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Green Live & Work

Sustainable homes now mainstream: know the differences

What exactly is the difference between a modular home, passive home and an Erdhaus? The new building methods are no long just for the west coast elite, sustainable design has gone mainstream.

Many new building techniques

The other day I was sitting in some continuing education with a great teacher, who shouted at us like a drill sergeant. He was a lovely man, indeed, and no- I am not being facetious. He kept me awake and I agreed and disagreed with him on a number of things, but one thing that he said freaked me the heck out. He said that the first sale that he made, umpteen decades ago was on a home out in the middle of nowhere that when his clients went to do their final move in inspection, they realized that there was a hitch on the home. What the hay?

Yeah, he had sold them a trailer on a lot and didn’t even know it. Apparently it had been bricked in on the bottom instead of having that sash we’re used to seeing on that sort of home and his client had opted not to have a home inspection, but uh, excuse me, sir, did you not notice the big attach me to the back of the pick-up and drive off with me hitch on the front of the supposed house?! Well, all this being said, his lesson was learned, and now he teaches it. Look all around the house to see if someone could drive off with it. It did get a giggle out of some folks, but I think my mouth was left agape for a few momentitos.

Why did I tell you about that interesting tid-bit in someone else’s glorious life? Well, it is because there are plenty of things that as Realtors we don’t always know about unless we have the knowledge, and knowledge is power. Can I get an Amen? Alrighty.

As construction science has shifted over the last several decades there are so many new ways of building coming into play and I think it would be great if everyone got a little crash course on what is what. No matter where we are be it the DC Metro area or Central Texas or Southern California, we may come across some of these new styles of construction and it would be nice to know what we’re talking about, so we don’t, like the instructor I referenced before, get a scathing call or email from a client wondering why we didn’t share with them that they are now living in what was once a shipping container.

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Modular homes–  Think of a modular home as a home that has been built in parts or sectioned out in a production facility and then put together on site. The foundation will be poured on site, and and then once all of the pieces are ready from teh factory, they are sealed to be protected from the elements and then shipped to the site to be built in a very efficient manner. Modular homes can be highly energy efficient and streamlined to be any shape or conform to any style. Check out the recent article from Tara Steele about the Ikea product launch. There are a going on with Modular homes and prefabricated panels these days which allows for homes to be built incredibly quickly.

Shipping containers-In a nut shell, shipping container homes are recycled freight containers which have been up-cycled to be used as shells for homes. Very popular in Europe, Australia and the west coast, Shipping container homes can be very energy efficient and make a great use of space when stacked- like building blocks. You will definitely know one when you see one.

Passive homes– The Passive House Institute states that “Passive Houses are affordable, comfortable homes that meet the most rigorous building energy standard in the world. Far more than a checklist of green building options, Passive House design is a state-of-the-art, systematic approach to super-efficient construction that reduces space heating and cooling loads by an amazing 90%…Passive House standard puts true carbon-neutrality within reach. Today. Ten thousand Passive Houses have already been built in Europe, but this approach to home building has only very recently gained traction here in the U.S.” This is a trend that we will see much more of in the future as LEED for homes gets more strenuous for some builders to achieve.

Old Barns– many folks are finding that the renovation of old barns is becoming more and more of an architectural delight that you would have ever imagined, taking the rustic shell of an old barn and creating a masterful home on the interior is rapidly growing as a trend here on the east coast. Old barns are already in place on farm land for the most part, but some people are picking them up and moving them across the country to get the aesthetic, which is a pretty hefty job.


Insulated Concrete Forms – ICFs built homes are built from super-strong light weight interlocking forms which have a very high energy efficiency rating. This is a product that you will only see when you are watching the construction process, so you won’t know if the home is built from ICFs unless the builder is oohing and ahing over it. Totally ask about the about the process!

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Earth Brick Construction– Erdhauses are homes built by the process of digging out the dirt under the where the building is going to be placed and creating bricks of this dirt and then building the home with it. This process has a very low impact on the environment, as you are actually using the product you are creating from the site. Cool, huh?! Yeah, I thought so. Similar to adobe, but not including hay in the mix, earth bricks are super- energy efficient and are more common in Europe but are springing up in the US.

Structural Insulated Panels– SIPs built homes are built with the SIPs material which is basically super-sturdy foam core between OSB. It is highly energy efficient and more water tight than other paneling system. It makes a better product than just regular OSB over framing. You probably won’t be able to tell if the home is built of SIPs panels, but if it is a new construction, don’t be afraid to ask about the construction technique.

Old school builders picking up new techniques

Yes, traditional style construction still exists (bricks’n’sticks construction as many construction aficionados like to call it), but many ‘old-school’ builders are taking on new construction science techniques in order to become more energy efficient and sustainable in their design and implementation. This is obviously not a complete list of the types of construction you may come across in your real estate adventures, but just being a bit more aware of your surroundings will be advantageous for you as the real estate expert.

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Written By

Genevieve Concannon is one of those multifaceted individuals who brings business savvy, creativity and conscientiousness to the table in real estate and social media.  Genevieve takes marketing and sustainability in a fresh direction- cultivating some fun and funky grass roots branding and marketing strategies that set her and Arbour Realtyapart from the masses. Always herself and ready to help others understand sustainability in building a home or a business, Genevieve brings a new way to look at marketing yourself in the world of real estate and green building- because she's lived it and breathed it and played in the sand piles with the big-boys.  If you weren't aware, Genevieve is a sustainability nerd, a ghost writer and the event hostess with the mostess in NoVa. 



  1. Andrew Kantor

    March 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Nice piece — you’s a goodly writer type. 😉

    (I didn’t want to be just another link on your ever-growing list o’ trackbacks.)

    • Genevieve

      March 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      Andrew, I appreciate this and I especially appreciate your write up on the VARbuzz. Thank you very much, fellow NoVa buddy!

  2. LandonSmith

    October 9, 2012 at 10:58 am

    It’s well written, and I would love to know where you get your information. My uncle is in construction and he pay through the nose for <a href=””>tubular services</a>. Do you have a cheaper solution?

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