May 2008

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« Youth in Asia | Main | The Economics Party »


Andi Newnham

While you're on the subject, this made me chuckle:


There is a limited market for energy efficient homes because energy is too cheap.
When energy is truly expensive, then the market for energy saving engineering will burgeon.

You say, "But energy isn't cheap - my electric bill was outrageous last month." Yes, but not outrageous enough to send you in to a fit of caulking, window tinting and insulation increasing.

Think of it this way - if the only way to power your home was to run a generator that burns Johnny Walker Blue label, would you find ways to use less of it?

Why is energy too cheap? Like you Scott, I blame the government. Subsidies are keeping energy artificially cheap. What kind of subsidies? Well, a multi-trillion dollar war in the mid-east for starters. Also, environmental policies that hide the cost of burning fossil fuels or tax breaks for energy companies.


Mainly it's because it's in it's early stages and everyone's still fumbling around to try to figure it out.

The little I know is that wall insulation wise, there's this great insta-foam stuff that's supposed to be really good and pretty cheap. As for windows, I don't know if anyone has manufactured this yet, but I would imagine that two panes of plexiglass separated by a vacuum would do the trick, while sealing the frame to the wall with that same insta-foam stuff.


And this is exactly why I always mock environmental activists. The demand for green products is there, but all the people who really care are too busy with political activism to actually do anything about it. Stop talking about how government can lead companies by the hand, and open an environmental consulting company. It's the same idea, except it'll actually work, you won't be forcing change on areas where it isn't appropriate, and you'll make money doing it.

Brad K.

Maureen McHugh wrote a novel, "China Mountain Zhang", about an 'organic' architect - Zhang considered the structure as a whole and the role it played in it's environment. The angle of the roof affected type, size, and placement of windows for best use of the structure.

When you are looking at super-windows, don't forget things like emergency exits, and cool spring breezes.


scott, nice post only one complaint: "Other sites appear to be funded by manufacturers, so I don’t trust them."

at least in my experience, you CAN trust the manufacturer, not blind;y of course---but the best information is often derived from the manufactuer...i'm thinking datasheets and the like. i see the hyberbole in your comment, no worries.


Columnist James Dulley is a good source for engineering questions on house efficiency. He actually tests stuff.

Andy Coulter

there's green and then there is green enough, let it go.


That engineer happen to work for Johns Manville? They have enough people in charge of those stupid California rules to form an army.

I've worked with them in the past (doing web development for the Title-24 form under California roofing laws), so I've seen a lot of their data. You say you don't trust big manufacturer's sites, but I fully believe you can trust Johns Manville, at least more than you can trust the government.


Hey Scott I live in Canada, far enough north to have a temperature variance over the seasons of from -35 to +95. Feel free to email me if you have any questions. I'm in renovations, custom kitchens but I might be able to get you some information. I lived in Hawaii for about 20 years off and on so I know how little information, products etc. there are available there. Mostly all talk, eco this and that but nothing of substance. Up here its a necessity to be energy efficient, it's just too expensive not to be.


Tell your home builder friend to install a geothermal system to heating/cooling the house. The house will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer - without requiring a huge A/C system. A/C is the main reason the high electric bills, and brown-outs during the summer.


Think about how much money you spend buying a house. Now consider how much the heat & electricity cost in comparison.

For example, my apartment costs me $1200/month for the mortgage. The heat & electricity costs $52. So heat & power costs less than 5% of the cost of actually paying for the place I live.

If my electric bill goes up 25% that's $13 more dollars.
If my mortgage payment goes up 25% it goes up to $1500, that's $300 more dollars. If that happens I either have to get a new (better paying) job. Or move.

As a result I am not very concerned about the efficiency of my house.

The same way of thinking applies to cars. Buying a new car will cost $500 (or more) a month. Plus more for insurance, plus more for service & maintenance.

But while gas prices keep going up, the total cost (for me) to put gas in my car is less than $200 a month. So if gas goes up by 25% (which is likely) that's just another $50 I need to find. Which isn't a lot compared to the cost of buying, insuring and maintaining the car.

Obviously this can't go on indefinitely. Which is why some people (including me) are starting to look for more fuel efficient cars.

But house prices are still going up (at least in my neighbourhood), so I don't think the energy efficiency of a house is ever going to be a factor compared to the overall price of the house.

