Let me apologize in advance if this rambles a bit, it's Monday morning, after all.
Two items struck me this week, first off this article on building passive homes in the New York Times (homes that use super-efficient insulation, sunlight and convection for low- or no-energy climate control) and the fact that the Maker Faire happened in NYC this past weekend (wish I could've afforded to go!).
Put these two items together in my mind and the thought process runs a bit like this:
-It's possible to build comfortable homes that use little or no outside energy
-There's a whole bunch of smart people dedicated to building and modding stuff themselves
-It's difficult and expensive to get materials to build passive homes in the US
-There's a whole community of people who like to build stuff for themselves
-It's possible to build low-or-no-power homes
-Why aren't there pre-fab/kit/whatever passive power homes all over the place?
The answer is that, of course, there are passive homes all over the place, just not usually in "modernized" areas. Brick, stone, earth and straw-insulated houses can be amazingly energy efficient, and homes built in caves or partially underground keep stable temperatures in a lot of conditions (and earn bonus points if they have round doors and a gardener named Sam).
But modern, high tech passive homes that meet urban building standards are almost unheard of in the US. Why?
Well, for one thing, the morass of zoning and codes required to build anything more complicated than a flower bed in most areas makes it hard to legally building anything novel, and two, because they can be more labor intensive, they're more expensive to build, and most contractors don't have experience in building them.
But, as the saying goes, if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we make affordable, super-efficient housing a common thing? What about combining passive homes with the concept of "tiny homes" to create low-cost, low-impact modular homes? Homes that could be built cheap and either by skilled labor or by DIY homeowners?
Materials are one issue, but if there's a demand for the building materials, somebody will sell them, and with enough demand, prices will get reasonable.
Another big obstacle I see is zoning legislation. How do you regulate non-conventional housing (well, for one, by making energy efficient housing conventional, but that's part of the long game), how about by getting a competent legal team to draft model housing laws that could sent to local governing bodies to help them adapt to the new process.
My Utopian ideal would be to have pedestrian friendly "cottage parks," which, like contemporary trailer parks with common sewage and water hookups (although those can probably be modernized as well), and dozens of modular, affordable, efficient homes that would provide the satisfaction and security of home ownership to the multitude of folks who can't even dream of it in this economy.
Yes, we'd have to get over the ideas of "I want a big house or no house" and "where am I going to put my stuff" but if you sell it right "better a small home as long as it's MY home" can win out. Plus, the added benefits of easy maintenance, the ability to customize and ridiculously low energy bills should appeal to those of modest means.