Looking back: 2014 green building trends

Looking back: 2014 green building trends

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The coming water shortage, solar power price drops, and performance-based building codes are among the top trends for 2014.

Looking back at 2014, several trends emerged as high performance home building and products move into the mainstream marketplace. As the marketplace shifts from an emphasis on new single-family homes to multi-family and remodeling existing dwellings, green homes continue to grow in prominence.

In no particular order, here are some of the top trends that have surfaced on the pages of ProudGreenHome.com in 2014 that will shape the future of high performance home building in the years to come.

Green Home labeling

The rise of consumer-oriented green home label programs makes it easier for people to understand the benefits of a high-performance home. The spread of the HERS Index from RESNet, the Department of Energy Net Zero Ready Home, Energy Star for Homes, and regional programs like EarthCraft in the southeast, function as an easily understandable label, like the miles per gallon ratings on a car.

The DOE Zero Energy Ready Home is a home that meets all of the criteria found in the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home Requirements. These homes are verified by a qualified third-party and are at least 40 percent to 50 percent more energy efficient than a typical new home. This generally corresponds to a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index Score in the low to mid-50s, depending on the size of the home and region in which it is built.

All DOE Zero Energy Ready Homes are zero net-energy ready and are so efficient a small renewable energy system can offset most or all annual energy consumption.

A DOE Zero Energy Ready Home label provides a general comparison of DOE Zero Energy Ready Homes to recent vintage existing homes and ENERGY STAR Homes on relative levels of comfort, indoor environment, durability, advanced technology, construction quality and energy efficiency. A DOE Zero Energy ReadyHome certificate is automatically generated from compliance software. It includes energy savings information as well as a HERS Index Score.

Consumer attitudes toward green products

Green attitudes are gaining ground, but green purchases and behaviors are stagnant or heading south. And the economy may be the culprit.

That’s the latest finding from Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors, which released its annual Eco Pulse study.

Eco Pulse polls American consumers each year to track shifts in their attitudes, purchases and behaviors related to sustainability.

“Last year, an improving economy seemed to be stimulating environmental engagement and green product purchases, and all signs pointed to an increase in market adoption and significant sales growth for green products. But that’s not the case,” said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of Shelton Group.

“We’re seeing a continued shift toward more pro-environmental attitudes, along with increasing concerns and feelings of eco-guilt that should, logically, be leading to more sustainable purchasing. But purchases and actions are not lining up with professed beliefs. And we think the improving economy is to blame.”

The study found that with the exception of recycling, self-reported green behaviors and product purchases are generally stagnant or down across the board – from home energy and water conservation habits and product purchases, to transportation activities, to greener cleaning, personal care and food product purchases.

“We think the improving economy shifted attention away from conservation and frugality,” said Shelton. “But the good news for green brands is that 70 percent of Americans are searching for greener products, and corporate commitments to sustainability are becoming a baseline criterion for product consideration. Companies that are doing a good job of ‘owning’ a sustainability issue or that are known for environmentally responsible practices are becoming appealing to more and more consumers,” said Shelton.

Communicating the value of high performance homes to consumers

Communicating the value of high performance and green homes to consumers can be challenging, but some builders are successful in revealing the impact for new homes and upgrading existing homes.

Texas homebuilder T.W. Bailey Sr., president of Bailey Family Builders, discussed his approach to communicating with consumers.

The old school of return on investment says you typically need to pay it back in about 6 years or so. With green building it's a whole different story, and I when I explain this to prospective clients they get it, whether they're a wage earner buying an entry level home or an upper income person buying their second or third luxury move-up product. The return on investment on what you spend for green building is typically realized the first month you're in the home.

Here's a real example of a 3,00 square-foot home with $300 month average utility bill. If you spend $10,000 additional on the green aspects of the home, you can reduce that energy cost to $150 per month. At today’s mortgage rates, the $10,000 you spend costs you about $30 per month. You’ve saved $150 in utility costs and you’ve spent $30 to do it. Your positive cash flow that first month is $120, and it will be at least $120 a month after that.

Whenever I’ve explained that to a customer, whether they’re buying a $100,000 home or $3 million home, they’ve never failed to embrace it and find great value in it.

I tell the real estate community, who do you think will be more able to make their mortgage payment: The family that has $120 less capital outlay every month or the one that has $120 more capital outlay every month? I submit it will be the family that has $120 less expense every month.

We don’t want to sell the remodeling side of the business short. We have 100 years of housing stock in the U.S. that needs to be brought forward to the same level of efficiency and sustainability as the new products we are building today.

When I tell a client that we need to take the house down to the studs  and they ask what will that cost, I say instead let me tell you what it will do for you.

It will give you a home where you can sit in front of the window and won’t feel the air coming around the window, and will give you a nice, consistent temperature in the home. The air quality in the home will be such that it will be noticeably different as far as dusting and you can anticipate what that will give you as far as your health.

Water-Energy nexus

One of the most common residential plumbing system problems is the wait for hot water. Each year the average home wastes thousand of gallons of water down the drain, waiting for hot water to reach the kitchen or bathroom faucets. Running water also wastes lots of energy used to heat and transport that water. It's a bad deal all around.

