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Green Building Blog

The Pretty Good House: A Better Building Standard?

At NESEA’s annual meeting, a panel discusses the ‘pretty good house’ concept

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The Pretty Good House is discussed at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association's annual meeting. Here Dan Kolbert is just finishing up his introductory song.
Image Credit: Phil Kaplan
The Pretty Good House is discussed at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association's annual meeting. Here Dan Kolbert is just finishing up his introductory song.
Image Credit: Phil Kaplan
The median quality of new homes is barely above code minimum, with very few houses built to Passivhaus standards. The dot shows where we might call “pretty good” today. Note: all data are completely fabricated. If we are able to improve the average of new construction to “pretty good” standards, while those on the forefront are moving that bar forward, perhaps we could see some real change in the built environment. Who knows, maybe someday Passivhaus really will be just average.

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) held its annual meeting in Portland, Maine, on September 15th, 2012. After a day of tours of local sustainably designed projects and some pre-meeting smorgasbord grazing, the meeting started with a round of speeches by board and association directors. (Exciting changes are coming; stay tuned!). Then the meeting continued with the entertainment portion of the evening: a panel-style discussion about the Pretty Good House.

The discussion was moderated by Dan Kolbert, a Portland-area builder, and it didn’t take long for the audience to get involved — making the whole thing seem like a better-dressed version of our building science discussion groups.

Like all of our discussions about the Pretty Good House (PGH), the topics and questions ranged all over the place. I had planned to write a single blog post summarizing what we talked about, but there were so many interesting aspects discussed that I think it will make more sense to write a series of posts. One recurring question seems to be, “What the heck is a ‘pretty good house’?” so let’s start with that.

(Quick back-story: several months ago, Dan Kolbert proposed a topic for the monthly discussion group at Maine Green Building Supply: “The Pretty Good House.” He insists that he doesn’t really know what it is, other than a title that seems to appeal to a lot of people (and that it annoys “humorless idiots.”)

A vague concept?

In his introduction at the NESEA meeting, Dan started out by stating that maybe the sole virtue of the PGH is that it’s a vague concept. The truth is that there seems to be a fair amount of agreement that it’s a house that is built better than code but that does not necessarily meet the requirements of Passivhaus, net zero, LEED, or other particularly stringent building standard.

Of course, any house that does meet those standards could easily be considered “pretty (darn) good.”

Richard Renner, one of three architects on the panel, said that “the highest level [of design and building] is only attainable to the few. … PGH should be a body of knowledge of what is darn good (if not perfect) — useful in developing new designs, and also good for getting clients to understand what we’re trying to do.”

Chris Briley, Panel Architect #2, called the PGH “the standard that’s not a standard. … How do you affect the status quo? The ‘pretty’ in PGH is pretty high. … Maybe [PGH] is really about tricking people into building a better house.”

Jesse Thompson, Panel Architect #3, noted, “PGH is aggressively nebulous. … It’s about the fifty percenters, the people only comfortable halfway between the extremes. … Right now, one extreme is Passivhaus, but before Passivhaus got fame, we called it the Building Science Corporation’s 10-20-40-60 house — that was the too-hard thing to build.” Thompson was referring to a guideline published by the Building Science Corporation that calls for cold-climate homes to have R-10 sub-slab foam, R-20 basement walls, R-40 above-grade walls, and R-60 ceilings.

Thompson continued, “Then way over here is [the building] code. The brilliance of the term PGH is that the name appeals to this enormous group of people.”

However, the problem with PGH, in Jesse’s opinion, is that by telling people PGH is good enough, it makes it harder for him and other people on the forefront to pull building standards forward. In his words, “Now we need ‘Extra-Passivhaus.’”

Want to learn more about building a pretty good house? Sign up for the Sustainable Building Accelerator and learn directly from author and architect Emily Mottram.

Halfway to Passivhaus?

So is PGH just the average of minimum code requirements and today’s most stringent metrics — a new standard that is halfway between the extremes?

Richard Renner said no: “This is the 75th or 80th percentile, not the 50th percentile.” He explained that even though they can afford it, many people are just not going to build to the Passivhaus standard. (As an example, he noted that he designed one Passivhaus that was “so passive, it never got built” — a comment that garnered laughs, applause and more than a few sympathetic nods.)

