The Price of Common Sense

The SUV was born from cheap fuel, a lust for things large and powerful, and big profits. It died from the high cost of fuel, a need for things small and efficient, and ultimately, low sales.

It was widely reported this week that consumers very quickly changed their minds about the features they seek in an automobile.

The three Detroit automakers were outsold for the first time ever by their Asian rivals in May, and a sedan was the top-selling vehicle in the United States for the first time in 16 years.”Clearly, for people who are shopping for a new car today, the only thing that matters is its fuel economy,” said Ron Pinelli, the president of Autodata. “The big vehicle that they once loved is now a source of pain for them when they fill up at the pump.”

From this consumer shift, the industry is starting to immediately and dramatically respond. To meet customer demand that is increasingly dominated by concern about fuel efficiency, not surprisingly, GM announced imminent plans to close four pickup and SUV plants in North America and expand output at two of their car plants.

The astounding thing is that the end of the SUV/pickup dominance appears to have happened in a single month.

Jesse Toprak, senior director of industry analysis at Edmunds.com, said everyone was scrambling to keep up with one of the most rapid sea changes ever for the auto industry.

“The shift was so swift that it caught everybody by surprise, including Toyota,” Mr. Toprak said. “Dealers we’ve talked to said they could have sold twice as many Priuses easily, basically resulting in a record month.”

We’ve also heard in the last few days that the average cost of gasoline is at a new high and is climbing. Putting these two momentous news stories together, I gather we now know the price of common sense: it’s about $4 per gallon.

What happened so suddenly to the automobile industry is no doubt about to happen to homebuilding. The energy gobbling McMansions are our SUVs and every overly large, energy-wasting production home built is evidence that consumers haven’t cared enough because, until now, the cost of heating and cooling homes has been too cheap.

Now that consumers have learned the price of common sense, what can they do? Clearly, they are buying Priuses and other hybrids as fast as they are made, and they have the industry scrambling to remake itself in the image of their newfound desire.

But there is no Prius for living widely available to consumers, because there is no consolidated national industry homebuilder or manufacturer to develop one. This is one of the reasons why we are stepping into the breach with the OPEN Prototype Initiative. While we aren’t one of the giant builders and our manufacturing capacity is limited, we know that, in partnership with MIT’s Open Source Building Alliance, we are in a unique position to develop the ideas, standards, processes, and products that will enable the homebuilding industry to give American homeowners what they now know they desperately need: a high-performance home that doesn’t use up our finite fossil fuel resource.

Unity House, our second OPEN Prototype project, is now rising on its site in Unity, Maine. Last week, our crew spent five days assembling the building shell. In the next five days, we’ll be completing the building exterior. We have a webcam up so you can check our progress. This is an extraordinary building that could easily be reconfigured both on the interior and exterior to meet many different needs and architectural expectations. It is repeatable, adaptable, and will get more and more affordable. With fifteen more working days to go, watch us build our idea of a Prius for living.

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