Go Green Voluntarily or Face Big Brother Regulations

Globally, construction consumes almost 40% of total worldwide energy production, produces 30-40% of all solid wastes and between 35-40% of CO2.   –ABC Money

Outdoor pollution and air quality saw a noticeable improvement during the Covid-19 pandemic, but a quick bounce-back to previous levels is expected once economies fully ramp back up. As the subject heats back up again, Democrats have already unveiled a climate policy blueprint and are calling for an update of building codes to eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Orders to turn up your AC in the summer and get used to keeping your water temperature lower are impractical. 

Some governing agencies say that we should live in smaller homes in denser neighborhoods, pointing to the fact that houses in the U.S. are much larger than houses in other countries.  A University of Michigan researchers say that larger, wealthier U.S. households produce around 25% more emissions than their lower-income counterparts in smaller homes.  Ordinances setting a maximum house size typically regulate the maximum foot area ratio (FAR), which is the portion of the lot that may be covered by a structure.  Austin, Texas, for example, subjects new residential developments in certain districts to a FAR ratio of 0.4 square feet of building to 1.0 square feet of lot size.  Alternately, if the calculation returns a FAR of 2,300 square feet or less, then the City of Austin will allow the home to be 2,300 square feet.

As policymakers look for ways to curtail the use of fossil fuels, new initiatives are being proposed to address not just how much energy is consumed but also how energy is generated, and the types of equipment and appliances installed in a home. There is a growing movement to ban natural gas in new homes.

The timing of such proposals seems out of touch and insensitive given the fact that we are still in recovery from the pandemic and housing is facing an affordability crisis already.  While home sizes have been trending downward since 2015, there’s a new trend toward larger—not smaller—homes post-pandemic, with home offices and private areas for family members who no longer get in their cars to go to work or school, or at least they do so less often than before.

Keep in mind NAHB’s 2021 Priced-Out Estimates show that 75.1 million households in the U.S. are not able to afford a median priced new home, and that an additional 153,967 are priced out each time the price goes up by $1,000.  Further, NAHB argues the point that consumers have repeatedly shown that they expect paybacks on the extra costs of energy efficient measures within 10 years.  Recent data by  Home Innovation Lab comparing a fully electrified house to a house with gas equipment and appliances found that the incremental cost of constructing an all-electric home adds thousands to the construction cost across all climate zones. It also found that an all-electric house is at best the same cost to operate in warmer climates and substantially more in cold climates.

With Houston as one of the test markets, representing Climate Zone 2 where heating is less of a factor, the Home Innovation Lab study found that replacing gas furnaces with standard air or ground source heat pumps, the operating costs were comparable between a gas and an all-electric home, but the incremental cost of constructing an all-electric house ranged from $4,000 to $11,200 more.

The impact of electrification on an average-size single-family home in cold and moderate climate locations is even more significant.   Cold climate heat pumps needed for the cities modeled in the study for CZ 5 and 6 were $8,000-$9,000 more compared to a gas furnace. The total added cost for an all-electric package in cold climate locales of Denver and Minneapolis ranged from $10,886 to $15,100.  Not only was the equipment more expensive, but even after that investment, annual energy use costs were more expensive for electricity, adding about $275 in Denver and by $650 in Minneapolis to annual utility bills.

Particularly in mixed or cold climates, a larger capacity heat pump water heater (80 gallon) with a mixing valve is needed to match the performance of a gas water heater.  These HPWH units can cost as much as $2,800 more compared to a standard gas water heater.  Adding a single Level 2 circuit for an EV charger to for the electric vehicle charging stations in every home that the initiative calls for would costs about $600-650 to the consumer on average, not including the cost of the charger/connector. The price will be higher for homes where the electric panel is located more than 50 feet from the charging receptacle and/or when the electric panel needs to be upsized.  Induction ranges more closely resemble the cooking performance of a gas range than other electric ranges, but they run on average $1,000 more than comparable gas ranges.

In the model building codes and standards arena, NAHB has long been an advocate for energy efficiency provisions that are cost-effective and affordable for home buyers, but it urges Congress to consider unintended consequences including the onerous permitting requirements that some of the proposals would put on many builders and developers.  Performance paths should continue to be permitted, and energy efficiency requirements should not be limited to the building envelope but must also consider the use of more energy-efficient mechanical equipment and lighting in measuring the increase in overall building efficiency, NAHB says.

Rather than wait for the government to tell builders how to build homes, perhaps now is the time for more builders to adopt NAHB’s National Green Building Program and ANSI-approved standard  for “green” development, design and construction.  If we can prove more willingness to participate and the positive effect of these existing programs in reducing GHG emissions, the NAHB-designed voluntary programs would provide a better starting point on which to base future changes to standards and codes.