Pardon me, American policymaker, "Do you have any Grey Poupon?" Or maybe your preference is good ol' French's Classic Yellow?
Either way you may want to stock up on your favorite, so you will have something to help you choke down that heapin' helpin' of baloney that you're about to be served over the coming weeks and months by the special interests who are doing everything in their power to prevent adoption of updated energy codes that promise to significantly increase performance in new homes and other buildings.
They are pulling out all the stops in a desperate effort to protect the lowest common denominator and preserve the status quo of mediocrity. In fact, in a couple of places there are attempts under way to actually roll back energy requirements that have already been adopted on a statewide level.
All of this is happening in spite of the fact that we are seeing oil prices rise dramatically in response to concerns over potential interruptions to production that could occur as a result of all the current political turmoil and uncertainty in the Middle East. But all this debate over energy policy hits a lot closer to home than many people realize.
The winter storms that have rocked the country over the past several months serve as dramatic reminders of how little margin for error we have in our ability to keep our homes comfortable and safe. The well-documented storm that hit the Dallas region just before the Super Bowl spawned multiple ripple effects that illustrate my point.
Rolling brown-outs to the power grid as a result of the storm in Texas created shortages of electricity that forced the shut down of natural gas to vast areas of northern New Mexico due to lack of pressure. Shortly after, I received a note from homeowners we built for in 1992 (at an elevation of over 6,000 feet) that read in part:
"Thank you so very much for designing and building us a house that really performs even after almost 20 years! We just had a loss of natural gas service that lasted over three days. This was during some of the coldest weather ever for N.M. The first night it got to minus two (degrees) here. During this time, the indoor temperature never went below seventy. In fact, in the daytime it was in the upper 70s. And there were no burst water pipes.
We think at least four features of the house made it possible to stay here and be comfortable. First off, we started off with a warm slab from the in-floor heating. Secondly, the days were sunny and we got good solar gain because of the passive solar design of the house. Next, the house is so well insulated that it didn't lose much heat. Finally, we kept the fireplace going through the night, and it just cranked out the heat.
At first we kept it going during the daytime but it got too hot for us! So, the gas company guys were here about a half hour ago to check and light pilots and we're good to go. ... but we are really impressed with this house and our relatively easy experience compared to what we have seen and heard in the media about the more than 30,000 homes without gas in the state."
Yet, some builder groups, trade associations, and their lobbyists would have you believe that energy efficiency is not an issue of family security, merely an expensive luxury.
They are feverishly circling the wagons, marshalling their forces, and preparing to invade Capitol Hill, State Houses, governors' and mayors' offices in every region, county commissions, city council chambers, and building departments across the land; in short, every forum where they can attempt to sabotage efforts to adopt improved energy performance standards for buildings and homes, now and into the foreseeable future.
In all likelihood you'll be offered an appetizer featuring equal parts designed to evoke sympathy (as in, "This is kicking the industry while it's down!") and outdated, inflated industry metrics contrived to position "affordability" as a strictly first-cost calculation. They will try to convince you that affordability is totally incompatible with higher energy performance, suggesting that it's an either/or proposition, when, in fact, this assertion cannot be further from the truth.
Monthly energy cost is finally being recognized as the third largest expenditure, only behind mortgage principal and interest, in the housing budget for the vast majority of American homeowners, and it is second only to the actual rent payment for families who rent their homes.
Not long ago I had an opportunity to discuss this topic with a group of high school students in Oklahoma. When I asked them if they had ever been part of a kitchen table discussion at home about whether the family would have to choose this month between keeping the heat on or buying all the groceries they needed, about 90% of the hands went up, a sad commentary on the disgraceful performance of our housing stock and the industry that delivers it.
You can bet that the delectable main course you're about to be served comes with a generous side dish of familiar fear tactics designed to exploit your legitimate concerns over further erosion of jobs, lost public revenues, falling home ownership rates, and perceived threats to every sector and level of the economy. The recipe is a tried-and-true favorite, artfully prepared to mask the sour taste of disappearing, easy profits without actually revealing them as the main ingredient.
It will be shamelessly ladled up with the suggestion that all builders everywhere agree with this well-rehearsed and choreographed song and dance. I beg to differ. On a recent visit to North Carolina, well-known and highly-respected builder Chad Ray volunteered the following:
"We averaged 15 homes a year from 2000 through 2008. We normally built 7 or 8 specs a year and 7 or 8 presale customs. With the downturn came a blessing that people still sought us out in 2009 and 2010 to build their custom homes. We only built eight houses each of those years. Seven were green customs and the other (8th) was a spec. If we hadn't committed to building green years ago, that reputation would not have seen us through in surviving the last two. Green building is the reason we can make a living in today's world. I believe it will be the reason our industry survives moving forward."
Predictably, the dessert portion of this prix fix menu is the old standby, mom and apple pie, topped with the industry version of the "American dream." To help wash it all down, you'll be treated to copious amounts of "greenwash"-flavored Kool-Aid, the artificial flavoring specially formulated to try to convince you that the building sector is leading the way toward sustainability when, in fact, virtually even the smallest step of progress has been a battle, with much of the mainstream industry still having to be dragged kicking and screaming all the way.
Fortunately there are some notable exceptions, and they are not only small to medium sized building companies. A number of the high-production national builders have begun to embrace energy performance as a powerful differentiator in their keenly competitive sector. In fact, one top ten builder, Meritage Homes, which is building communities in several states, has committed to build all its new homes to at least Energy Star and to even higher standard performance levels in many cases.
Despite all this, the stale buffet is being served up with a straight face even though architects, designers, general contractors, builders, specialty/trade contractors, product manufacturers, and professionals up and down the supply chain are proving every day, in all parts of the country, that meaningful improvements in energy efficiency and building performance are not only imminently achievable but are also cost effective.
Furthermore, the special interest mantra ignores the vast community of building owners and home buyers who consistently identify unpredictable, escalating energy costs as their number one concern. Perhaps even more disingenuous is the ongoing deliberate avoidance of the fact that energy is more than a luxury that cannot be ignored any longer, and that reliable, affordable energy costs are a major uncertainty to home owners and renters alike.
Sadly, those who only serve their own self interests to gain short term profits would have us all picking up the tab for decades to come, and they will continue to perform at the lowest allowable level. Policy makers have an opportunity to truly provide a better future for us all by helping to assure that we build in the most responsible way.
Be careful what you're willing to swallow, and you won't need any spicy condiments to make it palatable.