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Green Architects' Lounge

An Update on the Pretty Good House — Part 2

A commonsense approach to designing and building a green home

Image 1 of 2
An example of a pretty good house: This home in Freeport, Maine, has the following specs: Slab: R-17.5; Walls: R-35.5 (double-stud with cellulose); Roof: R-53.5; Windows: Intus triple pane tilt-turn R-9 (SHGC 0.61); Air leakage rate: 1.0 ach50; HERS: 43 (before PV); Annual PV system production: 3,800 kWh; Cost: $180/sf; Architect: Briburn, Portland, Maine.
Image Credit: Briburn
An example of a pretty good house: This home in Freeport, Maine, has the following specs: Slab: R-17.5; Walls: R-35.5 (double-stud with cellulose); Roof: R-53.5; Windows: Intus triple pane tilt-turn R-9 (SHGC 0.61); Air leakage rate: 1.0 ach50; HERS: 43 (before PV); Annual PV system production: 3,800 kWh; Cost: $180/sf; Architect: Briburn, Portland, Maine.
Image Credit: Briburn
Another example of a pretty good house: This home in Rockland, Maine, has the following specs: Slab: R-20; Walls: R-40 (double-stud with cellulose); Roof: R-60; Windows: Triple-pane fiberglass (R-5); Air leakage rate: 0.9 ach50; Annual PV system production: 2,100 kWh; Cost: $140/sf; Architect: Kaplan Thompson Architects, Portland, Maine.
Image Credit: Kaplan Thompson Architects

Cocktails in hand, Phil and I pick up the conversation about the Pretty Good House. Be sure to check Part 1 of this episode for some of the basics and the origins of this nebulous building/design concept.

The Highlights:

A Great Anecdote: Phil tells a great anecdote that illustrates the need for the Pretty Good House Guidelines.

Materials: Your house is made of something, and a Pretty Good House designer cares about what that is:

  • Local Materials: supporting your local economy is more sustainable than supporting a distant or transient one. Plus, less transport means a reduction in the material’s embodied energy.
  • Resource Efficiency: Our natural resources are finite. those products and materials that use less or use renewable resources are preferred. This includes building techniques such as advanced framing and jobsite waste management
  • Toxins: A Pretty Good House designer cares about the health of the occupants and the environment as a whole.

Mechanicals: Keeping warm (or cool) usually represents the lion’s share of a home’s energy consumption. In this part of the episode, we tease Germans a bit (because we secretly love them).

  • Comfort: The largest driving force in selecting your mechanicals.
  • Renewables: Will all Pretty Good Houses have renewables? Maybe not, but they’ll probably all consider them and be ready for them.
  • Climate zones: Every zone is different, and will have different considerations.

Electrical: Save energy with efficient light fixtures and Energy Star rated appliances. Oh, and put a 220-volt outlet in the garage, would you?

Verifications: Mid and final inspections will help you meet your performance goals, and energy monitoring will help you understand where you’ve succeeded and where you’ve failed.

Return on Investment: While construction costs do not determine whether or not your house is Pretty Good, understanding cost offsets for performance upgrades is a huge benefit.

Occupant Behavior: This feels a bit out of our hands, but a goal of the Pretty Good House is to create pretty good homeowners.

Hot Zigg: We actually have a “Hot Zigg” for this episode. Phil has an idea for the “Pretty Good Guild.”

Images: After we were done recording, Phil and I each selected a nearly completed home that we’d been working on. These, in our minds, are good examples of a Pretty Good House. Neither house is LEED certified (or plans to be). They are both close to net-zero, and they both have owners who are thrilled with their new low-energy homes.

As always, Phil leaves us with a great song to listen to on the job site or in the studio. This episode’s song is “Man” by Neko Case. (Warning: this song contains explicit lyrics. She drops the “F-bomb” in the latter half of the song, so this isn’t necessarily safe for the whole workplace.)

Thanks for tuning in. Cheers!


Chris: Hey everybody, welcome back to the Green Architects’ Lounge podcast.

Phil: Are we back already, Chris?

Chris: We’re back! Welcome back, Phil.

Phil: Thank you.

