Green Tour 11

Last April the GalPal and I thoroughly enjoyed Olympia’s first Green Tour of 7-8 environmentally advanced homes. Two weekends ago we went on the second annual tour which had 20 homes and businesses available for people to visit. Last year the tour highlights took one afternoon, this year we spent the better part of both Saturday and Sunday visiting probably ten homes.

The extra-personable designers and builders use the tour to educate people and of course network in the hope of drumming up business in an obviously dismal housing market. Sometimes we’d look at a house for fifteen minutes and then spend another forty-five talking to the designer or builder.

We were especially impressed with the work of a young female architect who has designed Olympia’s and Washington State’s first passive homes. Here’s her company. I can be as skeptical as they come when presented with trendy buzzwords like “green,” “sustainable development,” “and eco-friendly,” but I’m convinced that when it comes to energy efficient home building there’s at least as much fire as heat (pun intended) and substance as style.

The one downer of the tour was visiting the “Jewelbox“, an 1,100 square foot passive home (excluding the separate state of the art art studio/shop) with an incredible 270 degree view of the Puget Sound just two miles from downtown. As the GalPal and I walked down the tree-lined street towards the “Box” and the Puget Sound, we realized it was on a property a friend had tipped us to two years ago before it went on the market.

We looked at it and loved the location, but passed because we thought it was overpriced and we couldn’t get past the decrepit house that would need to be knocked down. The furniture maker/sculptor owner found it on craigslist. He said the day he visited it the owners dropped the price 100k and eventually accepted his offer that was another 100k less. I’m glad I resisted punching him because he couldn’t have been a cooler, more soft-spoken, down to earth dude. I’m fascinated by the way many artists can envision things that I can’t. Sometimes landscaping, decorating, housing design vision is just built-in.

In the last year, the greenest U.S. designers and builders have taken a great leap forward. If your house is even two or three years old there’s a good chance it doesn’t capitalize on many of the most recent advances.

Granted, the science is interesting, but I’m more interested in the economics and the politics. In Europe, passive homes add about 7-8% to the cost of building a traditional home of equal size. In the U.S., because most of the wall and window materials have to be imported, it’s more like 15%. That 7-8% gap will no doubt slowly close as North American demand picks up. Once completed, a passive home’s utility costs are about 10% of normal. I’ve looked at computer models that suggest the pay-back period is approximately ten years. One 2,400 square foot home used a 1,000 watt b.t.u. air blower (less than a blow dryer) to heat the whole house.

Even with padding and rugs, the concrete floors would probably take some getting used to, and the outdoor siding is quite rough and different looking. No doubt you and I will adjust to those differences in short order as we become more familiar with them. More generally, the aesthetics of the kitchens, bathrooms, and other parts of the homes can be exceedingly nice.

I know not everyone can afford a stand-alone home and very few will ever be able to afford “overpaying” up front in anticipation of future savings. But for the economically most fortunate, the economic calculation is the same one I did with paper and pencil five years ago when deciding to buy a slightly more expensive hybrid car. I thought it would take 7-9 years to begin saving money on my car, but we’ve chosen to drive it more than expected and with a higher average cost of gas than I conservatively estimated, it’s only taken five years to reach the break-even point.

Now every time I fill up for $40 (based on about 46mpg), I think I just saved myself $40 more (based on 23mpg). Here’s another interesting example of the same concept. The analogy works even in the sense that I received a federal tax break for my hybrid car purchase because there are many rebate type incentives in place for things like solar energy (in that case, for nine more years apparently).

I’m thinking seriously about building a passive home, or more accurately, sitting passively while the home of the future is built for me.

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