Certified Passive House Vs The Pretty Good House—Part III

Part III: What is The Pretty Good House?

I am going to extend the metaphor of my last post, where I compared the Passive House standard to Elizabeth Warren and the country of Germany.  Analogously, if the Pretty Good House standard were a politician, it would be Bernie Sanders, if a place, it would be the state of Vermont.  I think that captures things nicely.

 The idea for the Pretty Good House standard (PGH) got its start in an off-the-cuff remark by builder Dan Kolbert in 2011 at a building science forum he was moderating in Portland, Maine.  Kolbert was expressing a frustration he and many builders like him were feeling about what they perceived to be an over-the-top rigor and rigidity in the Passive House Standard.  This rigor and rigidity were getting in the way of scaling up sustainable building practices in the market place.  Builders like Kolbert felt that the Passive House standard was too expensive, too fussy, and frankly, too elitist.  They were ready for something different, a sustainable building standard for “the people,” one that was more approachable but also more holistic.[1]  The PGH mantra might read, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—or pretty good.  It is a standard derived not from the mind of an Elizabeth Warren but from someone like Uncle Bernie, designed to find traction in Burlington, if maybe not so much in Berlin.

The Pretty Good House standard is less a standard and more just a proposal.  Unlike the Passive House standard that sets down a number of non-negotiable metrics that must be met in order to attain certification, the PGH program sets down eight recommendations for building a reasonably and cost-effective energy efficient house.  The eight recommendations represent the distillation of wisdom from a group of builders and architects that have been at this game of sustainable building for quite some time.  They know what works and what does not, what costs a lot and what costs less.  They are a highly motivated and committed group, and they are offering up their recommendations to other builders who are equally committed but may not be as experienced.  They are not interested in policing those who might choose to game the system, those, for example, who might market their project as a Pretty Good House, all the while ignoring the majority of the program’s recommendations.  They seem to put more trust and stock in the integrity of builders than in the rigor of a system of certification.[2]  The upside of that faith-putting shows up in the relative affordability of the projects built under the PGH banner, and this may prove to be the programs real strength.

The eight recommendations of the PGH are as follows:

  1. Economic Balance.  Return on investment metrics should matter more than certification.
  2. Good building requires a team approach of people willing and able to ever increase their knowledge base.
  3. Design and Build for the local climate.
  4. Design in a holistic fashion.  Take into account location, size, orientation, shape, comfort and performance.  (Notably missing here are durability and resilience, which are paramount for the Passive House Standard.)
  5. Building Envelope design and integrity.  Make it one person’s job to steward this throughout the project, from design through commissioning.
  6. Use sustainable materials when economically feasible.
  7. Be conscious of mechanicals.  All electric should be a goal.  Properly size mechanicals.
  8. Employ some system of verification so that the build matches the design and the design matches the energy modeling.

Our current new construction project in Great Barrington would certainly qualify as a Pretty Good House.  Thoughtfully designed, properly oriented, all electric, and sporting a simple high performance building envelope.

Again, advocates for PGH really like to stress the holistic nature of the proposal. This boils down to basic economics. If building a more sustainable housing stock is going to play some part in reducing the extent of climate change, then it is going to have to be more attainable for more and more people.  Proponents of PGH are convinced that it is the bread-and-butter recommendations they make, not the metric-chasing, capital consuming requirements of the Passive House Standard, that will allow sustainable building practices to scale up, eventually extending into the standard building codes of local municipalities and States.  Now that’s an idea that Uncle Bernie could get behind.

[1] More information about the Pretty Good House Standard can be found at www.prettygoodhouse.org.