one of us ends up in a wheelchair some day). The other problem is that the living/dining/kitchen, master bath/master bedroom, laundry/mud/dog room has to be all on one floor (~1,500 sf for 2 people) and add another 375 to 500 sf upstairs for the offices and storage which doesn't make for a nice neat box to insulate. We have a flat site so the daylight basement is out and we may build on a slab because the water table is high. Now of course we have no space for when the kids come home never mind someday when they bring grandchildren from across the country or if what if my mother needs to move in with us (assisted living runs $4,000 to $6,000 per month).

The sizes suggested assume particular lifestyles which may not fit every family. I know it's important not to over build but the house has to be designed for the people who will live there. Has anyone seen or designed a pretty good house for home based working empty nesters like us?

By the way "pretty good house" is a terrible name. It suggests that you are getting less than a "good house." Come up with a better name or you will have a hard time selling this to builders and customers.

Feb 8, 2012 11:45 PM ET

by Dan Kolbert

I beg to differ - I think it's brilliant. (irony emoticon here)

We met last night for Part 2 - Mike is presumably hard at work on the next blog entry. The enthusiasm over the basic idea (whatever that really is) is very interesting - took me by surprise. Our group had a lot of enthusiasm for taking the idea somewhere - my idea was a Pretty Good House Coloring Book, but that may not sell too well.

Obviously part of its appeal is a reaction to rating systems and the various ways they can lead us into odd choices for the sake of the gold (or platinum) star. The things that seem valuable to me are the ways that LEED, PH, etc, lead us to think about a project systematically, holistically, or whatever stupid organic word you want to use. So some tool, whether it's a checklist, a guide book, or even a collection of projects or key metrics, designed around the conditions of a specific locale, seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

Everyone will have to make their own choices about what makes their house "pretty good." The way universal design might affect square footage is a great example. There are trade-offs all over the place, and I think what we've been talking about in our group is some way of making that more explicit in the process.

As always, I can't encourage people strongly enough to start a discussion group locally. I'll be happy to e-mail copies of the piece I wrote that Mike linked to in the blog entry - email me at dan at kolbertbuilding dotcom.

Feb 9, 2012 5:36 AM ET

Edited Feb 9, 2012 5:43 AM ET.

Different Life Styles
by Peter Hastings 4C

My wife and I are planning our next home and this is exactly what we have been wrestling with - once the first floor is big enough for ADA access the second floor is too big. Our (current) preferred solution is a single (or 1-1/2) story house with one of Martin's 12/12 roofs. Put in a (fairly) central stair and use the attic space for office/storage/guest bed. The upstairs quarters are lit from the gable ends and the 'unusable' space towards the eaves carries mechanical stuff, ducts, pipework and cabling in a reasonably accessible fashion. We think it's a pretty neat box and should make a pretty good house. When need arises we can always throw out 'stuff' and outfit the storage for people. In fact, the current iteration has the master bed/bath upstairs and the guest bed on the first floor. They will swap functions when one or other of us can no longer manage stairs.

Feb 9, 2012 12:35 PM ET

Edited Feb 9, 2012 12:36 PM ET.

My two cents while skiing.
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

My two cents while skiing. Keep the PGH name cuz if ya don't I'm taking it. I love the name.

And never plan to be in a wheel chair. Use stairs. Stay active and on your feet till you drop. It's life I say, not a stop over waiting for what's next. A mogul awaits me.

Oh and if life has you off your feet, we have great sit ski programs at the slopes. Come out, and enjoy ... Life.

Feb 9, 2012 12:43 PM ET

Passive Solar Design with high SHGC south glass
by Debra Coleman

Although some may think that Passive Solar Design should be a subcategory of the listed Good Design as listed in one of the items of Pretty Good Design, I'd like to see Passive Solar listed as a separate item on the list since "good design" is so subjective and passive solar is objective. Good passive solar design is addressed in other Green Building Advisor blogs and in my book The Sun-Inspired House which Martin favorably reviewed a few years back, except for my disjointed writing style. :)

The main challenge that home owners and their builders have who are building our sun-inspired design is locating windows to use on the south side with glass that fits the design intention which is typically low U factor and high SHGC. Unfortunately the ability to obtain this type of glass in windows varies greatly throughout North America where our clients are scattered. Fortunately, window manufacturers seem to be coming around more and more esp. with the use of Cardinal's 180 glass and now their new i81 glass which I will interested in following.

I also really like the Canadian ER rating which I believe evaluates the net energy gain of windows in cold climates since it is a factor of both the U value and SHGC factor. The ER factor is showing up more and more in specs for windows manufactured in the U.S. The higher ER numbers show better performance.

Feb 9, 2012 1:43 PM ET

size issues
by Robert Swinburne

I would like to see people stepping back a bit from the size issue and focus more on function. A well designed 1200 square foot house may function a whole lot better for a family of four than a poorly designed 1800 s.f. house. If it functions better than it is less likely to be renovated and added on to in the future. And sometimes sustainable does mean not making things as small as possible – perhaps a 12 x 12 bedroom is more sustainable than a 10 x 12 bedroom.

Feb 9, 2012 3:04 PM ET

pretty good houses
by mike keesee

We at SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, are big fans of pretty good houses, think we have a pretty good house (FED Climate Zone 3,California Climate Zone 12). We call it the SolarSmart (SS) Home. Contrary to prevailaing wisdom, we choose a prescriptive route for the development of the SS. Oc course, that prescriptive path was base on a lot of simulation work courtesy of NREL. We work on developing prototypes based on BEopt simulation and teted them on a subdivision scale. In brief, SS homes are about 20%> than 2005 Title-24 Standards w/ 60% reduction in annual electricity use and 25% reduciton in annual gas use. SS homes included following measures:

Upgrades to Title-24 Standards
Measure Base SolarSmart
Attic Insulation R-38 R-38
Radiant Barrier No Yes
Wall Insulation R-13 R-13 + R-4 Rigid Foam
Quality Installation* No Yes*
Low Air Infiltration* No Yes*
Windows E-Star E-Star
FURN AFUE 0.80 0.90+
A/C SEER/EER 13 (3.7 ton) 14/12 w/TXV (3.1 ton)*
ACCA Design* No Yes*
Duct Testing* No Yes*
Water Heating .60 .60
Lighting T-24 CFL (all down-lights)
Solar Electric NA 1-2kW Solar PV

Note that PV was a mandatory requirement for SS program participation.

To date, we achieved about 50% market share, and participating builders have told us that they find the protgram easy to understand and implement and, more importnatly, their customers like it. Limited bill analysis shows that SS homeowners are using 50% less energy and saving about 54% on their electric bills vs. a control group (we attribute the smaller savings to increased plug loads).

