ByRichard Ockers, Adam Roberts, Katrina Sommer
For many low- to moderate-income (LMI) households, homeownership remains one of the only avenues to building personal wealth, albeit with limited success due to the ever-present challenge of rising living expenses. Focusing on what can be changed as opposed to what cannot may help homeowners meet this challenge. Although it can be difficult to influence the cost of maintenance, food and transportation, utility costs are a financial strain that can be partially controlled through structural and behavioral modifications.
In an effort to stabilize housing by enhancing affordability, the St. Louis County Office of Community Development (OCD), in partnership with Laclede Gas Company and a private developer, launched an energy study to determine the best combination of green building techniques to control utility costs. The study, which was the first of its kind on a national platform, examined traditional building methods and various Energy Star features by means of a 10-home project known as Patrician Place. Funding for this endeavor was provided by a regional bank and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Energy-efficient natural lighting helps lower utility costs.
Patrician Place was designed to provide relevant comparisons. Therefore, all 10 homes share a common floor plan. The goal was to maximize utility savings through smart architectural design, such as strategically placed windows that allow for natural lighting versus costly artificial lighting. The control home was designed to meet the energy efficiency requirements of the 2003 International Residential Code (IRC), as adopted by St. Louis County, and contained standard-efficiency HVAC equipment—a natural gas furnace and water heater, and an electric air conditioner. The design of the nine green homes incorporated a number of different energy-efficient components, including increased air sealing and insulation, Energy Star windows, and high-efficiency natural gas and electric HVAC systems. The Energy Star ratings for the green homes ranged from 59 to 69, compared to the control home at 150 (lower scores are considered more energy-efficient). Furthermore, all of the green homes were certified to either the National Association of Home Builders’ Model Green Home Building Guidelines or LEED for Homes.
All 10 homes were sold to LMI persons willing to participate in this study. Each buyer received training on the energy-efficient features of their home and completed a survey designed to capture their energy-related behaviors. The data tabulated from this survey were supplemented by observations from quarterly visits. Laclede Gas Company employees visited each home regularly to ensure strategically located data loggers were operational and to extract the data stored on each device. The data loggers recorded temperature and humidity readings in five- to 15-minute intervals over the course of one year. Additionally, natural gas and electric utility bills were collected to analyze energy consumption relative to homeowner preference and general home operation.
The results of this study demonstrate that when homeowners correctly operate their home’s energy-efficient features, they can realize a significant cost savings. Compared with the control home, the average green home saved approximately $200 annually; however, residents of some green homes experienced nearly twice the savings. Not surprisingly, the homeowners with less energy-conscious preferences and those who did not properly utilize their home’s energy-efficient features, such as the programmable thermostat, did not experience the full savings potential. This powerful information fuels the following policy recommendations to motivate and educate existing homeowners and future homebuyers about energy-efficient behaviors and habits in the operation of their households.
The first recommendation gleaned from the evaluation of Patrician Place calls for a shift regarding homebuyer education. All homebuyers receiving federal assistance currently undergo a mandatory eight-hour homebuyer counseling course; unfortunately, this curriculum does not adequately address energy-conservation practices. All homebuyers, especially first-time purchasers, should be exposed to an energy-saving program that is easy to understand and execute. Doing so will help them achieve greater cost savings while simultaneously preserving valuable resources. In response to this data, OCD has created an energy-savings curriculum, Saving Money by Saving Energy, which will be delivered to all homebuyers benefiting from any federal, state or locally funded grants administered by OCD. The curriculum is also available to other agencies, lenders and residents upon request.
The second recommendation is to examine policies that will promote and expand voluntary green building certification programs in order to integrate the most cost-effective green building procedures into local building practice. Patrician Place findings indicate that these techniques are centered on smart architecture, energy-efficient mechanical systems, Energy Star products and appliances, insulation, air sealing, use of recycled materials, low-flow plumbing, and landscaping. Many of these procedures may already be integrated into construction practices across the nation; however, failing to promote these elements through green building programs provides incentives for builders to adopt lowest-cost, least-efficient construction techniques.
The final recommendation is to encourage the implementation of energy-saving home features. Currently, homeowners have access to many different resources that have the potential to help them utilize cost-saving measures that will lower their debt-to-income ratios and increase homeownership affordability—for example, federal, state and local tax incentives; utility rebate programs; low-interest home improvement loans; and the use of Energy Efficient Mortgages.
Improved energy efficiency and the subsequent cost savings are achievable and sustainable by all. The recession and depressed housing market are issues that affect every community. But by continuing to come together to help one another seize opportunities to save money, we will in turn make our communities stronger and more prosperous.