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Can I Afford Building Green

**UPDATE NOTE - This blog was originally published in February of 2011 and does not reflect current market conditions.  Please contact us for a more accurate estimate of building your dream home.**

I want to share with you this letter we recently received from a reader. Her questions reflect those that we commonly hear about cost to build green. Please note, this is a Seattle based reader and costs for real estate will be higher than in South Sound.

[Reader Question]

My husband and I are considering building/remodeling a home in the next three years. The idea of a passive house appeals to us strongly. As we think about the future, we’re wondering whether a custom passive house is a realistic choice for our family.

Right now, our ideal would be a home around 1800-2300 square feet in the Seattle area. Our budget by then will be in the range of $500-600K for land and construction. Our question is whether we are out of our league, hoping to build a house of that size on that kind of budget.

More generally, what recommended reading would you suggest for people in our position, considering building in the somewhat-near future? Books, blogs or magazines about design, architecture, or green building? Any suggestions would be welcome.

Thank you for your time.


[Reply from Randy Foster, president | The Artisans Group] Thanks so much for contacting us. The brief answer to questions about the cost of a Passive House (PH) is that I think it is quite feasible to build a PH within the budget that you have described. Of course, the big variable will be the cost of land.

The cost of a PH is not really that much higher than any other custom home. The PH approach is based in spending money on the home’s thermal envelope (windows, insulation, doors, etc), and not spending money on heating and other energy-related systems that can be really expensive in other green approaches. The cost increases and the savings largely cancel each other out.

The idea that I’m trying to highlight is that PH is a cost-conscious way to design and build a home. I did not arrive at building Passive Houses through my sensibilities as an environmentalist. Though, this method is good for the environment and for society as well, which are huge bonuses. But my earliest attraction to the paradigm is rooted in managing financial risk by limiting exposure to rising energy prices. PH is fiscally smart.

So… I can get off of the soap box now and offer some price ranges for Passive Houses that we are currently designing and/or building:

• $150/sf for a really cool semi-modern-styled home, 1,100 sf, with modest selections of roofing, siding, flooring, cabinets, etc.

• $170/sf for an “elegant farmhouse”, 1,700 sf, with an attached garage and carport.

• $210/sf for a waterfront modern home, 1,500 square feet, with selections that are more exciting, from a design point of view.

Each of these examples illustrates a home that is perhaps a bit smaller than the home I understand you are considering. That’s good news! Creating a super-energy-efficient home tends to be easier and more cost-effective as the size of the home increases.

There is a tremendous amount of high quality information available on PH. Specifically, there are a couple of excellent books that will give you a solid understanding of the method itself and which feature PH projects around the country:

Homes for a Changing Climate Passive Houses in the U.S. by Katrin Klingenberg, Mike Kernagis, Mary James

Recreating the American Home: The Passive House Approach by Mary James

Thank you for your interest!