By: Suzanne Pletcher
This year is the 10th anniversary of the Energy Star Home Program, and the EPA brand is taking a giant step forward by pushing home sweet home’s comfort and durability—and of course energy efficiency—to levels unimagined 10 years ago.
“Using better windows, insulation, using better functioning lights and appliances, and building with different sorts of materials, we can get a home to consume half of the energy and half of the water that a conventional home consumes and actually make it work better, be more comfortable, healthier--and it costs less to operate. We are not making people set their thermostats differently, we are not making people live differently. Energy Star represents the way a home should be built,” said CR Herro, vice-president of environmental affairs at Meritage Homes, a national home builder based in Arizona.
Builders today are using third-party engineering firms that employ breakthrough software modeling technology to tweak configurations of the components of a home until an ideal combination of insulation, windows, appliances, lighting and sheathing is developed within Energy Star criteria to produce a design for a new house that falls within the price parameters set by the builder for its target market. The modeling software for building performance has become so much more reliable and accepted by builders that they can now look at a house and tell buyers with a great deal of confidence what they are going to save on their utility bill. This makes a difference to buyers who can save $100-$200 a month in utility costs.
The ultimate example of breakthrough buildings is the net zero house. Net zero buildings are measured using a protocol called HERS score. The score relates to how tightly the home is built, how much air leakage there is, and as a result how much energy must be used to heat and cool the space. According to building code analyst Jim Meyers at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project in Boulder, a net zero HERS score means that the home is not using any energy at all because the building generates enough renewable energy on site to equal or exceed the building’s annual energy use. Generally a builder doesn’t get there without building a very energy efficient building and then incorporating solar photovoltaic panels, Meyers noted. As a comparison, houses that were built in the early 1980s and haven’t been upgraded commonly have a HERS score of 130-160 and version 2 Energy Star homes may have a HERS score of 60-80.
Unfortunately, while builders are making a big deal about Energy Star, the fact is that most home buyers are more concerned about nuts and bolts issues like bedroom count, getting the space they need for a growing family, granite countertops, and comfort features other than energy use. That may be part of the reason why some builders are dropping out of the latest version of the Energy Star homes program: It adds another level of complexity and cost to the building process in order to boost energy efficiency that isn’t necessarily in the top tier of things consumers are interested in.
There is a lot for the consumer to understand. When you change the characteristics of a home, like adding better windows and better insulation, it changes the way the systems within the home operate. The better built the house, the more opportunity there is to have a healthy, comfortable home, but builders have to leverage all the components of a home to really extract all that value. Try telling all that to the average realtor or homebuyer and the response may be, “But how many bedrooms and bathrooms does the home have?”
Herro, who affectionately refers to older homes as “boxes of shelter,” said that, over time, Energy Star builders educate consumers and slowly homebuyers start to respect a better built home. Once you change homebuyers’ expectations, then all the builders have to go that way, he said. Realtors can assist in this process by asking for the HERS score of a house to give to new home buyers. The HERS score can be an indication of how well the home is actually built and new homes often have drastically different scores. Over time, the goal is for homeowners to understand that the HERS score of their home is as important to their purchase and investment as any creature comfort.
Suzanne Pletcher is director of communications at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project based in Boulder, which promotes energy efficiency policy in six states of the Southwest.