Although we're thrilled with the results, we knew we had to do better, especially with upgrades to T-24 and Californai's stated policy goal of achiveing zero net energy in residential new cosntruction by 2030. To that end, we developed a HOme of the Future (HOF) R&D program. The goal of the HOF R&D was to develop a package of energy efficiency measures combined with PV and solar thermal to reduce total annual source energy use by 80%. NREL and Building Science partnered with us in this effort. BEopt simulation was used to develop HOF package, including:

Energy Efficiency Measure Title-24 Home of the Future
40-45%> Code
Attic Insulation R-38 R-50 ceiling assembly or equivalent
Attic under furnace R-19 NA
Radiant Barrier Yes NA
Wall Insulation R-13 + R-4 Rigid Foam Advanced Framing - 2x6/R19-R21
cavity/R12 insulating sheathing (R-30 wall assembly)
or equivalent
Windows Energy Star Energy Star <0.30 U-value, 0.26 SHGC
Furnace AFUE* 0.92 . 92 + variable speed fan
A/C SEER/EER SEER 13/EER 11 SEER 18+/12 +
ACCA Design no Yes
Duct Insulation R-6 R-6 Ducts inside conditioned space
Mechanical Ventilation Yes, Exahust Fans Yes, Upgraded E-Star
Whole House Van No Optional Advanced w/ Seal Dampers
Water Heating* .62 Energy Factor (EF) Gas Storage Solar hot water with tankless gas or HE
boiler hot water backup (>.90 EF) OR Condensing
Tankles/Storage (>.90 EF)
Home Energy Rating No Yes
HERS Field Verification and Diagnostic Testing
Verified Energy Efficiency Ratio Yes Yes
Verified Duct Leakage Yes Yes, Low Leakage Ducts in Conditioned Space
Verified Refrigerant Charge No Yes
Verified Cooling Coil Airflow no Yes
Air Handler Fan Watt Draw no Yes
Verififed Maximum Total Rated Cooling Capacity no Yes
Building Envelope Sealing no Yes, very tight to less than 0.002 SLA (4ACH50)
Quality Installation Inspection no Yes
Quality Insulation Installation for Spray Foarm Insulation no Yes
Lighting T-24 Reqts All CFLs
Solar Electric No 3.5-4 kW Solar PV
Solar Thermal (Hot Water) No Optional
Appliances (Clothes Washer & Drier, Dishwasher)* No Energy Star Tier II

Late last year, ConSol did a more exhaustive analysis for us with several different prototypes raning from 900 sf (proxy for apartment) to 3200 sf and came up with similar results.

Two HOF homes have been built and a HOF multi-family project is under construction. To date, results on the first HOF are mixed: electric use is higher than predicted and gas use lower than predicited. Again, plug loads are the culprit - homeowners adding more loads (24 hr. fountains and a refrigerator in the garage, yeah the old one). And we don't have data on the new HOF.

However, the builder world has changed and zero energy has traction - note Meritage and KB's entry into this arena. We;'re also about to announce a big deal with local builder and working with smaller builders on HOF subdivisions.

In brief, we're convinced that a "packaged" approach provides consistent results and a "pretty good house."

Simarly, I applied the same technique to deep energy retrofits. I've completed 6 demo projects and have come to similar conclusion - a "package" of commercial available EE measures (basically bring the home to current T-24 standards) can produce consistent results, especially if you strategically target older homes, all electric homes or high energy using homes. Again, we get a "pretty good house" (note: we still have to work on plug loads; they're a monster).

Don't get me wrong. I like passiv house, LEED, Greenbuilt and the other green home progams.. They push the envelope and set upper standards, but we need to recognize that these programs are not applicable for the huge majority of cases and will never achieve the market penetration we need if we want to achive the energy savings we need to in new and existing homes. As laudable as tthese programs are, they are overly complicated, expensive, and in certain cases dogmatically ridig. Home buyers and owners, buildes and contractors need easy to understand and implement and affordable solutions. Our experience at SMUD tell us that if we can deliver easy to understand and implement and affordable programs our customers will respond.

Feb 9, 2012 3:25 PM ET

by Mark Correll

I applaud your efforts with Energy Star, LEED, Passivehaus, Green this and that, but it all boils down to what the customer wants and can afford. I believe in being a sustainable builder and providing a product that meets the customer's needs and desires, and they may not fall into these afore mention categories.

I do believe that builders need to educate themseleves in these building techniques and advocate them to their customers. Home construction has been occurring for centuries and we've only made it more difficult, the Green, LEED, Energy Star movements were advertised as "Green is the New Gold" with the HBA that I was associated with, just a way to continue to make the same money in depressed times, I am no longer associated with that organization.

I like the idea you present here, what really works as best options to provide better dwellings for our customers. How do we remodel and provide a better living space, not everyone has the clout of Mike Holmes - someone will need to pay for products and services.

As builders, we need to get to know our customers and suggest efficient and cost effective methodologies to meet their needs. All of with is based upon sound building practices.

Feb 9, 2012 8:48 PM ET

Deniz Bilze has some Pretty Good ideas.
by Michael Maines

From post #45:
1. Keep your house simple
2. Offset your personal weaknesses and your house's weaknesses.
3. Be aware what you have available for resources, and harness them.
4. Physical vs. mental "needs." I can attest that getting rid of cable TV is not that hard, once you do it. Netflix and Roku make it easier, and plugging the whole mess into a power strip that gets turned off when you're not using it makes TV watching a special event AND not an energy sucker.
5. Modularity. Deniz called it adaptability, but I thing the concept is more like modular components that can be swapped out as lifestyles and technology change in the future. I would argue against replacement windows because vinyl is not easily recycled, but the concept is wise.

Feb 9, 2012 10:03 PM ET

Edited Feb 9, 2012 10:08 PM ET.

Frustrating to read posts....
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

If you don't want vinyl don't use vinyl. It is that simple. Pros and cons of products are fine to mention in a reference but I am against black listing products.

Frustrating to read posts.... I want this but not that.... That is why great regional reference specs with choices are what I think PGH is about. Look at the spec, work with it with the customer, pick a final build spec that harminizes all needs and wants and then grab hammers. Being rigid like, don't put vinyl or whatever in some allowed list is just not PGH. A reference, a customer, and myself. Done. We plot our comprimises and we live with it.

Feb 9, 2012 10:37 PM ET

The first rule of PGH is .....
by Dan Kolbert

I'm glad we're talking about it.

