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The Deans of Green

The Deans of Green

Who Do You Blame for Your Energy Lemon?

comments (51) August 27th, 2009 in Blogs
ChuckB ChuckB, senior editor

So I was talking to Tucker Windover, a carpenter who writes for this magazine, and he said that every new house should have a sticker on the front door, just like the ones they put on appliances, that tells you how much energy this model is going to save you. "This house is air-tight and insulated to R-45. It will cost an average of $XXX for heat, hot water and electricity." Here are a couple of reasons why I happen to think this is a great idea.

A month ago, I went to see an author who was trimming out a big new spec house in a suburb filled with big spec houses. I was surprised to see that they had stuffed fiberglass around the windows (instead of spray foam), so I asked about the rest of the house, which is on the market for somewhere between two and three million. According to the carpenter I spoke to, the builder didn't insulate beyond the bare minimum of R-19/R-30, didn't use rainscreen walls, and generally seemed to build as if it were still 1975.

A few days later, I happened to browse through Breaktime and noticed a thread that asked if Fine Homebuilding had "gone Green Crazy". A couple of the posters suggested that while it had its merits, "green" building was just a fad.

So what's the issue? Certainly the examples above aren't representative of all builders. But you know they're out there, probably more than we'd like to admit. When I see guys building houses like the spec house above, I wonder how many other builders are doing the same thing - putting up sub-standard housing for people who don't know better. Do they really think it's a fad? Is oil a fad, too?

But is it only the builders' fault? They only build what people will buy, right? Why doesn't the home-buying public demand a better house? How can they tell at a glance? They can't see through the walls, and if they could, they might not understand it anyway.

So let's make it easier for everyone. A big yellow sticker on the front door of a new house would force the builders to become competitive - they couldn't get away with building crap. Eventually, builders who ignored the energy crisis would end up like the last industry that ignored it - the auto industry. Except that this time, I hope the government doesn't bail them out.

For more information on energy efficient homebuilding, check out our roundup of more than 60 articles.

posted in: Blogs, business, energy efficiency, green building, insulation, hvac
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rjohannesburg rjohannesburg writes: I definitely don't think green home building is just a fad. I do feel like "going green" may be a fad, but I think it will stick in the home building arena. This is because it saves homeowners money. And no matter how little someone cares about the environment, they probably care about saving money. Which is why I think a sticker is a good idea. People forget to think about the long-term cost of a home (in bills and such), and they may buy cheaply, only to later find out that it is a money trap. I think everyone deserves to know what a home will really cost them, and the "sticker," with information provided by a HERS rater, is the easiest way to do it.
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Posted: 11:36 am on September 29th

DanBuilderResnet DanBuilderResnet writes: Having over 20 years experience building and both a BPI certification and HERS certification and as a member of the Green Building Council, I love this idea. This is a good idea for informing prospective new home buyers about the performance of the home they are about to purchase. My question is what about the homes out there that are already built? There needs to be a standard by which all homes are measured for energy efficiency. One way to accomplish this is by comparing BTU’s of usage per square foot. The way that this works is you can break down the amount of energy any given house uses by the square foot. This allows you to compare apples to apples with any size house just by comparing the BTU usage. It has been my experience that this is, in my opinion, the most equalizing method of comparison. I wish I could take credit for this idea but I cannot it was first introduced to me at my energy efficiency classes and makes very good sense to me.
If you think about it, is it the home builders fault that the houses we live in today are so inefficient? Is it the inspection process that is to blame? Do we need stiffer regulations to make every one conform? Or is it the home-owners who insisted on the least expensive home. I don’t believe that it is any one reason for the problem we have today, but rather we all have played a part in the inefficiency problems of today’s homes. It is not because of better technologies and techniques because they do exist. It is what we consider as important to us in a home that causes the rift. You know what I mean, the builder offered a free upgrade for custom cabinets or for only five hundred dollars more you could have R-39 in your attic. Which would you choose, probably the cabinets and so would most everyone else because who cares about insulation when you are talking about the home of your dreams.
The answer to this problem will take a collective effort on all parties. The home buyer has to be educated on what an efficient home is, and demand such homes. Home builders need to exceed current code requirements and follow up behind sub-contractors more carefully (police themselves; don’t expect the code official to do it!). The codes need to be stiffened to reflect higher efficiency standards, and codes enforced in full. All this leads us to the current way of doing construction as a whole needs to change, from the buyer to the end product.
A standard like BTU’S per square foot would help to establish a guideline for all parties to follow and would encourage healthy competition in the right direction. Imagine instead of the granite counter tops and hardwood floors being the topic of discussion at your neighborhood picnic, instead you discuss who has the lowest BTU’s/sq’ in your neighborhood. Probably not going to happen in anyone’s home but mine , but If you decide to purchase a house with a bad rating at least you have been informed, and can take action to improve your house immediately. Time and time again I meet homeowners that have no idea how their house is performing until we show up and test the house. Quite honestly neither did I before all this became important to me. The heart breaking part is I find major energy loss problems that have gone un-checked for decades, and the homeowners had no idea that they had these problems. Would it not make sense to test our houses at the time of purchase? I like how Alex Wilson sums it up in his article by comparing the current building industry to the failed auto industry. Are the American people ready to bail out the building industry? After all we continued to purchase cars that were inefficient even though the American car industry refused to change. Are we going to continue to purchase inefficient homes?

