Dennis Creech is co-chair of Energy Efficiency + Building Science for ECOHOME's Vision 2020 initiative. As executive director of the Southface Energy Institute
in Atlanta, he works with builders, developers, government agencies, and local leaders to promote sustainable homes, workplaces, and communities through education, research, advocacy, and technical assistance. He also helps oversee EarthCraft, a green building certification partnership between Southface and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association that has certified more than 25,000 projects throughout the Southeast.
Southface also partners with Building America, a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored national research program, to develop cost-effective strategies for high-quality, energy-efficient residential buildings. Southface’s ongoing analysis and review of project performance helps determine how well new technologies and products work in the real world.
How does your organization research sustainability projects?
We believe that sustainability initiatives focused on the built environment are an important key to addressing global climate change. All of our research is linked to specific projects. We’re an independent non-profit and not affiliated with anyone, but we partner with everyone. Much of our research is with the Building America program. We also do training. A major focus of our educational programs is to build a credentialed workforce for energy efficiency.
What projects are you working on for 2013?
We have several. In one of them, our heat-pump water-heater project, we’re looking to cut [small home] energy costs in half by putting the units in small houses and ducting them into an attic—you get the heat for hot water and then vent cool, dry air into the attic. This is still in the conceptual stage. Every technology has its pluses and minuses.
How do your research projects become sustainable programs?
That’s one of the great strengths of Southface and our partnership with Building America. We are not ivory towers. We’ve got mud on our boots; we’re in the field working with builders. You could call it applied research, figuring out these very real challenges—like how big does a duct have to be, and what do you have to use to cover insulation, that kind of stuff. And because we are an education organization as well as a research group, this information feeds directly into our training materials—last year we trained about 4,500 design and building professionals.
Do you work with code bodies to move this research into the building codes?
We work with IECC [the International Energy Conservation Code], and at the national level, [but] most of our work is at the state level. What most states do is adopt the IECC and then do amendments—some states will only adopt the cover of IECC and add so many amendments you don’t know what you’re getting. That’s where we try to focus our work, at the critical interface between the design and construction community and the code. For example, here in Georgia we adopted the 2009 IECC, and while most states add amendments that weaken the code, we clarified and strengthened the code.
As a general rule, homebuilder associations are not supportive of codes (because new codes tend to increase building costs). We would argue that that’s shortsighted; energy codes lower the cost of homeownership. You add a little bit of cost to construction, but I’d rather pay $50 a month more on my mortgage and save $100 in utility bills.
What other issues are you focusing on?
There’s been a huge change in single-family [home construction] in the last few years—over 40 percent of new homes are now getting HERS ratings. Builders are using these energy ratings as a kind of "miles-per-gallon" index and marketing that, which is good and bad—it’s good that they’re doing it, but it means builders are moving away from Energy Star. Some markets were having difficulty meeting requirements of Energy Star version three, so builders decided that rather than use it as the "brand" for energy efficiency they’re marketing their HERS scores. Our friends at Energy Star may take exception to this, but this is the story. Will Energy Star be able to regain their market share—or will HERS become the new standard? We’re right in the middle of all of this.
Energy Star adopted standards that raised the bar higher than what some builders were comfortable accepting, but the new energy codes are raising the bar closer to Energy Star, so I think this is as much a timing issue. I think the codes are going to narrow the gap and builders will go back to Energy Star. We train people on the HERS index, we train them on Energy Star, we train on half a dozen green building programs, and on building codes. We try to be agnostic. We try to be an honest broker and let people decide what’s right for them.
How is your work pointing us toward a more sustainable homebuilding future?
[The homebuilding industry] is doing a good job making our building envelopes and mechanical systems more efficient, and that’s good, but we now have to start focusing on other areas—appliances, lighting, and plug loads, because those are all becoming more significant. You’ve got to look at everything. You can’t just look at Energy Star or HERS scores and say your work is done.
We’re working with a half dozen states in the South on building code adoption, and each one is in a different place on the journey. Alabama just adopted its first-ever energy code, [which] is a good first step but it doesn’t do much good if nobody enforces it—so we’re working with Alabama on compliance. Mississippi tried to adopt the code last year but was not successful, so we’re working with them to make that successful this year. Virginia adopted the 2009 IECC and gutted it and made it pretty weak, and we’re working with them on how to adopt amendments to strengthen it. This is going on around the country—states everywhere are looking for help on this.
We are trying to advance sustainability, and energy efficiency is important part of that, so we are working with states to show them the benefits of not gutting the code, of adopting it with these requirements, but also show them the importance of providing training and technical assistance so the industry can respond to these code requirements and not add a lot of cost and headache to the process.
Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability: Energy Efficiency + Building Science, Building Design + Performance, Materials + Products, Sustainable Communities, Water Efficiency, Codes, Standards + Rating Systems, Indoor Environmental Quality, and Economics + Financing. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.