Peter Pfeiffer is a principal at Barley & Pfeifer Architects in Austin, Texas, and is one of the early pioneers in the green building movement. Architect, lecturer, and interior designer, Pfeiffer is also a building scientist with a lifelong commitment to making sustainable construction mainstream. He spoke with BUILDER about the future of home building and the green movement.
BUILDER: Green building has made significant strides, but what will drive the movement in the future?
The biggest is economics and world consumption. We don’t have a choice with globalization hitting us. You might be for [globalization] or you might be against it, but unfortunately that has picked up steam. If it’s cheaper to build goods in India that’s where the goods will be built and we’ll lose jobs. That means that the typical Indian person will be able to have a slightly higher standard of living because they have more jobs. So you do that with China, and India, and other Third World countries—or which used to be Third World countries—and you have a lot of competition for the resources that we had to ourselves for the longest while. Gasoline is a great example of that. The United States can reduce its consumption and it has reduced its consumption by 2.5 percent since the start of the year, but [that shift] hasn’t affected oil prices because the other nations in the world are just going up with their consumption. That’s just one example of what’s happening across the board with steel, agricultural products, gypsum, aluminum, you name it. We’re in a global economy, and we’ve got to get more competitive with the way we use our resources. That’s going to be the driver [for green building]. The other drivers are the public, [which is]going to demand more efficient homes. Then they’re going to turn to their local officials and say, ‘We want you to help us get more efficient homes.’ That’s where the codes come in.
BUILDER: What role will home buyers play in this scenario?
I think the home buyer will help push the market, but it’s not every home buyer. At first, it will probably be the more educated and more savvy home buyer who’s going to say, ‘Gosh, if I spend $2,000 more building my house, it will actually be cheaper for me to own.’ They’re going to make that connection between a greater upfront investment and a less expensive ongoing cost of living. But not every home buyer is going to see it that way. The more savvy home buyer will push the market. But then you get into that debate where the government—as Austin has done—is going to step in and say, ‘You know, it’s really cheaper for everybody if we save energy. If the people who can afford to have extremely energy-wasting houses don’t get the message, they’ll keep building these monstrosities, and eventually that’s going to affect our ability to generate enough capacity. If we don’t control consumption, we’re eventually [going to have to raise rates on everyone] to fund a new power plant and transmission lines.’
BUILDER: What will home building look like with sustained higher gas prices at $5 and $6 per gallon?
That goes to the larger issue of not so much the individual home as the location of the home. I think that will put a lot of pressure on these far outlying subdivisions. Their property values will deflate. If it costs a family $1,000 to fuel their automobile to run their life instead of $300 a month, there are a lot of families that will find an extra $700 a month in their family budget hard to come by. And eventually they’re going to start thinking, ‘We love it out here, but we really need to move in closer so we can drive less or not have to drive at all because there will be access to public transportation. Our kids can walk to school, instead of being driven to school.’ … [The documentary "The End of Suburbia"] makes an interesting point. [We’ve] grown up in the environment that suburbia is the standard in American society. So to us, it’s traditional, it’s the standard. But the point the video makes is that it’s a very recent standard, and its foundation was all based on cheap oil. Go back 75 years, and it wasn’t the standard of American life. My parents both grew up in the cities where their parents worked. It was after World War II that they moved out into the suburbs, and that’s where I grew up. But almost everybody in the generation before mine grew up in the city where they had one family car—if they had that. My mother’s family didn’t have a car. Her dad walked to work, and her mom stayed at home, and they walked to school. She never had a car until she married my father….You could live a decent lifestyle without a car until the game starting changing, which was about the 1950s. So what we think is standard has only been around a half a century. That video makes a point that we’re probably going to go back to the way we were living for hundreds of years.
BUILDER: How do you counter the argument that green building cost too much?
That’s only true for people who don’t know what the green building movement really is about.
BUILDER: Is it possible, then, to build green without adding costs to the house?
