The status quo of newly constructed homes here in America is, well, disappointing. Despite some strong market-transforming rating systems (such as LEED, Energy Star, Passivhaus, etc.), the classic American home is still being designed and built exactly as it was 20, 30, or even 40 years ago. Why?
There’s a few reasons, the biggest of which is market demand. People buy what’s on the market, and builders build what sells. The only ones pushing the market are those few who are willing to go the extra distance, and do that extra homework to make their projects substantially better. This is actually a very small percentage of those building or buying a new home.
The second biggest reason is that these rating systems often put builders and designers at arm’s length. Let’s be honest: there’s a lot of work involved with these systems. For example, LEED requires substantial fees and administrative work. Passivhaus requires rigorous energy modeling and detailing that sometimes is not the most cost-effective approach (buying $6,000 worth of added insulation to save the amount of energy that one more $400 solar panel would provide, for example). This is where the “Pretty Good House” concept comes into play.
This topic has been covered before here at GBA. (Be sure to check out the links on the sidebar to the left.) But it is an evolving, living concept. The linked articles trace the evolution of the idea and its transformation into a set of guidelines that are still being honed. It’s even become a “coloring book.” That’s right: Helen Watts, a structural engineer who is a regular at our building science discussion group, has put together a graphic handbook.
The concept is still evolving. In this podcast, Phil and I pour ourselves a cocktail and give you an update on where the idea is today.
Origins: Hear the story of how Dan Kolbert, a builder frustrated with LEED and Passivhaus, simply states, “I just want to build a pretty good house,” and asks the question, “What does that look like?”
What is the Pretty Good House? It’s not a rating system; it’s a set of guidelines.
Considerations: The designer of a pretty good house needs to consider many different issues and may handle each in a way that is right for a particular homeowner. These issues include:
We’ll pick up the conversation later in Part 2, when Phil and I will discuss other design considerations such as materials, mechanicals, electrical consumption, verification, and return on investment.
Thanks for listening. Cheers.
Chris: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Green Architects’ Lounge podcast. I’m your host, Chris Briley.
Phil: And I’m your host, Phil Kaplan. Hi Chris.
Chris: Hi Phil. How’re you doin’, man?
Phil: I am doing excellent this evening.
Chris: Excellent. It’s been a while since we’ve been on the air.
Phil: It’s true. What are we going to talk about today, Chris? I know, but… a little softball for you…
Chris: Thanks. I’m going to try to hit this one. We are going to talk about the “pretty good house.” It’s a phrase that’s become its own thing, and it’s not that well defined out there. Mike Maines has a great blog on it. You can Google it; you can put it in the search bar up there on Green Building Advisor and you’ll get a few hits. But we’ve decided it’s time to really talk about it on our podcast, especially because it was in the New York Times – sort of – within a conversation about Passivhaus.
Phil: Yeah. It was really nice that Martin Holladay – our very own Martin Holladay – was interviewed by the New York Times, and was asked about Passivhaus – I don’t know how the Passivhaus folks feel about it, but… – he talked about Passivhaus and said, “It’s interesting, but not right for everybody…”
Chris: Maybe not the most cost-effective approach…
Phil: “… but you know what is really good? Have you heard of the Pretty Good House?”
Chris: Yeah. And that was a “Wow!” And then (if you were reading the New York Times article online) you click on “Pretty Good House” and – Boom! – it goes to Green Building Advisor and there’s Dan Kolbert at the blackboard at the Maine Green Building Supply, at one of the building science discussion groups that we have here in Maine.
Phil: One of the interesting things about the Pretty Good House is that it’s got this elusive nature that is really kind of wonderful. People have talked about it for a long time, have referenced it – John Straube was talking about it when we interviewed him several episodes ago – and yet, when you look online about “Pretty Good House,” there’s not a lot there.
Chris: That’s right. In fact, its non-defined nature and its elusiveness are probably its best assets.
Phil: Right. Are we going to screw that up and define it?
Chris: Yeah, probably.
Phil: But that’s one of the things you’re working on, isn’t it, Chris?
Chris: When you say, “me” … I’ll let the cat out of the bag: there’s a book in the works. And there’s no one true author. And it might all fall apart and not happen – but, I have a feeling it will. It’s going to pull in a lot of resources and bring in a lot of names of a lot of people that everyone’s heard of and it’s going to have a lot of contributors and no one person’s going to get rich off of this thing. It’s going to be one of those books that’s going to hopefully hit a lot of shelves and act as a reference and a guide.
