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Mandating energy-efficiency seen as vital to builder buy-in

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Regulation plus education. That's what B.C.'s experts in energy efficient homes say it will take before the province's building industry fully embraces a shift to making greener homes.

"I don't know if I'm going to live long enough to see a huge difference without some kind of mandating," says Don Taylor of DW Energy Advisors based in the lower mainland. "That seems to be a big key." Taylor, like others quoted in this story, is a Certified Energy Advisor (CEA), providing guidance to builders who want to develop energy efficient designs, and testing to those who want their homes EnerGuide rated.

"Builders are definitely on the fence, they are definitely waiting to be told what they have to do," agrees Heather Lamar of R U Green Consulting in Kamloops. "They are not going to do it until the Building Code changes, and they have to."

Despite delays, it's widely expected that the next B.C. Building Code will require air leakage tests and energy performance at an EnerGuide 80 equivalent level. Given that change is coming – albeit slowly – it would make sense for builders to prepare now. The reasons many are not, however, have to do with some false perceptions, and some hard realities.

Mixed perceptions: cost and market demand

It's important to note that some B.C. builders are making the shift to energy efficiency, and mastering it. Every CEA interviewed here mentioned a handful of leading-edge companies in their region that have embraced change and are constantly improving the performance of their homes. But they're the exception.

"What I did see the last couple years was builders who were getting prepared. They wanted to be ahead of the game, they wanted to reinvent their businesses now, instead of having to do it at the last minute," says Lamar, who works with builders in points as far flung as Golden, 100 Mile House, and Penticton. "Now, because of the economy, some of those builders are cutting back. They've discovered the formula, but they're saying their customers can't afford it right now, and they're not willing to absorb it into their business."

CEAs agree there is a widespread perception that going energy efficient raises costs. And it's true, for those builders who haven't invested in the learning curve and who need to change their processes and designs. For those who have, improved energy efficiency is mostly a matter of low-cost details, such as added insulation and superior sealing. The flip side of perceived added costs, however, is a perception – partly true – that the market doesn't care.

"They say, ‘The public isn't asking for these things, so why should I put them in my home when it's going to cost me and the buyer doesn't see a benefit in it?" says Rod Croome of Home Tech Energy Solutions Inc. in Prince George. "The consumer needs to be better educated as well."

All agree there is a chicken and egg marketing problem here: the building industry has promoted granite countertops, floor-to-ceiling glazing and hardwood floors for so long that these are no longer seen as luxuries, but requirements, in a market where buyers are increasingly price sensitive. "They say their potential customers want the bling before they even want to comprehend energy efficiency," says Lamar. "But the builders have trained them; they've taught them this is what a nice house is, not how it lives or breathes or how much you're going to spend on it later. And it has come back to bite them."

"We're competing on a cheap playing field," says Ray Smith of VerdaTech, based in Creston. "As long as there's a prescriptive route builders can take that might be $200 cheaper [than achieving demonstrated efficiency performance], they're going to do it. Personally, I don't think that's right; you're still allowing houses to be built of a lower quality, in terms of energy." CEAs offer stories of calls from homeowners who are saddled with electric bills upwards of $1,200 bimonthly, because they didn't consider performance when they purchased.

"The last thing that anyone mentions is that this is going to be somebody's home," says Taylor. "This is a home for potentially 50 years, but it's always talked about as a cost to the builder. It's not a cost to the builder, it's a cost to the homeowner." And as Taylor points out, builders who are not selling energy efficient homes don't get exposed to energy-savvy buyers. "I think the builders that are in it are getting good responses. No one ever said, ‘I don't want to buy this house; it's too energy efficient.' You never hear that."

The whole system has to change

The issues with perception and incomplete information loom not only on the marketing side of the equation, but in basic building science as well. Several CEAs commented that they see builders' "eyes glaze over" when it comes to discussions about the connections between efficiency, ventilation, and heat recovery. Misperceptions rule. CEAs share stories of suppliers talking builders out of using heat recovery ventilators (HRV) because fans are cheaper and the HRV's efficiency function is misunderstood; of frequent comments about how "building too airtight is a problem"; or of a cold-climate builder who is told by his window supplier that triple-glazed windows will make no difference except to reduce noise.

Taylor says change is hampered at many points. Unsupportive inspectors can balk at new framing techniques; realtors looking for an easy sell do little to promote energy performance. "It's the trades too," he says. "I was trying to talk a builder into using an HRV and on-demand hot water, so he'd hit EG80. But he said, ‘My plumber is very reluctant.' I guess once you get a good plumber, once you trust him, you assume he knows what he's talking about. But they may not be up on the latest things like HRVs and on-demand which have changed greatly over the years."

"Technology has changed so quickly," agrees Lamar. " we love our smart phones; we love technology but the housing industry and builders have not shifted as quickly. So, while there are a lot of technologies out there that are more efficient, and have become more affordable, what hasn't changed is builders saying, "This is what I've done for 30 years, this is what I'm going to keep doing."

Education... or exit?

This points to a significant need for education throughout the industry, for builders, trades, inspectors, realtors, and buyers alike. But some suspect there will also be those  who will simply sidestep, either by joining forces with a larger firm, or exiting the industry.

"Most will get on board, kicking and screaming," says Croome. "But I've had conversations about how some older contractors are thinking it's time to hang up the tools now. They're at a point where they'll just retire because they don't want to learn it."

"It's too bad because these are very capable people," says Lamar. "They can do this; they just need to take the time. I understand that builders are busy building and trying to run a business as cost-efficiently as they can. The trouble is, that as long as they are determined not to make the necessary adjustments and investment in their business they may be driven out of the home-building industry."

Says Smith, "People don't like regulation; I don't like regulation. But I think there are some things that are just going to become too important to leave unregulated. I think until that happens it's going to be an uphill struggle."