Can We Make our Homes Energy Efficient without Radical Changes to Lending Practices? Part 2

homeeemortgagecoverIn the first blog on this topic, I gave an overview of the UNC Center for Capital Research Report – Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks.

This second blog addresses the Report’s findings regarding financing energy efficiency and the challenges that face consumers when seeking additional dollars to make energy upgrades in their homes.

According to the Report, the U.S housing stock is valued at about $14.5 trillion. To even devote 2% to energy efficiency improvements would require an investment of nearly $300 billion.  While there are federal, state and local energy efficiency loan funds and other mechanisms in place to provide assistance, they can’t possible cover what is required.

The most widely used mechanism is direct borrowing in the form of consumer loans, home equity loans and traditional or specialized mortgages.  Most of these financing options require consumers to have either substantial equity in their existing home, the personal reserves to pay any added costs out-of-pocket or larger down payments for a home purchase. Many homeowners have seen the equity in their homes diminish over the last few years due to the struggling economy. 

For many first-time homebuyers or moderate-income borrowers who do not have these financial resources there are energy-efficient mortgages (EEM) which offer lenders flexibility in the debt-to-income and other underwriting considerations so borrowers can qualify for larger loans or lower interest rates. However, few lenders currently offer these.

If we are going to see significant improvement in the retrofitting of existing buildings for energy efficiency, owners need to be incentivized. This usually manifests itself as access to affordable capital.  While it is a good start, it is not enough to offer tax incentives especially for homeowners who do not have cash resources to make some of the more pricey upgrades to older homes.

This debate is going to Capitol Hill and groups like the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) are lobbying to encourage underwriting flexibility on energy efficient homes and to promote energy efficiency to consumers – particularly for moderate- and middle- income borrowers seeking financing for energy efficient upgrades.

It’s apparent that business as usual will not get us where we need to go.  This Report is a reminder of a prevailing situation that continues to be raised but not resolved.  Is there money available that we don’t see?  Are there resources somewhere that could be re-allocated to move the green needle and help moderate- and middle- income borrows obtain the financing needed to make necessary energy upgrades?

We, as consumers, cannot strive to be sustainable nor can cities strive to be the ‘greenest’ cities without resources to make this happen.  Are the gloves off?  Can we really move the needle this time?

Can We Make our Homes Energy Efficient without Radical Changes to Lending Practices? Part 1

homeeemortgagecoverA recent study by the University of North Carolina Center for Community Capital/Institute for Market Transformation puts forth some very interesting data regarding energy efficient home building, mortgage lending and the state of the lending industry. This report, Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks has some interesting findings that I plan to address in a few blogs.

The study includes:

  • National sample of 71,000 home loans from 38 states and the District of Columbia
  • Variables examined for the homes included age of the house, square footage, FICO (credit) scores, ZIP code average incomes and unemployment rates, typical time to default, sale price, heating/cooling degree days and electricity prices 
  • Average home price in sample was $220,000

The study finds that default risks are on average 32 percent lower in energy-efficient homes.  There is, perhaps, a mixed message in this premise.  We have seen over the last decade that the early adopters of energy efficiency are more educated, probably make more money and most likely live in more urban locations. People in more rural parts of the country may not have local resources for information or education about energy upgrades and may not have access to capital from lenders to make these upgrades.

The study says that the amount of money homeowners spend on energy annually equates to 15 percent of the cost of home ownership. While these costs vary around the country, rural households pay $400 more on average than urban household. There could be many reasons for this. Is it the nature of construction?  Is it utility costs?  

Are the resources to make energy improvements to these homes available?  We have blogged before about the fact that if you have a home built prior to 1980 you should consider energy upgrades and if you are refinancing include them as part of your lending conversation.

The heart of the problem lies in the valuation of homes and the lack of information regarding mortgage lending options.

Think about it. Is your home worth more or less than it was five years ago? Slim chance of any “magical” home equity showing up to be cashed in and spent on upgrades.

The only way we can move the needle to upgrade existing homes and buildings so they are more efficient is to rationalize the underwriting process and include energy upgrades as part of the mortgage.

Stay tuned. There is more to come on this study.  If you have any thoughts on this subject, I would love to hear them.

Green Leasing: A Collaborative Approach to Energy Efficiency

Brandywine Realty property outside Philadelphia

Brandywine Realty property outside Philadelphia

You’ve probably seen this stat before —buildings account for 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in the U.S.  We all know that reducing energy consumption is imperative for the future sustainability of our country, but when it comes to putting words into actions, we sometimes get stuck.

