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Tranquility Base: Reassessing the Energy-Efficient Home

By Rick Reynolds

Despite the growing movement to make our homes more operationally and environmentally sustainable, many homebuyers are left scratching their heads over the cost/benefit analysis. Especially in times of cheap oil, talk of energy-efficient, super-insulated, tightly-sealed houses can fall on deaf ears. So, while lowering one’s carbon footprint can make both economic and ecological sense over the long haul, our day-to-day concerns often hit much closer to home.

It’s important to remind ourselves that while our homes could be considered our terrestrial space ships, they’re not simply sheltering us from the outside environment. At their best, they can make us healthy, happy, safe, and comfortable. And though building low-energy homes—as just one measure—can lend itself to a dollars and cents analysis, the more holistic, quality-of-life requisites can be of immense value. Indeed, many would say they’re priceless.

For example, what dollar figure can be placed on serenity? How does one put a price on comfort and warmth? What role does a quiet environment play in promoting a state of calmness? What value can we put on healthy air? How does beauty affect well-being and ultimately, sustainability? And how do all these qualities affect our health and peace of mind? And what do these down-to-earth, yet immeasurable, qualities share with the more mundane metrics of building science?

In Lloyd Alter’s Treehugger blog entitled, “Why we should be talking about comfort, not energy efficiency,” he laments that over the last decade, the impact of the green movement has been negligible in terms of lessening the general impact on the energy consumption and carbon footprint of our homes. While indicating that historical growth in square footage is partially responsible for this, Alter has come to the conclusion that, “We have been selling people something they don’t want to pay for.” Namely, energy efficiency. In citing a Seventh Wave article entitled, Why Are We Swimming Upstream: Promote comfort and energy efficiency will follow,” Alter quotes Robert Bean, president of Indoor Climate Consultants:

“Since 2004 it is likely hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent in North America promoting energy efficiency rather that focusing on the five senses that humans use to judge the built environment.”

In another post, Alter cites British architect, Elrond Berrell’s blog, Passivhaus, in Plain English and More,” saying the three most important things to communicate about Passive Houses (and by implication, all high performance homes), should be:

Zero Energy VT 10 13 livingrm 2

A collaboration with ZeroEnergy Design (ZED) .

“Comfort, Comfort, Comfort.”

To be sure, air-tightness within 0.6ACH@50Pa (air changes per hour at 50 Pascals) will make the house draft-free, and having interior surfaces within 5 degrees of interior temperature will eliminate cold spots, but none of it amounts to a hill of beans without communicating, in real-life terms, that the home will be extraordinarily comfortable as a result.

As such, high performance building envelopes have positive, far-reaching consequences beyond energy efficiency. In addition to the benefits already covered, a house requires a sophisticated air handing system to continually replenish and condition indoor air without losing its energy (heat in winter/cool in summer). So while the initial goal is about energy efficiency, the secondary (and arguably most important) benefit is cleaner, healthier air.

And even the more esoteric benefits of a high quality building envelope, like improved acoustics, can play a role in one’s sense of well-being. In a recent New York Times article, Dear Architect: Sound Matters, Michael Kimmelman writes:

“…an expensive, solid wood door closing sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.”

And the sound of silence cannot be overemphasized. The absence of unwanted sounds, Kimmelman writes, is an essential architectural component:

“During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating. And we seek respite.”

Clearly, it’s not just the proverbial “marble countertops and hardwood floors” that contribute to one’s sense of well being; features many real estate professionals are known to disproportionately market. The whole house is there for the purpose of sheltering of course, but also to promote health and happiness for many generations of occupants. At their best, homes serve deeply and emotionally as one’s reliable, secure sanctuary.

So, is a well-built, energy-efficient house an end in itself, or a means to an end? And what is that end? Finally, what is the relationship between an energy-efficient home and the quality of life of its inhabitants?

The deeper we look into the personal universe we call home, the more we see that, far from being disconnected, energy efficiency and quality of life are inextricably linked. And when it comes to the promise of building science, self-interest and planetary stewardship are not at odds, but rather, different sides of the same coin.