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Re: GBlist: Re:Housing Costs

OK, Buzz, you asked for "more"...you fool, you!

If we were to approach the question from a slightly different angle...how
would we build an affordable house that was easier on the environment?
What's involved, besides the wall structure?

Taking the long view, I can imagine that today's experiments with new
materials and construction methods could lead to changes for the better. 
they should be encouraged!

However, the reality today is as Buzz describes it. The home building
industry is geared to building what most everyone in society agrees they
want: a savings account they can live in. Everyone in the industry is
cashing in on rising land values and rising home prices, at the same time
they bemoan the lack of affordability and point the finger of blame at
zoning or environmentalists.

So if you plan to build houses and make money, you'll build "traditional"
suburban subdivision houses that are all alike except for the color of the
spa tub (how did his 'n her sinks get to be a NECESSITY, for heaven's
sake?). That's what you will be able to finance with construction loans,
that's what the buyers will be able to finance with permanent loans, 
what realtors know how to sell, that's what people think they should buy 
"protect their investment" as well as, let's be honest, make a good
impression on their family, friends, coworkers and neighbors; that's what
the building products manufacturers are supplying the parts for. Our local
HBA likes to call this "giving the buyers what they want" and seems
incapable of looking at it as a prisoner's dilemma no one knows how to
break out of. The expectations built into these houses are driving the
costs through the roof, NOT building technology. The average new house 
right after WWII was about 950 SF for a family of 4; now it's 1850 SF for 
family of 2.2. Today, fireplaces and garbage disposals are mandatory, not
optional, luxuries. Result: the nice suburban house starts at about
$140,000 and people have to shop at Costco to be able to afford it. ;^)

This year there will be about 6,000 such houses built in the Portland 
area. The whole industry is geared to building and selling the same thing.
How do we redirect this juggernaut, away from consumerism and a neurotic
focus on style, into a wholesome preoccupation with living lightly on the
earth? And make housing more affordable?

Affordable houses do get built here in Portland, and here's what they seem
to have in common:

They consider the family's costs for transportation and shelter as coming
from the same pot of money. So features that allow the family to live
without a car, or with only one car instead of two, are integral to an
affordable housing package. Features like close-in locations, easy access
to bus and light rail (and soon a trolley line), mixed uses (living above
the grocery store), higher densities, no built-in or attached garages,
secure bike storage, bike lanes and safety measures, and a feeling of
personal safety because lots of people are always walking around the
neighborhood, especially at night, so you can too. And--suprise!--many
people actually like living without a car in affordable neighborhoods that
are vibrant and alive.

Affordable housing is intelligently designed so it serves the needs of the
occupants, without being any bigger than it has to be. One reason is that
the buyers are not all assumed to be nuclear families. Affordable housing
is being designed and built to fit the needs of single people, single
parents, people who are rooming together, childless couples, and all the
other types of families we have today. An 1100 SF townhouse can have all
the amenties of a 2000 SF tract house (and then some, in my opinion), 
using a lot less materials. "Intelligent design" uses materials to provide
living space and amenities, as opposed to creating an artificially 
sense of style (One of my faves: the "soaring ceiling"...nine foot walls
and a vaulted roof...but ya gotta have 'em, say the realtors.).

Affordable housing is being built where infrastructure already exists, so
the new home buyer isn't also paying for a whole new set of roads, water,
sewer, utility lines, storm drains, street lights, and city and school

Affordable housing is energy efficient to cut the family's ongoing cost 
space heating and cooling, water heating, appliances and lights. (Today,
efficiency extends to water, sewer and garbage also, because those rates
are shooting up.) Reducing monthly expenditures for energy allows the
family to qualify for a higher value house, and/or reduces risk to the
lender, a concept recognized in Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae's "energy efficient
mortgage" and the various Home Energy Rating System programs.

The affordable house is durable so the occupants don't have to spend a lot
of dollars on maintenance that should never have been needed--a better
exhaust fan that eliminates mold in the bathroom is a typical example. In
the long run, durable equates with beauty, because it's the attractive
house that gets renovated instead of replaced, so affordability includes
beauty. And, it's cheaper to renovate than build new.

Affordable housing is healthier, so families will spend less money on
fixing health problems created by their house, such as chemical toxins,
allergens or other air pollutants. A moldy basement, or a damp carpet, or 
toxic foundation, can cost a family a fortune in repair, lost work time 
health care costs, yet could easily be avoided or prevented by design and
construction measures.

Finally, it's my personal opinion that affordability is affected by the
perceptions of lenders. They affect affordability by raising the loan
rates, points and fees for any type of housing that is outside the 
suburban model described above, because they are unfamiliar and uncertain
about it, and feel it is definitely more time-consuming to evaluate and 
be riskier. They don't want to lend at all on mixed-use housing, so it has
taken the intervention of the city and HUD and Fannie Mae to back up the
developers and take some of the risk off the lenders before they will
participate. So arguably, affordable housing requires the whole community
to cajole the lenders...the developer or builder can't do it alone.

I probably forgot some really important variables, but what jumps out is
the synergy...that the "affordable" house is also the "green" house. It's
small, compact, efficient, easy to live in, easy to like, easy to 
in the middle of the action, healthier, and will be there in 200
years...while the "brown" house in the suburbs will have collapsed under
the weight of its excesses. The affordable house takes up less land, uses
fewer resources, generates less waste, uses less energy and water, 
less commuting and auto pollution, reduces surface water runoff and
erosion, gives people more of their priceless health, time, and
pleasure...(sotto voce) maybe even spiritual comfort?

I worry a bit about houses being built out on open land, away from the
city, that the accounting may get skewed...for example, maybe a wall made
of (insert your earth material here) is cheaper than a framed wall, but 
cost in gasoline goes way up, for hauling people and stuff to the site?


>Thanks for all the comments on this topic.  I'd like to hear more,
>including those contrary to my own.

O'Brien & Associates
Environmental Building Consultants
Portland General Electric Earth Smart program
This greenbuilding dialogue is sponsored by CREST <www.crest.org>
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