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How Green is My Home?
November 2, 2009 8:01 AM   Subscribe

“Oh, it’s all bullshit. The high design? That has nothing to do with reality. That’s just architectural self-indulgence.” The greening of architecture is quite a contentious subject. Because of a renewed emphasis on traditional home-building methods, The Green Home of the Future is in many respects not dissimilar from The Green Home of Yesterday. A tornado in Greensburg, Kansas provided the impetus for a vote to decide on what green methods would define the movement in that small town. The competition's results stymied many architects' conceptions of what "green" should mean. But in New Orleans, larger-scale destruction by Hurricane Katrina has provided a unique opportunity for proponents of distinct conceptions of green innovation to bring their ideas to life. Opinions among residents are mixed.
posted by jefficator (43 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Looking at the shots of the houses and the renderings and blueprints, all the houses look pretty cool. They all seem to capture the lifestyle and the way homes are used down there as well as address the high water flood damage possibilities. About half of them look great in context with traditional New Orleans homes, but I'll admit a couple of those designs are more at home in the pages of Dwell than sitting between two shotgun homes in NO and could cause issues with neighbors.
posted by mathowie at 8:23 AM on November 2, 2009


At the end of the day, no matter how green something is, someone's going to be coming home to it and living there, and they won't buy it unless they like it. It has to work for them - not just whatever fantasy it was designed for. Architechs might do well to remember that.

And while something like the Phillip Johnson Glass House might be great as a design concept, I can't imagine living in it. (Unless I get this sudden urge to become an exhibitionist...)

The Meadowlark House looks like something from the '50s - and it also looks like a design a family could live in comfortably - AND it's energy efficient.

But there's no garage for a flying car. (sigh) Well, the future will get here sooner or later.
posted by JB71 at 8:31 AM on November 2, 2009


I've never been to Louisiana but living in the south I think all those porches and "outdoor dining areas" should be replaced with screened in porches. You get to be outside(ish) without the biting bugs and without worrying about any ineffective and probably environmentally harmful mosquito repellent solutions.
posted by ghharr at 8:39 AM on November 2, 2009


... no matter how green something is, someone's going to be coming home to it and living there, and they won't buy it unless they like it. It has to work for them - not just whatever fantasy it was designed for. Architechs might do well to remember that.

I've been trying to find that famous spin on Le Corbusier's dictum "a house is a machine for living in" that went:

"A person is a machine for living in one of my houses."

But I can't find it. Anyone? Bueller?
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:29 AM on November 2, 2009


Oh, the magic of "green." With such a broad umbrella-term, so many concepts are covered, yet the definition is not fixed. There's energy efficiency in structural design and layout, installing and maintaining efficient fixtures, renewable energy generation as part of the house design, and use (or re-use) of sustainable, non-toxic, local materials.

Prior to wide-spread adoption of air conditioning, creative and beneficial design features to improve air flow was not special but more of a normal feature. There are even creative features in pre-refrigeration-era homes that facilitated flow of cool air from the basement up through a food storage area. And why would you buy a fancy hardwood from South America or processed materials from China when the transportation costs jacked up the prices compared to local materials? Technology and progress facilitated the "un-green" design.

At the end of the day, no matter how green something is, someone's going to be coming home to it and living there, and they won't buy it unless they like it.

The thing is, "green design" doesn't have to create an uncomfortable house. Some designers seem to go out of their way to tout the sustainable features of skewed or awkward design. Odd roof pitches to maximize solar collection is great, but not wholly necessary. One local design I've seen shifted the house design from running parallel with the property lines to having an otherwise standard roof pitch face the sun more directly. The house will look a bit odd versus the neighboring buildings that face the street straight-on, but otherwise it won't be overly modern or weird. Sustainable, local or reused materials can create the same look as typical materials through design or finishes. The significant changes would be with roof pitches in southern climates, where broad overhangs would really improve the natural cooling of the homes, versus the standard roof pitch and short eaves seen in housing tracts across the nation. In short: green doesn't mean weird looking.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:41 AM on November 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


At the end of the day, no matter how green something is, someone's going to be coming home to it and living there, and they won't buy it unless they like it. It has to work for them - not just whatever fantasy it was designed for.

