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Q&A Spotlight

If We Build It, Will They Come?

A builder wonders why home buyers don’t seem to be embracing super-efficient designs when the benefits are so obvious

Maine's first certified Passivhaus was designed and built by G*O Logic of Belfast. What will it take to see this kind of energy-efficient building take root in the public's imagination?

This Q&A Spotlight starts with a simple question from Anders Lewendal, a builder in Bozeman, Montana. If building to the Passivhaus standard is so cost-effective, Lewendal wants to know, why are only a handful of these houses getting built in the U.S. every year?

“Either the cost of fuel is too low or the cost of a Passive House is too high,” Lewendal writes in a post at Green Building Advisor’s Q&A forum.

The simple answer suggested by GBA senior editor Martin Holladay is there are plenty of things Americans could do to save money, such as buying compact fluorescent lamps instead of cheaper but less efficient incandescent light bulbs.

But, Holladay adds, most people don’t think long-term. “Remember that the average American moves every seven years,” Holladay writes. “It’s hard to make a long-term investment if you know you’re going to move soon.”

In the end, he says, it’s not so much about the Passivhaus standard as it about spending as little money up front as possible.

OK, Lewendal replies, but how do we change that thought process?

“If we can show a reasonable return on investment on efficiency measures, we should be able to convince [home buyers] to agree,” he says. “I have nothing against the Passive House Planning Package except that no one wants to use it. I can’t make the numbers work either.”

Buyers are focused on the short term

It takes only 30 seconds of very basic math to see the benefits of investing in LED lights, says Jin Kazama, but he’s been unable to convince anyone he knows to buy Cree LED fixtures. “As Martin pointed out, it is very hard to convince regular folks of anything more than the near future economics,”…

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16 Comments

  1. jinmtvt | | #1

    N-amaricans ...
    Nice recap of the thread ...

    Thinking about it...

    Everything is driven by the homeowners and what they request at the end ..

    This brings us to :

    Inform yourselves about the general values of residents in countries where PH or similar buildings thrive...

    Will probably never work here..you have to admit that we ( NA ) aren't going uphill in general population quality...

    The only way out would be in the legislation ...unfortunately.

  2. georgepds | | #2

    It’s not only payback.. but the simple price of entry
    It’s pretty hard to get around the fact that the cost per foot square for an energy efficient house is more than double

    For an energy efficient house, consider the Norwich university entry in the 2013 DOE solar decathlon. The size was 1000 ft^2 and cost $195k(*), or about $195per square foot. I’m not sure what the average cost is for energy efficient houses, so I’m using this published value as a proxy.
    According to the NAHB the average price per square foot for new homes in 2011 was $82per square foot

    On a personal note when I constructed my house in 1990 my cost was ~ $33 per square foot. If I had to pay $195 per square foot, I’d still be renting

    Suppose you qualify for the financing, even though the price has doubled. You put yourself at great risk for the next bean counter down the line to realize the value. Doubling the cost for something that relies on “all three financial sectors — agents, appraisers, and lenders —“ adopting new metrics is a risky proposition.

    (*) http://nusd2013.org/approach/
    (*) http://www.nahb.org/generic.aspx?genericContentID=169974

  3. georgepds | | #3

    What will it take to see this kind of energy-efficient building
    take root in the public's imagination"

    That one's easy.. a better looking house

    Imagine youself as the young homeowner trying to convince your spouse to pay twice the price for that unappealing structure..

    Consider, for contrast, Tedd Benson's (*) timber frame houses

    From the amazon blurb "The nearly forgotten art of timber-frame construction is again flourishing, due largely to the interest of designer-builders like Benson and, ironically, to the general availability of high-tech building materials such as stress-skin panels used to envelope the skeleton"

    His houses look great, and they have the same principal element of the passiv haus method.. the continuous exterior high R thermal barrier.. though I'm not sure how they rate on the PH scale

    The point is you have to pay some attention to how the house loooks if you really want "to see this kind of energy-efficient building take root in the public's imagination"

    (*)The Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction, Finishing
    (*)Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Art

  4. user-2511396 | | #4

    Firmitas, utilitas, venustas
    People don't won't high-nutrient flavorless paste. They want taste. People don't want a denim dress or suit that will last 20 years. They want taste. People don't want to live in numbers and a box. They want taste. Or style, or fashion or beauty. Whatever you call it, people want to be pleased, not just satsified.

  5. jinmtvt | | #5

    yes but ..
    It is very easy to "design" a nice looking efficient house or building.

