Housing’s Silver Lining

Every cloud has a green lining.

They say that every cloud has a silver lining. That might be even more appropriate here in the Silver State, since the clouds caused by the housing market have caused more than a passing shadow. However, the sun is beginning to peek through, and it’s shining a bright light on some activities in the housing market that not only have a silver lining, but perhaps even gold or platinum.

I’m talking about two projects, one quite old (by Las Vegas standards) and the other brand new. Both are equally exciting and represent a new wave of housing development that is just getting underway in Southern Nevada.

The first example involves a modest home in the Twin Lakes area of Las Vegas. Built in 1955, it had been modified over the years by several different owners. The latest owner, 4DCompanies, saw potential in the place and obtained the property at a deep discount. They decided to attempt to turn the fixer-upper into a showcase of sustainability – and they have succeeded.

An initial energy audit by Tracy Fogelsong of Energy Conservation Group resulted in a HERS score of 185. HERS stands for Home Energy Rating System. A typical new home built to minimum energy code standards comes in at 100 on the HERS index while a home that uses no energy is rated at 0 on the index. Clearly the home was very inefficient with high energy bills to show for it, but not for long.

Rather than do a few upgrades here and there, the project team wisely chose to take a holistic approach to improving the home’s performance, embarking on a deep energy retrofit. New insulation resulted in a change from R-9 to R-24 in the walls and from R-12 to R-54 in the ceiling. Note that this is substantially above what is required by local building codes. New windows were also installed for better efficiency.

Because of the significant improvements in the structure’s envelope, a smaller air conditioning unit could now handle the job. A new, efficient unit was installed. New ducts replaced the old, leaky ones. Energy efficient lighting and appliances further reduced the electric load.

Once the electrical needs of the home were down to a fraction of what they were, it made sense to install a modest photovoltaic system to generate electricity from the sun. The panels were installed on the new roof which is highly reflective, another efficiency strategy. Solar-heated water will further reduce energy consumption.

Every effort was made to reuse existing materials when possible. Some new materials were obtained locally, like the exquisitely beautiful sandstone counter tops from Las Vegas Rock’s Cradle-to-Cradle-certified mine just south of town. Low-VOC interior finishes help improve indoor air quality.

The result is a beautiful, healthy home with history and charm, and a new HERS Index of – ready for this? – 20! In other words, the lucky new owners of this home will experience the joy of paying next to nothing to the energy utility companies for decades to come.

This is the kind of redevelopment that Las Vegas, and the country, desperately needs – on a massive scale. Rebuilding and improving the energy efficiency of our homes is one of the best and most stable investments we can make. Local resources include the Southern Nevada Building Performance Professionals (www.snbpp.org), HomeFree Nevada (www.homefreenevada.org), and the U.S. Green Building Council – Nevada Chapter (www.usgbcnv.org). Additional resources can be found on my website.

That’s the story of the older home that is now state-of-the-art. But what about the brand new project I mentioned? There are actually two of them. I’m referring to two new homes built by Habitat for Humanity Las Vegas (along with their great sponsors and volunteers). Every home that Habitat for Humanity builds is special, but these are the first projects they’ve built that will achieve LEED-Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. The details are fascinating and I plan to delve deeper into them in a future column.

It is time to pull together all the pieces of our broken economy and our ailing environment. Green building, financing and education are the keys. We know how to do it and the results will be spectacular. The sun is peeking out beyond the silver lining of our recent housing market. Let’s make sure it continues to shine brightly.

Green Living column for Thursday, April 8, 2010, published in the Las Vegas Review Journal: “Housing’s silver lining could be gold or platinum, too”

I did a presentation at the 2009 Greenbuild convention on this very topic.

I did a presentation at Greenbuild's 2009 Residential Housing Summit on this topic.

Additional Resources:
  • The REGREEN Residential Remodeling Guidelines address the major elements of any green renovation project, including the site of the home, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, material and resources, and indoor environmental quality. The guidelines blend product selection, building systems integration and proven technologies into a seamless compilation of green strategies and case studies for the homeowner, builder and design professional.

Watch the Greened House Effect — solving Economic,
Climate Change and National Security issues
through Deep Energy Retrofits of older homes.

This episode explains why a home energy audit is important
and how a HERS rating report is generated.