Why Can't Every New Home Be a High Performance Home?

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All new homes could be high performance homes.

A recent discussion on LinkedIn got me thinking about this question again. If you've spent any time here in the Energy Vanguard blog, you know that one of the things I do a lot is point out bad HVAC design, poor construction practices, building envelopes that don't control the flow of heat and moisture, and more.

But why does this stuff happen so much in the first place? Well, OK, I know why it happens. Among the reasons are:

  • Home builders often don't have to pay to fix the home performance problems they leave behind.
  • Many builders, architects, and trade contractors don't understand building science.*
  • Builders are looking for trade contractors who give them the lowest bid.
  • Building codes are improving but don't get enforced uniformly, and the energy codes are enforced least of all.
  • Some in the construction industry think of energy codes, green building and energy efficiency programs, and building science as a mamby-pamby, enviro-weenie, left-wing, hippie conspiracy, with Al Gore leading the charge.

I know a lot has improved, especially over the past couple of decades. Voluntary programs like ENERGY STAR for new homes and more stringent energy codes are pushing builders in the right direction. Also, I see a trend of getting building science into the community and technical colleges, which will help.

But what are we missing? What could we be doing that we're not doing yet? Or what could we do more of or do differently? I know there's not a whole lot of construction happening now, compared to 3 or 4 years ago, but with the economic malaise caused by greed in the financial industry, peak oil starting to hit, and a changing climate, the problems are urgent.

It's time for some divergent thinking! I'm not here to give you answers today. This post is an appeal for your thoughts. Every new building that costs the owners down the road when they have to fix it and every new home that doesn't maximize its efficiency and performance is a burden on all of us. What do you think we can do to create a paradigm shift in the construction industry?

 

*Yes, some home builders, architects, and trade contractors do understand building science, and if you're reading this, I imagine you're one of them. Based on the kinds of problems I've found in new homes, though, the application of good building science principles to home building seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Comments

bob

A simple solution would be to limit the size of HVAC equipment per sq ft depending on city. If builders were only allowed 1 ton per 1,000 sq ft they would have to build better. By allowing builders to install oversized HVAC systems they have little incentive to build it right. 

Allison Bailes

Bob: I'm with you 100% on that one. I'm tired of having to look over Manual J reports done wrong, and this seems like such an easy solution. Let's use a rule of thumb and make it high enough that the builder has to get the envelope right. 
 
I think the bigger point you're making here is that we could do some things to make the process simpler. Give the builder an HVAC budget, and then it's his responsibility to meet it.

Paul McGovern

I was at a gathering of a large number of NAHB Builders and HVAC system sizing was brought up. To a man, not one of the Builders was interested in the details of sizing, but preferred to leave it up to their HVAC contractor. Considering that the HVAC system is definitely the single most important building/envelope component as it affects moisture control, IAQ, comfort, health, building integrity and longevity,how can a Builder just pass the buck and allow a subcontractor , whose income increases with increased capacity, to decide such an important issue?  
 
Blows my mind! 
 
If you don't understand and appreciate Building Science, you have no business building.

Christopher Cadwell

Gord Cook who gave a fantastic closing presentation at a conference for builders and efficiency just recently summed up his idea of the solution. 
 
His idea was that builders and subcontractors by survey, only spend about 8 hours a year training the workforce and management on energy efficient building practices. That number would need to go up to 32 hours per year. The sales folks would need about double that. 
 
The costs of building a better home are a small percentage of the overall cost. We know the value. Once the sales force can communicate and sell that value the homes will get sold.  
 
My prediction is that there will soon be a shift where the market will convert to buying the better home, and this will leave the other builders who have not adopted reeling. They will then be in a hurry to catch up. 
 
This is already happening in Las Vegas. There is a builder here selling HERS 40-60 homes for the same price as the "typical" and I am seeing the other builders quickly adapting to compete.  
 
Note: They still dont do the AC right, and are doing improvements that are in my opinion not as cost effective as they could be. But that is part of the 32 hours a week in continuing education that they are missing and desperately need. 
 
This is my area of divergent thinking that I have been working on for over a year: How to get the work force trained in a non obtrusive and effortless manner? How do I get the wrench turners trained, and not just the one bright guy of the bunch (but who really has no power to change the operations)? How do we sneak in the training to the wrench turners, while the "management doesn't notice" the missed 32 hours out of the work year? Almost there. Highly divergent in methodology. It will never replace on site training or certification. It will butter up the industry for this in a big way.

