Let's End the Misery of Squarefootitis

Also known as Wilde's Syndrome; knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Picture of Dorian Gray
Scene from The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Screen Capture

My late father used to complain that sailboat owners had a disease he called "twofootitis" – every couple of years they had an untreatable urge to trade-in for a boat that was two feet longer and cost twice as much.

Later, when I was in the prefab and tiny home business, I concluded that there was another disease out there in need of a cure: "squarefootitis," the uncontrollable urge to judge every home on the basis of its price per square foot ($PSF). I thought it might also be called Wilde's Syndrome, from a line in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Happy Hour ad

Passive House Accelerator

It comes up every now and again at the Global Passive House Happy Hour, where hundreds of professionals and others who are interested in the concept meet over Zoom. After In Cho of ChoShields Studios presented an amazing rebuild of a Manhattan townhouse, the question of price per square foot came up. In our discussion after, Cho noted that it is not a useful number, in that "it doesn't differentiate between the price of insulation or the price of gold faucets."

This is the biggest problem with $PSF; it distorts everything. Some of the issues:

It Penalizes Energy Efficiency. A code-minimum house costs less to build than a more energy-efficient design and will come in at a lower $PSF. When one tries to discuss Passivhaus, many people invariably compare the price to a developer's production house and flip out, even though it is usually just a bit more than a custom builder's work, because everyone has that low $PSF on the brain.

You Get Builder Bloat. When I went into the modular house biz years ago, I hired talented architects to design small, efficient homes. Nobody wanted them when for just a few dollars more, they could buy bigger, less efficient homes with more space than they needed, because the expensive spaces like bathrooms and kitchens are the same in both, while just enclosing more square feet was actually cheap. So many other costs, from administration to site work, sewer and water were the same. Prospective buyers would look at the $PSF and choke on the smaller design; It's one reason I am a writer for Treehugger today.

It Promotes Plastic. Windows used to be really expensive, compared to a wall; that's why historically they tended to be small and used sparingly, even before we had electric light. Today's PVC windows and vinyl siding and plastic stucco are so cheap that bloat is encouraged; using better materials would have a significant impact on the $PSF.

It Can Lead to Boring Buildings. $PSF only measures enclosed area, so if you build a generous and lovely front porch or other feature outside of the envelope, it increases the $PSF of the inside area.

In all our discussions of green building, we have promoted healthy materials with low embodied carbon, lots of insulation, high-quality windows, careful attention to air leakage, building as little as possible, and electrifying everything. All of these will increase the cost per square foot. Perhaps we need better metrics.

Alternatives to Price per Square Foot

Chris magwood house
Chris Magwood's house in Peterborough.

Lloyd Alter

A few ideas for alternative standards were discussed at the Happy Hour;

Cost Per Ton of Embodied Carbon: This is an interesting idea, given that every labeling system for houses measures energy consumption and never even mentions the footprint of building the thing. The smaller and more efficient the plan is and the more natural the materials, the better the number. Expect to see straw bale homes Like Chris Magwood's take the lead.

Snohetta Power House
Snohetta Power House.

Bruce Damonte

Lifecycle Cost/Year: This was a really interesting proposal, similar to what is done now when comparing electric cars to gasoline cars. You calculate the embodied carbon and add the projected energy costs and divide by the estimated lifespan of the home. So a really efficient home built from low carbon materials with a pile of rooftop solar would win this, and would probably be very much like Snøhetta's Zero Energy House.

House Label

Michelle Kaufmann Architect

Years ago, architect Michelle Kaufmann proposed a nutrition label for homes so that people could really get a sense of what they were getting into. These were in the days before embodied carbon was considered to be a big deal, so it would need a bit of an update, but it was a good idea then and it still is, measuring the things that are important.

The key point is to please, once and for all, let's stop it with the price per square foot. It's not only useless and misleading, but it pushes the industry in the wrong direction. Enough, let's not hear of it again.