 Case in point: the potential for gridlock in traditional lease agreements— where the benefits of reduced energy usage or building upgrades do not “flow” to the person who pays for the transaction. For example, if a tenant is not responsible for monthly utility bills, then there is no financial incentive to reduce energy use.

 The good news? Companies such as Brandywine Realty Trust are bringing a fresh perspective to energy efficiency through green leases, which help align the financial and energy incentives of building owners and tenants.

 Specifically, property owners can charge tenants for measures that result in operational savings, such as energy-efficient lighting or chiller retrofits, as long as the savings are greater than the cost of the measure. The tenant benefits from reduced monthly utility costs and the building owner is able to increase the value of the building. Most importantly, the lease agreement instills a spirit of collaboration and mutually beneficial financial incentives to reduce energy consumption.

 Best of all, green releases are generating formidable results. Brandywine Realty Trust and its tenants have reduced energy costs by roughly 46 percent in a 93,000 square foot, 1980s era, building in suburban Philadelphia. And, the building’s energy cost per square footage is approximately 38 percent lower than the area average. With such a great return on investment, it truly begs the question — why aren’t more real estate companies getting on board with green leases?

Microsoft Net Zero Carbon Center – A Literal Case of Garbage in Garbage Out

In a previous blog, I talked about the Facebook data storage center in Lapland using a naturally cold area to minimize the energy costs of the facility. I speculated about how we could use the heat coming off such facilities for other uses. Well, here is another article I came across with a creative way to offset carbon.

This article talks about Microsoft building the first zero carbon data center powered by a fuel cell burning 100 percent renewable biogas from a wastewater treatment plant. The new, small prototype 300 kW “Data Plant” is being built outside of Cheyenne, Wyo. at the city’s Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility and will run on methane produced by the facility.

Microsoft reported the $8 million modular data center pilot, which will begin operating next spring, is just a fraction of the size of its other data centers and does not contain any production computing applications. However, if successful, it could be implemented on a megawatt scale at larger data centers in the future.

Buckminster Fuller in Spaceship Earth noted that trash and pollution were just the little bits and pieces we haven’t figured out how to use yet.  Well, looks like someone figured out how to use methane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activity. This is exciting news since we have so many landfills in addition to water treatment plants that produce methane. This could be a first step is using a gas that is virtually going to waste.

Fuel cells – non-carbon based fuel cells – a perfect solution.  In fact, Saint-Gobain is working on this technology so we do have some skin in the game on this technology.

This is a great example of a company that is using emerging technology to utilize an otherwise squandered resource.  Hats off to Microsoft!

Take Advantage of the Extended Energy Tax Credits

cit5glamourimagesmallAs you know, at the end of 2012 our Nation averted falling off what was referred to as the “fiscal cliff” by passing last minute budget legislation.  Homeowners and homebuilders became the winners with that vote because one of the provisions was to extend the Energy Tax Credit which was designed to help them upgrade the efficiency of the building envelop and reduce their energy usage.

There were two key components of that action. Congress extended a tax credit for energy efficient retrofits through Dec. 31, 2013 and retroactively to Jan. 1, 2012. The credit allows homeowners to claim 10 percent of the cost of qualified energy-efficient building materials, such as insulation, up to $500. They also revived a business tax credit of up to $2,000.00 for builders that construct or significantly renovate “dwelling units” (e.g. apartments, condos or single-family homes) that meet certain energy efficiency standards.

I strongly recommend that to make the best decisions for improving the energy efficiency of an existing home that you conduct a home energy audit. This is an important first step in identifying where updates are most needed and how to get the greatest return from a renovation budget. ResNet is a great resource that helps connect homeowners with trained auditors in their community. For more information, visit www.resnet.us.

That being said, it is fairly easy to identify one of the greatest sources of energy loss even if you are not handy with energy modeling programs – the attic. Take a look up there. If the tops of the ceiling  joists are visible then you will definitely need to add more insulation to reach the current recommended R-value. This is typical of homes built more than 30 years ago.

ainsulatticblow1webdsmallAccording to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average homeowner can save as much as 30 percent on energy bills related to comfort simply by having the right amount of insulation throughout the home. For attics, applying a premium fiberglass blowing insulation is the best solution for adding thermal performance in an attic and in keeping a home warmer in the winter and cooler during the summer (without concern for compressing what insulation already exists  – a real issue with some other types of loose-fill insulations available). And the best part: it is easy to access and an inexpensive way to achieve great results year round.

There are tools available for homeowners that help recommend R-values for different areas of the home, provide estimates of potential savings, and identifies incentives for completing insulation projects from this federal tax credit down to local utility programs.

