Each year, Builder Magazine teams up with a homebuilder to roll out a cutting-edge "concept home" at the International Builders' Show. While last year's strictly virtual concept home was advertised as "the most innovative home never built," some critics think the 2011 "GreenHouse" might as well not have been built either.
The GreenHouse, developed by KB Home in collaboration with media icon Martha Stewart, showcases numerous design features and products meant to spark the public's interest in green building. But the wide gap between the energy efficiency of this house and the everyday environmental standards of the homebuilding industry has gotten a lot of attention--as has the home's complete lack of consciousness of land use and sustainable design.
This year's Builder concept home features PV, solar thermal, rainwater catchment, super-efficient appliances, and many other green amenities. So what are critics complaining about?
Lloyd Alter took a look at the materials and layout and called the marketing for this house "perhaps the worst bit of greenwashing of a product that I have seen this year," coming to the conclusion that KB was just "polishing a turd."
Is it really that bad?
Well, it depends on how you look at it, and how realistic your expectations are about the pace of innovation in the national building industry. While the home appears to be deeply flawed, I think KB deserves points for effort, especially given the industry standards they're trying to push forward--quite on their own.
The GreenHouse is apparently set to achieve a LEED for Homes Platinum rating, and is the only net-zero home ever designed by KB. According to KB spokesman Jeffrey Mezger, the GreenHouse "incorporates new ideas and technologies, including a real-time energy monitoring system and a solar thermal water heater, that we believe will one day be standard in all new homes."
But how soon "one day" will come has been a matter of debate since the GreenHouse was unveiled. In a Wall Street Journal article about the concept home, Dawn Wotapka maintains that "buyers haven't shown great interest" in environmental features, being "more concerned about location and price" and "unwilling to pay extra for features that may be hard to understand."
Hard to understand? Or just hard to pay for?
I don't know how hard it is to "understand" the ability to produce more electricity than you use, but Cara Kane of KB Home actually agrees with Wotapka, emphasizing that this is a concept home showcasing the ultimate in green technology--not a model home that anyone will be able to buy. Rather, she says, KB typically aims to introduce green features that do not come with a cost premium--something the manufacturer can accomplish through economies of scale.
Right now, she said, a standard KB home provides Energy Star-rated efficiencies at no extra cost compared with competitors' homes of a comparable size and location. But the GreenHouse is decked out with $70,000 worth of green extras, including photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal panels and a sophisticated rainwater catchment system.
Oh, and KB has no intention of putting anything like it into production right now.
"Overall, the important thing for homebuyers is saving money on energy or long-term maintenance," said Kane. "Homebuyers want to see a cost savings in three to five years" after moving in, and features like PV don't pay for themselves that quickly.
Kane is not discouraged, though. "It will be a while before we see net-zero as a standard feature," she said. "But we are always looking for new products and opportunities to increase the efficiency of homes"--as long as those features don't raise the price.
What KB is up against
Even without a current focus on net-zero building, KB's commitment to energy efficiency sets the company apart from other national homebuilders, according to a report by Calvert Investments. Calvert ranked sustainability practices of the top ten publicly traded U.S. homebuilders in the categories of land use, building materials, energy, water, and climate change. KB came out on top in every single category.
But compared to what? The report also points out that the homebuilding industry overall has virtually no commitment to sustainability. Including the top two builders, KB and Pulte, the average sustainability score for the homebuilding industry is 15%. Without those two, the average score is 6%. What would my parents have done to me if I'd brought home grades like that? I'd really rather not think about it.
"Given the environmental impact that homebuilding has, the industry has significantly more progress to make," the report (grossly under)states. KB itself, by far the frontrunner, received a score of 68%--and where I come from, that's barely a D–.
But maybe that's not quite fair, since KB achieved all A's and B's for its attention to energy, materials, water, and climate change. It was land use that significantly dragged down the builder's overall score. And addressing land use practices will not be easy for an industry focused almost exclusively on building large suburban communities on previously undeveloped land. (There are exceptions here and there, and KB has a commitment to urban infill where possible, but land use is clearly still an afterthought.)
Time to stop blaming consumers?
Calvert also addressed the contention that homebuilders do not offer efficiency measures because consumers do not demand them. Perhaps there's a place for homebuilders to take the lead here and educate homebuyers? "In order to sell environmentally sustainable homes," it says, "companies need to market their advantages more explicitly."
On this point, at least, Kane could not agree more. "The industry as a whole has a long way to come," she said. But with a conceptual project like the GreenHouse, KB hopes to at least help homebuilders and homebuyers alike see the direction they ought to be headed.
And also, it should be said, to get the jump on the competition by defining itself as "the green homebuilder." After all, the folks at KB read that Calvert report too, and have been talking about the results at every opportunity. In its overview, Calvert points out that "there is likely a first-mover advantage" and that companies that take the first steps "will be able to build a brand image as the environmental choice for home construction."
Maybe any direction is better than a standstill
I think the GreenHouse rollout is part of a concerted attempt to be the "first mover" in this area. There are clearly problems with this home, no doubt about it. Would it have been better in an urban setting with a smaller footprint, natural ventilation, and attention to the traditional local vernacular? Yes. But would it be better if it hadn't been built at all?
I think that's still debatable. But in an industry that is performing so abysmally overall, I find it hard to argue with a company that is actually trying to do the right thing.