Green Building News

Green Building News November 1, 2010

Smaller Homes, Smaller Footprint, DEQ-commissioned Report Shows

A recently completed report commissioned by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in collaboration with the Oregon Home Builders Association and Earth Advantage Institute concludes that constructing smaller homes is among the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation from the residential construction sector.

The report, A Life Cycle Approach to Prioritizing Methods of Preventing Waste from the Residential Construction Sector in the State of Oregon, concludes that of 30 different material reduction and reuse practices evaluated, reducing home size was the most beneficial. DEQ examined environmental benefits from each of these practices against a “standard” Oregon home, defined for the study’s purposes as a 2,262 square-foot, newly constructed home built to 2008 state energy codes. The study considered a “small” home to be about 1,630 square feet and an “extra-small” home to be 1,150 square feet. Many environmental benefits from small homes come in the form of reduced electricity and fuel use in the home but also include the benefits of avoided materials production, according to the report.

Residential home construction, maintenance and demolition make up about 10 to 15 percent by weight of total waste generated in Oregon each year.

“Results from this report are significant because they quantify the benefits of a variety of common green building practices, including reduced house size, on a consistent scale. That gives us a guide for the relative importance of each practice,” said Jordan Palmeri, the DEQ waste prevention specialist who oversaw the report’s commission and helped evaluate the report’s findings. “This will help DEQ and the residential building sector target waste prevention practices that maximize overall environmental benefit.”

The report examines environmental impacts of extracting, producing and transporting building materials; impacts of constructing and maintaining the home; impacts of using electricity and heating fuels during a home’s 70-year occupancy; and impacts/benefits of recycling, landfilling, or burning for energy recovery the building materials at the end of the home’s life. Environmental impacts address climate change, energy use, human toxicity, ecological toxicity, acidification and respiratory effects.

Key findings in the report:

  • Of 30 different material reduction and reuse practices evaluated, reducing home size and multi-family living achieved the largest greenhouse gas reductions along with significant reductions in other impact categories.
  • Reducing home size by 50 percent results in a projected 36 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Reducing home size is a significant leverage point for environmental impact reduction and may be a more effective measure than achieving minimum levels of “green” certification.
  • Various sizes of multi-family housing show significant lifecycle reductions in greenhouse gases.
  • Families who choose or require more living space than a “small” home may lessen a large home’s impact by adding green building practices and increasing the home’s energy efficiency.
  • New and existing homes of any size could incorporate internal accessory dwelling units (sometimes known as “mother-in-law apartments”) within the home as an option to increase density and reduce the square foot/person ratio, provide flexible living spaces, and achieve the environmental benefits of both small and multi-family living.
  • Over 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions over a home’s 70-year life occur during occupancy and are attributed to electricity and fuel consumption. About 14 percent of greenhouse gas impacts are tied to producing the original and replacement building materials. Constructing and maintaining the home account for about 2 percent and transportation of building materials accounts for less than 1 percent. Oregon’s existing material recycling and energy recovery system reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent over the typical 70-year life of a home.
  • For other types of environmental impacts, materials contribute 10 to 40 percent of total life cycle impacts.
  • Only a small amount – about 6 percent – of building material-related waste generated occurs during home construction, with about 50 percent of waste generation occurring during 70 years of home repairs and maintenance. The remaining 44 percent of waste generation occurs at the time of the home’s demolition.
  • Material reuse significantly reduces the amount of waste generated and material-related impacts of production.

Quantis, a lifecycle analysis firm with a U.S. office in Salem, Mass., conducted research for the report. Quantis subcontracted work to the Oregon Home Builders Association and Earth Advantage Institute, a Portland-based nonprofit that works with the building industry to help adopt sustainable building practices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This report is the last of two phases in DEQ’s environmental evaluation of waste prevention practices within the residential building sector. In 2009, DEQ evaluated a list of 25 practices to identify building practices most likely to prevent residential building waste. Reports from both phases are available on DEQ’s web site.


New Homes Getting Smaller

A new look at housing starts based on data from the Census Bureau finds that single-family homes in the U.S. continued to get smaller last year, and the downward trend is likely to last significantly beyond the end of the recession.

From a peak of 2,268 square feet in 2006, the median size of new single-family homes dropped consistently through last year, when the size was down to an even 2,100, according to a special study, "Characteristics of Single-Family Homes Started in 2009," by economists at the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

In the early 1980s, when mortgage interest rates climbed to astronomical heights, home sizes experienced a similar decline, but only temporarily. Today's downsizing trend is likely to last longer, the report says.