The most important thing is that you act now and don’t miss the opportunity to take advantage of the Tax Credits while you can.  This might really be your last chance for a bite of the apple. The reality is older homes will need to be upgraded to remain competitive is the marketplace as newer construction comes online.  It is only a matter of time before energy efficiency labels will be placed on buildings.  Don’t let your single most valuable investment fall behind!

The Razor’s Edge – Casual Greening versus Authentic Sustainability

It’s remarkable when you think about it: there are literally hundreds of courses, webinars, certifications, and trainings all geared towards the re-education of built environment professionals for the purposes of moving towards a sustainable future.

But the colleges who teach future designers, architects, engineers and construction managers continue to lag behind the curve when it comes to the development and promotion of sustainable curricula. Sure, you’ll find a plethora of courses that feature “green” additions to an otherwise traditional course or new “Sustainability” programs that are cobbled together from existing courses under the mantle of collaboration and interdisciplinary work. Part of the disconnect lies in the fine line that can be drawn between “casual greening” and “authentic sustainability.”

The Razor’s edge, shown below, demarcates a chasm between “Greening”, which can be categorized as the mitigation of damage that results from the construction habitation and demolition of built structures; and “regenerative”, which seeks to reverse the long centuries of damage caused by the design and construction industries. In this model, “greening” is an important step towards more ambitious and more effective sustainable design. 

 

Razor's Edge

As we move further into the 21st century, the signals of pronounced climate change become more apparent; rising temperatures, wild weather, finite fossil fuels, and catastrophic oil spills form the context of a new era in the history of humanity. The question then remains, can the universities ramp up their offerings to authentically address the challenges that lie ahead? The answer is yes, but. Yes, educators are generally open to new ideas and are interested in change, albeit at a slow pace. But university structures as they are currently configured do not encourage teaching and learning pedagogies that are increasingly inclusive, collaborative, and interdisciplinary.

Collaboration is inhibited by antiquated credit structures. More ambitious holistic sustainability courses are blocked by outdated divisions between disciplines and the connection between what is taught in school and what happens in the real world continues to remain as wide as ever. So, what to do?

A major change can come from industry itself by building deeper and more meaningful relationships with university programs. By offering expertise, small amounts of funding, and some face time, industries can entice collaboration across disciplines at levels not seen before, engage with students and faculty in thoughtful discussions on the future of sustainability and ultimately help to build the kind of work-force that will play a pivotal role in leading companies to increased profit while building a more resilient and sustainable future.

This is a guest blog post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of CertainTeed Corporation

The Greening of the 2012 Building Codes: Air-tightness Testing – A Must Have for Consumers

 

Blower Door Testing

Blower Door Testing

The 2012 energy code, which we are very excited about because it is very advanced compared to the 2009, requires two things which have never been required by aU.S. code before.  These are:

  • Blower door testing of houses
  • Duct pressure testing for leakage

These two things are extremely influential on energy efficiency and have always been assumed were part of best practices. We have seen changes in the codes saying “install air barriers or tighten up your duct work” but they never required that these tests be conducted to ensure that the house is airtight.

These are two physical tests that need to be conducted on every new home if the 2012 building codes have been adopted by a state. While this is one of the best ways to ensure efficient thermal comfort for home owners, the potential impact on the builder must be understood. If you are building a house in say 120 days scheduling someone to come out to conduct this testing could severely impact the building schedule: these tests need to be conducted before installing the drywall. No drywall until you have passed the inspection- imagine it.

But who conducts this testing?  Code officials are not typically trained or funded to execute this type of testing.  This testing has been done in the past for NAHB, Energy Star and other programs by internally or externally certified raters. Home Energy Rating System (HERS) raters are a great example of one group that is trained to do this testing.

However, there is no organized resource, clearinghouse or national database for building professionals to find all of the various local professionals who can conduct these tests. To ensure that these tests are conducted and that states do not “opt out” of this requirement, a national database needs be developed so that third-party testers can be easily found and scheduled.

This is an important part of the 2012 code that qualifies for the consumer that the home is energy efficient and that some of the most critical passive elements of that efficiency were done right.  It’s not what you spec; it’s what you inspect.

 

Building America Solution Center a Great New Resource for Consumers and Residential Builders

The U.S Department of Energy has launched the Building America Solutions Center website.  Building America is a program that is operated by the Department of Energy to investigate best practices for residential construction.  They have accumulated a great deal of information from the field and done several experiments that up until now have only generally been shared within the Building Science community. It is a wonderful resource for building professionals and consumers who want to make the best choices when improving the energy efficiency in residential construction.