Paul

Alison, I would not be in favor of a dollar budget. It will remove the incentive for higher performing systems.

graham

I think it's pretty arrogant to assume that "builders...don't understand building science." 
 
 
 
If I were a builder in today's market, I'd sure as heck show plans to my client that would save them money on their cost of energy. As Christopher said, not doing so will leave them behind. 
 
 
 
This is a great example of the market driving consumers to be more environmentally sustainable, with out the big hand of government forcing new unattainable and unaffordable regulations on an already weak industry. 
 
 
 

Allison Bailes

Paul M.: Yes, that's definitely a big part of the problem. 
 
Chris C.: I agree! Training and continuing education for the guys in the field is huge. 
 
Paul: The budget I was talking about in my response to Bob wasn't a monetary budget. Sorry about that. I meant that the builder should have a budget of how many tons of air conditioning capacity they're allowed for a given location. In Atlanta, it might be 1 ton for every 1200 square feet. In Orlando, maybe a ton for every 1000 square feet. I don't know what the number should be for each location, but I think we could come up with such numbers without a lot of difficulty.

Allison Bailes

Graham: I certainly didn't mean that there aren't good builders out there, even some who understand building science. Based on the houses I've seen out there, though. I stand by my comment: Builders, architects, and trade contractors often don't understand building science. And I totally agree that the market is pushing builders, architects, and trade contractors in this direction already.

graham

Thanks for the clarification Allison...however I still think that it is pretty arrogant to assume that if you were to send your hyperlink of the definition of "building science" to builders, architects and trade contractors, that they often would not know those core fundamentals. 
 
Every builder builds to their clients specs, every achitect designs to their clients desires, ever trade contractor performs according to their clients needs. 
 
If you want to differentiate yourself from the "others", then recommend a more energy efficient way to build a home, recommend a more energy efficient design, recommend more energy efficient marterials. 
 
Clearly this shift to energy efficiency is already happening, as you have suggested. Companies are doing so for cost, advertizing and environmental reasons; home owners are doing so for the same reasons. I don't think new regulations are necessary to force the issue. 
 
As for myself, I just bought a new 3 ton unit for a 1400 sq ft home. It's what I needed there. Without serious rennovations, my house in Florida wouldn't cool with a 1 ton unit. If I were forced by law to only be able to use a 1 ton unit, it would never turn off and I would lose a pile of money. Also, knowing that this isn't going to be the home I am going to spend the rest of my life in, who would want to buy a home that doesn't cool off in Florida and why should I then have to spend an unnessary amount of money to retrofit my home for resale?

Elizabeth Guinn

I am a builder and we are also HERS/BPI certified. I know good construction and I believe I can be pretty persuasive, but the majority of clients still want whoever is cheapest, especially now. I just did an audit and was unable to even pressurize the duct work. Huge leaks. I explained that if you hire just anyone to do the work and do not test behind them, there is no telling what kind of quality you will get. I gave him a price to fix the problem. He proceeded to hire a guy who would do it for a third of my cost with no testing. Another off the shelf contractor, with no assurance of the quality of the work. All that mattered was the cost. This can't be blamed on builders or codes. You have to give people what they want. Right now, what they want is cheap irregardless of what it will cost them down the line.

Mike Salisbury

As a builder, I agree wholeheartedly with Elizabeth Guinn. We build what the market demands. I've built Earthcraft (pre-EnergyStar)houses alongside another builder with no certification and had his sell out quicker eveytime. There is a huge disconnect between theory, application and consumer demand on this topic. Consumer demand is what I must build to in order to stay in business.

Allison Bailes

Graham: Let's move on from the question of whether I'm arrogant or not and focus on the question at hand: How can we make sure all new homes are high performance homes? You've hit on an important issue, though, and that is that builders, designers, and trade contractors do what the client wants. So, how do we change the process so that clients have no choice but to demand high performance? First of all, they need to see that high performance doesn't cost more. How do we do that? How do we change their first cost/total cost view? How do we change things so that it's in builders' best interest to do things right from the start? So many questions! 
 
Elizabeth G.: That's a huge issue. So how do we change the dynamics? What can we do so that when clients, with this same motivation to reduce their expenses, make better choices? How can builders change what they do to help the clients get what they want while also doing things right? Let's try to get out of the either/or thinking and find ways to make this work.