The current decline in home size can be attributed to factors like the desire to keep energy costs down, the amount of equity in existing homes available to be rolled over into new ones, tighter credit standards, less interest in buying a home as an investment and a growing presence of first-time buyers.

"While the Census Bureau shows characteristics for new homes that have been completed in a given year, we decided to tabulate the characteristics for the homes that were started," said Paul Emrath, the report's author and NAHB's vice president for survey and housing policy research. "This eliminates several months of lag time while the home is being constructed and can provide a more current picture of the marketplace, which has been changing rapidly."

The most glaring trend in the Census statistics is a steep decline in the number of single-family home starts, which tumbled from 1.7 million in 2005 to less than half a million in 2009. Particularly hard-hit during this period were the "spec" homes built for sale, typically in new residential subdivisions. Their market share dropped from nearly 80 percent to less than two-thirds.

The median sales price dropped from $256,000 for single-family homes started in 2006 to $211,000 for those started in 2009, a 17.6 percent decline.

The share of for-sale homes priced above $300,000 was less than 25 percent last year, declining from 35 percent in 2006 and 2007 and close to 30 percent in 2008. Similarly, more than 9 percent of the single-family home started in 2007 and 2008 were 4,000 square feet or larger, compared with only 7.3 percent in 2009.

Despite smaller homes with lower price tags, the average number of bedrooms and bathrooms in the houses started last year showed little change. Looking at specific amenities, NAHB research found a steady decline in the number of homes started since 2005 with three-car garages, fireplaces, patios and decks. On the other hand, through last year porches were on the rise.

Also ascendant were heat pumps, not surprising given the recent focus on energy efficiency and efforts by the Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to promote them for residential use.


Make Energy-Efficiency Upgrades Now to Beat Back Higher Winter Heating Bills

The Alliance to Save Energy is counseling U.S. consumers to use energy efficiency measures to lower home heating bills that the government now predicts will be higher this winter than last. 

While the projected rise in home heating costs, as released today by the Energy Information Administration in its annual Winter Fuels Outlook, is relatively modest – 3 percent or $24 – the average U.S. household's heating bill this winter is expected to be nearly $1,000. And these higher costs come at a time when many Americans already are struggling to meet their monthly bills. The Alliance also noted that users of heating oil and propane are expected to take a much bigger hit, with bills increasing by more than $100. 

But consumers can insulate themselves against high energy costs by employing energy efficiency measures that also make homes more comfortable and lower their carbon footprints. And the Alliance noted that October – the nation's official Energy Awareness Month – is the best time for consumers to prepare their homes for winter.

Federal income tax credits that make specific energy-efficiency upgrades more affordable expire December 31. Details on products that qualify for the tax credits – including insulation and sealing products and highly-efficient furnaces, heat pumps and windows – are available on the ASE web site.

How to Save on Winter Heating Bills

To help consumers get through the winter in comfort and without undue financial strain, the Alliance suggests the following steps:

  • Plug up leaks to the outside – Sealing air leaks with sealant, caulking and weather stripping and making sure your home is adequately insulated for your climate will not only reduce your heating (and summer cooling) costs up to 20 percent, it will also increase your comfort and make your home quieter and cleaner. 
  • Properly maintain your HVAC system. Just as a tune-up for your car can improve your fuel efficiency, a semi-annual or yearly tune-up of your heating and cooling system can improve efficiency and comfort. The federal government's ENERGY STAR® web site can help you find a qualified HVAC contractor.
  • Keep furnace filters clean.  Check your filter every month, especially during heavy use months (winter and summer), and change it if it looks dirty. At a minimum, change the filter every three months. In addition to increasing energy costs, a dirty filter can also damage your equipment, leading to early failure.
  • Let a programmable thermostat "remember for you" to lower the heat while your home is empty and/or overnight to reduce heating costs by up to 10 percent – and allow you to come home and wake up to a comfortable house.
  • Consider ENERGY STAR qualified heating and cooling equipment. If your heat pump or air conditioner is more than 10 years old, replacing it with an ENERGY STAR qualified unit can save up to 20 percent on heating and cooling costs. If your furnace or boiler is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it with an ENERGY STAR qualified furnace, which is 15 percent more efficient than a conventional one. An ENERGY STAR qualified boiler is 5 percent more efficient than a new standard model. As noted, certain highly efficient models qualify for the soon-to-expire federal income tax credit.
  • Seal and insulate heating and cooling ducts. Ducts that leak air into unconditioned spaces can add hundreds of dollars a year to your heating and cooling bills. In a typical house with a forced air system, about 20 percent of the air that moves through the duct system is lost due to leaks, holes and poorly connected ducts. Sealing and insulating ducts increases efficiency and lowers home energy bills – often sufficiently to cover the cost. In addition, a well-designed and sealed duct system may make it possible to downsize to a smaller, less costly system that will provide better dehumidification. 
  • Save on the cost of heating hot water – the third largest energy expense in your home, typically accounting for about 12 percent of your utility bills. There are four ways to cut your water heating bills: use less hot water, turn down the thermostat on your water heater to 130 degrees, insulate your water heater (according to manufacturer's directions and without covering the thermostat) or buy a new, more efficient model. You also can save by washing laundry in cold water.
  • Open curtains and other window treatments on your west- and south-facing windows during the day to allow sunlight to naturally heat your home, and close them at night.
  • Go "window shopping" online to discover how high-performance ENERGY STAR-labeled windows can cut heating costs by as much as 25 percent compared to older, inefficient windows, such as those with single panes. Even compared to conventional new windows with double panes, ENERGY STAR qualified windows can save from 7 to 15 percent while increasing indoor comfort and lessening fading of home furnishings.
  • Also look for the ENERGY STAR label when replacing or buying appliances, electronics, lighting and many other product categories to save up to 30 percent in related electricity bills. See details on more than 60 types of ENERGY STAR qualified products.


EPA Awards $2.4 Million to Improve Indoor Air Quality

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is awarding 17 cooperative agreements to nonprofit organizations and a university, totaling approximately $2.4 million to improve indoor air quality nationwide. Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors where levels of air pollution may be two to five times higher than outdoor levels. Indoor air pollutants, such as dust mites, can trigger asthma attacks and radon can cause lung cancer.

The goal of these projects is to educate Americans on how to reduce the environmental health risks of indoor contaminants through demonstrations, education projects, trainings and outreach efforts. EPA is placing particular emphasis on reaching households with children, low income families and minorities because they are disproportionately impacted by poor indoor air quality.

The cooperative agreements will:

  • Promote positive indoor air quality management practices in schools nationwide, including holistic approaches to environmental issues.
  • Create awareness to reduce asthma triggers in the home and encourage the use of an asthma management plan.
  • Increase the number of homes tested for radon and built with radon-resistant features, and increase mitigation of radon in existing homes.
  • Increase effective indoor air quality practices in office buildings.
  • Motivate Americans to improve their home’s indoor air quality.


International Living Building Institute Certifies First "Living Buildings"

The Living Building Challenge℠, widely regarded as the world’s most rigorous green building performance standard, has redefined the design and construction process for more than seventy projects since its launch in 2006. The International Living Building Institute announced the results of its first third-party certification audits today, declaring that the world’s first ‘Living Buildings’ are finally a reality. The Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, NY, and the Tyson Living Learning Center in Eureka, MO, each earned full certification, or ‘Living’ status. Additionally, Eco-Sense, a private residence in Victoria, BC, earned partial program certification, ‘Petal Recognition’, for achieving four of the six stringent ‘Petals’ included in version 1.3 of the Living Building Challenge. Together, the accomplishments of these three projects mark a pivotal turning point in the green building movement, proving that buildings can be designed and built to benefit the ecosystems they inhabit.

To achieve ‘Living’ status, all program requirements must be met and proven through a full year of operation. A Living Building must generate all of its own energy through clean, renewable resources; capture and treat its own water through ecologically sound techniques; incorporate only nontoxic, appropriately sourced materials; and operate efficiently and for maximum beauty. Project teams may alternatively receive Petal Recognition when they meet a minimum of three category requirements.


National GreenBuilding Conference - Dec. 1-2

Held in Toronto, Canada, The National GreenBuilding Conference will focus on all aspects of green design, construction, retrofit and maintenance leading to high performance buildings, and will examine best practices and project delivery models that result in more efficient methods of designing sustainability into any project.

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Ecobuild America - Dec. 6-10

Held in Washington, D.C., this event focuses on sustainable, high performance and technology solutions for the built environment. Topics include:

  • Building Information Modeling (BIM)
  • green technology
  • high performance building
  • sustainable design
  • energy-efficiency
  • smart buildings
  • security and more!

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