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The future of American housing

January 20, 2013
A tornado tears across Oklahoma. Image courtesy Wikimedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tornado

A tornado tears across Oklahoma. Image courtesy Wikimedia,

Climate change is upon us, and American housing needs to adapt to harsher weather. The views that I offer here are based on nearly ten years of covering the “Homes” beat as a journalist, having walked through countless houses (both old and new) and toured many construction sites. In this essay I will issue my predictions for the kind of housing that will be needed in the next half-century.

Build for local conditions. If your climate includes yearly hurricanes or tornadoes, then build with the expectation of taking a direct hit, rather than continuing to pretend that such events are unusual occurrences. People living along the coastline in the South already know how to securely tie a roof to the walls so a hurricane can’t rip it off, but those living further north all the way into New England need to learn to build houses that can withstand 200 mph winds (or more). Similarly, homes in the Midwest will need to be built more sturdily in order to withstand a direct hit by a tornado and survive with at least the outside walls still standing.

Don’t live at sea level. It makes no sense at all to live in a house that’s only a few feet above sea level simply because you regard an ocean view as a desirable feature, or because that’s the way your parents and grandparents did it before you. If you can sell, get out NOW and start again elsewhere. The fact that entire communities have lived and thrived for generations in low-lying areas counts for very little against the fact that our coasts and beaches are going to get pounded on a regular basis in the future.

Make energy efficiency an ordinary part of construction rather than an option. The goal is to use as little heating and cooling as possible, and super-insulation and efficient appliances will help you do this. American houses, quite frankly, are not well built in terms of efficiency. If rated on a scale of zero to 100, zero being an unheated gazebo that’s open on all sides, and one hundred being a super-insulated self-sufficient dwelling, the average American house only scores around 50.  Higher than 75 indicates good performance, and Energy Star houses rank in the 80s. (http://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=evaluate_performance.pt_neprs_learn) But this is not nearly good enough when you consider the fact that energy will be scarcer and much more costly in the future. All contemporary homes should be built in an attempt to exceed Energy Star standards. Why? Consider the trouble and expense we would have if trying to weatherize a drafty old house from the 1850s. Then, reflect that technology and energy usage are changing so rapidly that 50 years from now our children will incur that same degree of expense and trouble retrofitting the houses we are currently building, which will simply not be good enough for the 21st century.

Green technology MUST become more cost-competitive. To build a “green” house currently costs from 10% to 25% more than a standard house, which means it’s still out of reach for ordinary Americans with straitened budgets. Ideas like making  insulation our of recycled denim is a nice idea, but the ordinary builder needs to know whether it will beat out standard insulation in terms of performance and cost. If costs cannot be brought down, then ownership of green homes will remain only with the affluent

Reconsider our ancestors’ building strategies in certain cases. Houses benefit from some kind of buffer along their southern walls, including deciduous trees, solar-angled overhangs and porches that prevent direct sunlight from heating the interiors during the summers but admit light during winter. Site houses in relation to the sun and the changing angles of light and heat throughout the day. High ceilings make a house harder to heat, but will help to cool the interior during the hot summers. And with rainfall patterns changing, it’s time to revive the thrifty 1800s habit of draining rainwater into large underground cisterns for later use.

An innovative earth house in Switzerland. Image courtesy Wikimedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Earth_house.jpg

An innovative earth house in Switzerland. Image courtesy Wikimedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Earth_house.jpg

Reconsider the traditional shape and appearance of a house. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the earth-berm house, which shields the residents from the worst of outside weather while maintaining a constant interior temperature. Consider alternatives such as building with concrete, metal, non-outgassing plastics, tamped earth, or high-tech modules that fit together in novel ways. It’s altogether possible that fifty years from now, our children will view our clapboards and shingles and dormers as completely ridiculous, too expensive to maintain and so easy to damage. (And perhaps we should reconsider the concept of the detached house itself, because well-built apartments offer superior savings on utilities.)

This image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bloc_de_chanvre_ep_15cm.gif

This image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bloc_de _chanvre_ep_15cm.gif

Artificial materials will be incorporated more and more into ordinary housing as wood becomes more expensive. I have toured several houses that have been built using I-beams made of wood-chips held together with super-strong structural resins and glues. These are much less expensive than steel beams and are an excellent way to incorporate waste-wood that would have been thrown out in the old days. Of course, these artificial materials need to be carefully selected to prevent any impact upon human health through outgassing. There’s also the possibility of using natural materials in a novel way, like the “hemp-crete” in several new houses in the US and Europe. http://www.gizmag.com/first-us-hemp-house/17115/

Finally, there are dystopian possibilities if we fail to take measures to create affordable energy-efficient housing for all income levels. There is no reason why only the affluent should be able to have low energy costs due to tighter homes with better appliances, because the poor have far more need for affordable utilities. If we don’t bring the cost of green construction down, then the future will see cities with enclaves of expensive, high-tech, energy-efficient “green” houses while the poor struggle to find housing in terrible old badly-built apartments and houses. If the American Dream is to own one’s own house, as it was for so many generations, then we need to consider how to keep that possibility affordable and possible for our children. One thing is for certain: future generations won’t be able to afford to build or maintain homes (or apartments) like the ones we keep building right now.

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