Ask 100 builders to detail the qualities of a green home, and you are likely to get 100 different lists. But odds are that energy efficiency will top most of those lists. If that's the case with your builders, then they may want to hear about the Energy Star Qualified New Homes program.
Some green builders may see this as skipping over essential sustainable practices. However, some Energy Star builders like that the program is so focused, and that to meet Energy Star requirements, they only had to make minimal changes in the way they build homes.
Energy Star homes are at least 15% more energy efficient than residences built to the 2004 International Residential Code. So far, about 860,000 Energy Star homes have been built, and more than 6,000 builders have joined the program, says Sam Rashkin, national program director. The Energy Star label is also used to brand energy efficient products, from dishwashers to light bulbs.
"Everyone wants to be energy efficient, but not everyone is worried about low-VOC products," says Gerald Graham, owner of Norman L. Graham Inc. The custom home builder in Lancaster, Pa., builds only Energy Star houses.
Graham says his company always did the duct and air sealing that Energy Star requires, but now it is "more cautious" with what it does, and a third-party inspector "brings another set of eyes" to make sure the job is done well.
Curtis Johnstone, vice president of field operations for Boyd Builders, a custom home builder that works in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas, says the Energy Star program was the "easiest one to understand and work with." He also says his company had to make few changes to have its homes qualify for Energy Star.
This means lumber dealers don't have to worry as much about finding a variety of new green products to stock, as they may have to do with other standards. What they should know is what products make building an Energy Star home easier.
Requirements. There are two routes builders can take to have their homes meet Energy Star standards: the Performance Path or the Prescriptive Path.
The Performance Path requires that builders get home plans approved before construction to ensure that homes meet a target level of performance. Builders that choose the Prescriptive Path must follow specific instructions to ensure that homes meet requirements.
Rashkin says around 80% of Energy Star homes go through the Performance Path because it is more flexible. It lets builders choose what measures they will take to meet energy requirements. Prescriptive Path homes have to meet stricter product requirements, which ensures they have comparable energy savings to Performance homes without having to go through the home plan inspection.
On the Performance Path, a home plan must be approved by a Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET)-certified Home Energy Rating Systems (HERS) rater, who ensures the home meets minimum energy efficiency and mandatory requirements. The raters use RESNET-approved software to analyze the plans. A builder does not have to send plans in ahead of time, but a HERS rater still will perform various tests and do on-site inspections.
Before a builder installs drywall, a home must pass a Thermal Bypass Inspection, done by a HERS rater, which seeks to ensure proper insulation and air barrier assemblies. The homes must include one of three Energy Star-rated product categories: heating or cooling equipment, depending on the climate; windows; or five or more light fixtures, appliances, ceiling fans with light fixtures, or ventilation fans.
After the home is built, a HERS rater conducts on-site tests, such as blower door tests that show how leaky a home is, and a duct test, which shows how much air leaks out of ducts.
In hot climates, cooling equipment must be Energy Star qualified; in cold climates, this applies to the heating equipment. The home must use Energy Star-qualified windows (or better), and five or more Energy Star appliances, light fixtures, ceiling fans with lighting fixtures, or ventilation fans.
Products. To help builders, lumber dealers can stock weatherization products and Energy Star windows, lights, and fans.
Builders listed weather stripping, radiant barrier roof decking, flashing, and vinyl Energy Star windows as products that particularly help them, and they say learning from dealers which products can make a home more efficient is especially helpful.
"Once we got educated on radiant barrier decking and what it did," says Johnstone from Boyd Builders, "it became a standard overnight."
Jennie Clanton, sales and marketing manager for Classic Custom Home of Waunakee, Wis., says her company works with Koltes Lumber, a small dealer in town, to get supplies to build Energy Star homes.
"We bump ideas off each other for how we can build a better product," Clanton says. "They have been a good partner for us."
Rashkin says having blocking that would fit in I-joists "would be great for builders to provide air barrier details."
While the Energy Star program does not achieve the breadth of other standards–which include ways to minimize waste and use environmentally preferable products, such as certified or reclaimed wood or products with low emissions–it does make for more energy efficient homes.
Having a specific focus means the qualification process is simpler and easier, some Energy Star builders say, and this also makes it easier for homeowners to understand the positive qualities of their home.
"When they see we are doing things to help them [customers] save energy," Johnstone says, "and are selling our houses for the same as the competition, it's a big selling point."