When the Las Vegas housing market crashed in 2007, new-home Realtor Annette Bubak found herself at a crossroads. Forced to find a new career path, she sought the advice of Sam Rashkin, founder of the federal Energy Star for New Homes program.
Six years earlier, Rashkin had helped Bubak and a small coalition of local building professionals introduce the fledgling program to Sin City, where it grew from 91 certified homes in 2002 to nearly 90,000 units by 2007—a whopping 45 percent of all new homes built in Las Vegas during that time. “Sam was the glue that kept us together and moving forward,” says Bubak. “He was a tremendous mentor.”
Knowing Bubak wanted to remain in the housing realm, and despite the new-home focus of his own program, Rashkin steered her toward the existing-home market that was (and remains) ripe for energy-efficiency upgrades.
Today, as Las Vegas slowly emerges from the recession, Bubak’s company, Better Building Performance, is busy bringing older homes up to energy snuff—and spreading the gospel of residential energy efficiency to a vast market of homeowners, utilities, contractors, and local regulatory agencies to support that effort.
Bubak’s experience not only underscores the selflessness and passion that Sam Rashkin has to reduce energy use in the built world, but also the wide sphere of influence he and the Energy Star for New Homes program have had on the housing industry since its inception in 1995.
The numbers alone are amazing, especially for a volunteer federal program: Through last year, more than 1.3 million new homes have been certified under the program, about a tenth of those in 2011. That’s more than 25 percent of all new homes built that year, the highest market share in the program’s history.
At its peak, the program counted more than 9,000 home builder “partners,” a number that has dwindled (along with the housing industry as a whole) to 5,300 that certify at least some of their homes as meeting Energy Star criteria.
More than 400 of those are formally committed to build and certify 100 percent of their homes to the program standards, according to the EPA, including some of the largest builders in the country.
“Energy Star was the program that had the brand recognition and third-party verification, which was its greatest value to us,” says Jacob Atalla, senior director of sustainability initiatives for KB Home in Los Angeles, which mandated the standard across all of its divisions in 2009, impacting more than 7,300 homes the following year. “It’s the best way to compete against resales, and it’s the right thing to do.”
In addition, builders and consumers can choose from tens of thousands of building products that carry the Energy Star label, a requisite for achieving certification in the New Homes program. Name a maker of a clothes washer, refrigerator, dishwasher, window, or furnace among 38 housing-related categories and chances are almost guaranteed that your preferred brand is on the list.
“Energy Star [for products] may be voluntary for suppliers, but there is so much interest among builders, retailers, and consumers that all manufacturers have to participate if they want to remain competitive,” says J.B. Hoyt, director of sustainability and regulatory affairs at Whirlpool Corp., which has been involved with Energy Star since its precursor program, Green Lights, in the early ’90s. “It’s been a key driver for innovation in our industry.”
The same can be said to an increasing extent about new homes. Rashkin’s program “transformed the marketplace from one in which buyers were thought to simply want the most square footage for the money to one in which buyers demand energy efficiency,” says Don Ferrier, a custom builder in Ft. Worth, Texas. “What was radical for most builders in the early days of Energy Star is standard practice now.”
But it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it’s only been the last five years—not coincidentally in the midst of the industry’s collapse, when market competition and energy costs both came to the fore—that the program has truly found its footing. “We spent the first four years setting up the infrastructure to support it and the next six years gaining the industry’s trust and confidence as a reliable partner,” says Rashkin.
A licensed architect with a Master’s degree in urban planning and about 100 residential projects in his portfolio prior to beginning work with Energy Star, Rashkin’s combination of practicality and passion served the program well. “Sam is one of those very unusual federal employees who understands this industry and crafts his approach in a way that works in the real world,” Ferrier says.
He’s also the rare bureaucratic bird who isn’t afraid to defend and articulate his view of the truth. Described by others as someone who “likes to knock beehives with a stick” and vocally critical of “Hummer Houses” and how big-screen TVs can be promoted as energy efficient, Rashkin inserts his opinion—backed up by facts—to challenge conventional thinking and change habits.
“Thank goodness for Sam Rashkin,” says green building expert and commentator Vera Novak. “The money for energy efficiency was there in the ’80s and ’90s, and the technical knowledge has been available since at least the ’70s, but [the industry] needed to be pushed.”
The patience, pacing, and strategic planning that played out for the Energy Star for New Homes program, in fact, may be Rashkin’s greatest legacy. After establishing its infrastructure, the program rolled out to a few geographic areas and focused on specific segments, namely utility-supported, energy-efficiency programs and military and manufactured housing. “Only then, after gaining credibility with builders in these segments [did] we gradually and effectively continue expanding,” Rashkin says.
As a result, the program established a model for how government can (and arguably should) insert itself into an industry, especially one that’s historically skeptical of regulatory intrusion. “It is a shining example of the government getting involved and doing something right,” says Ferrier.
It also fostered a panoply of related industries to support the program, from energy auditors, HERS raters, and blower-door testers (and manufacturers of their necessary gear) to energy-use and monitoring software (including a point-of-sale program from Energy Star) and a slew of federal, state, and local government and utility programs that offer tax credits, rebates, and discounts to incentivize builders, remodelers, and homeowners to improve residential energy efficiency and speed its ROI.
The ripple effect also extends to other energy-saving and more comprehensive green building programs. Both LEED for Homes and the National Green Building Standard rating systems reference Energy Star–qualified products and performance criteria in their specs. It’s no coincidence that Rashkin also served on the national steering committees for those programs, among others.
After the Energy Star for New Homes program launched the latest version of its standards in 2011, the most aggressive since its inception, Rashkin took his talents to the DOE as the chief architect for that agency’s Building Technologies Program, specifically to manage a voluntary peak performance label called Builders Challenge.
Rashkin envisions the program as a “farm team for future generations of Energy Star specifications,” while fostering the upper echelon of high-performance builders.
He’s leveraging his reputation and relationships from 17 years at the EPA to build awareness and credibility for his latest effort, but knows it will only go so far. “That will fade against the solutions we’ll develop and proliferate through this program.”
The Hanley Award is the industry’s premier award recognizing extraordinary achievement in the advancement of sustainable housing and is sponsored by The Hanley Foundation, Hanley Wood, LLC, and Builder and EcoHome magazines. To read more about Hanley Award winner Sam Rashkin, go to http://go.hw.net/ecohome-hanley-award2012.