Energy-stingy designs to help rescue American dream

For the past few years Dick Ketchum and Bill Blair, editor and publisher, respectively, of Blair & Ketchums Country Journal, have looked long and hard at that American dream, the owner-occupied single-family home.

In the process, they found the obvious: skyrocketing costs that saw dreams fade for many people as the median price of an average single-family home rose from $23,400 in 1970 to $64,500 at the end of the decade.

The figure, in fact, is expected to hit $130,000 by 1990. But they also found much that they liked, even that they could get excited about. Innovative designs and construction techniques are doing much to counter the all-too-obvious price trend.

In surveying the scene, Mr. Blair and Mr. Ketchum quickly saw that solutions do exist.

''Americans have overcome such difficulties before,'' says Ketchum, and he strongly believes they ''will do so again.'' Indeed, they uncovered a small but growing band of ''ingenious architects, engineers, and tinkerers'' who have come up with a ''wealth of solutions to the problem.''

In its search for practical ideas, Country Journal looked for houses ''that worked.'' By that they mean houses that provided pleasant living space with energy demands so low that heating and cooling costs made as negligible an impact on the family budget as they did in the 1960s.

But, adds Ketchum: ''In our wandering and snooping we sought something beyond efficiency; we tried to keep an eye out for the aesthetically satisfying in the belief that a house must be more than simple shelter, that it must also be a home that reflects the personalities and interests of its owners in ways that others might wish to emulate.

''In this quest we leaned somewhat toward the traditional, on the grounds that this nation possesses a vital architectural heritage and that we can and must learn from that rich past while absorbing the lessons of present and future.''

The need, then, as Blair and Ketchum saw it, was to bring the encouraging news about home owning out into the open for everyone to see and use in tackling its negative aspects. They have been doing this for some months in a series of articles entitled ''The Practical Country house.'' And they have done much more.

Specifically, they commissioned three architects to design houses that would come in with a $50,000 price tag at 1983 building costs in New England, that would be of a reasonable size, and that would cost very little to heat. In short , they had to be houses that worked. They also had to be aesthetically pleasing and relatively conventional in appearance.

As Dick Ketchum put it: ''We challenged them to create, first, a basic 'starter' for a couple, one that has traditional lines and exterior design, that is expandable to meet future needs, and that is adaptable to almost any site.

''Most important of all, these specially designed houses had to be built for landscaping, or furnishings).

The results are:

* A solar-heated, earth-sheltered home with the appeal of a traditional two-story dwelling from a long-recognized expert in earth-tempered construction: Malcolm Wells.

* A passive-solar, superinsulated cape by Hank Huber, a New Hampshire architect with a background in engineering.

* A superinsulated colonial by David Wright.

The architects appear to have met the goals set down by the magazine.

Contractors, given the Wells design, gave estimates ranging from a low of $45 ,000 to a high of $57,000, with do-it-yourself costs coming in at around $25,000 .

Speaking for all three designs, Huber said that, even in the colder regions of the North, they could be heated for an entire season ''for what it costs you to take your wife and two friends out to a good restaurant.''

If you are interested in these house designs, go to your local public library and look up these back issues of Country Journal: September '82, for the earth-sheltered design; January '83, for the superinsulated cape, and June '83, for the superinsulated colonial.

You also can write for details directly to Blair & Ketchums Country Journal, PO Box 817, Brattleboro, Vt. 05301.

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