Posted: 10:42 am on September 15th

greenway greenway writes: As noted earlier, a home can get an Energy Star rating if the builder seeks it. It is a federal program, but it is optional, except for some municipalities that have adopted it because they want higher standards for their homes. The sticker is already with us, folks.

The "sticker" is simply a way to inform a buyer about some important aspects of a home. Surveys have shown that when consumers are informed of the value of building more efficiently (lower monthly utility bills, enhanced durability, increased comfort, better resale value, etc.), most choose to spend the extra $1000-2000 over a code-level house and get it back after just a few years via lower utility bills. Other surveys show people are starting to "get" what Fine Homebuilding, Sarah Susanka and others have been saying for years... better to build smaller and use the money saved to upgrade quality. As builders in my neck of the woods are saying, "If you ain't building green these days, you're working your way out of business." Me, I wouldn't build myself a code house... why would I try to dump that crap on somebody else and then have word get around?
Posted: 10:11 pm on August 31st

Joe_Bob Joe_Bob writes: Who to blame? I would say builders and home buyers equally.

The throwaway consumerist mindset affects housing choices just as much as any other product. Many builders who have tried to do the 'right' thing and build and sell quality housing that exceeds minimum standards have found themselves punished for their efforts in the marketplace.

In one case I'm familiar with from the late 90s, a builder was marketing 30 houses in a new development. Among several upgrade packages were two similarly priced: one for higher-end kitchen finishes and casework, one for higher r-values and higher-efficiency mechanicals. You can see where this is going...he sold about 12 kitchen packages and 0 energy efficiency packages.

On the flip side, I'll relate my take on a code seminar I went to last year. It was shortly after my state adopted the 2006 I-codes, and several of us (commercial architects) from the office thought it would be good to get an overview of the changes. We thought it was peculiar that the class was heavily attended by residential GC's, that is, until we got a little further into things.

Both the tone and content of the seminar were heavily weighted to the interests of high-volume residential builders. It was clear they were all there because they wanted to learn what the minimum code requirements were, because that is what they built to, and no more. They wanted to be damned sure they didn't spend money on anything that exceeded code.

I have always taken the approach that the code is the minimum. It is the lowest acceptable standard for safety and, less so, quality. 'Meets code' means you passed, not that you got an A+. Not that I ever had much interest in buying the sorts of houses high-volume spec builders produce to begin with, but after getting this particular insight into their mindset I certainly had my preconceptions reinforced.
Posted: 9:06 pm on August 31st

Master_Dave Master_Dave writes: The sticker concept is a good idea. But it is inevitable that someone will soon determine that the only people ACTUALLY qualified to apply the sticker must be LEED certified, licensed, bonded, monomaniacs from Texas who have served honorably in the military and are vegetarian. The "someone" I refer to will, no doubt, represent the "green" sticker industry and will eventually succeed in acquiring the sticker franchise because his Uncle Otto is high up in the Salt Lake mafia.

I built my first "passive solar" home 40 years ago. It faced south and had way too much glass. We didn't know any better back then. My neighbor has studied and studied and bought all the books and become a green building expert of late. He just built himself a custom home. It faces south and has far too much glass. Just turning a building south and putting far too much glass in it doesn't make it "green" or "solar." Both terms have been hijacked for money by businesses and industries. They are, in essence, meaningless. If the stuff all over your green building is PVC then it doesn't much matter that's it's green.

I just inspected a "green" subdivision in Charlottesville. The "green" roofs have dried up and died - completely dead, all of them - over the summer. It's a work in progress I guess. I'm sorry, what was the question? Oh, yeah, house stickers. It's a good idea; can I get to be a certified, licensed sticker-applicator before everybody else if I slip a few thousand to Uncle Otto, cause that's how it's done here in Dixie.
Posted: 8:31 pm on August 31st

sp83196 sp83196 writes: I can relate to this article. I am the proud owner of a lovely million plus "custom" home built by a builder who rarely showed up and was all talk on quality but couldn't follow through. We found out the HVAC contractor was trying to commit fraud by charging us for one system and putting in another (only because I made my husband check the serial numbers). I worked my rear end off for all of the details and finishes which I had to draw and spend time on-site w/the contractors to design even though I had already gone through it all w/my builder prior to deciding he needed to move on. I am not a builder but I have learned a tremendous amount and my subscription to Fine Homebuilding brought sooo many issues to my attention. Unfortunately when I would bring the issues to my builder or subs they looked at me as if I had two heads. They don't want their customers to know anything about the materials or energy efficiency of their house. It seems once they figure out their business formula for building, they are not interested in learning anything more. It's been a long and frustrating road and I have very little faith in so called "custom" builders. I helped the architect design this house so it is truly unique, but my builder got paid too much in advance and moved on to the next project. We held back money which he is now trying to get through litigation (good luck since I documented everything) and we forsee ongoing issues with the overall quality for which we justify holding money to have another contractor fix things. What a mess! Consumers really have no recourse and it needs to change. The next person to call that builder will never know what they are getting into. I checked references, but clearly this builder won't be listing me on his reference list. Ugh!
Posted: 5:49 pm on August 31st