The Solution Center website shares best practices and other project resources to help plan, implement and measure energy efficiency programs for residential buildings and homes. The site includes resources to answer questions regarding new energy efficient technologies, projecting savings, financing home improvement projects.

This is public / private partnership funded research and everyone should be aware that it exists so they can make the best choices as we all move toward improving the energy efficiency of our buildings.

Spread the word about this great resource!

Don’t Forget the End Users When Building for Energy Efficiency

While at Greenbuild 2012 I was asked “What do you think is the most critical factor in ensuring a healthy, sustainable built environment?” My answer was posted on our Blog but there is more I want to say about this so here we go!

Users or occupants of high efficiency buildings need to understand and be a partner in the process because  ultimately they influence the  success or failure of a building’s efficiency over time. For example, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes will give you credit for and requires Energy Star performance which means certain insulation levels, certain air tightness and certain efficiencies on the mechanical systems (among other issues). The energy efficiency of the building is based upon a combination of highly efficient equipment and permanent passive systems.

When the active system wears out, if the consumers don’t appreciate the importance of the efficiency of that system on the overall performance of the habitat they are unlikely to take that into consideration when they have to replace equipment.  They can go from a high efficiency piece of equipment that made their sustainable building sing beautifully and perform wonderfully and stick in something that is on sale or is perhaps promoted by their contractor but with a whole different efficiency rating.  Now the building goes from being a Prius to being a Hummer simply because the driver wasn’t told the difference between the two.

In sustainability circles we often talk about “the Prius effect”.  This comes from the engagement of the driver with the car.  Once the driver understands the savings due to the offset of the electrical to the fuel and you give them real-time feedback, they began to drive against the machine to improve the efficiency. The build community needs to develop dashboards or other tools for high efficiency buildings so that end users can see the benefits provided by the systems.  That buy-in is critical to sustaining efficiency over the life cycle of the building.

There is no point in doing a sustainable building for someone unless you teach and show them how to maintain it. That is one aspect I especially admire about the Living Building Challenge. The Beauty petal has components which include inspiration and education. Couldn’t we all use a little more of both?

Greenbuild 2012 is a Wrap! Philadelphia Here we Come!

San Francisco is among the top sustainable cities in the U.S. so it was exciting to be out there for Greenbuild this year.  The expo portion of the conference was only two days this year but from the beginning of the first day the show floor was packed with attendees who were really engaged. In fact, it was the most engaged audience I have seen since the recession began.  Hopefully, that is an indicator that the building market is returning.

NOVA speed dating

NOVA speed dating

In my travels around the show, I was surprised that I really didn’t see too many new innovations. There was nothing that stood out as a bright, new product or very innovative with the exception of the Saint-Gobain NOVA Innovation Competition.  The NOVA External Venturing division of Saint-Gobain rewards start-ups offering the most innovative solutions in the field of habitat, energy and the environment.  This was the first time the competition has taken place in the U.S. Over the last several months Saint-Gobain reviewed and selected eight finalists who would come to Greenbuild for a final interview process during the show days.  From those eight, three entrepreneurs where awarded cash prizes, however, all the contestants will have the opportunity to partner with Saint-Gobain in exploring potential joint development, licensing and other collaboration.

It was amazing the buzz that was created on the show floor by the NOVA Competition.  The final eight entrepreneurs participated in what might be referred to as a “speed dating” round.  These innovators were pitching their ideas to some of the best business leaders in our industry. It was exciting during the speed dating and a large crowd gathered for the announcement of the winners.  The top winner was Heliotrope, a developer of energy-efficient electrochromic glass that that switches reversibly between three states:  solar transparent, heat blocking, and heat and light blocking or darkened.  The second place winner was PlanGrid, a complete collaborative platform for construction information and the fastest PDF viewer in the universe.  Third place went to SmarterShade, a unique approach to the emerging technology being called “smart windows.”

Greenbuild 2013 is coming to Philadelphia – CertainTeed’s neck of the woods.  But, for Philadelphia, following San Francisco is like having the Beatles as a warm-up band.  While many folks who are into urban sustainability are aware of the great progress made my our Mayor Nutter and his team, just how far and how quickly Philadelphia has transformed its sustainable future may come as a surprise to some of our visitors next year. I’m certain that none of this would be possible without the support and efforts of groups like the Delaware Valley Green Building Council who is hosting GreenBuild for 2013. There are some very exciting projects taking place in Philadelphia and we are eager to share them with the green world.

I hope to see you in Philadelphia for Greenbuild 2013!