The Deep Energy Retrofit – How To Add Value So You Can Live Comfortably At Home

Making the value proposition is difficult when planning for home improvements – especially when it comes to energy savings.

Decisions have to be made based on value. Value is typically based on Return On Investment (ROI). And the only improvement you can make in your home that really has an ROI is your energy use. The return is usually defined in percentage of dollars.

Yes, when it comes to energy improvements you expect quantifiable returns.

But, how come you don’t expect returns when renovating?

When you look at drawings of how your home would be after the work is done, it makes you dream. The dollars are well spent on home beautification. You appreciate beauty and its tremendous value.

In other words, you didn’t need to do any complex financial calculations to tell you it’s worth making your home look elegant. Even if it’s not so easy for your pocket, you still believe it was something you really wanted. Maybe you did it to keep up with the Joneses. Maybe you did it because you felt that it will help your resale value. Maybe you just wanted to have a beautiful home.

In any case, you didn’t need the ROI analysis to confirm the value of your purchase. You just flat out wanted it. And that’s how you make most of your purchases really.

When was the last time you did a spreadsheet analysis to determine if you wanted to buy something you really wanted?

When it comes to your home, it’s difficult to actually add value particularly when it is costly to do so. You end up making compromises to your original plan. It’s a balance of taking things out when they’re too expensive and leaving things in when they’re cost-friendly.

The old debate between adding value versus being cost effective is heavy on you when it comes to improving your home. Often what wins the debate depends on how you answer the following question:

What is the effect you are looking for?

The answers are found in the five categories listed below:

  1. Health
  2. Safety
  3. Durability
  4. Adaptability
  5. Resiliency

As an architect, I am trained to make the most of the design in these five categories. A design is planned well when all five are taken into consideration. And when all five work together, then I’ve done my job.

These essential categories help examine the steps to take in determining your path and goals. When you add all five of them up, you end up with a value that cannot be calculated in terms of ROI. Yet, the value is tangible. It’s the substance that makes you happy. It’s hardly spoken of because it is generally understood to be what you want out of a renovation (besides making your home look fabulous of course).

The added value is total comfort.

We actually use the five categories to talk about comfort in a practical way. Comfort is generally defined as a state of physical ease and the freedom from pain or constraint. It’s about convenience. Let’s talk about what comfort really means in your home.

Thoughtful woman relaxing at home and drinking a cup of coffee in the living room

Thoughtful woman relaxing at home and drinking a cup of coffee in the living room

#1 – It’s important to ventilate your home. And it makes a difference where your fresh air comes from. A healthy home is a comfortable one.

#2 – It’s important to know the levels of chemicals and gases found in your home. Looking out for increased radon levels or keeping tabs on carbon monoxide levels keeps you safe. Knowing those levels is comforting.

#3 – I like to design and build homes that last. If not forever, I would like my buildings to last at least 100 years. There is no other motto for me as an architect. Comfort is living in a structure that will last longer than you will.

#4 – Your home satisfies more than just your need for shelter. It defines more than just your personal space. Your home not only expresses your family’s recorded history, it’s also an extension of your culture. A net zero energy ready home does just that. Its adaptability and versatility are sources of comfort only a mindful homeowner can understand.

#5 – When it comes to resiliency, you want to make sure that your home can survive super storms in the future. You want to make sure that the next time the grid goes out, you’re prepared. If you can inhabit your home after an earthquake, flood or power outage, that goes a long way for comfort.

Being comfortable in your home has the greatest value of all.

You immediately want it.

While you may not be ready to have a PV roof or live in a net zero home (where you don’t necessarily have to pay to live) – you always strive for comfort.

It’s priceless. It has no ROI.

Success in acquiring comfort comes from seeing opportunities that lead to fulfillment elsewhere.

This is how I am going to make the value proposition to you.

You’ll be buying comfort when you do a deep energy retrofit (DER).

Let me explain with an example.

Need to repair a drain line beneath your basement floor slab? Yes? And while we are on the subject: Is the concrete slab in your basement cold? Yes!

Walking on the floor is a source of discomfort. And it makes for a slightly unfriendly, frigid and dank experience. While you repair the drain line, you can do something about the cold floor.

The solution is to insulate the slab. It makes it easier to heat and places the mass of the slab within your home’s conditioned envelope. It helps moderate indoor temperatures.

Now some of you may have basements which have low ceilings. The low height of the space makes it unlivable. Wouldn’t it be great to take the opportunity of increasing the usable space in your home while insulating the slab too? You can do that by lowering the slab into the ground.

DER is an opportunity where you can add value.

Insulating the slab in an existing home is expensive and disruptive. It has to make sense for it to be worthwhile. When you dig around the perimeter to install insulation (usually with foam board), take the extra step of giving yourself a few more inches so you can add comfort in your basement.

You can have a usable basement while reducing your heating bills by 10-20% with an insulated slab-on-grade, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

Stop wasting energy on heating and have a dry, comfortable living space. You can have this if you use a non-energy retrofit as the driver for improving your home.

Don’t forget you can improve your rental income this way for those of you who have rental properties. Increase your rent while getting rid of water intrusion, humidity and mold in your basement.

Comfort is really important.

Your home decreases in comfort as the age of your home increases. Most notably, homes built pre-1990 need to be improved for comfort.

With each passing decade, there are targeted improvements you can take for a home makeover. We’ll talk more about that later, but for now…

Let’s talk a little about how comfort has no real price.

You see, energy performance is not reflected in the price of a house. In truth, a low performing house should be worth less than a high performing one. It’s no different than paying premium for a fast car. If we put the right eye glasses on, energy performance would certainly serve us better in determining price for housing.

The reality is that housing prices are artificial and intangible.

We need to create a subset of data. Fortunately, Fannie Mae is doing some research into DER. This is the beginning of a dramatic change in the way we value energy use in our homes. When appraisal institutes recognize the value of high performance homes, then we can truly live in comfort.

Today as I write this, realtors do not recognize the full value. They can’t convey the value without good information. It’s tough to quantify comfort, and such things as durability and security.

Bean counters don’t get it either.

We need some intelligence. A robust metric to measure the degree of high performance would be great for existing homes.

Insurance premiums could then be tied to retrofits.

For homeowners who stay in their homes for a long time, master planning brings about change for a better future. If you plan to leave your home to your children and grandchildren, it’s time to act. Invest as much as you can afford to reduce the load on the next generation.

The next generation can then do their part for theirs.

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