To me this is the essence of green design; made with the environment and inhabitants in mind, rather than some fanciful (or lazy, or mundane) architectural statement. Working with nature and human nature to be both utilitarian and beautiful.
posted by asok at 9:50 AM on November 2, 2009


And while something like the Phillip Johnson Glass House might be great as a design concept, I can't imagine living in it. (Unless I get this sudden urge to become an exhibitionist...)

There's a super-interesting essay in Women and the Making of the Modern House, People Who Live in Glass Houses, about Johnson's Glass House and Mies Van Der Rohe's Farnsworth House and the attitude towards the private/sexual lives of the occupants, actually. Not a big fan of the Glass House but relative to the Farnsworth House, there's more scope for private sexy living.
posted by carbide at 9:52 AM on November 2, 2009


"A person is a machine for living in one of my houses."

This gets to the heart of my concern with green architecture.

Vernacular architecture is remarkably "green" insofar as it uses local materials to construct a home suited to a local environment. The architecture with which we are presently familiar largely ignores local concerns because trucks can bring necessary materials and climate-control system can produce necessary comfort. But if you live in a home that is adapted to its environment, the requirement for energy-intensive control is diminished. Not only is this easier on the environment, it is also easier on a home-owner's wallet. If energy costs continue to escalate as they historically have, everyone will benefit from homes that cost less to heat, cool, ventilate, and light.

But because a significant amount of "green" architecture produced today comes in the form of bizarre eco-boxes, most home-buyers have come to associate the label "green" with a type of lime-colored, glass and steel origami that terrifies them.

When hybrid cars were first introduced, they looked distinctly different from regular cars. Carmakers assumed that those interested in hybrid technology were a niche market, and they seem further to have assumed that this niche market overlapped with individuals interested in "futuristic" car design. Read: anyone driving a green car wants you to know he or she is driving a green car. Yet increasingly green technology cars are indistinguishable from traditional vehicles. Hybrid technology is no longer relegated to the niche market.

Unfortunately, we have not reached a point in which green home building has moved out of the niche market and into the mainstream. Architects continue to assume that the only people who want environmentally friendly houses are those people who want you to know they live in environmentally friendly houses. If we had moved past this, however, then construction would be innundated with homes that don't look decidedly different from conventional homes, but that have slight modifications to make them inherently more energy efficient. There is likely a large segment of the population for whom being environmentally conscious is not a sufficient part of personal identity to want a home that is decidedly non-mainstream, but for whom significant energy savings would be compelling reason to go green.

If "greening" comes in the form of energy-saving appliances and a tighter building envelope, then an upfront cost is added to the price of the home that will be prohibitive for most homebuyers, even if that extra cost can be reclaimed in the near-term. (The average mortgage in the US has a lifespan of six years, meaning that energy-savings reclaimed over a period longer than six years are not compelling for a homebuyer who intends to trade up before his geo-thermal heating system has paid for itself. Geothermal remains, therefore, a niche market among homeowners invested for the long haul in a particular house).

But design modifications that adapt a house to its environment need not cost more upfront, despite creating energy savings from day one. Orienting the house to the South for solar gain, extending eaves to diminish summer heating, and including transoms to encourage ventilation all cost pennies compared to electronic innovations, but all help facilitate passive climate control and therefore save energy and money.

That is the future of green architecture, and importantly, the technology must loops around to learn from the past.
posted by jefficator at 9:58 AM on November 2, 2009 [6 favorites]


I completely agree with the comments above. "Green" architecture is largely unnecessary. Look at the German Passivhaus construction. The savings come from largely unremarkable features: airtight building envelope, significant insulation, and larger south-facing windows.

Green houses don't have to cubic with multicolor overlapping facade panels. That shit is going to get dated, fast.
posted by anthill at 10:06 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not too long ago, I watched a Holmes on Homes special where Mike Holmes built a house in conjunction with Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation.

First, every time I see Brad Pitt interviewed, I come away more and more impressed. He is (appears to be, anyway) very lucid, logical, and well-spoken. He has put a lot of thought into the housing situation in New Orleans and how to chart a more sustainable situation going forward. My kudos to him and his efforts.

