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High Performance Houses for a High Performance World

by Nic Darling on September 21, 2010 · 19 comments

in Philosophy

An odd image dug it’s way out of my mind the other day. I pictured a person sitting in their suburban track home flipping the channels on the latest hi-def, flat screen TV. I imagined them telling me all the amazing television performance specs as hundreds of channels whisked by at the speed of an excited thumb. Then the scenario changed and instead of a TV it was a phone. State of the art technology and an absurd list of features were captured in a wonderfully small bundle of brilliant engineering, and this imaginary person was excitedly explaining why their phone is the best piece of technology since the calculator watch (everyone loves a calculator watch right?).

This train of thought continued through all sorts of products owned by this figment of my mind. Each product from the home computer to the car in the garage was worthy of exposition. Every thing this person owned was chosen for its exceptionally high performance. The computer had the latest quad core processor and the car had an engine that made lesser cars weep oil. This fictitious friend of mine knew every impressive statistic that lay behind every purchase. Every major item was carefully chosen for quality and performance. Except, of course, for the house.

Around all of these incredible examples of human ingenuity stood the walls of a leaky, inefficient home built with techniques that would have been obsolete many years ago in any other industry. This dreamed up person, who was so careful and picky in all of his other purchases, had bought a shockingly inferior building in which to house them. Leaky inefficient double hung windows shed light on his beautiful machines of modern convenience, but did nothing to lessen the load on his poorly installed, over-sized HVAC system. The structure of his walls were less a protection from the elements than a glowing image of thermal loss in his brand new digital SLR camera with it’s fancy infrared setting.

This person may have been a mere daydream, but I seem to know so many people like him. I have family and friends who were no doubt the inspiration for my phony pal. These are people that demand quality, that save and sacrifice to have the best, that research and question before any purchase. Yet, they almost invariably live in houses that perform worse than a middle school orchestra (sure there are some good ones but come on, for the most part there are few things worse than an amateur string section). For some reason, their expectation of quality does not extend to their home. It is the one place where size trumps performance and location excuses everything.

We need to introduce performance as a key way of understanding a home. We need to point out the absurdity of the ways in which homes are chosen. Somehow we need to convince people that a home should be evaluated much like any other product. It should be expected to be built with recent technology and techniques. It should be durable and well crafted. It should be professionally designed for comfort and ease of use. It should, above all, perform at least as well as the vast collection of smaller purchases we all make.

This is a bit of a rough little post but I would love to hear your thoughts. Has anyone else found it strange that homes aren’t held to the same standards as most products? Why do we think that’s the case and what can we do to remedy it?

Lay it on in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

There also isn't much conversation to be had here . . . at least not with us. So come on over to the Postgreen Homes Blog and tell us what you think of our new(ish) digs and crazy ideas. We will be sure to tell you what we think of your opinion.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brad Buser September 21, 2010 at 1:00 pm

Preach it brother! Amen! Awaken the masses!

I think the only obvious difference here is that homes are very costly and green homes aren’t well understood by the masses.

Example: Buying a top of the line $2000 3D LCD over a $1000 average LCD is 100% more expensive, but at the end of the day, that’s only $1000 extra dollars spent. A 100% more expensive home can’t be financed by an average person, but most people can put that LCD on their credit card or save for it regardless of income. (I know green building isn’t 100% more expensive, so save those comments. What you guys do is amazing, but unfortunately it’s not the norm and I’m jealous)

It’s the same reason people most people don’t buy a Tesla roadster. They’d love to have one, they just can’t afford it, so maybe they buy a hybrid. If only green homes were as well advertised and understood as hybrids…

2 adin September 21, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I like your thinking. We often bring out the ‘granite countertop’ comparison – (I believe made famous by National Geographic in ’09)
when expressing the benefits of performance over solely cost-effectiveness. Why is immediate ROI so central to the home performance industry? Many people spend 2 or 3x the money on a car because of the performance it delivers and the status it brings.
We are up against 60 boom years of cheap fossil fuel guiding our building practices. Maybe it will be a new Android app that changes the paradigm to value home performance.
I offer one more random thought- the concept of ‘home’ is convoluted as mass consumer culture extends all of its tendrils into our most sacred spaces. Perhaps if we simple define the function of home, bonus points for high performance would be readily given.

3 Frank S September 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Too often cars, computers, phones, and the like are built for consumer obsolescence allowing for rapid changes in technology to be adapted into product design. Houses on the other hand (even though we tend to change homes every 7 years) are built for a a 50+ year useful life with products and warranties that give out anywhere from 10 to 20 years. The challenge in creating high performance homes is as much a retrofit challenge as it is a new construction challenge. The existing building stock is not going away anytime soon. To succeed at creating high performance environments means we need technologies and methods to easily retrofit existing structures, and we need new construction to be much more adptable to future technology.