Phil: It sounds pretty good to me.
Chris: Alright. Well, I hope so.
[The guys jaw about this episode’s cocktail.]
Phil: Tell me about the origins of this.
Chris: Alright, that’s a great start. As many of you know, here in southern Maine we have a building science discussion group. Every month we get together – I know, it sounds boring, but it’s not, it really isn’t.
Phil: It’s a lot of fun.
Chris: It is! There are no name tags – most of us know each other by now; we’re all building professionals. Honestly, there are no clients there, so we’re allowed to make mistakes; we’re allowed to ridicule each other and tease each other. It’s a great atmosphere: there’s food and there’s booze. If clients come, they’re warned, “This is not…” (I’ve had Roger Normand there, he’s a client of mine…) As soon as you have an architect saying, “I know exactly what…” No; no; no. The second you think you know something, that’s when life hands you humble pie. And then you eat it. And then you move on. I’ve had my share.
In one of the discussion groups, Dan Kolbert – who is a builder and the lead moderator (I’m his understudy when he’s not there, so every once in a while I get to moderate) – almost as a joke, he said, “Imagine a builder frustrated with LEED and Passivhaus.” And, like Martin’s comments, “Passivhaus is not for everybody. It’s like summiting a mountain. Not everyone likes to go all the way to the top of Mount Everest – or can. There’s a point at which – I’m going to diverge a little bit, but I think Roger would be fine with this – the Passivhaus that I worked on, we found ourselves spending about a week tweaking windows. We were looking for 6 BTUs per square foot per year. So we were fussing and fussing and moving things around and Marc Rosenbaum just said, “You realize we’re talking about the equivalent of $6 a year in kilowatt hours.” (Maybe I have that wrong, but it was such a small amount.) Wow! One more solar panel, and we could all just shut up and stop!
For the amount he spent on consultants muscling out this last little thing – tweaking the design – he could have bought one more panel and done it. Or not done it, but generate the equivalent amount of energy. It’s that point that Martin always makes about Passivhaus: there’s a certain point where you are no longer doing the most cost-effective thing, but you are doing the purest thing where you are reducing demand – it is the shell; it is energy demand, and that’s what Passivhaus is about, not generation. Alright; small diversion.
So, imagine Dan doing LEED. His house is way greener than a LEED-whatever house. It’s just ultra-green. And it almost feels silly to be working so hard to do the paperwork that you send in to LEED – I’m not bashing LEED. Maybe I am, but…
Phil: Right. There’s this crazy rigor to both LEED and Passivhaus.
Chris: Exactly. And especially, when in the case of LEED: is the paperwork changing your house? Is it modifying it? In this case – no, it’s not. It’s not adding or contributing, it’s just giving you a third-party certification.
Phil: Right. If you’re doing this anyway…
Chris: So, at this particular building science discussion group, he said, “I just want to build a pretty good house. What does a pretty good house look like?” It’s a statement about the status quo. There’s a lot of crap out there, Phil. I don’t know if you’ve gone outside our circle…
Phil: Yeah, I’ve smelled it.
Chris: Yeah. Phew! Oh man – I mean, you see some of these houses that are being built in some of these subdivisions and you’re like…
Phil: It’s painful! And I want to yell at these people, “Don’t you realize what you’re doing? These houses are going to be obsolete in a few years.”
Chris: Right! “And aren’t you embarrassed?” And it’s not like they’re intentionally going out and… They’re building what sells, and that’s why they’re doing it. People are buying what’s offered – which is that.
Chris: So we started this discussion with, “What should the status quo be? What should a pretty good house be?” And it’s a bit of a trick, because the pretty good house is actually a damn good house.
Phil: It’s a damn good house! Yeah. I remember making the list on the chalkboard. What does that mean, to be “pretty good”?
Chris: It turns out, it needs to be really darned good – a cost-effective bang for the buck, a really good house. I mean, smart!
Phil: Right. “Pretty good”: when I first heard it, it’s got this pejorative smack on it.
Chris: Yeah. I told my wife we’re writing a book, “The Pretty Good House,” and she said, “Well, that doesn’t sound very ambitious at all. You’re setting the bar kind of low, aren’t you? Who’s going to buy that?”
What it is… it’s not really standards; it’s guidelines. When you’re doing a pretty good house, you’re not submitting a checklist in to some third party for certification. This is a way to get everybody on board. Imagine a book or a movement that’s very similar to Sarah Susanka’s…
Phil: “The Not So Big House” – the biggest-selling book of all time for architecture and building.
