Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Net Zero Energy

A large part of the collective dynamic that shapes our environment is embedded in the American culture of the individual. A culture enshrined in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” As a result, our American built environment has been largely shaped by the opposing forces of our individual “pursuit of happiness” no matter what the environmental or social cost and the countervailing forces of our communal needs for health and well-being.

Today we find ourselves directly in the cross-hairs of those opposing forces. Global warming has reached a tipping point of no return and we can now only mitigate the longterm effects, not reverse them. Peak Oil, declining worldwide production, and the point at which demand exceeds supply is expected within the next decade. With 120+ million housing units in the U.S. contributing 21% of our greenhouse gas emissions and consuming over 35% of our electricity, our “individual pursuit of happiness” has to be trumped by the needs of “our communal health and well-being”.

The way we build (and finance) housing in this country is no longer sustainable. Our model energy codes are still a triumph of the individual (lobbyist) over community, and Energy Star and LEED for Homes merely tweak the status quo in the direction of slightly better energy efficiency.

The truth is that truly sustainable homes (even net zero energy homes) are economically feasible. The cost premium for homes that exceed our current energy standards by 75% or more is only 5 to 15%. At that point (given a sunny climate) it only takes another 10% to reach “net zero”. If you consider that average new home sizes have increased 20% (400SF) to 2,434 SF since 1990, then rolling back average sizes to a very comfortable 2,000SF more than pays for a truly sustainable energy standard. Roll that back to a comfortable 1,800SF and the cost to have a net zero energy home becomes FREE!

Too much of a sacrifice? By comparison, the average home in Japan is 1,000 SF, 930 SF in Ireland, and 815 SF in the U.K.

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