Chris: It’s good to be back. We’re talking about the Pretty Good House concept – slash book – slash guidelines – slash whatever – Frankenstein monster that has been given life, somehow, by the internet and is now rambling around, causing trouble, bumping into things…

Phil: It’s a beautiful monster, Chris.

Chris: It is. It’s one of those things we’ve got to rein in or else everyone’s going to grab their pitchforks and torches or they’re going to do something else.

Phil: Can I tell you something that I’ve been processing since we’ve done our first part? I just recently finished up an interview with some potential clients (although they didn’t end up hiring me). Essentially, they had seen my name and heard what I do. They were in the middle of the process of designing a house; they had done some sketches. They wanted to build in a subdivision – which means they basically have to use a certain builder and the builder’s got a draftsperson. He said, “Why don’t you bring your sketches in?” So they did. They sketched up their thoughts of the house; they brought it to the draftsperson; they drafted it up. And they asked, “Is this a good house?” and the draftsperson said, “Well, this isn’t my house; this is your house.” “Well, what do you suggest?” “Well, I suggest that I will do whatever you want to do. You design something that says, this is your house and your design, and not mine.” And they got really… kind of…

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Chris: Nervous?

Phil: Yeah, nervous. So they gave me a call. And I looked at the house and met with them. Really nice folks. Expensive house. Big house. Shockingly expensive. It was like $200 a square foot. Right? So, not that expensive in cost per square foot, but it was a 4,000-square-foot house. Big house — $800,000 house. And I’m looking at this house, and I’m thinking, “Alright. Not only is it 2×6 walls with fiberglass, but it was so incredibly inefficient. I mean, they’re looking at 8-foot hallways and 8-foot foyers that they just couldn’t resolve.”

Chris: And you said, “I can help you.”

Phil: I can help you. This is a three-bedroom house. I can make this same house even better for 3,000 square feet. I can shave off 25% of this house.

Chris: You can save them $100,000 or $200,000. You’re going to save them!

Phil: And what’s my fee? Certainly not that; not even half of that. So, I punched the numbers. And just by hiring me – I’m telling you – I can give them a much, much better house than this, quality-wise, and more efficient. And I talked all about energy efficiency and solar gain and thermal bridging. And that this house is going to be obsolete in ten years, if not five. I came out pumped and inspired and they ultimately decided they were just going to stay the course. It was just too much.

And I really wished I had the ammo. If I was smart then, and just said to them – in the eye, Chris – “You have $800,000 you’re spending on a house that is not a good house. If you could just get a Pretty Good House, it would make all the difference. This is not a Pretty Good House.” If I’d just used those words, I really honestly believe it would have made a difference.

Chris: That’s an awesome story, Phil.

Phil: Yeah. You know, you come out of those things just so jazzed, so pumped, “I’ve made a difference! I’m going to help these people.” And you don’t think about getting the job or making the money. You really just think, “I’ve done the right thing. I’ve just fixed this before it was another disaster or blemish.” But they didn’t go that way. If there was a book they could read… man!

Chris: It would be this one – that doesn’t exist yet.

Phil: There’s just something that needs to be out there. There’s so many people – I don’t know about you, Chris, but you’ve referenced it before: The Not So Big House – who’ve have read it. It’s on the top of their list. “We’ve read this, and we want this kind of house.”

Chris: Yeah. How many clients have come in with that tucked under their arm?

Phil: Most! Most!

Chris: Exactly. And they’ve gotten some kind of inspiration. Their thoughts have been organized, and they now know what they want. And that’s the hardest part. A lot of this “green stuff” (I’m using air quotes) is atomized. You know? It’s all put into its own little specific categories. It’s all over the web. It contradicts itself… often.

Phil: Just like you and I do.

Chris: We do not!

Phil: Naw, we do pretty well. We started defining Pretty Good House and I really think, “Well, let’s keep going with this.”

Chris: Yeah, where did we leave off? We were talking about the envelope. I think what would be on the list next is: materials. Because your house is being made of something… right? And I think a Pretty Good House is going to really favor local manufacturing, local products. I know that becomes a big thing here for you and me.