energybuilder energybuilder writes: I am a 20 year custom builder that recently passed his HERS exam I am in favor of providing a sticker showing the energy preformance of a home. If someone wants to build to minimum codes, that is their right. I just don't want them to be able to represent to a buyer that because there house is new, it is as effecient as any other new home. If you compare 10 new homes of 3,000sf in the same climate you may get a variation of $2,000 a year or more in energy costs that should be factored into purchasing decisions. Builders are a traditional lot and don't like to be told there is a better way to build something. I myself look back at some beautiful new homes I've built over the years that contained many energy mistakes. It's time to swallow our pride and be willing to look at new ideas. In terms of the rating sticker, the software is a remarkably powerful predictor of costs. It looks at every factor of a home related to heat and cooling load including window sizes and direction, amount of shading, color of roof and siding, climate where a house is built, duct leakage, ducts in attic or conditioned space, as well as thousands of other variables affecting fuel use. Have your product tested, if it's not measuring up, educate yourself and your subs on new techniques to improve.
Posted: 3:48 pm on August 31st

RhinoSmith RhinoSmith writes: I find it odd that people that are reading "Fine Homebuilding" are condoning poor craftsmanship in home building in terms of energy efficiency. We as building professionals should strive to build the best that we can - skills and cost considered. It’s the difference between being a craftsman and being a run of the mill builder. IMHO energy efficiency isn’t a political BS game, it’s about the quality of the end product. By building inefficient homes, builders are needlessly costing buyers money every month for as long as that inferior building stands. It shouldn’t be just about profit, there should be a sense of pride when you finish a project - that it was done the best it could have within the scope of the project.

I don’t necessarily think that a required yellow sticker on the door is the answer, but I do think that full disclosure should be required for insulation levels, HVAC systems efficiency, plumbing fixture flow rates, as well as window and door ratings to all prospective buyers of new homes. If the homebuyer has this information, it is up to them to make the informed purchase decision of what is important to them.

I suppose that it is ultimately buyer beware. Most buyers are not builders and do not know what to look or look out for. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. In most cases, bigger is just bigger, and quality is quality – either you have it or you don’t. I can only hope that the pendulum will again swing toward the quality side of things and get away from the bigger/cheap consumer goods mentality.

Posted: 3:31 pm on August 31st

Evergreenlbh Evergreenlbh writes: We live in a passive solar, highly insulated house that we had designed and built in 1986. Our propane use is the least of anyone our propane company delivers to. The house is warm, bright, well built and comfortable to live in. It doesn't look like a solar house circa 1986.

We've had the house on the market for over a year. So far, not one potential buyer has shown any interest in how the house was built, how little energy it uses or that the insulation levels are higher than currently recommended for our area. This in an area of the Colorado foothills where we routinely get 90+ inches of snow a year and temps can get down to -30F at night. Buyers, and their realtors, only want slab granite and stainless steel.

Until buyers start demanding, or are even conscience of the need for, well built, highly insulated houses that take advantage of solar design, builders are going to continue building garbage.
Posted: 3:25 pm on August 31st

PRK569 PRK569 writes: mattedminster writes: alex wilson, have you ever actually built anything yourself ?????? your resume as writer, green advisor, ect

So what you are saying is to write an article like this you have to build something. What about the people buying these homes? I think a little common sense and some research has produced a good article. I have seen the residential housing industry first hand and walls get a framing inspection and rough mechanical inspections then hopefully someone insulates properly before the drywall crew covers it up, never to be seen again. The least expensive way to be energy efficient is insulation but only if it is done the correct way. Someone independent of the builder needs to get a close look before it is covered up and it should be tested after the drywall is up and the first coat of tape is on.
Posted: 2:41 pm on August 31st

Posted: 2:34 pm on August 31st

mattedminster mattedminster writes: alex wilson, have you ever actually built anything yourself ?????? your resume as writer, green advisor, ect would carry alot more weight with me if you had. spec builders like myself and the guy you are so quick to be critical of put our reputations and CASH on the line every time we do a project !!! Instead of blowing smoke, I would recommend that you do a spec project of your own, putting all of your great ideas to the test... then blog about how that goes for you !!!!
Posted: 2:03 pm on August 31st

tnrkitect tnrkitect writes: EnergyStar already has a new homes program with 3rd party independent verification.

Homes must be verified to be built 15% more efficient that required in the 2004 International Residential Building Code and include additional features to make them more energy efficient.

