THE BLOG

How Green Building Can Save the Housing Industry

09/08/2009 05:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Green is gold. Why didn't homebuilders get this idea? They could be building new homes again, employing millions, making inner cities and suburbs habitable and bring down the cost of housing for everyone.

Homebuilding needs to join the 21st century and apply the best, efficient technologies to lower costs and reduce energy and resource consumption. But the vast majority of homes have been built using the very best 19th-century, stick-built/balloon frame methods. That's got to change if we want to revive the bedrock of the American Dream.

As it stands now, while you may have the most up-to-date flat-panel TVs, computers, cellphones and audio equipment inside your home, the basic way that most homes are built hasn't changed much in more than 170 years.

That's right. As microprocessors double in speed every 18 months, cellphones are becoming just as powerful as laptop computers and you can connect to nearly anyone on the planet through the internet, the box you live in is antiquated beyond belief and costs you more every year to heat, cool and maintain.

To change this deplorable situation -- and revive real estate, building and banking -- it will require a change in attitude. Think of your personal living space as ecodynamic. It could adjust to the exterior environment cybernetically, tell you when the cheapest electricity is available and program the entire house to use less energy.

Is this something out of the new Star Trek movie? Hardly. Ecodynamic homes are not only being built, they are being assembled. That's an important distinction.

Rather than building everything on site with framing and two-by-fours, modular units are pre-made to exacting specifications in factories, then loaded on flat-bed trucks and assembled on site. This not only cuts the construction time and cost from one-third to one-half, it eliminates tons of waste that end up in landfills. The end-result is energy-efficient, low-maintenance and will produce energy and conserve water.

An ecodynamic home is always working for you to reduce costs. It saves water in cisterns, prevents heat from leaking out in the winter and keeps a breeze flowing in summer. You use less energy because the house's computer is constantly monitoring conditions and directing resources to where they are needed. Don't need to heat or cool a spare bedroom? The system will know and cut your bills.

Sounds good so far, but aren't these homes really ugly trailers? Throw that image out of your mind. They are loaded and secured onto permanent foundations and can be stunning.

Take a look at architect Michelle Kaufmann's "Smart + Wired Home," a house so innovative it's now on display at Chicago's Museum and Science and Industry. It's an elegant example of a modular, green home that was factory built and constantly monitoring itself with its own eco-computer system. A flat-panel display in the living room can display a graphic that shows the cost of energy that moment, how much of it the house is consuming and the amount of electrons being produced on rooftop solar panels. If it makes more energy than you consume, you sell it back to the power company.

The Smart + Wired Home costs nine times less to heat and three times less to cool than a standard home of the same size. The gorgeous, spacious interior is full of low-voltage lighting, fixtures made of recycled materials and lets in generous amounts of light.

But this is not just a home for museums as Kaufmann hopes to mass produce these homes. If she succeeds (I'm rooting for her), she could become the Henry Ford of homebuilders. Make houses on assembly lines and their costs will come down as economies of scale will be realized. And because they are modular designs, you can easily change the layout or add on extra modules if you need to expand at a cost much lower than stick-built contracting.

What will it take to make green modular homebuilding a major industry? Policymakers will need to implement tax incentives over the next two decades, reward new home-energy technologies with grants and shift tax dollars away from wasteful road building projects into places like the inner city where decent, affordable housing is in short supply.

Some of this is already being seeded through the Obama stimulus plan and budget, although a comprehensive, long-range plan is needed. The upcoming energy/climate change bill would be an ideal place for these ideas. If we get really good at ecodynamic design and manufacturing, we'll be able to export these products to places where durable, inexpensive and green housing is desperately needed: China, India, Africa.

Back in the U.S., homes needn't be so capital intensive and push people into foreclosure and bankruptcy. They can be clean, green and affordable. They can pay us back when they produce energy. To accomplish that, we will need to re-envision the American Dream. Home is where the heart is. Now the political will needs to follow if we're to make homeownership widespread and sustainable.

©2009 John F. Wasik, author of Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream