Richard King's Virginia home includes low- and no-cost upgrades that boost efficiency, including passive solar design, extra insulation, and masonry walls.
Richard King's Virginia home includes low- and no-cost upgrades that boost efficiency, including passive solar design, extra insulation, and masonry walls.

Washington, D.C., Sept. 10 -- “Green, sustainable, energy-efficient, carbon-advantaged, low energy.” Paul Torcellini of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory rattled off building buzz words at the National Building Museum’s Greenovation event Thursday night. “We all know exactly what those words mean, right?” he asked the audience. “And they make us feel good right here.” He poked his heart, sarcasm belying the gesture.

During the event, Torcellini, along with his fellow speakers Bill Sisson of United Technologies Corp.  and Richard King of the Department of Energy, focused on the negligence of trendy terms and the importance of measurable goals. Meeting “the Holy Grail of Zero,” Sisson’s coined phrase for designing net-zero energy buildings, was touted as a reachable goal that could make a real difference.

“Zero is definable,” said Torcellini. “At National [Laboratory] we’ve come up with documents that say, ‘This is what it is, and this is how to measure it.’” He urged designers who cannot meet zero to make measurable goals that work toward it.

In-between metrics might include using 30% less energy than a set standard, or less than 30,000 BTUs per square foot, the speakers said, adding that these goals are extremely affordable. “We think of energy efficiency as costing money in order to save energy, but think about all the things you add to your homes that cost money and waste energy,” Torcellini said. “Most buildings we study show 60% energy savings at the minimum cost point.”

Using his own Virginia home as an example, King spoke to the way homes could become more energy efficient at no cost, including the zero-cost design choices of moving windows from the west side to the south side and elongating the home from east to west to maximize daylighting.

He also focused on changes he made that had small incremental costs, but healthy ROI: His masonry wall cost $1,000 and will have a payback of four or five years, and additional insulation, also $1,000, will have a two-year payback. “When a home lasts 100 years, it’s a no-brainer,” he said.

King’s home was inspired by the Solar Decathlon student design competition, of which he is the director. The bi-annual contest, to be presented on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 8-Oct. 18, pits 20 university schools of architecture and engineering in a challenge to design, build, and operate energy-efficient homes powered solely by the sun. King spoke of practical technologies—many with short paybacks—from the past events: passive solar design, geothermal heat pumps, closed-cell foam insulation, triple-pane windows, and Energy Star-rated appliances.

But what if clients are not interested in paybacks and don’t want even the minor upfront costs? A designer from the audience lamented that he had tried to meet LEED standards but could not afford to without stronger demand.

Employ a set of measurable goals and implement those that don’t have great costs, the lecturers advised. “Make those decisions even if the client isn’t asking for them,” said Torcellini. “Today’s building decisions mortgage the energy future of this country.” He urged pros to do whatever they could, even if it would not give them a certification.

Architect and writer Lance Hosey, who moderated the event, echoed Torcellini. “If it requires no decision from a client on whether to spend more money, just do it,” he said. “You don’t have to tell clients every decision you make because all they will care about is if it performs well.”

Hosey’s advice honed in on a key barrier to efficiency that was addressed throughout the event: awareness.

“How many of you know what the annual energy expense is in your home?” Sisson asked. Ten of the 110 audience members raised their hands. He stressed the responsibility of the designer and builder to lead the cause by example.

The Greenovation event was part of the Sustainable Communities multi-part lecture series at the National Building Museum, which expands on themes presented in the Green Community exhibition and examines how and why we plan, design, and construct the world between buildings.

Maggy Baccinelli is a contributor to EcoHome.