The book Good House Cheap House: Adventures in Creating an Extraordinary Home at an Everyday Price doesn’t set out to be about green building. It aims to show nicely designed and affordable homes.
But it ends up showing good green building as well.
The many case studies in the book show a pattern. Firstly all the homes are small and maximize the space so that they don’t feel small. If you want to build affordable, build less and more intelligently. Obvious enough. This is also a green building must. All things being equal, a smaller house will always be greener than a larger one.
A smaller house creates less of a footprint on the earth in all ways – physically, in materials, and in energy consumption.
All the homes were built with lots of salvaged material. Something salvaged is usually cheaper than something new. But something salvaged is always greener than something new in terms of environmental impact (of course you don’t want to salvage asbestos or lead pipes).
All the homes were renovations of old buildings. No new construction. It is cheaper to renovate than build new if you are willing to work with what you have. It is also a lot greener.
Two works in the book struck out to me as great guideposts for building: Creativity and constraint. To build affordable you need to be creative. There are lots of examples in the book where the owners used materials creatively. One owner put some lights in a salvaged beam and hung it from the ceiling, turning it into a beautiful chandelier. It cost maybe $20 and would hold its own in the fanciest penthouse apartment.
There are also countless examples of restraint. Knowing when enough is enough is the epitome of good design and good financial management. None of the homes feel constrained but they all have excellent constraint.
Creativity and constraint are key to any good green building too, for the same reasons. We are aiming to reduce our impact on the environment, reduce the materials used, and maximize what we have on hand. To do this you need to be careful how you build and use constraint. You also need to be really creative so that you can find new ways to use the materials you have on hand.
I like seeing the relationship between affordable building and green building. We have everything to gain by making the two synonymous. When green building is affordable it is done more often. And that is good for the owners because they save money, good for the contractor because they get more business and good for the environment because more homes are built in harmony with it.
Eco Brooklyn really forged the way in this connection between affordable and green. As of this post we are the only green building contractor in Brooklyn and NY building high quality green homes for middle class people. We have it down at this point. We can renovate several brownstones at a time and have the sourcing set up to provide all the salvaged materials and green building techniques needed to make real green renovations.
It is really a satisfying stage in Eco Brooklyn’s development. We struggled finding the line between affordable and underbidding. There is nothing more disgusting than paying out of pocket to get a job done that you underbid on. But we have it down now. We have streamlined our salvage process to a point where we have very little material costs yet our materials are of very high quality.
Combine that with high quality artisans who understand old school crafts and you get great building for an affordable price. It took us a while to perfect the process but we have a couple big jobs under our belt where we paid our dues and have now really found a pattern that works.
We can renovate a Brooklyn brownstone to the highest green standards – Passive House, all salvaged etc – coming very close to our Zero Brownstone goal. Hooray!