Allison Bailes

Mike S.: I totally get that. Any business that ignores their customers will be a business that doesn't last long. I'm not criticizing you for that at all. I wish I had the answer to help you sell your homes quicker and for more money every time, but we all know that price is a big motivator. So how do we overcome that as a barrier? Is there a way we can build high performance homes that have all the amenities of the house next door but that don't cost more? Do we need to focus on educating the clients? Is financing the answer? We clearly have a "huge disconnect between theory, application and consumer demand," as you say. What can we do to make the connection?

Christopher Cadwell

I for one can install a right sized AC system with 2% leakage - for the same or less cost!  
 
I have multiple case studies with actual utility results, and customers who rave about the comfort difference from what they are used to. These customers dont mind paying only 50% for heating and cooling with a big comfort increase. And if you were wondering there wasn't any other improvements involved, like fancy windows or even R50 attic insulation. It is not magic. It is actual science - the study of ... 
 
I can actually guarantee cooling costs by $ amount, and guarantee parts and labor on those installs for 10 years. Now what builder would not want to offer that, at the same price as what they are already paying. 
 
It is a matter of connecting the dots between builders and what works (i.e. science), cost wise and savings wise.

Phillip Richardson

My thought is to have our governing organizations, RESNET, BPI, ENERGY STAR, etc., start implementing programs for existing homes. Educate the public on what can be done to existing homes to save energy and show the extremely high cost and troubles to fix items that would have had minimal cost during construction. Most people building homes now, live in an existing home. Show them the reasons for changing how we build new homes, change the market.

graham

I agree that with education a lot of these questions will be answered, but it should not fall on the government to do the educating. Education is not their responsibility, especially when it comes to the energy efficiency of personal property. 
 
If I were a builder, I'd advertise my companies capabilities. I'd be the one doing the educating to promote my company. 
 
Don't take the ability to educate away from the builders, don't take away their ability to differentiate their companies skillset from their competition. 
 
I think that we are seeing a real consumer driven market here,one that is demanding more sustainable housing. Every home will not change overnight, but I can guarantee you in the next decade, due to large consumer demands, everything will be a lot different.

Peter Troast

How about a warning, in the style of cigarette packs: 
 
WARNING: This house may be expensive to operate, unhealthy to live in, a burden on society and potentially unsellable.

Christopher Cadwell

I think the blog post calls out for "Divergent Thinking." 
 
Example: This year I dropped all of my sponsored incentive programs, and decided to battle it out in the competitive market. That is to say I would install high performance HVAC systems for the same or less than my competition. I figured it out. Not only did I save on a bunch of paperwork, I know how to beat the competition with value. 
 
Opinion: Sometimes government help and incentives can muddy the water and distract us from the true nature of the goals we really need to focus on. 
 
Divergent Thought: It is a highly competitive market. Figure out how to install performance for the same costs, like I have done. If that means the entire entourage takes a pay cut, then so be it. But look at it as an "investment" that will pay dividends in the future. Like I have done. I now have a great bit of certainty, that I can dominate my market, where I can get in front of willing customers.  
 
Divergent Thought: Incentives and regulations are just sales tools to justify to the homeowners logic. I offer incentives, but often do not even turn them in because the paperwork is not worth it to me. I just discount it to the homeowner, and then can turn in the incentive to get paid back if I feel like it. If it helps my volume then that is its purpose. I do not need the "government help." To me it has proven to be a failure, where it does not become the contractors main stream of income. But that is just a failure in the making, once that "help" goes away. Wanting more incentives and more regulation is not divergent, has already been done, and does not work to focus our intentions on what really needs to be done to solve the problem. But those are still just my opinions. I can only do my part to help the industry based on how I see it.

Allison Bailes

Chris C.: That's the kind of thing I'm talking about: Getting higher performance for the same or less cost, figuring out how to do it without government or utility incentives... All this gives the clients the lower cost they want and the high performance they deserve. 
 
Phillip R.: I definitely believe there's a role for organizations like RESNET and BPI as well as government programs like ENERGY STAR. But achieving the delicate balance of just enough incentives and intervention is the question. 
 
Graham: I agree that government intervention can screw things up and also that the market is already going in this direction. And yes, companies that work in construction should be free to distinguish themselves and educate their clients. Definitely.  
 
Peter: That's a good one! I've definitely been in a few that deserve that warning label.

graham

Peter, that was funny. 
 
