Low-Tech Green Houses a Better Way to Go
By Dennis Goodenough
The Capital Times
Sept. 24, 2010 

Being a building contractor who just sold my house in one of the toughest markets most of us can remember, I feel qualified to make some suggestions about what my industry could be doing to generate some hope for the future.

If no one is willing to say it openly, I think we all know in our gut that the 3,000-square-foot house with an attached three-car garage is no longer a viable American dream -- if it ever was, or should have been. The house I sold is on the other end of the scale: 850 square feet, two bedrooms, no basement, a one-car garage on a half-acre wooded lot in the country.

In today’s market it takes more than offering a small home in the sticks to reel in a buyer. My house also had a number of green building strategies going for it. A better economy might have brought me another 10 or 15 grand, but in the end, it sold, and I think green building tipped the balance. Every time I showed the place, potential buyers overwhelmingly asked about the energy-saving features of the structure and how they worked. Their brokers were just as inquisitive.

It never ceases to amaze me how unaware people (including builders) are about residential green technologies. Bankers and appraisers are no better informed. Their most common phrase is “we don’t know what fair market value is for this kind of house because there aren’t any comparables.”

If we’re going to overcome this kind of ignorance, our priorities in home design need to change. We should reduce the structure’s need for energy and the materials consumed when building it. A mountain of resources have been squandered on newer, larger houses that promoted “style” over functionality and energy conservation. Consequently, the nation has a glut of homes for sale that will likely be bigger liabilities to the environment than they are financial liabilities to their owners. You can find numerous examples in the foreclosure listings.

Home builders could learn something from aircraft design. When building airplanes, drag problems (poor streamlining) can’t be solved by redesigning the engine so it produces more power.

Likewise, “sexy” high-efficiency mechanicals such as geothermal heating and cooling, or solar panels, are mostly feel-good measures when tacked onto a home that is not “streamlined” with regard to energy consumption.

We should apply the soft, less expensive technologies first. Super-insulating a house gives the biggest bang for the buck. Additionally, putting most of the windows on the south side to catch the winter sun yields free heat. Insulating the windows at night keeps the heat in. Adding mass to the structure makes it warmer in winter and cooler in summer. These simple measures will cut energy needs by 75 percent and construction costs by 10 percent. Continuing to solve low-tech problems with high-tech solutions is backward thinking.

In the past common wisdom has been that you need three bedrooms for good resale. With new housing costs running $130 a square foot or more, bigger is no longer looking better. Size is part of the system. I think 250 to 500 square feet per inhabitant is a good number. Currently I have preliminary plans for a one-bedroom house at (yikes!) 500 square foot. Selling it will be a piece of cake compared to getting the loan to build it.

For now, the green economy lumbers forward at a glacial pace, hindered by multinational energy cartels and a naive belief that breakthrough technologies will allow us to continue on with an inefficient, consumptive lifestyle that is beyond our means, and needs. We may as well hope for weight loss without diet and exercise.

Dennis Goodenough built his first energy efficient house in 1979. He operates his business out of Stoughton.