When parents decide to purchase a new house, they almost always say, “We’re doing this for our kids.”
The new house will be bigger so the children don’t have to share bedrooms, they say. It will have a larger yard so there’s more room for them to run around. And, it’s in a better school district.
In truth, most of the features in the new house — including its size — are what mom and dad want. Most kids, though, are reluctant to leave their old neighborhood, and they don’t care about what a kitchen looks like or what kind of counters it has. Nor do they get excited about the yard size or the number and size of the bedrooms, unless one is smaller or less appealing in some other way.
But eventually the kids will care a great deal about the choices that mom and dad are making in the new house that affect the environment they will inherit. Our children do not yet know all the ramifications of global warming, but they will never forgive us if they inherit a vastly diminished planet because their parents and grandparents lacked the will to prevent it.
What does a new-home purchase have to do with global warming? Simple: Buildings are the largest source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, and in the United States, half of building-related emissions are from houses.
Greenhouse gases are produced when fossil fuels are burned to produce energy. About one-third of household greenhouse gas emissions are produced “onsite” — that is, when natural gas or fuel oil is burned at homes to produce heat and hot water. The other two-thirds of household greenhouse gas emissions are produced “offsite” at electric power plants.
About half of electricity in the United States is generated at coal-burning plants, and these are major polluters. Another 20 percent is generated at natural gas-burning plants, which are lesser polluters. About 20 percent is generated by nuclear plants, which do not create emission issues but do generate radioactive waste. Hydro dams, 8 percent, and renewables, 1 percent, do not create any emission issues.
The electricity from the generating plants powers air conditioners, appliances, lights, computers, home-entertainment equipment and other items that we consider essential to our current standard of living.
When a household consumes less energy, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with that house are reduced.
Recognizing the connection between global warming and the built environment, architects have stepped up to the plate and adopted what is known as the “2030 Challenge.” Originally drafted by Santa Fe architect Ed Mazria and adopted by the American Institute of Architects last year, the 2030 Challenge calls for an immediate 50 percent reduction in fossil-fuel consumption in all new buildings, including houses.
By 2010, the fossil-fuel reduction standard for new building increases to 60 percent, and it will increase by an additional 10 percent every five years. The intended result: By 2030, all newly constructed buildings will be “carbon neutral.” That is, they will operate without reliance on any greenhouse-gas-emitting energy source.
According to Mazria, this ambitious program can be implemented at no extra cost by using design strategies, energy-saving materials and construction techniques currently available.
Many homeowners may ask, “What’s the rush?” but Mazria cautioned that once the forces causing global warming gain a certain momentum, they cannot be stopped — if we wait another 10 or 15 years to do something, it may be too late to be effective.
The embrace of the 2030 Challenge by architects is significant because they determine the specifications and materials used in the buildings they design, with input from clients who are paying for the projects.
But architects do not design and spec everything that is built. Their practices, for the most part, deal with industrial, commercial, government and institutional projects.
In the single-family housing arena, architects design about one-third of the houses that are built, but they actually write the specs for only about 8 percent of them. Home builders determine the specs for the other 92 percent.
Home builders must follow the energy performance standards mandated by local codes, but these have not yet addressed global-warming issues. At this juncture, any measures taken in this regard are the home builders’ call. What actions they take will depend on what they think buyers will pay for.
And that’s where mom and dad come in. When they start to insist on energy efficiencies that will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the house they are buying, the builders will definitely listen.
It’s easy for every new-home buyer to say, “What difference will my house make to global warming? It’s only one of more than a million that will be built in the next year.” True enough — by itself your house won’t make much difference. But if every new-home buyer insists that home builders ratchet up the energy efficiencies in all of the new houses they sell, the difference will be significant.
How ready are mom and dad to step up to the plate? Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders who has studied new-home buyer trends for more than 30 years, said that home buyers have some concerns about the environment, but in most cases these are not as yet affecting their home-purchase decisions.
When Ahluwalia asked focus groups considering a new-home purchase whether they would spend an additional $5,000 to make a $100,000 house more environmentally benign, only 17 percent of the respondents enthusiastically embraced the idea. Half said they wanted an environmentally friendly home but wouldn’t pay more for it, a quarter said their environmental concerns would not affect their housing purchase, and 11 percent said they had no concerns about the environment.
At the same time, Ahluwalia said that the “must-have” features for most new-home buyers increase the energy use of the household. For example, most buyers want higher ceilings to create the illusion of a bigger house, even though raising the ceiling from 8 feet to 9 feet increases the volume of space to be heated and cooled by 12.5 percent. Raising the ceiling to 10 feet, an increasingly popular option in some markets, increases the volume of air to be conditioned by 25 percent.
Everybody wants a two-story foyer to impress their guests, and this also adds to the volume of the house. Fireplaces send heat right up the chimney, and buyers’ insistence on flooding their rooms with natural light means lots of windows that can’t capture heat as well as a solid wall can.
Somewhat contradictorily, buyers do pay attention to conventional energy-saving features such as windows with dual panes, low-emission glass (which has a thin metal coating that reduces heat loss), and added insulation in the walls. But Ahluwalia said that buyers’ interests do not extend to features that they consider exotic — for example, a 90 percent efficient gas furnace or blown-in cellulose insulation that will plug up air leaks that cause uncomfortable drafts in the winter.
The easiest way for homeowners to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption is to buy a smaller house, but so far this idea has had no traction at all. Buyers are still fixated on more space, although the rate at which house size is increasing has slowed, Ahluwalia said. As of July 2006, it had increased less than 1 percent above the 2005 average size of 2,436 square feet. Large houses over 3,000 square feet still command 20 percent of the market, but Ahluwalia said that the number of mega-houses in the 7,500-square-foot to 10,000-square-foot range has slowed.
The attraction of the very large houses is not the added function, Ahluwalia said. The attitude of the buyers seems to be: “I can afford it, so why not?”
Perhaps global warming is the reason to change course.
Questions or queries? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.