Is there a secret to building much higher quality homes more affordably?
Foreword by Ian Thompson, Editor
Welcome to our comprehensive exploration of why homes across the globe, not just in the U.S., often fall short on quality, affordability, and energy efficiency. In this video, Matt Ferrell asks ‘why do our new homes suck’ and dives deep into the construction methods, materials, and standards that are currently in place, and questions why these often just meet the bare minimum of building code requirements like many other countries including New Zealand and Australia.
There’s an old expression “too many chefs spoil the broth” and that couldn’t be truer than the building industry’s in most countries. A lack of experience, building and business education, and almost no industry and government collaboration is actually creating higher cost houses at lower quality. You can’t just expect people to pay over the odds for inferior quality builds because the banks will just say no, as their security isn’t assured and their appetite to fund inferior builds reduces by the day.
So are we saying it’s hard to build a high quality, affordable, healthy and sustainable home? My answer is a resounding no, but we do need to educate our industry professionals, tradespeople and policy makers on how to build better by example, and that example is learning form countries like Germany who build some of the highest quality homes in the world that can withstand extreme weather conditions, are energy efficient, healthy and are cheaper to build then our worst mass produced homes in other countries like the USA, New Zealand and Australia.
Matt’s video discusses a lot of the problems he faced building his own home in the USA and explores potential solutions that could revolutionize our homes and our future. Over to Matt.
Why Do American Homes Suck?
In the process of building my new home, I’ve heard time and time again from many of you that my home’s highly energy efficient features are considered standard in other areas of the world. From the type of window construction to the method of heating water, there’s plenty of room for improvement. But when tech that goes beyond standard here in the U.S. is par for the course elsewhere, this begs the question…why do American houses suck, especially compared to European ones? And what can we do to make them better?
Where else but the States is it both legal and common to cover houses in sheathing that is literally paper-thin? As in, weak enough to be opened up with a knife, which might be equally as embarrassing as being blown down by a wolf. This isn’t a new trend, either: It’s been the norm for decades.123
I’ve tried my best to steer clear of that. In my new home, I’ve gone with factory built walls with densely packed cellulose insulation. The house is also outfitted with triple-paned tilt turn windows, geothermal heating and cooling, and a heat pump for hot water and my clothes dryer. I’m also running an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) that allows for fresh air in a very air-tight envelope. This is all considered pretty common in other areas of the world. I’ll get back to how some of that tech and those building techniques impact the bottom line in a bit though.
Broadly speaking, it’s no secret that the U.S. has been dragging its feet in the global energy transition. Just take it from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE): According to their 2022 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, the U.S. ranks #10 on a list of 25 countries representing the world’s largest energy users. As the organization notes, the U.S. is “one of very few large energy-consuming economies” that lacks national energy reduction targets.4
However, what you might find surprising is how deeply these differences affect the construction of our homes, right from the ground up. A good half of my viewership is located outside the States. And as I’ve talked about the energy efficient tech that I’m implementing in my new home, I’ve gained insight on how it stacks up to other countries through your comments. Three concepts in particular have kept cropping up: the insulation or R-values, the level of airtightness, and the triple-glazed tilt turn windows.
Everybody loves to vent, so we’ll start with the windows. European windows are known for their high performance, particularly triple-glazed glass in tilt-and-turn frames that open inward and provide a strong seal. Several European manufacturers meet the necessary standards set by the Passive House Institute in Germany.5 And this is no small feat, as Passive Houses’ stringent requirements amount to both massive energy savings (sometimes up to 90%) and year-round comfort. I’ve explored how these impeccably designed structures work and the ways their principles can be applied in other types of buildings before, so if you’re curious, be sure to check those videos out. I’ll put links in the description.
Triple-glazed windows aren’t unheard of in the States. As a matter of fact, the windows of my new home were made in the U.S. and at least nominally close to Passive House standards in terms of quality.6 It’s difficult to make a clean comparison, though, because of differences in how windows are tested and of course, the States’ insistence on using imperial units. In any case, while it’s not impossible to get your hands on highly efficient windows in the U.S., tilt-and-turn windows remain far less common, and it’s definitely in part because European windows are typically more costly — often because of importing.5
It’s also worth mentioning that back in 1991, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California developed their own take on a “thin triple-pane” glass window that could reduce energy use and air conditioning costs. Their innovation never took off…because American manufacturers found it too expensive.7 This attitude of “prioritize lower cost in the present, ignore higher cost in the future” extends to pretty much everything in the U.S. I talk about how this relates to solar in my “How Solar Power Got So Cheap … So Fast” video.
