Friday, January 23, 2009

Is small really beautiful?

If your company serves the residential market, you’ve no doubt witnessed the growing trend in building environmentally sustainable houses. It’s a movement that might never slow down.

The recent confluence of events--the housing/mortgage/foreclosure crisis, energy spikes, increased environmental awareness, the Obama administration with a stripe for ‘going green’--is simply accelerating a nationwide trend that had already begun to gain steam in several regions around the country.

A recent construction study by the National Association of Home Builders estimates that by 2010 as many as 10 percent of all housing starts in the U.S. will include some eco-friendly features. I’m not sure if that’s encouraging, especially when “some eco-friendly features” is an awfully vague term. Sprinkler timers, waterless toilets and attic vents are eco-friendly features, after all.

A key challenge, of course, is “designing green” affordably. Ironically, the size of the average American house has grown 140 percent since 1950, from 1,000 square feet to 2,400 square feet.

New houses in the U.S. are still dramatically larger than those in other developed countries. In fact, new construction starts is a key barometer of economic growth. When new construction falls, the markets react negatively. It’s ingrained in our thinking ... an American “virtue.” After all, bigger is better, right?

And yet there is no widely reported barometer of environmental sustainability. And even if there was, would fluctuations in the metrics move markets? Hmm ... an interesting notion.

Gas guzzlers and factories get the lion’s share of the blame for our environmental problems; but according to the “Architecture 2030 Study” constructing and operating commercial and residential buildings is responsible for almost half of the country's energy usage, with residential buildings comprising 21 percent.

Compare that to the transportation segment’s 27 percent and you see that residential home energy costs are more significant than most people realize. In the future, design will be essential to any solution. Some architects believe the focus should be on retrofitting existing buildings, rather than razing them and building anew. That, of course, would be a blow to new construction.

Perhaps it’s time we adopt a “new” mantra: Small is beautiful. At least that is the way a certain in-flight magazine author would have us think. Sarah Susank has just published her bestselling book: The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Think. The book stresses quality over quantity.

And a ‘MarketWatch’ article further confirms the degree of this movement. The headline reads: “New homes get smaller. Say Goodbye to McMansions, Americans are buying ‘right-sized’ homes.” The topic de jour at the International Builders Show this past week.

But it requires us to look forward in a big way. Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, a collection of essays by British economist E.F. Schumacher, resonates loud and clear. Sustainability may well become a new status symbol.

Check out the prefab Cellophane House on display at New York's Museum of Art: Could this be a vanguard of what’s to come? Note the solar panels: Now there may be a large opportunity worthy of exploiting.

We at the NGA are taking heed. We’ll soon announce a blue-chip executive industry discussion on the solar panel market at GlassBuild America on Oct. 1, 2009. Stay tuned for details on this must-attend event.

Remember: Small may be beautiful! That is, if the expected market shift does occur and your company is prepared to exploit the trend.

David Walker, Vice President of Association Services, National Glass Association

1 comment:

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