Credit: Stephen Voss
Dennis Creech is the executive director and co-founder of Southface in Atlanta and the Vision 2020 co-chair for Energy Efficiency + Building Science. He is also the 2013 recipient of the Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing.
While it’s clear we’ve made great strides in understanding and improving residential building performance over the past 20 years, most of our efforts have been directed toward new home construction. However, if our industry is going to meet critical performance goals for 2020 and get on track for the targets set out by the 2030 Challenge, then we have to seriously address the more than 130 million existing homes—most of which offer significant energy-saving opportunities.
The market for existing homes struggles to recognize and reward high efficiency because many of the measures are largely invisible to consumers. Most energy efficiency home labeling programs that are raising awareness in the new home market, such as Energy Star and the Home Energy Rating System, are not common in the existing home market. And appraisals for home resales don’t value energy efficiency upgrades—so neither do sales agents, lenders, and buyers.
We are also sending the wrong signals on how to make existing homes efficient. Most consumers and contractors take a piecemeal approach to improving the efficiency of existing homes—increase attic insulation, upgrade windows, or replace heating and cooling equipment. Also, many incentive programs from governments and utility companies reinforce this single-measure approach.
Instead, we need to steer the market toward a more holistic approach. Policy initiatives that link incentives to performance send the right market signal and should be a goal for 2020 and beyond.
Today there are successful programs scattered across the nation where a systems approach to improving existing home efficiency is transforming the market. The challenge is to bring these local success stories up to a national scale.
The good news is that the market is starting to want—and will increasingly demand—new thinking on how to increase the efficiency of existing homes.
Recognize the Profession
A good place to start this change in thinking is by creating federal energy efficiency incentives that are based on building performance to help homeowners overcome the first cost of deep energy retrofits. These incentives must be linked to performance that is verified by qualified professionals. Ideally, states and utilities will follow this federal lead on performance-based incentives for deep energy retrofits.
Part of this new thinking must also recognize that energy efficiency is a profession, much like carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), and that professionals should have credentials that show they have mastered both best practice strategies and essential skills.
Professional organizations such as the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), the Building Performance Institute (BPI), and Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) offer certification-based training that can help consumers and builders recognize residential energy-efficiency professionals. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is teaming with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council to certify weatherization training centers. The DOE has also developed workforce guidelines for home energy upgrades that define best practices for energy-efficiency improvements for all home types and climate regions.
By 2030, the market should demand that all professionals who provide energy-efficiency services be certified. To kick-start this critical goal, by 2020 all federally funded housing programs should require that energy-efficiency improvements be made by certified contractors. Our tax dollars are too valuable to spend on energy waste.
Size Equipment Appropriately
We also need a shift in energy-efficiency products and techniques for existing homes.
A good place to start is with HVAC equipment. Manufacturers need to provide equipment that is appropriate for each climate region, and contractors should be educated to size and specify the most appropriate technology for each project. No one size fits all: The air conditioner that is best suited for the dry heat of Tucson, Ariz., is not likely to be optimal for the heat and humidity of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and a controlled ventilation strategy suitable for Brattleboro, Vt., will be different than that needed in Bakersfield, Calif.
As we tighten building envelopes, increase the R-values of insulation and windows, and reduce duct losses, the size and type of HVAC equipment needed for existing homes will change. While most energy codes require proper sizing of equipment for new homes and major renovations, rarely is replacement HVAC equipment for an existing home sized—the old unit is assumed to be the right size regardless of any efficiency improvements that have been made. Requiring a sizing calculation to be provided to a homeowner whenever replacement equipment is installed can save money on both the purchase price and operating costs.
This sizing requirement could be part of a much bigger goal for 2020: All homes listed for resale should have a rating, score, or other estimate of energy use as well as a description of current and recommended energy-efficiency improvements. As communities realize that most of the money they spend on energy flows elsewhere, they will understand that public policy to encourage efficiency not only saves consumers money, but also improves the environment, creates local jobs, and spurs economic development.
Acknowledge Linkages and Opportunities
Since most communities face financial challenges when it comes to supplying water, they will recognize that saving energy saves water, and vice versa. By 2020, linking energy and water planning at the community and state level should be required—but today, unfortunately, it seldom is.
Everyone needs to recognize that the world is changing—literally. Climate change is directly impacting temperatures and indirectly affecting a wide range of variables, such as water resources, plants, and animals.
Already, builders in some colder climates are experiencing the effects firsthand. Historically, termites have been a problem in the South. Traditional materials and application techniques for foundation insulation create a hidden pathway for termites from the ground to above-grade wood. As a result, Southern builders often avoid insulating foundation systems. In doing so, they trade off the energy penalty for greater termite inspection visibility.
As our winters warm, colder climates will begin to see more termite infestations. As energy costs increase, Southern homes without foundation insulation will see higher bills. Because of this, the market needs readily available insulation materials and foundation designs that are both energy efficient and termite resistant, and can be retrofitted for existing homes as well as used in new home construction.
The market is also demanding more effective and affordable insulation materials and techniques that can air seal and insulate closed wall assemblies, regardless of exterior or interior finish materials, and which will not create moisture or indoor air quality problems. Hopefully, the same material for walls will serve to air seal and insulate crawlspace walls and roofs, and bringing the ductwork in these unconditioned areas inside the thermal envelope of existing homes will offer additional benefits.
To meet the goals of 2020, we will also need to bring innovative new products to market, such as heat pump water heaters and heat pump clothes dryers. These appliances use heat from the air and exhaust cool, dry air—a benefit for many regions. One promising application is to duct warm air from the attic to the laundry room or basement, where most homeowners put these appliances. This cools the attic while cutting the operating costs of the appliances and provides cool, dry air to the area around the appliance.
Most importantly, to meet our goals for 2020, and those for 2030, we need to change how we value energy. The price we pay for energy simply does not reflect its true costs. There are many externalities—such as emissions that endanger public health or even national security—that we all pay when an individual needlessly wastes energy. An important component to reaching our 2020 and 2030 goals will be to re-price energy. But increasing the efficiency of energy use in our entire housing stock, both new and existing homes, will go a long way towards alleviating the pressure put on society until then.