Are We There Yet?

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As I prepare for my much needed vacation, I’m reminded of the times our family would load up the Vista Cruiser station wagon and take off on a road trip. With three boys in the back seat, it quickly became a chorus of “Are we there yet?” So I would like to ask the same question about sustainable home building. “Are we there yet?” The answer is quite simple, “Yes, no, maybe.” Let me throw out a few tidbits to gnaw on while you think about that answer.

The other day, I was being interviewed for an article about green building for a new Austin magazine. I said, “When I set out in my business fifteen years ago, I was trying to bring extreme to the mainstream.” Has that happened? In many ways, yes. For example:

  • Fifteen years ago, it was a struggle to find energy-efficient building materials and to find products, such as paint, without toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The good news is that manufacturers have stepped up. Now we have amazing materials and products from which to choose – windows, wall systems, engineered lumber, insulation, water-efficient plumbing, lighting, water heaters, air conditioning and heating systems, paint, adhesives, and much more. I’m thrilled about the prospects for future new products and techniques. Consumer demand for these products will drive down prices.
  • Building science is now an established discipline. Our hat’s off to the dedicated engineers and building scientists who are working on research and educational projects to expand understanding and knowledge about ways to improve the way we build homes and buildings.
  • Energy-efficient building practices promoted by green building programs such as the Austin Energy Green Building Program are now finding their way into the standard building code. For example, the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) is a building code created by the International Code Council in 2000. It’s a model code adopted by many states and municipal governments in the United States for the establishment of minimum design and construction requires for energy efficiency. The bar was significantly raised in the 2012 IECC, which was adopted by the City of Austin. Every new home in Austin must meet stringent guidelines for insulation, windows, and air conditioning systems.
  • A 2012 study in California showed that certified energy efficient homes sold for 9 percent more than comparable non-certified homes. An energy efficient home is simply more valuable.
  • You can now find financing that takes into consideration an energy efficient home’s lower cost of ownership and higher appraised value. The Appraisal Institute now has a Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum that assists appraisers in analyzing green features and properties. Finally! Qualified, trained appraisers can give you a proper appraisal on your energy efficient home.
  • Pecan Street Inc. is a smart grid and consumer energy research organization headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin. The research group is running the most extensive energy-tracking study in U. S. history at Mueller, the planned green community. The research tracks when and why Mueller’s residents consumer power and how fast-growing new technologies – like solar panels, connected appliances and electric cars – are affecting the grid. (See Time Magazine: Is this America’s smartest city?)

These are all signs of progress, don’t you think?

And yet, I’m an impatient guy. I’m eager for top-of-the-pyramid features to find their way into common use. (See The Green Building Pyramid.)

Take solar photovoltaic, for example. Fifteen years ago, solar photovoltaic panels were a very unusual sight on a home. Today they’re much more common, but have they reached mainstream? Not yet. I’m dreaming about the day when developers design subdivisions where each lot and home is designed to take advantage of the sun. You can read about a few developments where solar PV is featured (as at Mueller), but for the most part, it's still left up mostly to custom home builders to provide the solar PV solutions that customers are seeking.

And then there’s rainwater. Of all places, Texas is the place where collecting rainwater makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s hot. Sure, we have our droughts, but when the rain comes, it comes in floods – all the more reason for rainwater collection at the household level. But there’s still a long uphill battle to educate folks.

Just yesterday I was talking to a prospective client who was thinking about putting in a well. I had to ask, “Why drill a well?” After his shock wore off, he asked “What else can I do?” So I explained about collecting rainwater.

During the Cool House Tour in June, a visitor wanted to talk about rain water collection. He also wanted to drill a well -- for backup. Again I asked, “Why?”

I told both of these fellows that you can’t put water in a well if it goes dry, but you can buy water to put in your tank to tide you over ‘til the next good rain. After some discussion, both men were convinced they wouldn’t need a well after all.

Here are my impatient, toe-tapping thoughts about water:

  • The drought conditions in Central Texas have made many people more aware of the need for rain water collection, and that’s good.
  • Everybody is talking about the drought, but nobody is making it rain. In this area we do end our droughts with flash floods – just mark my words if we get the El Nino this fall.
  • Why aren’t we each collecting as much rainwater as we can for our own use, even if it’s just for irrigating the landscape?
  • When will we start seeing lower roof pitches for better rain water collection?
  • When will we start seeing neighborhoods designed with slightly bigger lots to accommodate rain tanks?

And so . . . back to that road trip. “Are we there yet?” Maybe the question needs to change to, “How can we get there?”

As I think about changing the route of my upcoming motorcycle road trip, I’m remembering there’s no real there or destination. It’s about the journey. Likewise, we need to all be working towards a goal of more sustainable homes and pick a route that leads in that direction. I’m grouchy and impatient about the lack of national and state-wide initiatives that move us toward energy efficiencies. Sure, you can still get federal tax credits for a few things like solar panels. And some cities, such as Austin, have raised the building codes and are working toward reducing waste. But politics will undoubtedly continue to slow or forestall any major initiatives at the state or federal level. What we need is a groundswell of demand from homeowners and tax payers.

So what are we going to do? Vote with your pocketbook. Look at it this way: Most people would someday like to retire and be financially secure. Maybe we need to think about energy and water security, too. What are some steps along that path? More efficient homes, home-based solar PV systems, micro grids, and rainwater collection systems.

I’m not a Pollyanna. But I am a Boy Scout, and our motto is “Be Prepared.” And even though our business will be busy framing new homes this fall, I’m still praying for El Nino and some good rain.

-- Wayne Jeansonne

P.S. Want to read about water issues in Texas? See the terrific article Who Stole the Water by Paul Solotaroff in the June 2014 issue of Men's Journal.