Building Smaller, Building Smarter
By Chris Martell
Wisconsin State Journal
September 20, 1992

Wisconsin's lead miners once lived in underground “badger holes". Extended families of Indians lived comfortably in small tents. Yet modern Americans are convinced they need houses big enough to accommodate the average circus entourage.

Janesville builder Dennis Goodenough’s business has launched a one-man crusade to change the housing industries profligate ways.

"The public is being brainwashed into thinking they want the kind of houses they see in movies and on TV," he said. "They want houses that are expensive and extravagant and beyond the means of the average person."

Goodenough's business, Environmentally Responsible Homes, aims to build pared down housing without all the expensive icing. "Square footage is important to a certain point, but after that is burdensome and unnecessary. People should take a true assessment of their needs, not their wants, and build accordingly," he said. "Most people need no more than 250 to 500 ft.² per person." If space is used cleverly, he insists, that's enough to provide privacy and convenience. What's eliminated is higher mortgage payments and extra time cleaning and maintaining superfluous space.

"People will accept that kind of size in apartments, but they go into orbit when you suggest it for a single-family residence," Goodenough said. He insists the building industry look farther than its own pocketbook and take the leadership role.

Formal dining and living rooms top Goodenough's hit list. "There are studies that show that most people use those rooms no more than five days a year. That means about 30% of their floor space is wasted. If a factory wasted that much space, it'd be out of business. If you use all that space, fine. But if you don't, why have it and why pay for it?"

Goodenough's house, which he shares with his young son, is a prototype of his ideas.

It has no basement, which he considers an unnecessary expense. A basement would have added about $4000 to the cost of this 1150 ft.² house. "It isn't true that you need a basement in Wisconsin," he claimed. Goodenough's house is heated by electric baseboard, with no furnace or other backup heating source. It was designed to stay cool, so there is no air conditioner either. His total annual energy costs are $600.

He also does without a dishwasher and most other electrical appliances. "A classic example of something wasteful is the hot tub," said Goodenough, who built an energy-efficient home that won an award from the Architectural Institute of America and was featured in Better Homes & Gardens. "Most people who buy them hardly ever use them. It wastes a huge amount of water."

Goodenough predicts that housing will become even less affordable in the future: again quote the cost of lumber went up 30% this year. There are fewer trees to cut and there are mill closings in the West and Southwest." Goodenough's design also used 28% less lumber than conventional building methods.

"To afford extravagant houses people put themselves in a fast-track lifestyle, working extra hours to support housing that is beyond their needs. The economic and environmental climate in this country no longer allows that. The housing market typifies the excessive lifestyle that got us into the environmental condition we're in today."