Will building new homes save us?

In 2013, about 33% of the petroleum consumed by the United States was imported from foreign countries. While this was the lowest level since 1985, the U.S. still imported 9.9 million barrels per day of energy-related petroleum. This was done from nations universally recognized as unfriendly to the U.S.

We import oil from Venezuela and Iraq.

Although dependence on imported oil has declined since peaking in 2005, we have not been able to reach full independence. Our energy use and sources are ongoing concerns in policy and economic debates. In fact, we still talk about our energy independence goal 40 years after Nixon’s 1974 State of the Union speech.

This shows how hard it is to achieve energy independence.

Right now, energy production is booming in the U.S. Thanks begrudgingly to new techniques for extracting oil and gas from hard-to-reach deposits. And currently, the U.S. is the #1 oil producer in the world. Yet, the world depends on other countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia and China to determine the price of an oil barrel.

So we’ve increased our energy security when it comes to supply (for now), but our energy independence goes with the rest of the world when it comes to price. There are market events that are still beyond our control regarding oil as a revenue generator. The debate over cheap oil being good for us still remains. Attempts to develop alternative energy sources must continue in order for this question to go away.

U.S. energy demand remains high, and will continue to grow.

We need lots of energy to provide for our jobs, move our transportation and heat our buildings. Energy provides us with opportunities for growth. That’s why investors and policymakers have been focusing on energy sources. As an architect, I’d like you to look at this from a more personal level. I’d like you to focus your attention on buildings, specifically your home if you have one.

For quite some time now, the largest energy demand in the U.S. has come from the operation of buildings. Nearly half (47.6%) of all energy produced in the U.S. is consumed by buildings every year. Three-quarters (74.9%) of electricity we consume goes to operate the buildings we live and work in every day. By comparison, industry uses 24.9% and transportation, less than 1%.

Approximately 25% of that energy usage is residential, and substantially more if personal transportation is included. About 20% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. come from the residential building sector. Your home is included in these percentages.

This leads to the all-important question: what are you going to do about it?

Forget about other nations, their governments and market events. You cannot control them. Don’t even worry about what the White House is doing. Focus on your home – by reducing its inefficient energy use. It’s a worthy pursuit when you consider that buildings (your home included) are responsible for more than 40% of all U.S. carbon emissions.

You see, your home wastes energy.

Air leaks and insufficient insulation are the two biggest contributors to energy waste in existing homes. As your home ages, cracks can develop along walls, window sills and through the attic or crawlspace. Other leaks may occur through recessed lighting, duct and plumbing work. Many older homes lack insulation in the walls, under the floor or have insufficient insulation in the attic space.

So why don’t we build new homes? We can fix the world’s problems if we can just do that, right? Then we can move on with our business as usual…

I wish it was that easy.

If you were to build a new home, you would think that it would be environmentally superior to those built in the past. By complying with current codes, you have a standard by which you can exceed expectations of your energy footprint. This is not really true.

A 2006 study by the Department of Energy (DOE) suggests that the energy consumption per household of new housing is greater than the average use of energy in existing homes.

Another study in 2009 shows that U.S. homes built in 2000 and later consume 2% more energy on average than homes built prior to 2000. Take a look at this chart courtesy of the Energy Information Administration, Residential Energy Consumption Survey.

eia-recsBuilding new homes to code will NOT help us.

The answers to why not are clearly found in increased house size and increased use of electricity in today’s world to power our electronics. New homes are generally built 30% larger in size. And we have more technology now than the time to play with it.

Instead, the most straightforward solution is to make your home count by meeting the demands for cleaner energy. What you do with your home can mean less CO2 production and a reduction of your carbon footprint. Your personal solution to climate change is to use less energy at home. And the icing on the cake is to produce your home’s energy with renewable sources, so you can totally save on energy bills.

To truly improve the energy efficiency of our nation’s building stock, we must apply ourselves to reducing energy use in existing buildings as well as in new ones. Here lies the opportunity for you as a homeowner to make a difference.

The chart above tells us that simply upgrading equipment with better-performing technologies is not enough. Replacing out-dated equipment with better-performing technologies, such as appliances, lighting and HVAC systems, begins to address some of the large energy inefficiencies of your home. But, it prevents your home from realizing much greater savings.

Consider a holistic approach whereby improving your home’s interactive systems yields substantially higher energy savings. This is called the Deep Energy Retrofit – sometimes referred to as your DER project. It is a set of methods aimed at energy savings upwards of 50%. The deep energy retrofit is a very effective way to cut more energy use and save you much more money.

DER projects can deliver as high as 75% in energy savings for homeowners.

Let’s put this into perspective.

Building New_LargeThere are over 90 million single family homes in the U.S. New single family housing construction last year was reported at 0.7 million annual rate by the Wall Street Journal. Most of these houses are built to the minimum code standard. Given the number of homes in the U.S., the promise of deep energy retrofits is enormous.

Furthermore, most of the buildings erected in the second half of the 20th century were built with little regard for energy use or impact on climate. Energy and environmental performance considerations were just not a part of how we designed our buildings. Back then, there was little awareness of the impacts of carbon emissions and other pollution. The low cost of energy did not help either.

And it sure does not help today.

We have a lot of older, inefficient buildings in our current building stock. 72% of U.S. buildings are over 20 years old. As a result, billions of dollars are wasted in energy costs due to inefficient design, programming and equipment.

We can improve building performance through smart design and improved technologies. Homeowners can unlock value trapped in their buildings. Energy efficiency is not only about preserving the environment. It also represents billions of dollars in reduced waste – and potential profit.

The methodologies described by Energetic Building can be readily applied to improve millions of existing homes. And if employed, would substantially reduce our future energy needs, creating lasting value to your home.

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