I know almost instantly what’s local and what’s not – like, Eastern White Cedar, or something like that. Eastern White Cedar shingles – to me – that’s one of the greenest materials there are to side your house with, here. That’s maybe not the case in New Mexico; in fact, it’s not. There are so many local products and local systems that are going to be right. And you’re helping the local economy. There are bigger concepts at play there. Local is good.

Phil: Right. I’m sort of fascinated by that – because you find people that are really into “local” even more than they are into energy.

Chris: They are. I think it has to do with, sometimes, that their jobs (they realize) are based on the fact that people are buying local, whether it’s a farmers’ market, or whatever retail – choosing something that’s local as opposed to a big box store or something bigger like that. It makes a difference to them, so they immediately equate that to their own regional economy. It’s a nice awakening that we’re having as a country.

In terms of materials, saving materials – being resource-efficient – a Pretty Good House is going to do that.

Phil: Is this Advanced Framing that you’re talking about?

Chris: Yeah, I think the Advanced Framing will be located in the envelope part of this discussion, but in a way, it will also appear in materials, in terms of saving materials. If you can do 24 inches on-center – if you’re going to align your joists and rafters and studs – you can eliminate the double plate; you can eliminate headers altogether. It’s efficient framing. You can see that sort of thing.

And to have a builder who says, “Efficient framing? What’s that?” That’s embarrassing. At this stage, it is.

Phil: The thing that kills me is that, if the builders are just able to think about it, they could probably charge the same and pay less for their own materials.

Chris: That’s exactly right. What it comes down to is, there’s head-scratching involved. It’d be easier to just strap on the belt and go out there and slap it together. But, if you strap on the belt and say, “Wait a second. Wouldn’t it be cool if someone actually drew – planned them out? That’s great too, but that costs money. Someone’s got to think it through. You’re either going to pay the builder or you’re going to pay the architect. Somebody’s going to design your house. Or not.

Phil: Thinking is only expensive the first time.

Chris: That’s right. And the more times you have to do it on the same topic, it’s exponentially more expensive.

So, that efficient framing goes towards waste reduction as well. So, let’s not fill our landfills with construction waste, for god’s sake. I mean, we can manage this stuff. It can be done, and the builders we’re used to, Phil, they do it. They just manage their waste. They’re trying not to fill landfills, and they’re recycling things.

But, you go to any other job site and there’s a dumpster and everything gets tossed in it and that goes to a landfill. Or builders take it home and burn it — which happens.

On that note, toxins are also going to be a topic. A Pretty Good House is actually going to give a crap about what goes into your house.

Phil: Well, especially if you’re talking about the airtightness levels that you’ve been talking about.

Chris: Exactly. Right. And we’ve mentioned that before on other podcasts. The tighter your house gets, the more important it is to actually understand what you’re bringing into your house. If you bring carpet in… A Pretty Good House is going to be anti-carpet, like you and I are. A stat I always like to throw out there is: the average carpet, when it’s thrown out, is three times heavier than when it was brought in.

Phil: Ew! Really? That’s disgusting!

Chris: It is disgusting. The colonies of dust mites and just the filth that you live with! But you don’t realize it because it’s buried under the carpet. It’s just under the carpet. Who cares? You don’t see it. You snuggle up in the carpet.

Phil: That’s awesome; I love that stat!

Chris: I know; I do too. I’ve got kids with allergies. I understand: there’s a time and a place for carpets, and whatever. But, I’m anti-carpet.

But also, there’s a VOC component to it. You know that new carpet smell? That’s not good for you. Most building smells are not good for you – which is sad, because I like most of them. Things like formaldehyde. In the past five years, we’ve seen a huge revolution, I think. I mean, I can get cabinetry that’s UFF (no added urea formaldehyde to it) and it’s an easier thing to do than it used to be. So there’ll be a whole discussion about it. There’s formaldehyde, there’s VOCs in paint, in carpet. Even joint compound has it.

Phil: UFF, Chris? Tell me about it: is that like a Star Trek thing?

Chris: Ha! Yeah, I belong to the UFF and you will be assimilated. No. “Urea Formaldehyde-Free.” You’ll see that often. It’s a thing now. It’s wonderful.

