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Separate Realities

Posted by Ron Jones

Jan 18, 2014 3:55:33 PM

On a recent afternoon I was working at my desk when, within seconds of each other, email messages appeared in my Inbox that illustrate just how schizophrenic we are when it comes to the topic of responsible housing.

The first message contained an article spotlighting one of the entries in the upcoming Solar Decathlon, scheduled for early October in Irvine, California. The assertion of the author was that we can all feel good about the direction homes are headed based on the work of the students who are designing and building the entries.

In this particular case, the demonstration house is less than 900 square feet in size, manages light intensity, temperature and humidity on a room-by-room basis, features walls with “phase-change” materials that absorb and release heat as needed and a photovoltaic roof that will produce about 10,000 kilowatts of energy annually. Oh yeah, it also harvests all the rainfall it receives. The author seemed to be correct, and the story had me feeling pretty optimistic.

But then I read the second message, this one reporting that new home size in this country has just hit a record high. The article reports that the trend toward smaller homes and the corresponding lighter footprints has been reversed. Figures for the most recent period indicate that new home starts are reflecting an average size in excess of 2300 square feet and slightly more than two and half baths. It goes on to say that the number of new houses with garages for three or more cars has risen as well, to over 19%.

The theory is that we only thought the trend toward smaller houses was the result of greater awareness on the part of consumers, who want to control energy, maintenance and operation costs, but actually resulted from traditional market factors such as tight credit and prevailing interest rates.

I suppose one could have rationalized and called it a draw, after all, the two stories pretty much cancel one another out but then the hammer came down a short time later when I was talking by phone with the director of a national non-profit organization who has been working with public officials in central Oklahoma to help provide direction for a sustainable recovery after the horrific tornado events there earlier this year.

He was incredulous when officials confided that efforts to require more resiliency in replacement buildings were meeting with stiff opposition from the local home builders association. He expressed confusion, anger, disgust and finally embarrassment, admitting that he should have known better because he had heard the same thing before when working with public officials, from Kansas to New Jersey.

I still hope the first article was right, but it’s damned hard to keep the faith sometimes.

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