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Green Building Curmudgeon

Everything is Colored Green at the IBS

Efficiency matters -- new residential construction accounts for only 0.12% of energy usage in California, while existing residential housing is 14%. Source: Consol.
Image Credit: www.consol.ws

Just leaving the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas, and even though attendance was down, it is as overwhelming an experience as ever.

First, let’s get rid of the formalities. Las Vegas has to be the most surreal place on the face of the earth. The scale is not even close to being human – everything is huge – the buildings, the roads (typically 8 lanes wide), casinos, hotel rooms, and this trade show. Everything is designed to make sure you are completely disoriented all the time – walking through a hotel is an endurance test and a psychological puzzle – you feel like a rat in a maze, only the rat is smarter because you can’t figure out how to get out.

As to the show – green is definitely the color. Everyone and everything is, or wants to be seen as green. People are throwing around phrases like greenhouse gas emissions, carbon footprint, sustainability, and the like as if their lives depended on it. I’m not quite sure where this trend is headed, and while I am glad that there is finally some serious attention being paid to green building, I am very afraid that the general public, as well as much of the industry, is going to end up giving it a lot of lip service and we will see more and more greenwashing and flat out misrepresentation (read: LYING) about materials and methods and how green they are. I wade through literature and websites and I will share the best (or worst) examples of obfuscation that I can find.

Stepping back into some semblance of reality, I attended a news conference today which presented the results of a study of the efficiency of homes in California. Accompanied by some pie charts that very clearly spelled out the study’s results, it was pointed out that while homes account for about 14% of the energy usage in CA only – 0.12% of the energy is consumed by new homes. This is very telling data that states the case all too clearly that if we avoid addressing efficiency in existing homes, we are seriously missing the boat. It sounds like the new administration has gotten this message, let’s hope that they get the ball rolling on existing housing improvements and do it right.

One Comment

  1. Michael Chandler | | #1

    getting to the 14%
    I'm with you on this here but I think we need to look beyond tax credits and WPA type work forces to get to the root of the problem.

    According to NAHB there are 75 million homes that are critically in need of weatherization and I think probably 80% of our light commercial stock falls in the same category. I believe the scope of work is too large for a WPA type program to handle and it is also too costly for our tax dollars to support.

    When I was in New Orleans last spring for the NAHB green Building Conference we were treated to a tour of the new "green" reconstruction of the hurricane zone. It was a painful experience to see so many missed opportunities. Peter Pfeiffer asked one of the tour guides why they hadn't stretched "just $5,000 more" to allow for a much better outcome and the answer was that there just wasn't $5,000 more available.

    We need a zero dollar down weatherization program that will be applicable to rental properties, fully mortgaged properties on the edge of foreclosure and light commercial as well as residential. Tax credits fail us here.

    But the work needs to get done. So...

    Make $5,000 micro weatherization loans available using the electrical connection to the grid as collateral. The weatherization projects would be designed such that the energy savings would be equal to the loan payment but the payment would be included in the electric bill and if you failed to pay your power would be cut off. Your equity in your home or your rent payment would not be effected. Any occupied building or mobile home might qualify even rentals and foreclosures, so long as the electric bill was being paid and the energy saved by the weatherization would balance the cost of the loan.

    Let the banks loan the money, not the taxpayers. Offer an adjustable payment rate that tracks energy costs. Payments would be low if energy was cheap but higher as energy inflated in cost so your payment would track your fuel savings to net zero to the occupant.

    Let the electric company be the collection agent only (they never "got" grid tie don't expect them to "get" much more than selling power and collecting money.)

    Let existing insulation companies do the work. require that they have workers comp but offer govt subsidized general liability to offset the increased risk of all these little jobs. We all remember when all the Carter solar panels failed due to incompetent workmanship. Lets keep the weatherization industry well managed and professional.

    Use taxpayer money to train, license, and oversee a legion of energy auditors to seek out the projects that can most benefit from tightening ducts and sealing crawls, floors, windows and attics to the point that the reduced energy usage would offset the loan payment.

    Keep the loans small, not more than $5,000, so the payback cost would balance the fuel savings but educate the occupants with a menu of additional strategies they could take on to further improve their energy efficiency on their own. We are aiming for the low hanging fruit here Americans can stand on their own two feet for the rest.

    Trust but verify, keep the auditors independent of the weatherizors through a taxpayer subsidized licensing and oversight organization similar to the way we currently regulate termite inspectors and pesticide companies. It is good for the auditors to be employed by the insulators for improved communication but they need to provide before and after reports showing the improvements made and backing up the quality of the work.

    Think outside the box, put Americans to work fixing Americas problems, let's get started soon.

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