Second, as a person who has worked in the construction supply business most of my life, I think I have a pretty good grasp of good and bad building practices. The building industry is, by and large, uberconservative and evil. There are visionaries, of course, but big money runs the show. Sustainability is finally on the radar, though; builders finally understand that good practices can mean good business, too. The LEED certification program is the first big industry-wide push in that direction. It's not perfect by a long shot, but it's better than before.
The house that Holmes built for the Make It Right Foundation was LEED-platinum certified. That is an incredible achievement, and can only herald better things to come.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:18 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


But if you live in a home that is adapted to its environment, the requirement for energy-intensive control is diminished. Not only is this easier on the environment, it is also easier on a home-owner's wallet. If energy costs continue to escalate as they historically have, everyone will benefit from homes that cost less to heat, cool, ventilate, and light.

Your statement reminded me of this ancient technology. My sister and brother-in-law went back to Iran to visit his family and tour the country with their two adult kids recently, and he brought back pictures of such structures. Not only can they cool down a large dwelling using wind tunnels, but houses situated on the edge of the desert are positioned to catch incoming breezes from prevailing winds and bring them over ponds to pick up moisture and then over fragrant blossoms to scent the air. The ingeniousness of "vernacular" architecture (love that new-to-me term) never ceases to astound me.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:22 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


My favorites of those New Orleans houses remind me of Rural Studio projects.
posted by box at 10:28 AM on November 2, 2009


All I want is that people stop using the word "green" because I never know exactly what it means.

Does "green" = "the most energy efficient" (whatever that means). Does it mean "ecologically sustainable"? It seems different people use it to mean different things.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:33 AM on November 2, 2009


Does "green" = "the most energy efficient" (whatever that means). Does it mean "ecologically sustainable"?

Aren't they just two sides of the same coin?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:37 AM on November 2, 2009


Everything you guys have said is true. And architects know it too, but they just can't help themselves!
Far too often they are thinking of the approval of their peers, or an image will get published in a magazine, more than they considering the reality of a particular problem, or what the client actually needs.
posted by Flashman at 10:47 AM on November 2, 2009


A friend of a friend builds homes in my historic overlay protected neighborhood that blend in with the existing Craftsman architecture but has modern amenities including better insulation, more efficient HVAC, etc. A couple of the New Orleans designs look like they might fit in their neighborhoods, but the rest would stick out like a sore thumb.
posted by kmz at 10:49 AM on November 2, 2009


Unfortunately, some people have been brainwashed into thinking that "green" means "liberal" or leftist or whatever their preacher tells them. It should mean "sensible" in all aspects of that word, I think. Not just to the occupant, but to the surroundings and construction.

And yeah, people need to work with airflow instead of pumping central AC into everything. You can do a lot with strategic airflow to cool a building.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:05 AM on November 2, 2009


Everything you guys have said is true. And architects know it too, but they just can't help themselves!

This is very simplistic and misinformed. Architects are trained to analyze all aspects of a housing/building problem, not just the ones that are readily apparent to non-architects. Some do this with more or less talent, with more or less traditional forms, etc. and of course they're not always successful at solving said problems. But saying they "can't help themselves" is at best ignorant of the actual work an architect does and the many factors that shape the final built structure.
posted by signal at 11:17 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jefficator -

"But because a significant amount of "green" architecture produced today comes in the form of bizarre eco-boxes, most home-buyers have come to associate the label "green" with a type of lime-colored, glass and steel origami that terrifies them."

It doesn't terrify me - some of it's pretty neat, I think - it's just that (A) in most cases it's EXPENSIVE, (though mass building would lower the per-unit cost) and (B) Not something I want to live in - though the Ikea BoKlok concept is kind of interesting. (Be even more interesting if they had a floor plan...)

Everyone's got different tastes - what works for me re a house/home likely would drive some folks batshit, and others would turn their noses up at. Wouldn't say they're wrong, either - they just have different tastes.
posted by JB71 at 11:18 AM on November 2, 2009


That said, btw, if I ever win the lottery I'm gonna get an architech to do up a green home modeled on the styling of WDW's Tomorrowland. Just for the fun of it, seeing the 'House of the Future' is no more...
posted by JB71 at 11:22 AM on November 2, 2009


"But because a significant amount of "green" architecture produced today comes in the form of bizarre eco-boxes, most home-buyers have come to associate the label "green" with a type of lime-colored, glass and steel origami that terrifies them."


Most suburban housing developments in my area prohibit anything but "traditional" designs on the houses built there. That usually translates to cheesy fake Federalist, fake Victorian or something that they label "Mediterranean". Nothing that has any hint of modern architecture is allowed.
posted by octothorpe at 11:41 AM on November 2, 2009


For new construction, Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) seem like one of the "greenest" technologies out there. Basically lets you build a superinsulated house with minimal wood members and reduces the time to construct by about 20%.