Likewise – we haven’t seen this catch on very much but – Embodied Energy. We talk about that a lot of times in terms of transport. Your mahogany is beautiful, but it comes from far away. But there’s a balance there.

Phil: I find that that one tends to be a little more ephemeral. It’s hard to really… No one’s writing that metric down.

Chris: Right. Let’s say: aluminum. Phil, aluminum’s probably the highest embodied-energy material that we have at our disposal. If it’s cladding a window, I give it a pass because it’s this a very thin piece that is there for a century to resist the weather. But when you’re using it in railing systems – I thinking about bigger buildings now – it’s extremely high in embodied energy. So it tends to fall into the evil category and you need to minimize that – much like PVC, which is toxic to make, dispose of, and difficult to recycle. Aluminum – which is very easy to recycle – is extremely resource-consuming and energy-consuming to produce. So, try to not use aluminum, people. The same with fiber-cement. It’s high in embodied energy. A lot of people use it.

Phil: Because there are so many other advantages to it.

Chris: Exactly. It’s a balance.

Phil: There are all these funny tradeoffs.

Chris: Same with copper.

Phil: Copper lasts forever, right?

Chris: Sure does. Lead. Don’t use lead. Don’t use lead anymore. I honestly saw a green brochure about lead roofing and thought, “What?!” Let’s let our kids lick the lead roofing, and – NO! No, let’s not.

Phil: What are your kids doing on the roof in the first place?

Chris: I don’t know. Kids, get down! I’ll get your Frisbee.

Then, along with materials, we’re talking about life-cycle analysis. A Pretty Good House is going to consider the end-life of the building. What’s the end game, Phil? I’m sorry that everything’s finite – and that’s okay; it’s good that things are finite. I feel better knowing that things aren’t infinite – everything has an end, so that makes it okay. So, your building, one day, will fail. How will it fail and where is it all going to go?

Phil: Is this sort of the cradle-to-cradle mentality, Chris?

Chris: Exactly. There are some things that – and this is something you’re going to consider in your Pretty Good House, and this is going to be nebulous and really hard to monitor – it’s just one of those things you need to be educated about and know that it’s a metric in your decision-making.

I think of an American window versus a European window. A European window – with one tool, you can turn that thing into a pile of aluminum, wood, and glass, and those things can be disposed of where they need to go. And gaskets and tapes and plastics.

But you take an Andersen or a Marvin window? Blah! It goes into the dumpster, because you’re not taking anything apart.

Phil: There’s no way!

Chris: No. You can maybe remove the glass. In fact, you can remove the glass. But, that PVC’s adhered to that wood, which is adhered to all the components.

Phil: Right. They just want to make sure it doesn’t leak. They’re not thinking about the end game.

Chris: Right. They’re not thinking about the end game. Everything has an end game.

Alright. Let’s move on to mechanicals.

Phil: So how are the mechanicals different in the Pretty Good House?

Chris: Well, they’re not different. It’s just the way we consider it, Phil.

Phil: Do you go out on a limb and say, “No fossil fuels?”

Chris: No. We don’t do that. You’ll go out there and consider the greater impact of your choice, but I don’t think it’s going to go that far.

Phil: There are no mandates.

Chris: There are no mandates. That’s the beauty of this thing. Here’s all the information; here’s all the education that you need to consider things and weigh the decision. And the decision is yours. These are the guiding principles.

Phil: I like this. No shaming.

Chris: There’s no shaming. There’s educating. And then you decide. And then we’ll judge you later. No, I’m only kidding.

Phil: That sounds very democratic — not very snooty. It sounds like a builder came up with it, not an architect.

Chris: Well, that’s the thing. A lot of this is: it’s a room full of architects, builders, energy dudes, insulators, window salesmen, and materials salesmen – people who’ve been plugged into this stuff forever – and they’re all passionate about it and they’re all aiming towards the same thing. But yet, not the exact same thing. That’s the squishiness of it.

Phil: Yeah, the beautiful composite spirit of people who are passionate about – in general – the same direction.