Like a lot of programs, this one is not well known.
Posted: 1:55 pm on August 31st

Shaken_not_Stirred Shaken_not_Stirred writes: I think we should nationalinze the building industry. If contractors don't build efficient houses and people don't want efficient houses, then the government is the only entity which knows best. Clearly they are the most efficient as well. Ok maybe not but regulation is just about as dumb. If you removed all mileage stickers from cars today, the first question people would ask the dealer about the car is "what is the MPG"? Why" Because costs have risen to a point where it matters to people. The same WILL be true at some point for housing as well. Of couse the Obama TAX and TAX and TAX greenhouse gas TAX, commonly and erroneously call CAP and TRADE, will triple heating costs (of course intellitually simple people will blame the power companies) and people will be heating cost hawks very fast, no regulation or stickers required.
Posted: 1:08 pm on August 31st

JustAbout JustAbout writes: Energy efficient home design must vary according to local conditions. Just as most of the energy efficiency labels as currently mandated are fiction, so would be a label designed by government for a house.

Rain incursion may be the largest water problem in New England. It is also a problem here on the Gulf Coast. Here, solar heat gain and humidity play havoc with energy efficient designs ideal for the Northeast coast. An ideal design in Missouri differs from these. Southern California has completely different problems to solve.

On the Gulf coast, 2-foot overhangs are great in some cases, but don't replace low-e2 windows and a properly vented roof with a radiant heat block coating. Heat exchangers for replacement air are designed to swap heat, when we need to swap water vapor. A number of "energy efficient" design features used up north of here actually cause early house failure due to rot.

Raising the evaporator temperature on central AC systems, a goverment encouraged energy saving plan of a few years ago, was a disaster here, causing a huge waste of energy as people struggled to make their homes comfortable. Matters were made even worse with improperly sized units in many homes.

I do applaud an increase of information for home buyers. I recommend that all new homes include a regular inspection plan during construction by an independent engineering firm, with the full report provided to the buyer, and a contact in the engineering firm that can discuss the report with mere mortals.

Ultimately, it is the buyer's responsibility to choose. And it is certainly the buyer's responsibility to maintain the completed house properly. And the buyer still has the freedom to determine what that means, thankfully.
Posted: 12:53 pm on August 31st

Shaken_not_Stirred Shaken_not_Stirred writes: I think we should nationalize all building. If the government built everything we know it would be done efficently and to our standards and liking. Ok, even regulation is not the answer. If they removed the stickers on new cars showing the gas mileage of new cars, teh first question a buyer would ask the dealter would be "what mileage does this car get"? Why? Becasue people NOW SEE that mileage makes a difference. How did this change in behavior come about? It happened becasue cost rose to a point of pain. The same will happen in the housing market. You don't need regulations to make it happen. And with Obama's TAX and TAX and TAX Greenhouse Gas TAX, commonly mislabled "Cap and Trade" cost of heat will triple soon. People will start asking about housing efficency. No regulation required. But if we really want to be sure, just nationalize building.
Posted: 12:05 pm on August 31st

OTP OTP writes: I have been on building side in the past and now I going to be on the buying side in the near future.

I will be building for the future instead of living in the past, and yes I will have to pay for what I want.
Energy Security

Who is to blame for getting want they want, when they want it, the customer and the person who sells it to them. The auto industry is the perfect example, if you ignore that your competitor is building a better product and fail to provide a marketable product, your company will be bankrupt.

For me Sterling sums it up perfectly, the customer is always right and deserve what they get.

"SterlingDevelop writes: Fellas,

Calls for government enforcement are a de facto subscription to socialism."
Yes why should I pay for things I don’t need or use like roads, schools, police, and government?

"You are in fact saying that the free market is incapable of determining what should be built, and that we need an agent of the government to mandate and enforce an arbitrary ideal."
Yes, why do we need a uniform building code?
A person should be able to sell what others are willing to buy. Regardless of the threat to national security, our money should go to drug lords and oil kingdoms.

"The free market is wonderful because it will provide what is really wanted with no other pressures."
Yes, I want what I want and when I want it regardless of the consequences.

"If the consumer wants an energy efficient house, he will specify that and pay for it."

"If he wants a cheap house that maybe isn't as efficient, God bless him. He should be free to do so."

"The customer is always right. It's a policy, not a reality."
Agreed, if the customer fails to educate themselves then they are to blame for what they get

And it's a good policy.

Posted: 11:59 am on August 31st

DaninDanville DaninDanville writes: Don't they have building codes?

As to usefullness, fully weatherizing and insulating all houses that use oil for heating would save more oil than we import from the middle east. Doesn't that sound like a good thing? for other fuels, efficiency means we don't have to find those fuels. Additionally, the money is saved for the life of the house, meaning huge savings.

Also, mortgage companies will give higher loans for well insulated houses - less payment to energy costs means more available for housing costs.

Saving energy through efficiency improvements is far cheaper in the long run (literally pennies on the dollar) than trying to mine the raw materials to produce it. The problem is the prospective house buyer has no input into this process beyond the price of the house. A builder has more incentive to put in fancy counter tops and inefficient furnace/hvac and insultaion than to spend money on efficiency, weatherizing and insulation because houses are marketed almost soley on fickle asthetics rather than function. It is primarily a marketing issue. Maybe to sell energy improvements you have to market the savings and what those savings can do for you in the long run (better loan availability, lower monthly energy payments, more comfortable house, etc).