But really, the greenest house is one that already exists.
posted by electroboy at 11:45 AM on November 2, 2009


Most suburban housing developments in my area prohibit anything but "traditional" designs on the houses built there.

I understand this criticism. What you have to remember is that the Zeitgeist is imminently fickle. If a neighborhood allows any old building, what ends up happening is a conglomeration of "modern" design that is often hated before the original home-owners move out.

A home is the single largest purchase the average person will ever make. Tried and true designs have higher resale value than "innovative" concepts precisely because people are skittish when it comes to trusting that some modern architect's "vision" will still be desirable in ten years.
posted by jefficator at 11:49 AM on November 2, 2009


Simplistic, sure, but not entirely misinformed. FWIW for my graduate thesis project I designed and helped build a timber & straw bale house with an Aboriginal (/'Indian') community in an isolated valley in central British Columbia.
Samuel Mockbee and his 'Rural Studio' was a large influence and precedent for my project. I believe he would agree with my statement.
posted by Flashman at 11:51 AM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does "green" = "the most energy efficient" (whatever that means). Does it mean "ecologically sustainable"?

Aren't they just two sides of the same coin?


Not necessarily. Energy efficiency comes in various forms. In the most basic forms, there are passive and active forms of energy efficiency. Passive means that something is designed to require less energy to be used for it's function. With houses, that includes things like large solar-oriented windows and flooring that can absorb heat (or stay cool) to lower temperature control costs. Active is related to appliances that require less energy to perform a task. You can have a fantastically efficient heater, but if you don't have proper insulation, you'll spend more money and energy for heating.

Sustainability is in regards to the sources, types, and speed of resources used. Gasoline could be considered sustainable, as it is still being made, but we are using it at an unsustainable rate: we will use all available sources before more is available. The same applies to wood, stone, and metals. Taking sustainability one step further is to look at the "lifespan" of products. Will the product last a good long while, and what are you left with at the end of the initial use? Can you recycle the product, compost it and grow more, or is it rubbish forever?

As for material costs, with the broader adoption of "green" practices and materials are making the costs of building traditional-type structures less of a price difference. There are specialty shops that only stock sustainable materials from local sources (requiring less transportation of materials, reducing over-all emissions associated with the product), and now major chain stores are stocking more "green" products and marketing them heavily as such.

But really, the greenest house is one that already exists.

And they can be made greener. There is a LEED certification class for existing buildings - LEED-EB: Operations and Maintenance (O&M), addresses buildings that are already occupied and operational, and puts more focus on operating and managing buildings more efficiently.

Further tangent: Starchitecture and Sustainability: Hope, Creativity, and Futility Collide in Contemporary Architecture (Op/Ed on Planetizen).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:59 AM on November 2, 2009


There is a LEED certification class for existing buildings - LEED-EB: Operations and Maintenance (O&M), addresses buildings that are already occupied and operational, and puts more focus on operating and managing buildings more efficiently.

To clarify, LEED-EB is for commercial buildings (i.e., multifamily apartments, office buildings, and retail space), not single family homes. And within the LEED-EB world, I'm not sure that any residential buildings have been certified LEED. There are a lot of challenges with the O&M standards - getting all your tenants to participate in recycling, use green cleaning products, turn off lights, etc. - that are even more difficult to accomplish in residential buildings.

My office building is Energy Star certified, and they are working towards a possible LEED certification. It's a challenge for multi-tenant spaces, given the freedom that most commercial tenants are used to having, with regards to everything from build out and improvements to everyday stuff like how many hours the HVAC runs or when the lights get turned off.

It would definitely behoove folks to read about the LEED standards, especially the LEED-EB ones, because they are an interesting attempt to cover all aspects of ecologically friendly building management - not just the obvious energy efficiency things, but also indoor air quality, waste management/recycling, purchasing, transportation, water conservation, tenant relations, etc.