Feb 10, 2012 1:25 AM ET

Southern Design criteria
by Neil Porter

Regarding Armando Cobo’s comment #7:

"1. Passive Solar Design should be 1st priority"
What do you understand as "passive solar design" for the south?
I live in Fort Myers, Florida. Our highs in January and February have often been in the 70s-80s. Basically there are only a couple days a year when it would be good to have solar gain through the windows. Otherwise it is never needed and definitely not desired.

Good design for south Florida means no windows on the east and west walls because the low morning and afternoon sun heats up the home year-round and greatly increases the cost for air conditioning. North-facing windows are great because they only get early morning and late afternoon sun before and after June 21. With the sun at 85 degrees at noon on that date, it doesn’t take much of an overhang to shade south-facing windows.

As a result, I would say that the home’s orientation is top priority from an energy standpoint. Ideally the front would face south. In our area virtually no porches have been built on the fronts of homes for decades. Most homes have a screened enclosure (called a lanai here) in the back. This is because six months of the year we have a lot of mosquitoes. Usually a double sliding glass door from the dining room and often from the master bedroom and sometimes from a second bedroom lead to the lanai. Having these large glass surfaces face north reduces a lot of solar gain.

Having the lanai face north also keeps it much cooler because the house and roofed portion keep it shaded. A lanai that faces west, south or east is much less comfortable nine months of the year.

The lanai should also jut out from the back of the home with screens on three sides to benefit from cooling breezes.

“2. Larger overhangs and porches”
When I first started researching green building in Florida this was also recommended. But when hurricane resistance entered the picture, as it must in all of Florida, overhangs shrank to one foot. The exception is the covered portion of our lanais. These are called “under truss” because they are integrated into the home’s roof. The trusses are supported by a poured concrete tie beam which rest on concrete pillars.

“3. Insulation levels can be lower
4. Triple glazing is not needed”
To understand this, northern people need to keep our climate in mind. For the most part we design for efficient air conditioning at least six months of the year. There are exceptions but generally our hottest temperatures are about 95 degrees. Keeping the interior air conditioned to 76-78 degrees means that there is only a 17-19 degree difference in the summer afternoons. As a result, thick insulation on walls and expensive insulated windows is not a good use of available funds. Tight-fitting windows with reduced air infiltration, on the other hand, is a good thing because of our high humidity which is generally 80-100% every night year-round.

This high humidity at night coupled with 80-85 degrees still at midnight means that we can’t open windows at night during our long summers. For most people the home is kept tightly closed for six months once the temperatures get too hot.

“5. Install reflective roofs”
A major part of our heat gain is through the roof so having a highly reflective and emissive white metal roof should be one of the top priorities. Whereas a heat-absorbing shingle roof lasts about 20 years at best in this climate, a metal roof will last 40-50 years. Shingles then usually go to the dump. Metal, on the other hand, can be easily recycled. Metal roofing is also much more resistant to hurricane-force winds. The downside is that metal is about twice as expensive.

“6. Select light color material”
Since many homes here are built with uninsulated concrete blocks, using light-colored exterior paint or shading the walls with vegetation can help reduce energy costs.

May I add the following:

Forget about the Pretty Good House for starters in Florida. Get a solar water heater in every existing and new home and accomplish a much greater reduction in energy use for a small investment and short-term payoff.

Now, regarding the Pretty Good House...

Insulating the under side of the roof sheathing with spray foam not only insulates an unvented attic keeping the humidity out but also greatly increases the uplift resistance to hurricane-force winds. Also, since air conditioner ducts are always installed in our attics and often the air handler, reducing the attic temperature in this way greatly reduces the heat transferred to the ducts.

Six months of the year our garages are hot so many people don’t want their washer and dryer there but rather in a laundry room in the air conditioned part of the home. This, however, is not good from an energy standpoint. The two appliances not only produce a lot of heat and moisture that the air conditioner has to remove, the dryer sucks a lot of cool air out of the home and heats it to dry the clothes. One compromise would be to seal the dryer and run a duct from the hot attic to the dryer. Front-loading washers not only use less water and energy but are also sealed so they release less moisture to the air than do top-loaders.

For people that are regularly away from the home for several hours a programmable thermostat with an unoccupied temperature of 85 degrees can greatly reduce energy costs.

Since we can never swim in fresh water lakes and rivers due to alligators and not at night in salt water because of sharks, some people have pools. Solar panels and pool covers make pools useable for more of the year without the additional energy costs of electric heat pumps or gas heaters.

Feb 10, 2012 10:32 AM ET

Edited Feb 10, 2012 10:33 AM ET.

by Peter Hastings 4C

And never plan to be in a wheel chair. Use stairs. Stay active and on your feet till you drop.

I'm not planning to be in a wheelchair. I am planning to stay active and on my feet until I drop. But I'm also planning not to have to move house should any member of my family ever be unfortunate enough to need a wheelchair. I think it's a pretty good plan.

Feb 10, 2012 12:05 PM ET

Flex space
by Michael Maines

Like AJ, I don't plan to be in a wheelchair and plan to always have stairs and multiple levels in my future home(s). However, for myself and for clients I like to design in a "flex space" on the main level. It might be an away room for now, but could be used if someone broke their leg skiing, or it could serve as an in-law space for extended visits. Someday it could be used as a master bedroom if necessary.

As for Elizabeth Kormos' comment on the PGH name, just think of it as the Pretty D@mn Good House, but the D@mn is silent.

Feb 10, 2012 7:40 PM ET

So you'll never be disabled?
by Elizabeth Kormos

OK guys here are the stats from the 2007 US Census on the percent of population that is physically disabled:

% US Pop
Age 5 -15 1.1%
Age 16-20 1.6%
Age 21 -64 8.0%
Age 65-74 23.0%
Age 75 Plus 40.2%

The odds of a person having at least one long term disability that lasts three months or longer before that person reaches age 65 (Society of Actuaries)

Age Probability
25 44%
30 42%
35 41%
40 39%
45 36%
50 33%
55 27%

Those are pretty big odds. Any of you plan on being age 75 and older someday and still want to stay in your own home? Got anyone in your family that is older or disabled? Ever break a leg or sprain an ankle?

Universal design just makes sense.

Feb 11, 2012 2:43 AM ET

Rename it EGH
by Jack Barnes

I'm in the camp that doesn't love the name PGH... liked it at first, but it does seem (wrongly) to imply mediocrity. I think the french adapted passivhaus to something called effinergie house, so why not borrow from them and call this the Effin' Good House?

Feb 12, 2012 10:38 PM ET

Not a set of rules.
by James Morgan

What do you understand as "passive solar design" for the south?

