Five years ago, an exponent of the green movement came up with this rule of thumb: If you want to know whether eco-friendly construction will thrive in an area, look to see if a Whole Foods Market already is in town.
Back then, wealthy eco-conscious early adopters were regarded as the primary audience with the cash and the commitment to go green. Today, it’s much easier and more affordable for typical homebuyers to move into houses with energy-efficient features, in large part because big builders are making it so.
KB Home, the nation’s No. 5 builder in 2011, is rolling out across its 35 markets nationwide the ZeroHouse 2.0. Energy Star-qualified and bearing the Water Sense label, it’s designed to produce as much electricity as it consumes. Meanwhile, No. 2 builder PulteGroup’s website lists five housing developments with features like energy-tracking meters, tankless hot-water heaters, and low-VOC paint.
They’re not alone. Third-ranked Lennar Homes’ powersmart series tout continuous air barriers and high R-values. Meritage Homes—No. 10 on the Builder 100—has operated for two years a community in suburban Phoenix that not only generates solar power but also helps use the sun’s rays to move air through the house, while No. 17 David Weekley Homes in some markets has committed to using advanced framing techniques. And RESNET (the Residential Energy Services Network), has reached agreement with 20 of the country’s biggest home builders to have their homes rated by HERS, the Home Energy Rating System.
Most construction supply companies don’t deal with these mega-builders, so it’s understandable if you haven’t noticed these trends. But homebuyers are likely to be aware of what’s going on; after all, the top 10 builders put up nearly a quarter of all the homes sold in America, according to Builder magazine. And as more and more consumers spend at least part of their lives in the high-performance homes that the big builders are creating, expectations will grow that smaller builders match them.
Just as these builders have evolved, so has the green movement. Green used to be the most popular term to describe homes that consumed energy and materials sparingly, were healthy to live in, and were built to last. But today it’s more fashionable to describe them as high-performance homes, says Rick Schwolsky, editor of EcoHome, like Builder a sister publication to ProSales. Such a term reflects the continuous research into building science that is going on in places like Gaithersburg, Md., where the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) plans to complete this month a net-zero energy test home. It also honors the increasing emphasis on construction quality that’s part of standards like Energy Star version 3.
At the same time, the role of products in the green revolution appears to be going in two directions at once. On one side are those who worry less about the particular certification label a product bears and more about whether it’s being used properly and in the right quantities. But on the other side are advocates with huge concerns about the health dangers of products used in homes and who are pushing for far more labeling than now is the rule. (See “A Clear and Present Danger?”)
What should go into the energy-efficient home? That answer changes with each new bit of research and each technological breakthrough. But based on what we know today, here are several features that in the not-too-distant future could become second nature for smaller builders to use.
Robert Clark, a field services officer for APA-The Engineered Wood Association, says advanced framing is the third most popular topic that he gets asked to talk about. It’s also part of the solution to requested topic No. 2: Energy codes.
Advanced framing seeks to get the most out of the least number of building materials needed to put up a house. Probably best known is the idea of replacing the traditional framing technique of 2x4 studs spaced 16 inches on center with 2x6s spaced 24 inches apart.
“We’re not taking necessary materials out,” says Clark, whose group recently published a new 24-page guide to advanced framing. “We’re taking redundant materials out.” Advanced framing can cut floor and wall framing material costs by up to 30% and take less time to put up, APA says.
Based on the objections Clark hears, builders haven’t embraced advanced framing because of competitive pressures (to the unenlightened consumer, spacing out studs sounds like you’re scrimping) and because it requires a wholesale change in the company’s culture, from the boss to the guy with the nail gun. “The framer doesn’t just have to do it; he has to know why he’s doing it,” Clark says.
Increasingly, building codes will be the reason why. No matter where you live, odds are that the next generation of code that applies in your area will be up to 30% tougher on energy conservation than the previous one. Advanced framing techniques help make it possible to hit those targets because, in the case of walls, using 2x6s and spacing them wider allows one to put in more—and deeper—insulation.
Other advanced techniques change how wall intersections are framed so fewer studs get used and hard-to-insulate voids go away (see “California Corners,” ProSales, March 2011). There also are techniques for framing floors, walls, connections, headers, window and door openings, top plates, ceilings, and roofs. All of this is combined with engineering that yields a sturdier home with fewer sticks.