On January 13th 2005 Beth and I were in Orlando, Florida at the NAHB International Builders Show where we were honored to receive the first place award for "Best of Seniors Housing, Aging in Place Design, New Custom Home." A panel of 14 judges from across America compared the design and execution of the Popish Residence to other new custom homes and awarded us first place with the comments "This is a serious attempt to consider issues of accessibility and aging in place in the custom house market. This home provides luxurious single level living. This is proof that good design is not incompatible with creating a universal, aging-friendly environment."
The award dinner was a huge affair, kind of half political convention and half graduation ceremony as dozens of awards were passed out like diplomas. The IBS itself was already overwhelming enough for a couple of liberal country bumpkins like me and Beth. The throng included over 16,000 presenters and an audience of 100,000 builders, 95% of them conservative white males. The folks from the PATH Institute had built six houses in the parking lot and Builder Magazine had four off site, "The New American Home" 9,000 sq ft of excess and "The New Urban Challenge" a string of three row houses. By far the most exciting thing to us was that Sarah Susanka had a Not-So-Big show house in a nearby suburb with hourly shuttle buses and that she was speaking at the convention the following afternoon at 1:30.
So the next morning we resolved to skip the convention floor and head straight out to the Not-So-Big show house. The shuttle from the hotel dropped us at the main concourse bus stop, there were lots of buses to the Builder magazine houses and other off site events but none to the Not-So-Big show house. Consulting the program we walked to the Not-So-Big Information kiosk, It had been moved, no sign left as to its new location. A worker at a neighboring kiosk directed us to the new location; the kiosk was there but no people, no literature, and no indication of where to catch the bus. We reasoned that the folks at the Fine Homebuilding booth on the main floor might be able to help us since they are part of Taunton Press and they should know where to find their star author.
So we dove into the main convention hall past the go-go dancers promoting Kohler plumbing and all the raffles for free Harleys, and red Corvettes being promoted by bikini clad models in support of Abitibi siding. The folks at Fine Homebuilding directed us to the aerial walkway to the north convention center a half a mile away where the Not-So-Big shuttle would be leaving from the basement parking area. Somewhat dismayed and confused, we made the hike, found the shuttle and after a two hour odyssey were richly rewarded. The show house was great, and not at all crowded!!!! We basically had the place to ourselves, shot dozens of digital photos, listened to headsets that explained all the complicated features of the home, examined the wall cut-outs about the structural insulated panel construction, grilled the Square D reps about the most seamless computer/music/video interface I had ever seen. It was a shelter nerd's paradise but our adventure was not over...
We finished our tour at 11:30 and decided to head back to the convention center to hit Lutron up for a promised free lunch before Sarah's talk at 1:30. But the busses had stopped running and those of us who were lucky enough to have made it to the show house were now stranded there. Fortunately for us a catering company had been hired to serve an open bar, roast beef, and dark chocolate covered strawberry lunch extravaganza to a bus load of dignitaries who had not arrived. So they opened the spread to all comers. We felt guilty for a little while. That third beer was probably pushing it.
An hour later the bus finally arrived. We now had less than an hour to make it back to the convention center and Sarah was speaking at the South Concourse a half mile walk from the bus stop at the North Concourse. The entire bus load begged the driver to drop us at the south concourse so we wouldn't miss Sarah's talk but he told us that the officials at NAHB had banned his bus company from using that bus stop. He finally agreed to pull up to a stop light a block away from the concourse and let us all jump out of the bus while waiting for the light to change. It looked like a parachute jump, we all piled out and ran across the street and made it to the talk. But there was yet more weirdness in store...
The NAHB had vastly underestimated the number of people who would want to hear Sarah speak. She was booked into a double sized classroom when the number of people in line stretched down the hall and doubled back and around the corner. I don't know how many people were turned away at the door, it was standing room only and she gave a great talk and stayed around long afterwards meeting her fans and answering follow up questions. The next day we went to a class in a huge auditorium with 60 attendees.
At this point Beth and I were angry. We know that we rant all the time about American consumerism and energy sucking McMansions and I'm sure we've irritated our builder friends who build trophy houses for a living. But I was unprepared for what seemed like an institutionalized effort to undermine the Not-So-Big house movement by the officials of the NAHB. So, the next morning, when I ran into a Builder 20 friend who is a long time member of the board of directors of the NAHB, I stopped him and described how it appeared that the NAHB was trying to undermine the Not-So-Big show house and its message and he turned to me and flatly said "Maybe the Not-So-Big House is Not Such a Big Deal", spun on his heel, and walked away.
So now smoke is rolling out of my ears. I care about the environment. I believe that we have a moral obligation to build the best homes we can to provide quality housing at an affordable price to our customers. To me this IS a big deal. So when I got home I fired off an E-mail to my friend Chuck Miller at Fine Homebuilding and let him know that the effort and expense that had gone into the Not-So-Big show house had been systematically concealed from the convention goers by the NAHB authorities. Since he is friends with Sarah Susanka he forwarded the E-mail to her and next thing I knew I had an e-mail from Sarah Susanka, who now lives in Raleigh NC, saying that she would love to get together to talk some time and that she admires my work and has been in several homes I had built for mutual friends and would Beth and I come over to her office for coffee sometime soon. I am floored; this is my hero, who has put so much of my thinking into words, saying she admires my work. Beth and I floated over there one Friday afternoon and talked about how to deal with the rift between the McMansion builders and the Not-So-Big House builders and went on to talk about building science and construction details and tricks and techniques and which chocolate was the best and we drank lots of caffeinated coffee and walked in her beautiful garden.
So we won a prize, and traveled to Orlando for the International Builders Show, and discovered yet another seamy underside of the National Association of Home Builders. And we got to see the Not-So-Big Show House, and got to meet Sarah Susanka, and to hear that she admires our work, and that was the biggest prize of all. And now I'm working with the NAHB on their Green Building Initiative and my friends from the NC Sustainable Energy Association look at me as if I've sold out but I am here to tell you that guys like me who build three or four houses a year will never make a difference in our energy policy unless we can serve as leaders to move the whole construction industry in a resource efficient direction and the only way to do that is to get familiar with the guys who build 300 houses per year and help them to see that it is affordable and do-able to build more energy efficient products and to build Not-So-Big.