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Column: Tools Are Already at Hand for Energy-Efficient Construction

Lebanon

It should come as no surprise to anyone undertaking a building project in this day and age that energy efficiency ought to be a primary consideration in the design. Buildings consume almost half of the energy used in the U.S., nearly as much as transportation and industry combined, and so offer a tremendous opportunity for homeowners, businesses and communities to actually do something significant about climate change — while also saving themselves a boatload of money and providing more comfortable interior spaces.

What may come as more of a surprise is this: We already have at our fingertips the techniques, tools and experience to make every building project a “zero energy project” — a term used to describe any building efficient enough to be easily powered by clean renewable energy. The largest hurdle we face is not cost, but knowledge — the awareness of what is possible and an understanding among building professionals about how to achieve it.

One of the most significant contributions toward this effort in recent years has been made by the Passive House Institute (www.passivehouse.com), founded in Germany and now with an affiliate in the U.S. (www.passivehouse.us). The Passive House Standard, the most rigorous energy-efficiency standard in the industry, is showing the building community, through tens of thousands of buildings of all types, including several in the Upper Valley, how we can achieve cutting-edge energy efficiency. The strategies and technology needed are available to every builder and homeowner today. Building this way will allow us to save up to 90 percent of space heating costs, and with a small amount of renewable energy generation (such as from solar, wind, wood, biomass, etc.), either at the building or off-site, we are on our way to living and working in sustainable buildings.

What this means is that almost every new building or renovation project you see taking place is a missed opportunity. We are still constructing buildings that we may regard as energy efficient, but that will have to be substantially retrofitted to make them sustainable in the future.

A significant reason the building industry is not living up to its potential is the lack of a common framework for understanding what to expect and how to get there. Old habits can be hard to change, but builders need to get used to new ways of doing things, and building owners need to know what to ask for. So here is what we all should expect from every new building: 1) Insulation levels of at least R-60 in the roof, R-40 in the walls, R-20 in the foundation (typical levels are approximately R-28 for roofs, R-19 for walls and R-10 for foundations); 2) an air-tight building shell; 3) a mechanical heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system to provide pre-warmed fresh air. 4) triple-pane windows, with an orientation toward the south to take advantage of the tremendous heating capacity of natural sunlight.

If you already have a building or home and you plan on staying there, you should consider adopting the same goals for insulation and air tightness by beginning to plan for what is known in the industry as a “deep energy retrofit.” These can be major projects, costing somewhere between $50,000 to $150,000. Those who can afford this type of project should do it now. Those who cannot afford to undertake the cost of this sort of project all at once can create a longer-term energy-use-reduction plan and tackle parts of the project when the opportunity arises. (For example, if you are in need of a new roof or new siding, or if you are planning an addition or renovation, that is a great time to spend a few more dollars to add several inches of insulation.) This plan will help identify opportunities for improving a home’s thermal envelope and create a strategy for achieving energy-reduction goals. You could start with an energy audit, offered by many local energy auditing firms, some of which are listed at www.uvheat.org. But you may also need to work with a builder, designer or architect. Most builders will offer a free consultation if you are considering hiring them for a project. And of course there are numerous energy saving steps you can take today, some at little to no cost. These include changing your lighting, installing programmable thermostats and weatherizing doors, windows, attics and basements.

Cost, of course, is a major obstacle for many, and an insurmountable one for some. But if we as a society and a community can examine new ways of calculating the costs of consuming energy in an unsustainable way and the benefits of making our buildings more energy-efficient, it will become clear that climate change presents not only a moral imperative for us, but also an economic one. If more loans and grants were available to support energy efficiency, we would be able to create homes that can sustain prolonged power outages in deep winter or skyrocketing oil prices and supply disruptions; homes that are more durable and where pipes will simply never freeze; an economic boost worth thousands of jobs in the construction and energy sectors; and a financial system that keeps more dollars in our local economies instead of going to oil companies.

Some banks and lenders are beginning to offer Energy Efficiency Mortgages, which can help homeowners buy efficient homes or afford efficiency improvements. And the PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) program, offered through some Vermont municipalities that have chosen to participate, provides financing for efficiency upgrades that can be paid off on your tax bill through future energy savings.

If you are building a new building, it will cost little to nothing more to build to passive house standards. High-performance triple-pane windows are cost competitive, insulation and air sealing are cheap, ventilation units cost less than furnaces, and when you build a high-performance building you can avoid all of the expenses of a traditional heating appliance with its extensive distribution system. First, determine your construction budget, and if sustainability, resilience and comfort are important to you, then find people who know how to reach your goals within your budget.

New construction costs can vary widely in the range of $150 to $400 per square foot. Many zero energy buildings are being constructed for within and below this range, sometimes as low as $135 or $160 per foot. Quality and luxury do not need to be sacrificed. Achieving affordable energy efficiency is a question of planning, design and priorities.

With the information and experience we already possess in energy-efficient construction, there is no reason that we should not build every new building to the highest standards, and raise every existing building as close to those standards as possible.

Ethan Cole is the owner of Earthshare Construction, based in Lebanon, a company focused on the creation of a sustainable buildings.