The 100K House: Green Building On A Budget

There has been much press recently about the changes occurring in American suburbs in response to rising energy prices and the foreclosure crisis. The New York Times has discussed the downfall of “exurbs,” commuter suburbs that are built a significant distance from any urban core, and Christopher Leinberger of the Atlantic Monthly has gone as far as to draw comparison to the “white flight” of the 1960s, arguing that suburban subdivisions will become the urban slum of the future. For more on changes in the suburbs, read NuWire’s take on the death of suburbia. While the changes may not be quite that drastic, there is a wellspring of demographic data to suggest that consumer preferences are beginning to shift away from the suburbs and back toward high density, walkable urban areas.

For nearly 60 years the prevailing trend in the United States has been away from urban areas. Cheap energy and the American passion for the automobile made suburban living an easy and appealing alternative to living in the overcrowded and polluted cities of post-World War II America. Yet the high prices of energy have exposed the glaring inadequacies ("What do you mean it costs $75 to fill my Buick?") of a suburban infrastructure built for the car. Consumer preferences are already beginning to lean toward greener and more energy efficient products; just try finding a Prius right now.

Demographics will also play a major role in shifting to a more urban future. As Christopher Leinberger in his Atlantic Monthly article said:

“When the Baby Boomers were young, families with children made up more than half of all households; by 2000, they were only a third of households; and by 2025, they will be closer to a quarter. Young people are starting families later than earlier generations did, and having fewer children. The Boomers themselves are becoming empty-nesters, and many have voiced a preference for urban living. By 2025, the U.S. will contain about as many single-person households as families with children.”

Because the population is growing, families with children will still grow in absolute number—according to U.S. Census data, there will be about 4 million more households with children in 2025 than there were in 2000. But more than 10 million new single-family homes have already been built since 2000, most of them in the suburbs.”

With an obvious oversupply of suburban developments, and a high demand for urban locales, it is likely that many developers will begin to shift their priorities to building higher density developments that conform to more stringent environmental standards closer to urban centers. One team of developers in Philadelphia is taking this idea in an interesting direction. The 100K House project is an experiment in urban design aiming to create a modern “green” house for less than $100,000 in construction costs.

According to the developer’s website and blog, the 100K House is to be built as urban infill in a rising Philadelphia neighborhood. Wedged between two houses in an 18 x 60 foot plot, the house will be LEED certified and utilize novel approaches to maximize energy efficiency. For instance, rather than installing air conditioners, which are costly both in upfront and energy costs, the developers are looking into alternative solutions to make the house livable during Philly’s relatively short, yet uncomfortably sticky summers. One possible solution they came up with is to couple a passive cooling system (composed of an 11-point system that includes energy-efficient windows and a white roof to deflect heat) with an electric dehumidifier to control that “I can’t breathe because I feel like I’m underwater” type of humidity.

The 100K House demonstrates that there are many opportunities for development outside of the traditional residential subdivision and big box commercial area mindset, and that building “green” can be accomplished on a budget. As the demographics continue to shift in favor of urban areas, it will be interesting to see how this is manifested in new investment opportunities. The field is wide open (or, as the case may be, sandwiched between two row homes) for innovation and entrepreneurship.

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July 4, 2008 at 6:55 AM Anonymous said...

Interesting concept! My educated guess is that these types of homes would sell like hotcakes!
There is much that can be done to make homes energy efficient (and also to "seem" bigger) from the design phase onward. Energy efficient home design doesn't have to be complex to be highly cost effective.

Kudos to those with the idea and the perseverance to bring it to completion!

July 4, 2008 at 12:33 PM Anonymous said...

LEED for Homes has a serious flaw in how it (does not fully) provides credit for passive solar heating and architectural cooling designs. Good luck getting any points for REMOVING the standard A-C from the system, since the Energy Star based HERS model assumes the presence of an AC unit for the computer based analysis. There have been efforts to interest the HERS rater community in making upgrades to the analysis approach to deal with this, but since roll-out of LEED for Homes last November 2007, there has been little interest. Apparently saving lots of energy and Carbon is not very high on the list. Efficiency alone and hiding passive solar in the weeds is not going to provide a productive solution to proving Zero-net-energy buildings are buildable.

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