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    Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan

FACING THE CHALLENGES

The journey to zero-net-energy homes relies on the development and deployment of high-performance home innovations. This presents a formidable challenge to an industry that can be slow to change. The NAHB Research Center concluded it takes about 25 years for new technology to be adopted in the housing industry. A highly disaggregated industry provides an additional challenge. At its peak, there were nearly 100,000 individual builders widely dispersed across the country. Even large national builders are commonly disaggregated with substantially autonomous regional divisions. This leaves the housing industry as a disjointed fabric of relatively small companies without adequate resources to make essential investments in technological innovations.

Personal observations, confirmed by other housing experts, suggest the resulting investment in research and development by American home builders is only a tiny fraction of 1% of revenue. Contrast this to the nearly 4% of revenue that corporate America invests in research and development. This substantially bigger investment is possible because a handful of companies dominate most other industries (e.g., three major U.S. automobile manufacturers), resulting in larger organizations with meaningful resources for product development.

My own observations suggest builders across the country are committed to continuous improvement, but they remain slow to adopt technical innovations in their efforts to manage economic conditions, legal liabilities, and evolving design trends. This is especially true where additional first-cost is involved. As a result, critical high-performance innovations often come from outside the core industry.

PATHWAYS FOR INNOVATION

DOE’s world-class residential research program, Building America, is effectively serving as the industry’s hub for high-performance home research and innovation. This program is following a strategic road map to zero-net-energy homes that targets advanced technologies, whole-house projects demonstrating proven performance, guidelines for applying and researching innovations, and infrastructure development needed to make innovations widely accessible.

The proven innovations from Building America feed a diverse set of labeling programs and rating systems that make it easy for consumers to identify high-performance homes. This includes:

• Energy-efficiency labels such as Energy Star–certified homes, DOE Challenge Home, and Passive House;

• Green rating systems such as the National Green Building Standard, USGBC’s LEED for Homes, and Southface’s EarthCraft program; and

• Special attribute labels such as the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS and WaterSense programs for indoor air quality and water conservation respectively, and the Institute for Business & Home Safety’s Fortified Homes program for disaster resistance.

These labeling and rating systems help inform development of our nation’s model energy codes. Model energy codes began in the mid-1970s on the heels of two oil embargoes. After a gradual climb, they are rapidly increasing in stringency and being adopted by a majority of states.

The latest model energy codes along with the growth of high-performance home labeling programs have brought the housing industry to a critical juncture. An increasing number of homes across the country are now so well insulated, the thermal flow through construction assemblies is reduced to a point where they have no or extremely little tolerance for drying. Further, air tightness is often reaching a level where dilution of moisture and pollutants cannot be ensured. Greater air tightness also increases the potential for combustion safety issues due to greater risk of pressure imbalances with internal fan operation (e.g., HVACs, bathrooms, clothes dryers, cooktop exhausts).

Thus, the housing industry needs to be proactive addressing comprehensive building science and indoor air quality practices to ensure affordable, healthy, and durable homes. New innovations coming out of DOE’s Building America program provide solutions for addressing these risks while achieving ultra-energy-efficient homes with zero-net-energy performance.