Posted: 11:56 am on August 31st

otishale otishale writes: We are living in perilous times and anyone who is doing new work at all should probably consider themselves lucky. I would hope that good builders will be the ones to remain viable. Energy efficiency and good design are prime considerations in this era, because for most of us, money has to stretch much further. The spec building of cheaply built and poorly executed tract homes is finished. I would expect to see a lot more manufactured housing being offered for sale in the medium and low end market as is done in Europe simply because of the economy of scale and control over the building process. All it will take is good product and good marketing, and this is already in existence. There are lots and lots of bad builders out there who have imploded, and who will never be back because in the end, reputation is everything. When lending institutions find it less expensive to bulldoze unsold sub-divisions than it is to keep them for sale, it is easy to see even more radical changes to come. As builders, our world has changed forever. Those who cannot adapt to that world will become extinct, and rightly so.
Posted: 11:56 am on August 31st

fshanno fshanno writes: Stickers? Two new houses side by side. They look about the same but one is bigger. Each has a sticker. One would say, "This $300,000 little house is well built and efficient." The other would say say, "This $300,000 big house is poorly built and it is inefficient." Which house do you think Megan or Amber will want?

Posted: 11:52 am on August 31st

PTPiersonArch PTPiersonArch writes: The problem / fault lies with who is in charge. I do not know how it can rest with anyone else. The General Contractor is in charge of construcrion. The Owner is not, if there is an Architect they are not. The Owner hires a professional contractor to be in charge of constrution. Read their contracts. They, for the most part, do not want anyone else telling them what to do on their job site. From my understanding the AIA documnets are evolving in that direction also, based on Contractor input.
I am not saying that there is a problem because the GC is in charge only that, as they are incahrge they must except the responsibility and blame. There are some very good GD's out there, but in my experience they are in the minority.
After 30+ years of experience and doing most of my own field work I have my own ideas as to why some GC's have these problems. Being "Green" or making more rules is not going to solve it.

Posted: 11:39 am on August 31st

gjkleier gjkleier writes: Sounds like a good idea to me, as long as it is a reputable third party doing the rating. Why shouldn't the buyer have this information? We get it on cars, refrigerators and water heaters, why shouldn't we have it on the most expensive, and largest energy consuming item most consumers will ever buy? Make it completely voluntary and see how the market reacts.
Posted: 10:59 am on August 31st

nwilkens nwilkens writes: This is a great thread. I think the sticker is a great idea. Being a designer and having focused on energy-efficient homes for the past 4 years, I believe this approach would make it easier for the buyer to more easily identify with the level of greenness of their potential home. Designing any innovative and efficient home requires specialized knowledge and training.

To the person who says the buyer is always right...yes, and no. I only say no because we cannot expect a buyer or client to understand the myriad complexities of designing and building a new energy efficient home - let alone remodel one in the same way. I don't portend to know more than my doctor or attorney (although I can ask for second opinions). If a client wants a large west-facing 2-story window in a warm sunny climate, will I tell them that a standard insulated glazing system is good, and I do not expect my client to know this.

In a profession where a greater amount of technical knowledge is becoming more important, I feel strongly that educated, trained professionals (both architects, designers, and builders) have to be on the same field with their knowledge.

Clients come to us with either the explicit desire to have an efficient home or not...I think it is important for architects, designers, and builders to impart, at minimum, the best practices approach to sustainability into each project. Having a "yellow sticker" at the end of the day will more easily help every client realize in more tangible ways how they have invested their money, what the potential worth is - besides the beautiful house of their dreams ;-)

In the next 10 years when that house goes up for resale; being a drafty palace built according to 1970's (or even 90's) standards will probably not sell as well as the house with the easily recognizable "yellow sticker" with the high energy efficiency rating.
Posted: 10:28 am on August 31st

mosubu mosubu writes: I love the knee jerk reactions to government stepping in to enforce things that involve common sense. The building industry is ripe with poor construction, poor oversight and worse, builders and laborers that for the most part don't care about the quality of what they are building.

Who is to blame? Well, laborers are doing what they are told, whipped into a frenzy to get the current job done so the next one can move forward ASAP. The building industry is like the tower of babble. Everyone blames everyone else, and no one wants to listen and learn, never mind try and make it better. Next time you're at you're favorite end of the day watering hole marvel at the attitudes of tradesmen that scoff at and belittle their customers. Tragic.

Green building is not a fad, it is and will be a fact of life. Fortunately, those of us that don't realize this will be passed by and hopefully be taken out of the mix. Don't get me wrong, I work with and call as some of my best friends contractors and craftsmen. We are good people in a difficult industry doing a sometimes thankless job. But that does not release us from looking forward, or taking pride in building something that will LAST, that is energy efficient and when drive by it we don't have to look away in shame.

Historically industry is out for industry. Period. One only has to look slightly backward to see the disasters festered by unregulated industries. (Ummmmm, hello bank bailout, auto industry, air quality, water quality, workers safety....and on)

So if Joe Consumer wants to build a crappy inefficient house instead of saying "go ahead and god bless" maybe someone should take the time to talk to him. If responsible contractors did, there would be no need for the government to step in. I'm not holding my breath.
Posted: 10:26 am on August 31st

eastudio eastudio writes: I am an architectural designer, (taking ARE exam now). If it was my project, ,as a representative of my clients needs, I would take responsibility for my own specifications. Energy efficiency is just one part. Just to note, very often the design itself, (not bought products) probably can influence the energy efficiency of a house, more than anything. Creating large overhangs on the south side for example. ("a passive approach").
For the record government notoriously fixes one problem and inadvertently causing another. I would rather trust the local professionsals. They know best!
you can imagine how I feel about government taking care of my health let alone my home!
Posted: 10:07 am on August 31st

SterlingDevelop SterlingDevelop writes: Fellas,

Calls for government enforcement are a de facto subscription to socialism.

