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Community and Q&A

A PGH spec house?

conwaynh85 | Posted in General Questions on

Shawn, Zone 6

I live in an area without building code enforcement and a general lack of knowledge about building energy efficient homes.  I spend a lot of my time on this site and have noticed that as a group, we want to move the standard of building forward.  This leads me to think about how people buy homes.  We buy existing homes that are older, brand new (spec home) or have them built.  In most cases all of these homes (in my area) are going to be substandard and may not even be up to code minimum.  That led me to think if our local housing market can support a PGH.  Here’s my question:

1. Has anyone built a PGH in zone 6? (3 bed 2 bath)
2. Have a detailed plan, material specs, manual J, D etc?
3. Have an accurate actual cost to build?
4. And is willing to share and or sell the information in a package?

I understand that sitework, orientation etc. will play a role in the cost, but it seems like a lot of money and work to reinvent the wheel every time we design and build a home.  I want to know if my local housing market would support a PGH as a spec house.   Thank you all for the great resource!

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  1. Expert Member


    I can only speak to my own experience. I spend a decade building spec houses and since then have designed and built custom homes. Never was I able to successfully make a case for significant improvements in the building envelope to buyers or clients.

    That doesn't mean there aren't builders or designers who specialize in high-performance houses who have - and I take my hat off to their commitment - but developing a practice that is known for that is much different than just building a spec home and hoping you can recoup the extra costs involved in the necessary upgrades.

    Because the consequences are so high, and the reward so uncertain, I'd suggest the best approach to getting into PGH construction is through custom-builds, rather than spec.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to do!

  2. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #2

    If you want to do “green spec” (my term, maybe) builds, and you can get the financial backing, you may find it easier to market the homes if you can build a planned community of all green homes. Put some common, but relatively unusual, desirable green upgrades like rooftop solar on ALL of the homes. Do MUCH better than code levels of insulation on ALL of the homes. Use good windows and be careful with placement. Maybe try some really unusual stuff like green roofs (I have my doubts about how well residential roofs will last built that way, but that’s another issue). I think you’ll find that having an entire green community of maybe a few dozen homes would be easier to market, similar to how all stores benefit from being in a mall, and you could probably get some media attention building a development like that. There IS a market for homes like this, but it’s a special type of buyer.

    On one off builds, green upgrades are a hard sell without a buyer that specifically wants them because everything is a cost/benefit over a usually pretty short timespan. With a green community, you are ATTRACTING the right buyer that WANTS what you have. You’ll likely have cost savings doing a development of all green homes too due to increased buying volumes with the materials that would help bring costs down and reduce the cost premium for the green homes themselves, giving buyers in your green community a benefit to living in your development over building their own.

    And another thing if you try this: spend a lot of time on the site plan and survey work. Try to avoid cutting as many of any existing trees as you can. This is a plus to green buyers I’m sure, and also something of a pet peeve of mine. I love the trees, I live in the woods, and I hate to see the first step towards a new development to be clearing the land — totally. Then extra money goes into new landscape trees to replace the old trees that they started with. C’mon builders! We can do better than that!


  3. bob_swinburne | | #3

    Working on it.
    PGH level design is mostly what I do here in VT - clients ask for it and builders want to do it. But I realize that Vermont is a bit different than most places.
    Check out the new Pretty Good House (.org) website
    Also, I am working on a side business developing semi-custom plans to meet the PGH (non) standard at Vermont Simple house (.com) Also check out what Emily Mottram is doing over in Maine.

  4. GBA Editor
    Brian Pontolilo | | #4

    Hi Shawn,

    You might consider reaching out to Biebel Builders. They built the FHB House 2017, in Vermont and not only build spec PGHs, but production PGHs, in my opinion.

    Another pretty large builder that does PGHs, in Colorado, is Thrive Homes.

    In my experience, builders who care enough to want to build energy-efficient, healthy, better-than-code homes are also up for sharing what they have learned and how they are making it work. So, I'd encourage you to reach out to your peers. And please report back if you get a spec PGH out of the ground. We'll want to know all about it.

    1. conwaynh85 | | #5

      I've definitely reviewed the 2017 beibel house. That is along the lines of what zephyr7 suggested in a development and something to consider. Thanks to all for your thoughts and the conversation. To me the market would be there if the buyer was educated, but not sure how to do that component.

  5. Jon_R | | #6

    I recommend that it be a PGH 2.0/Low Carbon Home . We need to shift focus away from the sometimes irrelevant "energy".