Now for a cushier topic, and concept #2 on my list: insulation.
When it comes to determining how well a building can weather the elements, R-values and U-values measure thermal resistance and thermal transmittance, respectively. A higher R-value means better resistance against heat flow, and therefore better insulation. U-values are the opposite…it’s more like how scores work in golf. You want a lower U-value, which measures the time rate of heat flow.89
Of course, variations in geography mean that we can’t make direct comparisons between, say, the entire U.S. and the U.K. As shown in this map, within the Köppen-Geiger system — the most popular climate classification model — the majority of the U.K. lies in the marine west coast subdivision, or Cfb.1011
With that said, Washington state contains some of the few areas in the U.S. categorized as marine west coast climate zones.1112 However, before we can examine how Washington’s insulation requirements rank against other countries’, we have to acknowledge another caveat complicating our bracket. Spend any amount of time paging through state energy codes, and things quickly get…messy. That’s because the United States doesn’t have a national building code OR a national energy code. These are instead handled on a state and local basis.13
In fact, the U.S. didn’t have a comprehensive set of model construction standards until 1994. That year saw the establishment of the International Code Council, or ICC. The ICC went on to develop the International Building Code (IBC), which has been adopted at some level by all 50 states.14 The IBC updates every three years, and its current 2021 version instructs builders and designers to follow the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).15 And I promise that’s the last I-acronym I’ll throw at you…for now.
But again, the IBC is a model. State and local governments can choose to amend the code or simply do their own thing.13 This map by The U.S. Department of Energy Building Energy Codes Program shows how patchwork-like the efficiency of state energy codes is. Notice that some states are using standards as outdated as pre-2009 IECC, and some have no statewide code at all.16
Going back to Washington as our example, you can see that on the map it represents one of a handful of states with an up-to-date energy code. Its requirements for wall insulation still differ from those outlined by IECC guidelines, though. See those markings on the right margin? Those are all amendments made by the state.17
When it comes to insulation based on Washington’s IECC-defined climate zones, the council’s code mandates that residential walls have U-values (in Btu/hft²°F) no greater than 0.045 for wood frames or 0.082 for mass walls, which are made of materials like concrete or brick.1819 But according to Washington’s state code, as of July 2023, any wall above the ground needs to have a U-value equal to or less than 0.056.17
Meanwhile, across the pond…English building regulations set maximum U-values of (new) walls at 0.046 in new buildings and 0.032 in existing ones.20 This means that even in the case of an equivalent climate zone, Washington state codes aren’t as strict as English code or the IECC. And for reference…where I live occupies the same climate slot according to the IECC.21 My walls have an R-value of 35, which is equivalent to a U-value of 0.029. That’s just slightly over the Passive House standard for cool climates of about 0.026.22
I think that’s enough decimals for one video, so we’ll move on to airtightness (which thankfully can be expressed in whole numbers). This is the third concept on my list. In this case, we’ll discuss air changes per hour (ACH) at a pressure of 50 Pascals, or ACH50. This is one way to quantify the rate of air leakage in the building, which is usually measured by conducting what’s known as a blower door test.23
When designing the thermal envelope of a home, you want fewer air changes and therefore a lower ACH. That’s because the draftier a structure is, the less energy efficient it is. More air leakage means worse performance for ventilation systems and increasing the likelihood of accumulating moisture and increased energy costs.24 Plus, it’s just plain uncomfortable.
|2021 IECC (Zones 0 to 2)
|Washington state (Zones 4 and 5)
|Canada’s National Building Code (default)
|2021 IECC (Zones 3 to 8)
|Canada’s “Net Zero Ready”
Then there’s the U.S. Department of Energy’s standards for a “Zero Energy Ready Home” (or ZERH), which it defines as “a high-performance home that is so energy efficient that a renewable energy system could offset most or all the home’s annual energy use.”26 It’s what I’m trying to do in my new house. In Version 2 of the ZERH requirements for detached single family homes, ACH values are more stringent than the IECC.27
But for a building to meet the ultra-efficient criteria that defines a Passive House, its air changes per hour must max out at 0.6.22 Yep…less than one.
|2021 IECC (Zones 0 to 2)
|Washington state (Zones 4 and 5)
|Canada’s National Building Code (default)
|2021 IECC (Zones 3 to 8)
|U.S. DOE “Zero Energy Ready Home” (Zones 1 and 2)
|U.S. DOE “Zero Energy Ready Home” (Zones 3, 4A, and 4B)
|U.S. DOE “Zero Energy Ready Home” (Zones 3, 4C and 5 to 7)
|U.S. DOE “Zero Energy Ready Home” (Zones 8)
|Canada’s “Net Zero Ready”
To put into perspective just how difficult it is to maintain a low ACH50 value, I had an interesting experience with testing airtightness in my new home. Through a series of three blower door tests, my house’s ACH actually got worse at each stage of the process. When just the shell of my home was tested after the house raising, it was a 0.6, which is Passive House level equivalent. A midpoint test after that came in at a 1.0. And the third test resulted in a 1.2.