So glad you brought this up, Neil. Our central NC climate is different again and has its own particular best solar practices. Passive solar optimization is not the same thing for all altitudes, latitudes and climates.

Universal design just makes sense.

Another common area of confusion. The stats sound overwhelming but it's worth bearing in mind that the vast majority of the disabilities in these lists do NOT involve that universal symbol of the ADA, the wheelchair. Universal design is a fine concept but let's be clear that the essential components of a forward looking PGH are not just a suite of 36" doors and a wheelchair ramp. For a deeper look at future-proofing our homes start with the chapter on scenario-buffered design in Stewart Brand's "How Buildings Learn" as mentioned above.

This leads me to the one other thing I'd add to all the wonderful commentary above is that a PDGH should be LOCAL and PERSONAL. Only then can local climate, local culture, local context and specific local needs be properly addressed and a home perform at its best. As Neil points out super-insulation is a waste of resources in his neck of the woods but impeccable air-sealing is a must. 1200 s.f. embedded in a rich matrix of outside resources can offer better living than 2,000 s.f in isolation. Knowledge shared across a continent in a forum like GBA is a wonderful resource but local knowledge and experience and personal attention are indispensable to a great-performing home.

Feb 13, 2012 7:26 AM ET

Room sizes and design
by Neil Porter

As a realtor I see a lot of homes in southwest Florida. During our building boom 2003-2007 thousands of 3/2/2 homes were built in our area with 1,400-1,700 SF "under air" as we say here. 10'x10' - 12'x12' second and third bedrooms tend to be the norm - even with larger homes. Hi groundwater tables prevent us from having basements and low attics filled with angled 2x4s along with high humidity due to vented attics prevent them from being used in any way. Our inventory of listed single-family homes has come down from 14,000 a couple years ago to 7,000 now. And at any moment in time 35-40% of those have offers or contracts on them waiting to close.

Thousands of people are living happily in homes this size.

One thing I notice frequently is that size is not the determining factor for livability - design is. I often wonder if a home was designed by a general contractor that had no idea how to design a home.

Bedroom closets, for example. People love walk-in closets but basically only two feet out from the walls is actual useable storage space. I've seen big ones with a lot of empty space in the center and only one or two walls useable. Six feet wide with clothes rods on the two side walls and two shelves above them adjustable in height is a very efficient use of space. Make the shelves 16" or 20" deep and use free and sturdy banana boxes for a lot of very practical storage.

This is, of course, micro design which is not really the intent of this discussion. Or is it? A lot has been said about the details of insulation. Then came the discussion about square footage. Some wanted a basis for the numbers some said felt good. But square footage alone does not make a home comfy. What minimum dimensions feel good? Our lovingroom is 12.5' wide but a 5' queen bed and two 28" night stands would also fit in 10'.

The closet and bathroom doors on the opposite wall are ideally set 19" from the two side walls. That means we can use the two side walls to put a dresser. Often I see a door that opens almost directly next to the adjacent wall. That wall has then only one use - to walk past it. There is no possibility of using it for storage furniture. That is inefficient design.

Perhaps we need separate discussions about the Pretty Good House for the different aspects involved: insulation and infiltration, HVAC, floorplan design, window size and placement roofing materials.

Feb 13, 2012 10:49 AM ET

Since when are Dining rooms obsolete?
by Robert Henderson

My spouse would argue vehemently against that. They may not be huge expansive rooms anymore, but she and I both would not consider a house without the separate dining space. We have a small table in the kitchen for "daily" meals, but when the kids show up and other family, it's in the dining room.

Given the state of the kitchen during most 'events' the spouse would kill me if we had guests dine at the 'kitchen' table.

Our current house has a 10x10 bedroom. It should have been a non-starter from day one. When the first child moved out it was quickly abandoned by the then occupant.

Feb 13, 2012 11:18 AM ET

Design a house to meet YOUR needs
by Martin Holladay

You should be able to design a house that meets your own family's needs. If you value a dining room, go for it.

I've always been a kitchen-table kind of guy, and I've never lived in a house with a dining room. I've done a lot of home inspections over the years, however, and I've seen a lot of dining rooms. The evidence supports the proposition that many of these rooms are very rarely used.

Feb 13, 2012 11:49 AM ET

Missing most basic design criteria
by Grant Dorris

Not to disagree with any of the PGH proposed guidelines, but any house should have plan and details for the major damage functions - heat, air leakage, radiation (uv degradation), moisture, and pests. Not assumed, but written down and/or drawn. And verified in the field. We should also have a plan for what happens when design guidelines are not executed properly in the field. I would even suggest a detail for how the structure is designed to dry.

Too many times (almost always) these things are, at minimum, not thought about or, at maximum, assumed. Day in and day out I see houses where failure to protect a structure from one, or more, of these damage functions has led to premature durability failures. Without careful consideration for addressing damage functions, the rest of the design considerations can quickly become an exercise in futility.

Feb 13, 2012 3:24 PM ET

Square footage
by Troy Scott

Kudos for attempting to balance the environmental footprint/impact and building costs. Like other commenters on this list, we are currently attempting to design such a house. We are finding that designs that attempt to accommodate for the potential of future wheelchair/disability needs result in 500-600 square feet of "additional" space requirements for movement compared to conventional design. For example, if one assumes 48 inch passageways with 42 inch cross passageways, a bedroom for a king size bed ends up being 17.5 feet by 12.25 feet (6 ft wide bed plus 4 ft passage on each side plus 21 inches on each side for dressers/furniture by 7 ft long bed plus 3.5 ft passage plus 21 inches; 214 sq ft plus closets) as opposed to the <=140 sq ft with closets that seems to be the consensus in this discussion. Similarly, to provide adequate space in bathrooms and kitchens, the footprints of these rooms become much larger. We are also finding that the need for additional storage space and mechanical room requirements when everything is placed on one level for wheel chair access is resulting in approximately a 3000 sq ft footprint. Does anyone have any suggestions regarding how to effectively incorporate the additional space needed for ADA compliance while keeping the footprint of a 3 BR/2 bath house in the 1500-2000 sq ft range suggested by this discussion to date?

Feb 14, 2012 2:14 AM ET

Troy, a wheelchair does not
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Troy, a wheelchair does not need access to every sqft of a home, nor a king bed nor 48" paths. A friend of mine is fulltime in a wheelchair and after twenty years I forget she even is. All the space you mention is nice to have but is not mandatory to get by just fine.

Feb 14, 2012 10:00 AM ET

Edited Feb 14, 2012 11:15 AM ET.

