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Jim GunshinanMay 07, 2012

Since the beginning of the 20th century, oil has played the role of cheap labor in the U.S. economy and in economies around the world. Traditionally, we have been interested in the horsepower of our car engines, but what if we measured the energy we use in terms of human labor? To power a typical American home would require a small village of people riding bicycles powering electric generators 24 hours a day. Even after the oil shocks of the 1970s, we still expect the earth to provide an abundance of oil and other fossil fuels for our use. And we do not want to pay the real price, which includes the costs of the degradation of our environment and the moral and military costs of maintaining a steady and cheap supply of oil from the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico, Nigeria and other troubled regions.

I edit a magazine called Home Energy, which covers energy-efficient, healthy and affordable home building and renovation for an audience of energy-efficiency experts, energy auditors and home performance contractors. And I have found home performance contractors to be like doctors on a house call: they go into homes, diagnose problems—like high energy bills, unhealthy indoor air, mold and plain, old discomfort—and offer solutions. For most houses that means sealing up leaks in the building envelope and the duct systems, increasing insulation levels in the attics and walls and making sure the home has a controlled supply of fresh air.

Counter to the prevailing wisdom of some in the green building movement, efficient and healthy housing usually does not require new windows, ground source heat pumps, photovoltaic cells on the roof, complicated lighting control systems and other high-tech gizmos. Compared with the real costs of fossil fuels, energy efficient and healthy homes are a bargain. And since buildings consume almost half the energy we use, what is good for houses is good for the environment. Unfortunately, though, insulation and air sealing are less appealing topics than P.V. panels and touch-screen, whole-house monitoring systems.

At a green building conference, I talked with a builder about one of his clients, a single man living in a 5,000-square-foot home in the Oakland Hills, who had about $1 million worth of P.V. panels installed on the roof of his mansion. He wanted a “net zero energy house”—that is, one that produces as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year. I see that house looming over the landscape whenever I drive east on Highway 24 just before the Caldecott Tunnel, which separates my office in Berkeley from the cities of Orinda, Lafayette and Walnut Creek, where I live in a small home that uses less energy than the average U.S. home. By world standards, however, that is nothing to brag about. Consider: $1 million dollars could have retrofitted 500 homes in the poor and crime-ridden areas of West Oakland. Over time, the investment in energy efficiency would have paid for itself and more.

For the poor and working poor, housing is an economic challenge and a health challenge. A study of low-income housing in Boston found that making a home or apartment more efficient, with healthier indoor air, increases the health and well-being of the occupants. After homes were retrofitted, the occupants were given some basic information about energy efficient and healthy living—keeping harsh chemicals out of the living areas, only using nontoxic pest control methods, using an exhaust fan in the bathroom and kitchen. The children in these homes had fewer visits to the emergency room with asthma attacks and spent less time away from school because of sickness than they did before the retrofitting, and in comparison with children who lived in unhealthy homes (see the studies in “Battling Childhood Asthma,” by Kimberly Vermeer, in Home Energy, 2006). Making a home more energy efficient also makes it healthier, and vice versa. You do not have to sacrifice the one for the other.

The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program received more than $6 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as President Obama’s stimulus bill. With that money, nonprofit and for-profit weatherization agencies around the country made more than 600,000 low-income homes healthier and more affordable to live in. That is a lot of money, but it is money well spent.

It is not just the poor who need help. We recently received in our office a letter from a couple in rural Ohio, both schoolteachers, with two young children. They live in an old farmhouse that has been with their family for more than 100 years. But their combined salaries leave many of the needed repairs on their home—new siding, insulation in the walls and attic, a new, more efficient furnace—out of reach financially. Without help, they may lose their home. Right now, they cannot afford to live in a house with high energy bills either. Nor can they allow their children, who are prone to asthma attacks, to reside in a drafty house that collects extra moisture in the wintertime, which can lead to mold problems. We connected that family with some programs in Ohio that serve rural areas by offering financing for home-energy retrofitting to low- and moderate-income families.

There are about 50-million homes in the United States, plus millions more apartment units that house poor, working poor, middle class and upper-income families; most of the houses are in need of some kind of energy retrofit.

