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a thousand words are worth a picture

musings about architecture, design, and construction

1. Architecture 101

There is a fascination with architecture, dwelling at the intersection of history, philosophy, shelter, society, geometry, structure, art, craft, function, and having an enduring presence over time. As a functional art it appeals to both our logical and intuitive aspects of mind. We all share the desire to determine our own environment, as well as possess some ability to design or imagine it. My role as a residential architect is to articulate those aspirations and create a vision for inhabiting a certain place.

Architecture is a manifestation of order and structure that arise from cultural and/or personal ideas about living and about place. The cultural aspect is most evident in vernacular architecture that evolves over centuries and is particular to a region, such as indigenous homes. The aspect of order can be experienced in a constructed project, and understood through the reading of plans and renderings. How to describe this order? Goethe said it well, 'Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.' Each begins with a feeling, is transcribed through sound, light, matter and structure, that again creates a feeling that an audience or dweller experiences. In the same way that a musical score can be read and the sounds imagined, so too can architectural plans be read and the spaces imagined. A musical score is a blueprint for a performance, and a blueprint is a score for the experience of architecture. Each have various genres and styles, but order and structure– proportion, scale, interval, harmony, counterpoint, texture, repetition, symmetry, melody or narrative, dynamics, cultural context and a conceptual framework are common to both.

When following historic types, home design appears to be a simple matter of copying model plans. The tradition of pattern books once informed much of the house carpentry in this country, and today the majority of houses built are still based on stock plans. Even here a worldview applies, which might be on the order of ‘I’ll have a 4-bedroom, 3 bathroom Cape, please’. Whatever the limits of a project, the same architectural considerations apply: fitness to site and program, context, climate, proportion, light and shade, materiality, spatial flow, functional layout, thoughtful details, clarity of structure and best construction practices. The art of custom home design lies in responding to the uniqueness of a particular site and customer. On a less tangible level, with each site there is the potential of discovering a genus loci, or spirit of place with which to dialogue through the creation, and inhabitation, of a home.

Scalability is another aspect of architecture. One moment I might consider the overall massing and site plan of a home, and the next I’m focused on a construction detail. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that macrocosmic order and microcosmic detail should emerge from a singular vision, in the same way a tree grows from a seed. He called it Organic Architecture, a concept he learned working for Louis Sullivan. Mies van der Rohe believed the same, manifesting highly rational plans with elegant steel connection details. I believe there's truth to that view, but there is something to be said for an eclectic approach to design as well. Homes conceived with too dominant a vision extending to the smallest of details can feel stifling. You might feel this way in homes by Wright because of his obsessive detailing extending even to the furniture and artwork.

Prior to construction, there are three main influences on home design: the owner (customer & budget), the site, and the designer. Change one and the results can be quite different. I am of a practical nature and like projects to move along the design path without too many detours. We generally start with several concepts to explore order and character. We then narrow down the choices and further develop a scheme or two. Sometimes we need to put things on hold while a customer mulls things over or while we search for new inspiration. Step by step we gain momentum toward a particular configuration and materiality. The design process can also be a rich experience in itself. Through the design phase we build the project conceptually. Sometimes minds and circumstance change, and the adage measure twice, cut once applies. During construction the project is built again, now with materials, space and budget at full scale. The builder now, if not already, becomes a crucial party to the project.

The architectural process is often broken down into five phases: Schematic Design, Design Development, Construction Documentation, Bidding & Contract, and Construction. I will explore some of these phases in future blogs, but a crucial aspect I'll mention here is that each builds upon the previous– another manifestation of order and structure in architecture. It's a process that unfolds in time according to the explorations and decisions made at each phase. An orderly progression of the work with minimal back-tracking is ideal, though design and life gets messy at times. Major design changes that come late in the process require more work to implement and coordinate. The bottom line in residential architecture is the satisfaction of the customer, and part of my job is to manage expectations. We can probably transform a sow's ear into a silk purse, but it might take a sack full of gold to do it. Working with existing conditions and available resources comes with the creative challenge of practice.

