The “S” word and the American home

It is gutsy to say the plain truth when its implications might upset the status quo actions and beliefs of your audience. Paul Deffenbaugh, the Editorial Director of Professional Builder magazine, recently wrote a courageous editorial to his readers–the mainstream builders, architects, and product manufacturers of America’s homebuilding industry. His point is based on evidence that the American lifestyle is proving to be unsustainable when scaled up to include current global marginalized populations, now emerging. He then made the obvious leap that if our lifestyle is unsustainable, then one of the primary pillars of our way of life, the typical American home, is also unsustainable and needs to be reconsidered.

Deffenbaugh’s challenge to his readers is that we can either be eventually forced to change because of becoming increasingly irrelevant, or we can choose to change and become part of the solution. I applaud Deffenbaugh for his prescience, but mostly for his optimism. Nothing from the pattern of behavior of the conventional building industry over the last 75 years suggests that they would listen willingly to such a message. I hope I’m wrong.

Here’s part of Deffenbaugh’s explanation and his appeal:

Because the truth is simple. We can’t sustain this lifestyle; we must change. In an editorial in The New York Times Jan. 2, Jared Diamond, who wrote the brilliant book Guns, Germs and Steel, notes that developed countries consume resources at a rate 32 times greater than developing countries. China has a consumption rate about 11 times less than ours. But China is working hard to catch up. So is India. If both were to achieve our rates, the world’s consumption of resources would triple…. Diamond points out that if the entire world consumed at our rate, it would be equivalent to having a population of 72 billion people. We sure can’t sustain that.

This means we have to change how we build houses. We can debate about how long it will take for serious adverse effects force us to change. Or we can change now.

We have the technology and resources to develop land and build houses that are far more sustainable than what we build now. That know-how has been in place for decades and is implemented more each day. Our failure to make this transition is symptomatic of an industry that is slow to change and that often has change forced on it by outside causes.

What if we all decided to stop using so many resources and started building homes that were sustainable?

Deffenbaugh is saying to the homebuilding industry that we can either be the beneficiary or the victim of an inescapable future. Moreover, making sustainable homes is more about changing our mindset than about invention. By adapting methods and technology from other industries, we indeed have within our grasp the means to build higher quality, more durable homes today. There are many significant model building projects going on throughout North America, demonstrating that we can build attractive homes to occupy smaller physical footprints, consume far fewer resources, and require far less energy in use. As evidence, reports about LEED platinum and net-zero homes are becoming ever more frequent. It will be a better world when such high-performance homes become commonplace.

Two such pilot projects are an outcome of our OPEN Prototype Initiative (OPI). The first project, the Crotched House (OPEN_1) was completed in the fall of 2006. A short video summarizes the story about this two unit residence for Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center. It challenged us immensely due to the intense mechanical requirements, but it also helped us to make giant strides forward in our on-going efforts to develop better ways to build.

We are now taking those lessons and innovations forward to our next OPI residence, Unity House (OPEN_2), which will be the President’s residence for Unity College in Unity, Maine. I’ll be giving occasional updates about Unity House as we’ll be beginning shop fabrication soon and preparing for site assembly in early summer. When it rises, I believe Unity House will be nothing less than a demonstration of the future of homebuilding.

It will also be another demonstration that Paul Deffenbaugh’s dream of sustainability is possible right now.

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