Guest Post by Della Hansmann

Last Friday I wrote a guest post about green building  suggesting that one benefit of building bank-free would be to delete those elements from the standard kit of home parts that don’t pertain specifically to your life.  I think its very important to design the house you want to live in without being bullied into un-necessary extras, but commenter Jon Brouchoud of  Crescendo Design raised this excellent point:

No matter how much us like-minded folks dislike it, it seems pretty clear that the vast majority of people actually do, in fact, enjoy those houses, for whatever reason. […] No matter what I wish the market was like, I’m afraid the vast majority still want some variation of beige and granite.

I agree.  It is sad but true that many Americans do prefer quantity over quality in many arenas including their houses, however I don’t think this means that designers or people who want green homes should stop bucking the system.   I don’t see any reason to bow to the granite and beige crowd based on the argument that what’s popular is what’s popular, and that’s that.  The second half of Jon’s argument is exactly my point.  He says:

A well-built home should be able to serve several generations of owners – not just one. If this is the case, then building a home that is perfectly suited to a single homeowner’s desired design goals runs the risk of falling short in future generations that seek to modify, update, or improve it to better suit their own functions and tastes. Especially if 8 out of 10 in the market prefer beige. If a new home isn’t flexible, simple (generic?) enough to accommodate change over time, by a diverse range of homeowners, it runs the risk of neglect, or even demolition – no matter how much it goes against our own aesthetic grain.

..Some small houses seem to have stood the test of time. (photo credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/momboleum/4792772210/)

I totally agree that to be green, a house must  serve multiple generations.  Building green is about building to last  – that means good materials, good design and long-term thinking.  And that’s exactly why the latest trends don’t matter as much as we think they do.

To the next generation of home owners, granite and beige finishes are going to look just as dated as the “avocado” and “harvest gold” appliances that are being ripped out to make room for the current fad.  Design must try to be more universal.

Building Green is Building for the Future

That’s why it is important to think about the long-term when making your design choices.  A good “green building” should incorporate Accessible Design principles so that it can continue to be useful for either the original owners or future ones who might have a disability.  It should be sited well (no flood planes, folks) and well-built using materials meant to last or easily maintained and repaired.  And it should be built to use minimal resources to heat and cool.   (The best way to do this is to enclose less space to heat and cool.)

Building for the future does not  mean every floor plan must include space for the proverbial two and a half kids and a golden retriever … and an aged mother in law.

A growing number of new home buyers are single  (in some areas a majority of new home are purchased by individuals rather than families – see this anecdotal example).  According to realtor.org, “Twenty percent of recent home buyers were single females, and 10 percent were single males.”  Some, if not all, of these people will be looking for smaller homes to make their own.

Similarly (according to McGraw-Hill Construction Research and Analytics), from 2005-2008, the value of green building construction starts had increased five times. This growth must also represent a market of people who will be increasingly interested in buying green homes.

You can sell your green car … why not your green house?

Another commenter from last week’s post reminded me of the Henry Ford maxim: “You can have any color you want as long as its black.”  Now  you can have any color you want, as well as any size and style of car (from hybrid coupe to monster truck).

The huge SUVs (the very cars that have been so popular) have become harder to sell as gas prices rise and low mileage cars are now leading the pack.  Could this presage a surge in buyer interest for small, fuel-efficient houses?

Ask yourself, have you ever known the banks to be wrong?  With their track record — do you really want them inflating the size of your home, along with your fuel bills, your taxes and your indebtedness?

7 replies

  1. Just a thought, maybe it is time for the American public to really discover the pioneering spirit that sent them across the miles, to regain the sense of adventure and willingness to overcome adversity and not settle for mediocre solutions handed on a plate by corporate America? Then and only then will diversity become the norm rather than eccentric. I would love to see more and more Americans seize the day and really look to the future beyond corporate pensions.

    • Amen to that, Joanna!
      There was a lot of environmental damage done in the name of pioneer spirit, but I have always admired their energy and willingness to give up immediate comforts for their long-term dream. I envision eco-pioneers as people who are also willing to take a pass on some of the easily obtainable comforts our excessive culture dangles in front of us because their eye is on a vision of a sustainable future.
      My grandparents did not break sod, but they scraped together just enough to buy an abandoned farm in the Depression and even though neither had farmed before, they learned how to turn 80 acres into a living and a life.
      I have always considered myself extremely fortunate to have spent a lot of my formative years with them.
      They knew how to work hard, and they knew how to be happy with what they had, which was not all that much by modern middle class comfort standards.
      I always thought of them as pioneers, and they were my childhood role models.

  2. Another great post, with lots of food for thought!

    It’s tough to get any kind of loan in this economy, no matter what you want to build, but I just think there must be some other way to buck the system other than having to pay cash for new construction.

    If banks really are refusing loans to build small houses, and we can prove that these homes are desirable across a growing percentage of home buyers, then maybe one way to circumvent the banks would be to leverage a new kind of ‘microfinancing,’ or ‘peer-to-peer financing’ model for green construction?

    The network effects of the web have certainly generated lots of new ‘crowdsource’ financing models that seem to be working incredibly well, and gaining traction in other industries. I’m thinking of sites like Zopa, Kickstarter, Lending Club, Prosper.com, Kiva, United Prosperity, etc. It could be a kind of green lending network that offered financing for qualified borrowers who wanted to build or remodel a home that met certain size and efficiency requirements.

    Easier said than done, I’m sure, or maybe its already been done, but if these loans really aren’t as risky as the banks think they are, and the market for those homes really is growing appreciably – it would seem to me that establishing a business model around that market would be a low hanging fruit.

    Thanks again for these thought provoking posts, and keep up the great work!

    • Jon that’s an AMAZING idea and I really wonder if you are the first to have had it. Being able to circumvent bank financing is both wonderful and difficult as you point out.

      At Whole Trees, one of our most creative recent housing projects has been for two Franciscan nuns who have been able to maintain creative integrity over their process because their financing comes from their sisterhood rather than any bank. Its really freed them up to make the choices that are right for them rather than for some theoretical future owner … and I think the result is actually a house that just about anyone would want to live in.

      Its always more difficult to try to deviate from conventions but I really believe changes are coming. If we want to see a world more friendly to natural and energy efficient buildings, we early adopters need to keep plugging away … and encouraging each other. Thanks for your feedback!


    • Thank you, Jon.
      I started blogging to document what we are learning and doing on our land, which swings from working on the barn, thinking about the house and trying to recreate a bit of balance among the native elements on the land, plus anything and everything green that catches my attention.
      Comments like yours that are thoughtful and informative really remind me of why I post twice a week.
      Crowdsource financing is a new concept to me, and I’m looking forward to learning more.

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