A laminated pine beam loggia connects the foyer to the garage/workshop, separating the parking area from the courtyard.
Daylight is brought into the central living area through the shoji stair enclosure and a punched skylight opening.

2. Degree of Difficulty

Back in Canada I worked for an Architect who once likened the practice of Architecture to Olympic figure skating. There is technical skill, finesse, creative interpretation, performance, competition, and success is in part a judgment call. In scoring one looks at all of those elements and judges not only the execution but the degree of difficulty that a skater establishes throughout their routine. Attempting a quad-axel has the potential of a higher score but also increases the risk of failure. These parameters are not unlike those in architecture, though competition and performance are more applicable to high profile public commissions than most residential work. But the notion of degree of difficulty is one that has stuck with me, and it's one of the ways I describe choices to customers as we negotiate our way through the design phase.

One of the most common questions during the design process is, ‘How much will it cost?’ Custom home design is by its very nature, specific. We can offer ballpark figures based on previous projects, and cost-per-square-foot benchmarks. Site work- driveway, septic, well, landscaping is estimated separately. This applies for ancillary spaces as well- basements, attics, garages, porches & decks. In an accurate cost analysis, all time & materials must be accounted. Without that analysis, I know that Scheme-A with five distinct volumes and roof elements will be more expensive than Scheme-B with a simple rectangular plan and roof, but by how much? It depends on a lot of factors: the site, size, materials, construction methods, level of detail, and market conditions. When it comes to finishes, there is also a range of possibilities.

Degree of difficulty includes all the above, complexity would be another word for it. Some of this is determined by the site, such as flat with firm soil near the road vs. steep and rocky perched high above or below. The exterior massing plays a big role, ranging from small simple boxes to large colliding forms or complicated shapes. Exterior articulation and detail are factors, such as projecting bays, expressive structure, ornamentation, and masonry work. Similar factors apply inside such as the extent of custom cabinetry, millwork details, the extent of tile work, and the cost of fittings and fixtures. The expression of structure adds a connection to gravity and the process of building- posts, beams and various joints. Crisp and minimal flush detailing also adds difficulty, eschewing typical exigencies hidden by millwork. The customer determines much of this through their program and appetite for detail.

Architecture can be thought of as a hierarchy of layers. It starts with purpose and space, followed by structure, systems and surface. If we get the bones right, the other layers fall into place more easily. Those layers can also blur together and change places. A project might be driven by structure, or surface, or they might be one and same, at least conceptually. So we weave back and forth between concept, form and detail. Back to the figure skating analogy, there are technical requirements, physical finesse, the music, the narrative, costumes, the emotion and execution, all brought together into a seamless whole. And if not? It's like a project that doesn't quite come together, where the parts don't quite add up to a pleasing gestalt. Or perhaps it's just not to your liking. There is no denying individual taste in the experience and evaluation of architecture.

Generally through the design process an alignment is found between aspirations, complexity and budget. It is in the nature of the service to be optimistic and seek solutions that work on a number of levels. Occasionally there's a misalignment between expectations and reality that no creative bridge can span. Involving a contractor early on can bring an impartial eye to the scope and budget for the work. In balancing the pressures and decisions affecting a project one aims for the sweet spot of the right application of effort, the right degree of difficulty. This creative synthesis is for me the crux of residential design.

3. Builders & Managers

Hiring a good contractor is essential to a successful project. It is a role that requires a range of skills. I've done it myself, I've been on the other side as a customer, and I work on the third side as an Architect. With the type of work we do, I find that there are essentially two types of contractors: The Builder and The Manager. Each has their own set of skills and challenges, and an individual often wears both hats. In broad strokes, The Builder is on site every day laying out dimensions, hammering nails, receiving supplies, working hands-on with his crew and various subcontractors– in short, making things. The Manager does everything else, including getting the work, estimating, managing the customer, architect, crew & subcontractors, scheduling, ordering materials– in short, overseeing the project.

