As consumers, we sometimes display an unrealistic faith that the products we buy are safe, effective, and economical. Many of us trust that companies have our best interests at heart and that the government will protect us from harm. And it seems that the bigger the price tag, the more naive we can be. Housing is our biggest expense – whether renting or buying – and yet we drive our heads into the sand and blindly believe that it won’t hurt us physically or financially. If you’re buying a new home, don’t be tempted to purchase a home that you will later regret owning when you can find – or even demand – one with optimum energy efficiency, comfort, clean air, durability, and affordability.
They Don’t Build Them Like They Used To
New homes are simultaneously better and worse than ever. In spite of improvements over the years, there are a host of ways they fall short and can unnecessarily add to the cost of ownership, impair health, reduce durability, and undermine comfort.
Thanks to modern building codes, new homes are somewhat more energy efficient than in the past. But while just following the current building code may shave a bit from the energy bill, most new homes fall woefully short when it comes to common energy efficiency measures such as proper insulation and systematic air sealing – even when they are cost effective. In many cases, insulation is either not sufficient, is not properly installed, or both. Air sealing is the most cost-effective way to improve energy performance, reduce uncomfortable drafts, and protect the home from condensation problems, but many new homes have air leaks because the builder did not pay enough attention to air sealing.
Heating and cooling systems are often oversized for the house and that wastes more energy. In many areas, a home’s forced-air furnace and most of the ductwork is installed literally OUTSIDE the building. (Yes, the garage, crawlspace, and attic are outside a home’s thermal boundary.) This standard industry practice can only be called foolish and wasteful. So a modern new home may well have unnecessarily high heating and electric bills, as well as drafts.
In addition to inadequate energy efficiency, many new homes have moisture problems. According to a 2004 survey, about 23 percent of all new homes had problems with window and door installation, about 21 percent of new homes had roof challenges, and about 18 percent had inadequate framing. Many homes are poorly detailed. Four out of five times these construction defects resulted in water damage, as well as mold and mildew issues, which can cause allergies and, in some cases, can make a home unlivable unless remedied. Apparently, not much has changed. More recently, an ABC News investigative report detailed shoddy construction quality across the U.S. The report portrays large homebuilding corporations as masters of sales and marketing, enticing home buyers with fancy appliances, flashy countertops, and custom color schemes – all this glitz coming at the expense of a solid structure built for energy efficiency, durability, and long-lasting value.
Homes and furnishings are packed with toxic chemicals from formaldehyde and VOCs to flame retardants which can cause allergies, sickness, and other health challenges. Indoor combustion, in the form of gas stoves, gas furnaces, and gas water heaters, is standard in many homes. Yet it is inherently problematic. Its toxic byproducts, such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and oxides of nitrogen must be actively removed for a home to maintain healthy indoor air. And without regular maintenance, indoor combustion appliances can be deadly. Atmospherically-vented flues are still standard practice and subject to back-drafting, especially in tight homes. The seriousness of this threat is confirmed by the requirement that homes with combustion appliances have carbon-monoxide monitors. Even so, 500 unintentional deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning occur every year. And for many people, the health risks from exposure to indoor air pollution may be greater than those related to outdoor pollution.
The answer to better health lies not in adding more alarms, but in building homes that do not contain this fundamental threat from indoor combustion from toxic materials and finishes, and from letting polluted outside air inside without filtering it. One study found “that inhabitants of energy-efficient, mechanically ventilated homes rated the quality of indoor air and climate significantly higher” than those living in standard homes.
While today’s new homes and buildings are better in some ways, they are far from the level of performance that should be expected for energy, health, comfort, or durability in a 21st century home. The only reason that most people feel that their new home is okay is that their old home was even worse.
Most production builders offer only the sizes, configurations, and finishes that maximize their own sales and profits. It’s telling that many builders refer to their homes as “products.” As a result, consumers suffer a woeful lack of choice. While the real estate and housing industries sell price per square foot and flashy finishes, homebuyers are often stuck with homes that cost more to own, are unhealthy, need more maintenance and repair, and are less comfortable and often unnecessarily noisy.
Avoid Homebuyer’s Remorse
How can homebuyers find a home that’s not all shine and no substance? For new home buyers, the first step is to conduct due diligence on home builders in your area to find one dedicated to quality that is more than skin deep. The second step is to insist on a home with energy efficiency certification. If the home is certified under a third-party energy program, such as ENERGY STAR, the insulation is probably installed well and the airtightness has been tested. If the home is not certified there is no way for a buyer to know. Finding a certified zero energy home or a zero energy ready home, increasingly available throughout the country, provides an even better value, resulting in homes that are less costly to own, healthier, quieter, more comfortable, and more durable.
Most new homebuyers feel that they have little choice and must accept what the housing industry has to offer, only to wish they had made a different choice after living in their new home for a while. But there are good alternatives and consumers have the power to take control. The Zero Energy Project builder and designer directories list industry professionals with the knowledge and experience to give today’s new home buyer a home they can be confident in. It is important to demand energy efficiency, affordability, durability, health, and comfort from builders and designers. Don’t accept anything less!
*This article originally posted on The Zero Energy Project by Joe Emerson and Bruce Sullivan.