When hot water goes down the drain, the invisible cost of heating the water uses more water than the wasted water.

In his analysis of the water- and energy-saving benefits of demand control pumps for homes, water consultant Dave Grieshop depicted the real costs of wasted water.

A demand-control pump circulates hot water through a home's plumbing system on demand. So instead of waiting 30 seconds for warm water to reach the shower, the demand control pump can cut the waiting time to just a few seconds. It pulls the hot water from the water heat through the plumbing system on demand, or at the touch of a button by the user. The pump runs only until the system measures the hot water moving through the pipes. Then it shuts off. The water is pumped through the plumbing system back to the water heater. It is not wasted down the drain, waiting for the water to warm up.

Why striving to avoid wasting hot water makes sense: it takes 27 times more electricity to heat hot water than it does to move water, hot or cold, in the first place.

Falling cost of residential solar power

The cost of solar energy in the U.S. has fallen by 14 percent over the last year, despite stable wholesale prices of solar panels and the imposition of anti-dumping tariffs on some imported solar panels.

The average cost of solar energy has continued to fall over the last 12 months, from $4.41 per watt in September 2013 to $3.76 per watt in October 2014 according to data collected by leading solar energy cost calculator websites Solar-Estimate.org and SolarPanelTalk.

Solar Reviews collect solar price data through their market leading consumer information sites including Solar-Estimate.org and their solar panel information website SolarPanelTalk.

Solar isn’t anything new to the U.S home energy market. However, the current systems being offered by solar energy companies at such low prices is has yet to fully impact the market.

Price drops, new loan programs, and incentives are all fueling growth in the home energy market with a win-win situation for customers who want to purchase solar energy.

Solar energy prices are lower than ever and continue to drop. Solar is now being looked at as a more long term reliable and secure investment by major banks. 

There is also a recent resurgence for solar leasing and power purchase agreements (PPAs). PPAs allow homeowners to enjoy the benefits of solar without purchasing a system. The homeowner does not pay for the cost of the system, rather just the cost of the energy provided by the system each month. Homeowners put nothing down upfront and end up paying less than their current electricity bill and are able to save money while reducing their carbon footprint. These programs have all existed for sometime now, however with recent solar industry reports in 2014, and significant price drops year after year, 2015 is projected to be a massive year for consumers looking to lease or finance solar energy.

Indoor mechanical ventilation & air quality

Especially in new homes that are being built tighter and tighter, mechanical ventilation becomes a lot more important than it was in the past, and building codes reflect those changes in building practices.

There's more emphasis on actual performance, testing whether the equipment actually does what it's designed to do and what it needs to do.

Jim Shelton, director of sales and marketing, Panasonic Eco Products Division, explains the new codes and their impact on ventilation:

The 2013 version of ASHRAE 62.2 includes performance-based measurements – in the past you could say, OK the fan performs at the rated CFM at .25 static pressure, so it's representative of a typical installation. Also, with the charts could say, if you use 4-inch ducts, the fan will deliver so much air with X-feet of duct, and with a 6-inch duct it deliver this much CFM.

Now, you have to test the fans. It doesn't matter what the fan box said or the specs said, or what it tests at the Home Ventilation Institute. You have to test how much air it is moving in this installation. Installed performance is the issue now.

We're seeing a lot of inexpensive fans on the market that need to deliver 50 CFM in installed performance. They were designed to barely meet Energy Star requirements, and if you have long duct run or multiple 90-degree turns or someone stepped on the duct, those fans are not getting close to 50 CFM and failing the inspection. We're seeing a lot of fan on the market that are more in the 30s for CFM.

Now Energy Star for Homes 3.0 and CalGreen have adopted ASHRAE 62.2 of 2013. It puts an emphasis on performance, what is the system doing in the house and just what it was advertised to do.

Water supply and quality

Water shortages are becoming a reality throughout the world, and that includes the United States. As reported in the National Journal, the demand for fresh water in the United States will exceed the supply by 2030, according to a 2012 State Department report. The Environmental Protection Agency already has noted that at least 36 states are faced with local or regional water shortages.

There are more than 60,000 chemicals used in the United States today, but only 91 are on the list of contaminants under the 35-year-old Safe Drinking Water Act.

But the concern over contaminants is not solely at the water source. There are actually three sources of water contaminants: the water source, treatment facility and delivery system. Each has the potential to introduce your family to a host of unhealthy pollutants and impurities.

It is important for homeowners to understand that water filters are not all the same, and that no one filter removes all of the home’s drinking water contaminants. Some filters are made to remove chlorine, while others may be designed to remove heavy metals. It's important to have your water tested to know what you want a filter to do for your family.

Read more about sustainability trends

Topics: Building Green, Certification / LEED, Cost of Ownership, Energy Audits, Energy Star, Going Green, Healthy Homes, Heating & Cooling, Home Design & Plans, Indoor Air Quality, Photovoltaic / Solar Panels, Solar Power, Sustainability Trends & Statistics

Companies: Panasonic High Performance Ventilation Solutions, U.S. Department of Energy, ACT D'MAND Systems

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