Chris: Right. And it’s a very simple message, which is: quality, not quantity (Do you really need all that stuff?). And if we focus on details and quality – it’s the same thing, only with energy efficiency – can we do that same thing? And that’s what the pretty good house is.
So, we’re about to take you down the journey about what those guidelines are shaping out to be right now – subject to change as all these experts chime in.
Phil: Wonderful! Take me on that journey, Chris. Where does the journey start?
Chris: Imagine – and in the end, maybe there is a checklist, and – instead of saying, “a pretty good house does these things: Check! Check! Check!” it’s really, “a pretty good house considers these things.” Thermal bridging would be a great example, like, “A pretty good house takes thermal bridging into consideration and does something about it.”
Phil: But it doesn’t get into the level of rigor, per se, and quantify it.
Chris: Exactly. It doesn’t say, “You have to do this or you have to do that.” It’s more like, “If you’re a pretty good house, you’re considering that.”
So, in your checklist, you have three or four things to check off. Maybe you’re wrapping this thing on the outside; maybe you’re doing double studs; maybe you’re doing horizontal strapping. And maybe that’s where the builder, the owner, the architect, somebody writes in what you actually are doing. And maybe it’s clever and better than all those other things and maybe it’s unique to your project – and aren’t you awesome? – and you’re not submitting that to anyone. You’re just – as part of your meetings or something – using that as a guideline as part of the construction process.
And maybe, homeowners out there are going to buy this book. They are going to read it, they’re going to go to their builder and they’re going to say, “Do a pretty good house.”
And the builder’s going to say, “Oh yeah, I know what that is, I’ve heard of that.” And they’re going to be handed this checklist, they’re going to be kind of familiar with it, and they’re going to say, “Yeah, we’re going to address all these things and we’re going to do a good house. A pretty good house. A damn good house.”
So, let’s talk about the guidelines. One: of course, it’s going to be designed. Right, Phil?
Phil: Right. Design is such a broad thing. How do you quantify a pretty good design?
Chris: That’s the hard part. And that’s going to be the hard part of every single one of these things. We’re not going to put a particular thing on it. But you’re going to consider things. There are guidelines. For example: size.
Phil: So, big is bad; small is good. Right?
Chris: Pretty much.
Phil: Right. LEED does that.
Chris: LEED does that, but we’re not going to penalize you because there’s nothing to penalize. There’s just going to be this conversation that you are going to have about it. Look, if you’re a family of two and you have a 6,000-square-foot house, that’s not pretty good. That’s a little wasteful, to be honest. (And if that’s not for you, you’re going to skip over this section.) A pretty good house is not going to do that.
Phil: A responsible professional who talks about a pretty good house is going to talk about these things on this design checklist: “I’ve got it; I’m starting to learn here.”
Chris: Exactly. So there’ll be a chapter in the book where size is going to be one of those things. The same with shape and orientation. There’s going to be a little quick primer about – stuff we’ve talked many times on this podcast: Orienting to the south. Sheltering from the prevailing breezes. Put your living spaces to the south, but your support spaces to the north. Glazing. That sort of thing.
Complexity: keeping your house simple and not doing all of the overly expensive things. That’s not to say you can or can’t. It’s just that a pretty good house is going to recognize complexity as – not necessarily waste, but – something that there’s a premium for.
Phil: Right. You’re making a very clear judgment on a lot of these things. Complexity is not something you want to strive for, period. “I like the look of lots of dormers.” Well, sorry. You can have whatever you want, but that’s not what the pretty good house is all about.
Chris: Right. There may be a dormer. There may be a couple of dormers. You’re considering this thing in terms of “how complex,” and so there will be guidelines about the complexity of your house and keeping things simple.
Likewise, having an integrated design process. I mean, we’ve talked about that. LEED talks about that.
Phil: Right. Bringing everyone on the team on board early and together.
Chris: Right. And having all trades in mind while you’re moving forward. You can’t just plop things in at the last minute and expect it to go smoothly, because someone’s going to have to move a beam to make room for something else.
Phil: Right. So, consider everything.
Chris: Right. And then, of course, one of the things that you’re going to do in design – this is a pretty good house – is actually do an energy audit. “Nah, you’ll be fine. We’ll put a boiler in there; that’ll take care of it. No worries. What are your energy bills going to be? Eh, I don’t know. Whatever.” No. We’re going to have a pretty good idea. And, honestly, you and I do it all the time and it makes sense to us – a lot of times we’re doing Energy Star or we’re doing inspections along the way. It’s part of what we do; it’s actually part of the design in the beginning. And a pretty good house is going to do that.
