One year ago, Energy Star 3.0 went into effect with more rigorous requirements and checklists, particularly in the areas of air sealing and HVAC sizing and installation. Many large production builders such as KB Home and Meritage Homes were early adopters of the new system, meeting the criteria months before the changes became mandatory. ( Click here for a related story on the new requirements.)
Here, EcoHome talks to CR Herro, Meritage vice president of energy efficiency and sustainability, and Dan Bridleman, KB Home senior vice president for sustainability, technology and strategic sourcing, about what the new approach has meant for their companies and how smaller-sized builders can benefit from building Energy Star-certified homes.
What are some of the changes you’ve had to make to your homes to comply with Energy Star 3.0?
Herro: For most builders, there was a significant need to increase the performance of their building shell to meet the new air tightness and thermal breaks required in the Version 3.0 requirements. Meritage had already adopted national advanced framing and SPF insulation programs that easily met the new requirements in Version 3.0. For us, the most impactful advancements were the development of more significant trade inspections and quality requirements. These improvements established inspections and verifications throughout the construction process to more consistently achieve the superior results intended in the Energy Star-Certified New Homes program.
Bridleman: In order to meet the reduced thermal bridging requirements, we have had to incorporate exterior rigid insulation board into our construction or adhere to the advanced framing requirements. A number of adjustments also have been made to our HVAC systems, including the movement to zoned systems in many of our regions, the increase in the insulation levels on the ducts, the addition of air balancing equipment, and the verification of multiple installation parameters within the system.
Across all regions we have seen an increase in efficiencies on our homes’ windows, wall, and attic insulation levels, and HVAC and water heating equipment.
What challenges have you faced in switching to the new program?
Bridleman: Ongoing communication and training of trade partners and buyers is an essential requirement of Version 3.0. It is important for homeowners to understand the impact of a tighter building envelope, the right-sized HVAC system, and reduced internal loads on a home, as well as the substantial benefits in utility costs, comfort, and indoor air quality that these features can provide.
Also, we work hand in hand with our HERS raters to make sure that they are receiving all of the necessary documentation from our partners, and we continue to implement systems that bring efficiencies to the collection of this documentation.
How did you bring your HVAC subcontractors up to date on the new requirements?
Bridleman: We proactively reached out to our HVAC contractors to make them aware of Version 3.0 requirements, including providing a step-by-step guide for them to follow in order to register and become certified for the program.
Do you feel Version 3.0 produces a better built, more efficient home?
Herro: The new requirements of the Version 3.0 standards have made two great advancements from Version 2.0: They improved the overall functioning of the home, and they improved the execution of the key requirements to achieve the results more consistently. For small or midsized builders [that are] new to energy efficiency, the program offers the ability to adopt better building standards and to credibly compete with other high performance builders. For existing high performance builders like Meritage Homes, Version 3.0 allowed us to challenge our program and to standardize several improved processes.
For the entire industry, Energy Star creates a common language to help realtors, appraisers, underwriters, and home buyers understand and differentiate how good building science translates into health, comfort, and value for a homeowner.
Bridleman: KB Home is proud that we are able to provide our homeowners with a more efficient home. Sound and verified thermal envelopes and engineered HVAC systems are designed specifically for the house. Through the additional checklists, the building envelope has been made significantly more airtight, reducing losses of thermal energy, opportunities for contaminants, and moisture to enter the home. The results are more energy efficient, comfortable, and healthier indoor environments. On average, our HERS score improved by 10 points from Version 2.0 to Version 3.0 requirements.
Does complying with the new version add to your costs?
Herro: There are compulsory requirements added from Version 2.0 to Version 3.0 that increase the material and labor costs of building a home. Meritage carefully evaluated all additional costs to ensure that they created value in excess of the cost for the buyers that would eventually live in our homes.
Higher performance, whether in prescriptive or performance paths, increases both material and labor costs to construct an Energy Star-certified new home. In order to extract a value greater than these costs, an organization needs to leverage the benefits that certifying a home to Energy Star requirements provides. Some benefits are directly impactful to profitability, such as average selling price and market share, and others are more subtle to monetize, such as employee engagement and retention, brand, warranty cost, and referrals. There is no reason to build a better product, unless you act like it is a better product throughout your business.
Bridleman: Yes, there are additional costs, but the result is that we are building a more efficient and better home.
Are customers aware that you build to the new version? Do you use it as a marketing tool?
Herro: Most customers are aware the Energy Star logo implies a product is credible and indicates better function, but many are not aware of all the specific implications Energy Star requirements make to the building process. The most consistent sentiment from our first-time Energy Star buyers is, “I don’t understand all this building science stuff, but now that I live in a house built like this, I would never live in one without these features.” The true benefit for a builder and associated suppliers and trades in building to Version 3.0 specifications is the number of people that the customer, and his or her realtor, tells about how great their home is.
There also are long-term gains from building better homes. Compared to traditional building processes, we see less comfort complaints, fewer HVAC call-backs, and improved customer satisfaction ratings. Because many of the improvements within the Energy Star program are hidden within the walls of the home and the functioning of the appliances, educating the buyers on the special improvements of the home is a key component to allow them to notice and to talk to friends and family about utility bills and comfort once they move in.