WHO CARES ABOUT ENERGY EFFICIENCY?

More than ten years ago I penned this article (titled “Say What?”) for a builder magazine. Still relevant, please stay tuned for the Epilogue at the end.

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“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” — From “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell

It’s late 2009 and I’m sitting in on a meeting with builders and other building industry representatives. The issue is energy efficiency, and the premise for the discussion is that “buyers don’t really care about energy efficiency.” Sure, says my builder friend in the room, the buyers say “that’s nice” when told about the energy efficiency features of the house, but “what about the granite counter tops?” I’m thinking to myself, gee, where have I heard this before? Oh, yeah, it was 1984 (not the book, although that could be another relevant  topic) and we were developing one of the first energy rating programs in the country in Austin, Texas. The whole foundation of developing an energy rating program was educating the buying public about the benefits and value of energy efficiency and providing builders an enlightened customer base. Twenty-five years ago.

A couple of questions come to mind. First and foremost, why are we still having this conversation? Second, is the assumption even correct? Are buyers really not interested in energy efficiency?

Oil in 1984 was about 25 dollars a barrel. At this writing it’s hovering around $77, after a wild ride to $125 a barrel about a year ago [2008]. As far as I can tell, energy prices have generally taken the trend upward. Now, one could explain the apparent complacency about energy efficiency by presuming that folks just build the cost of energy into their budget and move on. After all, people want to be comfortable, and they’ll pay the price for comfort, right? It’s like gasoline prices. We have to get from Point A to Point B, and if a car is the only way to get there, we’ll pay whatever the cost to keep it running. It might hurt, but what choice do we have? It’s the same with heating and cooling a home. And let’s also consider the possibility that, at around 10% of the household budget, utilities don’t normally rise to the top of household budget woes. Still, according a survey on Baby Boomers released by the NAHB in September 2009, “ninety-four percent of builders report that their buyers want more energy-efficient new homes; 55% said buyers specifically want EnergyStar®-rated homes.”  That same survey also indicated that buyers wanted added green building amenities, but few were willing to pay extra for them (read the full report at www.MatureMarketInstitute.com). [The referenced report is no longer available, but a more recent 2014 survey on ethnic preferences – White, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian – puts “Energy-Star Rating for Whole Home” in the top five “Most Wanted Features” except for Hispanic buyers putting that feature at seventh.]

While a high percentage of buyers want energy features, it is worth considering that buyers already expect energy efficiency when they purchase a new home and therefore move it down on the list of priorities. After all, building energy codes have raised the bar and ostensibly leveled the playing field over the last few years. This could easily give one a sense that energy is not on their minds – until something happens to bump it up on the list, like dramatically higher costs, or brownouts or an uncomfortable room. There is a tendency in humans to need a swift kick to be proactive, and energy features just don’t rise to the “got to have it” level the way granite countertops seem to, but when that bedroom above the garage is consistently uncomfortable in the middle of the summer, your customer isn’t going to call the counter guy.

You may have seen this list before, but it’s a basic checklist for providing a comfortable, durable and energy-efficient home.

  • Design for energy and comfort. Minimize the west (and east) windows. Make use of natural daylighting whenever possible.
  • Build a tight and well-insulated home with high-performance windows and adequate, controlled fresh air. Don’t rely on uncontrolled infiltration to keep the inside air fresh or the structure dry.
  • Choose healthy interior materials and finishes. The choices are many and readily available.
  • Use only sealed combustion gas appliances (when natural gas or propane is the fuel of choice). With tighter homes, this is not an option.
  • Engage good building science when putting the system together. The house system is more than the sum of its parts.

This brings us back to my builder friend who provides a good energy package in spite of his belief that his buyers don’t care. Why would he make the effort if it doesn’t matter? He does it because, he says, it’s the right thing to do, and he’s sleeping better because his customers are comfortable. I know there are a lot of builders out there who share that point of view. And they’re right. Every home that goes up has an impact on the family that lives there and the community where it sits. In the Big Picture, an energy-efficient, green home is contributing to a more secure nation and a cleaner world. Quality builders are building because they love it (most of the time), and want to provide their community with quality housing. If you’ll pardon my presumption, it is their contribution to a better world one home at a time. The folks living in these homes may not ask for energy efficiency or the durability and other benefits of green building when they sign the contract, but they will most certainly appreciate those features down the line.

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Remarkably, It’s now 2020.  Even more remarkable, there are efforts at the top of government to undo gains made in efficiency – by far the most cost-effective way to reduce energy consumption – in addition to standards of health and environmental safety. With all the insanity in the world these days, do people still think about the performance of their home, new or otherwise, when they buy it? It doesn’t appear so, and yet the lack of attention to this “detail” will continue to bite us, even as it is today, for the transgressions of the past.