New Research Funding for Zero-Energy Construction: Don't We Already Know How to Do That?

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When I saw a headline reporting $36 million in research funding for zero-energy buildings, my initial reaction was positive. Having read the story, though, I find myself feeling somewhat ambivalent.

The money goes to two high-powered federal research centers, the Oak Ridge Nation Laboratory in Tennessee and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, both of which will use the money to study building materials, building assemblies, and whole buildings. But suppose these efforts zero in on the most energy efficient way to build a house or office building. How will architects and builders find out about it? And, assuming they do, will they run right out and start designing and building that way? Will the research identify cost-effective, market-ready alternatives to the best practices already in use? And what's wrong with the latter, by the way? I've seen enough low- and zero-energy houses to think we have a pretty good handle on the matter right now.

Don't get me wrong; I'm a big fan of research in general. Knowing things is almost always preferable to the alternative. But in this case, I think the  problem is not lack of technical expertise but, rather, insufficient market incentives. Environmental considerations and building codes exert some influence, but energy efficiency remains primarily a cost calculation. If and when the cost of energy rises to the point where homeowners and businesses demand zero-energy buildings--or when they are mandated by law--architects and builders will supply them. Until then, don't hold your breath. Research or no research. --Bruce D. Snider




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