All About Behavior

Buildings scientists have come to realize that making a home more efficient is not the same thing as saving energy. Compared with homes in the 1950s, current U.S. homes are about twice as big, house half the number of people and use twice the energy. We have made great gains in heating and cooling efficiency and appliance efficiency in the last 50 years or so, but this has been more than offset by our hunger for bigger houses and more electronic devices—all those gadgets around the house that use energy even when they are considered to be off. Among these are cellphone chargers, DVD players, home theater systems and other electronic devices nicknamed “vampires.” These creatures of the night consume up to 10 percent of the energy used in homes. So technology sometimes helps and sometimes hinders our ability to use natural resources wisely. There are now regular national gatherings, like the Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference, that convene experts in technology, sociology, economics and psychology to discuss how we can motivate people to conserve energy.

At one conference in 2009, I heard a speaker describe a study that looked at people’s attitudes toward the things they buy. As one example, he described a middle-aged man he interviewed. They talked about cars. The man had an old, beat-up Honda Accord when he was in high school and college, which he loved, because driving it gave him a feeling of independence and self-reliance. When he got married and started working for a bank, he was told by his superiors that he needed to drive a car more fitting to his profession. He bought a BMW. Then when he and his wife began raising kids, they felt insecure on the road with all the big S.U.V.’s and pick-up trucks on the highways, so they bought their own big S.U.V. Later, when the kids were grown and living on their own, they bought a hybrid car—not a Prius but a six-cylinder Honda Accord hybrid, which got a little better mileage than a regular Accord. It allowed them to feel they were being good to the environment without sacrificing the feeling of power and security on the road. When asked which car he liked best, he said it was the beat-up Honda Accord he had when he was a teenager. He was not completely conscious of it at the time, but driving the old, beat-up car fit the narrative he lived by, that of an independent and self-reliant teenager. After that, he was following someone else’s narrative—his boss’s, the banking industry’s and that of a society insecure after the terrorist attacks on our country in 2001.

A Change in the Narrative

Our faith traditions provide an answer to our energy challenges. The overriding narrative of our consumer culture says that success means having a big, expensive car and a huge house with lots of electronic gizmos, heated towel racks and complicated rooflines that are hard to air-seal. The dominant religious ethos says that we are rugged individuals and that monetary success implies a blessing by God. With that narrative in the minds of homeowners everywhere, it is no wonder we have energy problems.

I learned in a college Christian ethics class that Catholics support a “thick theory of human rights.” The rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are a “thin” form of human rights. The right to form unions and bargain collectively and the rights to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care and a living wage are the thick version. That is what centuries of Catholic social teaching have promoted.

We find the same wisdom in other traditions and among scientists. John Muir, the great environmentalist and one of the fathers of the national parks, said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Good science shows us that we are all connected. So does good religion. When we all recognize that a society where everyone has a decent place to live is a healthy and prosperous society, and when we look at the earth as a precious life partner to whom we are all intimately connected, then we will be able to take major steps toward a sustainable way of life on the planet.

Good building science, technology and the efforts of women and men willing to crawl in buggy crawlspaces and hot, spider-infested attics to make homes more efficient and healthy have taken us a long way. Yet all of us energy-users need a change of attitude to complete the journey. We need to accept a different narrative, one that is truer to our human nature. That narrative values independence but also cooperation, a sense that we can create a better life and a realization that we live in a limited world, where the things we use every day are a precious gift that we have to preserve for the use of future generations. In other words, we have to learn to live with hope that we can build a better future.

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Stanley Kopacz
11 years 11 months ago
I'm still glad that fellow bought the $1M worth of solar panels though that seems very high for a 5,000 sq-ft house.  He's helping drive a technology that'll eventually benefit those with lower incomes.  For low cost housing, I like approach at monolithic.com.  These houses reduce home energy requirements by 1/3 to 1/2 and will also help prepare for the violent weather that's coming.
Jim Gunshinan
11 years 11 months ago
Thanks for your comment Stanely. Monolithic dome homes are a great choice for the environment and are very durable. If we could only get used to the aesthetic...

I think I underestimated the size of the house in the Oakland Hills. It looks like the starship Enterprise without the "arms". Probably closer to 10,000 square feet. Only the rich can afford to try out new technology. And there actually is a "trickle down" with the technology. But still, houses are meant to house people. A good metric of efficient housing is something like kWh per square foot per year per person. The Oakland Hills guy scores in the Energy Hog category.

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