We’ve Gotten a Lot Better at Building Good Houses

An informal meetup of building pros has turned into a full-blown obsession over sharing what they’ve learned: how to build a comfortable, energy-efficient home on a budget.

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The first building scientists were presumably our hominid ancestors who figured out that a cave would keep them dry in the rain and cool in the heat. A million or so years later, we started building houses, and that’s when the fun really began. If nothing else, houses represented a way to pass on accumulated wisdom about living in various climates.

For the next 15,000 years, we became more settled, and our houses got more sophisticated. We got better at keeping the weather out, letting sunlight in, and making our houses last longer. They became not just shelters but homes.

The first Pretty Good House, as it’s known, was an experiment by builder Dan Kolbert and Kaplan Thompson Architects in balancing architectural intent with energy efficiency. Subsequent designs have become more and more focused on the latter.

Courtesy of The Taunton Press

As electricity became widely available, we took a quantum leap forward in what we expected from houses. We could see at any hour of the day or night, without having to light a candle. We could heat our homes without having to start a fire. The idea that we could control the inside of the house independently from the conditions outside became commonplace.

As our societies became less agrarian, and we spent more and more time indoors, ensuring that our houses kept us healthy became more and more urgent. In the past hundred years, a flood of new information and ideas has transformed our understanding of homes. Indoor air quality, separate from the outdoor air quality, is predicated on our increasing technological ability to monitor and improve the conditions of our homes.

In the Pacific Northwest, a Pretty Good House might have deep roof overhangs to protect the house from long periods of rain, generously sized windows, and covered outdoor spaces. Roof slopes don’t need to be steep because there is little snow to deal with. Although exterior materials should be rot-proof, select use of natural wood is appropriate as a nod to traditional local and indigenous architecture, as in this house in British Columbia, Canada, designed by Malcolm Taylor Design.

Courtesy of The Taunton Press

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Homes in desert climates have different requirements than those in wet areas. Temperature changes between day and night can be extreme, so thermally massive walls help keep the interior comfortable without wasting energy. Little rain means roof overhangs aren’t critically important, and what rain does fall is precious and might be captured for later use. Windows are modestly sized to keep heat out but big enough to allow for views of the unique landscape.

Courtesy of The Taunton Press

The 21st century has seen an explosion in research and information. The field of building science has reached a wider and wider audience. Sophisticated sensors, able to collect data wirelessly, have shown us conditions that previously would have been discovered only by taking the building apart. The internet has allowed us to share research and conclusions at the speed of light. Of course, it also allows misinformation to spread just as quickly. And that was part of the motivation for writing Pretty Good House.

The authors are two architects (Chris Briley and Emily Mottram), a designer (Michael Maines), and a building contractor (Dan Kolbert), all living and working in the southern half of Maine. We are friends and colleagues and have spent countless hours discussing how to make houses better. In 2009, Steve Konstantino (owner of Performance Building Supply in Portland, Maine, devoted to selling products at the cutting edge of building science) and I started a Building Science Discussion Group, a monthly get-together to share our successes and mistakes, and improve the knowledge base of the building community in our area. One of our sessions, in December 2011, was titled "The Pretty Good House," and the invitations explained that I’d been wondering "When does enough become enough, and what is practical for a realistic budget?"

Building orientation can significantly influence the cost and performance of a home. Good orientation can enhance daylighting, maximize the warming effects of the sun during winter months, and promote cooling during the summer. In colder climates, positioning a garage or trees to the north can protect the home from cold winds.

Courtesy of The Taunton Press

I’d had experience with various home-rating systems by that point, and I found them all to be useful and raising important questions. But I also knew that they raised costs, and, in order to get the rating, we were often doing things we didn’t think were worth it. Passive House projects required insulation under the house well beyond the point of diminishing returns. Some projects ended up with bike racks to get LEED points, with no idea of whether anyone would use them. "Point chasing" entered the lexicon, and not asa compliment.

A couple of years prior to this, I’d built what I’d later call the Original Pretty Good House. The clients wanted a relatively simple home with high performance, and they were definitely budget-conscious. It was only my company’s second new house. Building it crystallized my thoughts on new construction and helped me think about our renovations’ performance as well.

Daylighting depends on many factors, such as the size of the windows, doors, or skylights, their location and orientation, the site’s access to daylight, room geometry, the visible transmittance of the glazing, reflectance of room surfaces, the contents of the room, enhancements such as light shelves or shading devices, and the reflectance of the exterior surfaces surrounding your home.

Courtesy of The Taunton Press

When our first Pretty Good House discussion began, I had a lot of ideas. Fortunately, so did the rest of the group. In fact, we had so many ideas that two months later we returned to the subject to try to come up with some specifics on what we thought should be in, what out. A week later, Michael wrote it up for a popular website, and the idea quickly took off. Well over 100 people chimed in on the conversation, and a movement was born! The site’s editor helped keep the conversation going by soliciting input from all over the country, in dramatically different climates, on what a Pretty Good House would look like for them. In no time at all, Pretty Good House became the nonstandard building standard, and it has become shorthand in the building-science world for a well-thought-out, carefully crafted house, designed to maximize performance and comfort within a budget. 

Fast-forward to December 2018. In the intervening seven years, we learned more and more about the housing industry’s contribution to the climate crisis, and how essential it was that we, as concerned professionals, take steps to address it. Thus was born PGH 2.0–the Low Carbon Edition. With another round of online discussions, and a session at Michael’s spin-off BS & Beer discussion group north of Portland, we knew we were taking the idea in a critical new direction.

Pretty Good House

Pretty Good House provides a framework and set of guidelines for building or renovating a high-performance home that focus on its inhabitants and the environment―but keeps in mind that few people have pockets deep enough to achieve a “perfect” solution. The essential idea is for homeowners to work within their financial and practical constraints both to meet their own needs and do as much for the planet as possible. Image and text courtesy of The Taunton Press


This text is excerpted from Pretty Good House: A Guide to Creating Better Homes.

Related Reading:

Here’s What It Takes to Build a Pretty Good House



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