Cos it’s too darn hot

by Kieran Healy on July 28, 2005

Flickr’s photos tell me that it’s cold and sunny in “Canberra”: I knew that already. The Lobby Bar is closing in “Cork”:, which comes as a shock. (It’s a great venue.) And the Saguaros are flowering in “Tucson”: That means it’s really hot in Arizona right now — “dangerously hot”:, in fact — just as I’m about to return there. One advantage of desert life, though, is that it’s possible to live in a more-or-less solar powered house. Even though the materials needed to build a house like this aren’t really that expensive anymore, few are built because housing construction is a lot like film-making. The difficulty of bringing together so many specialized contractors for what’s essentially a small-scale, often one-off project means that a lot of energy goes in to ensuring that all the bits hook up together in a reliable, predictable manner. The paradoxical result is that a lot of fluid network activity amongst creative individuals produces a tendency to conservatism and a bias against innovation in the actual outputs. Reconfiguring some bit of the house (the cooling system, say) means that a bunch of other people back along the supply chain have to adjust their standard practices, and they don’t want to. Symmetrically, prospective buyers may be nervous about the resale prospects of such a house in a market where the demand for innovation is strictly limited. So in much the same way that most films are boring and cookie-cutter, so are most houses, despite the fluidity and high potential for creativity inherent to the enterprise. Nicole Biggart “makes this argument”: for commercial buildings, and large parts of the housing market seem similar.

There is still a fair amount of innovation. It’s just difficult to get it incorporated into standard plans for homes. Tucson has “many examples”: of solar-powered or otherwise energy efficient homes, including one of the few “zero-energy homes”: in the country. The ZEH is _net_ zero energy, of course: it’s designed to produce what it needs via solar panels, and its overall energy consumption is very low. An “ordinary” solar home is not a ZEH, but if its built right it’s very cheap to run. If things go according to plan, I’ll be living in one come November.



Ginger Yellow 07.28.05 at 7:10 am

Surely a house with zero or minimal energy costs has enormous resale value.


Tom T. 07.28.05 at 7:26 am

If you really want a highly creative house, you should pitch the construction of it as a reality show. In that environment, the bias toward standardization is overcome by the desire of the artisans to be eye-catching and cutting-edge. Think of Trading Spaces, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, American Choppers, or Pimp My Ride.

In fact, with a good agent, I’ll bet you could strike a deal with the Discovery Network whereby you would win something like a $50,000 prize if you live in the house for six months and keep your net energy use to zero. The drama value would easily be on par with any other reality show: “Kieran’s dishwasher water didn’t get very hot; will he come down with stomach flu next time he uses that cutting board?” Cut to a shot of you entering the bathroom. “It’s the dead of winter, and with the lack of sunlight, Kieran’s clock-radio stopped running last night; will he be late for his big morning meeting?” Cut to a shot of you frantically shaving. “The Arizona Cardinals cheerleaders have dropped by for a visit, but does Kieran’s refrigerator keep his beer cold enough to impress them?” Cut to a shot of you stammering that in Ireland, everyone drinks beer at room temperature. This could be lots of fun.


Steve LaBonne 07.28.05 at 9:27 am

I’m betting that even an Irishman likes his beer cold when it’s 110 degrees F. outside. ;)


a different chris 07.28.05 at 12:08 pm

>Surely a house with zero or minimal energy costs has enormous resale value.

Not really. It’s pretty much whatever the amortization of the energy cost savings looks like. That is, what’s your mortgage + energy payment? If you energy cost was zero, what could you by with the total?

Not only is energy sadly underpriced -high externalized costs – in the US, but since people only have 5-7 year horizons, they simply don’t price in a lot of money for the risk of a future energy shock.

This is why we need gummint to get on it.

It’s sad because efficiency is such a damn interesting problem. There just rarely is any money in it.


a different chris 07.28.05 at 12:10 pm

Don’t know what happened to my post. I tried to say “energy is underpriced, as a great deal of the costs are externalized” and then “since people have 5 to 7 year horizons they simply…”


JRoth 07.28.05 at 1:37 pm

Actually, unlike gas mileage, the amortized value of utility savings does make a big difference in a home. Many banks now recognize this, and offer more generous terms for Energy Star-rated homes or other certified low energy homes.

$150/mo. for a 30 year, 6% mortgage is worth $25,000 of principle. And a zero-energy house (in most climates) would save a lot more than $150/mo. in utilities.

Before anyone says it, no, it wouldn’t cost $25,000 more to build a zero-energy house. Some done in CA (admittedly, a moderate clime) a decade ago were cheaper/sq. ft. than standard construction, because there was no HVAC system (~5-8% of home cost) at all.

I thought Kieran did a pretty good job of identifying the factors – on supply and demand sides – that result in this market… maybe not failure, but it sure ain’t what the Market Fundamentalists say would happen.


JRoth 07.28.05 at 1:41 pm

Oh, and good on you for going this route. May I ask who the architect is, who the builder is, and whether it’s being built on spec?


Kieran Healy 07.28.05 at 5:01 pm

May I ask who the architect is, who the builder is, and whether it’s being built on spec?

Email me and I’ll send you a link to the development’s website.


Peter Clay 07.28.05 at 6:24 pm

How much energy is consumed in the building of the home? I seem to remember that solar panels are themselves only a break-even on energy. I think this may be very hard to work out.


oskar 07.29.05 at 3:50 am

what peter clay said.

you have to count in the energy cost of the solar panels and the building at a certain depreciation rate.

IMHO the most environment-friendly thing you can do is to use good thermal isolation.


gordon 07.29.05 at 7:45 pm

Hawken, Lovins and Lovins (Natural Capitalism, 1999) comment: “Builders must…cope with fragmented regulatory jurisdictions, obsolete building codes and other standards, uninformed building inspectors, homebuyers, appraisers and real estate agents who ascribe no market value to energy efficiency, split incentives between landlords and tenants and myriad other forms of market failure” (p.104). And just for fun: “…a typical three-kilowatt California central air conditioner delivers only two kilowtts of cool air; the rest leaks out of the ducts” (p.101).

Comments on this entry are closed.