 
 
Christopher, right on. If you don't mind me asking, how is your bottom line?

Lisa

I'm very impressed at the level of thoughtful comments you always inspire, Dr. Bailes.

Allison Bailes

Peter: I knew I'd seen that before but couldn't remember where. Thanks for providing the link here. 
 
Lisa: Thank you, Lisa. We've got enough smart people in the world that we ought to be able to figure these things out, it seems, so I'm just trying to find out what others are thinking.

David Butler

There's a different dimension to this problem, alluded to by Chris when he reports how he can show builders how to build better without increasing the cost. Amen, brother. 
 
In my experience, most builders are already on board with building more efficiently -- at least in concept, although not often in practice. They're responding to a growing market segment, as has been demonstrated over and over by higher closing rates for Energy Star communities. 
 
The problem is there's soo much information out there on how to achieve high performance, perhaps too much. And much of it is marketing driven, or simply misinformed. The sad fact is, builders tend to self-educate about new trends through trade rags, distributors and subcontractors. However, these are the worst sources, since building green has become more about the color of money. 
 
I've had good success showing builders how to pull money out of projects that were ostensibly designed to be high performance. It's like shooting fish in a barrel. 
 
The fact is, achieving high performance is more about design, process and QA than necessarily about the type of insulation or HVAC SEER rating. And then there's homeowner education. That's an oft-overlooked aspect to achieving high performance. 
 
Changing construction processes and adding QA does involve some cost (and some pain), but it's mostly about the learning curve with small incremental costs in the long run. If you get the basics right, all those expensive upgrades the marketplace tells us we need to be green begin to show their true color.

mike eliason

what in the world is wrong with utilizing government and utility incentives?!? 
 
this is done very successfully in europe. it also helps to have banks which offer better mortgages ultra-efficiency programs like Minergie and Passivhaus AND a culture where people are likely to own/reside in their house for over 40 years.

Allison Bailes

David B.: Brilliant, as usual. Your statement about design, process, & QA is spot on: "The fact is, achieving high performance is more about design, process and QA than necessarily about the type of insulation or HVAC SEER rating." Carl Seville (aka the Green Curmudgeon) said the same thing in a different way in his article, I’m Beginning to Really Hate Eco-Bling
 
Mike E.: If the government implements incentive programs well, they're great. They can help transform and create markets. If not, they can screw things up. Case in point: HVAC incentives mostly focus on the efficiency of the equipment and not on the distribution system. Also, a business or industry should be able to stand on its own without a lot of government aid.

geoff hartman

A couple of comments are right on, especially the one about a disconnect between building science application, and consumer's perception of value. We brag about saving a dollar by shoping at Walmart, then don't see the irony in a $500 electric bill.  
 
 
 
Instead of "cost" these are investments in our health, safety, comfort and financial well being. 
 
 
 
I just started working with a client today that is doing a great job in planning for completion of a very efficient home. However, his mechanical proposals - all 6 - fail to even consider the efficency of the building, or the fact that you can't put natural draft furnace or waterheaters in a sealed spray foam house. Why, the quotes make no allowabce for location of equipment, or construction style that may significantly limit installation accessability. And, the prices they are quoting for twice the required capacities, is extremely high. To make things worse, they refuse to even look at the home or construction details until they are ready to install.  
 
 
 
This is going to be a fun adventure!! I expect that we can save this family at least $5-$10K, improve the home performance significantly, and reduce utility bills for the life of the home.

Allison Bailes

Geoff H.: HVAC contractors can be difficult to work with in high performance homes. There are some great ones out there, but unfortunately not enough. How are you planning to save them $5-10k?

bob

HVAC size "budgets" should be based on age/size of home and location. Older homes would be allowed more tons per sq ft. New construction should be held to much higher standards since they have the opportunity to get it right during construction. 
 
This also will eliminate "wasteful floor plans" in new construction. No more 100sq ft untinted west windows, solar orientation would have to be considered.  
 

Dale Sherman

Great thread, Allison. I didn't see any mention of Home Star or HES. Considering a home is the biggest appliance anyone will ever buy, why shouldn't we have volunteer participation in rating homes that come on the market? A lot of folks pay attention to the yellow label on appliances before they buy, but never house-hunt by the energy signature of a home.  
 