Builders usually work on one or two jobs at a time. They might have a partner, or a family member, or several employees/journeyman that they work with regularly. They fold all the work of management into their day, which often extends into evenings and weekends. They are intimately involved in the carpentry work, and oversee the trades to varying degrees. They tend toward keeping things simple. Focused on the work at hand, they might lose sight of long-lead items that need to be ordered in advance. If they have a question about a construction detail it might only be discovered on site, rather than during a drawing review prior to the work. Generally their estimates run a page or two, covering the work in broad strokes, including their labor, a materials estimate from the lumber yard, and estimates from major subcontractors.

Managers are capable of running several and more complex jobs at a given time. They have a lead carpenter/site manager at each job-site. Depending on workload, they might subcontract major portions of the work such as rough framing. They spend a lot more time in the office and on the phone than Builders. When they visit a job site they are less likely to pick up a hammer, but they should still have a wealth of experience in the field, and do get more closely involved when questions arise or special coordination with sub-trades is required. They tend to see further down the road, and should keep customers on track with timely decisions. They also tend to spend more time reviewing plans and establishing the logistics of a project prior to each stage of work. Generally their estimates are quite detailed, with multi-page spreadsheets and line item figures incorporating data from previous jobs. In general there is an added cost to this level of oversight, and often it is worth it for complex projects.

Due to my experience in construction, I am sometimes asked if I’ll manage a home building project. I have done it in the past, but find that it is a tough balancing act. I believe it’s important for a manager to oversee all the trades, coordinate their interaction, and be intimately involved and responsible for the progress and quality of the work. This I can do as a Contractor, but not so well as an Architect. It requires the cultivation of relationships with sub-trades established over years, as well as more time and presence on site than I am able to give to a particular project. Insurers also view quite differently the roles of Architect and Contractor, so the equation of risk-to-profit needs to make sense. For these reasons I leave construction management to the general contractor who is in a position to better serve a customer in this regard.

Where do I fit into the Builder/Manager picture? It depends on the job and the extent of services. For a simple job with a limited budget, I might prepare only a basic set of plans for permit and construction. From then on it's up to the customer and contractor. For those projects I tend to get a call only when a problem arises, which is typically from the job site with work paused to figure something out. For more complex jobs and more extensive services, I visit the site often, communicate with the customer and contractor regularly, troubleshoot and provide ongoing refinement to the plans and details as the project progresses. I am often then involved with interior design, and assisting with material and fixture selection as well. From my perspective, either a Manager or Builder type of contractor can be fine to work with. In practice the line between the two is blurry, I make the distinction here only to point out the two essential skill sets that the role requires. The decision of who to hire is ultimately made by the customer after interviews, references, and costing has been provided.

4. To Bid or Not to Bid

We are all are used to making cost comparisons while shopping, so it’s natural to think of home construction in terms of a competitive bid. The difference in custom home building is that an estimate is based not only on a product but also on a service. What assumptions have been made within a given price? How timely with communication, and how attentive to details, will one contractor be compared with another? A formal bid requires a higher level of detail, specification, and decision-making up front. It also requires several months to coordinate, administer, draw comparisons, and make a decision. De-rigueur for commercial work, formal bidding is far less employed in residential work.

Over the years we’ve sought a balance of specifying what is useful to customers and contractors, while allowing some flexibility to control costs. At the upper echelon of residential service, Architects are compelled to provide an enormous level of documentation that can include dozens of drawing sheets and reams of specifications. But what is appropriate for work on a limited budget? At one end of the spectrum, extensive documents can be burdensome for small contractors to manage and to estimate. At the other end, builders might be left with many unanswered questions and have to improvise on site. Much depends on the nature of the project, and one aims to provide an appropriate level of service for each.

As a small practice we strive to keep services and documents to a reasonable level. There should be enough information at a given stage to allow estimates within a cost range, and allow for a bid process should that be desired. Yet good residential contractors are often busy without resorting to the time-consuming and uncertain process of formal bidding. Depending upon timing and availability, some contractors might choose to pass on a project requiring a competitive bid.

This is not to suggest that projects should ever start without a thorough estimate– that is an essential prerequisite to the start of construction. But there is much to be said for selecting a contractor early in the process. As a committed team member they can provide estimates as the plans are refined. They can also provide logistical support and input prior to the preparation of final construction drawings. Given a customer's commitment and time frame, they are then able to schedule a project farther in advance. The relationship between the owner and contractor is crucial, and the sooner it is established and demonstrated, the better.

