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Are the minutiae of energy performance in single family homes the right answer to the wrong question?

James Morgan | Posted in General Questions on

We give a lot of attention here on GBA to what we build. Do we need to be thinking much more about WHERE we build?

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Thanks for the link.

    Fortunately, GBA has plenty of articles focusing on this topic. Interested readers can start here:

    Location Efficiency

    Getting Around Without Fossil Fuels

    Houses Versus Cars

    Resilient Communities

    Reduce the Need for Driving

    Driving Our SUVs to the BP Protests

    Getting Off Fossil Fuels

    Finally, check the GBA site tomorrow morning, when we plan to publish Allison Bailes latest blog, "Location Efficiency Trumps Home Energy Efficiency."

  2. James Morgan | | #2

    Thanks, Martin for the references. The topic seldom comes up in the discussion pages though and I thought it timely. Very glad to hear that Allison thinks so too and I look forward to his blog post.

  3. TJ Elder | | #3

    As a smug bicyclist I can't resist commenting on this topic. In the list of metrics for a home's green cred, the Walk Score matters as much or more than R-values, ACH50 or HERS rating.

    Here's a tip: if you choose to live in a city that works for human powered transport, get a bike trailer. After a few trips it's clear that you don't need the extra 3,000 lbs that you would otherwise bring to the grocery store to haul 40 lbs of stuff.

  4. John Klingel | | #4

    All fine and good if you want to live in a city (or near your day-job, anyway) and will work at the same shop for your entire work-life. If anything changes, this is potentially a moot point. It may be advisable to consider renting vs building, and build when you retire.

  5. David Meiland | | #5

    Energy efficiency, as interesting and fun as it may be, is probably the wrong question. Population reduction is a much better question, since "peak people" is the biggest problem.

  6. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #6

    Though overshadowed by other forms of energy consumption, effort in energy efficient building contributes to overall systemic resiliency - ie, from the personal scale out to the wider societal scale.
    Energy efficient building for efficiency's sake and for resilience - in the same way an air barrier is for energy efficiency and for durability.

    But I wonder...
    Even if great strides could be made in terms of location efficiency by somehow bringing to an end the "happy motoring age", would there in fact be a reduction in overall carbon output?
    I don't think the energy saved through increased location efficiency would simply be "left in the ground" so to speak.
    I think it would still be produced and traded on energy markets.
    Maybe domestically some fossil fuel consumption woud be replaced by non-fossil fuel energy (having less carbon impact locally) but those displaced fossil fuels, being generally non-fungible and traded globally, would just be bought and consumed abroad.
    Greater location efficiency in any particular area might simply translate to lower energy costs and the perpetuation of further growth in some other aspect of the global economy.

    A really neat trick would be to figure out how to defeat Jevon's paradox and turn energy efficiency gains into energy actually saved - not used - preserved for future (hopefully wiser) generations.

  7. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #7

    Reply to John Klingel,

    You make a really important point. But I think anyone willing to go through the pain of building an efficient house has already determined that they will stay there a long time.

    But James Morgan is right: when planning your efficient house, give more thought to the location than the wall section.

    Because of this, I think large homebuilders will start doing more infill redevelopment:

  8. John Klingel | | #8

    Kevin: " But I think anyone willing to go through the pain of building an efficient house has already determined that they will stay there a long time." Agreed, but the boss may have a different plan for you. That is my point; some things (like being fired, the plant going boobs up, etc) are out of our control, so we need to be mindful of the risks. On the other hand, at least the next cat who owns the place will have minimal impact via energy used while living there.

  9. John Klingel | | #9

    Lucas: "Jevon's paradox". I don't buy into that concept entirely, though I understand the concept. Do we ALL rob Peter and then give Paul a raise? Hmmm. Maybe so. It is a concept that should be brought to light, though.

  10. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #10

    Unfortunately, Jevon's paradox is always at play - it is a feature of a global market economic system that functions only in a "growth mode" (we otherwise call it recession or depression).
    The tricky thing is that it isn't always very obvious how it plays out since so much of what happens these days truly is global in nature and involves not just the energy commodities we're concerned about but also money.

    Here's how I often like to think of it:
    In the article James linked to in the OP, the author describes how it often makes sense to look at carbon emissions per capita.
    The same is also true for energy use, it often makes sense to measure energy use per captia.
    If greater location efficiency were to result in a reduction of per capita energy use for, say, all Americans, then it is important to remember that there are literally billions of people out there waiting and wanting to bump up their per capita energy use to something closer to what we enjoy over here.

    All this being said, the point of my original comment was that effort towards energy efficiency (whether in building or transportation) is important for other reasons besides just using less energy in those sectors.

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