Margo Billings, an energy rater on the panel, elaborates: “Passivhaus is very intimidating to someone who doesn’t know what it is. … The best thing about PGH is that it’s a powerful educational tool.”

Paul Eldrenkamp, an audience member and builder (and chair of Building Energy 13, NESEA’s annual conference in Boston), agreed. When he first heard the term PGH, he said, “I thought it was brilliant. Even not knowing what it was. … It’s about changing what the people in the field do — an effort to show people in the field what they should think of as good construction techniques. … Most people in the field want to do good work, they want to be good at their job; if you show them, ‘This is a good wall detail, anything less than this is a bad wall detail,’ their natural pride and craftsmanship will take over.”

Chris Corson, a Passivhaus designer/builder and meeting attendee, said, “It’s important to bridge the gap, but ultimately we have to ask ourselves, why are we trying to save energy? Is it to save money? To build healthy structures? Is it because we want to indulge in architectural conceit? Or is it because we’re trying to combat anthropomorphic climate change? If that’s one of the drivers, then we have to reduce the energy consumption of the built environment by a substantial amount and we have to do it now. … Passivhaus is a non-prescriptive, metrics-based vehicle to do that.”

Jesse countered, “As someone who does that [Passivhaus’ PHPP energy modeling], it’s an analytical tool — you have to analyze every building. That’s why [Building Science Corporation’s] 10-20-40-60 house was pretty damn brilliant: they defined a standard, so there was a place holder.”

Someone (my voice recorder and memory failed to recall who) said, “There’s moving the top, and raising the bottom. But how does [a PGH] perform? Most people want to live in a good building, but how do they know what constitutes a good house? [PGH] is a means of communication, communicating to builders and clients what they really want, deep down, which is a house that performs well for them.”

A better building standard?

Here’s my take: Right now, Passivhaus, “net-zero-ready,” LEED, and other programs define the upper edge of building standards. In other industries, the Upper End appeals to those who want the best — who want to be the best. In other words, the Rolex and Mercedes people, to repurpose an analogy proposed by Jesse Thompson.

The Upper End is a stretch, but not impossibly out of reach, for most people. But to get there takes more sacrifice than people are willing to put in. Paul Eldrenkamp noted, “We used to discuss ‘diminishing returns’ a lot more.” To mix in another metaphor, not everyone has the compulsion or the wherewithal to get straight A’s.

However, it seems to me that nearly everybody wants, at least, to be better than average. The PGH should seek to define “better than average,” and with that definition, move the average forward. We need the adventurers on the forefront, moving the bar ever upward, and we need Code Minimum to define the worst allowable building standard. Right now the vast majority of houses fall far closer to Code Minimum than they do to any other standard.

By defining a practical, achievable level of quality and energy use standards, adjusted for different climates and existing buildings, we can reach a huge number of people who currently only have two extremes to use in judging quality. By educating tradespeople, homeowners, and designers on what a “pretty good house” looks like and how it should perform, we can affect the built environment in a meaningful way, while making ever higher building standards more accessible.

What do you think? Is a PGH simply defined as the midpoint between code-minimum (or worse) homes on one end, and Passivhaus (or better) buildings on the other end? Or should the PGH be a more proactive standard, aiming for, say, 75% of the way to the top, in an effort to reach more people and improve more buildings?


  1. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #1

    My 5¢ worth...
    I believe the PGH can be a good thing, generally speaking, especially for those folks who do want to design and build a better than code house; however, the reality of things is that most, not all, Designers, Builders and Homeowners who participate in Green Building programs do the “minimum required” to get a certification they can use in the marketing efforts. The percentage of Designers and Builders who truly strive to go the extra mile are very few, and PGH just leaves to many holes to be filled, like Swiss cheese.
    For most builders in the country a minimum code house is “excellent and good enough”; for others, HERS85-7ACH50 house (Energy Star) is a PGH; for some others the threshold is HERS70-5ACH50; for people like me, HERS50-1ACH50, and for the “extreme” maybe HERS0-0ACH50 is the only way to go, or not enough. A set of minimum standards should be an equalizer, and that makes it ANOTHER program in the pot, which can contribute to more confusion.
    NAHB Green, LEED for Homes, Energy Star (with all other add-ons) and many local programs are good programs to follow IF the Designer, Builder and Homeowner want to follow them honestly and correctly; but those same programs can easily be used and abused if that is the intent.

