Architect Jeff Adams Designs a "Pretty Good House"

Meadow View House
Meadow View House/ Jeff Adams and Atmosphere Design/Build.

 Kat Alves Photography

Many architects and designers believe that the climate crisis demands radical change; that we need to rethink where we live and how we get around to have a lower carbon lifestyle. Driving any kind of car is inconsistent with reducing our carbon emissions enough to stay under 1.5-degrees of warming; the embodied carbon from building them, or upfront carbon emissions as I prefer to call them, are just too big. Building single-family houses are inconsistent with getting rid of cars; the density is just too low. So we need to concentrate on building multifamily housing to the tough Passive House standard at walkable and cyclable densities.

Others think this is crazy, this is America, we have to look at and listen to the market. One critic complained: "We have to look at the fat part of the demand curve. Households without cars aren't that. Frankly, new passive houses aren't that either." 

So is there an alternative to the Passive House standard that isn't quite so rigid? Some, like Architect Jeffrey Adams of Atmosphere Design Build, use one that is a bit less onerous, which they call with a bit of tongue in cheek, the Pretty Good House.

The Pretty Good House Standard

I first wrote about the Pretty Good House standard back in 2012, when designer/ builder Michael Maines and builder Dan Kolbert were "fed up with other building standards, from the wimpy and under-enforced building code to the nit-picky Passivhaus." The PGH isn't so much a standard as it is a set of guidelines that result in a house that is "efficient but not cost-prohibitive, that would adapt to climate, that would be healthy and comfortable." More recently, they introduced the PGH 2.0, which takes embodied carbon and location into account.

Meadow View House

Exterior of Meadow View House
Exterior view of Meadow View House. Kat Alves Photography 

People might balk at the Passive House standard, but might happily build something like Jeff Adams' Pretty Good House. The first thing that struck me about the Meadow View House was the simple, compact form, which is key to designing a house that is efficient both in material and energy consumption. It's also hard to do, which is why so many architects and designers add gables and bump-outs and jogs. It takes talent and an eye for proportion. This house has it, what Passive House architect Bronwyn Barry calls #BBB: "Boxy But Beautiful."

 As a regionally appropriate departure point, the design adopts the rural, vernacular form of a two-story, gable-roofed barn. This basic typology is then strategically cut away to frame views and define recessed doorways. A porch and wood-framed trellis wrap around the house on three sides to provide functional outdoor space and create additional shading to windows and doors.

Pretty Good Houses also have pretty good insulation and sealing. Michael Maines wrote on Green Building Advisor: "Invest in the envelope. Insulation and air-sealing should be good enough that heating and cooling systems can be minimal, with indoor air quality and comfort levels that are very high."

Living and dining area
Living and dining area. Kat Alves Photography 

The Meadow View House does this, with a high-performance building envelope:

 ...highest performance low-e glazing available combined with proper solar orientation; exterior rigid insulation to mitigate thermal bridging; advanced framing to minimize lumber and maximize insulation; ventilated attic with R-60 cellulose insulation; and a concrete slab for thermal mass, which is isolated from the walls and ground by an insulated perimeter. With these measures in place as well as rigorous air sealing at all building joints.

The Pretty Good House standard is more "holistic" than the Passive House standard, in that it also shouldn't be too big, should be locally sourced, and should use materials with low embodied carbon. Maines jokes in Dwell that "You could build a passive house out of all foam. You could build it out of baby seals." (This is how I know that Maines reads Treehugger, I made the baby seal fur joke first).

Induction range with hood
Induction range with exhaust hood. Kat Alves Photography 

It should also be all-electric, which is much easier to do when the heating and cooling loads are small. That's why Jeff Adams had to fight with his wife to use an induction range rather than gas. She's come around to it, as most people do. It also has a big hood with a small (300 CFM) fan that won't empty all the conditioned air in the house, and a heat recovery ventilation system to bring in fresh air, and two little mini-split heat pumps are all that is required to keep it warm or cool.

Those heat pumps work best when they are conditioning open spaces; you don't need ducts near the exterior walls because they are so well insulated. 

first floor plan of Meadow House
Meadow House Ground Floor. Jeff Adams

The ground floor certainly is open, with the flex and utility rooms being the only spaces with doors. As we have been talking recently about design after the coronavirus, I like how that utility room is right by the main entrance, and that there are only two doors into the house, both in that corner.

stair with really skinny risers
Stair with really skinny treads and risers. Kat Alves Photography 

I also like that stair to the second floor; look how thin the treads and risers are. Adams explains that he wanted to maximize the view through the big window, so he built the stair on top of a steel tube with cantilevered steel plates supporting the thin wood.

Second Floor plan
Second Floor Meadow View House. Jeff Adams

It seems that every house in North America has two bathrooms, one for the kids and one ensuite. Unusually, Adams has designed this house with one big bathroom, separate and across the hall to reduce noise and smells.

bathroom with tub in its own room
bathroom with tub in its own room. Kat Alves Photography 

It does have the functions separated so that more than one person can use it simultaneously. Adams also learned a lesson about mini-splits, though, telling Brian Pontolilo of Green Building Advisor:

"I didn't fully think about the privacy aspect upstairs," Jeff said. "I have a teenage son who wants to close his door, but then his room overheats a little bit. Even though the ducted minisplits are less efficient, I would have looked into them a little bit more, knowing what I know now." 

I note this only because I have a similar problem, having installed a mini-split on the third floor of my house, and all the cold air just falls down the stairs, even if the bedroom doors are open. So now you have two recommendations that bedrooms should be ducted.

Pretty Good House or Passive House?

Evening at the Meadow View House
Evening at the Meadow View House. Kat Alves Photography 

The Pretty Good House standard is a lot more approachable than the Passive House standard. And as my vociferous critic noted, Americans want their houses and cars, and it's unrealistic to think they are going to all start cycling to their Passive House apartments. Michael Maines says the same thing in an interview in Dwell: 

It takes a lot of resources to make a single-family house reach Passive House standards.... But people are going to build houses—people want houses. How can we convince them to do just a little bit better, or do the best they can? Part of our message is to improve your building envelope to the point that you can downsize on mechanical systems. Because then you're not really paying a whole lot more up front, and you're reducing your operating costs. 
foundation detail Meadow View House
Foundation detail Meadow View House.  Jeff Adams

Jeff Adams has designed a house that is lovely to look at, not too big at 1986 square feet, built of healthy materials with low embodied carbon, and costs almost nothing to heat or cool. But I look at that foundation detail, and it screams thermal bridge at me, where the floor meets the wall. I wonder how much better it might have been if it had been put through the Passive House wringer. 

Pretty good houses are exactly as described: pretty good. Their advocates understand the issues, including more esoteric ones like embodied carbon and the importance of location. 

However, in these times of climate crisis, one has to ask: is pretty good good enough?