Prescriptive vs Performance
by Garth Hood

This is a fascinating discussion!

Although coming up with prescriptive guidelines for energy efficient home building is helpful for defining minimum standards this does not substitute for a performance based approach. Appropriate energy modelling software can take into account virtually every variable in a home building or renovating scenario.

The prescriptive approach tends to simplify the vast number and complexity of variables. The list can be a starting place as long as modelling and testing is still part of the design and building process.

I am a firm believer that a competent energy consultant can generally save the client money by targeting insulation to actual energy losses. Beyond this the house will be more comfortable and healthier as hot and cold spots are reduced if not eliminated. The energy consultant can also calculate heating loads and ventilation rates.

I also believe it is a myth that slab floor insulation levels can be significantly lower than other insulation levels in the house. As we reduce air leakage in a building the stack or chimney effect becomes a smaller factor in energy loss. With little stratification of air, temperatures within the thermal envelope equalize. This means that energy losses also equalize. A balanced thermal envelope - where heat losses are evenly spread out over every surface - will give heating load numbers that are just as good but create less hot/cold spots. I would suggest numbers closer to 20-30-40-50 (or even 25-35-45-55) as a good starting point. This would reduce issues of condensation and mould when transitioning to different insulation layers.

Another issue that needs to be addressed in any prescriptive approach is thermal bridging. A house with nominal Passive House levels of insulation but significant thermal bridging will be less comfortable. Reducing thermal bridging not only reduces huge energy loss conduits in a building but, again, reduces condensation and mould issues.

A well built energy efficient house is actually a more comfortable, healthier and longer lasting house. If well conceived this house will - in almost every case – have a lower lifetime cost of ownership and give occupants a higher quality of life. From this perspective the Passive House approach still gives the best bang for the buck.

Feb 14, 2012 6:39 PM ET

Edited Feb 14, 2012 6:46 PM ET.

Garth, you just described
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Garth, you just described what Bruce Brownell has been close to doing for decades. One well sealed continuous R factor on all six sides. And with his circulating air idea, one temperature for all surfaces.

And his few spots that he showed me that had minor issues were just what you stated... Very small areas of thermal bridging, or air leaks and what not.

Interesting post Garth. PGH and PH... and Garth's-PGH all sound like we are heading in a pretty good direction (per new home anyway).

Bruce's site. a tireless promoter of low E homes;

Feb 15, 2012 12:21 PM ET

I think the insulation
by mike eliason

I think the insulation numbers for the PGH are fairly adequate for most of the country, but may be insufficient for colder regions. With the right design/approach PH is achievable in most regions without going nutso on the sub-slab insulation - and using R/30 slab/R-40 wall/R-60 roof with decent windows may get you to Passivhaus or close for nearly all of zones 4 and better, most of zone 5B and 5A.

One thing worth thinking about regarding embodied energy: the 'investment' of embodied energy for low energy houses can be amortized in under a year or two. It may be more prudent to focus on local products (supporting local jobs) than trying to shave off a few MJ here and there.

Also, design for dis-assembly?

Feb 15, 2012 7:14 PM ET

I like "design for
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

I like "design for dis-assembly" which is one of my dislikes of sprayfoam. But because sprayfoam glues on is also why I like it.

The more I follow green built discussions the more I see a split occurring. Build natural ala Robert Riversong and the likes, or go highly engineered ala PH, Benson, Brownell, Lstiburek and company.

And I like both. Just like I like the mountains/coastlines and cities but avoid the suburbs like the plague. I think I went in a mall last time back in the early eighties. Please don't ask me to work on basic tract homes in the burbs.

Feb 17, 2012 1:10 AM ET

Size, occupant allotment, and fuels
by Michael Horowitz

I have a couple of suggestions for the pretty good house. This is after twelve years of pondering, researching, and now writing a masters thesis on house size, energy use, and green ratings. In Vermont I formulated the VBG size multiplier formula, which unfortunately due to LEED for Homes national recognition and pressure, went nowhere. I warn all that I am fairly jaded about HERS, LEED for Homes, and even Passivhaus standards. They all favor large homes and higher socioeconomic status for various reasons, either by "tip-toeing" as previously mentioned or by bait-and-switch distraction, aka, BTU/ft2 nonsense. Here are my suggestions, without a lot of rationale, though I have it.

1. That we acknowledge the HDD AND the heating fuels being used to heat a home in the same paragraph as the suggested insulation levels for the home. For oil, natural gas, propane, wood pellets, chunk wood, and certainly passive solar contributions, I might suggest differing levels of insulation for this pretty good house, contingent on the HDD. Ultimately it is not the energy, per se, but the environmental impact that needs to be reduced. Fuel choice in homes tends to remain steady until the initial equipment fails, which means a BTU is not a BTU. Some do more damage than others.
2. That we start talking about a benchmark BTU/bedroom (+ one) or BTU/anticipated occupant and stop talking about btu/ft2. Once we do this--on an energy front at least--we can stop talking about size. I'd like to hear about the quantify of MMBTU per occupant in my HDD region (~8000) so I can determine which homes are allowing their occupants to reduce their footprint in terms of space heat. Efficiency is OK, but let's spend some time on the efficacy of a given house in sheltering its residents, and stop using math that distracts from and therefore forgives energy and material gluttony.
3. Acknowledge and address the major problem with energy ratings now, en force. If a typical family of five in a 1000 ft2 mobile home can "upgrade" into a 4000 ft2 LEED certified home and in the process INCREASE their energy and ecological footprint in both the embodied and operating energy in their new "green" residence, it seems to be a break in logic is evident. One would expect that if a family moves from the bane of green housing rhetoric into the cutting edge "sustainable" home, they would have a significantly smaller footprint. Again, I argue for measuring energy use in housing as a per capita-like ratio, not per home, and not BTU per ft2 of floor area. We are the final energy user, not our homes. With a given construction method, the choice to build bigger is a choice to use more.
4. And finally, let us tie the insulation levels to a target btu/occupant load (for each HDD and CDD region), creating a sliding scale of the R-values expected for different sized homes: more as the home gets larger, maintaining a bright line maximum BTU/occupant for certification. Those building larger homes, ostensibly with larger budgets, would then be expected to build better than those who already have a reasonably low energy footprint due to the limiting effect of size. And please fix anomalies punishing small Passivhaus homes...

We need affordability and social equity included in green home ratings, and we need to stop ignoring the topic of reasonable energy use per person if we want to use the word sustainable in association with LEED, HERS, Energy Star, or even Passivhaus.