4 Justin Dill September 21, 2010 at 2:05 pm

LeCorbusier’s famous and often misunderstood quote “the house is a machine for living in” addresses this same problem. In his book Toward an Architecture LeCorbusier compares architecture to cruise liners, automobiles, and airplanes asking why is it that these items are continuously evolving and architecture is not. He proposes that the house, or building technology, should be evolving as those other fields. He was interested in defining a new paradigm of housing and was looking for something that was accessible to everyone. I think architecture has evolved but it still isn’t accessible to most people.

Also, I think in part it is because people don’t know any better. Anytime I want to buy something new I go online and look for reviews and most of the time I can easily find a lot of information to help me make my decision. I don’t think that those kind of resources are as easily accessible. And how would that work? Would homeowners review their development and build quality? Would that even make a difference? Would that result in a lot of houses that didn’t perform well being “thrown out” like so many obsolete consumer devices are today? Probably not but you get where I am going with that… I hope.

So lets say that consumers become educated and want homes that are performance driven, where do they go for that? For some reason, as Corb talks about, the building industry is evolving at an incredibly slow pace. Why isn’t it that more builders don’t adopt new building technologies? When I look at your wall systems it just baffles me that everyone doesn’t build that way. Overall they are incredibly simple and do not require additional tools or skills, just more thought. I think a lot of it comes down to laziness and an unwillingness to do things differently.

I am really interested in exploring affordable architecture. I am so inspired by what you are doing at Postgreen. When I look around at the majority of affordable housing projects they aren’t really doing anything innovative. Usually the same old building methods are being used and the materials are cheap. So while the cost upfront is low the long term cost isn’t. What captivated me about the 100k project was using performance driven building systems to build an affordable and modern home.

I think one way to remedy the current problem we are in is to continue to develop high performance affordable housing. This will first of show that sustainability does not mean expensive. Secondly, it will start to educate people from the bottom up.

While I think those in the creative class are more inclined to be interested in sustainability I think it is the everyday person that needs to understand the value of performative building technology. To me the best way to do that is by example and accessibility… Hopefully the consumer will start to demand better buildings and maybe one day soon the building industry can start to catch up.

5 Casey September 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Great post as always Nic!

I just came across your blog and the great work of postgreen. After spending the better part of last night reading through all your past posts I must say I really admire your passion and look to emulate what you all are doing out here in Denver.

Back to your post. I really think it comes down to the fact that the common person has no clue as to the environmental effects that our built environments have. Nor do they realize that with some simple attention to the design of these environment, their lives could be bettered and their wallets fattened! As you have said before we need to stop polishing turds and design better from the start!!

Frankly if you move away from the coasts I don’t think the common person really cares about the stats of their home, well other than its stature I suppose. Chalk this up to the MTV cribs culture that my generation has grown up with or the simple fact that we Americans like to live above our means, but modern society simply does not value humble functionality.

Americans as a whole probably do wish to be more sustainable, both to the environment and their own bottom line. But if history has any indication we won’t make any real progress until we are forced to and preferably can be seen doing so!

So what can we do to remedy this? I think it starts with getting the general population aware of the true cost of our current lifestyles. If we could clearly show everyone just what it takes to build and maintain our homes, roads, and communities compared to what we are actually paying I believe eyes would open. I’ll stay away from the politics of it all, but with the growing concern of our national debt and how to get it under control I think the time is prime for such stats to be shown to the masses. The fact is that other than the most urban areas, who actually support the surrounding area, we pay for only a portion of the infrastructure and goods that it take to create and maintain our lifestyles. If we could ever agree on a method to bring these two in line with one another then all of the sudden people might care a bit more about both the fiscal and environmental sustainability of our lifestyle choices.

6 Jesse Thompson September 21, 2010 at 2:16 pm


We’re actually seeing this changing rapidly right now. We’re seeing custom home clients arriving with extensive technical construction expectations to go along with the style books they have always typically brought in at the beginning of a project. They didn’t used to do that as recently as a few years ago. It’s a welcome change, we are glad to see it happening.

They may be asking for Green, but the lists of items seem to be as much about ensuring high construction quality as trying to be sustainable (which is, of course, a much more difficult and ambitious goal worthy of a whole different discussion).

I expect this to happen with similar speed to the production home building market as well. Internet education is changing things radically, home builders had better get prepared or get left behind.

Jesse Thompson
Kaplan Thompson Architects

7 Mid America Mom September 22, 2010 at 11:04 am

HI Nic.

