The most-emailed NYT article for two days running has not been another explanation of the shaky housing market (that's #2), but rather a front-page story on solidly built "passive houses":
Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies. [emphasis added]
It's staggering how much energy can be saved this way:
Even on the coldest nights ...[the] new “passive house” and others of this design get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer.
And best of all,
passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.
The article doesn't say, but it shouldn't take long to recuperate that kind of investment with lower energy bills.
Unfortunately, that price comparison holds for Germany, where virtually every home has thick walls and double or triple-glazed windows, rather than having cheap wooden boards wrapped in Tyvek -- aka FedEx envelopes -- for some "insulation."
Of course, prices are coming down everywhere, once you start building to scale:
In Germany the added construction costs of passive houses are modest and, because of their growing popularity and an ever larger array of attractive off-the-shelf components, are shrinking. [emphasis added]
So how do you get builders to construct these homes? Providing the right incentives -- aka a price on carbon -- and the right information is one way:
There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses around the world, the vast majority built in the past few years in German-speaking countries or Scandinavia.
Energy standards and building codes is another option, although they come with risks as well:
when California inspectors were examining the Berkeley home to determine whether it met “green” building codes (it did), he could not get credit for the heat exchanger, a device that is still uncommon in the United States. [emphasis added]
Standards and codes clearly need to be nimble to replicate the kind of explosive growth seen in central and northern Europe. In the end, the right policy will likely need to be a mix of all of the above: get the prices right (a cap on carbon), set the right standards and codes (nimble and all), and spread the word (front-page NYT articles aren't a bad start).
Lastly, of course, there's the question of demand:
[T]hose who want passive-house mansions may be disappointed. ... Most passive houses allow about 500 square feet per person, a comfortable though not expansive living space. ... "Anyone who feels they need that much space to live...well, that’s a different discussion."
Priuses are hot -- or cool, depending whom you ask. Let's hope passive houses aren't too well-tempered to achieve that kind of cult status.
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Gernot Wagner is an economist at the Environmental Defense Fund and author of But Will the Planet Notice? (Hill & Wang/Farrar Strauss & Giroux 2011). Gernot teaches at Columbia, graduated from both Harvard and Stanford, and blogs at gwagner.com. He doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t drive, and knows full well the futility of his personal choices.
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