  2. DC_Eakin | | #2

    I agree with Armando
    "However, the problem with PGH, in Jesse’s opinion, is that by telling people PGH is good enough, it makes it harder for him and other people on the forefront to pull building standards forward. In his words,'“Now we need ‘Extra-Passivhaus.'”"
    I completely agree with Armando - there are already several excellent programs that provide stretch goals to implement advanced building science - and they are all easily achieved and will be made easier and less expensive the more ALL the building trades use these practices as their "standard" (part of the kaisen manufacturing practice). There is no need to reinvent a "lite" version so the general "code" builder population will "get on board". The only way the general builder population will comply is when the building codes are made more like Energy Star, NAHB Green or Passive House. And every "code" house built today will be with us (and our children/grandchildren) for the next 100 years. We are already there for the "early adopters" and those who are really concerned about constructing homes that will continue performing excellently for decades to come - not just the here and now (or "take the money and run").
    The way to combat customer fears is by truth in marketing. Tell them that it will cost them the same per month to live in a "code" house as an Energy Star house. Tell them that when energy prices double in the next 5 years they can take their Passive House monthly savings and go on a cruise. Petition your legislators to adopt Energy Star (or Passive House or NAHB Green) building requirements as a minimum national standard to reach energy independence and customer satisfaction. The advanced building science standards are already "good enough" (and getting better due to forums like this); we just need to work on universal adoption.

  3. dankolbert | | #3

    Does this mean
    That a PGH is half-passive?

    And Armando, you're painting with an awfully broad brush. And David, one of the issues we battle with up here is whether the potentially rather costly incremental upcharges to reach PH are justifiable in terms of resource use and energy efficiency. As Martin frequently asks, is it better to put that money into renewables?

    As Mike points out, I am, ironically or not, a PGH agnostic. I'm glad it's helped generate discussion but am not convinced that in the end it amounts to any more than a way to critique our own and others' work.

  4. watercop | | #4

    Down south we are tinkering with a 50-50 Net Zero approach
    My energy audit / energy retrofit business premise is that for $5-10 per square foot we can cut the energy usage of a typical code minimum house by 50%.

    The constellation of improvements generally includes attic sprayfoam, pulling the HVAC ductwork into the conditioned envelope, a suitably downsized 2 stage heat pump, a heat pump water heater, and filming some west facing windows to cut solar heat gain.

    We don't advocate wholesale window changeouts or pulling down walls to retrofit better insulation since neither improvement has reasonable ROI.

    It seems to me that having eliminated the low hanging 50% with a moderate energy retrofit, that we could then apply a PV system to offset the remaining 50%, so we are in discussions with a couple area solar contractors.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Response to Curt Kinder
    As PV gets cheaper, certain envelope retrofit measures are moving up the pyramid (towards the "do last" position), while PV systems are moving down the pyramid (towards to "do first" position).

    Yesterday I noticed new polycrystalline PV modules for sale on the Web for less than $1 / watt.

  6. user-723121 | | #6

    Be climate specific
    10-20-40-60 is just about right for a location with 7,200 hdd. I like Harold Orr's heating degree days divided by 180 for wall R-value. The BSC formula can then be applied to determine sub-slab, foundation and ceiling R-values. I think this would be considered superinsulation for heating dominated climates.

  7. user-659915 | | #7

    Re: down south
    Don't know about y'all but over here we've only designed three new homes in the last three years, while ALL our current projects are remodel/additions of older properties. It so happens that the homes in which are clients are presently prepared to invest substantial $$$ are in fully developed, fully serviced neighborhoods where site development and infrastructure costs, both financial and environmental, have been long amortized and which are blessed with good public transport, local schools and a multitude of other valued resources. In that context 'reduce your energy bills by half for $5-10/sf' speaks to our clients, many of whom keep chickens and grow their own vegetables in small lots in the old inner suburbs, in a way that PH and all the other super standards deployed in the lonely new exurbs do not. In a country with millions of under-performing homes in the existing housing stock, that's the kind of pretty good house, in a pretty good neighborhood, that makes pretty good sense to them and to me far more than some engineering abstraction of kWh/sf/yr.