Great discussion you have started. I wonder why houses are not more like the Jetsons this many years after the show aired!

One thing I wanted to point out is that in our consumer driven culture when a new product or generation of it comes out many of these folks now want or buy that. The average time someone owns a US home is about 7 years last time I checked. Folks increasingly moving to larger homes with each move.

People have little or no long term plans or expectations for that product or home. As a culture we have lost a sense that quality also means durable. And that durable is a desirable thing. Why should they when can have the newest with yet another purchase?


In the 70′s we did not have “green” cars and solar panels that were easy to obtain – you did these on your own! lets here it for biodiesel! But I think the steps in green are here to stay. It is making us more aware of the cost of things to our pocketbook and environment. You can buy it off the shelf. More talk of LEED and energy star is out there. Making people think about how and where they live is a step in the right direction. These days if I worked with an architect for anything I would expect that they would bring up and advocate for more efficient and green – building and materials.

This month we just finished our slow home project. Approximately 4800 new construction housing units across 9 US/Canadian cities were evaluated on a 20 criteria test. Questions included location, environmental performance, organization of the floorplan, and room design/function. There is hope out there. The winner of the single family LA home was an affordable housing development. Most, if not all, of the condo project winners were LEED seeking or certified. Smaller firms like yours and Cecil Development in Denver had a project win. And we have received press along the way.

The conversation has started!

Mid America Mom

8 Goran September 24, 2010 at 9:35 am

Just to toss in a cynical viewpoint, why has our average car efficiency not improved from the 25 mpg possible with the 1908 Model T Ford? Because once businesses get large enough, they tend to perpetuate the status quo to maintain their power like large trees suppressing other vegetation. This entitlement of wealth can stifle innovation and progress, except as it applies to the very narrow interests of the business.

Hopefully the recent energy price spike and resulting legislation/incentives have been enough to allow some alternatives to take root.

Barring that, I don’t imagine there are enough people out there who build their own homes for them to drive the low cost high tech energy efficient home businesses. Those on a budget are very unlikely to build a home themselves. Those with enough money to build a custom home may not be as concerned with energy efficiency, especially if it energy cost doesn’t contribute a large fraction of operating cost for the home. The few folks who build ultra efficient, multi-million dollar homes, don’t really do anything to advance the field as everything is custom built, or low volume.

The vast majority of all homes are built by developers, for a cost conscious consumer. The only way the field will be advanced is for developers to identify environments where energy costs make up a large portion of a home’s operating expense, and then to offer a cheaper to own, efficient home in that area. This means environments where other expenses are low (transportation, taxes, etc.), most likely a low income environment. And hopefully no drop in the price of energy.

Postgreen’s target market seems well chosen to me.

9 Goran September 24, 2010 at 9:51 am

Legislation requiring accurate, and prominent labeling of a home’s operating costs would help. For example, if every real estate ad, or apartment rental ad were required to post the anticipated operating costs: heating, cooling, utilities, taxes, condo fees, etc., calculated using an industry standard method, I think homes would get much more efficient, very quickly.

10 Diogenes Goldberg September 25, 2010 at 9:21 am

Japanese tax regulations posit 20 and 30 year usable lives for wooden and concrete construction, respectively. Average age of a car on the road in Europe is 8.5, vs 9.4 in America, primarily a function, I believe, of tax code. World War II obliterated a huge proportion of housing stock on two continents. In short, I wonder if conscious governmental decisions about tax code generally and the ravages of war in particular have combined to create the conditions for a newer base for and more rapid iteration of housing stock. In the absence of those kinds of conditions — or a natural disaster like Katrina — I’m guessing the pace of modernization in housing is unlikely to change much in the U.S. If housing were smaller here, cost 1/3 of what it does today, and tax incentives existed to actually raze houses once they hit their “sell by” date, I suspect the rate of change would be staggering.

11 Kyle September 27, 2010 at 12:37 am

Great post! I often wonder about these same people, and you’ve done a great job putting it to narrative, and highlighting the hypocrisy of that kind of daily routine.

I argue that education-based marketing for those very people would be effective to drive them back toward your firm for a new home with ‘all the stats’. If you can market it correctly, these people are your latent customer base.

However also remember that there are massive government subsidies encouraging reckless and speculative building, which tends to be driven only by total SF and cost per square, among a few other things like granite counter tops, his and her side by side toilets (jk) and a ‘grand’ entry which is a huge waste of space but sure will impress the neighbors!

If people had to pony up more of their own cash, and every mortgage wasn’t guaranteed by fannie and freddie, lenders and borrowers may be more careful about just what they spent their money on – additionally, a whole cadre of imposed regulations distorts exactly what can be built, how it’s built, where it’s built, etc.

