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Building the Case for Energy Efficiency

January 11, 2011

The wife and I were discussing some building options we can’t afford yet for a piece of property we were lucky enough to buy a few years back. I’m a proponent of putting solar panels on the home for a variety of reasons, though one of them is neither because they’re affordable nor because they’ll pay themselves back. There are many other things we’re considering, and those reasons again don’t crop up. I’m okay paying more to have a more efficient home (within reason), even if that means it takes me a couple more years to build. There are other people like this as well.

The [450 square foot] cottage [on the existing lot of the person’s house] was erected this fall for $98,000, a budget extended at the end to include such niceties as granite counters in the lilliputian kitchen alcove. Construction took three months. Tenants move in this week.

This isn’t the only such unit to pop up in the Bay Area during the past decade, though it might be the only one that can lay claim to “zero net energy status.” The project includes eight solar panels, and they provide enough power to take care of all the cottage’s needs.

So let’s do a little math.  The building of the house is about $218 per square foot, and that does not include the cost of the lot.  That’s not all that bad for the Bay Area… for high-end architecture.  A somewhat modest 1800 square foot house (on an existing lot, don’t forget that) would cost about $400k to build.  I could also contrast that in the area where I live, where a high-end house would probably come in at $150 per square foot.  A builder I recently consulted said that anything above $200 would get him to ask what the heck I’m trying to do.

Oh, by the way… there’s a pretty significant difference between zero energy in Berkley and zero energy in Phoenix.  Or Bismark, ND.  Or Coastal Carolina.  Or anywhere else where there are actually seasons and weather.  A real need for heating or air conditioning blows away a lot of hope of zero energy.  I’ve spent time with some of the experts in LEAD and zero-energy construction.  You can strongly reduce issues, but it’s a bear to actually live in terms of first-world comfort.

So my point is that this type of construction is not for the average consumer at this point.  And yet, we’re seeing a stronger push for these types of building or retrofitting practices across the board.  I believe it’s worth doing more to proliferate some of the great technologies that are starting to come to the forefront, but I’m not at all in favor of guilting people into this type of expense.

By the way:

In her case, Chapple’s “very own local stimulus package” was fueled not so much by ideology as need; by refinancing her existing home, the single parent could add a cottage and thus a paying tenant, helping with the monthly bills.

I would potentially question the wisdom in today’s world of declining property values of taking out more money than necessary to defray up-front costs.  I’m not aware of the particular finances, but this seems like flawed reasoning.  I’ll hold any more judgment in that particular area, and leave it at this.  Becoming more efficient is a personal decision, and one that will impact your bottom line.  Choose carefully based on your personal logic, as opposed to the guilt someone may drive you to consider.

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