    "Performance oriented designs and engineering ALWAYS give out aesthetically pleasing results,
    that is true in every field and is proven by no other than NATURE itself "

    But problem is, designer and architects are high pay labor, and most folks can't afford to pay 10 000$ additional on top of an expensive house to design properly.

    It is not true that efficient building should cost double ...or even 50% more than traditional build.

    Efficient/green buildings shouldn't cost more than 10% additional ..PH maybe up to 15-20%
    but PH is another story because it has requirements that does not work out to be the most cost effective one in most of our climates as we all know.

    Problem then, is that we are comparing a PH or efficient building with regular houses that are very poorly build, not comparing the REAL additional costs of insulation and appropriate measures.

    As sifu Dana pointed out, would be good if house we built up to code to start with ...most are not.

    If you are asking a regular builder to change all his " money saving" techniques , to get up to your project requirements ...he will have to charge additional labor just to get up to code, and then to meet your goals. This is where the ridiculouse $$ gets added quickly.

    Building a house is an expensive project, usually the most expensive ( could be compare with raising children ..not the point here though ) that any of us will be involved in his hole life.
    there is alot of money involved, thus it attracts workers , and usually being in business is about making money .

  6. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #6

    Not just built to ANY code...
    ... but to IRC/IECC 2012 or better. Most current building codes in the US are based on IRC 2006 or IRC 2009, which have lower or no air tightness requirements, lower R-value minimums, and higher window U-factor maximums.

    The cost uptick for hitting the air-tightness levels is "in the noise", and the better R/U values between zero & not-very-much, but the difference in performance is well into double-digit reductions in loads and energy use.

    It's painful to watch houses built opting for the absolute code minimums (or less), when the hurdle to clear is barely higher than a stripe on the floor, but that seems to be the lowest common denominator state of things. There isn't a financial argument on energy savings even for code-minimum in a 7 year NPV calc (which is a good reason for establishing code minimums), but from a lifecycle cost and environmental cost point of view building to IRC 2012 or better is a no-brainer.

  7. Robert Swinburne | | #7

    Covered a lot of this already.
    some of the previous posters should make sure they read this as well: https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/building-science/when-you-re-financing-green-home-payback-irrelevant.
    In VT, code min. runs around $150/s.f. +/- and Passive Houses are running 10 to 15 % above code. Monthly costs of ownership are often lower from the very first month for a passive house or nearly passive house. (mortgage and energy costs combined)

  8. CalBungMelb | | #8

    Last year I started a GBA
    Last year I started a GBA thread on the PassivHaus Workshop we would like to build in our backyard. The PassivArbeitPlatz as one contributor suggested:

    https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/community/forum/passivhaus/25996/passivhaus-backyard-workshop

    I had a young builder around the other day who's interested in doing the job. He has some experience in energy efficient building but nothing at PassivHaus level. But he's keen to learn. What would be a good approach to get him introduced to the technical detail of PassivHaus construction? I don't think there's much locally in the way of PassivHaus training.

    Thanks

    David

    PS The bananas were a bust. We had a cold winter which killed the fruiting stalks. Bit disappointing but we are right on the edge of where a cool climate cultivar will fruit with a heat retaining micro-climate in the garden.

  9. user-1072251 | | #9

    I remember the first VWs to
    I remember the first VWs to show up in my area around 1960; they were met with incredible derision then Detroit started copying with great stuff like the Corvair; I guess their purpose was to prove that small cars with high mileage didn't work and were unsafe. And they kept making bigger and poorer mileage cars and making fun of small efficient cars.

    Anyone note the average size of cars today? Even Cadillacs and Mercedes are much closer to the 1960 VW than to that year's Oldsmobile. Lots of companies - even American companies - are making Hybrids and all electric cars, and everyone is interested.

    All this takes time and sometimes a new generation (or two) that will understand the issues and benefits. I have seen an huge increase in interest in the last two years - not all are buyers, but they are out there and more are coming. Keep building; we are in the forefront.

    I'm doing some work at a local house built 30 years ago by Don Booth - a local pioneer in "green building" Its a wonderful house & will be an easy sale when the original owner ever has to or decides to move.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    Response to David Coote
    David,
    Q. "What would be a good approach to get [a young builder] introduced to the technical detail of PassivHaus construction?"

    A. There are many different ways to build a house that meets the Passivhaus standard, so there is no construction method associated with the standard. You can achieve the standard with a straw-bale house, a SIP house, a concrete-block house, or a house with 2x6 walls.