(an) andrew from california

I applaude you for trying.

There are a number of folks who preach it but don't live any different than folks like me (whom, if you must know, live like there is portal to an infinite dimension filled with petroleum and has a cosmic garbage disposal to which I have easy access through my hallway closet.)

Jeffrey Fredrick

What do you think of a switch from current corporate taxes to a revenue neutral tax on carbon emissions?


While expensive homes miles away from city centers have the option of being green an increasing percentage of the population will be living in large apartment blocks. I've never seen these promoted as environmentally friendly or conservative with water. Only the initial developer really has any control on those sorts of factors. This means that even if there where laws introduced that set the standard for new apartment complexes it would be 40 years before it would have an impact because the building would need to be rebuilt.



I don't know what to say about your experience. My wife and I just signed a contract to buy a new home and, trust me, there are a lot of green options for our upgrades. Our builder is KBHOME (there, some free advertising, but they deserve it, because they seem nice and seem to have good products). Their main studio is in Pleasanton for our area, so that should be close to you.

We just had our first appointment to pick the upgrades this morning, so my memory is still fresh. We get to pick roof insulations, wall insulations (there was even an option for the garage walls!), carpets that can be 100% recycled, Energy Star appliances, etc. I even got a dual temperature control, so I don't need to heat/cool the whole house but only the floor that I want.

I would say, that's not bad at all, even by US standards ;-)

Of course all these options come at a cost, but I think, in the long run, they will pay off through a lower utility bill and increase the resell value of the home :-)



I was interested in your statement about "balloon construction" in reference to the Enertia designs. From what I see at:

that term would not apply. The Enertia design is essentially a layered construction using _massive_ timbers horizontally built up, rather than the insubstantial methods of both 'balloon' framing and even conventional 'light frame' construction. Further the heavy timbers used are resistant to fire spread, unlike conventional light framing timbers.

In reference to their suitability for all types of climates, I would suggest that those interested in these very solid, energy efficient homes check out the already built examples, depicted at and the testimonials from their owners. These houses have been built in very varied climates, all over the US.


My wife and I will be building a new home later this year. I looked into having a solar panel installed on the back roof. Found out it'll save me about 50 bucks a month in electricity and cost ten grand, installed. Wow, only 16.6 years to pay for itself! No thanks.

Nic Darling

I have a friend developing modern green affordable housing in Philly. He is documenting the entire process including quotes and research at There is some incredibly useful info there if you're looking to do the same.

One of the major problems with building green in the States is square footage. The first and most effective step to improving energy efficiency is reducing size. Americans are notoriously sensitive about such reductions. "How many square feet you got?" is a standard question and god help you if you don't have enough . . . loser.


You might be interested in contacting a columnist from the Minneapolis StarTribune. Jason Hammond has been blogging about his experience building a modern-style, green home here in the Twin Cities. He ran into many of the same challenges you did and he talked about them in some detail at He has been open and responsive to people's inquiries - you may find Jason and his builder to be great resources.


Marc Mengel

There's a subdivision just south of Fermilab which was built maybe 15 years ago (Bigelow homes) to be ultra-insulated, they heat the house with a heat-exchanger hooked up to the hot water heater. Near Chicago. It works great. They even guaranteed $400 to heat your house for 3 years.

They had to build in an unincorporated area, because to keep the house sufficiently insulated, they didn't want things like electrical outlets puncturing the outside walls, and that didn't meet building codes.

So maybe they sucked up all of the energy concious home-buyers and the other builders just kept doing it the same way...


Go with Andersen Windows - they're well built, the company thoroughly back what they sell, and because they're all standard sizes, you can ALWAYS get replacement parts (i have done so on 15 year old windows). I'm not associated with the company, just an impressed engineer.


Building science is an entire discipline of Engineering, because it is not a simple thing. Sealing up cracks is a good thing, unless its not. Small windows are good, except when they're not.

There are experts out there; if you want to build an extra-green house, I'd suggest you hire one.


Our friends just wrote this book - might be interesting to you!

The Carbon-Free Home:


Damn, I was going to recommend enertia, but someone beat me to it.

We were lucky enough to get to see one of these buildings. Not only is it green, it "feels" green, if you imagine that.

The only thing I would be weary about it balloon construction may not be allowed by the local fire authorities. Also, it seems like a better construction technique for warmer regions.

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