The case for energy-efficient houses
April 4, 1980
An argument in favor of energy-efficient housing in Illinois. It is informed and persuasive—and neglects entirely the factors that would keep even passive solar houses from becoming more than eccentricities. The fact that building them required owners to pay more today to save even more tomorrow, that it demanded knowledge of a sort that builders and buyers don't have (“Solar orientation”—what's with that?), that it was associated in the popular mind with hippies.
I convinced myself, anyway, and built such a house two years later, as I recount here.
Two interesting facts: One, that the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission (SSCRPC) expects there to be built 17,000 new housing units in Sangamon County between now and the year 2000. Two, that City Water, Light & Power, the city- owned electric utility, already has begun planning for that day in the mid-1980s when its current electric generating capacity will be outrun by growing demand and it will have to provide new sources of power for its approximately 55,000 customers.
These facts came from my files, where I had disposed of them (one in a file labeled, “City—utility,” the other in one labeled, “Housing”) as if they had meanings separate from each other. The fact is—sorry, a third fact—that the kinds of houses we build shape the nature and the extent of future demands on our energy system, while the nature and cost of energy shape in more literal ways the kinds of houses we live in. And that fact reminded me that we are less often misled by the world than we are by our attempts to reorder it.
It was to learn more about housing and energy in Springfield that 1 dropped by the Myers Building to see Randy Armstrong, a senior planner with the SSCRPC. I found a display board propped up against a table showing a subdivision plat and some photos, all titled, “Illinois Lo-Cal House Subdivision.” “We’ve shown this at various places,” Armstrong explains, “The plat is from an actual subdivision built by a developer in suburban Washington, DC, using the concept of the lo-cal house designed by the Small Homes Council at the University of Illinois.” It looks typical, except that every one of the thirty-nine houses has its longer axis oriented east-west, to capture as much warming winter sun as possible—and as little summer sun.
There are other innovative features, familiar to anyone aware of passive solar design concepts—26-inch roof overhangs on southern exposures, triple glazed windows, large glass areas on southern exposures, little or no glass on northern exposures, plus a unique double-wall construction using staggered studs set on 24-inch centers that allows for installation of six inches of insulation while stopping thermal transfer through the wall itself. Aside from that, however, the houses are attractive examples of the rustic style favored right now(the builder has reported that of his first six sales of similar houses built nearby, five were bought just because they liked the house) and, at a cost of $89,500 for a 1,500 square-foot floor plan, they were priced competitively.
“These houses,” Armstrong goes on, “save anywhere from two-thirds to three-fourths in heating and cooling costs compared to the typical 1974 house” while the energy-saving features added only about $1,350 to the cost of the smaller models. The DC subdivision—called Lee Brooke, by the way, actually located in suburban Springfield, Virginia—is important because it is one of the first attempts to successfully build energy-efficient houses to commercial design floor plans for sale to the general home-buying public.
The implications for individual home-buyers—not to mention public utilities—if this type of lo-cal house became the standard in the ‘80s and ‘90s are startling. “Even if all you do is orient a typical new house on an east-west axis,” Armstrong points out, “you get a 20 to 25 percent reduction in heating and cooling costs.” If passive solar house design were a disease, residential developers can expect long lives, because they remain stubbornly resistant to infection. That the elemental relationship between building orientation and energy efficiency went unrecognized in the past should not be a surprise, though people who bought houses that turn a cold shoulder to the sun might have cause now to wish they had gotten more science and less salesmanship from their builders. In Springfield, for instance, perhaps as many as 80 percent of the houses in the southwest-side Sherwood development were built with their long axes running north- south, while in neighboring Westchester, where most streets run east to west, the reverse is true. It would be interesting to compare average utility bills in Sherwood and Westchester, just to see whether Armstrong’s contention can be proved.
Zoning regulations are another impediment to the efficient siting of houses. Because of minimum setback distances required by local zoning codes, it often is difficult to turn a house around toward the sun on a small lot. Randy Shick, aboard member of the Springfield Energy Coalition who is temporarily in Washington, DC. working for the President’s Clearinghouse for Community Energy Efficiency, told the Fourth National Passive Solar Conference, “Setback regulations usually force homes to sit squarely on lots. As a result, houses are oriented to lot lines and streets rather than to the sun.” Solar siting usually requires time-consuming variances, which is one reason why, Shick says, “The more innovative a passive solar home is, the more contractors will likely be playing backgammon, and losing money, while waiting for building permits.”
The SSCRPC is preparing a new city master plan. As part of the review of present zoning rules, Armstrong and Shick toured the city’s neighborhood with a landscape architect. “We found that the existing regulations controlling lot size, setbacks, and so on provide plenty of solar access on east-west streets,” Armstrong recalls. “But there are problems on north-south streets.” One solution may be to allow builders to put a building right on the northern property line; in the interim, variances are always possible, if neighbors don’t object.
The new master plan will merely set out broad policy goals. It’s up to units of local government to adopt specific ordinances governing things like solar access, and they are not likely to use compulsion to re-orient development patterns. (It’s a measure of the lingering anti-regulation bias at the county level that Sangamon County does not yet even have a building code, though it’s working on getting one.) Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinances allow this kind of siting flexibility now; as for the rest, incentives are a more likely tool, such as allowing a developer to lay narrower streets and sidewalks in exchange for orienting his streets within, say, 20 degrees of east-west.
These are encouraging signs, but passive solar is still a concept with more leaders than followers in central Illinois. “People don’t seem to grasp the potential for savings yet,” Armstrong complains. “You’d think that the market would provide enough incentives that builders would do this kind of thing on their own.” Well, not really. It was the market—which in the case of real estate might be described as the organized catering to people’s worst instincts—that, with official connivance, gave us such a mess in the first place. The market, ultimately, only supplies people with what they want, not with what they need.
Changing things will take more than fine-tuning the zoning laws, of course. It will take some changes in Americans’ basic assumptions about housing. It’s happened before. It is sometimes said that a person’s home is his castle. But we should all remember that castles are drafty and hard to heat, and they ceased to be popular because it cost too much to run them. ●