In many city neighborhoods, an attractive three-bedroom, two-bath house with 1,700 sq. ft. of living space and construction quality that brings it to Passive House standards would seem like a pretty swell deal if it listed for $190,000.
But as Dan Rockhill, a professor at the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Urban Planning, recently pointed out to USA Today Green House columnist Wendy Koch, in Kansas City, Kansas, code-built new homes of comparable size sell in the $140,000 range. The price disparity and current economic conditions, Rockhill says, have deflected buyer interest from the recently completed Prescott Passive House, the fifteenth project undertaken by the school’s Studio 804 design-build program. It is, in fact, the 1,700-sq.-ft., house described above – the beneficiary of much free student labor and corporate generosity, and the first residence in the state designed and built to qualify for Passive House certification. But its energy efficiency performance and durable construction don’t seem potent enough to attract a buyer will to pay its $190,000 price.
The situation is especially troubling, Rockhill says, because of its implications for Studio 804, whose projects have sold readily in the past but must continue to do so to perpetuate the program. Studio 804, which gets no university funding, now has $25 in its checking account and is “essentially bankrupt,” he told USA Today.
Reader back and forth
Both Koch and Treehugger columnist Lloyd Alter, an associate professor of sustainable design at Ryerson University in Toronto, acknowledge that, in many markets at least, buyers still are far less likely to pay more for energy efficiency than they are for amenities they can see and touch the instant they walk into the house, such as high-end countertops and other finishes.
Some Treehugger readers who say they’re familiar with Studio 804 and/or have visited Prescott Passive House commented that imperfections in its finish work and its inner-city neighborhood may make it difficult to sell to prospective buyers shopping in the $200,000 price range.
But in a recent Treehugger post, Alter takes time to refute comments by Green House readers who complain generally that the design, materials, appliances, and construction techniques that go into high-performance homes don’t justify the up-charges.
“The fact is,” Alter writes, “you can’t build R-50 walls for the same price as R-20. You can’t put in a Passivhaus-sized heat recovery ventilator for the price of a bathroom exhaust fan. You can’t get rid of vinyl siding and windows and formaldehyde and asphalt shingles without paying more. And even if you could do all of this, you can’t build a single house to these standards, compared to the American house production line, in a field where it is slapped together by itinerant workers getting paid half of what they did two years ago because the construction industry has collapsed.”