You are in fact saying that the free market is incapable of determining what should be built, and that we need an agent of the government to mandate and enforce an arbitrary ideal.

The free market is wonderful because it will provide what is really wanted with no other pressures.

If the consumer wants an energy efficient house, he will specify that and pay for it.

If he wants a cheap house that maybe isn't as efficient, God bless him. He should be free to do so.

The customer is always right. It's a policy, not a reality.
And it's a good policy.

Posted: 9:52 am on August 31st

greenway greenway writes: I think the "sticker" (in the form of a written report that is easily understood by homebuyers) is the right thing for the building industry to do. As earlier bloggers noted, it is already available in some municipalities. A HERS Rater visits the building site (usually twice, sometimes more) to document quality building features and test the home and its ducts to quantify air tightness. This determines whether or not a new home meets basic standards that are established by Energy Star. These homes are cheaper to live in, more durable, and healthier for occupants. "Buyer Beware" is just a "green light" for uninformed (at best) and/or unscrupulous (at worst) tradesmen to screw over a buyer that should not be expected to know the building trades well enough to avoid such treatment.
Posted: 9:33 am on August 31st

sjdehner sjdehner writes: Hi Charles,

I like the energy use decal idea quite a bit.

At the moment, my wife and I are in the (unexpected) process of selling our house in Maine. It is an energy-efficient, passive solar house (please see link):


The average cost of heating oil in our area is about $2200 per year (on a cheap year). Last year our house used about $500 worth of propane in conjunction with a passive-solar design and Icynene spray-foam insulation to keep the house at 70 degrees throughout the entire cold season. We also used a wood stove in the evenings.

So we are selling an energy-efficient house.

Of all the potential buyers that have come to the house only one has expressed ANY interest in the "green" features of the house. In Maine at least, an extremely oil-dependent place where one would think energy-efficiency would be of the utmost importance, it's basically a non-issue.

To hammer this home, we even had one agent tell us that "all new houses are this tight nowadays" when comparing our house to others in the area.

Our reply was: Are they?

Perhaps. But I seriously doubt it when I take a look at the walls going up around the area.

I suppose that the agent is doing me a favor by shedding some light on a huge problem, mainly that buyers believe banana-oil statements like "all new houses" are energy-efficient and then quickly move on to other issues.

A decal stating energy use would certainly eliminate this gross misconception.

I now think that buyers in general DO NOT care enough about energy efficiency to educate themselves in order to make a responsible house-buying decision.

We might think, let the buyer beware - after all they have to pay the fuel bill.

And that's true.

But everyone is effected by this sort of intellectual laziness whether it's the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere or the expansion of dependency on a distance limited resources, it's a shared problem.

When I hear the comments of people looking at a house for sale in 2009 what I learn is that "good looks, big and cheap" are the important issues.

A house SHOULD be beautiful! It should meet the needs of the people who are going to live in it. And it should be affordable. I think these are givens.

But a house is none of these things if it is not reasonably energy-efficient. I think this is also a given.

And that so many buyers think that "all new houses" are equally energy-efficient is a serious misunderstanding.

I'm all for posting some decals.

Posted: 8:59 am on August 31st

Charles_Shade Charles_Shade writes: As a home designer for the past 10 years and a believer in energy efficient homes I feel pretty confident in how to design and implement an energy efficient home.
Insulation R values are a valuable tool but are not the end all be all of keeping energy costs low. Even doubling the R values required by the code (especially with batt fiberglass) will not have a cumulative effect if air-sealing is not part of this system. Too many builders ignore sealing of the exterior envelope, as is indicated in the article above around windows, to make the most energy efficient building systems.
Good holes, i.e Windows, Doors, Walls tightness; is the best way to create an energy efficient home. $150 vinyl windows are not the way to achieve this regardless of their NFRC ratings. They will fail.
Testing of the system when implemented by a Builder who has decided to create an efficient home thru the use of quality windows, doors, air-sealing and HVAC is the only way to achieve any long term energy efficiency in a home.
Retrofitting old homes with "new" "energy efficient" windows is a band-aid at best and will be money thrown down a well for the most part. Education of the public may help but don't count on there being a critical mass of purchasers making the change to informed consequential home design and building.
The use of Green Building in the industry has become so abused that it is now for the most part feckless in determining whether or not a home is built well or efficient. And the illusion of payback over time can be demonstrated for some systems and product choices but these are few and often have too many variables to predict. One of the energy efficiency gurus that I have worked with over the years likes to point to a spot in the house and say "My house leaks right there!". He knows where he has controlled the movement of air in the house and knows that what he has put in place will work. There are far too few looking at this level of design or implementation. Don't fall into the trap.
Posted: 8:38 am on August 31st

rjparker rjparker writes: I would agree change is needed particularly in areas like Texas where anything goes and inspectors are often non-existent. Texas just eliminated the state run home builder administration system. Let the buyer beware is considered enough in many states.