The Realtor lobby has played a role in the past in blocking house ratings under the guise it'll hurt sales. But I won't buy another house unless it is labeled with an energy rating. 
 
Educating clients and realtors is part of the solution. Nurturing an environment for promoting home ratings without mandating such is equally important. If homeowners and realtors demand ratings and efficiency, builders will be all over it, educate themselves, rise to the occasion, or be out of business. 
 
Utility companies and tax roles only need to combine with other fuel data to create an Energy Factor database. This could provide homeowners with an energy signature comparison to other homes in the area without revealing an individual's energy consumption. It could also play a role in the standardized rating of a home going on the market. 
 
Banks used to give lower interest rates for high efficiency homes. There isn't much incentive for that now, but builders whose homes can capture lower mortgage rates would be a sales promoter.

Harris - Finish Werks

LET UTILITY COMPANIES UNDERWRITE MORTGAGES. You asked for a paradigm shift, you got it. 
 
Instead of dancing around the edges (which is getting us nowhere fast), let's look at the prevailing political winds - Greed Is Good - and go All In. 
 
I'm no fan of capitalistic BS running our political discourse right now, but to be green sometimes you have to play the hand you're dealt. We are where we are right now. 
 
If energy efficiency costs money, and banks lend that money, and the system in place now (mortgage lending) won't recognize it, then let the sons of bitches that take our money to power our homes also lend money to build them. Let them be the gatekeepers of the supposed risk of financing said energy efficiency. 
 
Why? 
 
Because publicly traded utility companies make money when they don't have to build more power plants. The best way to eliminate the specter of building another BILLION$ powerplant is to reduce demand on the production you've got. It's no different from a restaurant that needs to fill its tables before opening another restaurant... maximize the revenue from the investment you already carry. 
 
THE CONFLICT 
 
Utility companies don't know how to react because banks won't lend money for energy efficiency in the construction industry, builders won't ask for it because they believe their customers won't pay for it, and government is inept at enacting change. 
 
I’m preaching to choir here. 
 
Given the prevailing political/economic winds, and the fact that the system is driven by pure self-serving, why not drive the system to account for its own greed? Let the utility companies underwrite energy efficiency mortgages! 
 
The energy efficient mortgages out of Freddie and Fannie are a joke. Nobody gives a damn. 
 
Furthermore, ask any appraiser or loan officer if they even exist. We've already allowed banks to become investment houses, and insurances companies to become banks, and (fill in the blanks of Wall Street de-reg here). The power industry is not much different from Enron of old - it's about the Dollar. 
 
So, if energy efficiency costs too much, but utility companies are willing to pay for efficiency to protect their share holders from a huge capital expenditure (new plant), why not let them control the purse strings of financing green construction AND realize a potential new revenue stream? 
 
Or am I being completely naïve about the way Banking in America works? Should I even bother dreaming of the day that somebody besides Wall Street controls lending? 
 
Unfortunately, capitalism only works when accountability works. We don’t have a lot of accountability, er…, ethics/integrity/morals in the marketplace right now, for certain. However, utility companies have a natural horse in this race. It’s like giving your teenage son the keys to the sports car – tell him he has to pay for gas and tires and he may be dissuaded from emulating John Force-style burnouts before a top fuel drag race. Energy providers stand to eliminate risk and therefore make money. 
 
Give them a potential revenue stream – let them underwrite the financing of energy efficiency costs – and they will find a way to make the building fit the energy that powers it.

Bob

Harris, you make a valid point about utility companies not wanting to build additional power plants. In our area they have installed "smart meters" to reward customers for moving their power consumption to off peak times. Currently it's optional, but I see it becoming the standard way to bill as smart meters become more common. Reducing PEAK usage is key to profitability for utility companies.

Dave Eakin

I have 2 suggestions: 
1. A mandatory nation-wide standard building code for energy (a la Energy Star for New Homes). Too much is left to go wrong with each small municipality deciding what the current building standards should be. Uniform in design, uniform in inspection, uniform in performance. 
2. Enforce the "design lifetime" of residences. If a 50-year old design is now 51-years old, demolish it. If it is 48-years old, the new buyers will know up front that they can only live in it for another 2 years. If it did not have a design lifetime - demolish it now and get a cash settlement from the government (same as if they took a property by right of eminent domain for a new public works project). China got a lot of adverse press when they demolished/rebuilt whole communities in preparation for the upcoming Olympics but I wonder if that may not have been the best move after all.