  8. JoeW519 | | #8

    More Down South
    That's my neighborhood that James is talking about. The house I bought end of August is in a diverse neighborhood with easy access (except for mass transit) in a mid-size Georgia city. I had the "PGH" model (as I understood it) in mind when I bought it and still keep it in mind as it's being remodeled.

    My version: I want to spend 10%-15% over the purchase price (for a house in excellent condition but code minimum) to come as close as possible to a HERS score of 50-60. Later ... 3-5 years ... I plan to add PV and try for net zero.

    Once the remodel is done, I plan to post what I've done, why, and costs. I hope it helps someone else.

    From a consumer pov, the idea of attaching PGH to yet another set of engineering numbers seems to endanger the idea which so many of us find attractive -- as a consumer, I'd rather see common sense applied to a "not so big house" approach that lets architects, builders, buyers -- and homeowners who want a better life -- to apply available resources to make a house pretty good.

    "That won't save the world" someone will say. No, it won't. But neither will any of the other approaches. And if a million seize upon the common sense within-reach objectives of the PGH, it will offer more benefit than an obsessive devotion to detail that ends up with the house owning its owner.

    I mean no disrespect, but I followed the search for PH windows by John Briley's client fascinating, discouraging, and depressing. I hope the PGH folk don't become too ... rigid.

  9. wjrobinson | | #9

    I love PGH period. To me it
    I love PGH period. To me it means use all the resources we have, GBA, BSC, PH, PH design software and then blend it with a site and budget fitting all together as best as possible. Just like my trade skills I am very satisfied to aim for an A grade and end up with an A- or better. Sometimes a part will be even less in the real world. So to me PGH is easy and the results can be far superior to standard code construction by using PH to not quite get certified... to PH. Almost PH has to be more budget friendly and should be very marketable. And I like calling it PGH.

  10. wjrobinson | | #10

    PH PGH and no P...

    I have to add a caveat or two. I am a builder. And do build for and will build for a range of customers. So if I get the chance to build a PH certified project I certainly will. And I do build cabins that are not relevant at all to this discussion.

  11. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #11

    @ James & Joe
    That's my neighborhood too, an old "inner suburb" (great term, by the way). I agree, a pretty good house in a pretty good neighborhood may have a lot to offer over an extra-passivhaus somewhere in the countryside. It seems a key tenet of "PGH" is flexibility, in terms of regional differences but also of lifestyle--a rehab vs. new, city vs. rural vs. in-between.

    The mounting din is clear, that we need to get onto the topic of the Pretty Good Rehab/Retrofit/Renovation.

  12. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #12

    Don't be hard on Chris
    Joe, Chris Briley (not John) led the last building science discussion group, on the clearest, simplest, and most thorough education about windows I've had in one place. His experience with his client does indeed seem like it must have been tedious, but they are generously sharing the results of their research.

    " a consumer, I'd rather see common sense applied to a "not so big house" approach that lets architects, builders, buyers -- and homeowners who want a better life -- to apply available resources to make a house pretty good...."That won't save the world" someone will say. No, it won't. But neither will any of the other approaches. And if a million seize upon the common sense within-reach objectives of the PGH, it will offer more benefit than an obsessive devotion to detail that ends up with the house owning its owner."

    Good points. I've been thinking about this idea of "A Commonsense Approach" and what it has in common with "A Common Sense Approach" to a better building standard. As in, as a group we describe what constitutes, or should constitute, the quality of design and construction. I might argue with your last sentance though... a house designed and built with an obsessive devotion to detail, if done correctly, should free the owner from the house, rather than leaving the owner in servitude.