Chris: Right. So, the primary thing with mechanicals, of course, is comfort, right? First, you need to deliver comfort to your house. There’s going to be some discussion about that and most people understand that. But there are efficiencies of comfort, and that has to do with how you orient your building. Putting point-source heat in a superinsulated building: you’d better be smart about that point-source heat, otherwise you’re going to blast one room – and everyone can’t stand to be in there – while everyone in the bedroom freezes.

Phil: That’s right. And somebody’s going to wear jackets to bed at night and take great pride in the fact that they’ve only got one heater in the entire house.

Chris: And we talked about that: the comfort of the American versus the comfort of, let’s say, the German. Their comfort range is much greater than ours.

Phil: Their blood is a different temperature, I understand.

Chris: It’s completely different. It’s green.

Phil: It’s 92.6, I believe.

Chris: It’s colder than ours. And then, of course, with mechanicals, is performance. We’ll talk about the performance and efficiencies and the many different options. We’ve had a podcast on that whole subject. And then, of course, we’re going to need some help. There are different climates, so there’s going to be a whole chapter on air conditioning (which I’m oblivious to).

Phil: What’s that?

Chris: I don’t know. What do you mean, air conditioning? Dehumidifying, you mean? No, no. Actually cooling. And likewise, we’ll get into renewables, Phil. That’s going to be a whole big mess of things to talk about in terms of the many different types of renewables, and whether or not you do them, and how efficiently they go on, and the metrics involved. So a Pretty Good House is going to consider using renewables or be prepared to use renewables in the future.

Plumbing – you know, water efficiency – that’s really important for some climates. Denver, for example, and out West. Having water-efficient fixtures, that is a big deal. Out here? Nah — especially if you have a house where there’s a well and a septic system on your own site. And you think, “Who cares if I’m saving one gallon or two?” You’re more concerned with the amount of energy your pump uses, as opposed to the actual water consumption, because it’s all cyclical on site. It’s just a totally different world; it’s a regional thing.

Alright. Are you bored yet? I’m sorry; I’m trying to keep it lively.

Phil: No, I’m not bored. I have questions and I don’t want to go out of order for you.

Chris: Hit me with questions.

Phil: What does a Pretty Good House say about renewables?

Chris: We’re at this point in time where renewables are becoming affordable. And by affordable I mean, compared to fossil fuels, they are starting to make sense from a financial standpoint, as opposed to just a “let’s do good for the environment” standpoint.

Phil: Particularly in different parts of the country, like in Connecticut and New York, where you’re paying 19 to 20 cents per kilowatt hour. Here we’re paying 15. In parts of the South, they’re paying 11 for residential.

Chris: Wyoming, 6.

Phil: Right. Canada, around that.

Chris: The bigger overarching thing is, you need to know that renewables are out there, and that they can be beneficial now. They can be beneficial in the short term and they’re definitely beneficial in the long term. And even if you don’t do it now, you ought to plan for it.

While I’m on the subject – moving on to electrical stuff: Start putting a 220-volt outlet in every garage, Phil, that you do.

Phil: Okay. For charging your car.

Chris: Charge your car.

Phil: We don’t do that, Chris.

Chris: Do it, Phil! I’ve got an electric car and, man, wouldn’t it have been great if some dude had just…

Phil: Why didn’t we do that?

Chris: I don’t know. Because we’re all going to start.

Phil: We’re going to start doing that. Thank you.

Chris: You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help. I wish whoever designed my house put that in.

Phil: We’re always running conduit to the roof for renewables?

Chris: Exactly. It’s that exact same thing. You’re running conduit to the roof. You’re getting ready for renewables, because it’s easy to do while you’re building the house. And then you’re running a 240-volt outlet to the garage for car-charging.

Phil: That’s good. What else is on the list?

Chris: In the electrical, you’re doing energy-efficient fixtures. Of course, LEDs are new and out there, and hitting the residential market now. Or compact fluorescents.

A lot of this, of course, is owner and occupant behavior – I’ll get to that later, though. You want to be aware of things like phantom loads and appliances and Energy Star and all that jazz.

Phil: How do we make sure these houses are performing the right way? Is that a big part of it?