However, there was a lot of activity in the house on that last test. I don’t think one of the exterior doors was properly closed, and my HVAC system wasn’t fully operational yet. All of those factors created openings and gaps that caused the number to appear higher than it should have been. We’ve now had a fourth re-test done, and that reading was 0.93, which is our current number. If you’re interested, I may go into all of that in more detail in a final walkthrough video on my new house, so let me know in the comments.
You might be thinking: Sure, codes (and enforcement of codes) can reflect a country’s dedication to energy efficiency on paper, but do they actually do anything? It sure seems so. For example, Canada’s National Model Codes didn’t include energy efficiency requirements until 2011. Before making that decision, the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes commissioned an analysis on its potential efficacy. The report found that energy codes have the potential to “affect up to 81% of energy use in houses and up to 68% of energy use in buildings,” amounting not just to an increase in efficiency but a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and long-term operational costs.28 It’s cheaper in the long run.
Unfortunately, within the U.S. it’s widely believed that energy efficiency is always a luxury, despite the cost savings of renewables and systems like Passive House standards that have demonstrated otherwise.29 That’s a whole topic onto itself, and I think Matt Risinger of the Build Show said it best during a recent interview on my Still TBD podcast when he referenced a quote from architect Steven Baczek:
“It’s not that high performance homes cost too much. It’s that our idea of a fairly priced new home is based on a history of building houses to meet embarrassingly low performance benchmarks.”Matt Risinger
I can speak to why energy efficiency is so worth it myself. According to my Home Energy Rating Certificate, I’ll be saving approximately $5,891 on energy costs relative to the average home in my area. That’s not including the impact of my solar panels on my energy bill. Those are just getting installed and commissioned now as I pulled this video together.
There’s also a correlation between the popularity of Passive Houses and well-developed, comprehensively applied energy code. With this in mind, we can compare countries’ interest in net zero construction easy peasy because The Passive House Institute conveniently maintains an online database. Considering the locations of the (self-registered) buildings certified by the organization, the numbers line up nicely with the ACEEE’s scorecard. The countries that boast hundreds of Passive Houses on the website also happen to be the top three scorers, with 439 in France, 206 in the U.K., and 532 in Germany, in that order.3031 Again, that’s only the ones both certified and registered on the database. According to Passive House Institute founder Wolfgang Feist, by 2006 between 6,000 and 7,000 Passive Houses had been constructed in Germany.32
|Number of buildings certified by Passive House Institute
|ACEEE Scorecard Ranking
Building codes clearly make a difference. So why are they so sparsely implemented in the U.S.? Well, the most significant obstacle to prioritizing energy efficiency anywhere is political will and money. We don’t have to look much further than the energy crises that pervaded the 1970s to understand why. The tactics governments used to mitigate the damage caused by the era’s oil shocks signify a major turning point in both policy and public perception. Suddenly, the illusion of bountiful, endless supplies of cheap fuel was evaporating into exhaust.
Here’s what it was like from Risinger’s perspective:
“I think as Americans, we started really becoming interested in high performance homes in the seventies because it seemed crazy for us to think about spending money on energy.”Matt Risinger
Decisions like the Nixon administration’s focus on establishing diplomatic ties with oil-exporting Saudi Arabia and the Reagan administration’s emphasis on defunding (and even suppressing!) investment into renewables have made the U.S.’ priorities at the time clear.3334 These factors translated into cheaper energy for Americans relative to other places, which has remained stable in the present. You can see in this graph by the International Energy Agency (IEA) how the percentage of household income spent on energy costs in the U.S. is all the way at the lowest end relative to other major economies:35
The problem is that with that cheap energy came a general disinterest in efficiency. Even now, the U.S. uses significantly more energy at home and on the road than other countries, according to IEA data.36 And I agree with Matt on this point …
“I think this is something that’s been kind of embedded in American culture for a long time…”Matt Risinger
“In the eighties when gas prices…kind of rolled back quite a bit and we enjoyed a pretty long period of time without a massive increase in gas prices, our general wages were going up and gas prices were staying kind of flat. That’s not what happened in Europe.”
