August 23rd, 2023
What If Yeti Made Homes?
I read an article recently in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) about Passive House-rated homes. One homeowner said the air conditioning in his new house only ran a few hours per day this summer, while keeping it at 72 to 75 degrees—despite triple-digit heat. That’s impressive. And I must admit, it made me think: “Now that’s the way to go. I want some of that.” Especially this year, right?
To help readers understand how a Passive House-rated home performs at such high levels, an architect advised them to think of it like a highly insulated, double-walled thermos. Of course, we all know they don’t include a layer of vacuum-sealed insulation, so I’d say a better analogy might be that of a Yeti cooler, only with ventilation and doors and windows. But we all know that Yeti coolers are extremely expensive when compared to many other brands. According to the WSJ article, one builder estimates a home built to Passive House standards costs 5% to 15% more to build than traditional structures. I’ll admit, when I read that I thought, “Uh huh …” (especially about the lower end of that spectrum).
Whatever the case might be, we all know there’s a real conflict between affordability and energy efficiency these days. Just ask the builders in North Carolina who earlier this year pushed back on the idea of advancing energy codes in their state, pointing to conflicts with affordability. I’ll admit, I was disappointed to see that lawmakers in North Carolina overrode the governor’s veto, as he tried to block legislation that delays new energy codes until 2031. Personally, if I was building a new home (which, trust me, can’t be done on an editor’s salary these days …) even if I had to scale back on square footage to scale up on efficiency, I think I’d do so—not just to save on energy, but for the sake of comfort and protection from summers like the one we’re currently experiencing.
But the situation also leaves me a bit torn.
As someone who’s worked in residential construction—including in project management—I’ve seen the numbers. Yes, most builders carve out a good living, but I’ve also managed the costs and balances of construction enough to know that it doesn’t take much to disrupt their margins and/or drive up the cost of a home. In the grand scheme of things, paying $40 extra per window for better energy performance isn’t going to break the bank on projects that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but when you’re already paying more for countless other materials, that takes a serious toll on home prices. Add to that the dilemma of higher interest rates and home buyers who can barely afford new homes to begin with and suddenly you begin to understand why homebuilders might push back. At the same time, if recent heat waves have taught us anything, it might be that we owe it to ourselves to build—and mandate—more energy efficient homes.
Case in point: Just a few weeks ago I was in North Carolina, staying in a home that was built in the 1990s. My family stays pretty comfortable with the thermostat set to around 76 degrees at home, but with temperatures in the 90s and sunny skies, that 1990s beach house had a very difficult time keeping up with the heat. In fact, it didn’t. We did our best to open and close doors quickly, but every afternoon the central air conditioning ran nonstop, yet never broke below 78-79 degrees—quite the opposite of a Passive House-rated home.
But, like many North Carolina beach homes, this home was elevated on pilings and the owners had converted part of the ground level into extra living space—another living room, an entryway, and an additional bedroom plus bath. From the look of it, I could tell that the addition was done in recent years. Instead of a standard heat pump, they installed a more efficient mini-split system. The doors and windows had advanced, double-pane, low-E glass. The walls were framed with two-by-sixes for added insulation. The upstairs and downstairs were closed off from one another, and while the upstairs system roared but never reached below 78 degrees, one small mini-split kept the downstairs at 71 without even breaking a sweat.
Talk about a prime example for what’s at stake right there in North Carolina.
But regardless of what homebuilders and legislators do, we all know that ultimately the onus falls on homebuyers to demand efficiency. I have always said that the most powerful vote we have is the dollar. Homebuyers may have to shift their spending from granite countertops to better doors, windows and insulation, and they may have to opt for more like 2,000 square feet instead of 3,000, but ultimately the choice is ours regarding where we put our money. I also suspect there are ways to make the most energy efficient homes more affordable—if we put our minds (and hearts) into it.
As for me, I bought a new cooler this past weekend, after my old one gave up the ghost. I gave the Yeti a look, but ultimately decided on an old-school Igloo Marine. Is it as good as the Yeti? Probably not. Is it as sexy? Nowhere near. But it costs less than a third as much and says it keeps ice for up to five days. That’s good enough for me and my beer.