The Residential Energy Services Network Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is becoming the standard to gauge a home’s predicted energy performance. While HERS ratings have been used by energy-efficient builders for years, Kennecott Land raised the bar in mid-2011, becoming the first land developer to ask builders to get a third-party HERS score for all homes built in its Salt Lake City development, Daybreak, a projected 20,000-unit TND, which is about 15% built out today.
According to Cameron Jackson, marketing manager for Daybreak, the company move was a success. “The topline result for why we did it at the time and why a year later we see it as a success is that it gives builders in our community a key differentiator between their new homes and existing homes.”
Though Kennecott Land says that its HERS requirement dovetails nicely with its other sustainability initiatives, including walkability and efficient land use, the company opted for a program involving energy efficiency because that is what consumers are focused on. “I think there is a subset of buyers who are after energy efficiency to control their monthly budgets, and there is another subset that looks at the program and simply sees it as a cool plus,” Jackson says.
The builders in Daybreak got on board with the rating requirement with little fuss. “With some builders, it was new and we had to educate them. But once we talked them through it, they saw the value. For many of them it is something new—a challenge.”
The program is simple. When a buyer chooses a house plan, he is given a proposed HERS rating, based on the plan and the selections. Then, when the house is completed, it is tested by a HERS rater, and the buyer is given the actual score.
But what if the final score doesn’t track with the projected score? This doesn’t seem to be an issue according to both Jackson and Steve Baden, RESNET’s executive director, who says his organization strongly encourages builders to be conservative with projected scores. “I’ve cautioned builders to do a worst-case scenario HERS score, so if there is a difference it is to the consumer’s benefit.”
Baden is optimistic about the adoption of the HERS rating for new homes. In 2011, he reports, 40% of all houses built in the United States (approximately 120,000 units) had a HERS rating. “Since the [Daybreak] project, we have had 7 of the 10 largest home builders in the United States—including Pulte, KB Home, and Meritage—make the commitment to provide a HERS rating on their homes, as well as 130 local and regional builders,” he says.
Baden believes that the relatively quick adoption of the rating stems from the intense competition between new homes and existing homes, particularly foreclosures. “You can’t ‘Wal-Mart’ a new home anymore; it’s much more expensive to build now, and new homes will be more expensive than existing foreclosed homes. So the differentiator is that the new home is so much more efficient and comfortable than the foreclosure,” Baden says. “HERS becomes like a yardstick and an easy tool for consumers to understand. They get that a 60 rating is a heck of a lot better than 120.”
Consumers also understand that when they buy a new efficient home, they can expect lower maintenance and lower utility bills, which hypothetically will pay back the higher up-front cost of the house.
“It’s more expensive to retrofit an existing home as energy prices go up,” Baden adds. “And I think people understand that energy prices are going up, but in the past, the [energy efficiency] language was too hard for people to understand, and there was no third party [validation].” The HERS index makes it easier to for consumers to understand and builders to communicate to their clients. “Putting the HERS index on a advertisement is a lot easier than publishing three paragraphs explaining the energy story,” he adds.
The move toward a increased adoption of the HERS index and a general interest in energy efficiency by consumers bodes well for green building as a whole, thinks Baden. “Once consumers understand one part of green building, like energy efficiency, you see them move to consider other green features as well.”