No one is suggesting that the United States blindly adopt the socialist models of its EU counterparts with regards to sustainable housing or otherwise, but there are some lessons and tactics that could build on what’s been done domestically to date.
In 2005, the U.K. government engaged the country’s largest home builders in a competition to build model homes that were 20% better than current energy codes and priced less than $100,000 (U.S.) to prove that high performance and low cost could coexist. “It was prestigious to win,” says McCaughey. “The whole housing industry engaged.”
When that same government offered prime real estate from shuttered military bases and state-run educational and health-care facilities to private developers, the bidding process required a plan to deliver homes with higher energy efficiency and lower carbon emissions, greater housing density, a certain percentage of homes priced below market rate, and the use of off-site or modern methods of construction in addition to the proposed purchase price for the parcel.
But what’s really driving energy-efficient, low-carbon housing development across Europe is the EU’s adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, a legally binding global agreement ratified in 2002 to reduce greenhouse gas levels among countries who signed on, which the United States did not.
The Kyoto Protocol forced EU governments to expand their focus beyond emissions from cars to include buildings of all types, which contribute about 40% of the greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere.
Its ratification led directly to the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), an EU standard that each member country was charged to implement and enforce. Ireland, for one, boosted its energy codes in 2008 to achieve a 40% improvement and tightened the standard by another 20% two years later.
In turn, the EPBD begat the Energy Performance Certificate, a label on all homes, new and existing, that indicates its predicted energy use per square meter and annual CO2 emissions. “[The certificate] helps shape the awareness of each home buyer that energy efficiency is related to every single house and that everyone is responsible,” says Georg Driendl of driendl*architects in Vienna, Austria. “Laws and regulations are advanced to a point that the basic quality [of] sustainable living is guaranteed.”
For Americans that point to the ANSI-approved National Green Building Standard or the LEED for Homes or Energy Star Qualified Homes programs—not to mention federal, state, and local green building tax credits and subsidies—as evidence of similar initiatives, the difference is those programs and incentives are voluntary, while the EPBD is mandated across an entire continent with enviable results in terms of housing performance.
“In Western Europe, people expect the government to regulate,” says Jerry Yudelson, a green building consultant in Tucson, Ariz., and author of Green Building Trends: Europe. “People there don’t expect the market to deliver the magic.”
That being said, independent European architects, builders, research entities, and building products suppliers have taken the initiative to showcase advanced energy and resource efficiencies and modern construction methods that meet or exceed current standards; in fact, often advancing them further.
In his book, Yudelson recalls a research facility in Germany that tested 12 different building façades for their environmental performance, a practice that is “historically the backbone of building regulations” across the EU.
Model homes, often placed in public venues to garner attention, also play a key role. “Demonstration projects drive the development of codes and standards in the Netherlands, especially when they come from the market,” says Lone Feifer, strategic project director for the Model Home 2020 program initiated by VELUX, a Dutch-based global supplier of roof windows and solar thermal systems. “They prove viable solutions using available technologies.”
That’s different from most green-home prototypes in the United States, which tend to exhibit products and systems not yet available or affordable to the mainstream. “Our directive is to use market-available products that you can get from the local DIY,” says Feifer. “The goal is to develop a new model that makes the old one obsolete,” while still affordable and marketable to the masses.
Feifer, an architect by trade, also respects the importance of design appeal and comfort when considering sustainable building performance. “It can’t just be a technocratic approach,” she says. “You have to design for occupant behavior and comfort. The main point of a house is to live in it, not to save energy.”
In addition to lessons from Europe’s advanced automation, tighter regulation, and large-scale initiatives toward better-built, market-rate housing, there are some smaller nuggets to mine that can help advance America’s efforts.
Europe’s respect for smaller units comes to mind. “How many square feet do you actually need?” asks Feifer, echoing a common refrain about U.S. housing. “That’s the necessary discussion for the United States,” if it hopes to significantly reduce the environmental footprint of its built world.
Hand-in-glove is Europe’s creativity with space, such as designing with no load-bearing interior walls to easily allow changes in use in the same building. Consider also the practice of putting common living spaces upstairs in a two-story plan to better leverage daylight and passive ventilation, which are less critical (or desired) for bedrooms and other private-use spaces.
Europeans also require products and systems to multitask, such as a chimney that serves as a passive ventilator, a natural light source, and a thermal mass. Technologies such as solar-powered whole-house heat exchangers and underfloor air distribution exemplify increasingly common practice in Europe, but new thinking in America.
“At some point, someone [in the United States] will start doing it this way and prove it works,” says McCaughey. “And they will inspire the rest of the industry to follow.”
Rich Binsacca is a contributing editor to EcoHome.