While building professionals certainly deserve recognition for aggressive, positive change in the direction of pursuing green design and construction, they can’t save the world on their own. The downside of fossil fuel dependency is becoming ever clearer: climate change; massive oil spills; pipeline explosions.
Something has to give.
Painting a stirring picture of our planet’s diminishing fossil fuel sources, The Energy Report, a well-researched and ambitious document recently released by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, urges a full transformation to renewable energy by 2050.
“If everyone in the world used oil at the same rate as the average Saudi, Singaporean or U.S. resident, the world’s proven oil reserves would be used up in less than 10 years,” states the 256-page report, produced in collaboration with Ecofys, a Netherlands-based research and consulting firm specializing in energy saving and renewable energy solutions, and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, a prestigious global architectural firm.
But make no mistake, the report doesn’t aim to spread gloom and doom. Rather, it offers strategic steps toward a renewable future. And the building sector plays a key role in that strategy.
With buildings currently representing more than a third of the world’s global energy consumption, the paper presents a two-pronged approach: aggressive energy conservation and proactive development of renewable energy solutions.
And as the report begins to reach industry leaders, some are offering support as WWF Clean Energy Ambassadors, such as Eelco van Heel, CEO and group president of the Denmark-based global insulation manufacturer Rockwool International. “Building a better tomorrow – based on renewable energy – starts today. We must revolutionize the way we build and renovate our houses in order to stop the massive waste of energy, as stressed by The Energy Report.”
In broad strokes, the document claims that a full transition to renewables would save € 4 trillion (approximately $5.6 million) per year in reduced fuel costs and energy efficiency. However, the catch is that significant investment needs to be made in renewable energy-generating capacity, modernizing electrical grids, and improving efficiencies in existing buildings.
While green building design is generally applied to most new construction, with a very small, but slowly growing percentage of new construction shooting for net-zero energy–where the home or building generates all the energy it requires to operate–this is far from the case with existing dwellings.
“The major problem we face in housing is the older housing stock which uses most of our resources,” explains Katherine Austin, AIA, a Sebastopol, Calif.-based residential architect and former chair of the AIA housing committee. “It will take massive efforts to get the majority of existing homes to upgrade.”
Making the point even stronger, Matt Belcher, a Wildwood, Mo.-based home builder and vice chair of the National Association of Home Builder’s Green Building Subcommittee, adds, “the vast majority of the places where people live, work and play aren’t new, and in comparison, many fall short of meeting current energy codes. Any solution that focuses solely on new buildings is akin to fighting a forest fire with a water pistol.”
So what can be done to turn the focus toward bringing that older stock up to par?
For starters, the WWF report recommends retrofitting 2% to 3% of floor area every year. Although it sounds ambitious, the paper cites Germany as a case in point that it can be done. They note that the Germans achieved a 2.2% retrofit rate in 2006, and have set an annual goal of 2.6% by 2016.
But where should the retrofit of U.S. homes, condos, and apartments begin? The report cites insulating the walls, roofs and ground floors as the most effective strategy, potentially reducing heating requirements by as much as 60%.
“Adding insulation, replacing poor performing windows and checking for air leaks and caulking can achieve a much tighter envelope,” explains Austin. In fact, “it’s the easiest and lowest hanging fruit to reduce energy required for heating and cooling.”
Similarly, Bryn Baker, senior program officer for the WWF in Washington, D.C., recommends use of diagnostic-based tools such as blower-door or infrared imaging to help prioritize home efficiency improvements.
Austin is quick to point out that there is a major lack of incentive for homeowners to invest in even the most basic home improvements. Recognizing this, California’s Sonoma County has a program where homeowners can take out a loan for such energy upgrades with payments coming off the property tax bill. In addition, “the loan goes with the house, if sold, and is not a personal burden of the homeowner,” she explains.
Included in Sonoma’s list of loan-eligible improvements are:
• Increasing insulation, particularly in the attic to R30 or R40, if possible.
• Installing photovoltaic systems, including solar hot water.
• Replacing old heaters with 98% efficient HVAC units.
• Replacing heating and cooling with geo-thermal units or heat pumps.
• Installing a cool roof.
• Installing tankless water heaters.
• Replacing old windows with new energy-efficient units.
• Installing dual-flush or high-efficiency toilets.
• Replacing old light bulbs with compact fluorescents or LEDs.
Furthermore, in he town of Sebastopol, any remodel of more than 50% of the existing home or addition must be brought up to current energy codes, and the local utility, PG&E, offers rebates for replacing older refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers with new, energy-efficient appliances.
But like many greener products, energy-saving clients may mean little without changes if consumers don’t understand them. Baker stresses that appliances, water heaters, and heating and cooling systems should be run in energy-saving mode. “Unplug any non-essential devices when not in use, and buy and maintain the most efficient appliances.”
To assist consumers with the latter, WWF recently helped develop on-line energy-efficient appliance ranking tools: Topten (Europe), and TopTen USA.
Targeting Net Zero
Touching briefly on new construction, The Energy Report, in a special section on buildings, advocates shooting for net-zero energy homes, and incorporating features such as passive solar design, high insulation levels, heat recovery, optimal ventilation, PV, and geothermal heating and cooling.
Specifically addressing homebuilders, Baker advises, “Install the most energy efficient appliances, lighting and HVAC systems available to maximize efficiency first. Use solar hot water heating wherever possible. Then add PV panels or heat-pumps where possible.”
Furthermore, Belcher urges builders to educate their clients about the advantages of owning high-performing buildings.
“The initial cost of a substantially more efficient building is almost always higher on a per-foot basis, and ultimately the buyer must absorb that cost,” he points out. “The key, of course, is communicating effectively that the premium can be offset by future savings.”
Anticipated to help move things along are some significant industry initiatives such as The 2030 Challenge. Adopted by the American Institute of Architects and the National Conference of Mayors, among others, the challenge directs that at the present time, all new buildings and major renovations be designed to meet a fossil fuel, greenhouse gas-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 60% below average, eventually achieving fully carbon-neutral buildings by 2030.
In terms of actually working toward accomplishing this ambitious goal, one important resource is the ANSI-approved National Green Building Standard, developed by NAHB and a large number of stakeholders. Essentially, the standard guides homebuilders, developers and remodelers through the process of building resource-efficient homes in any part of the country.
One Step at a Time
Admittedly, organizations like WWF, AIA and NAHB do have some grandiose ideas about what the building market should look like a few decades from now, and one could easily become discouraged by pondering the distance which has to be transversed. At the same time, it’s important not to lose sight of some great progress which has already been made.
“The day when the nation is wholly independent of fossil fuels may still be far in the future,” notes Matt Belcher, “but the building design and construction sectors are already making strides in reaching that goal.”
To view this article as presented in our June 2011 issue, with additional graphics and sidebars, please visit our Magazine Archive.