    The one thing that all Passivhaus buildings have in common is a low rate of air leakage, so any young builder approaching his or her first Passivhaus project needs to pay attention to air sealing details. That means (1) you need to know the location of your air barrier; (2) you have to choose materials for your air barrier that don't leak air, and (3) you have to seal all seams between the materials used for your air barrier.

    To learn more about the ways to seal these seams, and the products to use, I think GBA is a good resource. Your young builder should use our search box and read up.

  11. user-1072251 | | #11

    I remember the first VWs to
    I remember the first VWs to show up in my area around 1960; they were met with incredible derision then Detroit started copying with great stuff like the Corvair; I guess their purpose was to prove that small cars with high mileage didn't work and were unsafe. And they kept making bigger and poorer mileage cars and making fun of small efficient cars.

    Anyone note the average size of cars today? Even Cadillacs and Mercedes are much closer to the 1960 VW than to that year's Oldsmobile. Lots of companies - even American companies - are making Hybrids and all electric cars, and everyone is interested.

    All this takes time and sometimes a new generation (or two) that will understand the issues and benefits. I have seen an huge increase in interest in high performance homes the last few years - not all are buyers, but they are out there and more are coming. Keep building; we are in the forefront.

    I'm doing some work at a local house built 30 years ago by Don Booth - a local pioneer in "high performance green building" Its a wonderful house, works great and will continue to offer a great living environment.

  12. user-1005777 | | #12

    Most people only look at monthly cost of the home.
    We have to start counting the total cost per month of the home.

    We bought our manufactured "mini home" of 1000 square feet about 15 years ago. We recently did a lot of air sealing, installed a mini split, HRV, and new doors . The windows are already sealed double pane, so they stayed. We spent a total of $10,000 and reduced our electric bill by $90 a month. If this had been done when the unit was new the mortgage increase would have been about $52 dollars a month on a 25 year mortgage. Even allowing $20 a month for heat pump maintenance, the cost of the upgrades would save $18 a month right from square one. The comfort level and air quality improvement were dramatic.

    Why would this be a hard sell?

    Have a great day!

  13. LesBaer45 | | #13

    Legislation? No.
    For starters most "PassivHaus" designs (such as the one pictured for the article) are down right ugly. Sure it's like my opinion man, but try asking the average person looking for a home in an average neighborhood and they'd tell you it's a non-starter. It doesn't fit in most neighborhoods.

    Yes I know it's all the rage and the trendy and the green types will understand but not me. I wouldn't have it. It's a non-functional design for me.

    While energy saving techniques are important to me, they have to work in something that fits in the more traditional norm, that would include "PH". If they don't buy it, all the "proof" and "numbers" won't matter. I often wonder just how difficult it can be to resell such buildings seven years down the road.

    I'm not a builder, I'm a buyer. I desire a PGH, one that is a high performance home at a reasonable cost. Unrealistic $/sq. ft means it'll never get built.

  14. PKB | | #14

    Money, Cost vs. Value
    For the ordinary home buyer (me) the issue with energy efficiency, high tech, low maintenance, indoor air quality, storm resistance, indeed for any features better than the basic mass builder's house in the area, is COST vs. VALUE. Cost is determined by the builder. Anything "different" incurs a huge up-charge. No doubt, this partly is due to the builders protecting themselves from risks of the unknown, but often the charges are ridiculous. Value is determined by the appraiser. The appraiser assigns value based on "comps". A house is valued at the sale price per square foot of similar houses in the area. Similar means only about the same age, size, and style. All those features listed above add little or nothing to the value assigned by the appraiser. Of course, financing is based on the value of the house and anything over the value must be paid with cash out of pocket. So what we have, is "experts" in the industry telling home buyers that energy efficiency or anything else unusual is expensive and of little value. If you want people to buy energy efficient houses, you need to change the message from the industry "experts".

    I also agree with Robert Henderson. Who wants or has ice cube's chance of reselling an ugly house. (See picture at the beginning.)

  15. Robert Swinburne | | #15

    Eye of the beholder
    Actually, the home pictured above has been receiving rave reviews by normal, average, non-GBA reading people for its looks, cost and performance. People really love it. So beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The firm responsible is GO Logic in Maine. Check out their other work

  16. user-680186 | | #16

    Eye of the beholder
    I hope to use at least some super-efficient design ideas when I build my retirement home in a couple of years. However, It won't be as ugly as the house pictured with this article. That's what turns me off of most super-efficient designs I see - the look. Not the existance of solar panels on the roof, but the scale of the windows to the rest of the house and the door next to them. It looks like a Dali painting.

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