There is another approach between that of a formal bid and hiring a contractor outright, call it a schematic estimate. Here the owner might meet several contractors, talk to previous customers, or rely on my recommendations. Several are then invited to prepare an estimate based on schematic design plans. There is no formal deadline, and the process usually takes about a month. Generally the estimates can be quite firm on the structure, exterior, rough-ins, and all the work up to and including drywall. The finish work beyond that point can be estimated with cost ranges for various trades and items. By going through an interview process and having a solid estimate in hand, an alignment can be found between the scope of a project, the owner’s expectations, and the budget. In our practice we’ve found that this approach helps to establish a rapport and comfort level for both the customer and contractor in advance completing drawings, and prior to construction.

5. Small Building Company

One summer during college a couple of friends and I built a potting shed in the backyard for my dad. His passion was sculpting bonsai trees, including making concrete pots. We called it the house of two birches wedged as it was into the corner of the yard between existing trees. I designed the door handle & latch on the theme of a branch and hired a Mennonite smith to weld it. It was my first design-build project and I was hooked. After graduation I worked for a general contractor for a year, as did a colleague of mine, and we then struck out on our own, launching Small Building Company. Our specialty was creative projects with limited budgets, often working with colleagues to build their early design commissions in Toronto. As young entrepreneurs we were eager for work and so our bids were often low, but we managed to make a modest living, had some fun, and gained a lot of experience to boot.

After a five-year education it was great to actually build something, seeing tangible results at the end of the day. As much as I enjoy the process and theory of design, the academic setting can be an end in itself. That trend took hold in the profession at large in the 1980s, when work was lean and architectural theory was paramount. The postmodernists (e.g. Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves) were on the wane, and the uber-modernists (e.g. Rem Koolhaus, Daniel Libiskind) were on the rise. For some Architects theory and publication were a springboard to practice, while others were content in the academic realm. My motivation to work with my hands was in part a reaction to that trend. I wanted to reconcile the profession of architecture with the act of building. Rob and I were inspired by the likes of Jerzy Devil, an off-the-grid design-build company with a flair for the dramatic. The projects we undertook were a lot tamer, but we felt empowered by swapping the drafting board for a tool belt.

I found carpentry skills to come naturally, having enjoyed shop class back in high school. There was a pleasant fusion of left and right brain thinking involved in laying out a project, problem-solving, and the craft of measurement, cutting, fitting and finishing. There were plenty of tough moments and mistakes, but it’s the satisfaction of process that I remember most. When the work is going well you enter a meditative zone, created by the synthesis of hands and heart. More recently working on my own D.I.Y. projects around the house, I find that the balance has shifted. I think it’s the difference between having the full attention of time, space, and tools that I had as a carpenter, vs a more haphazard approach I find as a weekend warrior. The satisfaction of craft is still there, but it takes more effort to drop into an unhurried pace that’s essential to reaching the zone.

We picked up many skills along the way, from cutting and patching, to drywall taping, to working with subcontractors. We also rented space for a shop and so were able to create built-ins and other custom elements for projects. One develops an appreciation for each trade and what’s expected, a.k.a. the industry standard. Yet there is a wide range of construction materials and qualities of assembly available, so one finds a territory of comfort in which to work. A limited budget could bring us down to the low end of the spectrum, but below that we had to turn work away. It was important and sometimes challenging to find subcontractors who worked in a similar range, with a kind of shared ethos. With carpentry and other skilled trades, there is a tendency toward a high level of craftsmanship no matter the budget. With experience we learned to estimate closer to that bar, and include a level of profit that’s essential for a small business to survive.

Project management for me involved more of a learning curve. I was less inclined to plan ahead than I was to focus on the work in front of me. I remember once ordering a number of wood columns for a porch over the phone, giving just the diameter. Rob overheard me, suggesting a sketch to confirm the order. In this case the columns were to be a fixed diameter, quite an unusual specification. Without a sketch we’d have received standard, classically tapered and detailed columns. I gradually learned to think a job through, noting the steps and the requirements of each stage. With experience we began to see farther ahead and where the potential problems might arise.

