The Pretty Good House 2.0 Is a Pretty Good Building Standard (Now With Embodied Carbon!)

credit: Architype

Given how dreadful most new housing is these days, this is at least the minimum builders should build and customers should expect.

Writing in Dodge Data, Donna Laquidara-Carr was so excited that "one-third of single family builders (33%) are building more than 60% of their homes green. This demonstrates the prevalence of green homes in the current single family market." And what do they mean by green? "Nearly one quarter of single family builders (23%) reported using solar photovoltaics (PV) on their projects in 2016, and even more multifamily builders (27%) reported doing so. Among single family builders, this places the use of solar PV nearly at the level of ground source heat exchange (25%)."

And I thought, we are so screwed, if basically a sixth of the homes being built are "green" and they think it is all about heat pumps and solar panels.

I thought about this when I discovered the article by Michael Maines wrote in Green Building Advisor earlier this year, about what he calls the Pretty Good House 2.0. We covered the first Pretty Good House (PGH) back in 2012, when Maines and Dan Kolbert were "fed up with other building standards, from the wimpy and under-enforced building code to the nit-picky Passivhaus." I thought it was a Pretty Good Idea.

Perhaps the reason there were so few builders building "green" is because it is just too tough and expensive and the clients didn't understand it. With the PGH, here was the idea of a house that was "efficient but not cost-prohibitive, that would adapt to climate, that would be healthy and comfortable." I added that it should be in a Pretty Good Location in a pretty good community.

Materials palette

A bunch of materials with low upfront carbon emissions / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But as Maines notes, a lot has changed since 2011. Today he is also worried about embodied carbon, or what I call Upfront Carbon Emissions.

Right now is the worst time in the history of our species to dump a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, but that’s exactly the result of many construction practices. Even builders concerned with energy efficiency often front-load enormous amounts of carbon-intensive materials with the expectation of saving over the life of the building. But if we only have one or two decades to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, what should we do instead?

It covers a lot of the concepts we have discussed here on TreeHugger before, including:

"Be as small as possible. Ideally with multi-family or multi-generational occupants." This is what I have called "sufficiency", or building just what you need.

simple house

Nick Grant/via

"Be simple and durable. Simple shapes are easier to air seal and insulate, perform better in harsh weather, and require fewer materials and less maintenance than more complicated buildings." This is what I learned from Nick Grant and call "radical simplicity."

The best way to avoid upfront carbon emissions is to use materials that don't have any: "Use wood and wood-derived products as construction materials."

Maines says you should "invest in the envelope. Insulation and air-sealing should be good enough that heating and cooling systems can be minimal." That lets you forget about those expensive ground source heat pumps and "use air-source heat pumps. Minisplits can be efficient to -15°F or below, affordable (especially for the sizes needed in a PGH)." He suggests being "PV ready," which doesn't just mean having a wire leading to the roof, it means having a house "designed, built, and sited in such a way that a reasonably sized photovoltaic array can handle all of the home’s energy needs on an annual basis."

There is so much to love: Be affordable, healthy, responsible, and resilient... Keep it simple and safe... Consider traditional, non-flashy approaches... and finally:

Be part of a sustainable community: have access to community solar, jobs, and services nearby that minimize driving and provide shared infrastructure costs, to name a few advantages. A one-hit wonder in the middle of the woods often comes with a bigger carbon footprint than a community-based home.

Maines goes on to reject concrete (he likes my favorite foundation, helical piles), plastic foam, fossil-fuel fired appliances and unhealthy materials.

There's lots more, but you get the idea. I keep pushing Passivhaus, but given what a small proportion of housing has any "green" features at all, perhaps it is too much to expect. However, anyone building a home can learn the lessons of the Pretty Good House, and the low carbon PGH 2.0 nails most of the problems in housing today. Maines even gets into how to sell it to customers:

If you’re a designer or builder, sell the comfort aspect of a PGH; many clients do not understand or want to hear about technical details or climate change.
Chris Home

Chris in front of "canada's greenest home"/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Maines recommends Bruce King's book, The New Carbon Architecture and the work of Chris Magwood, which I believe is profoundly important and has been a huge influence on my thinking. Check out related links below for my posts on this subject.

With his Pretty Good House 2.0, Michael Maines has summarized just about everything I have been saying on TreeHugger in one very readable post. Green Building Advisor is usually paywalled but they appear to have made this one available, which is a terrific service to both the builders who should get their priorities right and to the clients who should know what to ask for.

Passivhaus is wonderful, but given the state of things in North America, the Pretty Good House 2.0 looks pretty good.