I hear one particular question very frequently these days – “How much more does it cost to build a green home?” While this is an excellent question, it makes me realize just how far we still have to go in order to move towards a completely sustainable economy. Everything comes down to dollars with everyone. Even people with practically endless amounts of money are cost conscious. Not that it is a bad thing to be aware of what you are spending, but it isn’t good to make every decision based on cost. As green building professionals, we have a long way to go in effectively demonstrating the value of sustainable buildings. There is the cost saving model – investing now in energy efficiency will pay off in reduced bills in the future. This works, but only to a point. Most of us are all stuck in a big box/discount store mentality. I am reminded of a great line of Woody Allen’s: “in my family, it was a sin to buy retail”. In the 1970’s this was a humorous cultural stereotype, but now it seems to have become the mantra for most of our country. Development since the 1950’s has elevated the automobile to god-like status, and practically killed independent retail businesses.
How come we can’t buy our homes at Home Depot?
Between warehouse discount stores, malls across the country that look frighteningly alike, “outlet” malls, and on-line retailers, we can all shop for the absolute cheapest prices for everything. Many of us are known to “throw nickels around like manhole covers”. This mentality has taken over everything in our lives, and our goal to find the cheapest price controls many of our most critical decisions. One of those critical buying decisions in our lives is our personal residence. For most of us, our house is the biggest and most important investment we will make, but, we often know less about the homes that we buy than our car or stereo. This isn’t necessarily our fault – it is easy to get objective information about mass produced manufactured products, but there are no clearinghouses for information about new or existing homes. Inspection services provide a certain amount of information, depending on the skills and honesty of the individual inspector, someone who is often referred by a real estate agent and is relied upon to provide enough information, but not enough to jeopardize the sale.
Who do you trust less, your contractor or your investment advisor?
The closest we have to truly objective information about homes are green building certification programs available in the marketplace. These programs generally do a good job of assuring purchasers that their house meets a certain level of performance, but they are still a long way off from providing comprehensive quality control that should be available for purchases of this magnitude. I find an interesting parallel between the lack of oversight on home renovation and construction and investing. We put our life savings in the hands of “experts”, many of whom are not much more than clerical level help in large investment firms, expecting them to help us save for retirement, with no assurance that they will succeed, no insurance that our money won’t disappear (Every heard of Bernie Madoff?), and no transparency about the fees they are charging. We do much the same with our homes. Too many people in the construction industry have little if any training or experience, and there is no way to determine the skill level of the individuals who put your house together. Construction is a business, and the goal of business is to make money, which, until recently, many contractors did very effectively. We only wish that they had done as good a job on the construction of their buildings.
Healthy, Efficient Housing as a Right, not a Privilege
The recent excesses in the home building industry, not unlike the financial industry, have been fueled by profit and greed. How do we change this? Can we take 100% of the profit motive out of building and remodeling? Should we require high performance homes by regulation? Can we enforce the building of green homes? Why isn’t healthy and efficient housing a right, instead of a privilege? Education is a right, legal representation in criminal trials is a right? I think it is time that we consider that all housing should, at a minimum, be healthy, efficient, durable, and sustainable – call it green, call it purple, just do it. All we need are some solid requirements, and the ability to enforce them, and we are on our way to a healthier and more efficient future. This would help to level the playing field by requiring better homes, eliminating the cost differential between “green” and “standard” homes, giving us a head start towards a healthier more efficient future.