Tiny Tuesday: “Energy Nerd” Advocates Build Small

Martin Holladay has been building houses on the cutting edge of energy efficiency since 1974. A Vermont native, he’s now a senior editor at Fine Homebuilding Magazine and Green Building Advisor. Holladay records his latest thoughts in a weekly blog titled Musings of an Energy Nerd.

A reoccurring theme in Holladay’s work is his conviction that Passive House principles are overkill for most homeowners. Holladay argues quite convincingly that a small house will burn far less energy (and money) than a big house even if the latter has R-60 walls with triple-glazed windows and an HRV. He advocates for what he calls a “Pretty Good House,” which focuses on air tightness and mindful energy use, eschewing other Passive House standards like 14-inch-thick insulation under the floor slab. He has a special disdain for huge south-facing windows, which leak far more heat than they gain through the passive solar mechanism.

On the other hand, Holladay is a fan of minimizing embodied energy (plastics and foams are popular but their manufacturing carries a lot of hidden environmental costs), maximizing onsite energy production (especially PV panels), and designing footprints and roofs as simple as possible to save construction costs and problem spots. In so choosing his battles, he has made the “Pretty Good House” a mashup between a passive house and a net-zero house. The emphasis is on keeping money in your pocket. I think a lot of homeowners could get behind that.

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