  13. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #13

    @ Armando
    "...however, the reality of things is that most, not all, Designers, Builders and Homeowners who participate in Green Building programs do the “minimum required” to get a certification they can use in the marketing efforts." Armando, I don't doubt you. As a rule, the clients who come to the design/build firm where I work are not even interested in that basic level of "green." Nor are they interested in what their HERS score is, or how much they'll save based on an energy model. What those, let's say "more-objective" programs lack is a certain social appeal. To the average buyer, what really constitutes a "very good" house?

  14. Expert Member
    Michael Maines | | #14

    "The only way the general builder population will comply is when the building codes are made more like Energy Star, NAHB Green or Passive House."

    Are you sure? Paul Eldrenkamp brought up a good point at the discussion, about taking advantage of the craftsman's natural sense of pride in workmanship. Somehow, learning how to build homes in the 80's and 90's in a state without a building code, I learned what "good building practices" looked like. (Nevermind that it included nicely-fluffed, never-compressed fiberglass insulation and a plastic vapor barrier.) Most carpenters I know learned the same way. All are proud of their skills, and resistant to deviating from what they "know" constitutes quality construction methods.

    "The advanced building science standards are already "good enough" (and getting better due to forums like this); we just need to work on universal adoption."

    Hear hear. And how is that best done? With legislative action? Incentive programs? Efforts to educate builders (and not just the business owner), homeowners, designers?

  15. jamisontbrown | | #15

    PGH is Halfway House?
    I think it is interesting that this standard seems to be designed to exceed code but not tread into overtly "green" standards. I suppose it is helpful to have a median for those who are not yet ready to go full steam ahead in green building, but doesn't creating a new standard of this nature defeat the purpose of trying to be more sustainable? We are essentially qualifying projects who are stuck between an older, more impactful strategy and the modern push for sustainability. Making quality changes within an industry that is this old is difficult enough. Remember when fax machines were the rage in sending documentation? With new things like DECLARE, it is becoming so much easier to "go green". For anyone who hasn't read up on that, it is pretty impressive.

  16. dankolbert | | #16

    Perhaps, but
    First off, I'm not sure this will ever really be a "standard." There are plenty of excellent ones out there, and I can't imagine the compelling need for another one (and really, who would want a certificate saying they have a Pretty Good House?).

    I think what those of us who have been kicking this around are trying to do is come up with a new way to frame the issues. Mike in particular often talks about having a clientele that couldn't care less about "green" and even have to be talked into some basic energy efficiency measures. A "standard" would probably be off-putting, but if we can talk about choices between a wall section that is prone to moisture problems, is drafty, etc. vs. one that isn't and saves far more money that its added cost, we can get somewhere.

  17. Bronwyn Barry | | #17

    Teaching Tools
    I agree with Dan Kolbert and "can't imagine the compelling need for another (standard.)" It seems to me the real need here is for a compelling method to educate consumers about what constitutes a better building. Most clients have no idea what a good wall assembly is for their climate or how to look for one when purchasing a home. They're much more interested in countertops and appliances.

    We need a method to convey why some upgrades are worth investing in upfront. If we can't communicate why PH or even PGH are worth investing in, we'll always be dragged back down to code minimum. To this end, I'm excited about local ordinances which will require energy bills to be included in all property sale disclosure documents. I also like the initiatives by Google (et al) to take IR camera images of all buildings, exposing their heat loss. A picture is still worth a thousand words. Most clients can still see very well, even if they can't read a kWh/m2a spreadsheet. If PHG helps to educate Joe Public about why quality and real performance matter, I'm all for it.

  18. Lizzieplants | | #18

    Pretty Good House
    As someone who is building what will turn out to be a pretty good house for a reasonable price, I think a designation/standard that is based, not on how you build the house but, on it's performance is the way to go. That way builders and innovators can figure out how to get there in the most cost effective manner. Without some kind of yardstick the concept will never gain widespread use in the marketplace. Builders, except for a few (most of them members of GBA), will not build to anything more than energy star today. They would build only to code if it wasn't for the marketing of energy star and the consumer demand that the marketing created. Without some kind of measure how do you know you have a PGH? I know you guys love the name, but as Dan said above who would want a certificate saying "Pretty Good House." If you want this to spread, you will have to have a standard, name something memorable and market it.

    What ever the performance measure is, it has to be affordable to the average home buyer (or renovation) customer. We will pay a premium but we can't afford the million dollar houses that are often shown on this site.

