Want to know what the “Next Big Thing” in home ownership will be? No one can predict the future with absolute certainty, but there are no safer predictions than these: non-renewable energy sources will become increasingly scarce; energy costs will rise over time; and people will continue to desire comfortable homes that are affordable to maintain. Wrap it all up in a solution that makes sense for the vast majority of existing homes and voila! – The Next Big Thing is… drum roll please… The Energy Efficient Remodel!
It may not seem very sexy, but no one can deny that slashing home energy bills is an attractive goal. Did you ever wonder why they are so high in the first place? Don’t blame the power company. There is no free lunch. We pay a lot because we use a lot, and we use a lot because most of our existing buildings are, I will say this as delicately as possible, gross energy hogs.
In fact, suburban America was mostly built using a flawed strategy of resource extraction, depletion, externalized costs, and the short-term availability of cheap fossil fuels. James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, has called it “the greatest misallocation of resources in history.” Our economic system is designed to maximize profit (referred to as “shareholder value”) while minimizing long-term value for the end user.
Rather than wring their hands and wish for a magic solution that will never come, some people are actually dealing with this issue head on, developing practical approaches that incorporate state-of-the-art science, materials and techniques. The results are often spectacular.
I recently attended an open house event that showcased two recent home energy remodeling projects. Turning decrepit old energy hogs into beautiful, affordable, power-sipping homes requires some effort, but the results are so worthwhile.
The process involved four basic steps:
- Energy Assessment: Test the current performance level and diagnose the best opportunities for an energy efficient remodel.
- Develop the Plan: Determine the specific items and tasks to provide optimum performance in energy, comfort and health.
- Perform the Energy Efficient Remodel: A team of specially-educated energy and retrofit specialists implement the plan, transforming the home.
- Test the Results: Performance testing during and after the remodel is crucial to assure that the goals were met and that nothing was overlooked.
In the process of re-making these homes, the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems were dramatically reduced in size and capacity. That was made possible by minimizing air leakage and improving insulation. One such improvement involved relocating the thermal barrier in the attic from the ceiling to the bottom of the roof itself, resulting in a well-insulated attic space. This provides a much better environment for the HVAC equipment and air ducts since they do not have to battle the temperature extremes found in conventionally (non)-insulated home attics.
Other improvements included high-performance windows, a more efficient duct system, an energy recovery ventilator to improve indoor air quality, and a solar water heating system. The largest of the two homes realized a reduction in energy usage of over 50%. It is now an excellent candidate for a rooftop photovoltaic system to further reduce or even eliminate electric energy costs. The efficiency / renewable energy mantra: Reduce, Reduce, Reduce… then Produce!
This project was a partnership that involved many people and several organizations. They include the Green Alliance / Nevada Energy Star Partners, Better Building Performance, the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Building America Program, the City of Las Vegas, Home Free Nevada and Green Chips.
The remodeled home I visited was attractive, comfortable and high-performance. It is an example of what every home in America can and should become. Transforming a nation of energy hogs into lean, attractive, quality places to live is not only a wise investment, it is the next big thing.
Photos courtesy of Green Alliance.