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How do we upscale green building

Where do we go from here?

by Brice Hereford

Business MemberMember
Sunday, November 16, 2014

Currently, the biggest issue facing energy efficient building today is how do we scale it up and do the volume of retrofits and new construction necessary to really make a difference in energy use in America and around the world?  Deep Energy Retrofits have been called “prohibitively expensive” by many sustainable builders and building scientists because many of the materials used are costly and labor intensive.  Using existing methods, we cannot scale up energy efficiency to the degree necessary to make any impression unless we reduce the labor content involved and use more cost-effective materials and methods. 

Until we do that, energy efficiency is only the prerogative of the rich.  While green building costs of construction still continue to hover around $250 per square foot; we are not going to generate the magnitude of construction needed to make any appreciable reduction in emissions or energy use.  To reach the scale necessary, building costs per square foot need to fall to that of normal building construction costs- $140-160 per square foot.   With this in mind, is it any surprise that the builders in one of the first states to adopt the 2012 IECC were 30% below the targets required by the code?  How will the rest of the America’s builders fare when they have to build to these newer higher standards?

To facilitate this, we need to update and develop new methods of building instead of the variations on stick framing which we have used for 200 years.  Is there nothing better?   We must find and develop these new methods, materials and components to better utilize the natural resources required in their manufacture.   We must develop new systems for building, insulating and powering our buildings that reduce the labor costs and used in enough volume that the manufacturers of the products can reduce prices and still make fair profit. 

With a new focus on Life Cycle Analysis, you need the Wisdom of Solomon to select the right materials to use in these buildings.  All products have advantages and disadvantages and everyone needs to make a conscious choice of what they are using.  However, too much focus on LCA will add significantly to material and labor costs through using very stringent requirements.  We must be pragmatic not purist in our search for suitable products.

One example is vinyl versus fiber cement siding.  Many decry the chemical makeup of vinyl and its indestructibility in favor of fiber cement which has one of the largest energy footprints in its manufacture.  Vinyl is used in many other areas of home construction such as wiring and pipes but no one is railing against the wiring or PVC pipes that increasingly electrify and plumb our houses. The manufacture of cement is one of the most energy intensive manufacturing processes in the world.  How do you determine which is the best to use?  Every product has good attributes and every product comes with a cost.

Insulation is another battlefield category.   While foam is from petroleum, mineral wool is the byproduct of steel manufacturing; cellulose is from recycled newsprint and cork is the bark of trees that grow only in few select areas of the planet.  How do you even begin to pick the right one, and still keep affordability in mind? In order to upscale energy-efficiency improvements, we will have to increase our efforts to such a level that, in all likelihood, all of these products will end up being required.  And these materials are going to have to decrease in price and increase in availability if we are to seriously reduce energy usage throughout the world.

New systems for building, insulating and powering our buildings must be developed.  They must reduce the labor and have suitably high demand so that manufacturers can reduce the prices and maintain fair profits.  Consider new building methods other than site built stick frame, increased use of building components such as trusses and structural insulated sheathing panels-foam and otherwise can greatly reduce site labor costs and reduce housing prices.

The DOE  Energy Star program has been a great foundation to build on since its inception 20 years ago. But this isn’t nearly enough.  Even with over 100,000 Energy Star homes built in 2012, that was only 16% of the 650,000 total homes built in 2012. And that is just residential.  We have to develop these same solutions for the commercial sector, particularly since the majority of these structures are three stories or less.

We still have so far to go to make any appreciable difference in our effect on the environment.  And that is just for America!  What about the rest of the world? We can do better. We must do better.  This is one of the reasons, no doubt, that the DOE has launched a newer, stricter standard with their Zero Energy Ready Home program which sets the bar 30% higher than the new Energy Star requirements.  This program requires that these homes must be Net Zero Energy Ready with all that is required is a renewable power source such as solar panels.

Moving forward, we as the building industry, must utilize all the opportunities, materials and advantages we can muster.  We need to develop new building solutions for new energy efficient buildings as well as more economical solutions for the retrofitting of all existing structures.  We must lower to costs of green building. We can’t just raze them and start over again, can we?


Brice Hereford                                   

Certified Sustainable Designer

Universal Forest Products


Our Mission

NESEA advances sustainability practices in the built environment by cultivating a cross-disciplinary community where practitioners are encouraged to share, collaborate and learn.

Brice Hereford is a graduate of the Boston Architectural College’s Sustainable Designer Certificate Program. His interest in energy efficiency goes back to the energy crisis in the 1970s when he was helping to build some of the first energy efficient townhouses in the Boston area. Focused on the building envelope he works with builders, architects and others, encouraging the building community to build increasingly energy efficient and resilient buildings. He lives in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. He is an innovative sales and marketing professional with proven results...

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