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.’”
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?