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Bonfire of the Vanities

Forcing an industry’s hand

by Rick Reynolds

New car salespeople will tell you that the number one question buyers concern themselves with on a given make and model is the color. After that, they may look at miles per gallon, performance, price, safety, or cargo capacity—but color preference usually comes first. Popping the hood to look at the engine would come way down on the list and may never come up at all. Contrary to what some might think, this is less about buyer indifference than a testament to how well automobiles are made today. When cars routinely get 200,000 miles, high gas mileage, and wraparound air bags—and have extremely low defect rates— consumers are left with little more than aesthetic decisions to consider.

Were this only true for new homes!

New home salespeople will also tell you that many buyers look first at visual amenities: things they can see and touch, making the false assumption that “what’s under the hood,” so-to-speak, has already been taken care of. This fact is not lost on market-driven home builders and designers who cater to this proclivity in homebuyers, whose limited budgets would be more wisely spent on healthier, more comfortable, better-performing homes.

But the home isn’t just another investment. It’s arguably the most important one. In addition to its essential nature as a nurturing, sheltering sanctuary, the home’s enduring relevance to the neighborhood, community, and environment, make overall—and especially underneath–quality, critical. Long after the amenities have lost their luster, the home will still need to play a central role in your health and well-being, while its construction and performance minimize its impact on the environment.

Alex Walker, a residential heating and air conditioning contractor, recently emailed Tedd Benson asking if he could quote him in an upcoming blog, “The Unspoken Word.” The quote, cited from the Winter 2013 EcoBuildingPulse, was:

“The industry doesn’t have high-performance home building as a priority because it has never had its hand forced by consumers. And customers aren’t demanding it because they’ve never experienced it.”

In his email, Walker laments that the homebuilding industry, building inspectors, and even the agencies that set the standards (NAHB, ACCA, DOE, ICC, AHRI, etc.), have not made high performance homes a priority because consumers haven’t forced their hands. In a kind of catch-22, consumers are kept in the dark due to a lack of full disclosure and experience with high-performance building, and their ignorance drives their buying habits, perpetuating the vicious cycle.

The inference here is that if homebuyers were better educated to the advances of building science, and full disclosure was made on the home equivalent to the car’s window sticker, they’d be less willing to trade essential qualities for relatively superficial wish list amenities and, eventually, the vicious cycle would become a virtuous cycle. In a case of the tail wagging the dog, ultimately, the governmental and trade groups would need to respond to the enlightened populous.

From Walker’s point of view, these largely hidden but essential systems have to do with sophisticated heating and cooling, air filtration and quality, humidity control, and other electrical systems: “comfort systems,” as he calls them.

To that we would add that a high quality, highly-insulated, tightly-sealed, low-load building envelope means that smaller, energy-sipping HVAC systems are all that’s required to condition the home environment and, perhaps most critically, to break our dependence on fossil fuels.

Moreover, to ensure the home addresses the evolving needs of the family while remaining accessible to emerging technologies, our Open-Built® systems, where mechanical systems are disentangled from the structure of the home, would assure that the house remains relevant for centuries to come. Indeed, we believe the ideas embodied in open-building, as originally envisioned by thought-leaders like John Habraken and Stewart Brand, should become part of building code if we are to make homes truly sustainable.

Homes are so critical to the well-being of its occupants, and their performance so critical to the well-being of the planet, that low homebuilding quality has become an undeniable failure in the social contract between the industry and society. Raising homebuilding standards to the level of so many other manufacturing sectors, (auto, electronic, appliance, etc.) could help homeowners get beyond the “bonfire of the vanities” syndrome, where beauty is skin deep, but the core building and its essential systems make it a high maintenance, energy-consuming clunker.

We can do better. We are dedicated to that proposition.