The entrepreneurship involved was another appealing aspect of our venture. The typical route for design graduates involves seeking employment, perhaps doing small projects on the side, with a long road to greater responsibility or creating one’s own firm. In establishing Small Building Company we were calling our own shots out of the gate. Our company lasted just five years as our interests began to reach elsewhere, but that independence is something that attracted me to architecture in the first place. Though I admire the teamwork found within certain firms, in my own experience I just haven’t found the same fire in working for others that I find as an entrepreneur. I did pass through the crucible of internship, exams and registration, but soon went back out on my own, this time as an Architect.

The craft of building is a collaborative effort with each participant making an essential contribution to the whole. Experience with various trades has given me an appreciation for their skills and challenges. At my desk designing construction details, I can’t help but consider how various elements will be brought together in the field. Thinking through the steps of assembly and the desired result, I am constantly refining those details. An appreciation for the process also helps me locate where attention to craft can provide delight within a project, and that a skilled maker will be the one to create it. And when it comes to working with tradesman on the job-site, experience in construction gives one a shared language and credibility to discuss the work process.

6. According to Plan

Every project starts with a blank page, and those first few marks can be tough to make. I'll start with a pencil and paper, shift to marker and trace, get up for a cup of tea, start a CAD drawing, and then go around again. I want to stay as open as possible to how a customer, site, and program might come together to form a concept for a house. I’m searching for something, not yet a plan, although diagrams exploring spatial relationships might be a first step. There will be ideas and images floating in my head, inspired by the site or a formal concept. But it’s all pretty vague until a plan starts to take shape, with those first sketches being fragments of an order I’m trying to find. I think of it as establishing a connection to a project, a way-in so to speak. Depending on its suitability, that initial order might carry on throughout the project, merge with new ideas, or be discarded along the way.

I began my practice at a drafting board, unfurling miles of tracing paper in the process. Since then I’ve adopted computer drawing and have embraced the advantages of working on a screen. Once I’m into a project I tend to jump around from plans, to sections, to elevations, to details, and CAD drawing has enabled me to do that more productively than hand drafting ever could. And 3D programs allow for quick explorations and walk-through visualization of spaces far easier than building traditional models or perspective drawing. But I do love the art of draftsmanship and it’s sad to see the demise of the craft. There is an apocryphal story of Frank Lloyd Wright conceiving Falling Water entirely in a furious two hour drawing session while his patron drove to see him. Wright had procrastinated for 9 months, no doubt working through ideas in his head and at least sketching. A struggle to conceive, a period of gestation, and then the manifestation of a project fully rendered. For whatever truth there is to the story there is something to be said for nurturing the process. 

Back at school in the 1980s there was a lot of emphasis placed on having a project concept. It was a time of reaction against the 1970s architecture of banal shopping malls and public structures. Work was thin, and architects were looking far and wide for inspiration. A concept could come from anywhere– a story, work of art, social agenda, theory, geometric form, whatever. What mattered was how the concept was translated into form, and that’s how it was judged. If you could weave a compelling tale of meaning during your critique, it was of no matter how your project stood up or if there were any bathrooms. You could learn all that practical stuff in an office. Design studio was a place to find your voice. The emphasis on concept did keep us pushing ourselves to find paths worthy of exploration.

For me that search continued into practice, with each project being an opportunity to create something purposeful and unique for a particular customer and site. Though I find the notion of project concept still important, I discover it more often through the act of design rather than trying to pin it down before starting. To describe the process I’d say it’s an exploration of the relationship between form and the narrative of use. I might begin with one or the other, though ultimately architecture is about how the two are woven together. In the discovery of that synthesis there is a kind of alchemy that can happen, when the two come together with what feels like a certain inevitability. Giving a specific name to the concept might not be easy, or it might even come long after the project is built. 

