Household Power: How Much is Enough?

The language of high-performance can seem a bit strained when applied to the home. By comparison to commercial buildings—offices, stores, or factories—where productive work is the point, contemporary houses are mostly sites of consumption. The last century of household technological advance has largely been dedicated to “labor-saving” in the pursuit of comfort, for which the culminating invention is the color television, now a flat-screened entertainment center connected to ever more varied forms of “on-demand” entertainment. In the decades since the 5-day, 40-hour workweek became the standard, if not the norm, the time freed from work has gone almost entirely to watching screens in their different forms.[i] Houses have also grown larger, even as the average number of occupants per home has fallen and the number of screens per person has increased. We might even describe the high-performance house as the building that houses the most, biggest, or best televisions.[ii] Its performance metric would have to combine a minimization of work with a maximum capacity for leisurely consumption.

The opposite of this picture of domestic leisure derives from the promises of privacy, protection, and survival also expected of houses. Recognizing the house as a refuge provides quite different terms for performance based on security and self-sufficiency. Perhaps the highest-performance houses of this type are those of survivalists, who distrust the just-in-time food and utility networks of contemporary civilization and have selected very different kinds of homes. The real estate services dedicated to marketing “survival properties” include compelling listings such as “sustainable eco-villa” or “Earth Sheltered Alternative Energy Home On Five Acres.”[iii] As the survivalist stereotype would suggest, most of these houses are rural retreats, though some are more readily defended urban dwellings, made for example of brick. Survival houses come in every variety, from plywood shacks to farmhouses to units pre-fabricated from shipping containers, such as the All-Terrain-Cabin, the Ecopod, or the Quik House, ready for rapid deployment.[iv] Unlike the house of minimum work and maximum consumption, these houses are understood and purchased for their resource efficiency. Ads on SurvivalRealty.com emphasize on-site water supply, food and fuel storage, and renewable energy technologies. But make no mistake; these houses require real work, especially those that include farmable land. They have exchanged the contemporary promise of leisure time for autonomy and resilience.

This comparison may seem nothing more than a contrast between two radically opposed demographic groups, between houses for the status-seeking middle class and shelters for “doomers” and “preppers,” but the difference provides a useful insight into the performance of houses. It’s not that survivalists reject all comfort, or that “McMansions” aren’t marketed as refuges of security; it’s that these two groups use such different strategies toward similar ends, and those similarities point to a different subject for performance. Houses are extensions of messy human households that operate in demanding social networks. Both these kinds of households seek to enhance their wealth and security, but according to very different ideas about the future of contemporary social and technological arrangements. I have used the term household specifically to broaden the question about the performance of houses to include people, their assets (including houses), and their many activities. Shifting the question from houses to households identifies a more promising subject for understanding consumption, one that belongs as much to the occupants as to the specifics of building construction.

…excerpt from “Household Power,” in Design and Construction of High Performance Homes: Solar Technology, Innovative Materials and Integrated Practice, Franca Trubiano, Ed. (Routledge, 2011)


[i] S. de Grazia, Of Time, Work, and Leisure, New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1962.  J. P. Robinson and G. Godbey, Time for Life: The surprising ways Americans use their time, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

[ii] That definition isn’t as accurate as it was only a decade or two ago as screens have been introduced into numerous other settings—food courts, hospital rooms, and shoe stores—precisely to make them seem more home-like.

[iii] J. Edwards (2008) SurvivalRealty.com, Online, Available HTTP: <www.survivalrealty.com/> (accessed 30 January 2011).

[iv] Bark Design Collective (2009) All Terrain Cabin, Open Architecture Network, Online, Available HTTP: <http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/6400> (accessed 30 January 2011). A. Kalkin (2004) Quik House, Kalkin & Co., Online, Available HTTP: <http://www.quik-build.com/quikHouse/QH_main.htm> (accessed 30 January 2011).