First the good news: What was once an experiment in building performance is finally gaining momentum, according to a new report from the Net Zero Coalition. The study, “To Zero and Beyond,” found a 59% increase in the number of new single and multi-family housing units on the path to zero energy, meaning they produce as much or more energy than they use.
Now the bad news: The 6,177 units is a mere footnote when it comes to total housing production, maybe just 2% of the number of houses builders started last year. That’s enough to eliminate 10,800 cars a year and 5.8 million gallons of gas, the coalition estimates. But there’s a long, long, long way to go if the building environment is to cut deeply into the greenhouse gases it creates.
Still, you have to start somewhere and more and more builders are taking the sustainability movement seriously. So much so that a leader in the campaign, Sara Gutterman, believes the building industry is at a tipping point. “We’re on a roll,” Gutterman, Chief Executive Officer of Green Builder Media, said at her company’s third annual Sustainability Symposium in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Sustainable Homes are on the Rise
To date, most new, environmentally-friendly houses have been mostly one-off custom houses or demonstration homes. But, these singular examples of what is possible if builders are willing to take the next step towards sustainable homes are now being over shadowed by entire communities of production units.
One such place is Whisper Valley in Austin, Tex., where all the 7,500 houses planned for the property will draw their energy from a giant geothermal loop system buried underground. The GeoGrid, as it is called, reduces each home’s energy consumption by 65-70%, cutting monthly heating costs by about 80%. Coupled with solar panels and energy-efficient thermostats and appliances, the houses are net-zero capable and consistently nail a home energy rating in the teens and 20s. By comparison, the industry standard is roughly 60. In Las Vegas, meanwhile, an entire Smart City is set to break ground soon with net-zero buildings and houses featuring renewable energy, artificial intelligence, augmented realty, robotics, autonomous transportation and self-healing concrete structures. Flooring within the futuristic $7.5 billion mixed-use complex will capture and reuse the energy of human movement.
Outside of Denver we can also see Thrive Home Builders is erecting an entire neighborhood of LEED certified houses powered largely by the sun. The airtight, net zero houses come with high-efficiency windows and double 2×4, 9.5-inch thick walls.
Elsewhere, KB Home, one of the county’s largest builders, is going all out. Every one of its models is now energy certified with Energy Star appliances, radiant barriers, high R-value insulation, water-sense bathroom fixtures. Taken all together, these and other features promises to cut home owners’ energy bills by $1,200 to $2,400 annually. In the future, the public company’s goal is to go over and above smart structures by building “thinking homes” in which their owners don’t have to do anything but enjoy their comfort.
The Outlook for Environmentally-friendly Homes
All of this has Gutterman gushing that a “paradigm shift” is finally taking place. “We’re now transforming incremental change into exponential results,” she said. “Building professionals are delivering high performance, healthy structures at price parity. Product manufacturers are embracing innovation and developing green products and regulators are making sustainability a baseline.”
According to the latest research from the National Association of Home Builders, the majority of people want sustainable features but only if they don’t have to pay extra for them.
Then there’s abject indifference. Half the 4,000 recent and expected home buyers polled by the NAHB said they not only wouldn’t pay for energy efficiency, indoor air quality and the like, they just don’t give a hoot about those features.
If it’s difficult to find a new net zero house, or even one that is simply energy efficient, it’s even more so to find one in the resale sector. For two reasons: One, there aren’t many, at least not yet. And two, it’s tough to search for one on local multiple listing services. For the most part, there are no boxes listing agents can check regarding energy and sustainable features. Consequently, they must be noted separately in the information section of the listing, if they are noted at all. But with more and more homes with sustainable features coming on the market, there has been a concerted effort to add separate “green” fields to listings so consumers can search by third-party certifications, high-efficiency HVAC systems and solar heating, among other items, just like the search by price or number of bedrooms.
By the end of next year, the Real Estate Standards Organization, a group working to standardize data so it can be accurately shared across all multiple listing services, hopes all MLSs nationwide will adopt rules that capture common green property features. For the most part, reports RESO’s CEO, Sam DeBord, most early adopters have been on the coasts. They include the California Regional MLS, the nation’s largest serving 96,000 realty professionals, and Metrolist Services, which serves 20,000 members in Northern California. The Bright MLS, a system which serves 95,000 agents and brokers in six Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia, now has separate fields where listing agents can enter and help buyers search for specific information regarding energy efficiency, energy generation and green sustainability.
But many other listing services also have upgraded their system to “call out” energy features and, with the backing of RESO and the Council of Multiple Listing Services, the trade group for MLSs, more and more will surely be joining the movement.