No matter which side of the climate debate you’re on, it is an incontrovertible fact that many states, cities, communities, manufacturers and builders are answering the call for more sustainable communities. In fact, sustainability expert Andrew Winston recently declared that “we’re in the midst of a clean economy explosion.”
The Rise in Popularity of Building Sustainably
At the state level, California, New Jersey and Washington, among others, are promoting zero energy initiatives. So are cities like Palo Alto, California, Bloomington, Indiana and Montpelier, Vermont. According to a report from research and advocacy group Team Zero, there was a 350% growth in the number of zero energy buildings as of 2018.
Locally, Austin, Texas, has increased its number of electric vehicles by 39% over the last five years. San Luis Obispo, California, has changed its building code so that all newly-built houses are “all-electric,” meaning they can be switched from running on fossil fuels to renewable energy in the future.
Sustainable Home Products
There’s an impressive list of energy-efficient products coming to market. Among the nine products named as “Innovation of the Year” by Green Builder magazine, are a gas furnace from Rheem that cuts nitrogen oxide emission by 65%, an all-in-one healthy home system from Panasonic, a heat pump from LG that is reliable at extreme temperatures, and a toilet from Nano that uses less than a gallon per flush.
Making a Change
Most of the country’s 22,000 net-zero houses, those that produce as much energy as they use, are singular, custom-built homes. But at Babcock Ranch outside of Port Charlotte in Southwest Florida, the nation’s first solar-powered town is setting the standard for future eco-friendly communities.
Despite all this activity, however, speakers at Green Builder Media’s annual Sustainability Symposium warned that there’s not much time left to fix the climate. “We have 10 years to clean up the planet before we enter a Pyro, or fire, Age,” said Sara Gutterman, the company’s chief executive officer. “If we don’t, there will be no turning back.”
Sam Rashkin, Chief Architect at the Department of Energy, said “Any solution [to climate change] must involve buildings, which use 40% of the country’s energy and 70% of its electricity.”
Even keynote speaker Winston, a globally recognized expert on how companies can navigate and profit from “humanity’s biggest problem,” wasn’t completely convinced corporate America is on the right track. “We need giant systematic change,” he warned. “‘It’s too expensive’ is something we hear about everything, but it’s also too expensive not to.”
Leading the Change
Both Gutterman and Winston believe the sustainability revolution will be led by young people; Millennials and Gen-Zers like Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist.
“What’s most compelling is that most think that companies should be judged by more than profit,” said Winston, author of “Green to Gold” and “The Big Pivot,” and that’s where many companies are going. “Some 95% of the world’s largest companies have published sustainability goals,” he told the conference. “Not just for themselves but across their supply chains.”
But Gene Myers, a leading Denver green builder who offers solar panels as standard on the houses he puts up annually and offers zero energy as an option, wondered why his competitors weren’t studying his model houses trying to figure out how he manages to sell houses at half the median price for the city.
“If builders like me are not emulated,” he complained, “the net zero movement is not going to grow. Many think it’s easier to wait for changes in the building code. But you can’t just flip a switch.”
Consumers, too, seem to be a stumbling block, because many won’t put their money where their mouths are. Despite saying they want environment-friendly homes, few are willing to pay the price.
While 83% of the Millennials polled recently by the National Association of Home Builders said they are concerned about the impact building a house has on the environment, only 16% would pay more for such a place.
On the plus side, many are more willing than they used to be to pay for energy efficient features that will reduce their utility bills. When asked what they would pay in up-front costs to trim their energy bills by $1,000 a year, 26% would go as high as $5,000. But 19% would pay up to $10,000 and some would go even higher.