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Beyond BTUs, or Payback Persuasion

Paybacks persuade. Now that homeowners are once again counting their pennies, it has become relatively easy to make a case for “high performance” design. Anything with a reasonable payback is a simple sell – super insulation, solar collectors, condensing furnaces, instantaneous hot water-heaters. Even systems with longer paybacks like geothermal, windmills, and photovoltaic arrays are becoming pretty common. Owners of large buildings and campus facilities have long been familiar with payback persuasion; homeowners have only just discovered it.

Green designers, of course, are proclaiming a Green Revolution. But is it? Beyond the easily calculated savings in BTUs, what other green trends are increasing? At a minimum, I include on my core green agenda: non-toxic and local materials, clean air and water, high density settlement patterns, low carbon footprint and recycling/reuse of anything possible. The benefits in these categories are not as easily calculated and thus not as easily conveyed to the homeowner.

A Few Examples
High density settlement – urban living – is probably the single most effective way to build and live green. Besides energy and resource savings from proximity, there are carbon and pollution benefits born of less transport. Nevertheless, homeowners continue to sink thousands of dollars into green features for their single family detached home while eschewing the idea of living in a row house or apartment building. Many, yes, but not all.

The nation’s demographics are so variegated that one can make an argument for anything simply by referencing the right region of the country. Nationally, according to the Brookings Institute, most cities are booming and the bigger cities are growing the fastest. Indeed, people are moving to the cities in record numbers; (never mind that they’re pouring into suburbs in even greater numbers).

Despite record numbers of hip young professionals moving to the city, I have rarely been able to talk a client into embracing a city design over their American Dream suburban lot. It seems this part of the Green Revolution still needs help. And that help will need to come from municipal and federal incentives to enhance infrastructure without producing taxes that scare people away.

Urban living is a life-style choice, not a matter of life-cycle costing.

Now let’s look at shopping locally. This should be the easiest of all green tenants to embrace. In addition to the economies of keeping dollars local, building with local resources reduces transportation related pollution, embodied energy, and waste associated with packaging. Nevertheless, bad habits die hard in the building industry.

Here in the Northeast, most of our framing lumber comes from the west. And that’s despite The Northern Forest which covers most of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York States.

Slates, granites and marbles are commonly shipped from foreign countries at a lower market price than their local equivalents. The usual explanation that shipping by boat is cheaper fails to address the abusive labor practices in some countries that are more likely the reason.

Shopping locally may be an ethical question far more than a payback calculation.

As a last example, let’s look at indoor air quality. Clean air (and water) shouldn’t need to be a green initiative. But today’s homes are made from a constellation of materials that include any number of long-chain molecules. Few of them have been around as long as wood, stone and mud so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that there can be toxicity problems over time. In defense of the manufacturers, I think most products brought to market today are better vetted than ever. Nevertheless, indoor air quality continues to be an issue only further exacerbated by the smaller air changes achieved in today’s tighter homes. The simple remedy for this would be HRV (heat recovery ventilation) which exchanges fresh air for stale while retaining the heat in the exhaust air. Although HRV systems require additional ducts and are operated by electric fans, they are still energy savers because they support incredibly tight houses that save more energy than that used by the HRV. Since it actually uses energy, it doesn’t make sense to calculate the payback for an HRV. But without it, super-insulated homes would become toxic.

Air quality needs to be seen as a health decision, not a budgetary line item.

Education is the Key
Every green designer knows how tough it is to sell health and environmental improvements compared to the easily calculated thrift of energy conservation. But for this Green Revolution to be more than a marketing jingle, we need to bootstrap a spectrum of considerations on the newly found green consciousness of today’s homebuyers. And this requires education. Even if buying local is actually an ethical decision and urban living is just a lifestyle choice; even if clean air and water are merely health considerations with no payback – they are all worthy investments. Instead of a dollar calculation, perhaps we need to quantify the number of jobs saved or the parts-per-million of long-chain molecules avoided. We need easier ways of quantifying the environmental degradation of obsolete building practices.
One thing remains certain: the great marketing rush to paint everything as green isn’t educating, it’s obfuscating. Only with effective education will homeowners truly understand that there is a better way to build which translates into a better way to live. And better living should never be a question of how long the payback is.

In addition to his post as Design Director at Connor Homes, John Connell is the Founder of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont, Author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.

John Connell
John Connell is the Founder of Connor Homes, author of Homing Instinct (McGraw Hill) and The Inspired House (Taunton) and Principal of 2morrow Studio.
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