Architect James Brew, buildings principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), estimates that energy codes will improve by 50 percent over the next three years, requiring houses to be twice as energy efficient. RMI is a nonprofit research and action group dedicated to reducing the negative environmental impact of the building industry.

Tougher energy codes are controversial among home builders, according to Brew. Everyone agrees that energy costs will continue to increase and that creating savings for homeowners is a good thing. However, some argue that the cost of building a more energy-efficient house is too high and will hurt business. Brew counters that homes can be up to 60 percent more efficient than even the strictest code or certification program requires and still cost about the same to build.

Custom Home asked Brew if he thinks building to meet new energy codes will change the typical size of a custom, single-family house. “I can imagine that, over time, more aggressive energy codes could affect residential form,” he says. Brew gave one example using Passive House standards, which he admires as a simple solution for greater energy efficiency. He explains that designers or builders creating a single-family passive house “strive for a cost-effective area to volume (A/V) ratio around 0.7.” In other words: more compact spaces.

Brew adds that larger multifamily buildings provide higher density and are therefore even more cost effective, but most people still want their own house and yard. “I believe that more low- to mid-rise wood framed, affordable, superefficient housing could serve to increase density, create healthy, livable housing, and even better communities,” he says.