Sustainable development and green building – a Southern perspective

While this issue of the Southface Journal and the Greenprints Conference feature national thought leaders on sustainable development and green building, we felt it appropriate to hear a Southern perspective on these transformative trends. Dennis Creech has been executive director of Southface for 35 years. He helped incubate the EarthCraft program before the term green building was in the vocabularies of most design and construction professionals and he has participated in numerous initiatives at local, regional and national levels to shape sustainable development and green building policies. We really just had one question for Dennis. “How is the Southeast responding to national trends impacting sustainable development and green building?” Here is a synopsis of his thoughts.

Building Energy Codes
The most efficient regions of the country have a history of adopting meaningful building energy codes. The data is clear that building energy codes reduce the cost of home ownership and increase the value of commercial buildings. The minor increase in construction costs due to compliance with building energy codes is quickly repaid in utility savings. The Southeast has lagged the nation in adopting and implementing building energy codes.

However, there is good news for much of the Southeast. Georgia, Florida and North Carolina continue to lead the way on building energy code adoption in our region. We are proud that Georgia recently adopted the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code plus amendments that clarify the code and, most importantly, address the “biggest energy losers.” For example, the Georgia code requires residential builders to test the entire home for air leaks using a blower door, as well as to test duct systems for air leaks. Southface worked closely with the home building industry, local code officials and the state to reach agreement on a common sense approach to this testing. Georgia’s experience is being modeled by other states across the nation.

Alabama recently adopted its first statewide residential energy code and is mirroring Georgia’s approach to testing. The City of Chattanooga, Tennessee is also considering an advanced building energy code. We are hopeful that other Southern states will adopt energy codes that emphasize performance testing; the old saying that it is hard to manage what you don’t measure certainly applies to energy efficiency. Requiring measurement of air leaks is a great step to higher performing buildings.

While states are adopting better energy codes, enforcement is inconsistent. In an informal survey of private contractors who perform the code-mandated testing services for home builders in Georgia, Southface found significant differences across the state in code enforcement. These contractors report that in jurisdictions that emphasize the importance of the energy codes, the majority of homes are tested and builders have few problems meeting the performance criteria of the energy code. However, in areas of the state where enforcement is not a priority, testing is often omitted. For homes where testing is done, there is no repercussion for failing to meet code criteria.

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Ray Ivy inspects an EarthCraft Light Commercial project. The level of inspection provided by the program assures a quality project that is better than code.

To date, code required air leakage testing has focused almost exclusively on residential buildings. With the EarthCraft Light Commercial building program, Southface helps present the value of air leakage testing for commercial buildings. Our research team is also working with allies in the building science community on developing protocols and best practices for air leakage testing of large commercial buildings. This type of research and “beyond code” technical assistance can help shape future energy code policy.

Dare to Be Better Although building energy codes are raising the threshold for energy and water efficiency, codes only set minimum standards. It is often wise to build more efficiently than the local code requires. The success of beyond code initiatives, such as ENERGY STAR, utility efficiency programs and green building certification programs, have become more prevalent in the market because consumers demand the benefits that greater efficiency can offer such as lower operating costs, reduced durability risks and enhanced comfort and indoor air quality.

Unfortunately, the Southeast has not kept pace with other regions on beyond code programs. The 2012 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard Ranking published by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) reports that all Southeastern states are in the bottom half of energy efficiency rankings, with the exception of North Carolina which ranks at 22. Another ACEEE study shows that the Southeast shortchanges investment in energy efficiency. The U.S. average annual spending per capita for energy efficiency is $22.64. Of the six Southeastern states, Georgia ranks last at $2.21 and Florida best at $10.60 – all well below the national average.

There have been a few bright spots, mainly with affordable housing in Georgia and Virginia. Southface worked closely with the housing agencies in these states to help them adopt criteria in their low income housing tax credit programs for energy efficiency and green building. The criteria emphasize the basics – air sealing, proper installation of insulation and efficient windows, mechanical systems and appliances. The result is little impact on design and construction costs, yet significant savings on energy and water bills. For the past three years, Global Green has ranked Georgia and Virginia consistently at the top of the charts nationally for their tax credit programs and, most importantly, low income families have been saving money on utility bills.

Another success is the EarthCraft green building program. This market-based program has certified over 25,000 homes in six Southeastern states, ranging from affordable multifamily housing to single family custom homes. In response to market demand, EarthCraft now light commercial buildings and certifies entire communities. LEED for Homes, Enterprise Green Communities, Green Built North Carolina and the National Association of Home Builders Green are also experiencing success in the region.

Says Who? One of the challenges of the energy efficiency industry is the lack of knowledge-based certification of professionals. In most states, certainly across the Southeast, it takes more training to cut hair than to be an energy efficiency professional. The U.S. Department of Energy recognized this market barrier and partnered with the Interstate Renewable Energy Council to accredit residential energy efficiency training centers. Southface was honored to be the first training center in the Southeast, and second in the nation, to earn IREC accreditation.

