Just how much damage can an exploding McMansion cause?

Investigators are looking into what caused the massive explosion of a large Long Grove home:

The scene on the Trenton Court cul-de-sac and surrounding neighborhood in Long Grove after an explosion Friday night obliterated a home was something Jeff Steingart has not experienced in 32 years of firefighting…

The force of the blast, which damaged an estimated 50 homes within a quarter mile and was heard and felt several miles away, could make finding the specific cause difficult.

“She didn’t smell it. She was in her master bathroom brushing her teeth, heard a pop and saw a fire outside her bathroom window,” he said. The woman called 911 and was walking across the street to a neighbor’s house when the explosion occurred…

About a half dozen nearby homes were severely damaged, he added, and the overall damage likely is “in the millions” of dollars. About six homes are uninhabitable.

This was quite the explosion – other reports suggested people were calling 911 from miles around. I wonder if the size of the explosion is directly related to the size of the house. In other words, a larger home has more space for a gas leak to build up so that when something sets off the explosion, there is a lot more gas and home to blow up. Even in a neighborhood with sizable yards (a Zillow listing for a recently-sold home on the same short street says the home has 0.77 acre lot), this can lead to lots of damage.

One odd thought: given the odor of natural gas, couldn’t someone design some sort of ventilation system that would detect the smell, automatically vent the home, and alert the authorities? We have smoke and radon detectors so why not natural gas? Perhaps it would be easier to build this into passive homes where the air has to be ventilated. How much cost could this really add to a million-dollar home?

American, Australian leaders face vermin, possums in their residences

Even some of the most powerful leaders have to deal with infestations in their houses: the White House has vermin and the official house of the Australian prime minister has a problem with possums. First, the White House:

It is, of course, not the first time bugs or vermin have done battle with the humans who work in the 213-year-old building. Humans have not always prevailed easily – much to the deep frustration sometimes of the president of the United States. None was more frustrated than Jimmy Carter, who battled mice from the start of his administration. To his dismay, he found the bureaucracy unresponsive. GSA, responsible for inside the White House, insisted it had eliminated all “inside” mice and contended any new mice must have come from the outside, meaning, the New York Times reported at the time, they were “the responsibility of the Interior Department.” But Interior, wrote the Times, “demurred” because the mice were now inside the White House…

His fury was captured in his diary entry for Sept. 9, 1977. Carter that day summoned top officials from the White House, the Department of Interior and the GSA to the Oval Office to unload on them about the mice overrunning the executive offices – including the dead ones rotting away inside the walls of the Oval Office and giving his office a very unpleasant odor. “For two or three months now I’ve been telling them to get rid of the mice,” Carter wrote. “They still seem to be growing in numbers, and I am determined either to fire somebody or get the mice cleared out – or both.”

Now more scared for their jobs than at any possible reaction from humane groups, the bureaucracy responded. According to the Associated Press, daily battle updates were sent to the highest levels of the White House, complete with body counts and descriptions of the weapons being deployed. On Sept. 12 – three days after the meeting with Carter – GSA reported 48 spring traps in the White House, including five in the Oval Office and four in Carter’s study. Six more “Ketch All” traps were placed in the crawl space under the Oval Office. Peanut butter, bacon and cheese were the favored baits. By Sept. 13, the number of traps deployed in the West Wing was up to 114. On Sept. 15, the body count was up to 24. By Sept. 19, it was 30; then 38 by the end of the month…

Other presidents have had their own battles with White House vermin. First Lady Barbara Bush once was taking her daily swim in the pool on the South Lawn when she was joined by a rat that “did not look like a Walt Disney friend, I’ll tell you that.” She told reporters “it was enormous.” She credited her springer spaniel, Millie, and her husband, the president, with rescuing her and drowning the rat.

And in Australia:

Australia’s official prime ministerial residence, The Lodge, a 1920s colonial-style 40-room mansion in Canberra, was intended to be a temporary lodging until a permanent “monumental” residence was constructed. It is in a state of serious disrepair and has given successive leaders problems.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard once recalled an embarrassing dinner with a visiting foreign leader in 2012 which was interrupted by possum urine dribbling from the roof towards a valuable painting.

It sounds like these both of these houses have their own unique and tortured histories, leaving plenty of opportunities for nature to intrude on human politics. Frankly, I’m not sure most people would want to know how many critters are in and around their property. What exactly goes on around that foundation or within the walls? Perhaps this might be another selling point for passive houses: they are so sealed up that nature is effectively kept at bay.

Cost, adapting to different climates big obstacles to building passive houses in the US

The New York Times explains passive houses and also describes several obstacles to building more of them:

Proponents of passive building argue that the additional cost (which is estimated at 5 to 20 percent) will come down once construction reaches critical mass and more American manufacturers are on board. And there are a few signs that day may be coming. More than 1,000 architects, builders and consultants have received passive-house training in this country; at least 60 houses or multifamily projects are in the works; and Marvin Windows, a mainstream manufacturer based in Minnesota, recently began making windows that meet passive certification standards…

“What I’m worried about,” he said, “is that the current halo around the passive-house standard will result in its being incorporated into the building code. That would be unfortunate because they are unnecessarily expensive houses, from $300,000 to $500,000 on average, that cost more than will ever be justified by lifetime energy savings or carbon reductions.”

Mr. Holladay favors a more flexible formula called the Pretty Good House, which promotes modest improvements in insulation coupled with renewable energy from solar panels — an approach, he said, that achieves similar energy savings without the additional expense.

To make things more complicated, no two passive houses are likely to be built to exactly the same specifications. Thousands of variables, including the architectural design, the size of the house, how many people will live there, and longitude and latitude, are taken into consideration by the sophisticated software created by Dr. Feist and his Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany…

Figuring out how to make the model work in the hot, humid Southeast is a bigger challenge, something the Europeans have not had to deal with. With this in mind, Ms. Klingenberg’s organization is working to develop American standards, taking into account variations in energy use and leakage rates from one climate zone to another; they are expected to be released this fall.

In other words, these are complicated homes and this gets added to the cost. Like other technological innovations, manufacturing and building at a larger scale could soon help make them more accessible and understandable. Additionally, the context matters as well. If standards like building codes and environmental expectations about new houses change plus consumers display more interest in unique, green homes, there may be more and more passive homes in the coming years.

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.

Exposing Americans to passive houses

A Chicago Tribune article suggests more Americans would like passive houses if they knew about them:

The idea of passive house design isn’t new. It was first promoted in the early 1990s…

Torres Moskovitz estimates there may be 40,000 certified passive house buildings in the world, but probably fewer than 50 projects in the United States…

The stringent passive house — or Passivhaus — standards and the Passive House Planning Package software were developed by the Passive House Institute in Germany. The U.S.-based Passive House Institute is currently formulating its own standards. The PHPP software incorporates a designer’s calculations and helps design a passive house.

A passive house saves up to 90 percent of space heating costs and 75 percent of overall energy costs, though some European studies indicate the numbers may be even higher…

“People learning about it are so into it, maybe it becomes a bottoms-up approach, comes from the public and then the government has to react to our demand,” Torres Moskovitz says. “There’s definitely interest in the building community, but it has a way to go before everyone understands.”

I think a lot of Americans would be very interested in the cost savings of passive houses. But, they would want to know: if I pay more upfront for such a home, what is the payoff in reduced utility costs down the road? Even if there are significant savings, I imagine these houses are going to be part of a niche market for a long time as more people learn about them and builders learn to see them as profitable options. Perhaps passive houses need some sort of public relations push like a recent initiative regarding public housing?

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.