Tuesday, March 3, 2009

--Two Key Propositions

One of the oldest and best sites concerned with an approach to construction similar to that of New Regionalism is greenhomebuilding.com.

Take note, however, of a key difference: this wonderful site and many like it are concerned with green home building for green's sake alone. While this is an admirable endeavor that propels innovation and makes strides toward sustainability, it is unlikely to become commercially viable in the coming years. Most homebuyers are not interested in novelty when it comes to the single largest investment they'll ever make.

Do we allow sustainable and green construction to remain a niche market, accessible only to a privileged or committed few? The belief of New Regionalism is that the market simply will not allow this. We cannot afford to keep building houses the same way we have done since the post-war building boom began--not simply because of the effect on the environment, but also because skyrocketing energy costs and changing climate patterns will choke the life out of average homeowners trying to heat and cool their homes.

The hottest years and strongest storms on record have occurred since the turn of the millennium. Oil prices hit crippling highs in 2008. (Indeed, a case could be made that a not-insignificant factor contributing to the present economic tailspin was the cost of gasoline and its effect on the ability for sub-prime mortgage holders to make their payments. Many had mortgages they could never afford, but surely more than a handful only became unaffordable once gas prices hit $4 per gallon). Irrespective of one's belief about global warming, a person with keen business insight must see that building homes to use less energy makes good financial sense.

The problem with that business insight lies in finding precisely how to create homes that use less energy without making the upfront cost of those homes discouragingly high. According to Forbes.com, the average lifespan of an American mortgage is three to five years (though the present recession will likely skew future numbers higher). Even assuming that a family will stay in a home for five years, few (if any) models involving such innovations as better insulation, double-glazed windows, geothermal heat-pumps, solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels can make the savings from the innovation equal to or exceed the cost of the installation within the lifespan of the mortgage.

Various responses to this conundrum exist. Can we encourage people to build one home and remain there for a longer time by promoting schools and communities that a family is unwilling to trade for a larger home in a different location once the bank account allows such a move? Can government provide tax incentives for more sustainable construction? Such responses ebb and flow without radically altering the present landscape.

To truly be competitive in the market, a home-builder must do what has seemed impossible. He must construct a home defined by two key propositions. His home must use less energy without tacking on prohibitive upfront installation costs. The builder cannot rely on tax incentives alone to make the greener home afforadable. Rather, he must somehow integrate those costs or eliminate them in order to sell a greener home at a price comparable to conventional homes. But the home must also possess popular and conventional aesthetic appeal. Hyper-modern design might be innovative and interesting, but homeowners overwhelmingly tend to reject them when considering their own home purchases. Too much glass in unusual places, conspicuous solar panels, and the use of unusual building materials make potential buyers afraid of being labeled "That Tree-Hugger up the Street".

The New Regionalist blog is committed to the idea that both of these propositions can be met via a dedicated examination of traditional regional architectural expression. Handsome, desirable, energy-efficient homes can and will be a marketable reality. Coming posts will prove this point.

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