And then, of course, with the design part, yours and my favorite topic when it comes to green design is: beauty and aesthetics. Because, let’s be honest – an ugly house is not going to last long. Someone’s going to knock it down. There’s a reason why, when you go to these old towns in Europe you say, “Oh man, every single one of these buildings is gorgeous!” That’s because, over a thousand years, the crap gets torn down and the gorgeous things stay.
Phil: Right. It doesn’t matter how energy efficient it is, really. If it’s an eyesore, nobody wants to be near that house, much less in it.
Chris: Right. And likewise, if it’s really not energy efficient, but yet still beautiful and everyone loves it, and functional, it stays and becomes a burden that way.
Phil: Well, one of the other certification systems that’s out there is Living Building Challenge, and they have a “petal” of beauty. And for a while, I’d question that. How are you going to quantify that? But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Again, they’ve opened up the conversation – and I really respect that – and they make people think about it. It empowers designers to put that on the table.
Chris: It’s important.
Phil: It’s so huge; it’s so huge. And, if anything, it’s such a critical part of the heart of pretty good house, because you can never quantify beauty. You’re not going to try to pin it down. But, you kind of know it when you see it.
Chris: Yeah. That’s the real design part – with a capital “D” – to make sure it’s thought out and not slap-dashed together.
Another big component is climate. You have to know the climate of your house. There are a ton of builders who don’t even know what climate they’re in.
Phil: So you’re saying that pretty good house is going to vary based on the climate that you’re in.
Chris: That’s exactly right. Which means, I can’t write this thing. Right? I’m Mr. Cold Climate. I need people from the South. There are going to be guidelines for every zone. It’s not like there’s anything new in this book or this concept. It’s the way it’s assembled. It’s almost like the Seinfeld episode – this pretty good house is about nothing. Nothing new.
Phil: Have you thought that maybe your wife is right, Chris?
Chris: Yeah. That always happens. Yeah. So for every climate there’s going to be some guidelines in terms of what you should be aiming for. You know how we talk about the 10-20-40-60?
Phil: Yeah. We had somebody write us from Costa Rica at one point. Boy, we are absolutely telling you the wrong thing!
Chris: Exactly. What do we do for you in Costa Rica?
Phil: Please tell us what you do so we can include you as a co-author.
Chris: Yeah. Well, maybe…
And then, of course, in the climate chapter – in the subject of climate – we’ve talked in the building science discussion group about climate change. Does a pretty good house consider our changing climate and what we’re going to be faced with in the future? For example, for us – in the North – we don’t have termites.
Phil: But, they’re moving up this way.
Chris: Are we going to? Probably. We’re probably going to have them. That’s going to be a problem for a lot of the houses that are here, that we’ve built without regard to that insulation that’s just buried and not protected and… Won’t that be curious?
Phil: A big eye-opener.
Chris: Yeah. And then we’re going to have a subject regarding the building envelope. There’s lots to talk about there, and that, in and of itself, is a podcast. There are basic subjects like insulation, Phil. The pretty good house is probably going to follow the same 10-20-40-60 rules, with some numbers becoming less critical as you get warmer.
Phil: Yes, that seems like a good guideline. One of the things I’m interested in, Chris, because we’ve had this conversation… And there are some Passivhaus folks out in the audience. (And you’re one of them too, and I can’t say I’m not, either. I have a foot in multiple camps. We’re doing them as well.) But I, again, wonder where our limits are. And if you ask: if Passivhaus said R-40 walls, are you up to R-60 walls? R-70 walls? R-120 in the roof?
Chris: Yeah. Again, it’s a guideline thing. It’s not going to be right for everybody to do any one particular thing. To say it must be R-60 and you have an R-58, do you fail? No! You did good for what was right for you and your climate and your owner and all of that. What we’re trying to do is elevate that conversation.
But, it’s interesting: we hear a lot of people talk in the Passivhaus camp, saying, “Why are you setting a low bar? The bar should always be just as high as it can be. You should always be striving for that.”
Phil: Right. Because that’s what pushes people. That’s what pushes the envelope further. When you strive to hit 180, maybe you’ll hit 120 when you’re starting at 60.