A more traditional notion of architectural concept is that of the parti, from the French phrase prendre parti, to make a decision. It is the chief organizing idea of a design in a formal sense, whatever the theoretical framework might be. This idea can often be captured in a plan sketch. For example, compact plans are certainly more efficient than articulated plans, but the embracing wings of a home create exterior spaces that more easily blur the lines of interior and exterior. The movement of sunlight through a home can be another generative aspect of design. Orientation, clerestory windows, 2-story spaces and light wells can map the sun’s journey through the day. These relationships can be better explored and captured in a building section, which might then be used to convey the parti for the project. In this era of design complexity, fully rendered 3-dimensional models are even developed at the conceptual phase. Even then, one can generally trace the generative idea to a plan and/or sectional drawing.

Specific planning strategies include the notion of servant and served spaces. In home design, utility spaces such as mud room, laundry area, bathrooms and closets can be grouped toward the less desirable side of the house, leaving the served or living spaces to occupy the prime real estate. This split might occur along the lines of orientation for sunlight, the proximity of neighbors, views, or other site features. Served spaces are naturally designed to be more generous in size and daylight. Circulation spaces might be arranged to minimize hallways and include extra width for built-ins, resulting in a smaller, yet more interesting footprint. Whether those built-ins are executed in fine woodwork or as a D.I.Y. project is not as important as the spatial planning that establishes the order.

Given typical construction methods, rectilinear spaces are easier to build. This leads to a predilection for the alignment of walls within the plan both for structural purpose as well as for ease of circulation. Working as an office boy back in the day a senior draftsman put it to me like this, ‘You try to line things up, it looks better that way’. Symmetry is another natural order of design. From the Greeks and Romans we learn the power and beauty of platonic forms, though on a larger scale their buildings often rotate and collide in response to the site. Renaissance architects employed symmetry across large compositions with multiple wings, resulting in a rather stiff formality. In residential design, a strategy of local symmetry can work well, where a particular room, entry porch or façade employs symmetry, while the overall home responds more naturally to use and site. In a different approach, elements are set in a balanced asymmetry, exemplified by Japanese gardens and De Stijl compositions.

Other than aspects of alignment and balance in design, are the principles of energetic flow, a.k.a. Feng Shui. If you consider space to be a fluid like water, this notion will make more sense. Aspects include avoiding direct alignment of doors, so incoming energy doesn’t fly right through a space and back out again. Also to be avoided are poison arrows– corners and other elements that can disrupt or fracture the flow of energy. I agree with many of these principles, but I think about them intuitively rather than as a rigid set of rules. For a home, one strives to create a spatial flow like a gently flowing river, with a meandering course including small eddies, larger pools, and occasional rapids.

Colliding and curving forms signal a departure from the norm, adding complexity to a project. Angled geometries can create a unique response to the particulars of a site. So it is with curves as well. The notion of a curvaceous earth dwelling half buried in the ground, or a sleek elliptical house rising out of a field are ones that appeal to me should the opportunity arise... As in life, there is always a plus element of design, learning from each project and trying something different each time. The challenge remains to balance the internal negotiation of firmness, commodity and delight, Palladio’s trinity of design, into an efficient and pleasing gestalt. All of these considerations and more can be contained within the parti. For the designer who considers deeply how form and narrative come together, a plan sketch can convey a wealth of thought and information that might not be apparent to the casual eye. 

*Our title is borrowed from the recent book according to plan authored by Rob Kovitz, my former partner in Small Building Company. It is a curious look at our obsession with making plans, be they found in plot narratives, data collection, design, and a multitude of other endeavors. Check it out at

7. Passive House

Back in 2011, I drank the energy efficiency Koolaid and became a Certified Passive House Designer. Passive House is a design & performance certification standard that sets a specific target for the energy required to heat, cool and ventilate a building per square foot. Inspired by North American solar & super-insulated homes of the 1970s, the German physicist Wolfgang Fiest developed comprehensive energy analysis software in the 1990s that became Passivhaus. It has been employed successfully throughout Europe since that time, and more recently has come to North America with certified projects built across the continent. 

Passive Houses are super-insulated, super-tight, and include a mechanical fresh air supply to maintain internal air quality. Local climate data, solar orientation and shading, window performance, tight construction, reduced thermal bridging, heat recovery ventilation, and efficient mechanical systems are reflected in the energy use data. Depending on climate, these factors can be specifically dialed to meet the rigorous Passive House performance criteria.

