May/June 2008 Editorial: Who Is Going to Build the Zero Energy Home?

Posted by Alan Meier on April 28, 2008
May/June 2008 Editorial: Who Is Going to Build the Zero Energy Home?
You could easily have overlooked a quiet change in recent statements by the world’s leading climate change researchers. Everyone knew that the goals set forth in the Kyoto Protocol were baby steps on the road to achieving much greater reductions in carbon emissions. Even though only a few countries—and the United States is not among them—will achieve those goals, plans for even greater reductions are under way. Now most researchers believe that an 80% reduction in carbon emissions will be required to prevent massive climate change. This will mean a transformation in the way we think about energy consumption in homes.

Already the American Institute of Architects, DOE’s Building America program, and pragmatic regulatory agencies like the California Energy Commission are committing to the design and construction of buildings that consume zero or very little energy. Similar goals are being written into the building codes in Europe. Australians are talking about requiring all homes to be net energy exporters. These initiatives won’t take effect instantly, but zero energy homes are headed toward becoming the norm rather than the exception; building these homes will no longer be a fringe activity. Is the building and retrofitting industry prepared? No, and here are a few examples of the yawning gap between good intentions and reality. Let’s focus on the institutional barriers, rather than on the technologies.

Where do we look for examples of zero energy homes? Is there one in your community? City? State? Climate zone? This is problem number one. Without an inventory of documented successes—or even near successes—how can we establish a foundation of experience?

Who is going to design those zero energy homes? The number of architects capable of designing a zero energy home can be counted on the fingers of two or three hands. Leading architecture schools have only just begun offering courses in the design of low-energy buildings. These are typically not mainstream courses, nor are these courses required for graduation. The number of instructors qualified to teach such courses probably amounts to less than 1% of the number needed to meet the potential demand. We need to get at the production builders—then one architect is responsible for thousands of homes, and we only need to get to a few architects. This is the intent of the Building America program. Unfortunately, DOE (under instruction from the Bush administration) moved away from a focus on the “deployment” of thousands of energy-efficient homes, to “research” using only a handful of energy-efficient homes.

Even existing programs have limitations. Architects and contractors may understand how to cut heating and cooling energy usage down to practically nothing, but they typically ignore the appliances (except for the water heater), and energy-efficient lighting. (Sometimes they even rely on the inefficiency of the appliances to provide free heat.) True, you can slap acres of PV modules on the roof of almost any house (if it’s large enough), but that simply shifts the question to who can design an affordable (without enormous tax credits) zero energy home?

Who’s going to sweat the details? Energy consumption in homes is fragmenting into an increasing number of small uses. A recent study showed that in an average home, over 40 products are drawing power all the time. Who is in a position to ensure that every one of them draws as little power as possible? Other details that influence energy use and need attention include the quality of the construction and equipment and materials choices.

How do we deal with the “stovepipe” problem? It makes sense, initially, to address energy saving in each end use separately. But beyond a certain point, integration and coordination will be required to zero out a home’s energy use. The barriers between trades will need to fall and new specializations will need to be created to identify and exploit potential energy savings.

These are just a few examples of the institutional adjustments that must be made before we can effectively reduce emissions from homes. They aren’t impossible to achieve, but we needed to start yesterday in order to stay on schedule. And if you dislike these adjustments, read about what we will need to do to adapt to climate change in my next editorial.

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