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Sustainability + Architecture: You, Net Zero Energy Homes + Global Climate Chaos

Sustainability + Architecture: You, Net Zero Energy Homes + Global Climate Chaos

There has been a buzz recently within the design and building industry about Net Zero Energy Homes, and for good reason.

The California Energy Commission is recommending that all new homes be “Net Zero Energy Homes” by the year 2020 and all commercial buildings by 2030. As energy costs start to creep up, your energy bill will compromise a larger piece of your overall budget. Additionally, few know that the building industry is responsible for almost half of the greenhouse gases emitted as well as accounting for almost half of the energy used in the United States. These figures are more than those contributed by any other sector, including transportation. Ed Mazria, the founder of Architecture 2030, an organization whose mission it is to help stave off global warming by reducing the amount of fossil fuel energy used by buildings, opened my eyes to this sobering reality.

Those of us in the building industry have a responsibility to design and build homes that are more energy efficient to help curb global climate change. Mazria feels that we can do this by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels by 10 percent every five years and become carbon neutral by 2030.  This goal will not be easily accomplished given the fact that worldwide emissions increased by 6 percent last year, the largest increase ever. If we don’t pay attention to the growing crisis, life on the planet will be in for some unsettling changes at a far greater rate than we currently experience. Just last week, Richard Muller a scientist at U.C Berkeley and former skeptic on global warming science changed his stance and now believes that climate change is human-caused after heading up a in depth study.

So what exactly is a Net Zero Energy Home? 

There are several definitions, but the California Energy Commission defines it as a home that creates as much energy through on-site renewables (e.g., solar) as it uses. The home generates enough renewable energy on site to equal or exceed its annual energy use. If it draws from the grid at one point, it makes up for that by generating an equal or greater amount for use at other times, bringing the balance at the end of the year to zero or a positive balance.

As the cost of solar panels continues to drop relative to the cost of energy, this scenario will become more affordable. When one throws in the true  “costs” of global warming, it becomes more palatable. It's high time that our economic perspective include the “cost” of environmental degradation rather than ignore it. We continue to ignore these costs and do so at our own peril. Unfortunately, the Romney and Obama campaigns have been woefully silent on the topic.

What’s the best path to achieving this net zero goal? To do it effectively, you’ll need to reduce energy demand as much as you can. The quickest path to creating a truly efficient home is to first focus your efforts on controlling heat loss and gain through your house by thoroughly insulating and sealing your building envelope. Until now, we’ve been designing and building leaky homes and compensated for poor building techniques by installing expensive, energy hogging mechanical systems. Net Zero Energy Home proponents advocate first minimizing the home’s demand for energy via insulation and sealing and then installing an appropriately sized, efficient and less costly mechanical system. Simple.

Not too long ago, while being interviewed for a new home project, the clients asked me, “What if we don’t want to build a sustainable house?”  Their question points to a common, though understandable, misperception in the market: the idea that building sustainably has to “add on” to standard building. While I would agree that there is a continuum along which you can build a sustainable home, the truth of the matter is that building a new home, or remodeling an old one to current code levels is akin to getting a “C” letter grade – you pass, but that’s it. 

The first metric of green design and building is durability. They say that if you double the life of a structure, you halve its environmental impact. Insulating and sealing your home is the least expensive way to achieve energy efficiency. We should be designing and building efficient, long lasting structures based on the principles of the latest building science. Homes that are easier to maintain have healthy indoor air for our children and last longer.

That should be the new passing grade.

Thanks for stopping by.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

WLK August 15, 2012 at 08:42 PM
Thanks for the thoughtful post...I appreciate all the great information!
Rico August 16, 2012 at 01:02 AM
Great post. Many good points were made, I like the durability part of it. I work on many older houses and one thing that I notice is the good quality of construction, especially the wood and finish work. Granted, the electrical systems always need upgrading, and so does plumbing and HVAC systems, including windows. But sometimes I work on newer high end houses and I can see where what was built was not really built to last much more than 40 years, whereas a hundred year oldhouse will probably last at least another 50 years. I think that in the old days, people built or had built a house that was to be their place to live out their life and raise a family if they chose to, and leave the house to their offspring if the kids want it. But Marin has changed, there is more building for speculation and resale. I have seen many relatively newer houses get flipped every 5 years (before the economy tanked). Some investors see a house as a way to make money and move on, they don't really know or care if a house will last for decades, all they care about is how much they can profit off of the resale. An investor who takes out a loan (mortgage) doesn't own the house until they pay for it, and unless these house flippers pay cash, they never own the house if they only stay there 5 years. To me,(since I mainly do remodeling now), I say it is far better to start with a well built house and then make it "green". But, building new from scratch is rare here now, since we are built out.
Daniel Weaver August 16, 2012 at 07:58 PM
Hi Ricardo, Good to hear from you. It is sometimes difficult to convince folks of the value of building a durable and efficient home. Once they see the advantage of doing so, they tend to hop on board. The unfortunate aspect of not following that route is premature maintenance and repair which can be expensive, both in terms of health and money. Turns out, that new home smell, like car smell, is not so healthy after all. I do believe that as energy costs rise that more people will pay more attention to these metrics. The real challenge, as you point out, is how to upgrade the current stock of homes to make them more energy efficient. The good thing is that insulation and sealing a home is the most efficient and economic way to realize energy efficiency. The construction and design industry, despite is size and large impact on our economy, has had a very low rate of innovation. We've been building the same way for 150 years. That being said, the recession has sparked a renewed interest in altering our course and change is in the air. At some point, it will no longer be a choice. Daniel
Rico August 17, 2012 at 02:26 AM
Daniel, You are right. I have seen many newer homes built that the contractors cut corners on, and the result was leaks that damaged the structure and caused mold and mildew.. Like you said, air flow is very important. Sometimes it is necessary to install circulation fans in basements and attics, and in Mill Valley, there are some locations that need dehumidifiers . I think that in times past, people were not so aware about indoor air quality, especially from construction materials and coatings that contain harmful chemicals. Now, there is an effort to stress on the importance of air quality and fenestration. In Mill Valley, most of the houses are built up in very old areas. The streets are narrow, there is very little traffic on many streets, there are no diesel buses or trains, and there a lots of trees that provide shade and oxygen. People live a long time here because of all of that, fresh air is the key to a healthy and long life. I'm glad that I am here now, and I am also glad that there is no room for much more development here.


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