The Greenest Building is the One That's Already Built

Posted by Andy Heikkila on June 24, 2016
The Greenest Building is the One That's Already Built

It’s become more apparent over the last five to ten years that the amount of energy we’re consuming as human beings is far above what is sustainable for the longevity of our species as well as our planet. The good news is that the a recent National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) survey found that between 2007 and 2015 the average homebuyer’s preference for green and sustainable features has remained pretty consistent.

Unfortunately, this survey’s findings contrast somewhat with another NAHB report, the first-quarter 2016 Remodeling Market Index (RMI), which saw newer and higher-value home features driving remodels while considerations revolving around energy and environmental efficiency fell.

While the drive to build new, green homes is admirable, the amount of existing dwellings that consume inordinate amounts of energy are causing more problems than we care to acknowledge.

Lack of Renovations Contributing to Energy Poverty

In an article published by The Atlantic, Adam Chandler explores how even with the declining price of energy, energy-expenditures among low income households are staggeringly high. Most experts agree that energy ceases to be “affordable” if more than 6% of a household’s income is allocated to it. Anything above 10% is considered “energy poverty.”

By using census and federal energy data, Jordan Wirfs-Brock of Inside Energy found that the number of households below 50% of the poverty level paying between 25% and 40% of their income on energy is staggeringly high almost everywhere you look.

Of course, low-income households have less capital to devote to energy consumption, accounting for at least some of the root cause of this problem. However, an April 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) sussed out an additional culprit: inefficiency in heating and cooling costs three times as much for low-income households than other households at other income levels. “We found that even though these families paid less overall on energy bills, they paid more per square foot, which indicates the relative inefficiency of their homes,” wrote the authors of the study.

While remodeling projects would go a long way for low-income households, many of these domiciles are rented by the occupants, meaning that they tend not to be able to replace heating and cooling systems or make additions such as solar panel roofing that can lead to government financial incentives and rebate programs.

Renovating for a Better Tomorrow

The sad reality is that we’ve known since at least 2012 that green renovation beats out new green building almost every time. Time Magazine corroborates this, citing that existing buildings consume about 39% of energy nationwide, and that renovations to them can rack up between 4% and 46% energy savings in comparison to newly built homes. This is because new buildings can take anywhere from 10 to 80 years to conserve the same amount of energy in operation as it cost to actually build the structure.

This is exacerbated by traditional ideas of the “American Dream” and social norms, the same forces that stigmatize graduate cohabitation with parents after college (even though around 32% of young adults contribute to conservation by living at home), and encourages empty-nesting Baby Boomers to either hold onto the space they have or upgrade to larger spaces after retirement. In fact, a survey from last year showed that up to 30% of Baby Boomers upgraded to a larger home in 2015 after retirement.

A Paradigm Shift to Save More Than Money

Fortunately, home renovations have been proven to save money (for those that can afford them, obviously), and the dollar tends to speak louder and to more demographics than idealism nowadays. For example, if you pay around $2,000 a year on residential energy, you’re sitting at about the national average. If you don’t use curtains efficiently, or you don’t have double-paned windows, you’re probably losing up to 25% of that energy—meaning that you could save roughly $500 a year if this napkin math is correct.

Other solutions include small, house-mounted turbines that can generate electricity and save between 50% and 90% on your electric bill, solar water heaters that can see heating savings anywhere from 50% to 80%, and more energy efficient appliances that can help cut your energy bill by up to 30%.

The problem is that not all green options are money savers if we’re looking at them over a shorter amount of time. When a landlord or property owner has to replace flooring or ceiling due to toxic mold for example, it’s a lot harder to convince them to invest in reclaimed wood because they may be put off by the price in comparison to, say laminate. It’s also harder to convince them to upgrade appliances when it’s not them receiving the cost-cutting benefits, but rather their impoverished tenants.

Nevertheless, for the longevity of our species as well as our planet, we need to disregard the cultural stigmas surrounding “new” housing when we can just as easily renovate our existing buildings, especially because the average household would generally save money. Carl Elefante made the observation that “the greenest building is the one that is already built.”

With new green homes taking 10 to 80 years to make a dent in their own carbon footprints, Elefante couldn’t be more right. Who knows if we’ll still be around in 80 years to see the benefits of those buildings take effect.


Andy Heikkila is a tech-enthusiast, futurist, business owner, and writer from Boise, ID. He enjoys covering Millennial-centric topics and issues arising in a fast-paced, ever-changing world. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.

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