“…It was 25 years, 20 years ago when I visited Europe for the first time as a 20-something, and I couldn’t believe that converting the liters to gallons, they were paying like $8 a gallon or $9 a gallon for gas. So it really made sense for me that I saw these small Peugots and these Mini Cooper-like cars because if you’re paying $9 for gas…you’re gonna all of a sudden be a lot more interested in efficiency, whether it’s mandated or not.”
But as the States scrambled to return to business as usual in the ‘70s, France invested in generating its own nuclear power.33 It now operates one of the largest nuclear programs in the world, with nuclear power plants responsible for generating 68% of France’s electricity in 2021.37
And already by the mid 1980s, the construction of new buildings meant compliance with low-energy standards in Sweden and Denmark. Then, the research that kicked off the Passive House movement began in 1988. The initial prototype house in Germany, that still stands and functions today, was first occupied in 1991.3238
In the end, there’s no better microcosm of the States’ attitude about powering buildings with clean energy than the White House itself. The Carter administration installed solar panels on its roof in 1979. The Reagan administration removed them in 1986…the same year it terminated solar tax credits.34 Photovoltaics remained off the House’s grounds until the early 2000s.39
Around the same time, in 2002 the Energy Division of the European Commission released the first Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the European Union’s first whole-building energy standard. Though the Directive allows for member states of the EU to make their own decisions about elements like U-values, it established guidance for construction of low to zero energy buildings by 2021.14
Meanwhile, it’s 2023, and the U.S. doesn’t have a centralized building code…much less a goal. So, why do American houses suck? I’ll let Tedd Benson, founder of Bensonwood, clue you in:
“We just don’t take home building in particular as seriously as other countries do. The standards that we have in our building codes are just too low.”Tedd Benson
- Wall sheathing creates headaches for builder, homeowners ↩︎
- WORST BUILDING PRODUCT EVER – So Common in US Homes (rant) ↩︎
- Thermo-Ply Structural Sheathing ↩︎
- Aceee’s 2022 International Energy Efficiency Scorecard: The United States ↩︎
- Do Europeans Really Make the Best Windows? ↩︎
- Logic Windows and Doors Brochure ↩︎
- Discarded 1990s Energy Invention Makes a Comeback ↩︎
- R-Value ↩︎
- Thermal Transmittance ↩︎
- JetStream Max: Addition Köppen-Geiger Climate Subdivisions ↩︎
- Office of the Washington State Climatologist: March 2022 Report and Outlook ↩︎
- Regions where oceanic or subtropical highland climates (Cfb, Cfc, Cwb, Cwc) are found. ↩︎
- Buildings Energy Codes 101: What Are They and What is DOE’s Role? ↩︎
- A Comparison of American, Canadian, and European Home Energy Performance in Heating Dominated – Moist ClimatesEnergy Performance in Heating Dominated – Moist Climates Based on Building CodesBased on Building Codes ↩︎
- Chapter 13: Energy Efficiency ↩︎
- Status of State Energy Code Adoption: Residential Buildings ↩︎
- Washington State Energy Code – Residential 2021 Edition ↩︎
- 2018 IECC Section R202: General Definitions ↩︎
- 2021 IECC Section R402: Building Thermal Envelope ↩︎
- The Building Regulations 2010 ↩︎
- 2021 IECC Section R301: Climate Zones ↩︎
- Passive House requirements ↩︎
- 2021 IECC Section R402.4.1.2: Testing ↩︎
- Improving the airtightness in an existing UK dwelling: the challenges, the measures and their effectiveness ↩︎
- National Building Code of Canada 2020 ↩︎
- Zero Energy Ready Home Program ↩︎
- U.S. DOE Zero Energy Ready Home Single Family Homes National Program Requirements, Version 2 ↩︎
- CCBFC Position Paper on a Long-Term Strategy for Developing and Implementing More Ambitious Energy Codes ↩︎
- Economic feasibility of Passive House design ↩︎
- International Energy Efficiency Scorecard ↩︎
- Passive House Database ↩︎
- The world’s first Passive House, Darmstadt-Kranichstein, Germany ↩︎
- Oil for Atoms: The 1970s Energy Crisis and Nuclear Proliferation in the Persian Gulf ↩︎
- Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy ↩︎
- Shares of home energy expenditure in average household incomes in major economies, 2021-2022 ↩︎
- Energy End-uses and Efficiency Indicators Data Explorer ↩︎
- Nuclear power plants generated 68% of France’s electricity in 2021 ↩︎
- 25 Years of Passive House in Darmstadt Kranichstein ↩︎
- Solar Energy at the White House ↩︎