Commercial buildings consume about 70 percent of the country's electricity and emit about 40 percent of the nation's greenhouse gasses. Which is not to say that green single family homes aren't important, but there are opportunities for greater impact in the commercial sector.
posted by misskaz at 12:28 PM on November 2, 2009


When hybrid cars were first introduced, they looked distinctly different from regular cars. Carmakers assumed that those interested in hybrid technology were a niche market, and they seem further to have assumed that this niche market overlapped with individuals interested in "futuristic" car design. Read: anyone driving a green car wants you to know he or she is driving a green car. Yet increasingly green technology cars are indistinguishable from traditional vehicles. Hybrid technology is no longer relegated to the niche market.

This was not so silly, since the early adopters probably were interested in display. More importantly, cars like the Prius gave Toyota (for example) a nice way of segregating an experiment away from their main product lines. If their hybrid drive had been a technology or marketing disaster, they could have just dropped the Prius and left it at that without tainting their important brands (Corolla, Camry, etc).

Now it's been a success we see them shifting it into the Camry.
posted by rodgerd at 1:12 PM on November 2, 2009


There are architects around who specialize in building sustainable and energy-efficient homes. Here's one who works in my home city. I've seen some of this guy's work, IMO it's really good - for example, he's built houses that are pleasantly cool in the Brisbane summer without aircon, with maximized use of interior space.

The thing is, Brad Pitt and Steve Bing are actually vital to this project, not because of any fame or celebrity status, but purely because of money. Housing developers as a general rule are interested in cranking out as many easily-sold houses as cheaply as possible. That does not work well with sustainable architecture, because to make a house well, you have to think, and you have to change parts of its design to accommodate the conditions, like directional facing, hillside angle, etc. All of this drives the costs way up in comparison to installing box-like McMansions.

Green architecture does require rich patrons who value energy conservation above return on investment to make it work, at this stage. If more people did it it would become cheaper, but most people just think "I want a house now". In the aggregate as the energy savings filter through the system, everything will become a little bit cheaper, but this doesn't directly help you or I to build a sustainable house.

IMO if someone invented a system of robust solar shingles that could easily and aesthetically replace entire roofs, and be individually unplugged and replaced if some were damaged (say by hail, or birds), that would do more for energy efficiency than anything else so far. Looking around my street and suburb and city I would guess that maybe 1% of houses have anything solar-power-related on their roof at all and of those that do, less than 10% of the roof area is taken up by solar collectors.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:17 PM on November 2, 2009


When hybrid cars were first introduced, they looked distinctly different from regular cars. Carmakers assumed that those interested in hybrid technology were a niche market, and they seem further to have assumed that this niche market overlapped with individuals interested in "futuristic" car design.

The only reason for the exotic designs in the Prius and Insight is to reduce drag and consequently improve fuel efficiency.
posted by euphorb at 2:30 PM on November 2, 2009


The only reason for the exotic designs in the Prius and Insight is to reduce drag and consequently improve fuel efficiency.

Nonsense; it's conspicuous consumption, only the green version. It may be true that the funny trailing edge helps fuel efficiency and so on, but buyers and passers-by pick up on the look of the car. "Oh yes, I bought this highly desireable automobile, but really it's just because I love this planet sooooooooo much!. "

Or do you think the designers and the desingers' managers ignored looks and consumer desire in this one instance?
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:34 PM on November 2, 2009


The greenest home is not the one that already exists. 94% of the lifecycle (50yr.) energy consumption of a house is from operation, mostly from heating.

Homes use staggering amounts of energy to heat and cool, and efficiency improvements from from double to 6 times are possible. Here's one example, part of a great read.

Tear down that old house (or gut it) and make a real difference. If we're going to actually dodge climate change, every single building more than 10 years old needs to be renovated. Start now.
posted by anthill at 3:42 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


The greenest home is not the one that already exists.

Sure it is. Building a new, low energy house is more costly, energy-wise, than rehabbing an existing one because the structural components (concrete, steel, gravel) require the most energy to create/extract/transport.

Tear down that old house (or gut it) and make a real difference.

Tearing down serviceable houses is a terrible idea. Rehabbing existing housing stock minimizes sprawl and lowers the demand for raw materials. Certainly there's some that aren't worth saving, but most houses can be made extremely energy efficient for minimal cost.
posted by electroboy at 4:34 PM on November 2, 2009


But because a significant amount of "green" architecture produced today comes in the form of bizarre eco-boxes, most home-buyers have come to associate the label "green" with a type of lime-colored, glass and steel origami that terrifies them.