Feb 17, 2012 10:46 AM ET

PGH & The Not So Big House
by Rachel White

I know I keep harping on square footage but our discussion of the right size for a PGH coincided with the arrival in my email inbox of Sarah Susanka's latest enews focused on her new showhouse in Libertyville, IL .

The overall dimensions of this house are (drumroll...) 2450 sq feet. And this from the inventor of the Not So Big House concept (which is explicitly mentioned as inspiration for the PGH concept). How on earth can we make the argument that smaller is better if we keep building homes that area as large as the average new home?

Full disclosure: My family of 4 lives in a house that is 2400 square feet. It was originally built in 1895 and was 1800 square feet when we bought it. We added on in 2004, before we had drunk the kool-aid, and I have been kicking myself ever since. We could have lived very happily and had lower energy bills for life if we had stayed within the existing footprint. Not that I don't love my house. I do, but there is most definitely wasted space.

Feb 17, 2012 10:54 AM ET

Response to Rachel White
by Martin Holladay

Et tu, Sarah?

Feb 17, 2012 11:25 AM ET

@michael horowitz, it's not
by mike eliason

@michael horowitz,
it's not exactly accurate to claim that passivhaus doesn't take into account per person energy usage. verification (for certification) utilizes an occupant load of 35m2 p.p. (377sf p.p.) - so, making your building bigger might make it easier to hit the space heating demand, but you could end up blowing your primary demand due to increased [plug loads/dhw/etc]. and again, there's no 'small house penalty' for passivhaus - there's a poor design (or detached house) penalty (and even then, only in more extreme climates).

i still contend that BTU/occupant or bedroom is a worse metric, given that lifestyles/families change over time, buildings need to be revamped over time, etc.

Feb 17, 2012 10:58 PM ET

size math from a HS teacher
by Michael Horowitz

Mike, and others,

Space heating and cooling represents such a significant portion of energy use in some regions, that smaller homes are absolutely being discriminated against, along with the low to middle income occupants of those homes, as I will demonstrate. Also, plug loads, lighting, and domestic hot water usage are just as variable as occupancy, and in fact are tied to it. One cannot complete certification/verification of any program I know without using an estimated occupancy somewhere in the calsulations. If I can guess at the home's plug loads in perpetuity, I can certainly guess at its occupancy.

I do not build or design to passivhaus standards, so I apologize for my lack of total familiarity. I am just collecting information for my thesis, so you will have to excuse me. However, I teach house design to high school students. I must oversimplify concepts to compensate for their lack of building experience. Sometimes when we dig down a level, or when I get what might be considered naive questions from the mouths of babes, we venture under the oft- uttered suppositions of the industry, where inconsistencies and foundational flaws reveal themselves to me and my students. I apologize to those attached to passivhaus standards, or HERS, or LEED, but they, like classical physics, don't work at the level of small. If I may have your open-minded consideration, here is what I have discovered:

First, any system that uses kWh/m2 or BTU/ft2 to measure space heating or cooling loads as a metric (energy in relation to floor area), favors larger homes at the outset. Shell area, as homes get larger, represents an increasingly smaller percentage of the floor area. The shell is where heat is lost or gained, both in conduction and in infiltration. At first that may seem like a flower in the lapel of the large house. But the quality of information one gets is dictated by the questions one asks...

Any particular envelope assembly (a given U-factor) will show better performance as the floor area gets larger--when the UA of the building's shell is the numerator and the floor area is the denominator of the chosen performance indicator. Here's where the flaw seems to become manifest. With no presumptions please consider my question with care: Why are we dividing by the floor area? Why is BTU/ft2 THE indicator? I say it is because we are assuming that the floor area is a given. Not only that, but that we give it prominence in our metric. That is often the quality of the denominator in a ratio: prime focus. Freedom of choice of our house size is so sacrosanct that no one wants to suggest that perhaps the choice to build large is itself antithetical to being green. Do we really need to bow to the trend of increasing space use at the expense of a logical metric to determine what is green enough? With our current rating systems, the more space you can afford dictates the amount of energy you get to use and still be considered green. It doesn't matter what your energy footprint actually is, if the walls of your house aren't R-40, you are not green.

The energy used is not for the floor area. It is for the occupants. They should be the denominator in the ratio fraction. Divide by the bedrooms, if that makes you more comfortable. Yes, occupancy will change, as will so many other things. But there is an average occupancy rate that can be mathematically correlated to the number of bedrooms and that can be used as a metric that is accurate enough to allow measured increases or decreases in home energy use per capita by average occupancy..

Just like our appetites for material possession, homes have grown. Despite a small dip recently, homes have more than doubled in size in 60 years, while the occupancy has dropped by 25%.

Factoring together the family size and house size statistics, we find that in 1950 houses were built with about 290 square feet (27 m2) per family member, whereas in 2003 houses provided 893 square feet (83 m2) per family member (NAHB 2003) -- a factor of 3 increase. (Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland, EBN, 2005)

If we have a benchmark it should be related to individuals, not square feet, so there is an impetus to build smaller or take other measures to lower the energy use per person: For the bigger home lower U-factors all around, same energy use per bedroom. What's not to like?

If houses continue to increase in size, gains in btu/ft2 will not necessarily translate to decreased energy per person, saving nothing but virtual guesses at what might have been without a green standard. That is why individuals need to be the denominator, and why we need to stop waving our left hand around like a magician, hoping no one is looking at our right hand, the one that is holding the key to sustainable housing: questioning the resources used by individuals, not by square feet.

Before anyone responds to my soap box rantings, do a spreadsheet exercise, please, for context.

Imagine three rectangular boxes with a 40 foot width and varying length: 1000, 2000, and 4000 ft2 bottoms with 8 foot tall sides and a flat top. Compute their shell areas. Insulate to R-40 bottom and sides, and R-60 tops. Give each box an equal ACH of 0.12 ACH natural. Figure a simplified heat loss for each box based on conduction and infiltration. Use a design temperature difference of 100.

1. For each box, divide the computed heat loss by the area (btu/ft2). Then increase the R-values of the 1000 ft2 box and the 2000ft2 box until they have the same btu/ft2 as the 4000ft2 box. Note the results.

2. Go back and divide the total heat loss of each box by four occupants (btu/occupant). Increase the R-values in the 4000 and 2000ft2 boxes until they have the same btu/occupant ratio as the 1000ft2 box. Note the results.

Which system of correction seems more equitable to you? Which saves more energy?