Chris: Exactly. And that was Jesse’s point when we were talking about that at the NESEA forum. People always feel like they have to choose the middle. If they are choosing the highest part, then they are being the ones who are out there on the cutting edge and all that. And some people spend more because, at least they’re not getting the $24 lobster.
Phil: That’s right. People like the second-most expensive thing on the menu. They’ll never order the first-most expensive thing.
Chris: Exactly right. In a way, the pretty good house. What it’s really doing is, it’s setting the higher bar. It’s recognizing that the status quo right now is really low. And that’s what we talked about in the last discussion group. You leave our circle, you go out into what’s…
Phil: Right. And there’s a lot of production-housing in different parts of the country – and even in the Northeast, for sure.
Chris: Oh yeah. And a lot of it is “meets code, maybe” – which means they’re just not breaking the law.
Phil: And the killer is that this is not affordable housing that we’re talking about.
Chris: No! No. We’re talking about…
Phil: …the standard of what most people would consider high-quality houses.
Chris: Right. Market-rate, custom home design. Well, see… I say “custom” and it gets a little crazy, but… Just a market-rate, newly-built home. I’ll finish up envelope and then we’ll take a break and come back.
With the envelope, of course, there’s insulation and there’s air sealing. We’ll have guidelines for air
sealing. One thing that Passivhaus has really been good for is elevating that. By having a standard for that (0.6 air changes per hour at ach50), it’s gotten a lot of builders and local people here to really start buckling down and trying to at least come close to that. So, there’ll be guidelines in there.
Phil: And, what is that? I remember having this conversation, specifically, and I remember throwing out either 1.5 ach50 or 1.0 ach50.
Chris: Right. Interestingly enough, I think the Maine Housing Authority – or Maine Housing, as they’re called now – they said that if you had 2.5 air changes per hour at ach50, then you had to have an ERV. To you and I, that’s almost humorous. It was like an indoor air quality measure. And so, I think, you and I before, we’d said – and in the building science discussion group, they said – 1.5 is a great number that we should all be shooting for. Shoot for 1! And if you get 1.5, feel good about yourself.
Phil: Right. Every single builder that we’ve introduced this to – that tried to do a tight, superinsulated home – they’ve all hit 1.5.
Chris: Yeah. It’s almost like an awakening where, when builders soak it in and they decide, “We’re going to try and do this. We’re going to try and build this thing tight,” their numbers are amazingly different. And what a difference it makes in the house and in energy performance. I mean, you put that in the model and BAM! Huge difference. Go builders!
Thermal bridging: like I mentioned, if you can minimize the conductivity through your envelope – that’s a guiding principle that you’re going to have to do. A pretty good house is going to actually consider that. So many of these houses out there, they don’t consider it. “Thermal bridging?! What’s that? Oh yeah, we’ll insulate the headers. Done.” There’s more to it than that.
Phil: It’s not enough.
Chris: No. You’re going to have to wrap the outside, or you’re going to have to – we’ve talked about that before – offset: do some double studs, do some horizontal strapping on the inside, or something else clever.
Phil: I really just think you’re on the right track with this. And, I think, once builders see this and are aware of it, I think it’s going to be a matter of pride. Paul Eldrenkamp has been a big advocate, and we’re grateful to have Paul’s backing, because he’s just a wonderful builder and we really respect the guy. When we had the pretty good house presentation at the NESEA annual meeting last year, that was his point. There are a lot of great builders out there, and it’s a matter of pride. They want to do the right thing. You’ve got to show them what the right thing is, and they are going to figure it out.
Chris: And as much as we bash builders every once in a while – I mean, they bash us ten times more than that, but – we have some of the best builders in the world here in Maine. (I mean, in New England.) Honestly, they are top-notch; great; stubborn as hell. Damned Yankees.
Phil: That’s right. Because they’ve been doing it the right way for thirty years and learned from their grandfather.
Chris: Right. Generations. But, boy – once they learn that new way, then that is the thing. Then they’ll be stubborn on that.
One more thing about the envelope and then we’ll take a break. There’s also the roof and radiant barriers and reflectivities of roof. It’s less important here, and that’s a climate thing. For us, the heat island effect in Maine? Not a big deal. In Atlanta – big deal! San Antonio?
Phil: It goes back to your “concentrate on the climate.”
Chris: Right. So, a lot of this is going to matter to you; it’s not going to matter to us. That’s one disadvantage that LEED tends to have.
So, we’re ready to take a break. Let’s refresh these cocktails and get back to this.
Phil: Sounds good.
Part Two is here: An Update on the Pretty Good House — Part 2.