Even well intentioned builders are often confused about "energy efficient" technologies that emerge with only advertising to inform. Negatives are only publicly acknowledged by a manufacturer when that supplier has found a solution to market. Realtors and developer salesmen are often the "experts" home buyers depend on for recommendations.

Bogus or marginally effective techniques and "innovations" such as methods to reject attic heat have never worked in the climates like the south but continue to be sold and marketed aggressively by the suppliers and trade magazines, often as "green".

I recently talked to one builder who was completing his own house with 1980's technology. Why? Partially due to cost but primarily because of fear that a new synthetic stucco, aluminum wiring, plastic piping, asbestos siding, mold, etc. will emerge "when more is known". The conservative custom builder was too busy trying to meet his schedule and budget to worry about sealed attics and geothermal heat pumps. Of course the home will be beautiful and he can and will sell it when utility and comfort concerns dictate. Ah the free market...
Posted: 7:43 am on August 31st

PortalGuy PortalGuy writes: Regardless, I am against further government regulation and interference. When purchasing a house, the house inspector should be on the buyer's side; but actually, the house inspector today is recommended by the estate agent, and his interest is actually in seeing the deal completed. The buyer should use an independent house inspector, found on one's own. One would need to make him aware that energy-efficiency is important. A $300 energy audit with a blower-door test should be de rigeur.

As first-time homebuyers, we did our research and nevertheless made lots of mistakes. That's how we learned the above. Our house is pretty new and nevertheless it leaks air like a sieve. It has lots of vapour barrier to trap & condense exiting moisture, though. The builder was clueless and cut corners, even though he did numerous politically correct 'green' things. Why builders obsess about trapping exiting moisture I shall never know. But they're human beings; turn them into government functionaries and they'll be even more careless and cut more corners.

Posted: 7:31 am on August 31st

mjan mjan writes: The last two houses I designed (one new, one a major addition) are the first times I was faced with meeting the USDE energy efficiency "code", REScheck. Both were in Lake County, Ohio, whose building code makes you (the designer or architect) fill out the computer program input fields and satisfy the "efficiency" requirements before you can get a buidling permit. Those requirements, plus enforcement by inspectors who care about it, will be the drivers that force both builders and designers/architects to deliver energy efficiency houses (just one aspect of being "green") to homebuyers and homeowners.
Posted: 7:27 am on August 31st

vpc2 vpc2 writes: Great blog, couldn't agree more. Homes should also be required to take advantage of free passive solar heat when available in cooler climates. We did and our energy bills here in cloudy MI are 1/5 of others and our south facing roof is ready for solar heat and elect. panels. Effects of global warming are already happening and will only get worse.

Contrary Cheney's comments, conservation is the most economical green technology by many orders of magnitude!

Lead, follow or get out of the way.
Posted: 12:47 pm on August 29th

Clewless1 Clewless1 writes: Who do I blame? I blame builders, building officials, homeowners, and architects. As Rob mentioned, there is a significant lack of enforcement. The primary reason there is usually a BO is so busy that his focus is more on life safety issues than energy/green.

In the mid 90’s in Washington State, special plans examiners and inspectors were required on commercial construction. They were certified. They were much like other special inspections (e.g. welding/steel). The BO required the plans examiner sign off prior to issuing the permit. And before final CO, the special inspector had to sign off.

Another barrier to enforcement is the knowledge of the BO in energy efficiency and the energy code. While they understand much of the principles, enforcing a detailed energy code requires knowledge just like enforcing structural codes.

Builders who spec or otherwise bid are under pressure to minimize cost and they tend to minimize where things can’t be seen (they better not botch that granite counter install).

Homeowners often direct design with emotion more than making sensible decisions. They tend to demand a house larger than they need. They demand that panoramic west view (damn the sun). They are struggling to get into a home for least cost (never mind the energy cost down the road) and may not realize that saving one or two hundred square feet will save a lot in construction (easily paying for some energy upgrades) not to mention energy down the road.

Designers/architects often have to bend to the whim of their clients (do you blame them?). But do they make suggestions for better design and construction? I think they often don’t (maybe for fear of turning their client off). They put R-21 in the walls and R-38 in the ceiling and use Low-e glass and call their design energy efficient.

Minimum code is not [relatively speaking] efficient. Codes make requirements out of common construction practices that are considered relatively economical using materials readily available in the marketplace. That is why the code is MINIMUM construction.

So if I build the ‘average’ house in Boulder Colorado (I understand it is in excess of 5,000 sqft!) to energy efficient standards, do I get to give myself and my family of 4 a gold star? While I much appreciate and respect the need to ‘be free to build what I want’, I think there is some degree of obligation to build only what I need.

Now that is a hard concept to really define. Who’s to say what one needs? As a general rule, though, I suspect the average family of 4 does not “need” a 5,000 sqft house. Maybe expensive houses should far exceed minimum energy standards; the owners can afford it.