What you're saying here is that you don't like how some architecture is marketed as "green", not that you don't like "green architecture". Just about every single point you cover as belonging to "vernacular" architecture would get you a credit under LEED, which does not give any credits for picking any particular appliance (although if, in aggregate, they generate enough of an energy savings over a baseline case, yes you could get points for them).

There are boatloads of architects trying to do exactly the type of holistic, honest-to-god green building you're talking about.

Architects continue to assume that the only people who want environmentally friendly houses are those people who want you to know they live in environmentally friendly houses.

I don't know how many times I'm going to have to rebut this, since it seemingly comes up in every single thread like this. But. Architects build the buildings their clients want them to build, with rare exceptions. Every building you've ever seen that was designed by an architect was something somebody else, for some reason, wanted for themselves. Maybe cost was their overriding deciding factor. Maybe it was ego. Most architects don't go out with building designs and try to get people to build them - people come to architects with an idea for a building they want and the architect helps them achieve it. Architects do nothing more than offer suggestions as to how to do things - some clients may be bullied into doing them but ulitmately the person paying the bills is in control.
posted by LionIndex at 8:51 PM on November 2, 2009


With all due respect LionIndex it works both ways: as with, say, graphic design or cake making or tailoring, the artist has to have a reasonable level of skill in order to get any work at all, which implies doing a lot of practice, which implies making stuff you like, or find difficult and need to master, or think you should try to make, or that you think clients will want you to make. A baker's family eats a lot of fallen cakes, overcooked bread, and stuff with a bit too much salt in it; there's a lot wider design-reality gap for an architect of course, but the same principle applies.

Also anyone in any creative profession who is there at least somewhat for the love of it has things that they really want to do, that they're just waiting on the right client to fund. Why wouldn't you put those forward as suggestions?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 9:24 PM on November 2, 2009


electroboy, citation please? I just linked to a random google-found U. of Michigan study that found only 6% (950GJ) of a stereotypical house's 50-yr energy use was from construction and embedded energy. The energy efficiency improvements were such that the entire embodied energy of the new house was recouped in 5 years.

I'm certain I can find more. What do you base your opinion on?
posted by anthill at 4:51 AM on November 3, 2009


Right, and if you actually read that study you'll see that the structural elements account for most of the embodied energy in the construction of the house. So, instead of tearing down an existing house, you insulate it, replace the windows, upgrade the HVAC system, upgrade the floors and the roof to materials that don't need to be replaced every few years and you essentially have the energy efficient house.
posted by electroboy at 7:18 AM on November 3, 2009


Anthill I have to agree with electroboy here. I don't have any date to back this up, but off the top of my head...

1) Concrete for slab foundation
a) mining materials
b) deposing of waste
c) transporting materials to factory
d) mixing materials
e) deposing of waste
f) transporting materials to site
g) transporting workers to site
h) legacy costs of constructing/demolishing concrete factories.

2) Lumber for framing
(see above)

3) Asphalt shingles, roofing felt, roofing tar
(see above)

4) Bricks
(see above)

5) Fiberglass insulation
(see above)

6) Copper wiring and electrical junctions
(see above)

7) PVC piping
(see above)

8) Sheetrock
(see above)

9) Cabinets
(see above)

10) Tile
(see above)

11) Carpet
(see above)

12) Hardwood Floors
(see above)

13) Fixtures (toilets, sinks, tubs)
(see above)

14) HVAC System
(see above)

15) Windows and screens
(see above)

16) Gallons and Gallons and Gallons of Paint
(see above)

17) Thousands and Thousand and Thousands of Nails
(see above)

18) Miles of caulk
(see above)

19) Site clean-up
a) original demolition of exisiting structure
b) further clean-up of waste generated by new construction at site.

And this is assuming you just move all your old appliances and furniture into the new house, which no one ever does.

Not to belabor the point, but $20 worth of caulking bought this afternoon from the Home Depot would be a more environmentally-friendly solution to inefficiency than tearing down homes and starting from scratch. At the very least let houses achieve a natural redundancy and then consider demolition/new construction. Not at all before.
posted by jefficator at 7:38 AM on November 3, 2009


One of the takeaways from that study is that manufactured materials that need to be replaced every few years are huge energy wasters. If you look at that graph I linked to, carpeting is a higher energy input than concrete, because it's relatively energy intensive, and it gets replaced every few years (8, per the study). I don't believe they accounted for recycling though, which I believe is possible.

