"New Ideas Need Old Buildings."
- Jane Jacobs, Urbanist
"We cannot build our way out of this problem."
- Steve Baden, RESNET
The Affordable Comfort Institute’s (ACI) Home Performance Conference (#aci09) wraps up today. About 1,300 home performance professionals descended on Kansas City to take up issues ranging from audit certification to passive house construction and plenty of grit in between. While the level of instruction has been extraordinary, I am struck by a discomfiting reality. Twenty-two thousand people attended the Green Building Conference. We pale by comparison. And we shouldn’t.
That said, it would be disingenuous to act surprised that the appeal of new buildings and the allure of “Green” is holding sway over this industry. It would be reasonable – if misguided – to assume that all movement is good movement. Here’s the problem: it is not at all clear that new green buildings are actually being constructed to measurable energy efficient standards. “Green” does not always denote a safe, healthy, energy efficient building. Second, we simply cannot afford to focus our attention on new buildings when the existing housing stock is so desperately in need of retrofits. Failing to attend to those needs isn’t sustainable.
Maybe the appeal of new houses is simply an addendum to our cultural dependence on the next new thing. My sense is that there is an element of that at play. But there are other considerations.
The founder and godmother of Affordable Comfort, Linda Wigington, when I asked her about the Green Building versus ACI imbalance, said "they are very good at PR." Clearly, the disparity of what we call the retrofit sector--home performance, efficiency retrofits, energy auditing, weatherization, affordable comfort--fails the branding test of a singular, compelling name. And the US Green Building Council is good at PR. But there is a deeper challenge here than just the public facade. Retrofitting existing buildings is hard and not very sexy.
Marc Rosenbaum of EnergySmiths described the painstaking process he went through to convert a home in Massachusetts to nearly net zero energy while the occupants lived in it. Marc, an MIT trained engineer, has spent the past 20 years figuring out how to improve energy efficiency in homes while maintaining high comfort and safety levels for occupants and minimizing environmental impact. He is a strict devotee of accurate measurement, taking into account all aspects of a home’s energy usage and output, and is a proponent of making electricity usage a matter of public record, and his success rate is staggering. That said, his is a process of constant compromise, taking into account existing building attributes at each step.
Starting from scratch is easier. But it’s not necessarily better. Henry Gifford, New York's famous "boiler man," argued passionately that current LEED standards, which are emerging as the most consumer-recognized progressive building standard, pose a risk to the home performance industry’s reputation. Gifford pointed out that buildings may receive a high LEED rating without meeting actual energy efficiency standards, and without any evidence of energy usage over time. While LEED is just one rating system, Gifford raises a question worth pressing: What is the long-term cost to the home performance industry if buildings labeled “Green” turn out to be no more energy efficient than the buildings they replaced? Who will invest in energy efficiency then?
There can be no doubt that it is time to turn our attention to existing housing. Buildings consume 70% of the electricity in the United States, and as Steve Baden of RESNET pointed out, two thirds of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 have already been built, so we can't just do this without dealing with existing building. Momentum is building for investment in energy efficiency that saves homeowners money and creates sustainability for the planet.
In order not to squander this opportunity, it is imperative that we move forward relying on building science and measurable outcomes, not nice ideas. As Gifford said in his session last night, understanding the science is key. “Science is the framework upon which the fabric of experience is draped.”
This convention is rich with both. These are the people I want working on my house.
"New Ideas Need Old Buildings."