  6. emily_mottramarch | | #7

    Yes actually! We did our first one in 2015. The builder lived in it for 2 years so we could collect data and see how well it really performed. We did a 5 lot community with all solar, community garden, and walking trails. So there might be something to Zephyr7 mentioned above. We've done them outside of planned communities as well, but mostly in neighborhoods with similar efficiency characteristics in mind. We've had several people wonder into our 5 lot neighborhood and say "this is exactly what I wanted, but it wasn't available". I'm sure Maine is different, and we happen to have a really strong energy community here. However, the market is starting to ask for it, and we are doing more to educate so they know to ask for it. Feel free to reach out to me directly. Robert Swinburne and I are working on a PGH spin off - toying with the name - "Good House Guild" - for exactly this purpose. Semi-Customizable with direct involvement from an energy professional through the process to make sure that goals and efficiencies are achieved.

    Shawn Baldwin - if you pop back on and read this thread. We are going to "attempt" to do a PGH webinar series in 2020. Once a month for all 12 guideposts. 10-15 minute intro and then 45 minutes of questions - let me know if you have homeowners who might benefit from jumping on the webinar. Aiming for 1st one on Economics 3rd week in January. In the mean time, Mike Maines and I often hash out ideas on my podcast E3 Energy and Efficiency with Emily (found on Apple podcasts or my website: I started the podcast for exactly that idea. We need a homeowner centered education platform so people start asking for this!

  7. JC72 | | #8

    Construction costs are largely local. A PGH can of course be built but it is not guaranteed to be competitive with the local market.

    As a rule, PGH can be price competitive in the more expensive custom-built market because the added upgrade to reach PGH is a much smaller portion of the overall cost-to-build. In the spec house market it's going to be tough going because price pressures are greatest and you want to build a house which appeals to a larger group of potential customers.

    One place to start is to visit the US Gov EnergyStar website and search for builders in your area. If there are none then you know your market is probably not receptive to price point of PGH levels of construction.

  8. bob_swinburne | | #9

    A part of Marketing is seeing what the existing market is. Another aspect of marketing is creating the market you want to serve.

  9. TNCave | | #10

    This is an excellent conversation, thanks to all. I'm in zone 4 (Tennessee) with no codes and even building a PGH puts you above the market. We are planning our 2020 home build and going as "green" as we can. However, we've run into a lot of problems due to our geography and lack of codes. One is the aforementioned financing. Homes here are not valued more for air-sealing, efficient HVAC (including ventilation), better insulation, etc. When financing, banks do not assign additional value to these home attributes, and no one wants to build a home that cost much more to build than it is worth in the market. I think to that end, if building spec homes is a target, Bill may be on to something with his planned community approach. That also could offer additional planning opportunities for green space, stormwater management, green energy options, etc.

    Great conversation.



    1. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #12

      Stormwater management is becoming a more common requirement pretty much everywhere. I think the primary driver is that the cities don’t want to spend the money to upgrade their storm sewer systems, but the end result does have some benefits. The downside is that such retention systems can be VERY expensive to implement if you lack the space for an open pond.

      I do like the “more green space” idea. The current trend of “the setback is 10 feet so start the foundation EXACTLY 10 feet from the lot line” makes for crammed developments and occasionally irritable neighbors. With better planning, sites can be arranged with a little more space and take advantage of angles so that one house doesn’t look right into the next.

      A storm retention pond with a few trees and some grass can double as a small park for your community. Maybe put some playground equipment, some benches, and a few trails in and you have a nice attraction to add value to your entire development. I’ve occasionally seen these ponds stocked with fish too, but then you have to be more careful with water quality and keeping the pond water level up. Stocked ponds are nice though — and the fish tend to help prevent the ponds from breeding undesirables like mosquitoes.

      If you’re thinking of trying to build such a development and are having issues with financing, it may be worth looking at real estate investors instead of just banks to find capital. There are some venture firms that try to specialize in green ventures, and I think something like is being discussed here would certainly qualify.


  10. jj1 | | #11

    Hi Shawn: on January 1, 2020 California's new version of Title 24 standards and Energy Code become effective: State officials estimate a 53% greater energy efficiency for single family new homes as compared with the prior 2016 CA Energy Code version. Essentially any new build should qualify as a Pretty Good House; note also that PV panels now will be a requirement on almost all new home builds. California Building Zone #16 encompasses the cold climate areas in the state. Perhaps it might be worthwhile to identify, contact and consult with a builder active in CA's cold climate zone 16 sometime during the new year 2020?

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