Feb 18, 2012 1:00 AM ET

Preview of the three boxes spreadsheet excercise
by Michael Horowitz

The 1000 ft2 box needs to increase the resistance in the walls to just under R-75 for the btu/ft2 to become equal with its 4000 ft2 "greener" counterpart. This would save 2.3MMBtu in my 8000 HDD region or 19 gallons of #2 heating oil at a .88 AFUE.. The 2000 ft2 box's walls need to be increased to R-51. Welcome to the energy rating fun house complete with smoke and mirrors..

No practical increase of R-value (even above 100) will allow the 4000 ft2 box to equal the btu/occupant of the 1000 ft2 box. In fact the R-value needs to be more like 650 for all surfaces for occur. But if we could do that, we would save about 40MMBTU per year, or 325 gallons of oil at an AFUE of .88.

Just making this spreadsheet will teach you loads about personal environmental responsibility and socioeconomics and which ratios really tell you something and which do not.

Feb 18, 2012 4:34 AM ET

excel blackbox
by mike eliason

it's easy to get lost in the black box of excel, however you're missing the rest of the inputs: internal gains, solar gains, ventilation losses, radiation balance, etc. besides, what you're advocating

average occupancy rate that can be mathematically correlated to the number of bedrooms and that can be used as a metric that is accurate enough to allow measured increases or decreases in home energy use per capita by average occupancy.

is sort of how PHPP operates... it's both occupancy and per/sf based...

for example, reference the passivhaus in the woods (~8000HDDs, town of hudson, WI):, highest insulation level is R-95 roof, which potentially could have been dialed back (house exceeds the space heating demand by ~30%).

how does this 3 BR PH perform? site demand of 7.41kBTU/ft2a x 1770 sf (TFA) = 13,116 kBTU/a = 3,844kWh/a
how does it perform per occ? 3,844kWh/a / 4 occupants = 961 kWh/person per year

worst case (all-electric) PH? 14.07kBTU/ft2a x 1770 sf (TFA) = 24,904kBTU/a = 7,299kWh/a
per occ? 7,299kWh/a / 4 occupants (3br) = 1,825kWh/person per year.

if the WI per capita gas consumption (24mBTU=7,034kWh) is added to electrical use (4,054kWh/a), approx per capita consumption is ~11,088kWh/person per year. worst case PH represents nearly an 84% reduction in site energy over state average. PHITW represents ~91% reduction.

Granted, there are nuances - the house may not be occupied by 4 people, that's only the PH modeling, measured performance will vary...

these numbers are better than the swiss nat'l average, and probably a little over double what would be needed to qualify for 2000W society. considering the average american uses nearly 10,000 kWh/a - not too shabby. and also why i don't see a necessity for an occupant-based req.

Feb 18, 2012 2:47 PM ET

question avoided
by Michael Horowitz

I understand what you have written. My three boxes was purposely oversimplified. You are right that I did not quantify other losses and gains. I was making a logical point about house size, and used a model anyone could quickly examine to show it. Did you try it?

Once again, I ask anyone willing to respond - on a logical basis - why are we dividing the energy use of a home, which ultimately represents energy use by people, by the floor area? I would counter that it is easy to get lost in the myopia and minutia of formulas and requirements while losing the practical implications, or the intended effect. I assume we are trying to lower carbon emissions -per capita, to lower environmental impact- per capita, and to reduce fuel bills -per capita. There needs to be a threshold, below which I am successful as an energy consumer, not because of U-factors, or kWh/ft2, but because I am using an acceptable amount of energy for my home for a given region. As far as I know there is no such threshold in PHPP that is tied to the occupants.

What would be better for me Mike, to feel better about the social equity of PHPP is to answer this question:

Is it possible, measuring by my BTU/bedroomt ratio (or kWh/bedroom), that there could be two homes that would score as identical, and one could pass PHPP certification based on energy, and the other does not? If so, what is the added benefit to society, the world, nature, the community, of the one that receives PHPP certification over the other?

If (as I suspect) it can come down to a larger square footage that enables one home to receive certification, placed above another where the occupants are using no more energy, there is a problem. Environmental standards and sustainability indicators shouldn't be a moving target that favors higher income, larger homes. Perhaps PHPP does this better than other programs. In any case there is room for improvement.

I am not disrespecting PHPP. I am exploring what might be a deficiency in encouraging energy and social equity in the green home industry.

Feb 18, 2012 6:38 PM ET

Michael H. Two suggestions.
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Michael H. Two suggestions.

1- Take a course on brevity. Readers Digest version of your thoughts!!

2- PGH I think basically is mainly about KISS and "a damn good simple job, is, a good even great... Job".

Finally, seems like you should write up the "HH" specs. Horowitz House. Then, you will get, the program exactly as you desire. Can you make it less complicated than LEED?

PGH to me should be a one page reference. Reference, is the key. KISS is the other mandatory feature.

Feb 18, 2012 8:26 PM ET

AJ - brevity practice
by Michael Horowitz

Brevity has never been one of my strong points.
Researching the impact of house size (finding nearly no related research) has taught me that house size is so under-covered and disregarded it is difficult to make reference to existing thoughts, I need to tread new ground.

I am already writing a thesis on sustainability indicators in green building ratings, I don't want to create the HH, but check out Vermont Builds Greener if you want an alternative to LEED for Homes,

I just want programs to include strategies for ALL income levels, and to reward those who avoid using materials by building small. We should recognize that they are already well on their way to being green simply by avoiding the absurd ft2/person and the related environmental impact. Sometimes using much less is just as effective as going high performance. They both reduce. One just costs much more.

Feb 19, 2012 12:21 AM ET

Michael, GBA, PGH, PH all
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Michael, GBA, PGH, PH all have added to my knowledge base. I refer to, and then decide independently of. My way or the highway. Best part of all.

Least favorite program is LEED.

Best ideas so far, natural building, Riversong designs, and Bruce Brownell. (and my own)

Lastly aj-trulysustainableearth-H is no house, no sqft, no human.

One not born human x HH= 0, Michael. So sum up your paper with that and nature will be sustained.

Feb 19, 2012 11:48 AM ET

Edited Feb 19, 2012 11:51 AM ET.

Response to Michael Horowitz
by albert rooks

"What would be better for me Mike, to feel better about the social equity of PHPP is to answer this question:"

Michael, There is no "social equity" in the PHPP itself. I think it's a mistake for you to evaluate it exclusively through the eyes of single family residential.

The PHPP is just an international design tool. The tool works for very small or large SFR, small medium and large multifamily, large and small commercial buildings etc etc... Envelope gain/loss characteristics are predictable, quantifiable and useful. Human behavior is not predicable and changes by culture. Per person usage varies widely across the globe.

