'Pretty Good House: A Guide To Creating Better Homes' Is a Pretty Good Book

Anyone considering building or renovating a home should read this first.

Pretty Good House book cover

Taunton Press / Treehugger

According to designer and co-author Michael Maines, the idea of the Pretty Good House (PGH) standard started back in 2011 as a bit of a joke by Maine contractor Dan Kolbert. "Fed up with other building standards, from the wimpy and under-enforced building code to the nit-picky Passivhaus, Dan asked, essentially, what you should include in a house that does right for its inhabitants and the planet, but that does not go beyond reasonable environmental or financial payback."

Treehugger has followed it over the years as it evolved, called it a pretty good standard, and concluded, "Given how dreadful most new housing is these days, this is at least the minimum builders should build and customers should expect."

Now Kolbert and Maines, along with architects Emily Mottram and Chris Briley, have put it all together in a pretty good book titled "Pretty Good House: A Guide to Creating Better Homes."

Actually, the book is more than just pretty good. The PGH standard is not a joke, and even as a fan of the nit-picky Passivhaus standard, there is much to admire here—so much good, sound sensibility and reasonableness here. This makes this book invaluable for anyone on the project team that puts a house together.

The authors start off by discussing the three main legs on the stool that is the team—how to be a pretty good client, how to pick a good design team, how to choose a build team, and how to avoid the often-antagonistic environment that results, usually over money. They suggest that the best results come from everyone working together from the beginning of the project rather than the traditional tendering.

Money is frequently an issue, so the second chapter is about economics: Don't build more than you need, and think long-term. "We need to think about energy efficiency and resource efficiency. Spend our carbon account very cautiously." The idea is to build "the best possible house for the available budget."

The design advice is also eminently sensible, stressing simplicity, functionality, and comfort. Among the houses shown, there is not a flat roof in the bunch, and most have roof overhangs. The book embodies the old English proverb that a house needs "a good hat and a good pair of boots" with its descriptions of roofs and foundations, walls, windows, and everything you need to know to put a house together.

There's an important section on embodied carbon, a subject that is little understood among clients, builders, and even many architects and designers. The authors note that "this may be the worst moment in human history to be adding CO2 to the atmosphere" and give good advice for adding less, which is similar to what we have written on Treehugger:

  • Question whether you need to build it at all
  • Use as little material as possible
  • Choose materials with the least impact 
  • Look for local
  • Be as efficient as possible.

The mechanical advice is also sensible and up-to-date, promoting heat pumps, even though the authors are all in very cold Maine. They are critical of burning wood: "Save your fire lust for a solstice bonfire or camping trip and enjoy your quietly humming heat pump for the rest of the time."

Alas, they do not have the same criticism of gas ranges and even show one on an island with a teensy flat-bottomed exhaust hood installed too far away, only suggesting that island ranges are "tough to ventilate" when they are almost impossible. Given that they devoted most of a chapter to healthy homes and the need to avoid chemicals and solvents, this seems like a lapse, given that there is so much evidence that the impact of the gas stove on indoor air quality is going to be a whole lot worse than that enclosed wood stove.

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

 Kat Aldes Photography

Every chapter is followed by a case study written by Green Building Advisor writer Scott Gibson. One of these is the Meadow View House by architect Jeff Adams, which is most definitely a Pretty Good House. But it is also an example of what might be the limitation of the concept, compared to what Maines called the "nit-picky Passivhaus" standard. 

When I wrote about the house in Treehugger, I noted that the foundation detail—also shown in the book—screamed "thermal bridge" and I wondered how much better it might have been had it been put through the Passivhaus wringer. Passivhaus architect Elrond Burrell commented with a complaint about PGH in general:

"The issue I have with an approach that is a collection of guidelines is that you never know which are followed, which are not, and which are half-followed. So the outcome is never certain or comparable to any other project. We can debate if the energy/CO2 emission metrics of PGH or PH are suitable or not, but if we have no reliable way of knowing how projects will actually perform it makes no difference!"

I concluded by asking, "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?"

At the time of writing, I wasn't so sure. But after reading the book, I changed my mind. In the bigger picture, complaining about a foundation detail on a pretty good house in California is picayune. As Maines noted in Dwell Magazine, "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?"

Passive House is still niche and a bit confusing, especially in the U.S., where they like the standard so much that they have two of them. It is also limited in its scope. 

But anyone—a client, designer or builder—can pick up "The Pretty Good House" book and get a good idea of how to build a beautiful, efficient, right-sized home made of the right materials. It's all reasonable, sensible, useful information written by experienced designers and builders who actually know how to communicate. This is a rare treat.

The authors note that "the whole point of PGH is to provide the best possible house for the available budget. But what cannot be sacrificed is durability, structural integrity, and occupant health and comfort." 

For years many people haven't considered these things at all; they wanted the granite counters, the big double-height foyer, more gables than their neighbors, and, most of all, the lowest price per square foot. This book might finally change this by helping people understand what is truly important and what makes a pretty good house. Anyone considering buying, building, or renovating a home should start here.

"Pretty Good House: A Guide to Creating Better Homes" is slated to hit bookshelves in September 2022. You can preorder a copy here.