A Maine-based structural engineer has produced an updated handbook about “The Pretty Good House,” a middle-ground approach to building that falls somewhere between basic code compliance and pricey Passive House or net-zero energy performance.
Helen Watts turned out the first volume of the Graphic Handbook of the Pretty Good House in 2013. (GBA bloggers Chris Briley and Phil Kaplan discussed Watts’s 2013 book in a podcast called An Update on the Pretty Good House — Part 1.)
The slim volume explained the fundamentals of Pretty Good building with simple drawings and diagrams, but by the following year Watts recognized the need for an update. So she began work on Volume 2 and published that earlier this year.
Maine builder Dan Kolbert first coined the phrase “Pretty Good House” at a once-a-month meeting of a building science discussion group in 2012. As detailed in a post by Michael Maines (see the first entry in the Related Articles sidebar below), the concept is not rigidly defined. It’s been called a “standard that’s not a standard” (architect Chirs Briley), “aggressively nebulous” (architect Jesse Thompson), and a way of annoying “humorless idiots” (Kolbert himself).
Many posts at GBA have since bored into the topic. The bare-bone basics seem to have boiled down to this: very careful air-sealing, enough insulation for the climate, the inclusion of a mechanical ventilation system, and the use of building assemblies that are able to handle water vapor in ways that don’t cause damage or rot. According to some proponents of the pretty good approach, sizing the house correctly (not making it too big), designing for low maintenance, and including certain design features should also be on an expanded “in” list. Although written ostensibly for a Maine audience, its building principles are universal.
No ‘preaching to the choir’
After Kolbert first mentioned the idea before the building science group, it became a regular topic of conversation at subsequent meetings, Watts said. Because she took “copious notes” in order to remember the material the group discussed, Watts found she had much of the raw material she needed for a book.
“Dan Kolbert had the kernel of the idea of the Pretty Good House,” she said by telephone. “What’s a Pretty Good House? Well, it’s a house not for the people who are willing to go to the far reaches. Not for the people who have a limitless pocket book but people who Dan would call clients because you don’t always get to pick a client who has all the money to build things exactly how you think they should be built or go out on a limb with new technology.”
Kolbert also was the first to suggest the material take the form of a coloring book, but Watts said she was the only person in the group who was interested in pursuing the project.
“I kept asking for help, but none of those people thought that making a coloring book was at their level of dignity,” she said. “I just couldn’t drop it. I just couldn’t see that this information should be so hard to come by.”
It might have remained a “coloring book” had it not been for a daughter who told her it had to be called something else, “because grown men won’t buy coloring books.” It became a “graphic handbook.”
It took Watts 18 months to write and illustrate the first volume. Art lessons she began taking as a sixth grader gave her the skills she needed for the drawings. Despite the sometimes complicated building science that Watts explores, there’s nothing professorial about her tone.
“The whole point of the book is to not preach to the choir, but to get the general mass of people to do better with their own homes,” Watts said.
Positive reaction, low sales
Watts said reaction to the two volumes has been positive, but that hasn’t translated into a lot of sales. Both volumes can be ordered on Etsy as a PDF download (99 cents each), or in a printed version for $5 each at Performance Building Supply in Portland, Maine. There’s also more information on Watts’ website.
A short article in the Portland Sunday newspaper helped generate some fresh interest in the last week, but Watts can count on two hands the number of Etsy downloads, and she only had 250 paper copies of Volume 2 printed.
“Bookstores didn’t want to carry it because it takes a lot of space to show it flat,” she said, “so it’s not a moneymaker on a square-foot basis. I have it in my local libraries – but I haven’t checked on how that is working either. Once the books are in people’s hands, though, I get very good comments – ‘I was looking around my basement, and I just thought ‘I can do better.’”
“It seems pretty cheap for ideas that could save money and make your home (or other building) work better, be easier to maintain, be more comfortable – and be greener,” she said of the downloadable PDF. “Then again, as a structural engineer, I am always a bit taken aback when people don’t know the difference between beams and columns.”
Watts says she’s most interested in seeing the ideas in her two books distributed as widely as possible, not only so more people live in comfortable, healthy houses but because better building practices will make for a healthier planet.
“We’ve got to take better care of this planet or we’re not going to have one,” she said. “It’s my job to help people who don’t know anything about their buildings understand what they can do to make them better and what they can’t do.”
As for Kolbert, he said Watts’ books are “terrific.” He described the Pretty Good House as a “non-prescriptive thought process” about building, and said it would be inaccurate to credit him with developing the idea by himself.
“Anything more than the name is overstating the case,” he said.
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