IT'S TIME TO REFOCUS OUR ENERGIES ON ENERGY. As new homes become larger and we fill them with a never-ending list of gadgets and appliances, as we pay $2 or more at the pump for a gallon of gas and fight a war in the Middle East, it makes sense to really sweat the energy details in new-home construction.
I'm not just talking about embracing energy efficiency as a marketing program, though becoming an Energy Star builder or embarking on a zero-energy–home adventure is a commendable goal. Builders such as Shea, Pardee, and Ideal Homes find that approach really resonates with today's buyers.
The biggest savings could be achieved if everyone worked day in and day out to ensure that their homes were built to meet or exceed energy codes and standards. And it would help on that score if everyone occasionally spent some money to bring in local utilities or energy auditors to do blower-door and infrared testing.
Cutting Your Losses The federal government estimates that houses (the vast majority of them existing homes, of course) account for about 20 percent of the country's energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that the electricity generated by fossil fuels for a single home puts more carbon dioxide into the air than two average cars.
Most of that energy—45 percent of it, in fact—is used to heat and cool homes, and much of it is lost through leaky building envelopes. That's why, as Matt Power writes in the first of three stories we have planned this year on sustainability ("The Movement Gains Momentum"), attention to minor details truly matters.
Hundreds of penetrations are made in building envelopes during construction. Imagine if every opening for plumbing and ductwork were expertly caulked or sealed, then checked. Imagine if every hole made in an air barrier were taped. What if every joint between framing plates were sealed? That would add up to some real savings.
Because windows typically account for 25 percent of a home's heat loss, it makes sense to upgrade to the low-E variety when budgets allow. Another sensible approach, especially for homes in cold climates, is to limit the number of windows you install, particularly on the north side of the house.
Duct, Duct, Goose Ductwork is another huge source of heat loss. It doesn't make sense to run ducts through unconditioned space unless there's no other alternative. And let's make sure all ductwork is properly sealed. The most energy-conscious builders insulate their duct-work, too.
The next big source of energy use is lighting. Give fluorescent light fixtures a chance, especially in the kitchen and family room, where lights are often left on all day; color rendition isn't a problem anymore. The DOE estimates that replacing even a quarter of high-use household lights with fluorescents can cut a lighting bill in half.
Which brings us to appliances: They consume nearly one-third of the energy used in a house. Government labeling has made this area a no-brainer. See what you can do to standardize more efficient appliances. Sell this hard.
As Steve Easley, a building energy consultant based in Danville, Calif., likes to say, building an energy-efficient home isn't rocket science. It's about doing things everyone has known how to do for 20 years—tightening the building shell, sealing ductwork, and making sensible lighting and appliance choices. It's about expending energy to save energy.
Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director