Chris: It is! A Pretty Good House is going to have some measure for verification, whether that means. You’re doing Energy Star and you’re doing the inspections, or a final certification at the end. Or maybe you’re going so far as to doing home-energy monitoring. I’m trying to get more of that into my houses. I’m having a hard time convincing clients to do that.

Phil: It’s surprisingly tricky, isn’t it?

Chris: It is. And I almost want to start doing what Michael Chandler does, where he just does it. You know, he’s doing it for himself; he’s monitoring his own projects. And then when he shows his clients how he’s able to monitor their house, and they say, “Oh my gosh! You’re awesome! You know what my house is consuming,” and all that jazz. And then he can just say, “Well, do you want me to leave it hooked up? Or do you want me to just take it with me after a year?” And they almost always say, “Yeah. Leave it. I’ll pay for it.” I may have just put some words in his mouth, but I think I remember him saying that.

Phil: You know, what’s funny from our perspective: we definitely don’t want to be the kind of architects who just design it and walk away. But, it’s really, it’s a tricky thing to be there and to follow up, and to do it on a regular basis. For us, I think it feels a little different. The builder is already spending money on materials that go in the house. We just do service. We’re the service guys. We don’t do the stuff.

Is it time for us to buy some stuff – to put our money where our mouth is?

Chris: I don’t know. We’ve talked about that. We’re still in the phase where we’re trying to convince clients to do it, where we think it’s in their best interest — our clients who are energy-conscious and want to know.

I think the hiccup that we have is, they say, “Well, we’ll see where our energy bills are.” But, that’s a little different, you know? You don’t pinpoint what goes wrong when you do that. You don’t know how it’s wrong. There might be timers that are off; there might be certain points of the year, or certain days, or certain points of the day where things are spiking or things are wrong or things are dropping.

And there’s another component of monitoring – like Paul Eldrenkamp has done – where you put little monitors within the walls. They’re moisture monitors. So, you know if you have a condensation problem or if there’s a failure in the exterior envelope if the moisture level just goes up.

Or it’s fine. And if it’s fine, then you’re pretty much done until something goes wrong. And you have a monitor that’s going to tell you. That’s fantastic! And it’s all wireless now. It’s in the wall and it’s done and it’ll be there for a decade or so, giving you data.

Phil: Until we find out the wavelengths are giving us cancer. Then we’ve got to go in and remove those!

Chris: And I’m never allowed in this… cancer prevention! No! Having verification in terms of either audits or inspections or monitoring or even programs that make you do it…

I’m getting to the end here, Phil. I think I’m wrapping up with topics. I know there’s been a lot.

Phil: This is all really wonderful. How do you do with the cost thing? We just finished doing a – I may be taking you off track, I’m not sure – we talked about “affordable green.” Where do Pretty Good Houses sit in the realm of affordability?

Chris: You know, I don’t know. I mean, every one of these measures… When we talked about the design – being efficient in shape and size and all that – it’s akin to that. It’s the same with being smart about your mechanicals and cost-offsets and whatnot. It could change, but I don’t think there’s anything in there that says there’s a certain price per square foot that a Pretty Good House aims for. That’s interesting, Phil. There might be, between now and then, especially since you brought it up.

Phil: You know, we’re talking about responsible design across the board. I’m not quite sure what that means. I think, without a doubt, we’re talking about higher quality. These are more comfortable homes; they are higher quality homes.

Chris: But are they $800 per square foot? No. But if someone wants to have gold-plated hardware… you know…

Phil: Like your house.

Chris: My wife is listening to this. “What?!”

If they decide they want to heat their garage for their Bentley, or they want to have their three-story atrium for their pool… Does a Pretty Good House have an indoor pool? Probably not, but I don’t think that’s going to be in the guidelines. Indoor bowling alley – that’s a different story!

Phil: There’s just this beautiful elegance to it, this lack of shaming to it. Read and get smart and you’ll want to do the right thing. You really will, because it’s what’s going to make a better investment and a better place for your family.

Chris: I think the only guidelines are really going to be on the return on your investment. And I think it’s going to be item-for-item.

Phil: Oh, that’s really interesting.