Another pretty fascinating result is that the energy efficient home doesn't really save all that much money, once you factor in the increased costs. ($120/month vs. $40/month for utility bills, but you have to finance the $22,000 in additional construction).

I think it'll take a significant increase in energy prices, or a carbon tax that more realistically accounts for the true costs of energy generation to make super energy efficient houses an economic winner.
posted by electroboy at 8:12 AM on November 3, 2009


Also, anthill, I think we might be arguing past each other here. You're certainly right that most of the energy is expended in the operations and maintenance part of the equation, but I'm saying that by reusing/repurposing existing houses you can achieve similar results without unnecessary additional energy inputs.

For example, reusing the existing foundation accounts for about a year's worth of energy for the standard model house and five years worth of energy for the energy efficient model.

One more thing, the study is slightly misleading because operations and maintenance includes replacing carpets, asphalt shingles and other energy intensive items in addition to heating/cooling costs. If you take energy costs alone, it's around 6 GJ for the standard model vs. 2.5 GJ for the energy efficient model. Obviously you have to view it as a whole, but there's a middle road where you upgrade inefficient systems and materials, rather than tear it all down and start over.
posted by electroboy at 8:28 AM on November 3, 2009


This is a fun discussion! I'm not against renovating old houses, but from my limited experience (three renovations by friends and family) there are a lot of things that are difficult to achieve in renovated houses. Not impossible, but difficult.

1) Airtightness. Old brick houses leak. It's really hard to apply proper vapor barriers after the fact and achieve the same airtightness as proper new builds (not McMansion new builds, but good Japanese/European construction)

2) Insulation. Old brick facade is pretty, but it's completely backwards. Good designs have the the thermal mass inside the insulation & vapor barrier, to moderate day/night temperature swings, not on the outside. Architecturally, it's hard to clad the exteriors of oddly constructed houses.

3) Solar Gain / Orientation. Rotating an existing house - not going to happen. Even adding windows can be a structural and architectural pain, and you might have to be clever with retrofitting ventilation to spread the heat around the house.

4) Keeping the lid on the can of worms. Old houses are old. Every time you rip something out, you find another problem you didn't expect lurking, and things get messy. If you're retrofitting a really old house, you might find that you have to tear out so much existing material that a new house would have been cheaper.
posted by anthill at 9:20 AM on November 3, 2009


Heh, I should add that I live in a currently unrenovated brick townhouse from the 1920s, so I'm very familiar with the problems of old brick houses.

Airtightness is certainly a problem, however spray foam insulation is fantastic for both insulation and vapor/air barriers. It's expensive to use as your only insulation, but if you do an inch of closed cell spray foam and a few inches of cellulose or fiberglass, it's more cost effective. Doors and windows need to be replaced or retrofitted as well.

Definitely right about the thermal mass. Exterior insulation systems solve this problem, but you lose the brick exterior. However, brick has the distinct advantage of never needing paint or new siding. Maybe repointing every 50 years and the occasionaly pressure washing, but that's about it.

Solar gain/orientation. Not as big of an issue as you'd think. Skylights and solar hot water can capture a lot of that energy which can be used to supplement either HVAC or hot water heating. Adding windows to a wood framed or brick veneer house is pretty trivial work, it's not difficult to do with a masonry house either, just requires more specialized work.

I've experienced the can of worms. It's also not so bad. The great thing about old houses is that they're generally well designed and built, or they would've fallen or been torn down long ago. My house is basically a 12" thick brick box with no interior structural walls. I can move things around, relocate utility chases, tear out walls with no ill-effects.

If you're retrofitting a really old house, you might find that you have to tear out so much existing material that a new house would have been cheaper.

I guess that's part of the problem. Environmentally friendly /= cheaper in most cases, not immediately anyway. Most of the energy efficiency measures have a really long payback period, and you may only realize them if you live in the house for 30 years or so.
posted by electroboy at 9:54 AM on November 3, 2009


Tear down that old house (or gut it) and make a real difference.

Sweet. Flick me a coupla hundred grand and I'll get onto it.
posted by rodgerd at 1:06 AM on November 4, 2009


Sweet. Flick me a coupla hundred grand and I'll get onto it.

You've caught wind of the next stimulus package, I see?
posted by jefficator at 7:14 AM on November 4, 2009


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