Silver lining of the recession: better homes?

There’s a story from yesterday’s Associated Press which is absolutely fascinating, not just for what it says in print but for what it says between the lines.

The story, called ‘Homebuilders Sticking with Less-Is-More Approach,” talks about housing trends at the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas.

An efficient townhouse project in Discovery Park that targeted LEED platinum certification

There’s a few things in the story that caught my eye:

  • According to a survey from the National Association of Home Builders, the average size of an American house shrank about 100 square feet last year to about 2,400 square feet while the percentage of homes with three or more bathrooms fell for the first time since 1992.
  • Builders said they’re less likely to build homes this year with outdoor kitchens, media rooms and sunrooms. The next generation of homes is more likely to have a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, a laundry room, energy-saving windows, energy efficient lighting and appliances and an insulated front door.
  • Up to a quarter of all new homes built last year received an Energy Star rating. That’s up from 11 percent in 2007.
  • Solar energy continues to be a big draw.
  • And pricey green products won’t be driving the recovery. Many homebuyers are eschewing energy-saving features and recycled products that don’t offer enough quick savings.
These points send a pretty clear message to me: less waste.  Less waste of space, less waste of energy and less waste of money. Do we really need outdoor kitchens and sunrooms? Energy saving appliances and an insulated front door seem much more practical to me. And in today’s economy, practicality is key.
The last three points taken together are really interesting: there are more Energy Star certified homes, solar energy is a big draw, and people are eschewing pricey green products. While pricey green options can help you get higher on the Energy Star scale, you don’t need them to be green. The perception that you need expensive items to save energy is really just wrong.
In reality, a lot of the best measures you can take aren’t very expensive at all…  but rather require sealing of cracks, caulking of holes and consideration of how you use energy in relation to a house as a whole. So the fact that buyers aren’t willing to pay more for these pricey measures makes a lot of sense to me. Why should you pay more for those features… when you can make small changes at home first that have a larger impact?
In October, I attended a CityClub lecture on what it would take to turn all our old buildings green. At that talk, Todd Starnes of Puget Sound Energy said windows, which are expensive and often the first thing homeowners consider when looking at energy upgrades, are not the most cost effective measure in energy efficiency. The most beneficial and cheapest thing, he said, is insulation, followed by sealing a home’s cracks. Then he suggested sealing ducts before making a big purchase like furnaces or windows.
Maybe the fact that home buyers aren’t buying pricey green products means they’re getting smarter about what is worthwhile, what is best for the environment and what can save them energy at the same time.
Smaller houses are also an interesting topic, especially considering how sizing relates to green homes. This week, the DJC published a story I wrote on a recent survey by Seattle-based GreenWorks Realty that looked at new homes sold in the Puget Sound area between 2007 and the end of 2009. Ben Kaufman, author of the study and owner of GreenWorks, said people buying green homes in King County are buying smaller and better designed homes. On average, the green King County home was 600 square feet smaller than non-certified green homes.
Personally, I’m a fan of small, compact, well designed space. Of course, I’m also a product of my generation (Gen Y). From what I’ve read, my generation is much more likely to give up space in exchange for being in the thick of things. In September, Deanna Sihon of New Home Trends said that soon, my generation will be driving the housing market so companies need to understand what we want to remain relevant to our buying interests. She said Generation Y wants smaller, higher quality housing that is well designed.
Are these points hopeful? To me, they show nationally, we might be moving towards more sustainable housing. Maybe, just maybe, one silver lining to the recession will be a trend towards more efficient and thoughtful homes. What do you think?  What are other silver linings?
(P.S. My blog formating software is acting wacky so I’m bolding the beginnings of paragraphs to give you an idea of where paragraphs should begin….)