Chris: I think you could go ahead and blow the budget on your materials and stuff – your imported marble from Turkey that you sent your cousin over to pick out personally so you get just the right ribboning – that would fall under other categories of resource efficiency.

I think there is a return on investment part that’s going to be talked about, in terms of mechanicals and that sort of thing, but I don’t think there’s going to be an overarching budget discussion. Because I think in time the market is going to change those numbers anyway.

The only other big thing, I think – and this is one that we’ve bantered about a lot – is, How do you control the occupant? If there’s one cog in the wheel that can spring out and ruin everything, it’s an owner or an occupant who’s just crazy and decides, “I’m going to crank the heat and I’m going to open up the windows because I like fresh air.”

Phil: Well, I was going to suggest electric shock, but that would put a strain on your renewables.

Chris: Yeah, I guess it would. Is there a more energy-efficient way? Could we hit them on the head with a hammer?

Phil: Yeah, a club! Old school!

Chris: I think it all comes down to: a Pretty Good House’s owner is going to be aware of certain things and certain behaviors. And I think a Pretty Good House is going to have a good owner and operation manual, and maybe a good way to transfer that education.

How many homeowners out there don’t know how to change the air filters for their furnaces? Or they do, but they don’t. That’s the classic – the air filter.

Same with ERVs: we have clients we’re talked to a couple of years after their project and we say, “Hey, have you changed your ERV filter?” “Oh, yeah. No. Yeah, we did once.” “We talked about that way back when we did it.”

It’s one of those things: owner education, you’ve got to make it part of your routine.

Phil: Right. You know how we say, “There’s no such thing as net-zero homes – only net-zero clients or owners”? Is it fair to say that you can’t have a Pretty Good House without a Pretty Good Homeowner?

Chris: Yeah. And that’s the key: we need to make some Pretty Good Homeowners. They, in turn, will make Pretty Good Builders, because they are going to be asking for it. Because right now, it’s all supply and demand. The supply is out there. Builders build what sells and people buy what is offered.

The people who come to us are the ones who don’t want any of that, and they want something different. It’s time that everyone starts asking for that something different and that something special.

Phil: Well done, Chris. I’m inspired.

Chris: Me too.

Phil: Alright. So, I’ve got a Hot Zigg.

Chris: Yeah! Hit me!

Phil: And this is something that I’ve thought about ever since the Pretty Good House concept came on. The Pretty Good Guild. It’s a builders and architects guild. You sign your name to the guild, to commit to only doing Pretty Good Houses: “This is what I do.” So people can come and find the people who are doing the right thing.

You make a commitment. It’s the same thing: Do you submit the commitment to anybody? Can you be deceiving somebody if you wanted to? You could, so maybe there’s some metric – but I’m not sure.

Chris: I don’t think so. I like that idea, Phil. Because then if you’re a builder who’s read this book or subscribed to this theory, and you say, “Yeah, I know all of that stuff; I love that stuff. That’s what I want to do. I want to do that stuff.” It’s a great way for them to say, “I want to do that stuff.” And then the homeowner says, “I want to build like that.” And we’ll connect them. We’ll do a little matchmaking.

Phil: Well, guess what: I think if you’re a builder and you sign up your name, you’re going to need to talk intelligently about it to these clients – even if you’re just pretending to do it.

But guess what: once you read the book, once you understand this stuff, you’re going to be sucked in. You’re going to realize this is the way of the future. I think the gaming of this will be limited.

I think the builders and the vendors will seek this information out and want to sign on a lot easier than saying, “Alright, I’m going to take a LEED certification exam to prove to somebody…” I think this is a softer way, and it can come from these heart-based beliefs that we’re going to change the world and we’re going to do it the right way – versus “We’re going to try to make money and earn badges.”

Chris: Totally. This is aimed at the status quo – at a large market.

Phil: Pretty Good Guild. Let’s work on that one next.

Chris: Alright. I like it, Phil.

Phil: Man, was that a fun episode, Chris. Thank you for extrapolating on the Pretty Good House and defining the undefinable.

[The episode closes with a song by Neko Case: “Man.”]


  1. watercop | | #1

    I like it - just do it!
    De-emphasize all the rating and certifying alphabet soup and skip having to pay the Clipboard Raj.