Can we label houses with energy stickers? We aren’t talking about a refrigerator here which can be pulled off the shelf and relatively easily tested under what would be considered ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ conditions to give us an idea of how it would compare with the other model or brand. There are many many more things that affect energy use in a house. Energy efficient construction be an energy hog. It is the occupants that cause energy consumption.

I’m not saying there shouldn’t be an energy document placed permanently in the house. That is a simple idea and much better than doing nothing. It tells you what you have under the hood, so to speak. It’s a start. Maybe the document should provide an indicator that the house meets or exceeds minimum energy code.

It can get complex fast. Difficult to put a single number on it like on a refrigerator, but more information MAY not be understood by the homeowner. The intent to simplify and be informative can be a formidable task.

The trouble is … efficient house design is an entire package … not just wall insulation or an efficient furnace. It is windows chosen and placed carefully. It is good layout and arrangement of [appropriately sized] spaces that as a whole fit the site the house is placed on.

Posted: 10:48 am on August 29th

jackiew jackiew writes: a relative in the uk is just in the process of buying a home. now, even when you look at the real estate ads on line, you can see not only how the house is rated to perform but also what the rater's estimate is of how it could perform if various energy saving actions were taken.

Of course it is still buyer beware and buyers aren't obliged to take notice of the information but a sensible buyer when trying to choose between two houses should be taking the information into account.
Posted: 8:16 pm on August 28th

Mike_Guertin Mike_Guertin writes: Rob,

One answer to your question is that several city, county and state governments have initiated or proposed laws that (would) require some form of energy efficiency disclosure / audit of homes upon sale. There are different approaches. Home energy rating report by third party, energy use disclosure with different look-back periods, checklist disclosure of energy efficiency conditions of the home, prescriptive improvements that must be made and verified before sale transaction and others.

Many of these measures have only been put in place in the last few years and there's a growing list of government (local, state and federal) looking at disclosure requirements.

May be a good time to become a HERS rater.

Here are some examples I dug up; I'm sure there are more.

Enacted Requirements:
Austin, TX: Energy audit required of homes older than 10 years old.
Maine: Landlords must provide prospective tenants with energy efficiency disclosure on rental property.
Berkley and San Francisco, CA: Before resale or during remodel basic energy efficiency upgrades must be made. Proposal to require energy audits upon resale.
Montgomery County, MD: Requires sellers to provide buyers with home's energy bills. Originally required full energy audit but that aspect dropped due to enforcement/cost issues.

Proposal Stage:
Ontario Canada: Proposed bill requiring "home energy rating report" on homes before sale or lease.

Seattle, WA: Studying energy performance disclosure.
Denver, CO Studying energy performance disclosure.
Minnesota: Legislature considering residential energy disclosure.
Posted: 6:31 pm on August 28th

RYagid RYagid writes: Chuck,

The energy decal is a great idea, and I hope it won't be too long before we see them plastered on the doors of every newly constructed home. I just wrapped up an edit on Matthew Teague's article on green building certifications ―which is going to be published in the next issue. In that piece he touches on this subject. Apparently, The Energy Trust of Oregon and Earth Advantage (a regional green building program in the Northwest) have teamed up to begin assigning homes an Energy Performance Score. The label will list the home’s energy use, energy costs and carbon emissions, much in the same way that cars are assigned MPG ratings. This should help the consumer sort through the junk houses on the market. Does anyone have more information on this program or similar initiatives elsewhere in the country?
Posted: 9:53 am on August 28th

Mike_Guertin Mike_Guertin writes: Builders who work in municipalities that have adopted (and enforce) the 2006 IRC have to put an 'energy sticker' on the house. N1101.8 Certificate A permenant certificate shall be posted on or in the electrical distribution panel....."

The information required on the 'sticker' is R value of insulation in the ceiling/roof, walls, foundation, floor and ductwork; U factors and solar heat gain coef. for windows and doors; efficiency of heating and cooling systems.

Insulation levels and window and door efficiencies were bumped up.

As far as practices go - the IRC 2006 addresses them too. N1102.4 Air Leakage - fairly complete list of air sealing locations that must be treated with caulk, gasket or weatherstrips.

I think where things fell apart - and perhaps what you saw - is lack of enforcement. I'd say most builders aren't aware of the finer points of what's required by the building codes. And for the most part, they don't get thorough oversight from inspectors. To conduct a complete insulation and air sealing inspection would take an inspector at least 2 hours on an average house.

The 2009 IRC upped all the requirements again and a couple of the new provisions specifically address the inspection/enforcement side. Builders who have never heard of blower door or duct blaster tests will get a rude kick in the kiester when their local official asks for the 3rd party documentation before passing his visual inspection. Yup, performance testing is on the way.

I did a assessment of the 2009 IRC and compared it to the Energy Star Home requirements for my local HBA. The 2009 code is almost on par with Energy Star.

Regular FHB contributor and building official, Lynn Underwood, has been writing about the 'green' aspects of the 2009 IRC in the "Code Green" blog at GBA. Check it out:
Posted: 4:07 pm on August 27th

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