There’s probably some cost. The biggest gains are the ones that occur at the very beginning of the design process. There are some of them that will honestly mean a change in the standard of living—or what we consider to be our standard of living--and there are other things that won’t require a change in standard of living but just using common sense to make your decisions. If you’re a production builder and you offer one particular plan—let’s say plan 247—we’re already seeing builders say let’s have a plan 247A for when the lot faces north and a plan 247B for when it faces south, and 247C for when it faces east or west. It’s not like we’re doing wholesale reworking of the house. Sometimes we’ll flip the house or mirror it, or replace a bunch of glass on the front with something like a front porch for shade or fewer windows. It still has architectural interest, but it’s more responsive to the way the house is facing. Builders have been doing that for years. The only difference now is they’re asking for these alternate exterior elevations for a north-facing lot and a west-facing lot. They’ve gotten wise to fact that if you’re going to have a change in the image of a house, let’s make that change also reflect the way it’s facing. ... Another [change that won't affect a buyer's ] lifestyle is that if you’re building in, say, Austin, Texas, why don’t you consider a lighter color scheme for your trim and your paint and shy away from dark red brick or consider a lighter-colored limestone? Those are common sense things that can do a lot to save energy. Or let’s not do all St. Augustine sod around the whole house. Why don’t we consider drought-tolerant grasses and maybe even less lawn area and more shrubs that are drought-tolerant? That won't affect your lifestyle. The next layer includes things that will affect your lifestyle: ‘Maybe we can fulfill your needs for a four-bedroom house in a 2,500-square foot shell instead of a 3,500-square-foot shell.’ [But then the client says], ‘But I want my formal living room, and I want my large master suite.’ That’s when people are going to be forced to put their money where their mouth is. And that’s when things start to get a little bit dicey…. Many of us who have been dealing with this know that the next level of ‘green building’ standards is going to produce some hue and cry among the buying public. But if you go back to that whole thing of looking at the societal cost of excess energy consumption, it is in society’s best interest to use less energy.
BUILDER: But will American home buyers be ready to make those lifestyle changes that are necessary? Changes such as moving from the suburbs to the city?
That’s an interesting one. Some of the original reasons for suburbia aren’t there anymore. The two best school districts in Austin aren’t the ones in the suburbs. One of them is in the suburbs, but it’s a very close-in suburb and the other one is right downtown. And the reason for that, frankly, is more wealth is moving back into town. I built my house three miles from the center of Austin. I fill up my car—a 10-year old car—once every three weeks. Where we were going to build out in the Hill Country is 18 miles from the office. But I just couldn’t sleep well at night. It was a beautiful piece of land—eight acres versus a 1/3 of an acre [in the city], but I honestly think we have a higher standard of living because we’re living in town. And I’m not rationalizing that….I think it’s going to take society having to rethink what their values are. It’s a little like smoking cigarettes. As recently as 20 years ago, there were lots of people who felt that was their God-given right to smoke cigarettes. I think now most people would agree that U.S. airports and bars and restaurants are more pleasant because people don’t smoke so much….I’m only using that as an analogy that sometimes Big Brother does have to exert a little bit of influence on you to say, ‘Yeah, you think this is better, but in the long run that’s better.’ And I know that’s a slippery slope, but people sometimes do have to get swayed.
BUILDER: What will the home building landscape look like in 10, 20, or even 30 years from now?
There won’t be these discussions about green building or whether we should do it or not. I think [green building is] going to be ubiquitous. The single major reason for that is globalization and the competition forced on us for raw materials as the rest of the world decides they want to live a different lifestyle than they’ve been living.
BUILDER: Do you think Americans will be living in cities in the decades to come?
Yes. I’ve seen that in my life of investing in properties. My parents were real estate investors because they didn’t have enough money to send [my siblings and me] to college. So they bought [old] homes in great neighborhoods, and me and my brothers fixed them up and the rental income put us all through college….I learned very quickly about how much more stable real estate prices are close-in to the centers of employment and places where you can go grocery shopping and go to church and school. I just think you’re going to see that exaggerated even more. I really don’t hold a lot of hope for the suburbs being the nifty places we thought they were. I think you’re going to see a lot of outlying suburban towns turn into—not ghost towns—but have severely depressed property values and they’re not going to be able to keep up the city services, and you’ll have dirtier streets and potholes and you’ll see deterioration because the tax base won’t be there.
Interview by Nigel Maynard. Maynard is senior editor, products, at BUILDER magazine.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Austin, TX.