I could have this discussion all day but i’m extremely nervous of the ‘calls to action’ which involve MORE regulation, tax incentives, ‘green building’ requirements, blah blah. Before you advocate for more regulations – examine the existing policies that have brought us here in the first place.

Anyway i’m not going into this now but i just wanted to say great blog – just stumbled upon it and I’ll be adding it to my bookmarks!

12 Jonathan October 1, 2010 at 11:39 am

I think the hard economics about housing is that a house is an investment where a TV, phone, car, etc. are not. By investment I mean that a house will maintain equity while it is used. While someone may want to spend more money for a high performance “thing” (Car/ TV/ Laptop/ Phone), spending money on these things is essentially paying for a service.

No one buys a hi-def tv for a few grand then uses it for 3 years and thinks that it could be sold for near what they payed for it. Where as with a house, you want to get your money back when you sell it. Upgrading your poor performing house is not cheap and is much harder than leasing a new car, buying a tv, going to ATT and getting the newest iphone, etc. You can’t throw out your house and make a new one just because you want a better house.

All this just to say that the economics driving the housing consumer looks different than the economic driving consumer products. So while I love the Idea of performance driving housing, it will be really hard to convince the average consumer to see their house the same way they see buying their car.

13 October 4, 2010 at 1:01 am

OK Chad, you’ve been “living it” for over a year now, are you happy with the utility bills?

I know it’s tough to calculate a comparison with a new baby. Lots more washing & drying going on than before.

14 Goran October 4, 2010 at 8:42 am

HERS just isn’t that sexy a number. I read the article, and I still can’t remember what good numbers are. Energy Star has pretty good name recognition, but doesn’t really address the scale of efficiency, and other values, you guys are building to.
When we buy other other “appliances”, marketing has taught us to shop for “MHz speed, or GB memory, or resolution, contrast, refresh rate, …, etc..” Maybe we need a similar marketing effort for houses?

Of course there are air changes per hour at 50 mP, but that could use some marketing hype.

FPH rate – the rate at which a home generates noxious smells. Relate to building materials. Lower is better.

FAC – Fresh air changes per hour. How often the home’s ventilation system replaces the air per hour per room, or overall. Higher is better.

Lost Air Changes per hour. Related to ACPH @ 50 mP. Lower is better.

Sonnes measures how noisy an appliance is, maybe there can be a measure for how quiet a home is. A function of location and building materials/design.

Brightness, related to lumen of lighting per square foot in the home.

CUT = Cardio units per day. How much exercise you get just living in the home, and related to the number of stairs, and arrangement of spaces. Higher is better.

And so on for energy use, water efficiency, etc.. You could probably have a bit of fun with this.

15 Chad Ludeman October 5, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Kevin – Yes, we are very happy with the utility bills and they have been better than predicted. I’d be even happier if we didn’t pay more in gas surcharges than actual gas usage. That’s one of the reasons we’ve switched to an all electric house…

16 October 6, 2010 at 12:11 am

That’s great news. Sounds like a good blog post to me:
“100k Operational Results: A Comparison of Projected HERS Score, Actual HERS Score, and Actual Energy Usage for the First Year”

Can you put an electric element in your solar tank, connect the tank to the in-floor heat, then sell the boiler on Ebay? Instant money, then ongoing monthly savings with no gas service fee.

17 Nikki October 29, 2010 at 2:37 pm

I just wrote about a woman in CA who built her dream green home. And I agree, I think she simply redefined home as that which SHOULD be high performing, cost efficient, and especially, resource saving. Further, I think the LEED certificate program actually is trying to measure exactly those presently undefined issues that make a home truly sustainable (and that Goran above creatively outlined!). Thanks for the brain fodder!

18 John Clem February 1, 2011 at 3:11 pm

It’s sad but true, most home buyers just aren’t that concerned about the energy efficiency of their home. Energy costs are just an expected expense that they calculate into their budget. When they bought the home, they were much more concerned about the size of the home, if there was granite in the kitchen and neighborhood or school district. Plus, I expect many home buyers really don’t know what to look for regarding the energy performance of their homes. Builders and developers don’t really care about performance, most just want to maximize their profit.

Maybe things will be a little different going forward since we will probably not see as much home price inflation in the next few years and people will be staying put longer. Maybe they will start to consider the performance of their homes. But, it is going to take the consumer requesting better performing homes before builders and developers will change their ways.

19 Kevin Dickson, MSME February 3, 2011 at 4:06 pm

John Clem,

I was thinking about this the other day. Education and publicity just aren’t focusing buyer’s desires like I thought they would be by now. So I tried to get a discussion going:

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