On Wednesday, December 30, 2009, the New York Times headline read “New Slip in Housing Prices Undercuts Fragile Optimism.” As disappointing as that may sound, I think that it is a sign of hope for green building. Sustainable building has suffered too long from slow acceptance. This is due, I believe, in large part to the drunken orgy of real estate speculation we were living through for much of the last 20 years. Why should anyone care about the efficiency, durability or health of their home if they were going to flip it for a big profit in a few years, or even months? All most buyers thought about was how big is the house and how fancy are the finishes. The bigger and fancier the better, with rarely a thought given to anything as mundane as the quality of construction or, god forbid, even building a house that is actually the size you need instead of yet another starter castle of 5000 sq. ft. or more. Add to this the mortgage industry’s penchant for loaning anyone with a pulse more money than they could ever hope to repay, and you have all the ingredients for the current real estate mess.
Guilty as charged
I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t get caught up in some of the same mania as everyone else. I owned a big, albeit pretty green house at one point. As a contractor, I built and renovated very large and fancy homes, and some of them were not as green as they could have been, partially because the need to make a sale in order to stay in business trumped my ability to convince a client to go green. Recently, I have been pondering the fact that while it can be challenging for every contractor or architect to sell their client on building or renovating green, that is exactly the direction we need to be heading.
Why settle for mediocrity?
I once heard a very wise man make the point that code is a D-minus; anything that doesn’t meet the code is a failure. I would venture to say that many homes today don’t meet code, particularly the energy code, due to a combination of lack of knowledge and ineffective enforcement. Let’s start with the proposition that the codes should be enforced vigorously. That still just gets us to D-minus. What is keeping us from aiming for B or maybe even A in our projects? I believe that the lack of consumer awareness is what keeps us from achieving this. People spend more time investigating their cars, stereos and computers than they do their homes, mostly because they can objectively compare these products, but not the homes they are considering buying or renovating; and the construction industry, intentionally or not, has taken advantage of this. I will go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of residential construction is of very poor quality, particularly in terms of green building. Homes are complex machines that must be designed and assembled as such. Instead, they are (mostly) designed and built by people who have little communication with each other through the process, many of whom don’t even speak the same language. Insulation, air sealing, moisture control and HVAC systems are thrown together with little thought of how they interact with each other, leaving us with inefficient, unhealthy and failing buildings.
Quality can (and should) equal green
We need to convince homeowners that real quality—buildings that are designed and built as a system, in consideration with the environment and their impact on society—is more important than size and fancy finishes. That is where I think the collapse of the real estate market will help green building. Since homes are no longer short-term commodities, owners must start thinking about holding onto them for years, or even decades. They will need to take into consideration operation and maintenance costs. My hope is this will lead to more demand for real quality construction, which should lead to the understanding that green building doesn’t cost more than just doing it right. If you build crap, green costs more. If you build quality, green comes along with it. If we cannot get past accepting poor quality in our homes, then we don’t have much hope of making green mainstream. Here’s to hoping that people catch on sooner rather than later.