    We (here anyway) know what it takes to build, test, and verify a climate-context sensitive Pretty Good House.

    There's a bit more to being PV and electric car ready than what was described above, but those are just details to be worked in to the project in a timely, and therefore inexpensive manner.

  2. ecdunn | | #2

    I would add that anything you can do to add local labor intensive aspects to the house (without adding significantly to the overall cost) is a damn good thing for the local economy! You would be surprised at what can be done. Bring back the idea of a craftsman working on your home to provide those "touched by a human" appearance to a home.

  3. jackofalltrades777 | | #3

    Window Flashing Details
    This build also incorporated Intus uPVC triple pane windows and if the builder has any photos or details of the window flashing, they would be beneficial to the forum.

  4. user-659915 | | #4

    Good discussion
    but I have to wonder whether those three little words would really have made a difference to those particular potential clients. I interview with folks like this probably about once a year - used to be more often before our website got much more specific about what we do and how we do it. They were looking for a Land Cruiser and you tried to sell them a Prius. I think the mindset is called Conspicuous Consumption.

    But back to the three little words. The Pretty Good House concept as discussed here pretty much defines what I as a designer have always aimed for: not a highly engineered machine perfectly calibrated to an idealized, perfectly behaved owner/operator but a comfortable, durable, easily maintained home that has a significantly better overall environmental profile than the general standard of the day. I do wonder how the phrase sounds to someone outside the industry though: is it really a good sales platform or does it just sound unambitious and uncommitted? As design and construction professionals we are responding with this phrase to the more extreme contemporary design paradigms, but mainstream clients are pretty much by definition coming from the other direction. Not that 'Much Better Than Average' House is any improvement. Thoughts?

  5. Christopher Briley | | #5

    Window details
    This could potentially derail the Pretty Good House conversation, but I've attached our window details. After working on this house, I met with Jason Peacock and Steve Konstantino of Maine Green- Performance Building Supply here in Portland, to create some details they can share with their customers and builders. They are the same details except the proprietary names of all the products are included. (Usually we architects use generic language in our details so that different products can be substitued for cost, performance, and availability reasons, the Non-generic language resides in the specs) They are purveyors of Intus windows and Siga products. So you will see that in the details.

    To Curt and Ed: I totally agree. It's what we're aiming for.

    To James: Part of the strategy behind the "un-lofty" name for the home is too keep the builder and designer from patting their own backs too much. They are not doing anything groud-breaking or AMAZING here. There is no greater danger to an architect, than his own hand patting his own back. Imagine one reading about a pretty good house when one doesn't even build to that quality. That's a little embarrassing isn't it? It's all about raising the bar. Getting the status quo back to where it should be.

  6. user-659915 | | #6

    To Christopher:
    I totally get that. As the working title of a discussion concept among ourselves I think we all understand what it means and why it's phrased that way. I just question whether it's going to be the great standalone marketing strategy for a particular way of building, the succinct declarative concept statement that makes the sale. I've tried it out on a few people. There responses were polite rather than enthusiastic.

  7. dankolbert | | #7

    The first rule of Pretty Good House...
    The response to the name, in my experience, has been almost frighteningly positive. In addition to the humbling aspect Chris mentions, there is also the implication of a lower barrier to entry for builders and homeowners.

    I also find it's a good way to weed out the humor impaired, which for me anyway is a critical element.

  8. ewoodhouse | | #8

    Podcast issues?
    Anyone else not having any luck subscribing to this in iTunes? When I click on the link, the most recent podcast I see listed is from Feb 2013.

  9. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #9

    Response to Eric Woodhouse
    Yes, we are having troubles linking these GBA podcasts to iTunes. Hopefully, our tech team will fix the problem soon.

    In the meantime, you can listen to the podcast by clicking the black triangle at the top of this page. If you right-click the word "Download," you can save the podcast to any device you want.

  10. ewoodhouse | | #10

    Response to Martin
    Thanks for the response... nice to know I'm not entirely crazy. I've been manually downloading the mp3s, but I'll be looking forward to having these podcasts magically start appearing on my iPhone again like they once did.

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