More broadly, aspects of green building or sustainable design include: site orientation, material use and recycling, water conservation, reduced energy consumption, less CO2 production, indoor air quality, longevity, and beauty. Passive House focuses specifically on reduced energy usage. Following best construction practices, the risk of building envelope problems such as drafts, condensation, and mold, can also be reduced. Compared with building-to-code, Passive House aims at radically reducing home energy consumption.

The mechanical systems in a Passive House should be simple and efficient. With such a small energy requirement, homes can typically be heated and cooled by highly efficient air-source heat pumps (ASHPs) a.k.a. mini-splits. Expensive and complicated alternative mechanical systems such as radiant heat or geothermal, will likely prove not to be worthwhile investments for such a house. Solar electric (photovaltaic) panels are an appropriate active complement for a Passive House, and can result in a Zero Net Energy Home in which PV energy produced over a year offsets the energy consumed.

In terms of cost, high performance windows, heat-recovery ventilation, super-insulation and air-tightness do have an increased upfront cost compared to baseline construction, but the benefits can be great: reduced energy consumption over the lifetime of a building; an indoor environment that provides fresh air and thermal comfort without fossil fuels; simplified mechanical systems and maintenance; and a reduced carbon footprint for our planet. Passive House principles can also be applied to existing homes undergoing major renovations such as new siding and windows. The same strategies can also be applied in a less extreme manner to achieve what has been called a Pretty Good House, reaping many of the benefits of improved energy performance without formal certification.

8. Pretty Good, Passive, & Zero Net Energy

If you’ve read our previous blog entry, you’ll be familiar with the goals and strategies of Passive House (PH) Certification. Born in the generally mild climate of Germany, this rigorous energy use target has been harder to achieve across the various climate zones of the United States. Here in the northeast, the wisdom of a one-size-fits-all standard has been questioned. Recently, one North American PH provider has been working to establish a series of zones that adjusts that target to regional climate conditions. For those interested in a more in-depth look at this topic, I suggest an article by Martin Holliday at Green Building Advisor from 2015: Redefining Passivhaus,

By comparison, there are basic rules of thumb that can be used to reap many of the same benefits without the energy modeling and certification required of PH. Coined the Pretty Good House (PGH), it takes a more humble approach, and recognizes the law of diminishing returns when it comes to investment in energy performance upgrades. In our climate, the basic PGH insulation strategy is: 5-10-20-40-60. That’s R5 for windows, R10 below the slab, R20 for the foundation walls, R40 exterior walls, and R60 for the roof. For more information on this approach, see another article from 2014, Martin’s Pretty Good House Manifesto,

In the evolution of energy performance criteria, the two have learned from each other. Passivehaus was initially inspired by the North American passive solar and super-insulated houses of the 1970s. In turn, Pretty Good House has benefited from the pursuit of efficiency in Europe that has resulted in vast improvements to heating, cooling, and fresh air technology, as well as to windows and other construction assemblies. Those in turn have been imported back to North America. Although I get excited about the super-efficient potential of Passive House, I tend toward a more practical side. A good balance of investment, with comfort and efficiency, is the kind of approach that Pretty Good House can provide.

There is another aspect to home energy use and reducing dependence on fossil fuels, that being active solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, as mentioned in the Pretty Good House article. Although larger community arrays are more efficient, there is still a place at this time for individual home PV systems. The advent of inexpensive solar panels introduces a cost/benefit curve that brings a Zero Net Energy Home into the conversation. The idea here is to consider a reasonably sized PV array that will produce energy over the year, sent back to the grid, to offset the entire energy use for a home over the same period. It still requires a high level of integrated design- high performance insulation, windows, mechanical systems and air-tightness. But the focus is shifted from the somewhat arbitrary target of Passive House, to the practical target of Zero Net Energy use on site.

In considering these approaches, as with many decisions in designing and building a home, more goes into it than just the cost. There is a value proposition in choosing non-fossil fuels, and creating energy on site. This also applies to choosing materials and methods that have less impact on the environment.

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