Many newly built homes are full of bells and whistles — granite countertops, soaring ceilings, expansive master suites — but prospective buyers would be wise to look beneath the skin to learn whether the home they want to buy is built with efficiency and comfort in mind.
That was a key takeaway from a Thursday presentation by Mark LaLiberte, owner of the consulting firm Construction Instruction, during an event sponsored by the Building Industry Association of Clark County. Speaking in an unfinished Ridgefield home being built by Urban NW Homes, LaLiberte delivered a polished seminar on efficient building design to a standing audience of about 50 guests that included building contractors, state legislators, and utility and government officials.
LaLiberte’s message was one of optimism about rapid advances in building science, with more to come as the building industry works to achieve a national goal of net zero energy consumption in new buildings by 2030. That optimism was based on his belief that consumers will come to expect and demand homes that will offer lower energy costs, have efficient air flow for a healthier environment, and have a greater resale value. While it’s easy enough to build homes that meet the minimum standards of local building codes, “the consumer wants a house that is potentially better,” he said.
But the greatest challenges come in getting all the details lined up to build highly efficient houses like the 2,884-square-foot home being built by Urban NW Homes in Ridgefield’s Discovery Ridge subdivision. Those challenges are in designing and installing efficient heating and cooling systems, finding subcontractors who know how to install those systems and maximize their potential savings, and getting appraisers and lenders to take into account the intrinsic and market value of those improvements.
LaLiberte, who recently moved from Minnesota to Bend, Ore., said builders too often take a wait-and-see attitude about innovation, choosing to let others adopt new technologies, products or construction techniques. But the beneficial effects of green building techniques “are beautifully validated,” said LaLiberte, who has taught building science for 30 years. “We have to jump in and give it a try.”
In a presentation peppered by detailed questions from building industry professionals, LaLiberte explained how the added costs of energy-efficient windows and other materials could be almost entirely offset by construction efficiencies. Installing heating and cooling ducts between floors, rather than in attics, improves efficiency. Likewise, installing the most heavily insulated windows on the side of a house most exposed to weather extremes reduces heat loss. But the benefits of such measures are not fully achieved unless the heating and cooling contractor is part of the discussion and scales down the size of a furnace and air conditioning unit to match the lower anticipated demand, he said.
One serious problem for building houses that may potentially last at least 100 years, as LaLiberte suggested they could, is a lack of skilled workers, especially in the more challenging work of building homes that meet high efficiency standards. Troy John, owner of Urban NW Homes, said he is building homes that probably exceed code for energy efficiency standards by 30 percent. But some subcontractors aren’t willing or able to work on projects that are outside their standard practices in conventional homes, he said.
Still, John said he has managed to keep costs at or lower than conventional construction costs on his new homes. His 20 homes in the Discovery Ridge subdivision have all sold before they were finished, at costs of just under $400,000, he said.
LaLiberte said he focuses his efforts on prodding the development industry, rather than pursuing government mandates for building efficiency, because he finds the market-driven effort to be more effective than regulations.
“The legislative process is pretty complex,” he said. “I would prefer that people make a good choice.”
Michael Luzier, president and CEO of the Maryland-based Home Innovation Research Labs, also attended the session. He was scheduled Thursday evening to give his organization’s “National Green Building Standard Partners of Excellence Award to the Building Industry Association’s Green Building Council and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.