The quest to go green: where to begin

| by John Johnson
The quest to go green: where to begin

As the focus on energy efficiency and green homes continues to expand, so do the myriad opportunities available to the homeowner. That’s a good news and bad news scenario. While green solutions are ample, homeowners often don’t know where to start when it comes to building a new green home, doing a major re-modeling project, or simply making upgrades to an existing home that will lower their energy consumption.

For starters, there are different rules of thumb to follow whether you are building a new home, where the most potential exists, doing a major re-modeling project, or simply maintaining an existing home.

New home construction

This is where homeowners have the opportunity to make the biggest splash by going green, from an Energy Star rated home all the way to a net-zero home, which means the home produces as much energy as it uses each year.

When building a new home, experts suggest paying close attention to the building’s envelope – items like the foundation, roof, walls, doors and windows that form the barrier between the interior and the exterior of the home.

“With new construction we overwhelmingly recommend that you start with the building envelope by improving insulation, investing in your walls and using better windows,” says Jordan Goldman, a specialist in energy modeling who manages the HVAC design practice at Boston-based ZeroEnergy Design. “A really well insulated and air tight building will have much lower energy demands to begin with. If you do things right the first time by investing in components that will last for 30-50 years, you won’t have to ever re-address these elements.”

Michael Chandler, owner of Chandler Design-Build in Chapel Hill, N.C., echoes those remarks.

“Enveloping improvements are clearly your best return on investment,” he says. “That means things like spray foam for sealed attics and crawl spaces. Sealed crawls are huge and very inexpensive if done during construction of the house.”

Chandler says that it typically costs about an extra $500 to seal a crawl space during construction of the house. He says sealed attics are also crucial, but the up-charge is about $3,000, so there is a longer payback period.

Of course, the issue with many of those crucial energy efficient strategies is that despite their usefulness, many of them are behind the scenes fixes that are not noticeable throughout the home. Therefore, energy conscious consumers often fall prey to the so-called Prius effect, by adopting highly-visible energy measures like solar power that are noticeable to the public and imply green, but might not represent the best use of their money.

In fact, Goldman stresses that renewable energy sources should be the last part of the equation when building a new home.

“A lot of times people want to put in solar because it’s something very visible and it’s something everyone can see that you are doing for the environment,” says Goldman. “But it’s definitely not as cost effective or as generally effective as investing in the building envelope.”

Goldman says that homeowners should start with conservation within the building envelope, and satisfy energy demands with very efficient systems for heating, cooling, hot water and lighting. “Then you talk about incorporating renewables to offset some of that energy consumption,” he says. “The lower you get your annual energy use, the greater percentage of that use any given amount of renewables will cover. So you need to patch the leak first.”

 Existing homes and remodels

Although it’s great that so many new green homes are being built, most industry experts agree that the older supply of homes – those built in the 70s and 80s -- are the real issue when it comes to limiting green house gases and curbing global warming. That’s why the federal government and utilities have made so much federal funding available for re-modeling projects designed to save energy.

“If we as a country and society are going to tackle the climate problem, we really need to address existing homes and buildings,” says Goldman.

However, that is a particularly tough challenge, given that these homes typically do not have exposed walls, limiting the option to add insulation. Even the easier options, like replacing windows and old and inefficient furnaces can be costly and complicated.

“If you have an existing home and are looking to do a deep energy retrofit and a 50 percent reduction in your energy use, it really is a matter of being strategic about it,” says Goldman, who first recommends targeting low hanging fruit such as replacing light bulbs with compact fluorescent, upgrading to thermostats that have night time set backs, and sealing joists in easy locations. Beyond that, ZeroEnergy Design suggests approaching energy improvements in a staged manner.

“If you were to do a complete energy overhaul on your house all in one shot, it will be very expensive,” he says. “What we typically try to do is promote a staged retrofit where you take advantage of improvements that need to happen anyway.”

For example, if the siding on your home is 20 years old and needs replacement, that represents a great opportunity to add more rigid insulation to the outside of your home and improve the R-value of your walls at the same time as replacing the siding. The same theory holds true for roofs, and with almost any other item: if it needs replacing, you might as well do so with green products that will save energy going forward.

“To replace your siding and roofing just to add insulation becomes a really expensive and cost-ineffective way to add insulation,” says Goldman. “But if you are taking advantage of the opportunity you have now that you are exposing the walls, the additional cost of insulation isn’t so great.”

 The finances of going green

Both Chandler and Goldman try to sell the additional investment in green projects to their customer base as insurance against future energy spikes, as well as weighing the investment against money customers might have in mutual funds.

“We try to incorporate a financial model into our design process,” says Goldman, “because in addition to being altruistic and environmentally friendly, these houses are a good investment. The energy efficiency measures will protect you from inevitable spikes in energy prices.”

Goldman likes to show the value of the house in terms of a cash flow perspective by using a fairly common investing metric called net present value. The idea is to demonstrate that investing in energy efficiency is a better investment than leaving money in your mutual funds by taking into account rising energy prices and the energy use over the life of the insulation or the furnace to show the value of the improvements today.

“We prefer not to use terms like payback periods because that kind of analysis doesn’t take into account any effects of financing, rebates or tax credits,” says Goldman. “The only incremental up front cost is the increased down payment you pay because of [enhanced energy options]. Your monthly mortgage payment will go up slightly because you are taking out a bigger loan, but your monthly energy bill will go down by an even bigger amount. On a month-to-month basis it actually saves you money.” 

Topics: Building Green, Cost of Ownership, Energy Audits, Heating & Cooling, Insulation, Lighting, Remodeling

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