Five kinds of new houses that are non-McMansions

A recent discussion thread started with this statement: “I don’t think it should cost $500K or 5,000 square feet for a body to live. Show me the opposite of the McMansion that is still sexy.” So what might this look like? Here are some common options today of non-McMansions, homes intentionally built not to be McMansions:

1. Tiny houses. These are opposites of McMansions because of their size. While McMansions are known for having 3,000 square feet or more, tiny houses have several hundred square feet or less. The tiny house is not just about having less space; it is a completely different way of life as it is hard to accumulate much in the house.

2. The Not-So-Big House. Promoted by architect Sarah Susanka, these homes are not necessarily much smaller than McMansions but are built more to the personal interests and tastes of the individual owner. In other words, these houses are built to fit the owners while McMansions are seen as being mass-produced homes that owners have to fit themselves into.

3. New Urbanist homes. These homes could look quite different depending on the area of the country in which they are located as New Urbanists argue homes should follow regional architectural styles. But, there would be some common features: front porches, closer placement to the street, alleys if possible. The New Urbanist home might have the same square footage or similar features compared to McMansions but is intended to be better connected to the surrounding neighborhood, encouraging more social life.

4. Very energy-efficient homes including passive homes and net zero-energy homes. Again, these homes may be like McMansions in features and size but they are seen as less wasteful and have more quality construction.

5. Modernist homes. I’m not convinced many Americans would choose this option but it seems to be a regular favorite of architects and designers. These homes are not necessarily smaller than McMansions but have much more architectural credibility and are often one-of-a-kind.

Is a large net-zero home no longer a McMansion?

Here is another possible defense for building a McMansion: just make it a net-zero home!

Blog readers in the construction market — and anyone interested in sustainability — should read up on the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s net-zero test house in Gaithersburg, Md.

The 2,700-square-foot home (plus 1,500 square feet of unfinished basement) looks like a lot of the suburban McMansions built in the United States in the 1990s.

But this house is different. Thanks to state-of-the-art insulation and building products, plus a variety of solar panels, experts expect the home will produce as much energy as a family of four consumes over the course of a year…

According to Emily Badger’s story in The Atlantic (“This House Consumes Less Net Energy Than Your Little Urban Studio”), the home cost $2.5 million, although it could probably be duplicated in a suburban neighborhood for $600,000 to $800,000 — not counting the cost of the lot.

One critique of McMansions is that they consume too much energy. However, making a large house net-zero energy still leaves these possible McMansion traits:

1. It is still in a suburban neighborhood that probably requires lots of driving. Perhaps you have to buy an electric car to go with the house…

2. The house could still be considered too big; how much space does a household require?

3. Does having a net-zero home mean that suburban neighbors will suddenly start talking to each other and participate in civic organizations?

4. The house is still expensive and meant to impress people from the street.

But perhaps being a net-zero home magically blinds people from all of its other traits?

Net-zero energy homes: well-designed and/or eco-friendly?

Three net-zero energy homes, homes that produce as much energy as they consume, were recently built in a well-off Edmonton suburb. The description of the homes leads me to ask: are these homes both well-built and eco-friendly?

Well lit with large, south-facing windows, the feature home offers a simple yet refined open plan for the kitchen/main room where the festivities were held.

In each room, labels here and there denoted the latest eco-friendly features and breakthrough methods of energy and resource efficiency. Particularly notable were the 75-cm thick walls, especially designed to provide insulation for Edmonton’s chilly winters.

Although not excessive in size, the house is open and spacious and has all the amenities needed for a modern lifestyle.

As Boman described to the assembled guests, one of the great appeals of the home is the sense of place that comes with it. It is “not another McMansion,” she quipped.

I’m very intrigued by the quote at the end of the above excerpt: it suggests that the homes are nice and eco-friendly. It would be interesting to hear more about the particular architectural details of these houses and how much they differ from homes that are built as part of larger subdivisions. The quote suggests the homes are known for being better quality, places rather than spaces in urban sociology terms, in strong contrast to McMansions. On the other hand, the homes have a lot of green features. Going green doesn’t necessarily make it a well-designed or a quality house. If you pull these two ideas apart, is a ugly or mass-produced green house better or worse than a beautifully designed but wasteful house? Which of these qualities are more important and how do builders and architects have to balance these two to sell such homes?

Apparently there is some momentum for these homes – see my post last week about the cost of net-zero energy homes.

Not much of a price premium for net-zero-energy homes

As more homebuyers seek out green homes and want to reduce energy bills, they can purchase a net-zero-energy home for a price that may not be as high as you think:

The Spencer’s new home is part of a niche, though growing, segment of the U.S. housing market — net-zero-energy homes, many of which use solar energy to achieve net-zero-energy use vs. consumption. In the sun-sparse days of winter, energy consumption often exceeds generation, but in the sunny days of summer, energy generation often far exceeds consumption.

As of February 2012, 37 homes have been rated net-zero-energy or better on the industry-standard Home Energy Rating System e-scale of the U.S.-standard auditor. This number could grow 1,000 percent or more in 2012 if projects continue as planned.

“Interest has been off the charts,” said Todd Louis, vice-president of Tommy Williams Homes, the Florida-based building company that built the Spencers’ home. So far, the company has built and sold four, and has plans to build 35 to 40 more in 2012. The price of their net-zero-energy homes are still $30,000 to $40,000 higher than those that are not net-zero-energy, said Williams, but that margin is dropping with a decline in photovoltaic costs. The Spencers paid $250,000 for their home…

Shea Homes has long featured extremely energy-efficient designs, though the upgrade to solar panels could be costly — around $30,000, said Asay. He and his wife were considering the upgrade, but when the announcement was made that the new net-zero homes, with solar, were only $7,000 more than the previous base model, they jumped: “Sign us up.”

This approach is different than another housing approach that has generated buzz: passive houses are homes that are so insulated that they use a ventilator to move air from inside to outside (and vice versa – see some diagrams here). The energy costs in these homes are very low. In contrast, net-zero-energy homes have higher energy costs than passive homes but then offset the energy usage. In this article, the homes have solar panels (I wonder if this could be done in other ways – wind turbines on the roof?) which also means that the homes have to be in climates and locations with more sunlight. If the costs for doing this are reasonable and introduced completely at the beginning (meaning it can be spread out across the life of a mortgage), I could see how this is attractive for homebuyers.

I expect that we will see more homes like this in the future: beyond wanting to reduce energy bills, more homeowners appear to be interested in green homes. The housing industry is starting to warm to this idea and there are a number of ways that new homes can adapt: more sustainable materials, being a passive house or a net-zero-energy house, downsizing or right-sizing, and being in denser neighborhoods where homeowners can drive less and use less land.