National energy efficiency standards development and contractor certification organizations, such as the Building Performance Institute (BPI) and Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), are also making inroads nationwide and in niche markets in the Southeast. For example, Georgia Power and TVA require contractors working in their whole house energy efficiency improvement programs to be BPI certified. Several state weatherization programs also require certification of their staff. The community-based energy efficiency programs coordinated by the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance require contractor certification.

The “says who” question is also an issue with green building. The LEED program dominates the commercial building industry. However, some building owners adopt a strategy of “designing and building to meet LEED criteria” without actually documenting the design intent or construction practices to ensure compliance. Many commercial contractors admit that it is common for the LEED documentation process to uncover significant errors – usually unintentional – that would have gone unnoticed until late in the construction process. Correcting these errors is always more economical when they are detected early.

One recent example of this in Southface’s LEED administrative work occurred when one of our LEED project managers identified that the correct windows had been shipped to a job site, but that they had the wrong glazing. The good news is that the units were not installed and the specified windows with the correct glazing were quickly supplied. The extra cost of LEED certification was covered many times over in the energy savings to the building owner as well as the avoided costs of replacing windows. The term “trust but verify” certainly applies to green building and LEED documentation helps ensure performance.

Know What You’re Buying Buying or leasing an automobile is a major financial decision. The miles per gallon (MPG) rating for an automobile helps consumers understand the true cost of this decision.

Unfortunately, consumers who are looking to buy or lease a building, whether it is a home or commercial property, do not receive a MPG rating. Several cities, including Austin, Seattle, Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., are changing the market for energy efficiency by requiring certain building types to publically disclose energy use information. Most of these initiatives focus on large commercial and multifamily properties.

While no major city in the Southeast has yet adopted an energy use disclosure policy, Atlanta is undertaking two innovative programs, the Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge and Grants to Green, that report energy use for commercial buildings.

The Atlanta Better Buildings Challenge (ABBC) is a voluntary program where commercial buildings commit to cut energy and water usage by 20 percent by 2020. Over 50 million square feet of commercial real estate have been pledged. The ABBC is a partnership of the City of Atlanta, Central Atlanta Progress and Midtown Alliance. Southface is a technical assistance partner for the program.

Participating building owners receive public recognition for their commitment and access to technical assistance, educational programs and product discounts. The ABBC requires buildings to provide data on energy and water use. This data is reported for the program as a whole, but reporting on a specific building is voluntary.

Presenting at the December Southface Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, Ervan Hancock III, Manager of Renewable and Green Strategies at Georgia Power delivers the good news about Georgia Power ramping up solar capacity in state.

Presenting at the December Southface Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable, Ervan Hancock III, Manager of Renewable and Green Strategies at Georgia Power delivers the good news about Georgia Power ramping up solar capacity in state.

The Grants to Green program also emphasizes energy and water data collection and disclosure. Grants to Green is a partnership between the Kendeda Fund, the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta and Southface to help metro Atlanta nonprofits cut energy and water bills and adopt best practices for sustainability. In 2012, 72 nonprofits that made upgrades to their facilities saved a total of more than $730,000 on utility bills. Southface collects data on these facilities, reports savings in aggregate and encourages individual nonprofits to disclose their energy data.

Starving Solar The growth of solar installations across the United States is phenomenal. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), today U.S. solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity exceeds 6,400 megawatts – enough electricity to power over one million homes. There are over 119,000 jobs in the solar industry and more than $8.5 billion of value for solar installations.

A major driver of the PV market across the United States is a type of financing known as a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) in which a solar company installs and maintains the solar equipment for a building owner and is repaid through the sale of the solar electricity to the building owner. PPAs help businesses and home owners finance solar with little upfront cost and reduced risk, and are particularly valuable for the military, local governments, schools, churches and other nonprofits as they are not eligible for federal and state solar tax credits. With a PPA, tax credits flow to private investors and can reduce the cost of the project by up to 40 percent.

Over half of U.S. states are using PPAs to grow their local solar economies. No states in the Southeast allow PPAs. The result is that despite excellent solar resources, our region is missing out on clean energy development.

Southface is working to overcome the policy and educational barriers to solar. Recently, we launched a website, GeorgiaEnergyData.org, that provides free information on solar activity in Georgia, as well as other clean energy topics. In addition, Southface has hosted a series of briefing sessions for policymakers and elected officials on clean energy and is working with diverse partners such as the military and educational institutions on advancing solar policy in our region.

Future Looks Bright In thinking about the Southeast in a national context, our region is in some cases a laggard and in other cases a leader. It is very much a nuanced place that confounds the best efforts to assign each state or locality a singular, nationally indexed rating. In some cases, we have a lot of work to do and find ourselves searching for ways to gain traction. In others, our efforts have attracted the attention of others who learn from our good work and export that thinking to the rest of the country. I am excited about the opportunities we face to advance sustainability and green building in the Southeast. From my perspective, the future looks very bright.

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