Energy Efficiency + Building Science

article by Mark LaLiberte

Where we go from here rests on education, training, and wide-spread commitment.

2020, we will see walls that are insulated to R-30, attics to R-60, foundations to R-20, and triple-glazed windows in every climate. HVAC systems will commonly be installed in conditioned space and will be simple and small, with operational savings that cover the cost of installation. Mold will be a rare occurrence that is easily fixed. Indoor air quality and our general health will improve with proper ventilation systems that filter outdoor pollutants. Material toxicity will be reduced. Our homes will be the safe havens we need them to be. And they will be more efficient, with significantly lower operating costs and reduced warranty concerns. In this regard, everyone wins: With fewer costly call-backs, building companies will be more profitable.

The main challenge to achieving these goals is how difficult it currently is for home builders to apply today’s best practices on their jobsites in order to create and repeat proven performance. One big obstacle is the variation of labor quality. At times, builders struggle to repeat the same task from site to site or to retain the crew from last year or even last week. Many trades receive little formal training, and fewer still are unlicensed. Most states do not require continuing education, even though most of these tradespeople participate in a skilled craft.

This isn’t a new problem. Little has changed in the process of building homes over the last 50 years. Yes, homes are bigger, designs are more complex, and new products and codes affect their performance. But the processes and jobsite conditions that have shaped our industry are generally the same. And so, if we are to respond to the new pressures we face, we will need to transform the way we build and look for ways to replicate quality, performance, speed, reliability, and profit. Looking ahead, homes in the next 17 years should look, feel, and perform differently. Here’s a path to make that happen:

Change the Delivery PathOne approach to address quality consistency that has been successful in other parts of the world is building factory-crafted homes. There are different methods to do this, but all of them strive to create consistent results. These construction methods range from panelized wall systems shipped to the site for assembly to modular factory-built homes crafted nearly completely offsite and craned into place onsite. There is also a kit-home market that sends pre-cut and packaged material to the site for assembly. All of these methods are designed to take the immense variability out of the home building process and create a higher-quality, lower-cost, better-performing home.

For a proven example of this process, look to Scandinavia, where 90 percent of homes are factory crafted. The design elements are flexible and beautiful, and they meet very high performance standards. Germany, an engineering-focused country, is following a similar model—and they are reaching the United States’ 2020 goals now.

Meet Future DemandsMany American companies are now successfully designing and building homes that exceed current 2012 code requirements and easily meet green building standards, while also meeting the needs and expectations of the U.S. customer. Home buyers in the next decade will be savvy enough to see the benefits and features of homes crafted to a higher level of sophistication. They will expect automation with easily integrated electronics, audio and video interactivity, advanced lighting systems that operate in response to motion, daylighting opportunities, and optimum energy use. The technology we find in our cars—synchronized features using Bluetooth, a smartphone’s operational assistance, and satellite radio that delivers anything we want to hear or watch to anywhere we are—should make its way into our homes. It’s all available today.

Make the ChoiceWe already can create homes that consume 50 percent less energy, and beating our carbon- and energy-reduction targets of 2020 and 2030 is easy if we fully commit. Doing so would lower our dependence on volatile fuel sources and place the saved funds in our pockets. Unfortunately, I still see too many homes lacking proper flashing and well-installed insulation, and too many HVAC systems in unconditioned attics.

Also, we have to push others to commit to these goals. Giving today’s buyers the power to choose quality and high performance is our responsibility, and if we trust our craftsmen to build what works and teach our buyers to value this work, the markets will prove that performance does pay. We currently make the incorrect assumption that people won’t pay more for definable quality. The problem with this is that consumers do it every day. It’s our assumptions and messaging that are incorrect. Without a well-structured and properly conveyed message regarding the value of quality and high performance, we will continue to lose ground to the old-world sales pitch that location and granite is all that matters.

We need an integration of all of the elements discussed above: marketing, sales, production, and demonstrable performance. The proof is there: Buyers will pay more for their homes, they will default on their mortgages less frequently, and they will sell their homes for higher prices.

We need to prove that all of this matters by acting with intent. We can move to 2020 and 2030 with ease, and have already started proving that it is possible. We can see what is possible. Now we just need to implement the vision.