Building rating systems such as Green Star, LEED, and Passive House are here to stay, but many builders and home owners have grown frustrated at their cost and complexity.

Would it be possible to improve the performance, quality, and sustainability of more homes with a simpler, more streamlined, and cheaper building standard?

As Allison Bailes, accredited energy consultant and writer, asked in his blog, “Wouldn't it be great if we could list just a handful of measures that a home builder has to achieve to build a Pretty Good House?”

It turns out that quite a few building professionals have been working on that very question. The “Pretty Good House” concept has evolved from some discussions among building professionals in Maine, such as Dan Kolbert, with a few blog posts by Michael Maines at Green Building Advisor helping to flesh out the ideas. Steve Konstantino owns Maine Green Building Supply, where the monthly discussions take place, and wrote a short but useful summary of the ideas.

“I think the idea of the Pretty Good House, or PGH is to have a general list to use as a guide while making the design and build choices that every project has to make. It is a higher bar to set for the everyday builder that does not require certification,” he wrote.

A Pretty Good House is a better house than the code-minimum house. Builders and home owners are given guidelines for all the home’s systems, such as foundation, insulation, HVAC and so on, with the flexibility to adopt any or all of the guidelines. It’s regionally optimized, too, so homes in different climate zones will differ.

Importantly, there’s no certification, so there’s no extra cost for compliance with the standard, and no Pretty Good House organization that requires funding.

Konstantino’s guidelines are organized as General, Site Considerations, Design, Foundations, Building Envelope, Windows, Mechanicals, and Interior Finishes. They represent a thoughtful list of best practices without being completely prescriptive.

According to Konstantino, some aspects of a Pretty Good House are general guidelines, such as:

● “Use locally sourced materials and labor.
● Keep the structure less complex.
● Make things durable.”

And some ideas are more specific. For the building envelope:

● Build walls to R-40 with thermal break for cold climates.
● Build ceilings to R-60 with thermal break for cold climates.
● Aim for airtightness at 1.5 ACH 50 or better.

Some guidelines address sustainability:

● “Use materials that have low embodied energy.
● Keep the conditioned living space relatively small per occupant (maybe 600 s.f. for the first and 300-400 s.f. per additional occupant).
● Avoid using fossil fuels.”

Architects Chris Briley and Phil Kaplan also addressed the Pretty Good House concept in a recent Green Architect’s Lounge podcast, and emphasized that it’s about guidelines, not requirements.

“Instead of saying, 'A pretty good house does these things: Check! Check! Check!', it’s really, 'A pretty good house considers these things,'” Briley said. “Thermal bridging would be a great example, like, 'A pretty good house takes thermal bridging into consideration and does something about it.'”

Briley and Kaplan also emphasized the need to involve all the trade partners early in the process to optimize the design.

“You can’t just plop things in at the last minute and expect it to go smoothly, because someone’s going to have to move a beam to make room for something else,” Briley said.

He noted, however, that energy modelling is strongly recommended.

Bailes floated a few of his own ideas in a blog post, as well. His approach outlines several specific benchmarks that would be appropriate for a house that’s better than code, but not up to Passive House or Green Star levels.

His is the most detailed approach so far, but as he points out, “I'm a fan of performance goals because they allow the project team to figure out how best to meet the goals, but some of the items are best left as prescriptive (e.g., no atmospheric combustion inside).”

Bailes’ elements include:

● Pretty Good Design
● Pretty Good Building Envelope and Weather Shell
● Pretty Good Mechanical Systems
● Pretty Good Water Conservation
● Pretty Good Verification
● Pretty Good Homeowner Package
● Pretty Good Performance.

Many builders and home owners grasp the Pretty Good House idea immediately, even if they differ about the details.

“People have different versions of what "pretty good" is,” Konstantino said. “I do think some of the basic building science principles should always be adhered to, including some way to verify that it is done properly (i.e.: a blower door test).”

  • Great idea that is already in practice with some Builders. They cannot make sense of hiring a consultant to get through LEED or other certification that adds cost, time, and complexity to the project. A few have said they aim for better than code, using
    1. improved building envelope
    2. improved mechanical system

    A recent breakthrough has been the solar heat pump that is a hybrid between solar and geo, with the low cost of a ductless heat pump. For a custom home, a SunPump has $0 Cost on a self-paying solar loan, plus incentive rebate checks back to the purchaser.

  • The idea of a "pretty good" house needs a new name! I applaud the idea of building a house better than code but to call it "pretty good" implies sub-par to me.

    When we design/build we add extras that don't cost that much but aid the homeowner down the line when repairs are needed such as valves on plumbing where not required. Extra outlets beyond code, dimmers, bedside light 3-way light switches are all items we add that the homeowner enjoys.

    When we remodel, there are different issues that should have been addressed in the design/build phase…trades need to remember real people will eventually live in the homes they work on and most people do not enjoy listening to the A/C unit kick on and off all night outside their bedroom!

  • You couldn't be more ‘Right On’ with both the program and the name change. What is needed is a performance based designation rather than a tight prescription based designation written to age-old methods of construction.
    By componentizing construction, I am projected to do to construction what Henry Ford did to the cost and performance of the automobile by componentizing its manufacture. It has taken winds over 200 mph in the field; broke the test rack at 150# snow load; and a seismic 7 earthquake. As a result, the state of Oregon created a performance based building code for me. And, upon seeing it, the state of Washington’s building department agreed to accept Oregon’s new code as well. It is tough and I doubt if a conventionally built building could pass this performance based code. Being part of the task force studying it, the Oregon Department of Energy discovered that even without PV and only an R-2 insulation factor, it would “require but 24% of the energy as the same plan built to the Model Energy Code.”
    Now, how will LEED or any other prescriptive based rating system properly handle my system?

  • Though now retired, 'pretty good' is the best idea in the last century. There are so many products that will fit so well in "pretty good". Spacial requirements and necessary building elements both can fit in well with that theory. Natural gas however, will be the economical preference for space heating until we(you actually) can perfect an earth/atmosphere driven power element.

    I was required by state agencies to produce state aided senior apartments that had to leave windows cracked for humidity control.
    Absolutely stupid!