Energy Efficient Construction Gains Ground

Mike Nemeth
March 20, 2012 — 1,500 views  

My Uncle Dave Wakefield lives in Anchorage, Alaska in a tiny house built when efficiency meant minimal construction cost and square footage.

The house, which he's lived in the past two decades, has changed little since its construction sometime before or during World War II. It has 2-by-4 walls, low ceilings, tiny rooms and a draftiness consistent with old homes built by homeowners who used whatever was lying around. In this case it probably meant surplus wood from nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

When I called Dave recently, he expressed happiness that the winter temperature had finally risen. "The high was 4 degrees today, and it feels almost tropical," he said.

Turning up the heat

Tropical is relative. Dave said deep cold slammed them hard the week before.

Dave keeps the furnace cranked. But because so much of the heat leaks through the attic, walls and windows, massive icicles form, looking like clear, pristine stalactites. Hardly energy efficient.

Ironically, his house is green.

Building goes green

Construction methods certainly have changed since Dave's house was built. In fact, better windows and thicker walls are the norm. The move to energy efficiency can be seen in the latest from the U.S. Green Building Council, which released its 2011 list of top 10 states for LEED-certified commercial and institutional green buildings per capita. The list is based on the U.S. 2010 Census.

Alaska didn't make the cut, and Dave's house certainly didn't help.

However, the little house on Third Avenue across from the site of the old Native Hospital does provide an example of the importance of using techniques to improve efficiency in the nation's homes, commercial structures and institutional buildings.

Efforts grow to improve construction

Buildings consume about 40 percent of the overall energy and 70 percent of the electricity in the United States, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Many efforts, including the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, ratings system, are under way to reduce that and in the process lower production of greenhouse gases.

At the top USGBC's list is Washington, D.C., which completed about 19 million square feet of LEED-certified space for a whopping 31 square feet per person in 2011. Colorado takes the No. 2 spot with 2.74 square feet per person, followed by Illinois, Virginia and Washington state.

California stands at No. 8 in the per capita ranking but scored first with total square footage at about 71.6 million. New York was second in overall square footage with 36.5 million.

People matter most

"Looking past the bricks and mortar, people are at the heart of what buildings are all about," said Rick Fedrizzi, president and CEO of USGBC, in a statement. "Examining the per capita value of LEED square footage in these states allows us to focus on what matters most -- the human element of green buildings."

LEED certification, one of a number of ratings systems, measures site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality."

LEED and other efforts -- such as the net-zero, whole house and passive house movements -- promote construction and retrofit practices that save long-term operational costs. Frequently, the measures can be paid off quickly and even then only add marginally to the overall cost of construction or remodel.

Reducing energy consumption

An NREL report, "Zero Energy Buildings," says "energy consumption in the commercial building sector will continue to increase until buildings can be designed to produce enough energy to offset the growing energy demand of these buildings."

Awareness of the value of energy and other efficiencies is gaining recognition. Corporations are embracing sustainability, consumers have begun to recognize the importance of using technology to manage their electricity use and utilities across the country are finding ways to help stakeholders use less so they can delay adding generating capacity.

Passive house

In northeast Ohio, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History recently completed a passive house for its Climate Change exhibit. The 2,500-square-foot, 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath home "assembles some of the world's greenest technological advancements and packages it in a super-insulated shell," writes Marc Lefkowitz for GreenCityBlueLake Institute, which is the center for sustainability at the museum.

The house, one of the first in the region, is so well insulated, so weather tight and so efficient that it will need no furnace.

Going net zero

Although few buildings can claim net-zero energy consumption status, more are on the horizon. A study from a Boulder, Colo.-based research firm says the net-zero world market, currently measured at a relatively small $225 million, is "set to explode," growing to $1.3 trillion by 2035.

The chief cause cited is the European Union's introduction of net-zero building codes at the end of the decade. Pike says the EU's commercial and residential construction will account for about 90 percent of the total.

The North American market, meanwhile, would grow incrementally, researchers predict.

Home batteries

Of course, everything depends on energy prices, political climate and consumer mood. Katie Fehrenbacher of writes that Japanese consumer electronics giant Kyocera is working to package its solar collectors and energy management systems with lithium ion home battery systems from developer Nichicon Corp.

Fehrenbacher writes: "Kyocera says there's been a growing demand for Japanese homes to be able to generate and store their own power following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters last year."

Who knew that smart phones would take as much computing capability as they have? Who seriously predicted clean energy getting as far technologically as it has and preparing to challenge fossil fuels on their own terms. So why should we not allow the possibility for energy independent homes?

Solar Decathlon housing

In fall 2013, 20 teams that know all about the subject will unleash their creativity. They hail from colleges and universities across the country and will unveil the next generation of technological advancements, building and design techniques and energy efficiencies for home building in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon.

The site for the biennial event will be on the West Coast this time around, at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Since 2002, it's been held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Teams have two years to build solar-powered, energy-efficient homes that are supposed to "combine affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence."

Energy Secretary Steven Chu says the Solar Decathlon will "unleash the ingenuity, creativity, and drive from these talented students to demonstrate new ideas for how families and businesses can reduce energy use and save money with clean energy products and efficient building design."

WaterShed winner

In 2011, the University of Maryland won with its WaterShed entry. The home had a "split butterfly roofline" that managed storm water, filtered pollutants from greywater and minimized water use. Solar, tight construction and efficient mechanical systems reduced energy use.

I'd love to unleash such a team on my Uncle Dave's house. Actually, the best idea would involve an excavator and a dump truck and building fresh. Dave lives on a fixed income and pinches pennies to get by. Reduce his heating costs by 90 percent and he'd feel rich.

And he'd no longer have icicles that could kill a wandering moose.



Mike Nemeth, project manager of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, spent 24 years working as a newspaperman editing and reporting from Alaska to California. The SJVCEO is a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life through increased use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO is based in Fresno, Calif. and works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley. For more information, go to

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Mike Nemeth