Sustainable homes can save you money in spite of the many sources that continue to maintain that energy-efficient houses are not affordable for most people.
A growing number of researchers are challenging the idea that sustainable housing is unaffordable, finding that if cost-benefit analyses are done differently, that the benefits are not only financial but have health and comfort benefits too.
The key, when evaluating sustainable housing is to combine traditional cost-benefit analysis (CBA) approaches with other “more innovative and pioneering” methods. A CBA basically analyses the benefits involved in terms of monetary value and then deducts all the associated costs. The result is intended to enable one to make certain definitive financial decisions.
But, in the context of sustainable housing, it is not only capital costs that are important. Rather, there are many non-economic, environmental, and both well-being and social benefits that demand a much more compelling response in terms of affordability.
The High-Cost Argument Disregards True Costs and Benefits
Globally, housing in developed countries is responsible for as much as 25% of greenhouse gas emissions. While there is no doubt that there are huge opportunities for cost-effective improvements by generating renewable energy and focusing on energy efficiency, the debate about sustainability versus affordability continues.
Even though there is strong evidence that zero-energy houses have been calculated to have the lowest accumulated costs (which means everything from materials, labor, and services to overheads and inventory), many consider the short-term challenges more important. This, even though improved environmental sustainability has been proven to make housing more affordable.
Those who argue that sustainability adds excessive capital costs to housing ignores the lifetime benefits sustainability provides, particularly for low-income households. Benefits that are commonly overlooked include:
- Lower energy bills that positively impact and help to control living costs.
- Reduced stress because continued utility price increases are minimized.
- Reduced health issues related to air quality and temperature.
- Improved mental well-being.
- Increased comfort.
What Sustainability Means
Of course, for a home to be sustainable doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a zero-energy building.
To meet the requirements of zero-energy, a house must produce as much renewable energy as it uses over a 12-month period of time. It must also fulfill all the other requirements of energy efficiency including having an airtight thermal building envelope, which is basically every part of the house that shields the living space from the outside environment. It must also have controlled ventilation, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, and doors, windows, and appliances that are all energy-efficient.
Additionally, it must have proper insulation with R-values that are much higher than those demanded by most local building codes, so that the materials in foundations, walls, floors, and ceilings resist heat transfer. Air and vapor retarders will commonly be included in the design to inhibit airflow and the water vapor from moving into and out of the envelope of the house.
In reality, this means that zero-energy houses – and, in fact, even low-energy houses – need to be designed beyond minimum building standards. This, in turn, means that professional designers, architects, and engineers play an important role in ensuring homes are energy-efficient, a fact that any professional offering architectural or engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, Washington, or any other city will be able to substantiate.
This might add cost, but it doesn’t make zero-energy homes unaffordable.
While zero-energy homes are often marketed for sale as luxury dwellings that only wealthy folk will be able to afford, Team Zero, a net-zero energy coalition of stakeholders promoting various paths to zero carbon emissions, has evidence that they are in fact cost-effective as well as being environmentally sustainable. Furthermore, as new technologies come to market and design approaches improve, costs, they say, will continue to decline.
Research Adds Insight
A recent 2018 Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) report, Economics of Zero-energy Homes: Single Family Insights, based on studies of homes in four cities – Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore, and Chicago – each in a different climate zone, addresses the perceived costs of zero-energy and zero-energy ready homes that have been designed to be energy-efficient and don’t have solar photovoltaics (PV) yet. While they concede that net-zero homes are still a niche product globally, costs are declining and they are becoming more and more attainable.
Highlights from the report include these pointers:
- In parts of the U.S. including Houston, Texas, zero-energy ready homes cost no more than 1-3% more to build, largely due to aggressive incentives from local utilities.
- Zero-energy homes (that have the necessary solar panels) only cost up to about 8% more.
- An increasing number of consumers are realizing that zero-energy houses will save money long-term and more and more are willing to pay a premium for these savings.
- In some climate zones, zero-energy efficiency can be achieved without cutting-edge HVAC and thermal envelope solutions. This lowers costs too.
Ultimately, as technologies improve and demand increases, it is predicted that costs will continue to decline. A major prediction relates to improvements in PV systems which will, in turn, lead to solar PV costs dropping.
Even if you aren’t able to achieve zero-energy levels of efficiency, wherever you live you can benefit from using low-flow water fixtures, 100% LED lighting, and ENERGY STAR appliances. Heat pumps will cut the costs of water and space heating.
There is no doubt that sustainability does pay!
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of 30+ mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led more than 1,000 projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He is passionate about energy efficiency and sustainability and is a LEED AP.
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