  19. user-865595 | | #19

    PGH may Overachieve
    We built what we thought was a PGH in UT in 2010. We did LEED aiming for gold and ended up scoring platinum, with a HERS of 24. We don't quite meet the 10-20-40-60, but its close, and our climate is 7000+ hdd.
    With a GSHP, our overall energy consumption (47MMBTU for 3500 sf) is pretty much equal to a house, built to PH standards near Park City, 2500 ft higher in elevation. i.e. the PH does better, but the GSHP gets us to a similar energy footprint.
    Overall, since we used local builder, subcontractors, and locally available materials we feel we have a achievable high performance house, that is much more likely to help move the building code forward (and hence drive the overall numbers for the housing stock). PH houses tend to have to import materials from outside the local market.

    The PH is something to aspire to, but developing knowledge in the building trades is where we will also get bang for the buck. I agree with others that we need those PH guys out there ahead of us, but we also need to demonstate how people can markedly cut their energy bills NOW for a reasonable price. Hats off to the remodellers who figure out how to do that, without creating mold issues or costing a fortune!!

  20. kim_shanahan | | #20

    Raise the bottom line
    The discussion on what should be a consensus higher level above code misses the point on how we raise codes to a higher level, since that is still the vast majority of new construction. Virtually every state has adopted the 2009 IECC, which presumes a rough HERS equivalency of 83 to 89, which most would probably agree is NOT a PGH. And the unfortunate reality is that most states ONLY adopted 2009 IECC because the Feds made adoption of it a condition of receiving ARRA money. Otherwise, most would have not.
    The proof state’s reluctance to new codes is that the current 2012 IECC has only been adopted by a handful of state and local jurisdictions. No federal carrot and stick, no adoption. The 2012 IECC presumes to have a HERS equivalency of near 70 - much closer to being a PGH. But if it is not code minimum for your jurisdiction, so what?
    Now ICC is taking suggestions for the 2015 IECC, which is supposed to have a HERS equivalency near 50. But again, if it isn’t universally adopted, then what is the point? One suggestion I floated at the recent meeting of NAHB’s Construction Codes and Standards committee was to promote the 2015 IECC having a performance path option whereby by a HERS numerical equivalency is determined for every climate and moisture zone. If you hit the number or lower, you are code compliant.
    The beauty is that HERS is a simple measure easily understood by builders and the market place. And it is not just a threshold like Energy Star, LEED, or the NGBS. If my house gets a 30 and yours gets a 50, then mine is better even though they both might be Energy Star or LEED Platinum. Plus, a HERS rating moves us into the realm of equipment efficiencies and renewables in ways prescriptive envelope codes cannot.
    The IECC is supposed to be ever more stringent every 3 years. But without universal adoption, so what? Including a builder-friendly HERS performance option that allows builders to play the “what if” trade off game may make code adoption more palatable. Especially as the big production builders are abandoning Energy Star and LEED as marketing tools and adopting HERS as their measure of achievement. They are leading the race to the bottom or in this case the top for energy efficiency.
    There are many legitimate criticisms of RESNET and its HERS ratings, but it is clearly winning the day as the legitimate national measurement tool and should be a part of our code compliance options.

  21. user-1140531 | | #21

    When a standard stipulates
    When a standard stipulates R-40 above-grade walls, is that the fundamental R-value of a cross section of the wall insulation and other components; or is it the R-value of the wall assembly as a whole?

  22. AndyKosick | | #22

    Existing stock
    The quote from Chris Corson brought up how we should be looking at this in terms seriously combating climate change. In that light, it should be said I don't think we are going to do it with new housing. We should be talking about the Pretty Good Retrofit. What baseline should we be trying to get existing homes to perform at if we're going to have enough of an impact. I actually don't know and would like to.

  23. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #23

    Response to Andy Kosick
    We're in a pickle when it comes to existing housing. The Passivhaus people advocate deep-energy retrofits -- but several studies have shown that a deep-energy retrofit is generally a $100,000 solution.

    In terms of bang-for-your-buck, housing isn't where it's at. We need to start with the obvious goals -- for example, shutting down coal generating plants.

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