Housing 2 people in a very small detached home is not as efficient to the PHPP when compared to the same two people housed in a multifamily with common elements.

The PHPP is a great design tool and probably one of the best that we have, but again -it's only the designers tool, and only deals with envelope-to-energy balance. The occupants in the PHPP are only there to account for gains.

The value judgements about how many energy units are socially justifiable have to come from the humans, not the tools.

Feb 19, 2012 6:06 PM ET

Albert -response
by Michael Horowitz

I am not sure about the brevity. It's so hard.

1. There are hidden value judgments in the design of most things when you look for them.
2. Every program has social equity implications.

All energy-based ratings are design tools. But not limited to design. Once used to certify they are touted. The building and its resident are set on a pedestal as "efficient," "green," and least accurately "sustainable." Indirectly, the rating serves to inform and educate the public about who is green, and what is sustainable. It is PR.

When rating systems divide energy usage by the square footage of the house, that makes a statement about the sanctity of house size. Excessive size is not discouraged by the metrics, it is accommodated.

What if homes were not to exceed a btu/bedroom/yr benchmark or if so have to produce that deficiency with renewable generation? Bigger home, bigger budget, power production. Smaller home. smaller budget, no renewables. That's the social equity piece. To be direct, just because you can afford more home, doesn't mean the environment can afford you and your wants.

Almost all btu/ft2 based programs allow ANY usage, as long as it is diminished by some percentage from what it could have been...If there is no limit, how can this lead to sustainability? Still, I am not sure what is stopping me from building a 10,000 ft2 PHPP home as long as it uses less than 4746 btu/yr/ft2 for heating and another per ft2 number for total energy. It is a substantial savings for a 10,000ft2 home, but isn't that still a lot of energy for a family of four? It's all in that denominator.

ANY program that divides by the square footage of a building is ignoring the question of the reasonableness of that square footage in the first place. More square footage represents more embodied and operational energy, and the most affordable way to reduce one's housing energy footprint (including embodied) is to build less. Look here:
( ). Size reduction encouragement should be built into the metrics of any programs that use the word sustainable. At the very least, luxurious choices of excessive house size and energy should be accompanied by renewable production.

And back to the PGH - build it pretty affordable, pretty tight, pretty small, and don't forget pretty.

Feb 19, 2012 6:31 PM ET

smaller anyone?
by Michael Horowitz

I realize to those of you who have been been slogging through reading my responses that it looks like I am on a high horse or soapbox, and to some extent I am.

But I feel really alone in my ceaseless promotion of decreasing house size for energy and material conservation and to promote the idea of "enough." Not a puritan-guilt enough, but an acknowledgment of planetary ecosystem production tied to human consumption enough. Rich or poor, enough is enough. If we lived on an infinite pile of resources, I would feel differently, but we don't. Using the term colloquially, not religiously, building bigger than what is needed is a sin.

I am working to create a "community of practice" to promote size reductions for all buildings and affordable green options for those who have been priced out of the green building market. It will be at If knew that there were some who would join me, I would feel better climbing off the horse for a moment. I am feeling like a lone voice in the wilderness. If you feel that size in homes is not being equitably addressed then email me:

I will give it a rest now.. Sorry I was so self-righteous.

Feb 19, 2012 6:49 PM ET

Keep at it
by Dan Kolbert

Michael - as you hopefully could tell from Mike's blog, we also talked a lot about size at both our sessions. It's a tough nut to crack, but there was pretty wide agreement that it's an issue.

And you're not at all alone. Plenty of very well-respected contractors are making it part of their practice. One of the most admired builders in New England takes existing square footage per occupant into account before agreeing to add more through additions.

Feb 19, 2012 7:29 PM ET

Edited Feb 20, 2012 1:51 AM ET.

Smaller of course
by albert rooks

Michael, I don't think your on a high horse. Nor are you alone in your desire to reduce resource consumption through occupancy characteristics.

Can I say that I agree with your values... but dis-agree with your premise that:

1. There are hidden value judgments in the design of most things when you look for them.
2. Every program has social equity implications.

Yes you can build a 10,000ft Passive House for four and it will easily meet the requirements. Do you need the PHPP program to tell you that it's way over what a family of four needs? That it's too darn much??? I hope not. I hope that anyone can come to that conclusion by themselves and not let a "program" (modeling or certification) supplant their own ability to make a value judgment.

It seems like your asking an energy modeling program to assign social values. It doesn't do that. The fact that it doesn't do that is not "ignoring the issue". The software doesn't need to talk to us about social equity, we need to talk about social equity as a culture. There are a lot of us that do that as a matter of practice. -You included it sounds like to me.

A rating system as you suggested sounds great. I'd like to see a rating system like it that could help support the social value discussion. That is a different task than calculating envelope gains and losses. Each design tool should do it's job well. Those neat little tools that try to do everything often don't do any of the tasks well.

Feb 20, 2012 5:33 AM ET

Pre-ordained to Abject Failure in the Western World
by Peter Hastings 4C

I am exploring what might be a deficiency in encouraging energy and social equity in the green home industry.

Can anyone spot the poisonous phrase in the quoted sentence that ensures that the green home industry will never be more than marginal in the Western World if it is advertised on that basis ?

By all means tell people that their lives will be more convenient, more comfortable and cheaper; that you can sell. Green Building needs to be adopted widely if it is to have meaningful impact. If it is not to have meaningful impact what are we all doing here ?

Feb 20, 2012 6:54 AM ET

Edited Feb 20, 2012 6:54 AM ET.

Response to Peter Hastings
by Martin Holladay

I'm not sure I get your point. Either:

1. You are against social equity.

2. You are against energy equity.

3. You think that the American consumer is repelled by the phrase "social equity" or "energy equity" because Americans prefer inequity.

Which is it?

Feb 20, 2012 9:37 AM ET

It's always all about Americans
by Peter Hastings 4C

I think that any attempt to market Green Building in the Western World based on notions of equity (of any sort) are fore-doomed to failure. I wish it were not the case but am convinced that it is. Who said anything about Americans?

Even appealing to reason is likely to be unsuccesful - mass-marketing (which is what is needed) does not appeal to anything as high-minded as reason.

Feb 20, 2012 9:51 AM ET

Sorry for my American perspective
by Martin Holladay

I'm sorry if my comment appeared to slight Canadians and Europeans. (Although since my implications weren't particularly flattering, perhaps Canadians and Europeans were happy to be left out of my question.)

I think many Danish and Swedish home purchasers would not be offended by a marketing pitch that emphasized social equity and energy efficiency. But if any advertising executives from Denmark and Sweden are reading, I'd love to hear their opinions.

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