A Home Hummer Hybrid

I didn’t drag myself to the International Builder’s Show (IBS) this year. It was held in Las Vegas, which is a city I’ve managed to avoid so far. I’ve passed through its airport, but haven’t walked its legendary neon-lit streets. I couldn’t imagine breaking that good record by going to an annual event I also try to avoid. Hype, pretense and an unfettered pandering to fantasy are hallmarks of both Las Vegas and the Builders Show. I imagine it played out as just another lavish show in a city known for disconnection from reality and the playing-out of juvenile narcissism. So there’s symmetry in having the Builder’s show in Las Vegas, and if it stays there, it’s unlikely I’ll ever feel obligated to attend again.

One of the really fun (or funny) events at IBS is the annual unveiling of what has come to be called “The New American Home.” The basic idea is to build an actual home somewhere near the convention hall that puts on display architecture, design and technology meant to represent some kind of ideal about the state of the American home. It’s always something of a joke, though, because what actually happens is that all the manufacturers and suppliers who get involved attempt to show off their stuff at a scale in proportion to their investment, so the home always balloons in size, and becomes silly in its complexity as it is forced to take on every feature, amenity and gadget that could possibly be deployed in a single dwelling.

The New American Home

As reported in the recent edition of Popular Mechanics, this year was no different. After reading about this year’s show house, I’m glad I didn’t see this one in person. I might have left my lunch on one of its oh-so-green floors. It is one thing to build the usual big, stupid mansion for the benefit of hundreds of participating companies to display their wares, because visitors at least get it: it’s not a house; it’s a whole bunch of product showrooms in disguise. It’s quite another thing to try to call this conspicuous sales event a green and sustainable home. That’s no longer funny. The 2009 “New American Home” is almost 9,000 square feet. No amount of green materials or ingenious energy efficient features can overcome this gaudy fact.

This one actually fails to be credible demonstration of renewable energy supply offsetting the home’s demand, as pointed out by Popular Mechanics:

The bulk of an estimated $2500 annual total utility cost would come from the natural gas used to heat and cool the house, heat the water and fire up those fireplaces. In its defense, the house cools itself using 39 percent as much fuel as a comparably sized structure, but using a rough Las Vegas average of $7 per million btuin natural gas (the national average is $4.90), we estimate that this house consumes close to 300 million Btu in gas per year. At 293 kwh-per-million Btu, that’s getting up past 85,000 kwh per year—three times the average American home’s 27,022 annual kwh. Put simply, this house is bloated.

So you can’t, as they say, put lipstick on this pig. LED lights, photovoltaic panels, recycled flooring can’t justify the puffed-up extravagance of its raw size. As this home’s energy conservation measures and renewable energy technologies try to chase down its gargantuan energy requirements, it conjures the image of a dog in the futile chase of his own tail. So, the 2009 New American Home is the equivalent of making a Hummer into a hybrid; it wouldn’t be a bad thing to do, but that wouldn’t make it an ecological solution to be touted as the way forward.

The truly New American Home of the future will be much smaller. It will be energy efficient because of its size and sustainable because of its built-in capacity to adapt to constantly changing needs and technologies. As a country, we need to learn how to live differently and build differently. It certainly would have been much more instructive if the National Association of Homebuilders, which directs the building of this model home, would show some courage in this regard, but I don’t expect it. That would be too much like leading, and that hasn’t been an area in which the NAHB has been inclined.

The only good thing about this latest version of the New American Home is the advertised promise that what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.

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