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Energy Adviser: Next-step housing hops ahead of the code

(Published byThe Columbian)

Energy-efficient homes are becoming so technologically advanced and contain so much intelligence that your next one may come with its own user manual.

Neil Grigsby, who manages the Efficient Homes Initiative for the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance says he hopes that's not the case, however. Grigsby is working with Northwest utilities to create a specification for homes that goes beyond existing codes and stays ahead of the cycle of three-year code changes. This three-year pace of change puts builders on a constant treadmill trying to keep up with standards.

"Our goal is to think nine to 12 years out when developing this home specification, so that builders are ready to meet higher energy efficiency standards as they emerge," he said. "For this specification, we want to look at existing technology not yet widely available to increase energy efficiency 25 to 30 percent above the existing code."

NEEA, Northwest utilities and many builders, such as Vancouver's Peter Gavlin, are starting to view a home as a holistic system with each part interdependent on the rest. Using this perspective, Grigsby hopes builders deploy new technologies sooner and create a market for increasingly energy-efficient, more comfortable and more healthful homes with improved air quality.

Considering a house as a complete system means home energy efficiency moves beyond energy-saving products and looks at conserving and even reusing energy within an entire home system. This could mean home shells get tighter and eliminate air leaks.

Tighter, leak-free homes will need mechanical ventilation with heat recovery systems to pre-heat incoming air while ensuring a fresh air supply and indoor air quality. Heating and cooling systems become interconnected with these ventilation systems so that balanced air flow can evenly heat and cool the entire home.

Tighter homes also require that windows become more efficient and builders embrace advanced practices. New framing techniques, for instance, prevent thermal bridging, which causes heat loss from inside to outside of a building.

Demonstrating possibilities

NEEA is partnering with utilities and builders around the region to pilot homes built to this advanced home specification. Twelve homes were completed last year. The organization plans to complete 30 homes this year. It has signed up 17 so far, with more coming.

Each home is designed to meet the specification in ways that the builder and homebuyer agree to. Builders work with NEEA to model the homes estimated energy use and make changes until the energy efficiency performance target outlined in the specification is achieved. They can also pick which energy and green building standards they want to meet, including Northwest ENERGY STAR Homes.

NEEA is currently analyzing data from the first 12 pilot homes built to determine if they are meeting the energy specifications and to check the accuracy of the modeled energy use against actual energy use. These data allow the organization to see the highs and lows of energy use, whether there are installation issues or faulty equipment, and how the residents' behavior influences energy consumption.

"It's true that these changes may increase a home's price," Grigsby said. "But as energy costs rise, homebuyers will need to think beyond the initial cost of a home to its total cost of ownership, which includes its energy consumption. Paying a bit more for an energy-efficient home at the start can mean savings throughout home ownership that can make up that difference."

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.